Kundera, Friedlander, and Eco on Kitsch and Death

By staging a dialogue between the theories of Milan Kundera, Saul Friedlander, and Umberto Eco, my paper examines differences between communist, capitalist, and Nazi forms of death kitsch. Kitsch, deriving from the German word for “trash,” falsifies perceptions of reality by evoking sentimental, prescribed, ready-made responses. The question is often raised whether kitsch is a universal that crosses cultural boundaries or whether it differs fundamentally according to socio-cultural-political context. One way of addressing this question is through the study of death kitsch. Kundera, Friedlander, and Eco—three of the great theorists of kitsch—differ in their characterization of death kitsch. Kundera writes in his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Kitsch is a folding screen to curtain off death.” Kundera illustrates that kitsch deprives death of its import, falsifying people’s past lives through vapid tombstone phrases such as “Return After Long Wanderings” or “He Wanted the Kingdom of God on Earth.” The novel’s characters and narrator come to realize that death kitsch crosses socio-cultural boundaries, inducing a sense of “categorical agreement with being” and effacing death’s horror. Kundera’s implication that different socio-cultural-political systems have equivalent forms of death kitsch may be questioned by contrasting Kundera’s theory with the theories of Friedlander and of Eco. Friedlander argues that Nazi death kitsch is fundamentally different from the communist death kitsch described by Kundera. Nazi kitsch does not erase death’s horror. Instead, it presents death through the aesthetic of apocalypticism, eulogizing the hero’s act of self-sacrifice. While Friedlander’s studies illustrate the cultural specificity of Nazi death kitsch, Eco’s studies illustrate the cultural specificity of capitalist death kitsch. Indeed, Eco implies that one cannot even generalize about capitalist death kitsch as such, since death kitsch takes on a quite specific form in American culture. Forest Lawn kitsch is characterized by the presence of “authentic” copies of European Renaissance masterpieces. This aspiration to status through the imitation of Europe is a culturally specific feature of American death kitsch. Through a dialogic interplay between texts of Kundera, Friedlander, and Eco—whose work focuses, respectively, on communist, Nazi, and capitalist forms of death kitsch—I thus argue that there is no universal death kitsch but, rather, that death kitsch is highly dependent on the exigencies of socio-cultural-political context.