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Milan Kundera, Shallowness and Feelings

After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, Milan Kundera encountered a strange attitude from well-meaning Russian soldiers–Love:

The countryside ravaged by thousands of tanks, the future of the country compromised for centuries, Czech Government leaders arrested and abducted, and an officer of the occupying army makes you a declaration of love. Please understand me: he had no desire to condemn the invasion, not in the least. They all spoke more or less as he did, their attitude based not on the sadistic pleasure of the ravisher but on quite a different archetype: unrequited love. Why do these Czechs (whom we love so!) refuse to live with us the way we live? What a pity we’re forced to use tanks to teach them what it means to love!Man cannot do without feelings, but the moment they are considered values in themselves, criteria of truth, justifications for kinds of behavior, they become frightening. The noblest of national sentiments stand ready to justify the greatest of horrors, and man, his breast swelling with lyric fervor, commits atrocities in the sacred name of love.

(Thanks Langour Management for this link).

Kundera discussed this in the context of critiquing Dosteovsky’s stories as being too full of emotions and dramatic gestures. There is truth in what Kundera says here, but the alternative (the superficial characters of Kundera’s own novels or an Diderot’s playful prose novel) is not too reassuring. Kundera is adept at hiding the feelings of characters in his novels, depicting instead external characteristics and behavior instead (much as a porn film depicts surfaces without trying to get at emotional states). No doubt, this was a survival technique developed after living in a repressive dictatorship for several decades. I don’t blame Kundera for having this attitude. But the risk of Kundera’s superficiality is in assuming that characters (and by implication people in real life) are as shallow and superficial as they are in Kundera’s novels. Kundera warns readers of trying to intrude too much into the character’s subjective thoughts. Fine, that’s his prerogative, but how much do we sacrifice when we forfeit the ability to try to depict a person’s individual thoughts and feelings?

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