The following was given as an address on receiving the Jerusalem Prize for Literature on the Freedom of Man in Society in May.

That Israel’s most important prize is awarded to international literature is, to my mind, not a matter of chance but of a long tradition. Indeed, the great Jewish figures, exiled from their land of origin and thus lifted above nationalist passions, have always shown an exceptional feeling for a supranational Europe—a Europe conceived not as territory but as culture. Even after Europe so tragically failed them, the Jews nonetheless kept faith with that European cosmopolitanism; thus it is that Israel, their little homeland finally regained, strikes me as the true heart of Europe—a strange heart, located outside the body.

It is with profound emotion that I receive today the prize that bears the name of Jerusalem and the mark of that great cosmopolitan Jewish spirit. It is as a novelist that I accept it. I say novelist, not writer. The novelist is one who, according to Flaubert, seeks to disappear behind his work. To disappear behind his work, that is, to renounce the role of public figure. This is not easy these days, when anything of the slightest importance must step into the intolerable glare of the mass media which, contrary to Flaubert’s precept, cause the work to disappear behind the image of its author. In such a situation, which no one can entirely escape, Flaubert’s remark seems to me a kind of warning: in lending himself to the role of public figure, the novelist endangers his work; it risks being considered a mere appendage to his actions, to his declarations, to his statements of position.

Now, not only is the novelist nobody’s spokesman, but I would go so far as to say he is not even the spokesman for his own ideas. When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was merely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their works should change jobs.

But what is that wisdom, what is the novel? There is a fine Jewish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. Inspired by that maxim, I like to imagine that François Rabelais heard God’s laughter one day, and thus was born the idea of the first great European novel. It pleases me to think that the art of the novel came into the world as the echo of God’s laughter.

But why does God laugh at the sight of man thinking? Because man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man’s thought diverges from another’s. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is. The dawn of modern times revealed this fundamental situation of man as he emerged from the Middle Ages: Don Quixote thinks, Sancho thinks, and not only the world’s truth but also the truth of their own selves slips from their hands. The first European novelists saw, and grasped, that new situation of man, and on it they built the new art, the art of the novel.

François Rabelais invented a number of neologisms that have since entered the French and other languages, but one of his words has been forgotten, and this is regrettable. It is the word agelaste; it comes from the Greek and it means a man who does not laugh, who has no sense of humor. Rabelais detested the agelastes. He feared them. He complained that the agelastes treated him so atrociously that he nearly stopped writing forever.

No peace is possible between the novelist and the agelaste. Never having heard God’s laughter, the agelastes are convinced that the truth is obvious, that all men necessarily think the same thing, and that they are themselves exactly what they think they are. But 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 possesses the truth—neither Anna nor Karenin—but where everyone has the right to be understood—both Anna and Karenin. It is through the art of the novel that, over four centuries, European individualism was created, confirmed, and developed.


In the third book of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Panurge, the first great novelistic character that Europe beheld, is tormented by the question: should he marry or not? He consults doctors, seers, professors, poets, philosophers, who each in turn quote Hippocrates, Aristotle, Homer, Heraclitus, Plato. But after all this enormous, erudite research which takes up the whole book, Panurge still does not know whether he should marry or not. And we, the readers, do not know either—but, on the other hand, we have explored from every possible angle the situation, as comic as it is serious, of the person who does not know whether he should marry or not.

Rabelais’s erudition, great as it is, has another meaning than Descartes’s. The novel’s wisdom is different from that of philosophy. The novel is born not of the theoretic spirit but of the spirit of humor. One of Europe’s major failures is in never having 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 propagate, but rather contradicts, ideological certitudes. Like Penelope, it undoes each night the tapestry that theologians, philosophers, and learned men wove the day before.

Lately, it has become a habit to speak ill of the eighteenth century, to the point that we hear this cliché: the misfortune of Russian totalitarianism is the product of Europe, particularly of the atheist rationalism of the Enlightenment, of its belief in all-powerful reason. I do not feel myself qualified to debate with those who blame Voltaire for the gulag. But I do feel qualified to say: the eighteenth century is not only the century of Rousseau, of Voltaire, of Holbach; it is also (perhaps above all!) the age of Fielding, of Sterne, of Goethe, of Laclos.

Of all that period’s novels, it is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy I love best. A curious novel. Sterne starts it by recounting the night when Tristram was conceived, but he has barely begun to talk about that when another idea suddenly attracts him, and that idea, by free association, reminds him of some other reflection, then a further anecdote—and Tristram, the book’s hero, is forgotten for a good hundred pages. This extravagant way of narrating the story could seem no more than a formal game. But in art, the form is always more than a form. Every novel, wish it or not, offers an answer to the question: what is human existence, and wherein does its poetry lie? Sterne’s contemporaries—Fielding, for instance—found it in action and events. The answer we sense in Sterne’s novel is a very different one: for him, the poetry lies not in the action, but in the interruption of the action.

It may be that, indirectly, a grand dialogue thus took shape between the novel and philosophy. Eighteenth-century rationalism is based on Liebniz’s famous declaration: nihil est sine ratione—there is nothing without its reason. Stimulated by that conviction, science energetically explores the why of everything, such that whatever is seems explainable, thus calculable. Man, who desires his life to have a meaning, foregoes any action that has not its cause and its purpose. All biographies are written this way. Life is seen as a glowing trajectory of causes, effects, failures, and successes, and man, setting his impatient gaze on the causal chain of his actions, accelerates further his mad race toward death.

Against that reduction of the world to the causal succession of events, Sterne’s novel asserts by its very form that poetry lies not in the action, but there where action stops, where the bridge between a cause and an effect is ruptured, and thought wanders off in sweet lazy liberty. The poetry of existence, says Sterne’s novel, lies in digression. It lies in the incalculable. It lies opposite causality. It is sine ratione, without reason. It lies opposite Leibniz’s statement.

Thus the spirit of an age cannot be judged exclusively by its ideas, its theoretical concepts, without considering its art, and particularly the novel. The nineteenth century invented the locomotive, and Hegel was convinced he had grasped the very spirit of universal history. But Flaubert discovered stupidity. I dare say that that is the greatest discovery of a century so proud of its scientific thought.

Of course, even before Flaubert, people knew stupidity existed, but it was understood somewhat differently: it was considered a simple absence of knowledge, a defect correctable by education. But in Flaubert’s novels, stupidity is an inseparable dimension of human existence. It accompanies poor Emma throughout her days, to her bed of love and to her deathbed, over which two famous agelastes, Homais and Bournisien, go on endlessly trading their inanities like a kind of funeral oration. But the most shocking, the most scandalous thing about Flaubert’s vision of stupidity is this: that stupidity does not give way to science, technology, modernity, progress; on the contrary, it progresses right along with progress!


With a mischievous passion, Flaubert used to collect the stereotyped formulations that people around him enunciated in order to seem intelligent and up-to-date. He put them into a celebrated Dictionnaire des idées reçues. We can use this title to declare: modern stupidity means not ignorance but the nonthought of received ideas. The Flaubert discovery is more important for the future of the world than the most startling ideas of Marx or Freud. For we could imagine the world without the class struggle or without psychoanalysis, but not without the irresistible flood of received ideas which—inscribed in computers, propagated by the mass media—threaten soon to become a force that will crush all original and individual thought, and will thus smother the very essence of modern European culture.

Some eighty years after Flaubert imagined his Emma Bovary, during the Thirties of our own century, another great novelist, the Viennese Hermann Broch, would write: “The modern novel struggles heroically against the tide of kitsch, but it ends up overwhelmed by kitsch.” The word Kitsch, born in Germany in the middle of the last century, describes the attitude of those who want to please the greatest number, and at any cost. In order to please, it is necessary to confirm what everyone wants to hear, to put oneself at the service of received ideas. Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel. Today, fifty years later, Broch’s remark is becoming truer still. Given the imperative necessity to please and thereby to gain the attention of the greatest number, the aesthetic of the mass media is inevitably that of kitsch, and as the mass media come to embrace and to infiltrate more and more of our life, kitsch becomes our everyday aesthetics and moral code. Up until recent times, modernism meant a nonconformist revolt against received ideas and kitsch. Today, modernity is fused with the enormous vitality of the mass media, and to be modern means a strenuous effort to be up-to-date, to conform, to conform even more thoroughly than anyone else. Modernity has put on kitsch’s clothing.

The agelastes, the nonthought of received ideas, and kitsch are one and the same three-headed enemy of that art born as the echo of God’s laughter, the art that has managed to create the entrancing imaginative realm where no one is the possessor of the truth and where everyone has the right to be understood. That imaginative realm of tolerance was born with modern Europe, it is the very image of Europe—or at least our dream of Europe, a dream many times betrayed but nonetheless strong enough to unite us all in the fraternity that stretches far beyond the little European continent. But we know that the world of tolerance (the imaginative one of the novel, and the real one of Europe) is fragile and perishable. On the horizon stand armies of agelastes watching our every move. And precisely in this time of undeclared and perpetual war, and in this city with its dramatic and cruel destiny, I have determined to speak only of the novel. You may have understood that this is not some attempt on my part to avoid the questions that are termed grave. For if European culture seems to me under threat today, if the threat from within and without hangs over what is most precious about it—its respect for the individual, for his original thought, and for his inviolable private life—then, it seems to me, that precious essence of European individualism is held safe as in a treasure chest in the history of the novel, in the wisdom of the novel I wanted to honor in this speech of thanks. But it is time for me to stop. I was forgetting that God laughs when he sees me thinking.

Translated from the French by Linda Asher

Copyright © 1985 Milan Kundera

This Issue

June 13, 1985