- Five Faces of Kitsch
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I will begin by offering an example of kitsch. Not that I am not convinced that we are all in possession of a communal, if secret, treasure of such good luck charms. Collectors we are without a doubt, fetish-lovers, idolaters of quaint objects just like this, objects whose power over us is thorough and everlasting. This photograph I offer as an allegory of the discipline we have gathered here to celebrate: comparative literature. In this photograph we may recognize some of the reasons which have brought us to toil at the feet of our insatiable mistress: the longing for places faraway, declared by the boat—or should we say, bark—and its sails unfurled; the desire to meet new, hospitable peoples and cultures, declared by the geisha/Cio-Cio-San and her [End Page 43] inviting yet austere demeanour; the hope and apprehension we suffer, while wondering how the future will reward the race of the learned—that is, our race—, clear and raw substance of our most secret wishes; for here, fame, love and, of course, the riches to be gained, are held in consignment by the gipsy fortune-teller and her obstinate tambourine.
Without this mirror of our longings, it would be difficult for me to ask you to accept the equation I will propose, between love and kitsch. This equation has to do, not always but often, with “the sentimentality of our parents (Eltern),” which, says Walter Benjamin, when “distilled, is good for providing the most objective image (sachlichste Bild) of our feelings.” I offer therefore this small kitsch photograph as the objective image of my own feelings on kitsch. Akin to such an objective image, and directly practiced by us (including here, today), “the ornament of conversation,” which, as Benjamin would have it, was [and still is] “full of the most abysmal entanglements. Within its heartfelt affect(ion) (seelische Zuneigung) is love, is kitsch (Liebe, der Kitsch).”1
Let us therefore follow the trace of this heartfelt affection, this seelich, or psychic—[supernatural, spiritual, extrasensory, telepathic, intuitive,] clairvoyant—love, and love of sentimentality, along the stations of sorrow where thinkers like Călinescu, Adorno, Benjamin have stopped in order to take in the bitter pill of communion called kitsch…
There is often a trace of impatience, even disappointment, in Călinescu’s reaction to the questions with which his interviewers predictably assail him. Romanian interlocutors seem to expect from him both an omniscient account of things past and a clairvoyant prophecy of things to come. In most cases, political aspects of nationhood tend to take precedence over the literary, and next to the political, the so-called ethical ground is hollowed out so as to leave little room for matters concerning what seems, between the questions and answers, to be closest to the critic’s heart and hopes: his own literary and more widely intellectual projects.
He is inescapably attached to the glorious triad Eliade & Ionesco & Cioran, not unlike Freud to his own Oedipus complex. The chance of having known them all “personally” becomes the misfortune of having to answer, in their stead, unanswerable questions. Questions pertaining mostly to their past. What is Călinescu to invent, by way of a reply, and how is he to circumvent those poisonous traps of historical fact? How is he to disentangle the knots which fasten this “duty to creation” he so revered in the character of [End Page 44] the masters? Can a professor of comparative literature be, at the same time, an objective witness of error and a truthful prophet of the salvation brought about in the creative process? Can he steadfastly not turn his orphic head in the direction of what he would prefer not to have known and loved?
Călinescu’s writing on kitsch may have a lot to do with his own “duty to criticism.” Something rewarded (in his case) with what a [Romanian] commentator called “succes de stimă” or “succès d’estime” [“accomplishment of high regard”].2 The work of the critic, of the historian of...