June 4, 2009

Kundera's Theodicy of Shit

I finished The Unbearable Lightness of Being last week. My wife's assessment sums it up best: it's the kind of book that embeds itself in your mind, and plays out little by little, for weeks and weeks after. My gut feeling is that Kundera's writing is of a quality unlike any other. In this book he, as the narrator, steps right into the scenes and halts them, physically prevents them from continuing until after he finishes a particular thought. It's as impressive as it is infuriating at times. I have no idea how the movie adaptation works with this dilemma.

One has to wonder what is left when all the commentary is removed. What are the character arcs and how, if at all, are they reached? I'm not sure I have an answer. I know I love the book, but resent it a little too. It's pretentious in parts, some scenes clearly written to provide the author a soap-box. But my resentment is also in knowing he speaks of things with an authority beyond my grasp. I know I will return to this book again and again, each read providing something new.

That being said, there are reams of quotes worth mentioning. Most of them already lurking about different blogs. One that has stayed in my brain since I last put the book down is Kundera's ponderings on God, humankind, and shit. To put the quotes in context (to the best of my knowledge), Kundera the narrator is examining the existence of shit, and the need to defecate, and the seeming unacceptability of the act (by persons) because of a strange shame attached to it, and how it poses a problem with the basic theological tenets of God's relationship with man.

Kundera (as a child) imagining God:

He was a bearded old man with eyes, nose, a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious. Spontaneously, without any theological training, I, a child, grasped the incompatibility of God and shit and thus came to question the basic thesis of Christian anthropology, namely, that man was created in God’s image. Either/or: either man was created in God’s image — and God has intestines — or God lacks intestines and man is not like him.

The ancient Gnostics felt as I did at the age of five. In the second century, the great Gnostic master Valentinus resolved the damnable dilemma by claiming that Jesus “ate and drank, but did not defecate.” Shit is a more onerous problem than evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man’s crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.

Kundera explaining how the denial of shit is kitsch:

As long as man was allowed to remain in Paradise, either (like Valentinus’ Jesus) he did not defecate at all, or (as would seem more likely) he did not look upon shit as something repellent. Not until after God expelled man from Paradise did He make him feel disgust. Man began to hide what shamed him, and by the time he removed the veil, he was blinded by a great light. Thus, immediately after his introduction to disgust, he was introduced to excitement. Without shit (in both the literal and figurative senses of the word) there would be no sexual love as we know it, accompanied by pounding heart and blinded senses…

Behind all European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being. The fact that until recently the word “shit” appeared in print as s— has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can’t claim shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.

It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch… Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable to human existence.


Sam said...

As one of Freud's patients says, if Jesus can make wine appear he can make excretions disappear. But why would he want to? It's the quietest place in the house for reading...

Zizek has a great article on how the shapes of toilets are indicative of national character - German toilets have a larger bowl for better scrutinization of waste, while French toilets push it to the back as quickly as possible, etc.

Harry Tournemille said...

I guess North American toilets are tiny bowls with funnels protruding from them. Beneath the floor, out of sight, the large holding tank where things stew, but never really go away.