General Psychology Phenomenology

Kundera & the Poetic Imagination

Milan Kundera’s novel, Life is Elsewhere, contains both a celebration and a critique of poetry (aren’t the best critiques rooted in love?). The main characteristic of poetry, which is the target of his critique, is the force of poetic imagination toward finality. The poet, like a god, doesn’t simply consider a possibility; she creates and proclaims! “Look at what I have created!” What is created presents itself as always having been there, as a fate, as necessary! The poet proclaims a kind of truth, a kind of universality, in the sense that the audience at the moment of creation, at the moment the words “Look at what I have created!” are spoken, is imagined as a universal audience.

The force toward finality operate without much concern for consistency and contradiction. Here is a simple example (not from Kundera). A poet compares falling in love to the breaking of silence. He says, “My life was a silence until my beloved entered it and brought in a beautiful sounds and melodies.” The same poet might later say that falling in love is like silence itself. He says, “My beloved entered my life and suddenly all noise quieted down. My beloved brought peace and I finally found a place for rest and quiet.”

What we might point out, inspired by Kundera, is the force in both metaphors to announce themselves with an intensity that blinds us to the very possibility of metaphor, to the very possibility of the free play of imagination. What is a consideration in one instance quickly turns into a proclamation (“Look at what is here!”), heavily charged with meaning and consequently stagnant.

Is that heaviness the fault of the poetic imagination itself or does it come from somewhere else? Is there another mechanism that sanctions a metaphor as something more? Without such a mechanism, which might be internal to poetry itself, couldn’t the poet go on and continue the chain of contradiction, counteracting the rigidity of existing metaphors?

Life is Elsewhere might be the sentiment of a creator looking at her previous creation, a poet looking at her previous poem, becoming aware of the necessity to continue moving. If life is elsewhere, then choosing life–choosing to live–requires the sacrifice of (the attachment to) what was previously so compelling, so enchanting, so perfect.

After spending a few days with Kundera’s novel, I am drawn to The Notebooks of AndrĂ© Walter, which I imagine somewhat as the notebooks of Jaromil, the central figure in Life is Elsewhere. These two books are, indeed, great companions. The greatness of this companionship, perhaps a perfection that I ought to transcend later on, has to do with each book’s ability to reveal the other’s lack of finality, necessity, and universality.

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