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By Joseph Brodsky, Ferbruary 17, 1985

MILAN KUNDERA'S recent essay in The Book Review (''An Introduction to a Variation,'') contained several points which demand a reply. Any dispute in matters of taste usually results in a standoff. Still, the preferences put forth by Mr. Kundera appear to be based not so much on his esthetics as on his sense of history.

Now, with history, one is on more solid, if not entirely firm, ground. It's solid enough to sustain an argument of its being a malevolent agent in the fate of an artist. It's sufficiently solid, perhaps, for us to imagine it determining such an artist's ethical posture. Yet it slips from under one's feet if one accords it the responsibility for one's esthetics. By doing so, one subordinates art to the strictures of a creed, a philosophical system, the interests of a group - ultimately, an ideology. Art is more ancient and more inevitable than any of these.

It may lend a hand by embellishing a cathedral, rhyming a thesis, providing a tyranny with a suitable anthem or mausoleum. Yet art is never owned - neither by its patrons nor even by the artists themselves. It has its own self-generating dynamics, its own logic, its own pedigree and its own future. An individual's esthetics stem from the instinct for all these things, not from patronage. And it's his esthetics that give rise to his ethics and his sense of history - not the other way around.

One of the worst things that can happen to an artist is to perceive himself as the owner of his art, and art as his tool. A product of the marketplace sensibility, this attitude barely differs on a psychological plane from the patron's view of the artist as a paid employee. Both tend to postulate (or advertise) - the former, the artist's own idiom; the latter, the patron's will and purpose. And such assertions always get made at someone else's expense. An artist debunks another artist's idiom; a patron withdraws the commission, denounces some style or other as nonrealistic or degenerate and may lock up (or exile) the artist. In both cases, the loser is art and, by the same token, the human species, which winds up with a reduced notion of itself.

But if a patron (let's say, a state) can be excused because he presumably doesn't know better, an artist (let's say, a writer) cannot. Unlike a state, a writer cannot plead the historical necessity of his actions. Citing historical vicissitudes won't cover him, either, if only because hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, guest workers, boat people, wetbacks, and so on have effectively removed the orchid from the exiled writer's buttonhole. If it weren't a contradiction in terms, he could possibly claim esthetic necessity. But esthetics is a linear phenomenon. It has no retroactive power over its progress - that would be a self-defeating proposition.

To be sure, the marketplace, with its knack for superlatives, can force the most self-effacing mouse to consider itself in posthumous terms. It can also make a seasoned author view the stopping of his car by a soldier of the occupying army as a personal brush with history - such, it would seem, was Mr. Kundera's feeling in Czechoslovakia in 1968. We may feel for him, but only until he starts to generalize about that soldier and the culture the soldier represents. Fear and disgust are understandable, but soldiers never represent culture, let alone a literature - they carry guns, not books.

In a writer with the ownership complex toward his art, an encounter of this kind awakens the sense of insecurity which compels him to respond in the language not of artistic but of historical necessity. In other words, he looks feverishly around for where to put the blame. Confident only of his own domain, he naturally finds the fault with someone who represents an alien idiom. Most likely, this idiom always posed a threat to him and his self-esteem. Now that misfortune has befallen him, he instinctively points his finger in the familiar direction. In other words, enter Mr. Kundera and his ''Introduction to a Variation,'' his finger sharply pointed at Dostoyevsky.

One day in 1968, after the Soviet troops had occupied Czechoslovakia, a sympathetic theater director asked Milan Kundera to do a stage adaptation, under an assumed name, of Dostoyevsky's ''Idiot.'' Mr. Kundera's books had been banned, and he had ''no legal means'' of making a living. And yet, as he puts it in his essay, ''I reread 'The Idiot' and realized that even if I were starving, I couldn't do the job. Dostoyevsky's universe of overblown gestures, murky depths and aggressive sentimentality repelled me. All at once, I felt an inexplicable pang of nostalgia for 'Jacques le Fataliste.' ''

Mr. Kundera is not the first writer of note to feel an aversion to Dostoyevsky. Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, was fond of comparing his compatriot to Eug ene Sue, the Dickens of Parisian low life (although, in my view, a comparison with Sue is hardly a put-down). To his credit, though, Nabokov didn't cite historical vicissitudes in support of an opinion that will remain on his artistic conscience forever, along with his assessments of Joyce, Faulkner and others.

But Mr. Kundera continues: ''Why the sudden aversion to Dostoyevsky? Was it the anti-Russian reflex of a Czech traumatized by the occupation of his country? No, because I never stopped loving Chekhov. Was it doubts about the esthetic value of his work? No, because my aversion had taken me by surprise and made no claims to objectivity. What irritated me about Dostoyevsky was the climate of his novels: a universe where everything turns into feeling; in other words, where feelings are promoted to the rank of value and of truth.''

Then he inveighs against incoherence of feeling and, after noting what feeling has cost our civilization, comes to extol its opposite, rational thought and the spirit of reason and doubt, locating them squarely in the West. The realm where feelings are ''considered values in themselves, criteria of truth, justifications for kinds of behavior'' lies, roughly, in the direction of his pointed finger, from which both Dostoyevsky and the tanks have come. In that realm, where feelings supplant thought, ''the noblest of national sentiments stand ready to justify the greatest of horrors, and man, his breast swelling with lyric fervor, commits atrocities in the sacred name of love.''

Well, it's not true; at least, it's not as neat as that. The atrocities that were and are committed in that realm, were and are committed not in the name of love but of necessity - and a historical one at that. The concept of historical necessity is the product of rational thought and arrived in Russia by the Western route. The idea of the noble savage, of an inherently good human nature hampered by bad institutions, of the ideal state, of social justice and so forth - none of these originated or blossomed on the banks of the Volga. One should perhaps resist the temptation to regard feckless but gifted parasites of the 18th-century Parisian salons as the origin of the modern police state. But one shouldn't forget that ''Das Kapital'' was translated into Russian from German.

It may be a tribute to Western rationalism that the ''specter of Communism,'' after wandering about in Europe, had to settle in the East. But it should also be noted that nowhere else has that specter encountered stronger resistance, starting with Dostoyevsky's ''Possessed'' and continuing through the blood bath of the Civil War and the Great Terror; and the resistance is far from over even now. At the very least, this specter had less trouble settling in Mr. Kundera's native land in 1945 and reclaiming that country for itself in 1968. The political system that put Mr. Kundera out of commission is as much a product of Western rationalism as it is of Eastern emotional radicalism. In short, on seeing a Russian tank in the street, there is every reason to think of Diderot.

R. KUNDERA thinks of Dostoyevsky either because his sense of geography is conditioned by his sense of history, or because the presence of that writer makes him feel insecure. I tend to think that the latter is the case, if only because that would be an appropriate sentiment toward Dostoyevsky in every professional writer. Also because to describe the climate of Dostoyevsky's novels as a universe where everything turns into feeling, where feelings are promoted to the rank of value and of truth, is in itself a highly sentimental distortion.

Even if one were to reduce Dostoyevsky's novels to the level Mr. Kundera offers, it is clear that they are not about feelings per se but about a hierarchy of feelings. What's more, those feelings are reactions to expressed thoughts, and most of those thoughts are highly rational thoughts picked up, in fact, in the West. The majority of Dostoyevsky's novels are Russian denouements to events that took place outside of Russia, in the West. Prince Myshkin returns mad from the West, and Ivan Karamazov got his atheistic ideas there as well; the West is the source of Verkhovensky Jr.'s political radicalism and the seat of his conspiracy.

The gist of most of Dostoyevsky's novels is the struggle for man's soul, for the author assumes that man has one, that he is a spiritual entity. He writes about this fight - or tug of war - between faith and the utilitarian approach to existence, about this pendulum motion of the individual psyche between two abysses, good and evil. It is these abysses that Mr. Kundera dubs murky depths; it is this pendulum motion that strikes him as overblown gestures.

To say the least, Dostoyevsky presents a less myopic picture of man than Mr. Kundera suggests. It is more complex, less manageable; and that accounts in part for Mr. Kundera's defective perception. But his misreading has to do as well, presumably, with the very reductionist approach to human beings against which Dostoyevsky rails and which is the product of - let's use its most humble name - agnosticism. It is true that tanks and troops pour into Mr. Kundera's land from the East with a nagging regularity; but what leads him to believe that the sort of man described by Dostoyevsky inhabits only that realm is solely the fact that the West hasn't thus far produced a writer of Dostoyevsky's probing.

Hence Mr. Kundera's sense of geography. For where he sees universes of feeling or of reason, his Russian predecessor sees the human propensity to evil. Of all people, the Czechs are best situated to observe this common denominator; for they surely haven't forgotten by 1968 the event that took place 30 years before, when the invasion came from the West. One wonders how ''Jacques le Fataliste'' would have squared with the Czech audience then.

Before putting a high premium on rational thought, a prudent man might have asked himself whether reason allows for real discoveries, rather than just articulating knowledge he already possesses. The question is older than our civilization; indeed, it appears to be one of its main vehicles. It is the vehicle of a great part of literature, of Dostoyevsky's work in particular.

If Mr. Kundera doesn't engage in this sort of inquiry, it isn't for want of imagination or out of an aversion to abstract thinking. The sad truth about him (and many of his East European brethren) is that this extraordinary writer has fallen an unwitting victim to the geopolitical certitude of his fate - the concept of an East-West divide.

True enough, for a Czech there is no North or South to speak of (Poland? Germany? Hungary?). Yet tragic as the notion of a world apportioned in this fashion may be, it is not without mental coziness. It offers the handy dichotomies of feeling-reason, Dostoyevsky-Diderot, them-us and so forth. It forces the individual to make a choice. The process of making it is invariably dramatic and dangerous; having chosen, one has every reason to regard oneself as a hero. The only catch is that the choice itself is very limited. True to the nature of its place, it is a matter of either/or.

Frequently, such a choice is the most significant event in an individual's life, and barnacles of afterthought turn it into a very substantial entity obscuring the initial poverty of options. Made under the pressure of circumstances, this limited choice starts the echo of an archetypal human predicament. There is nothing wrong with it, except that it imposes the reductive notion of human potential implicit in any limited choice - and that may be the very reason for which it is offered. Oblivious to this possibility, the individual starts to insist on whatever conclusions his experience drew him to, rejecting or dismissing a more embracing, more generous or farther-reaching notion of man.

This is, I think, the essence of Mr. Kundera's aversion to Dostoyevsky. The idea of balancing feeling with rational thought thus appears conditioned if not simply redundant; for an idea that's worth its salt is recognizable - and measured - by the quality of response to it. If literature has a social function, it is, perhaps, to show man his optimal parameters, his spiritual maximum. On that score, the metaphysical man of Dostoyevsky's novels is of greater value than Mr. Kundera's wounded rationalist, however modern and however common.

This is not Mr. Kundera's fault, of course, though he should be aware of it. A lot goes into the position in which this Czech writer finds himself vis- a-vis Dostoyevsky. First of all, he has been kept on a rigid esthetic diet, which betrays itself in his frequent use of the sexual metaphor for human conduct. As paradoxical as it may sound, a true esthete wouldn't find himself making choices at the sight of foreign tanks rolling down the street; he would foresee - or imagine - such things (especially in this century). Secondly, the Lutheran brand of agnosticism forces one's reason to stage its own version of the Last Judgment. This version is more relentless than the Almighty's, because one tends to think that one knows oneself more intimately than the Supreme Being. Devoid of grace, whose only rational equivalent is the resolution to stop torturing oneself, the rational individual veers toward a guilty hedonism.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Mr. Kundera is a Continental, a European man. These people are seldom capable of seeing themselves from the outside. If they do, it's invariably within the context of Europe, for Europe offers them a scale against which their importance is detectable. The advantage of stratified society lies precisely in the ease with which the individual may appreciate his advancement. The reverse side of the coin, however, is that one senses limits and, beyond them, expanses where this individual's life appears irrelevant. That's why a sedentary people always resents nomads: apart from the physical threat, a nomad compromises the concept of border.

THE people of the Continent are very much a people whose existence is defined by borders, be it that of a nation, community, class, tradition, hierarchy - or of reason. Add to this the mesmerizing bureaucratic structure of the state, and you get a man with no sense of contingencies, either for himself or for his race. Never having heard of multiple options, he can at best only contemplate a wholesale special alternative, one like what he already has - East or West. Turned writer, he must try to get even by eroding the limitations of the genre. That may earn him a reputation for avant-gardism, but only among those who find themselves in a stylistic cul-de-sac.

Having lived for so long in Eastern Europe (Western Asia to some), it is only natural that Mr. Kundera should want to be more European than the Europeans themselves. Apart from anything else, this posture must have considerable appeal for him, because it endows his past with more logical links to the present than are normally available to an exile. It also places him at a good vantage point from which to chide the West for betraying its own values (what used to be called European civilization) and for surrendering certain countries that have tried to persevere in that civilization against terrifying odds.

For this, everyone who is still able to read and write should be grateful to Mr. Kundera and to his colleagues and friends inside Czechoslovakia. One's only worry may be that his notion of European civilization is somewhat limited or lopsided, since Dostoyevsky doesn't fit into it and is identified with the threat to it. The other thing, of course, is the paradox of the Eastern victim's assumption of cultural superiority over the Western villain, which nonetheless doesn't deter him from aspiring to the benefits of the villain's system. To put it plainly, if the victim's political dreams come true, he'll end up with the liberties and cultural climate that he presently criticizes - those of the villain.

To resolve this paradox, one should bear two things in mind: First, that betrayal, erosion, lowering of the standards and so forth are the organic features of civilization, that civilization is an organism that excretes, secretes, degenerates, regenerates; and that the dying and rotting of its parts is the price this organism pays for evolution. Second, that the purity of the victim is a forced, i.e., artificial purity that we wouldn't trade the smallest of our liberties to have; that our attraction to the victim's cultural standards is of an elegiac nature because they belong to the past of a civilization put, as it were, into the freezer by ideological tyranny. Live fish always smells; frozen fish does so only when it is cooked.

Toward the end of his piece, Mr. Kundera writes: ''Faced with the eternity of the Russian night, I had experienced in Prague the violent end of Western culture such as it was conceived at the dawn of the modern age, based on the individual and his reason, on pluralism of thought and on tolerance. In a small Western country I experienced the end of the West. That was the grand farewell.''

Sounds grand and tragic, but it's pure histrionics. Culture dies only for those who fail to master it, the way morality dies for a lecher. Western civilization and its culture, Mr. Kundera's qualifier included, is based first of all on the principle of sacrifice, on the idea of a man who died for our sins. When threatened, Western civilization and its culture always finds enough resolve to fight its enemy, even if it is the enemy within. In many ways, the last war was Western civilization's civil war. Shedding blood is no joy; it may not even qualify as a small imitation of Christ; but as long as man is prepared to die for his ideals, those ideals are alive, civilization is alive.

It's too early to bid farewell to Western culture, even in Prague, if only because of Jan Palach, the Czech student who immolated himself publicly in January 1969 as a protest against the Russian occupation.The Russian night that has descended on Czechoslovakia is no darker than it was when Jan Masaryk was thrown through a window by the agents of the Soviet Secret Service in 1948. It's Western culture that helped Mr. Kundera to survive that night, it's in that night he came to love Denis Diderot and Lawrence Sterne and to laugh their laughter. That laughter, however, was the privilege of free men, as were the sorrows of Dostoyevsky.