“Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire.”

“It is precisely in losing the certainty of truth and the unanimous agreement of others that man becomes an individual. The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals.”


In 1935, three years before his death, Edmund Husserl gave his celebrated lectures in Vienna and Prague on the crisis of European humanity. For Husserl, the adjective “European” meant the spiritual identity that extends beyond geographical Europe (to America, for instance) and that was born with ancient Greek philosophy. In his view, this philosophy, for the first time in history, apprehended the world (the world as a whole) as a question to be answered. It interrogated the world not in order to satisfy this or that practical need but because “the passion to know had seized mankind.”


The rise of the sciences propelled man into the tunnels of the specialized disciplines. The more he advanced in knowledge, the less clearly could he see either the world as a whole or his own self, and he plunged further into what Husserl’s pupil Heidegger called in a beautiful and almost magical phrase, "the forgetting of being." Once elevated to "master and proprietor of nature," man has now become a mere thing to the forces (of technology, of politics, of history) that bypass him, surpass him, possess him. To those forces, man’s concrete being, his "world of life" (die Lebenswelt), has neither value nor interest: it is eclipsed, forgotten from the start.

For me the father of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes. … If it is true that philosophy and science have forgotten about man’s being, it emerges all the more plainly that with Cervantes a great European art took shape that is nothing other than the investigation of this forgotten being.

Indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyzes in "Being and Time" — considering them to have been neglected by earlier European philosophy — had been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel. It its own way, through its own logic, the novel discovered the various dimensions of existence one by one: with Cervantes and his contemporaries, it inquires into the nature of adventure; with Richardson, it begins to examine "what happens inside," to unmask the secret life of the feelings; with Balzac, it discovers man’s rootedness in history; with Flaubert, it explores the terra previously incognita of the everyday; with Tolstoy, it focuses on the intrusion of the irrational into human behavior and decisions. It probes time: the elusive past with Proust, the elusive present with Joyce. With Thomas Mann, it examines the role of the myths from the remote past that control our present actions.

The novel has accompanied man uninterruptedly and faithfully since the beginning of the Modern Era. It was then that the "passion to know," which Husserl considered the essence of European spirituality, seized the novel and led it to scrutinize man’s concrete life and protect it against "the forgetting of being"; to hold "the world of life" under a permanent light. That is the sense in which I understand and share Hermann Broch’s insistence in repeating: The sole raison d’etre of a novel is to discover only what the novel can discover. A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality. … The sequence of discoveries is what constitutes the history of the European novel.


“The novel’s wisdom is different from that of philosophy. The novel is born not of the theoretical spirit but of the spirit of humor. One of Europe’s major failures is that it never understood the most European of the arts – the novel; neither its spirit, nor its great knowledge and discoveries, nor the autonomy of its history. The art inspired by God’s laughter does not by nature serve ideological certitudes, it contradicts them. Like Penelope, it undoes each night the tapestry that the theologians, philosophers and learned men have woven the day before …”

“Flaubert discovered stupidity. I daresay that is the greatest discovery of a century so proud of its scientific thought. Of course, even before Flaubert, people knew stupidity existed, but they understood it somewhat differently: It was considered a simple absence of knowledge, a defect correctable by education … Flaubert’s vision of stupidity is this: Stupidity does not give way to science, technology, modernity, progress; on the contrary, it progresses right along with progress!”

“It is precisely in losing the certainty of truth and the unanimous agreement of others that man becomes an individual. The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possess the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin.”

“As God slowly departed from the seat whence he had directed the universe and its order of values, distinguished good from evil, endowed each thing with meaning, Don Quixote set forth from his house into a world he could no longer recognize. In the absence of the Supreme Judge, the world suddenly appeared in its fearsome ambiguity; the single divine Truth decomposed into myriad relative truths parceled out by men. Thus was born the world of the Modern Era, and with it the novel, the image and model of that world.

“To take, with Descartes, the thinking self as the basis of everything, and thus to face the universe alone, is to adopt an attitude that Hegal was right to call heroic.

“To take, with Cervantes, the world as ambiguity, to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters), to have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty, requires no less courage.

“What does Cervante’s great novel mean? Much has been written on the question. Some see in it a rationalist critique of Don Quixote’s hazy idealism. Others see it as a celebration of that same idealism. Both interpretations are mistaken because they both seek at the novel’s core not an inquiry but a moral position.

“Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire. They can cope with the novel only by translating its language and relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic and dogmatic discourse. They require that someone be right: either Anna Karenina is the victim of a narrow-minded tyrant, or Karenin is the victim of an immoral woman; either K. in an innocent man crushed by an unjust Court, or the Court represents divine justice and K. is guilty.

“This ‘either-or’ encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge. This inability makes the novel’s wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) hard to accept and understand.”


The death of the novel has been much discussed for a long time (but) the blissful smile that accompanies those obituaries of the novel strike me as frivolous … because I have already seen and lived through the death of the novel, a violent death (inflicted by bans, censorship, and ideological pressure), in the world where I spent much of my life and which is usually called totalitarian.

Grounded in the relativity and ambiguity of things human, the novel is incompatible with the totalitarian universe. … The world of one single Truth and the relative, ambiguous world of the novel are molded of entirely different substances. Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, questioning; it can never accommodate what I would call the spirit of the novel.

But aren’t there hundreds and thousands of novels published in huge editions and widely read in Communist Russia? Certainly, but these novels add nothing to the conquest of being. They discover no new segment of existence; they only confirm what has already been said. … By discovering nothing, they fail to participate in the sequence of discoveries that for me constitutes the history of the novel, they place themselves outside that history, or if you like: they are novels that come after the history of the novel.

And we now know how the novel dies: it’s not that it disappears; its history stops; after that comes nothing but a period of repetition in which the novel keeps duplicating its form, emptied of its spirit. Its death occurs quietly, unnoticed, and no one is outraged.


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 that come faster than the question and block it off. In the spirit of our time, it’s either Anna or Karenin who is right, and the ancient wisdom of Cervantes, telling us about the difficulty of knowing and the elusiveness of truth, seems cumbersome and useless. …

The spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and profuse that it shoves the past off our horizon and reduces time to the present moment only. Within this system the novel is no longer a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future) but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow.


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. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility. But again, to exist means, “being in the world.” Thus, both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities. In Kafka all that is clear: the Kafkan world does not resemble any known reality, it is an extreme and unrealized possibility of the human world … even if his novels are not prophetic, they would not lose their value because they grasp one possibility of existence and thereby make us see what we are, what we are capable of.


First, one thing is certain: the moment it becomes part of a novel, reflection changes its essence. Outside the novel we are in the realm of affirmation: everyone is sure of his statements: the politician, the philosopher, the concierge. Within the universe of the novel, however, no one affirms: it is the realm of play and hypotheses. In the novel then reflection is essentially inquiring, hypothetical … ideas are intellectual exercises, paradox games, improvisations, rather than statements of thought. Inside the novel, dogmatic thought turns hypothetical.

Kundera quotes Dostoyevsky:

“He was one of those Russian idealists who, suddenly struck by some immense idea, are left dazzled by it, often forever. They never manage to take control of the idea, they believe in it with a passion, and their whole existence from then on is nothing but an agony writhing under the rock that has nearly crushed them.”


In the Kafkan world the file takes on the role of Platonic idea. It represents true reality, whereas man’s physical existence is only a shadow cast on the screen of illusion. … But if man’s life is only a shadow and true reality lies elsewhere, in the inaccessible, in the inhuman or the suprahuman, then we suddenly enter the domain of theology. Indeed, Kafka’s first commentators explained his novels as religious parables.

Such an interpretation seems wrong but also revealing: wherever power deifies itself, it automatically produces its own theology; wherever it behaves like God, it awakens religious feelings toward itself; such a world can be described in theological terms.



“Suspending judgment is not the immortality of the novel: it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone: of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but he refuses it a place in the novel. …

“Creating the imaginary terrain where moral judgment is suspended was a move of enormous significance: only there could novelistic characters develop — that is, individuals conceived not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws.”


“The removal of the gods from the world is one of the phenomena that characterize the Modern Era. The removal of the gods does not mean atheism, it denotes the situation in which the individual, the thinking ego, supplants God as the basis for all things: man may continue to keep his faith, to kneel in church, to pray at his bed, but his piety shall henceforth pertain only to his subjective universe.

“Having described the situation, Heidegger concludes: ‘And thus the gods eventually departed. The resulting void is filled by the historical and psychological exploration of myths.’”


“Is man capable of understanding? Can his secret thoughts be the key to his identity? Or, rather, is man defined by his vision of the world, by his ideas, by his Weltanschauung? This is Dostoyevsky’s aesthetic: his characters are rooted in a very distinctive personal ideology, according to which they act with unbending logic. For Tolstoy, on the other hand, personal ideology is far from a stable basis for personal identity.”


“The condemnation of Rushdie can be seen not as a chance event, an aberration, but as the most profound conflict between two areas: theocracy goes to war against the Modern Era and targets its most representative creation: the novel. For Rushdie did not blaspheme. He did not attack Islam. He wrote a novel. But that, for the theocratic mind, is worse than attack: if religion is attacked (by polemic, a blasphemy, a heresy), the guardians of the temple can easily defend it on their own ground, with their own language; but the novel is a different planet for them: a different universe based on a different ontology; an infernum where the unique truth is powerless and where satanic ambiguity turns every certainty into an enigma.”


“Humor: the divine flash that reveals the world in its moral ambiguity and man in his profound incompetence to judge others; humor, the intoxicating relativity of human things; the strange pleasure that comes of the certainty that there is no certainty. But humor, to recall Ocatvio Paz, is ‘the great invention of the modern spirit.’ It has not been with us forever, and it won’t be with us forever either.”


©jonfobes 2005