Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Milan Kundera on Vandalism and Historic Preservation

When called upon to explain the philosophy and values of historic preservation to an outsider, I often liken it to environmentalism, and I invariably refer to humility and caution: the idea that we should not rush to take irreversible action, so confident of our own tastes and power that we presume to dictate the future shape of the world.

Thinking about history and historic preservation in that vein, I often recall a wonderful passage by Czech novelist Milan Kundera, from an essay of June 1967. In a sense, it is only nominally about historic preservation and really about other, much bigger things. Still, the fact that he uses historic preservation is indicative and hardly accidental.

Kundera begins with a point that he elaborates elsewhere, namely, that small nations, unlike large ones, cannot take their continued existence for granted. In the standard narrative, Czech identity was almost destroyed when political sovereignty was lost: first, under the three centuries of German imperial domination, and then again, under Nazi rule, separated by only two glorious decades of modern independence. It was the maintenance of a distinct Czech culture that kept peoplehood alive. Stalinism proved a threat of a different kind: the state remained, but the culture atrophied. Writing in the era of the post-Stalinist "thaw" that preceded the famous "Prague Spring" of 1968, Kundera is both optimistic and cautious: he acknowledges and applauds the relaxing of political controls, the achievements of the Czech New Wave in film, and a new freedom in literature.

At the same time, he worries, a true national culture is threatened in new ways both from without and from within. On the one hand, there are the homogenizing forces of what we have now come to call "globalization," which threaten, in an entirely new way, to limit the relevance or even existence of the languages and literatures of small nations. On the other hand, a vibrant Czech culture cannot be only inward-looking and parochial. Historically, he said, the distinctive Czech culture derived much of its strength from the rootedness in a wider European tradition, the consciousness of which is fast disappearing, and not only in his native land.

Provincialism, he says, is mental as well as geographical. "Provincialism doesn't only have its impact on the nation's literary achievements, but is a problem of the nation's whole existence, especially in its schooling, its journalism. and so on."

He illustrates this point with an example taken from avant-garde film that in turn takes him into the realms of history and art, and then back to party politics:
  A little while ago, I saw a film called Daisies. It concerned two splendidly repulsive girls, supremely satisfied with their own cute limitations and merrily destroying everything which they didn't understand. It seemed to me then that I was watching a profound and very topical parable about vandalism. What is a vandal? He certainly isn't an illiterate peasant who burns a hated landowner's castle in a fit of anger. A vandal, as I observe him around me, is socially secure, literate, self-satisfied, and with no very good reason for trying to get his own back on somebody. A vandal is an arrogant, limited person, who feels good in himself and is willing at any time to appeal to his democratic rights. This arrogant limitedness thinks that one of its basic rights is to change the world into its own image, and because the world is too big for it to understand, it chooses to change the world by destroying it. In exactly the same way, a youngster will knock the head off a sculpture in a park because it seems to insult him by being bigger than he is, and he'll do it with great satisfaction, because any act of self-assertion satisfies man.

  People who live only in the immediate present, unaware of historical continuity and without culture, are capable of transforming their country into a desert without history, without memory, without echoes, and without beauty. Vandalism today is not just something that is fought by the police. When representatives of the people or the relevant officials decide that a statue or a castle, a church, an old lime tree, is pointless and order it to be removed, that is just another form of vandalism. There's no substantial difference between legal and illegal destruction and there is not a great deal of difference between destruction and prohibition. In the chamber a certain Czech deputy recently demanded, in the name of twenty-one deputies, a ban on two 'difficult' films, one of them, by an irony of fate, Daisies, a parable about vandals. He uncompromisingly denounced both films and at the same time declared quite explicitly that he didn't understand them. There is no real contradiction in such an attitude as this. The biggest sin of these two works was that they were above the heads of those who did not like them and thus insulted them.
—"A Nation Which Cannot Take Itself for Granted," in Gale Stokes, ed., From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945, second ed. (NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 151-55; here, 153-54
For him, then, respect for the past, humility regarding the future, and freedom of expression go hand in hand. It is a potent mix.

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