Milan Kundera:”A nation which loses awareness of its past gradually loses its self”

PR: What is so characteristic of your prose is the constant confrontation of the private and the public. But not in the sense that private stories take place against a political backdrop, nor that political events encroach on private lives. Rather, you continually show that political events are governed by the same laws as private happenings, so that your prose is a kind of psychoanalysis of politics.


MK: The metaphysics of man is the same in the private sphere as in the public one. Take the other theme of the book, forgetting. This is the great private problem of man: death as the loss of the self. But what is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life. This is the problem of my heroine, in desperately trying to preserve the vanishing memories of her beloved dead husband. But forgetting is also the great problem of politics. When a big power wants to deprive a small country of its national consciousness it uses the method of organized forgetting . This is what is currently happening in Bohemia. Contemporary Czech literature, insofar as it has any value at all, has not been printed for 12 years; 200 Czech writers have been proscribed, including the dead Franz Kafka; 145 Czech historians have been dismissed from their posts, history has been rewritten, monuments demolished. A nation which loses awareness of its past gradually loses its self. And so the political situation has brutally illuminated the ordinary metaphysical problem of forgetting that we face all the time, every day, without paying any attention. Politics unmasks the metaphysics of private life, private life unmasks the metaphysics of politics.

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“philosophers who write novels are nothing but pseudo-novelists”: Milan Kundera


But why would a novelist want to deprive himself of the right to express his philosophy overtly and assertively in his novel?



Because he has none! People often talk about Chekhov’s philosophy, or Kafka’s, or Musil’s. But just try to find a coherent philosophy in their writings! Even when they express their ideas in their notebooks, the ideas amount to intellectual exercises, playing with paradoxes, or improvisations rather than to assertions of a philosophy. And philosophers who write novels are nothing but pseudonovelists who use the form of the novel in order to illustrate their ideas. Neither Voltaire nor Camus ever discovered “that which the novel alone can discover.” I know of only one exception, and that is the Diderot of Jacques le fataliste. What a miracle! Having crossed over the boundary of the novel, the serious philosopher becomes a playful thinker. There is not one serious sentence in the novel—everything in it is play. That’s why this novel is outrageously underrated in France. Indeed, Jacques le fataliste contains everything that France has lost and refuses to recover. In France, ideas are preferred to works. Jacques le fatalistecannot be translated into the language of ideas, and therefore it cannot be understood in the homeland of ideas.