Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I wonder who first discovered the existential significance of bureaucracy - Kundera on Stifter

A little fragment of Indian Summer has acquired its own life.  These are fragments of Milan Kundera in his fragmentary essay The Curtain (2005), in a section title “Bureaucracy According to Stifter”:

I wonder who first discovered the existential significance of bureaucracy.  Probably Adalbert Stifter…  he is the key writer of the Central Europe of the nineteenth century, the pure flower of that era and its idyllic, virtuous mentality that we call Biedermeier!  (130-1)

After a brief summary of Indian Summer Kundera looks at a single long paragraph (six pages in the English edition, pp. 397-403) near the end of Indian Summer, what turns out to be the beginning of the host’s recounting of his early life and his purpose in creating the Rose House.  “[A]s far as I know it is the first (and a masterly) phenomenological description of bureaucracy” writes Kundera (131).

The host is a Baron, ennobled because of his service to the state during and after the Napoleonic Wars (which are of course not named).  His function is vague, but he was clearly superb at it, earning wealth, a title, and the friendship of the Emperor.  Yet he describes himself as a bad civil servant, a sufferer from a proto-Marxist white collar alienation from his labor, for whom “[d]oing something just because it was prescribed to satisfy some rule or complete some organizational plan was irritating, even painful” (398).  The Baron describes his character, his “urge to create tangible things,” and his childhood love of “plants blossoming” and “watch[ing] the shore ice forming” (400-1).

I would call this the creative urge.  It is more or less present in many people.  (400)

Yet the Baron does not attack the state bureaucracy.  He refuses to suggest reforms: “I wouldn’t presume to even offer one” (399).  His eventual resignation from state service to create the Rose House is entirely personal and temperamental – “My inclinations required forms, they revolved around forms” (401).  And just as the Baron will help Heinrich avoid the destructive passions of youth, he will also keep the young man from mistaking his vocation.

The co-plot with Heinrich’s father ends with the father’s retirement from business, what Heinrich described as his “sacrifice,” in order to build his own Rose House-inspired estate.  The young couple will move between all of the idyllic, art-packed homes of the relatives who suffered in order, it turns out, to allow Heinrich and his bride to reach their highest ethical and aesthetic potential.  They will presumably do the same for their descendants, down through the ages.  The narrator’s final words: “[E]verything…  has now gained significantly in clarity, solidity, and importance” (479).

As happens so often with this novel, I was left not with a sense of calm but rather greater unease.

“His [the Baron’s] break with bureaucracy is one of the memorable breaks of mankind from the modern world,” Kundera concludes (133).  Indian Summer was published in the same year as Charles’ Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal.  The modern world has arrived! Just in time to break with it.


  1. I remember that passage in Kundera' book and that it piqued my interest in Indian Summer. But your short analyses have been equally stimulating, and funny.

  2. A reader of Kundera could be tricked, I think, into assuming that the ideas about bureaucracy are more important to Stifter's novel than is really the case. It really is all in a single (long) paragraph.

    But if I combine that passage with the ideas about the father's business work and a number of other passages about artistic vocations, I begin to see how crucial the passage is to Stifter's argument. He put it all in one place because he wanted to concentrate it - maybe to allow people to excerpt it.

    Way back in 1774, Goethe has young Werther struggle with state service, too. Goethe is always ahead. Perhaps I will glance at that idea tomorrow.

    Kundera is absolutely right that readers interested in Central European literature - Kafka on out - should at least know that Indian Summer and this aspect of it exist.

    1. Tom, don't worry, Kundera makes it absolutely clear that the theme of bureaucracy is bound to a single paragraph, he doesn't fool the reader about the famous tediousness of the novel.

  3. You are right about that - "this old Austrian writer whom I initially found rather uncongenial, with his overlong passages, his didacticism, his moralism, his chasteness" (131).

    The chasteness, for example, give the novel an uncanny sheen at times. Who are these sexless weirdos?

    Boy, this Kundera book is frustrating, I say as I leaf through it. I should read Gombrowicz, I should read Cioran, I should read Bouvard and Pecuchet, etc. etc.

    1. I've been using Kundera's books as guides to new books for some years now, and the rewards have been many.