Kitsch and the Novel

Wild Berries

by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Morrow, 296 pp., $15.95

The Compromise

by Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Anne Frydman
Knopf, 148 pp., $11.95

It's Me, Eddie: A Fictional Memoir

by Edward Limonov, translated by S.L. Campbell
Random House, 264 pp., $13.95

The Island of Crimea

by Vassily Aksyonov, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Random House, 396 pp., $16.95

The Burn

by Vassily Aksyonov, translated by Michael Glenny
Random House/Houghton Mifflin, 528 pp., $18.95

Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Yevgeny Yevtushenko; drawing by David Levine

In his latest novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera engages in a lively and instructive analysis of the concept of kitsch, and its influence today in literature and in social and political conditioning. He concludes that “the Brotherhood of Man is only possible on a basis of kitsch.” Robespierre and Lenin would have dismissed this with impatience and incomprehension, and indeed it is true that kitsch only becomes an insidious force in the public consciousness through the medium of propaganda or advertising, which by definition works with secondhand materials. The first call, the authentic sentiment, whether in art or in revolution, has nothing to do with kitsch, however much it may later be exploited by it.

In the modern consciousness, Kundera says, the presence of kitsch can be detected by this test. Everyone thinks: how nice to see kids in the sunshine running on the grass. And this thought swiftly merges into another: how nice to feel it’s nice to see kids in the sunshine running on the grass. It is this second reaction that is ripe for exploitation by kitsch. It is at the root of commercial, moral, and political propaganda, the basis of every party line. Vladimir Nabokov made the same point when he associated poshlost—the more generic Russian equivalent of kitsch—with the shots of sunburned tractor drivers and smiling collective farm girls, or with the all-American advertisement of Mom, Dad, and the two freckled kids. Contemporary kitsch is a product of egalitarianism, and television and photography have so much accustomed us to the innumerable sophisticated variations on its archetypes that we take them for granted, however much we may deride the archetypes themselves. Besides, at some points in its range, kitsch is an inescapable human necessity.

One function of art is to de-kitschify kitsch. It can do this by the rousing call, the authentic sentiment, something perceived for the first time. But more often, and more mysteriously, it takes the situation that is, has been, and will again be kitsch, and purifies it by some complex alchemy of its own. Vermeer’s woman reading a letter is as full of latent or subliminal kitsch as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and yet art not only keeps it at bay in both cases but actually exploits the implications of it. Instead of itself using the techniques of art, kitsch is successfully used and dominated by them. Tolstoy and Vermeer subtly exploit the deep needs of self-satisfaction. How nice to feel it’s nice to enjoy a picture of a woman reading. And how fine to watch the panorama of human fineness unrolled before us by a master hand.

Kitsch of course only comes into existence when we recognize how and why it works. Kundera’s special perception is in seeing how important it has become for purposefully ideological political systems, which have learned how to manipulate all forms of secular aspiration…

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