Monday, October 22, 2012

Putting Quotes in Dialogue with Each Other: Milan Kundera & Tim O'Brien

The dispute between those who believe that the world was created by God and those who think it came into being of its own accord deals with phenomena that go beyond our reason and experience. Much more real is the line separating those who doubt being as it is granted to man (no matter how or by whom) from those who accept it without reservation.

Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being.

The fact that until recently the word "shit" appeared in print as s--- has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can't claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don't lock yourself in the bathroom!) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.

It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist.  This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch.

"Kitsch" is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages.  Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

-- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, part 6, "The Grand March", section 5

Then he would hsve told about the night they bivouacked in a field along the Song Tra Bong. A big swampy field beside the river. There was a ville nearby, fifty  meeters downstream, and right away a dozen old mama-sans ran out and started yelling. A crazy scene, he would've said. The mama-sans just stood there in the rain, soaking wet, yapping away about how this field was bad news.  Number ten, they said.  Evil ground.  Not a good spot for good GIs.  Finally Lieutenant Jimmy Cross had to get out his pistol and fire off a few rounds just to shoo them away....

"But the worst part," he would've said quietly, "was the small. Partly it was the river--a dead-fish smell--but it was something else, too.  Finally somebody figured it out.  What this was, it was a shit field.  The village toilet.  No indoor plumbing, right? So they used the field.  I mean, we were camped in a goddamn shit field."

He imagined Sally Kramer closing her eyes.

If she were here with him, in the car, she would've said, "Stop it.  I don't like that word."

"That's what it was."

"All right, but you don't have to use that word."

"Fine.  What should we call it?"

She would have glared at him.  "I don't know.  Just stop it."

-- Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried, "Speaking of Courage"

You can tell a true war story if it embarasses you. If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote.  Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.
-- Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried, "How to Tell a True War Story"

Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.

-- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, part 6, "The Grand March", section 9

He drove slowly. No hurry, nowhere to go. Inside the Chevy the air was cool and oily-smelling, and he took pleasure in the steady sounds of the engine and air-conditioning. A tour bus feeling, in a way, except the town he was touring seemed dead. Through the windows, as if in a stop-motion photograph, the place looked as if it had been hit by nerve gas, everything still and lifeless, even the people. The town could not talk, and would not listen. "How'd you like to hear about the war?" he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt. The taxes got paid and the votes counted and the agencies of government did their work briskly and politely. It was a brisk, polite town. It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know.

-- Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried, "Speaking of Courage"

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

-- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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