Kitsch in the Work of Milan Kundera

The concept of kitsch has gained wide currency in the second half of this century, but the term is broadly problematic. First of all, the term “kitsch” must be understood against the term “art”: is kitsch the opposite of art, is it “bad art,” or can it be a functional part of what is generally accepted as “high art”? Any distinctions drawn at this (broadest) level lead quickly to a further parsing of the concept: kitsch as a historico-sociological concept born and fostered in the modern era (as treated in Calinescu’s Five Faces of Modernity, for example) versus kitsch as an aesthetic, and perhaps aesthetic-ethical, concept (as treated in Tomas Kulka’s Kitsch and Art). Finally, it must be stated that kitsch is best (or at least, better) understood in terms of the visual arts, and in terms of music, where it has been more fully explored; however, when it comes to literature, there seems to be no reliable, functional means for defining and analyzing kitsch. In my paper (with regard to the above-mentioned distinctions) I will treat kitsch, first, as a value-judgment close to that of a standard dictionary definition: art or literature of a cheap, garish, or sentimental nature, while allowing that kitsch may be utilized in a work of art without having to relegate that work to the status of “bad art” or “anti-art.” Second, I will treat kitsch in its aesthetic context only, and largely ignore the socio-historical question (with its attendant and important questions of cultural relativism, elitism, imperialism, etc). Finally, I will propose a definition of kitsch specifically for the written work of art. I suggest that kitsch as a literary device is a function of irony. Often it is sentimentalism or mawkishness put to use by the narrator, whose ironic tone is a signal to the reader to “read this as kitsch.” In the absence of an ironic narrator or subtext, the sentimentalism; or mawkishness (the kitsch as such) stands. This may be called “unmitigated kitsch.” In an effort to further elaborate this kitsch-irony interaction, I will draw on the categories of irony that Wayne Booth sets out in his Rhetoric of Irony, namely his threefold criteria of stable/unstable, local/universal, and overt/covert. If kitsch and irony are as closely related as I postulate, then it will be possible and productive to apply these categories of irony to kitsch.

I will illustrate this basic framework for understanding kitsch by drawing on the works of Milan Kundera, particularly his early novel The Jokeand his later novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The Joke is dominated by the narrator, Ludvík, whose voice is immediately recognizable; it is the one ringing with irony. It comes as a great surprise when Ludvík, at the end of The Joke, apparently comes to a kind of redemption not un-Dostoevskian in flavor. He weeps, he strokes the head of his suffering friend. The irony in his voice has disappeared. Most readers are willing to take this transformation at face value, as a genuine redemption. If so, I suggest that Ludvík has become a participant in kitsch. This instance of kitsch may be further analyzed as stable, covert, and local. We are strongly tempted to conclude that it is unmitigated kitsch, unless we ruthlessly separate narrator and author (as we should), and then we may come to the conclusion that Kundera is deliberately ambiguous about his stance to the final redemption scene, while Ludvík has wholly given in to kitsch.

Kundera’s later novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, on the other hand, is motivated by an entirely different relationship of irony to kitsch. The kitsch in this novel is stable, local, and, perhaps most importantly, overt. We are never tempted to read the kitsch as kitsch; it is necessarily read ironically. It is mitigated kitsch. And we always know how his characters are to be taken vis-à-vis kitsch (Franz is kitschy; Sabina is not). Here, however, Kundera formulates the concept of kitsch (especially in Part Six, “The Grand March”) in such a way as to make its detection less problematic (it is overt), but its implications more humanistic (kitsch is an unavoidable part of being human; its only antidote is awareness of it—and so it is always “stable”), and its relationship to the author richer (strongly implying that he himself, as author, cannot escape kitsch any more than his characters can, regardless of his authorial awareness of kitsch).

The framework of kitsch and irony that I propose forces into sharp relief several conclusions about the work of Milan Kundera. First, it shows Kundera’s special, compassionate understanding of kitsch: no matter how ironic one is (as author or character), kitsch inheres in the human condition and should be accepted. To reject kitsch outright is to be tempted to fall into kitsch (as Ludvík does); to be aware of it (as Sabina is, and Kundera himself) is the best way to guard against its shortcomings. Aesthetic judgment must have a humanistic component. Second, we see more clearly the important way in which Kundera is utilizing irony to further his novelistic agenda of expanding the borders of the novel to include “non-novelistic genres” (such as the philosophical essay on kitsch) as well as more problematic relationships of author to narrator. To understand kitsch in Kundera is to understand Kundera’s novelistic process. Finally, the kitsch-irony relationship in Kundera’s works has not been fully examined and in itself shows his development, from The Joke to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as an author capable of ranging over the full spectrum from ironic distance to sentimental indulgence to complicated mixtures of both.