May 30, 2008

The Existential Situation (More Kundera)

Can't get enough of this guy. Has to be one of the best books on writing I've ever read. Note to self: read his actual novels--and be shamed.

According to Kundera, the protagonist's fundamental existential situation unfolds as follows:
1) Man acts BUT...
2) His action slip out of control, ceases to obey him. THEREFORE...
3) He does his utmost to subdue and capture the disobedient act, BUT IN VAIN.
4) Once out of our hands, out of our control, an act can never be recovered.

Place this in context with your typical three-act screenplay, or the expected character arc of a protagonist (or antagonist--any significant character really) and the result is a texture not always present in contemporary writing. The resolution seems not to lie in "correcting a wrong" but in dealing with the consequences of the human condition. It is imperative to bring these to light. If I understand Kundera correctly, he implies that great novels require this lack of recovery. They reveal something deeply human about that futile scramble to regain control. And this does not have to mimic the "real world" per se.

"A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he's capable of. But again, to exist means: 'being in the world'. Thus both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities."

In other words, reality is secondary in importance to the creation of "possible".

Easier said than done, yes?

May 6, 2008

Reading Milan Kundera

Have begun reading Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel in preparation for my own potentially feeble attempt. Kundera works through the historical inception and relevance of the novel and suggests intrinsic imperatives about how the novel can and must survive today. A particularly interesting excerpt talks about the ill-effects of unifying the planet's history, how modern society perpetuates reductionism:

"But the character of modern society hideously exacerbates this curse: it reduces man's life to its social function; the history of a people to a small set of events that are themselves reduced to a tendentious interpretation; social life is reduced to political struggle, and that in turn to the confrontation of just two great global powers."

For Kundera the novel's raison d'être is to protect us (humanity as a whole) from "the forgetting of being". Rather existential, but about as important a tenet as I can think of. To bring about such a force in one's own writing seems an insurmountable task. And Kundera is quick to point out a key source of the never-ending atrocious writing put forth for mass consumption:

"Like all culture, the novel is more and more in the hands of the mass media; as agents of the unification of the planet's history, the media amplify and channel the reduction process; they distribute throughout the world the simplifications and stereotypes easily acceptable by the greatest number, by everyone, by all mankind."

So, if I understand this all correctly, I need to write something original and complex, void of any pandering to mass media or social norms. The characters must have their own existential crisis to deal with, something that reveals the nature of them, not some universal principle for all of humanity.

I believe I've just bitten off more than I can chew. Oh clichés count as bad?

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