Milan Kundera on the value of the novel

“The sole raison d’etre of a novel is to discover what only the novel can discover. A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral.”

“[The] common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time. And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel.”

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: ‘Things are not as simple as you think’. That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers.”

Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

Milan Kundera’s assertion of the value of the novel is strong, and, though I’m not sure I’d make a moral judgement on this basis, I agree fully that what sets a novel apart is it’s ability to convey the complexity of life and reveal, in the process, hidden aspects of being.

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Touch – Elmore Leonard 

At the heart of Elmore Leonard’s novels is the combination of a fast-paced plot and the  rolling patter of a bunch of low lives on the make and ordinary Americans trying to find their way. Touch delivers all this, but adds a remarkable insight into the weird place of evangelical Christianity in the US.

Written in 1977 though not published until 10 years later because it was not a crime novel in Leonard’s typical sense, it tells the story of Juvenal, a humble man who for some reason has the ability to heal the sick and, when he does so, experiences stigmata.

As his gift becomes public he is surrounded by people wanting him in some way – part time record promoter, Bill Hills, wants to market and profit from him; right wing religious zealot August Murray wants to use him to convert people to his brand of traditionalist Catholicism and elevate himself to the position of an inflammatory religious leader; TV presenter Howard Hart wants him on TV so he can cut him down and humiliate him in front of millions; and Lynn wants him because she’s genuinely in love with him.

What Leonard brilliantly highlights is the human, all too human, concerns of the protagonists. None are interested in what it means for someone to experience stigmata, in the spiritual questions it raises. Even Juvenal himself is uninquisitive about the origins of his gifts. Instead, everyone is focused on the material and largely self-interested consequences of Juvenal’s condition.

Lynn and Juvenal are the only likeable characters in the novel, and this largely because they are not on the make, are clearly happy with one another and try hard to see Juvenal’s condition as just one element of his personality.

The fact that this was written in the 1970s adds an additional dimension to it: evangelical Christianity, particularly in the form of the Southern Baptists, has become more prevalent in the forty years since, and so what Leonard presciently describes is how the spiritual dimension of religion is subsumed by the petty concerns of everyday life, from basic survival to the media circus.

Faith of the Faithless – Simon Critchley

Faith of the faithless

Read July 2014 

This is a fascinating book, though in my view it is perhaps overly complicated.

The fascination comes from Critchley’s excellent close readings of a variety of thinkers: Rousseau, Badiou, Zizek, Benjamin, St Paul. I learnt a lot from his readings of each, they were full of insight and he was able to bring alive some of their ideas in compelling and often counter-intuitive ways. His section on his argument with Zizek – which he points out is essentially the ongoing argument between Leninism-Marxism and anarchism – is interesting, and he offers a revealing picture of Zizek’s politics.

The complication comes because Critchley seems to find it difficult to sum up his own arguments. This might be because what he is arguing isn’t just one straightforward thesis, as he says early in the book, or because the full depth of his thought is necessarily complex and can’t be captured in a sentence or two.

Both those points are true. Nevertheless, on my reading there does seem to be a theory that he is advocating which he could have set out more clearly at some point (if only to show me that I’ve not completely misinterpreted him!):

First, because people aren’t ‘rational’ economic actors who contracted to the social order (as for liberals Locke, Rawls etc) people need a civil religion to bind them together – something that people have faith in that is based not in a different world (heaven or wherever) but in the here and now. Strangely perhaps, he refers to US constitutionalism – celebrating the flag, singing the national anthem etc as an example of this.

Second, though, the civil religion shouldn’t come from existing ideas and discourses. People need to clear their minds, to see beyond current hegemonic discourses as far as is possible. The belief that ought to animate people is a demand for something better – what he calls an infinite demand, a demand that is unattainable yet something that the people believe in, even though they don’t know what the outcome will be.

Third, politics occurs when different groups of people, with different interests, look beyond their individual or group interests and form an association based on an infinite demand, through which they challenge the state or capital. It might be in the interstices of power, it might be outright resistance – Occupy, worker co-ops, the Zapatista’s fight for autonomy are all examples of politics.

Fourth, place is important: an association, a civil religion and the infinite demand requires a locality to bind it together, to give it content. In line with much anarchist thought, Critchley says politics needs to be kept local to work: it might be in a workplace (a co-op experiment), in a city (the Occupy movement) or in a region (Zapatista resitance in Chiapas).

It is useful, too, to think about this in terms of the similarities and difference between Critchley’s and Badiou’s politics: for both, what’s required is the people to express fidelity to, or absolute faith in, an impossible demand, the outcome of which cannot be known; but whereas for Badiou this ‘event’ is rare and universal (the Paris Commune), for Critchley it can occur more regularly, when people form an association and find local spaces to resist the power of the state and capital in the name of an infinite demand.