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Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000) 331-354



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The Abdication of Culture: The Ideology of Imagology in Milan Kundera's Immortality

Stephen Ross


The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence.

The art inspired by God's laughter does not by nature serve ideological certitudes, it contradicts them.

--Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

The apparent contradiction between these two statements lies at the root of the surprisingly tentative nature of most criticism of Milan Kundera's works. In an uncharacteristic show of respect for an author's comments about his own work, critics of Kundera's novels have by and large refrained from teasing out the political and ideological critiques in them, thus situating his work in terms of the cultural debates upon which it draws. Adhering with almost naïve simplicity to his injunctions against [End Page 331] reading his works only as ideological critiques, most of Kundera's critics have avoided ideological readings altogether. 1 But such readings, be they tentative or dismissive, ignore at their own peril the complex ideological awareness that informs not only Kundera's novels but also his thinking about the novel itself as a counter-ideological form. In their efforts to avoid incurring Kundera's disdain by producing reductive ideological readings of his works, such critics have failed to note his broader conception of the novel as inherently (and ideologically) critical: "the novel is incompatible with the totalitarian universe. This incompatibility is deeper than the one that separates a dissident from an apparatchik, or a human-rights campaigner from a torturer, because it is not only political or moral but ontological.
[. . .] Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, questioning; it can never accommodate what I would call the spirit of the novel" (Art 13-14).

The fundamental conflict between Kundera's insistence that his novels are not simply ideological and his broader characterization of the novel as an ideological solvent produces a paradox in his writing:

c'est un paradox, ici, qu'il faut saisir: celui d'une pensée manifestement hostile au modernisme (comme idéologie), mais s'exposant dans une écriture qui ne nie rien des acquis de la modernité (comme esthetique). (Scarpetta 87)

it is a paradox here that we must grasp: that of a thought manifestly hostile to modernism (as an ideology), but revealing itself in writing that denies nothing of the acquisitions of modernity (as an aesthetic). 2

By identifying Kundera's ambivalence towards the ideological aspect of modernism, traditionally viewed as an aesthetic category, and the aesthetic aspect of modernity, traditionally viewed as an ideological (cultural) condition, Guy Scarpetta demonstrates that the ideological import of Kundera's work has less to do with his particular attitudes towards this or that regime (overtly totalitarian or not) than it has to do with his experience of and attitude towards modernity as a distinctly European phenomenon: 3 "On trouve là, bien entendu, un thème (dénonciation des illusions et des impasses du «progrès») qui rattache Kundera à ce «modernisme anti-moderne»" ("We find there, clearly, a theme [the denunciation of the illusions and the themes of 'progress'] that aligns Kundera with what has been called 'anti-modern modernism' "; Scarpetta 86). [End Page 332]

This recognition of Kundera's antimodernist modernism as an ideological as well as an aesthetic position provides the basis for my reading of Immortality. Rather than being a critique of this or that specific ideology, Immortality partakes of the antimodern discourse of resistance that underwrites modernity and that Kundera sees as the source of the novel's value: "the spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expan-sive 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
[. . .] but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow" (Art 18-19). As a gesture "with no tomorrow," the novel would seem to be inade-quate to the task of offering (or even...

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