“Die Weltliteratur” by Milan Kundera, Part One: Snobbery on the Left
I love this guy Milan Kundera. You think he's talking about one thing, then you find out he's talking about something much more profound than the stated topic and by the end of the article or book he's set off a couple of cherry bombs and who knows where the pieces land?
"Die Weltliteratur" in the January 8 NEW YORKER (it's not posted online, so you're going to have to buy the magazine) starts out asking us to read more books by foreign authors and turns into a discussion of class among so-called progressives. I was struck by his description of the abuse heaped on Camus by other intellectuals for not being the right sort of person (an Algerian pied noir) and "not knowing what to think" in order to fit in, although time has shown Camus to be on the right side of most fights and a greater friend of humanity than the occasional Stalinist Sartre.
Simone deBeauvoir gave tongue to questions about gender and social class (her thoughts on pay equity in traditionally female occupations like teaching and nursing were a revelation for me after ten years on the psych ward and twenty years as a teacher). She then ditched the raffish Nelson Algren in favor of the abusive Sartre. My prejudice in favor of Algren is well-known, but we're talking about a man whose great-heartedness was recognized instincively by Billie Holliday, versus that friend of the oppressed Jean Paul who said "it was not our duty to write about Soviet labour camps" because it might discourage the French working class who according to Sartre still believed in Santa Claus as well. I'd say maybe it was about sex, but have you gotten a good look at Sartre?
Perhaps because of deBeauvoir's involvement, the snobbery against Camus reminded me of watching the moral collapse of feminism in the 1970s, when the leaders of the movement seemed to abandon working class women who needed a fair wage in favor of navel-gazing about gender. The East Coast magazines were full of the word empowerment but out here there were a lot of abandoned single mothers who had to live in trailers and could have used some help with the electric bill. I remember women talking about Ms. magazine; the magazine's indifference to problems with their subscriptions became a metaphor for the movement leaving them behind.
I remember a childhood Baptist service when an unwashed, poorly dressed black child wandered into the sanctuary during communion; she was eating barbecued potato chips and a grape pop and I at thirteen was the only one who picked up on the symbolism. I still worry if maybe that was Jesus or Elijah, a boddhisatva or one of the ushpizin. The biggest problem in working with poor people who have a lot of problems is that they're poor and have a lot of problems.
This is wandering around a lot and I haven't even gotten to the ideas that affected me the most in this article. That Darn Kundera. Our imaginary relationship is sort of like a man with a rubber ball walking a dog in an overgrown field lined by bushes. Milan Kundera throws the ball or hides it behind his back and teases me-- "where's the ball? Where's the ball?"-- and I, with my brain not much bigger than the tennis ball, go crashing into the bushes, and emerge with mixed results.