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Milan Kundera
The Unbearable Lightness of 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 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, than the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as if it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch.

"Kitsch" is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental 19th 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 figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

Sabina's initial inner revolt against Communism was aesthetic rather than ethical in character. What repelled her was not nearly so much the ugliness of the Communist world (ruined castles transformed into cow sheds) as the mask of beauty it tried to wear -- in other words, Communist kitsch. The model of Communist kitsch is the ceremony called May Day.

She had seen May Day parades during the time when people were still enthusiastic or still did their best to feign enthusiasm . The women all wore red, white and blue blouses, and the public, looking on from balconies and windows, could make out various five-pointed stars, hearts, and letters when the marchers went into formation. Small brass bands accompanied the individual groups, keeping everyone in step. As a group of approached the reviewing stand, even the most blase faces would beam with dazzling smiles, as if trying to prove they were properly joyful or, to be more precise, in proper agreement. Nor were they merely expressing political agreement with Communism; no, theirs was an agreement with being as such. The May Day ceremony drew its inspiration from the deep well of the categorical agreement with being. The unwritten, unsung motto of the parade was not "Long live Communism!" but "Long live life!" The power and cunning of Communist politics lay in the fact that it appropriated this slogan. For it was this idiotic tautology ("Long live life!") which attracted people indifferent to the theses of Communism to the Communist parade.

Ten years later (by which time she was living in America), a friend of some friends, an American senator, took Sabina for a drive in his gigantic car, his four children bouncing up and down in the back. The senator stopped the car in front of a stadium with an artificial skating rink, and the children jumped out and started running along the large expanse of grass surrounding it. Sitting behind the wheel and gazing dreamily after the four little bounding figures, he said to Sabina, "Just look at them." And describing a circle with his arm, a circle that was meant to take in stadium, grass, and children, he added, "Now, that's what I call happiness."

Behind his words there was more than joy at seeing children run and grass grow; there was a deep understanding of the plight of a refugee from a Communist country where, the senator was convinced, no grass grew or children ran.

At that moment an image of the senator standing on a reviewing stand in a Prague square flashed through Sabina's mind. The smile on his face was the smile Communist statesmen beamed from the height of their reviewing stand to the identically smiling citizens in the parade below.

How did the senator know that children meant happiness? Could he see into their souls? What if, the moment they were out of sight, three of them jumped the fourth and began beating him up?

The senator had only one argument in his favor: his feeling. When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.

The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a basis of kitsch.

And no one knows this better than politicians. Whenever a camera is in the offing, they immediately run to the nearest child, lift it in the air, kiss it on the cheek. Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.

Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition: the individual can preserve his individuality; the artist can create unusual works. But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.

When I say "totalitarian," what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mother who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree "Be fruitful and multiply."

In this light, we can regard the gulag as a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse.

The decade immediately following the Second World War was a time of the most horrible Stalinist terror. It was a time when Tereza's father was arrested on some piddling charges and ten-year-old Tereza was thrown out of their flat. It was also the time when twenty-year-old Sabina was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. There, her professor of Marxism expounded on the following theory of Socialist art: Soviet society had made such progress that the basic conflict was no longer between good and evil but between good and better. So shit (that is, whatever is essentially unacceptable) could exist only "on the other side" (in America, for instance) and only from there, from the outside, as something alien (a spy, for instance) could it penetrate the world of "good and better."

And in fact, Soviet films, which flooded the cinemas of all Communist countries in that cruelest of times, were saturated with incredible innocence and chastity. The greatest conflict that could occur between two Russians was a lovers' misunderstanding: he thought she no longer loved him; she thought he no longer loved her. But in the final scene they would fall into each other's arms, tears of happiness trickling down their cheeks.

The current conventional interpretation of these films is this: that they showed the Communist ideal, whereas Communist reality was worse.

Sabina always rebelled against that interpretation. Whenever she imagined the world of Soviet kitsch becoming a reality, she felt a shiver run down her back. She would unhesitatingly prefer life in a real Communist regime with all its persecution and meat queues. Life in the real Communist world was still livable. In the world of the Communist ideal made real, in that world of grinning idiots, she would have nothing to say, she would die of horror within a week.

The feeling Soviet kitsch evoked in Sabina strikes me as very much like the horror Tereza experienced in her dream of being marched around a swimming pool with a group of naked women and forced to sing cheerful songs with them while coprses floated just below the surface of the pool. Tereza could not address a single question, a single word, to any of the women; the only response she would have gotten was the next stanza of the current song. She could not even give any of them a secret wink; they would immediately have pointed her out to the man standing in the basket above the pool, and he would have shot her dead.

Tereza's dream reveals the true function of kitsch: kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death.

As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie that it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

Kitsch has its source in the categorical agreement with being.

But what is the basis of being? God? Mankind? Struggle? Love? Man? Woman?

Since opinions vary, there are various kitsches: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Communist, Fascist, democratic, feminist, European, American, national, international.

Since the days of the French Revolution, one half of Europe has been referred to as the left, the other half as the right. Yet to define one or the other by means of the theoretical principles it professes is all but impossible. And no wonder: political movements rest not so much on rational attitudes as on the fantasies, images, words, and archetypes that come together to make up this or that political kitsch.

The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be a Grand March.

The dictatorship of the proletariat or democracy? Rejection of the consumer society or demands for increased productivity? The guillotine or an end to the death penalty? It is all beside the point. What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.

When the crimes of the country called the Soviet Union became too scandalous, a leftist had two choices: either to spit on his former life and stop marching or (more or less sheepishly) to reclassify the Soviet Union as an obstacle o the Grand March and march on.

Have I not said that what makes a leftist a leftist is the kitsch of the Grand March? The identity of kitsch comes not from a political strategy but from images, metaphors and vocabulary. It is therefore possible to break the habit and march against the interests of a Communist country. What is impossible, however, is to substitute one word for others. It is possible to threaten the Vietnamese army with one's fist. It is impossible to shout "Down with Communism!" "Down with Communism!" is a slogan belonging to the enemies of the Grand March, and anyone worried about losing face must remain faithful to the purity of his own kitsch.

What remains of the dying population of Cambodia?

One large photograph of an American actress holding an Asian child in her arms.

What remains of Tomas?


What remains of Beethoven?

A frown, an improbable mane, and a somber voice intoning "Es muss sein!"

What remains of Franz?

An inscription reading A RETURN AFTER LONG WANDERINGS.

And so on and so forth. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being © 1984, available from Harper & Row Publishers.

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