Reframing the War on Terror with Milan Kundera
Add my voice to the chorus of people who think it’s time to reframe “The War on Terror.”
Its current frame has been problematic from the start. How do you fight a tactic? Why not just a war on al-Qaeda? But we called it “The War on Terror” and it’s partly why we are where we are. The War on al-Qaeda wouldn’t have led us into Iraq.
I know: old topic. But I started thinking about it again while reading, of all things, Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, particularly “Part Two: Die Weltliteratur,” in which the author makes an impassioned plea for world literature — for literature studied in the large context (aesthetically, as part of one world literature) rather than in the small context (geographically, as part of one’s country’s literature).
The main reason literature isn’t studied aesthetically, according to Kundera, is provincialism, which he defines as “...the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context.”
He then gives us two kinds of provincialism: that of large nations and that of small nations.
Large nations feel their literature is rich enough and central enough that they needn’t bother with literature from other, smaller countries.
Small nations feel the opposite. They are overwhelmed by world literature. Kundera writes that they see it as “something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature. The small nation inculcates in its writer the conviction that he belongs to that place alone. To set his gaze beyond the boundary of the homeland, to join his colleagues in the supranational territory of art, is considered pretentious, disdainful of his own people.”
Like all good definitions, Kundera’s definitions resonate beyond the borders of his immediate discussion. The provincialism of large nations, for example, is reminiscent of the provincialism of major cities like New York. A friend of mine, a Seattleite, once visited her sister in Manhattan and the sister brought up a popular film seen all over the country and asked, “Do you get that where you are?” Where you are. Because we don’t know and don’t need to know. It’s the attitude Saul Steinberg lampooned in his famous New Yorker cover — in which 9th and 10th Avenues predominate and the rest of the country is merely a truncated square, with dots for Texas and Chicago.
The provincialism of small nations, meanwhile, reminds me of Minneapolis, where I grew up, and where any artist who builds a following in the smaller context of the Twin Cities and then dares to succeed in the larger context of the nation is immediately set upon by locals as a sell-out. You belong to us. To think you belong “out there” is pretentious. Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning former City Pages columnist, is the latest to experience this phenomenon.
But more than anything, Kundera’s talk of provincialism reminded me, even reframed for me, The War on Terror.
Al-Qaeda demonstrates the provincialism of small nations. They may not see western culture as “an ideal reality” but it’s definitely an alien sky that covers all, and so they’ve declared war on it. They are as likely to win this war as they would a war against the sky.
The U.S., unfortunately, keeps helping by demonstrating the provincialism of large nations. Kundera writes that artists in such nations “need take no interest in what people write elsewhere,” and that’s the U.S. attitude since 9/11. Hell, the attacks made us more provincial. The U.N.? The Geneva Conventions? We invaded the wrong country and most of the U.S. was fine with it. Once Baghdad fell, we filled important positions with functionaries who had no Mid-East background, who spoke no Arabic. Doesn’t everyone want state-owned enterprises privatized under foreign occupation? Don’t they want their constitution written under foreign occupation?
Isn’t this going to be easy?
The War on Terror, in other words, is simply a battle between two provincial groups who refuse to see their culture in the large context; who refuse to see themselves as part of the world.
At one point in The Curtain, Kundera takes great, almost humorous exception to a French honor panel’s list of the 100 greatest works in French literature — De Gaulle’s War Memories ahead of Rabelais and Flaubert? — and scolds the honor panel thus: “France is not merely the land where the French live, it is also the country other people watch and draw inspiration from.”
As are we. Something to keep in mind anyway as we head towards November.