On the Coddling of Homophobic Assholes by Pretentious Literary Critics

17Jun08

In which The Gay Recluse compares and contrasts.  

Recently we stumbled across a review of The Curtain, Milan Kundera’s 2007 collection of essays about the art of the novel. We found the review notable 1) for its pretentious language and 2) for its failure to acknowledge what is really a rather shockingly homophobic passage in the book.

Let’s start with the notably pretentious literary review:

… And the curtain itself? As per the fugue-like structure of his essays, Kundera recurs to the idea of the ‘curtain of pre-interpretation‘ – “A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.” Here we have presented the elementary beginnings of the novel, its impulse towards demystification. It abolishes the sickly lyricism of the Romantic forms, the solipsism of lyric poetry, and turns its gaze on the world’s festival: “If I imagine the genesis of a novelist in the form of an exemplary tale, a ‘myth’, that genesis looks to me like a conversion story: Saul becoming Paul; the novelist being born from the ruins of his lyrical world.” Tearing the curtain means, among other things, breaching the valances of self-deception, the political lie, delusions about our place in the scheme of things, false consciousness; it means minting afresh our perceptions, besoming clean the lumber-room of our premade assumptions… The novelist is the arch-individualist, the inheritor of a tradition that will not overwhelm and absorb him; a refuser of the obsolescence of the efforts of his forebears (there is much still to learn from the example of Rabelais), one who makes it his business to ‘seek out the never-said’, to bring to bear on human experience articulate energies wrought to a fine pitch; an ironist and humourist in the old style… Cleanly translated by Linda Asher, The Curtainsorts well with the arguments of Kundera’s earlier essays – reads rather as a coda and reprise of them – and confirms him as still one of the most passionately convinced of the novel’s practitioners. 

“fugue-like structure of his essays…recurs to the idea…the sickly lyricism…the world’s festival!?” OMG! Barf. Zzzzzzz.

But whatever, we can appreciate pretentious language… but not when it obfuscates a rather important component of the book, which we addressed in our review of The Curtain last year:

We quickly absorbed this staggering piece of prose, in which Kundera explains how, after he discovered Proust in Czech translation as an adolescent (but without knowing anything about the French master), Albertine was “the most captivating of all female names” for him. Unfortunately, he goes on to tell us with something between an embarrassed cough and a sly wink, this bliss (one we readily admit to sharing) did not last: “I myself lost the privilege of that lovely ignorance, when I heard it said that Albertine was inspired by a man, a man Proust was in love with. But what are they talking about!… [O]nce I’d been told that her model was a man that useless information was lodged in my head… A male had slipped between me and Albertine, he was scrambling her image, undermining her femininity. One minute I would see her with pretty breasts, the next with a flat chest, and every now and then a mustache would appear on the delicate skin of her face.” Kundera thus concludes: “They killed my Albertine,” and Proust is thereafter relegated to less than a footnote in Kundera’s estimation of great novelists.

So yes, Kundera makes a very compelling case in this collection of essays that he’s a homophobic asshole.  Which is not a problem per se — every artist has faults, and we even enjoyed some of his novels (although it’s hilarious that he would think to criticize Proust about anything)  — but it’s emblematic of the state of literature in general that this kind of homophobic episode is brushed under the rug in pretentious literary reviews such as the above. We’re not saying it has to be front and center, but it’s irresponsible for a critic (whether gay/straight/whatever) not to at least acknowledge the point, e.g, “An accomplished novelist, Kundera has some interesting ideas about the novel, although it’s worth noting that in this collection of essays he embarrasses himself a few times by revealing himself to be a homophobic asshole.” Otherwise we might be inclined to think that the reviewer is also a homophobic asshole, or at least a very oblivious one.   

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14 Responses to “On the Coddling of Homophobic Assholes by Pretentious Literary Critics”

  1. 1 c.

    Sigh. At least *your* Oct 07 review was highly entertaining.

  2. Thanks, C. It’s definitely time to stop letting this stuff slide!

  3. 3 stephanie

    Do you really think that Kundera was expressing homophobia there?? I mean, he might have been a homophobe, I’m not exactly sure, but I don’t think that comes through in the situation conveyed there.

    Basically, he loved the name Albertine because it conjured an idealized, sexualized image of a beautiful woman. When he realized that the name was based on a man instead, his image was tainted because he did not find men attractive — he found women attractive! It was just incidental that Albert was Proust’s lover — he could have been his father, brother, or uncle. The point was, he was a man, and Kundera was attracted to women. Naturally, Kundera’s idealized imaginary picture of Albertine was ruined when he began to think of a man’s physique replacing hers.

    Where do you sense a negative commentary on Proust’s homosexuality? All I sense is Kundera’s image of Albertine, a glamourized sexual fantasy, being broken down by his sexual preference — the logical outcome.

    Clearly, Kundera’s insights on Proust in this passage are lacking, but I don’t recognize any expression of homophobia. The image of Proust’s male lover instead of beautiful, imaginary Albertine “killed” the mood for Kundera, and rightfully so, just as a man attracted to men might be disturbed by an image of their fantasy man’s naked twin sister.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Stephanie, but I think that your comment displays a heteronormative insensitivity that also quite frankly borders on homophobia, to wit: “his image was tainted…picture…was ruined” In short, you seem a little too eager to parrot the unthinking language that lands Kundera in hot water, at least as I see it.

    As you point out, the reference point of Albertine should be irrelevant within the context of fiction, and it shouldn’t really matter whether she was based on a man or a woman. I find it completely ridiculous that Kundera all of a sudden demotes Proust because he learns that Albertine was based on a man.

    Ok, I can admit that I would be a little perplexed to learn that say, the character Malone from Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer from the Dance” was based on a woman, but in no way would it lead me to demote the work as a masterful piece of fiction, or even destroy my image of Malone, who is a gay fictional character. I will always love and admire him no matter what, and even if you told me that I should visualize his “naked twin sister” I wouldn’t be disturbed because that’s not what’s in the book.

    So yeah, the fact that Kundera — a novelist! — cannot do the same to me smacks of homophobia and small-mindedness. While such views are hardly unknown in the realm of artists and writers, it’s unforgivable to me in the context of a book of literary criticism.

    Oh and your incest analogy is completely fucked up. Srsly. Wtf does a twin sister have to do with anything in this context?

  5. 5 stephanie

    I just can’t understand how that’s homophobic! I’ve read a lot of Kundera, and he can definitely be a bit… well… sexually crude and strange. But how does his rejection of Proust’s character display any homophobia? If anything, it displays a bizarre quirkiness on his part — an honest confession that the character, though originally enchanting, no longer provokes him.

    But in no way did Kundera intend to debunk Proust’s value! Kundera was influenced a LOT by Proust, and respected him enormously. The stupid reviewer that you excerpted here writes,
    “Proust is thereafter relegated to less than a footnote in Kundera’s estimation of great novelists.” That is just ridiculous.

    If you’ve read anything by Kundera, you’d know that he truly respected Proust. Maybe you should consider another passage from Kundera’s rant on Albertine as published in the Curtain (quoted in a review by Three Monkeys, another blog):

    “No matter who inspired her, man or woman, Albertine is Albertine, and that’s that! A novel is the product of an alchemy that turns a woman into a man, a man into a woman, sludge into gold, an anecdote into drama! That divine alchemy is what makes for the power of every novelist, the secret, the splendor of his art!”

    Do you see now that the reviewer in your entry is just as you said originally — utterly wrong? In his discussion of Kundera’s views of Albertine, he entirely cut out a very poetic and insightful passage on Kundera’s perception of Proust’s genius. How ridiculous for him to think that Albertine ruined Proust for Kundera! Albertine was merely an annoyance for Kundera, just like Anna Karenina’s “too soon” death in Tolstoy’s novel was an annoyance for Kundera — and we all know how much Kundera loves Tolstoy. Maybe you’re not aware, but authors tend to criticize and praise each other interchangably.

    I’m willing to give you credit for thinking that this critic is pretentious and stupid, but I will not let your other comments slide. First of all, you are accusing me of “heteronormative insensitivty bordering on homophobia” because I said that Kundera’s image of female Albertine was tainted by the thought of a male physique? How can you seriously (oh wait, i mean “srsly”) think that this has ANYTHING to do with homophobia?? When did I even mention any homosexuals? I merely said that Kundera, as a HETEROSEXUAL man attracted to women, was bothered by the image of a naked man replacing his idealized, female Albertine. Kundera was NOT interested in picturing a naked man, and I recognize that. Please explain HOW that is even remotely homophobic?

    I’d venture to say that if Proust had not been gay, you would have thought nothing of Kundera’s little rant. You would have simply recognized it as an author’s inconsequential rant on another author’s character.

    Bottom line, Albertine did NOT ruin Kundera’s perception of Proust, as you saw in the passage I excerpted here. Let’s both agree — that critic sucks. I’m sorry you got misled by him, really.

    And for your information, the “twin sister” reference was not supposed to invoke incest. It was supposed to parallel the split character of Albertine in Kundera’s mind — simultaneously man and woman in the same idealized shell. Twin. Double. Doppelganger. Get it?

  6. Ok, Stephanie. I agree that the critic sucks, but how exactly was I misled by him? I honestly have no idea what he’s talking about! What I do know is that I’ve read (and enjoyed) quite a few Kundera novels, so I was frankly dismayed to read his passage in The Curtain in which he concludes that “They killed my Albertine,” alluding to the historical idea that Proust’s character was based on a man. It is also true that after this passage, Proust is never again mentioned in Kundera’s pantheon of great novelists.

    This passage reflects a fear of same-sex relationships, aka homophobia. It’s that simple. Kundera’s fear of same-sex relationships ruined the character for him — he’s very explicit about this — ergo, he’s homophobic. It doesn’t mean that he’s a horrible person or a bad writer, but in this passage in this book, he exposes himself, much the way you did when you used language like “taint” and “ruin” to describe the effect of a man replacing a woman in a man’s sexual fantasy. The fact that he has other passages where he seems to say the opposite is not really mitigating, and certainly doesn’t speak to any kind of cohesive strength (which makes sense, given that The Curtain felt very “dashed off”).

    Or try this on for size: what if Kundera had same the same thing about Albertine after learning that the historical figure upon which she was based was black:

    “I myself lost the privilege of that lovely ignorance, when I heard it said that Albertine was inspired by an African woman, a woman Proust was in love with. But what are they talking about!… [O]nce I’d been told that her model was a black woman that useless information was lodged in my head… A black female had slipped between me and Albertine, and was scrambling her image, undermining her purity. One minute I would see her with pretty white breasts, the next with a dark chest, and every now and then a dark stain would appear on the delicate skin of her face.”

    It’s not really that different, and just as this passage would expose him as a racist, the actual passage does the same in terms of his homophobia.

    If Kundera were a progressive and empathetic thinker, he would have said: when I learned Albertine was based on a man, it increased my admiration for Proust’s novelistic powers and also saddened me to think of the historical reality that forced such a great novelist to change the gender of his characters as a result of small-minded bigotry and the pressure of social norms, most of which sadly continue to this day.

    It makes me laugh that you seem to be affiliated with an institution known for being progressive. (YIkes…I hope you’re not a professor!)

  7. 7 stephanie

    Don’t bring Wesleyan into this. In fact, you seem to be someone who would fit in very well at Wesleyan — someone who is clearly very smart but also hypersensitive about certain issues.

    You make a compelling point about turning Albertine into a black woman, but I don’t buy it. Race and sexuality cannot be interchanged like that. If Kundera had said that about a black woman, then yes — he would have been exposing himself as a racist. But the same does not apply for homophobia. You said that Kundera showed a clear “fear of same-sex relationships” — and why shouldn’t he — as long as he did so personally? As a heterosexual man, it’s only natural that he’d be repelled by sexual thoughts of a man — why can’t you see this? If he had made a negative comment about anyone else’s same-sex relationships, THAT would expose his homophobia. But his personal rejection of a same-sex relationship is called HETEROSEXUALITY.

    Just as it’s bothersome that Kundera might have thought less of Proust because of Albertine, it’s sad to think that you might think less of Kundera, who you clearly have enjoyed in the past, just because you think he expressed homophobia in this one instance. So I hope you still continue to love his crazy philosophical rants, because they are worth it. I mean it.

    But I’m sorry you don’t have enough compelling material for your blog and that you need to fill it with “the wrath of Stephanie”, although I’m also honored that I got a whole entry about me. Hey, it’s even tagged with “drivel” and “stereotypes” — everyone’s favorite. Oh, and Milan Kundera is Czech, not Hungarian, so maybe you should change your tag that says “Writers – Hungarian”.

  8. Stephanie — I totally get where you’re coming from, but I don’t agree! Here’s the difference between me and Milan K (and you): I am not “repelled” by thoughts of a man and woman in a sexual relationship, it’s something I accept and even embrace; it’s just a difference. In short, my homosexuality doesn’t require a negative view — i.e. a “rejection” — of heterosexuality, except in the most literal sense; but as readers of fiction, my expectation is that we can talk respectively about this difference as it exists in the abstracted world of image and metaphor, not the literal reality of having someone in my bed; I know that I can, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the same respect in return. But clearly I’m not going to get it from you (or Milan K).

    I don’t hate Kundera, but my opinion of him has certainly been altered by his homophobic passage and I would probably read his fiction with a different eye than I would have fifteen years ago. I see him as something of a product of the post-war dark ages of homosexuality in which he came of age, so I tend to devalue him in much the same way I do a lot of other authors I once adored but who I now just sort of like (Pynchon comes to mind), who clearly have never felt comfortable broaching what is inarguably one of the most compelling narratives in modern literature (see Proust).

    Oh and thanks for the scold: I will make the corrections on the Czech tag (I was working on a Nadas post at the time; hence the honest mistake.) Nadas btw is someone who I respect 1,000,000 times more than Kundera, and I don’t have any idea who he based his characters on, and I wouldn’t care if they were all straight. If you haven’t read “A Book of Memories,” I suggest you give it a try.

  9. 9 stephanie

    That’s funny – I actually just heard of Nadas the other day. I’ll check him out.

    I get where you’re coming from as well. Just realize that not everyone is as sexually accepting as you, and that does not necessarily make them homophobic. I won’t take back the word “repel” because I think that lots of people are “repelled” by the thought of the sex they are not attracted to — and that does not imply homophobia – just natural preference.

    By the way, what do you think of Kundera’s crazy eulogy of the asshole? Mostly it comes up in Slowness. Pretty eccentric.

  10. 10 stephanie

    (think less about the “coddling of homophobic assholes” and more about Kundera’s own coddling of actual assholes!)

  11. Got it, Stephanie. I haven’t read Kundera’s eulogy of the asshole, but my dime-store analysis — based on a rather intimate knowledge of classic closet-casedness, i.e., my own — is that like many people (even, or especially, straight/macho ones) he’s perhaps a little more interested in same-sex relationships than he ever cared to let on. Because let’s be blunt: assholes are a pretty big element in gay male sex, and also a source of discomfort for the uninitiated, judgmental and repressed. Although I’m not a fan of the word “bisexual,” I think most people do fall onto a continuum, and for many (especially eccentric, free-thinking ones) who never experienced the full range, I think it’s often a source of wonder and regret.

  12. 12 stephanie

    yup, i’d agree with that. anyway, read it sometime.

  13. 13 inchoative

    Not meaning to fan these flames any longer, but I wanted to chime in as another gay man who is not “repelled” by thoughts of heterosexual sex. In #7 Stephanie’s conflation of a “personal rejection of a same-sex relationship” as “HETEROSEXUALITY” is somewhat ridiculous seeming, except somewhat ironically, as gay recluse hints, in the context of someone who “doth protest too much.” I mean, really, do any couple’s marriage vows state “I promise to uphold heterosexuality, and personally reject any same-sex relationships”? They’ve invented the word heteronormative for a reason, folks: the overall social ‘construction’ of heterosexuality, beyond the semantic limits of the word, is much more centered around procreation, marriage, etc. than having anything to do with being a reaction or rejection of homosexuality! Therefore I find this even more confounding than if someone said “left is the rejection of right” or “up is the rejection of down”. Does homosexuality therefore equal a “personal rejection of a different-sex relationship?” Do I refuse to speak to my brother’s wife because I personally reject different-sex relationships? Have I made my point by now? And if anything was always obvious to the knowing, and should be obvious to everyone else by now, it is that those that scream the loudest have the most to hide!
    I don’t know if Kundera is screaming here, but I don’t really care. Because, to me, the far bigger issue is that I would be hesitant to trust any of of Kundera’s critical stances based on such a flimsy argument as the one he presents about Albertine. In my opinion, to fully experience the “fictive dream”, one must have a certain degree of impartiality about what was going on in the author’s mind; this is part of the whole suspension of disbelief required with any fictional work. If Proust made Albertine a woman, he should recognize that the world Proust created is fictional and go on enjoying the woman Proust created! Stephanie helpfully points out in #5 that Kundera understood this to some degree, but if he really did, WHY bother even saying that Albertine had been ruined for him? That is really the crux of the issue: it’s as though he knows it’s a poor argument both about the character and the novelist, but is compelled to present it nevertheless. I’m reminded of another central European intellectual, John Lukacs, whose “Confessions of an Original Sinner” was one of my favorite “erudite” books. I disagree with him sometimes, but never thought him to be intellectually duplicitous or contradictory – or when he is, he acknowledges that there could be an element of contradiction. But that book is posited as an “intellectual auto-history”, whereas Kundera is purportedly addressing the “art of the novel” (GR’s phrase, but accurate I’m sure) as a cultural critic. So if there was a diminution of his opinion of Proust based on the Albertine revelation – and I think the evidence supports that in spite of the one passage about novels being a “product of an alchemy” – I think that is being unfair to Proust. GR’s comparison to race is, in the case, absolutely spot-on and highly illustrative.
    The fact of the matter is there ARE homophobic intellectuals, plenty of them, particularly of MK’s era. Now, I would say, somewhat in defense of Stephanie’s side, I think this is probably a very minor example of intellectual homophobia, if at all. While I think his premise has an overall _intellectual problem_ in a tome about the art of the novel, it could be as “innocent” as Milan having a _personal problem_ with ANYTHING about Albertine being different from how she was described. It is easy to imagine a reader, particularly with the scopic sensibilities of men, imagining a tall blond based on a novelist’s license and later being disappointed to find the inspiration for the character was really short, brunette and fat. Fine. (Again though, do we think MK would have shared THAT glimpse into his mind’s eye? I rather doubt it) So without knowing more about MK I cannot say more on the matter. This, at least, is nothing like homosexuals being explicitly singled out as, oh, whatever, a social threat, ethically bankrupt, artistically dishonest, etc. etc. as a small minority of prominent intellectuals have. IIRC Paul Theroux has made some homophobic statements, has he not? And who was the former sociology professor who died in Philadelphia a couple years ago, who was working on a massive tome that among other things, indicted gays for causing various social ills? Oh yea, google to rescue, it was Philip Rieff of course.

  14. Thanks for the support Inchoative! I am not about to disagree with anything you’re saying here, and certainly appreciate a breadth of critical knowledge that seems to extend far beyond my own…


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