Friedrich Nietzsche saw himself surrounded by a world of human constructs. Humanity had become a herd, clinging to these concepts like cattle grazing at a favorite patch of grass. Individual identity struggled to exist. The morality of the mediocre reigned supreme. Nietzsche lived in a dead world.
Milan Kundera lives in the world today. His world is dead much like Nietzsche's. Denial is the focal point of society. Society assimilates difference and denies what cannot be assimilated. In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera relies on the word
kitsch to describe the force of denial. "Kitsch is a absolute denial of shit" (Kundera 248). Kitsch is an inescapable part of the human condition.
Though Nietzsche was not aware of the word, much of his philosophy is a reaction to the concept of kitsch. He wanted to revitalize passion, raw sensation, in hopes that he and others could transcend kitsch and relate authentically to one another: to be masters. Yet as Nietzsche attacks kitsch he also understands its necessity. He does not seek to destroy kitsch (like Kundera); he merely wishes to place kitsch in a new context, to put it in perspective. Many years separate the worlds of Nietzsche and Kundera, but the fundamental questions of their existential struggle seems to be the same: can one oppose kitsch and succeed, or survive?
Before delving into the possibility of opposing kitsch it is necessary to derive a clear working definition of kitsch. This definition relies heavily upon Kundera's vision of kitsch, and, therefore, any argument presented to demonstrate authentic opposition to kitsch pertains solely to the following definition.
Kitsch claims to speak to some absolute moral truth. It presents an ideal vision. All kitsch hinges upon what Kundera calls "the categorical agreement with being" (Kundera 248). Essentially this entails supporting the notion that human existence is justified and advantageous by appealing to God or his ideological equivalent. It is necessary for kitsch to blind its followers not only to shit but to death as well in order to promote this agreement with being. "Tereza's dream reveals the true function of kitsch: kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death" (Kundera 253). Kitsch teaches us to ascribe higher meanings to our lives beyond shit or death. Kitsch is, in one sense, a more generic term for Nietzsche's concept of morality. Even Nietzsche's own craft, philosophy, is not exempt from the powers of kitsch.
creates the world in its own image" (Beyond 16).
Philosophy, thus, is a movement toward kitsch of some sort.
Kitsch is fundamentally connected to Reason. For Nietzsche both are deeply rooted in denial. Reason inscribes everything within a common frame of reference and consequently avoids the here and now. Reason totalizes. It is a barrier to the present. It robs the individual of sensibility and responsibility. Abstract concepts, people, places become objectified and subject to a rational truth (Beyond 16). Reason lies to us; that is its purpose and "we are accustomed to lying" (Beyond 105). Reason creates knowledge and stability out of this falsification, and we use this false knowledge as a crutch. Reason assimilates good and evil and gives them meaning. Reason creates objective "truth". Nietzsche chides philosophers who continue the search for "the rational foundation for morality" (Beyond 98). The triumph of Reason ultimately signifies stagnation and the eventual the death of passion.
Nietzsche’s philosophy is a reaction against Reason. In Beyond Good and Evil he begins with the question "Supposing truth were a woman, what then?", because all supposed objective truths would be shaken if this one assertion were "true" (1). He declares that truth and morality are obsolete because they are reasonable. The stability and complacency that Reason brings is death to Nietzsche. Nietzsche sems to embrace raw sensibility instead. "All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence comes from the senses" (Beyond 88). However, such a sensual existence is also limited like Reason. Our senses also lie. They deny some part of reality that exists beyond the senses. Rather than revealing an objective reality, raw sensation constructs a reality of its own.
Ultimately, Nietzsche relies on his sense of passion to resist Reason. Passion exists in the flux of everyday, ever-changing human existence. Unlike Reason, passionate acts occur in the present; they are actively involved in the world. To Nietzsche passion represented a more authentic mode of relation. Passionate relations resist
dogma, they remain critical. Between individuals it is the supreme and most sublime form of communication possible. Passion seeks to look at the world as new each second.
Nietzsche restates this idea in his doctrine of the eternal return of the same. Live, Nietzsche says, live each moment of life authentically because you are doomed to repeat it for eternity. His doctrine is more involved with personal reflection and pain than practical scientific application. "The supreme experience of a life unusually rich in suffering, pain and agony" is only possible through eternal recurrence (Kaufmann 247). Nietzsche seems to understand, accept, and even revel in the return of joy as well as pain.
"Pain too is a joy...Have you ever said Yes to a
single joy?..then you said Yes, too, to all woe. All
things are entangled, ensnared, enamored. If you
ever wanted one thing twice, if you ever said 'You
please me happiness! Abide, moment!' then you wanted
back all. All anew, all eternally, all entangled,
ensnared, enamored...You higher men, do learn this,
joy wants eternity. joy wants the eternity of all
things, wants deep, wants deep eternity"
(Zarathustra Iv 19).
Eternal recurrence is both a terrifying and liberating experience. It requires an act of passion. It places one completely within the world, and rejects the otherworldliness of morality. Nietzsche wants to strip away moral pretenses constructed by Reason. What is supposedly "evil" brings passion to life. Thus "evil" is necessary in each person. "...the devil being the most ancient friend of wisdom" (Beyond 87). Nietzsche wants to embrace shit as part of who he is as a natural sensible. He wants a life beyond good and evil, beyond kitsch.
Kundera also expresses Nietzsche's metaphysical desire. He agrees wholeheartedly that it is the problem of shit and not the problem of evil that continues to plague Western religions (Kundera 246).
"Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case
don't lock yourself in the bathroom!) or we are
created in an unacceptable manner" (Kundera 248).
The novel is posited as a philosophical inquiry. He begins and ends the novel with a choice: lightness or weight? Eternal return is used to develop and delineate the
difference between the two.
"If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then
our lives can stand out against it in all their
splendid lightness" (Kundera 5).
The weight of eternal return is painful. worldly, authentic and fulfilling. Does kitsch have a place in such a discussion? Is kitsch light or heavy? Kitsch is otherworldly; its attention is focussed upon an external (often abstract) object or ideal. The vision of kitsch is limited; it imposes its own boundaries. Kitsch is dogmatic rather than critical. Must one succumb to kitsch of some sort to experience Kundera's unbearable lightness of being? Or can one exist above, beyond, outside of kitsch and remain unbearably light?
At this point, however, Kundera departs radically from a Nietzschean interpretation of Reason and its relationship to kitsch. Kundera claims that all kitsch springs from a categorical agreement with being. This agreement is essentially irrational because it denies shit.
"The objection to shit is a metaphysical
one...kitsch is the absolute denial of shit in both
the literal and figurative senses of the word;
kitsch excludes everything from its purview that is
essentially unacceptable" (Kundera 248).
Kundera critiques kitsch, claims it is ultimately flawed because it lacks a rational premise. He makes the fundamental assumption that Reason is superior. He privileges Reason above all other orders of the mind because it maintains its critical function. Reason is diagnostic and absolute. For all the postmodern dilemmas Kundera creates in the course of his novel, the work eventually falls back upon itself and returns (eternally?) to Kundera's modern core: an ultimate commitment to Reason.
Kitsch and Reason, however, are both forms of denial. They each deny some form of shit. Reason may be the ultimate form of kitsch because it fails to avoid the fundamental paradox of denial. Reason attempts to totalize infinity, to place limits on the limitless, to comprehend and objectify the incomprehensible. Simply in the act of naming, Reason has imposed artificial boundaries upon abstractions like the infinite. Kundera's failure to realize this paradox ultimately makes him a slave to the kitsch he seeks to transcend.
Nietzsche's words, however, are a call to action. He dares humanity to stand up and express its passion without fear. Passion is an act of courage. Nietzsche calls it the will to power. He also knows that humans are cowards, slaves to order, stability, and ideology of some sort (Beyond 104,5). "Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong" (Beyond 41). Yet he continues to ask people to live passionately. Be masters, Nietzsche says, do not follow the herd.
Kitsch is a barrier and a bridge between slaves and masters. All exist within a framework of kitsch. Being itself is inscribed. Only masters are aware of this, however. Slaves are dominated by kitsch, while masters project their passion outward through art or sex (perhaps sex as a form of art) hoping to move beyond kitsch. They express their will to power creatively hoping to relate passionately to someone or something. Art, aesthetic creativity, harnesses the most sublime and critical element of the will to power.
"Art and nothing but art! It is the great means of
making life possible, the great seduction to life,
Art is an exercise of power as well as a metaphysical experience. It will not let us forget that we are ultimately connected to the world of basic animal sensuality (Will 802,422). Art shapes perceptions; its vision creates an aesthetic model.
Masters must be artists. Their creations conjure up and dispel fleeting notions of beauty. Aesthetic standards are ultimately expressions of power. Each master/artist creates an aesthetic and ethical code. Each code is unique. The actions of masters based on these codes can result in kitsch. This kitsch could then dominate slaves (i.e. Christianity, Nazism). What was once an act of
spontaneous (supposedly subjective) creativity becomes static and absolute. These artists create ,whether intentional or not, new forms of shit. Such masters lose the critical impulse that powers creation. Their art ends in dogma, in denial, in lies.
"We have need of lies in order to conquer reality,
this "truth", that is in order to live...man must be
a liar by nature, he must above all be an artist.
And he is one: metaphysics, religion, morality,
science -all of them only products of his will to
art, to lie, to flight from "truth", to negation of
"truth" (Will 853 I,451-2).
Good and evil do not exist for the master.
"Jesus said to his Jews: 'The law is for servants
us sons of God?'" (Beyond 91).
Masters define the ethical as good or bad, guided by the pleasure and pain principle, a sort of spiritual hedonism. The code of every master has a common foundation, however: a desire for passionate relation and an acceptance of shit.
Could such people exist now or ever? Can such people oppose kitsch? Nietzsche and Kundera would say yes, provisionally. Nietzsche would add that only masters realize they are masters; slaves cannot identify them. How does one know whether one is a master or slave then? This is problematic. "Nietzsche's insight is based on experience" and not on rational conclusions, unfortunately (Kaufmann 180). Kundera would stipulate that the victory over kitsch is temporary, and, thus such people exist only at certain moments. The character Sabina embodies his conception of a master .
Sabina is marginally successful in her struggles against kitsch. She bases her life on a belief in the inherent necessity of privacy. "A man who loses privacy loses everything" (Kundera 113). She expresses through her art and her desire for betrayal. Betrayal is an act of passion and courage.
"Betrayal means breaking off and going into the
unknown. Sabina knew nothing more magnificent than
going off into the unknown" (Kundera 91).
Her art is ironically masked with a facade of kitsch (Kundera 254). Sabina's desire, however, is to live in the realm of non-kitsch. She embraces shit as an integral part of her person. In doing so, Sabina is able to deny kitsch, the denial of shit. Though Kundera does not believe Sabina can live outside the influence of kitsch, she does manage to defeat it momentarily. Perhaps kitsch is created, destroyed and recreated at every moment. If this is the case then all returns eternally to kitsch, with or without defeat.
Kundera understands the manipulative nature of kitsch when he claims, "Kitsch is an integral part of the human condition" (256). He legitimates the power of kitsch with this assumption and weakens or at least qualifies Sabina's resistance by claiming that kitsch cannot be escaped. Even Sabina's resistance begins to seem laughable for someday she too will die a meaningless death. Like Tomas, Tereza, and Franz all that will remain of Sabina is kitsch. Perhaps Kundera is correct when asserts, "Kitsch is a stopover between death and oblivion" (278).
While Kundera also understands that kitsch is inescapable, he fails to recognize its necessity. Nietzsche, however, does not want to escape from kitsch!
"Every profound spirit needs a mask: even
more, around every profound spirit a mask is
continually growing" (Beyond 51).
Kitsch is the mask. Kundera articulates this idea through Sabina, but he himself cannot separate the mask from his face. He attempts to strip away the mask of kitsch with Reason, not realizing that Reason itself is a mask; Reason itself is a form of kitsch. This conception of kitsch is both dogmatic and absolute. "On the surface an intelligible lie; underneath the unintelligible truth showing through" (Kundera 254). Kundera hopes that beyond the masks a reasonable face will remain.
Nietzsche articulates Sabina's problem of privacy. "One must know how to conserve one's self: the hardest test of independence" (Beyond 52). Kitsch, like Reason, is a tool, a means to an end. Sabina wants an existence that is unbearably light; she wants to be a master. Therefore she must paradoxically exercise complicity with kitsch on the surface in order to transcend it. In one sense, she must accept the "weight" of kitsch in order to experience the unbearable lightness of being. Nietzsche claims,
"Heavy, heavy spirited people become lighter
precisely through what makes others heavier, hatred
A master must use kitsch in order to exist beyond it. Nietzsche revels in this paradox.
Jonathan Swift, the eighteenth century author, aptly addresses the philosophical dilemma of shit as a recurring theme in his works. this preoccupation with shit became known as Swift's excremental vision of life. He was fascinated by the fact that the same organs used to express love and intimacy are also used to eliminate waste products. Swift constantly reexamined the concept of the vulgar and the sublime coexisting harmoniously (Brown 31). Sabina shares Swift's fascination with the irony of shit.
"She had a fantasy of Tomas setting her on the
toilet in her bowler hat and watching her void her
bowels" (Kundera 247).
She acknowledges shit as an integral and even erotic part of her existence. To Nietzsche, acceptance of Swift's supreme irony is necessary in order to transcend kitsch. Sabina must mask her shit, but embrace both mask and shit at the same time.
Nietzsche is caught in a paradox of his own making. He needs kitsch as a mask, but his philosophy must oppose it. Sabina's aesthetic and sexual expression is a cornerstone to this opposition. Kitsch serves a purpose to Nietzsche and to Kundera. Its purpose, however, does not promote its own survival. While Kundera traps himself in a cycle of rational inquiry, Nietzsche can only answer the question "can one oppose kitsch and succeed or survive?" indirectly, for Nietzsche must hide behind the guise of kitsch as well. Shit should not be ignored. It will not go away. Like it or not, it is an integral part of the human condition. The real challenge Nietzsche places before his readers is to accept shit as part of his philosophical answer.
Brown, Norman O. "The Excremental Vision". Life Against
Death. Wesleyan University Press, 1959. p.179-201.
Rpt in Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ernest
Tuveson, Ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc.,
1964. p. 31-54.
Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist,
Antichrist. New York: Meridian Books, 1956.
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New
York: Harper and Row Inc., 1984.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Walter Kaufmann
trans. New York: Random House Inc., 1989.
---. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Rpt. in The Portable
Nietzsche. Walter Kaufmann trans. New York: Viking
---. The Will to Power. Walter Kaufmann trans. and ed.