In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera gives an excellent explanation of the tragic aesthetic-ethical-political ramifications of having an analogical view of the world, seeing the world as either continuous meaning or continuous nihilism, in his discussion of the different forms of laughter, demonic and angelic, in “Part 3 – The Angels, Chapter 4 (On Two Kinds of Laughter)”, which simply must be quoted at length to be fully understood:
To see the devil as a partisan of Evil and an angel as a warrior on the side of Good is to accept the demagogy of the angels. Things are of course more complicated than that.
Angels are partisans not of Good but of divine creation. The devil, on the other hand, is the one who refuses to grant any rational meaning to that divinely created world.
Dominion over the world, as we know, is divided between angels and devils. The good of the world, however, implies not that the angels have the advantage over the devils . . . but that the powers of the two sides are nearly in equilibrium. If there were too much incontestable meaning in the world (the angels’ power), man would succumb under its weight. If the world were to lose all its meaning (the devils’ reign), we could not live either.
Things deprived suddenly of their supposed meaning, of the place assigned to them in the so-called order of things . . ., make us laugh. In origin, laughter is thus of the devil’s domain. It has something malicious about it (things suddenly turning out different from what they pretended to be), but to some extent also a beneficent relief (things are less weighty than they appeared to be, letting us live more freely, no longer oppressing us with their austere seriousness).
The first time an angel heard the devil’s laughter, he was dumbfounded. That happened at a feast in a crowded room, where the devil’s laughter, which is terribly contagious, spread from one person to another. The angel clearly understood that such laughter was directed against God and against the dignity of his works. He knew that he must react swiftly somehow, but felt weak and defenseless. Unable to come up with anything of his own, he aped his adversary. Opening his mouth, he emitted broken, spasmodic sounds in the higher reaches of his vocal range . . . , but giving them an opposite meaning: whereas the devil’s laughter denoted the absurdity of things, the angel on the contrary meant to rejoice over how well ordered, wisely conceived, good, and meaningful everything here below was.
Thus the angel and the devil faced each other and, mouths wide open, emitted nearly the same sounds, but each one’s noise expressed the absolute opposite of the other’s. And seeing the angel laugh, the devil laughed all the more, all the harder, and all the more blatantly, because the laughing angel was infinitely comical.
Laughable laughter is disastrous. Even so, the angels have gained something from it. They have tricked us with a semantic imposture. Their imitation of laughter and (the devil’s) original laughter are both called by the same name. Nowadays we don’t even realize that the same external display serves two absolutely opposed internal attitudes. There are two laughters, and we have no word to tell one from the other (85-87).
Refer to “angel” as “Apollo” and “devil” as “Dionysus,” and one can see (if one did not already see) the connection between this idea and Nietzsche’s idea of physis being an agonal combination of Apollonian form and Dionysian formlessness. To be more accurate, the angelic are those who give preference to the Apollonian, neglecting the Dionysian, while the demonic are those who give preference to the Dionysian at the expense of the Apollonian. Each is trying to create an analogical world – the angels are trying to create a world of pure, featureless meaning, while the demons are trying to create a world of pure, featureless nihilism. Please note Kundera speaks of angels and the devil – not of God. A careful study of the Hebrew of Job shows that God and the adversary are referred to as being the same (God actually inquirers of himself about why Job loves Him). Perhaps, then, God is both Apollonian and Dionysian – physis, or Heraclitus’ logos, which is nomos as physis, the two mapped on each other without nomos extending itself beyond physis (In the beginning was the Logos – John 1:1).
In Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, Eagleton has a chapter titled “Demons,” where he discusses Kundera’s idea of the demonic. Eagleton is a Marxist, which should put him on the side of the Marxist ethical-analogical Angels, but we find him criticizing the left’s “revolt against . . . brutal hierarchies by keeling spectacularly over into nihilism. The liberal belief in the sympathetic self, pressed too far, becomes an ‘Oriental’ scepticism of the very concept of selfhood. Leveling of this kind . . . is akin to what Milan Kundera calls the demonic” (198). We again hear echos of the Dionysian in Eagleton’s reference to the ‘Oriental,’ since Dionysus came to Greece from the East. “The demonic, or annihilating desire, is indifferent to the sensuous particular, which it seizes upon only to hollow out and surge on to the next” (247) – which one can see in Nietszche’s Twilight of the Idols, or, Doing Philosophy With a Hammer, – doing philosophy with a tuning fork, showing the hollowness of received ideas. But one does not leave the world hollowed-out. The Dionysian is only half of physis – or, if we accept that the Apollonian is itself divided up as we divided it up in chapter 2, the Dionysian is only the lowest fourth of physis.
Echoing Kundera, Eagleton points out that, “revolted by the over-stuffed meaning of the angelic, the demonic keels over into nihilism, leveling all values to an amorphous shit” (261). If the angels go too far with meaning, creating a shitless world of kitsch (which Kundera discusses at length in both The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Art of the Novel), the demons go too far in insisting that everything is nothing but shit.
In much of his fiction, Milan Kundera sees the angelic as a bland, ‘shitless’ discourse of wide-eyed idealism and high-sounding sentiment. The angelic is full of moralistic rhetoric and edifying kitsch, allergic to doubt or irony. The angelic for Kundera are those who troop merrily forward into the future shouting ‘Long live life!’, all grins and cheers, beaming and cart-wheeling. (Eagleton, 258)
The angels are, for Kundera, those who would create utopia – the Communists in particular. “Throughout the world the angels had occupied all positions of authority, all the general staffs, had taken over the left and the right, the Arabs and the Jews, and Russian generals and the Russian dissidents” (Kundera, BLF, 99-100), whose “hygienic disavowal of the unacceptable,” things that are “negative, ironic, debunking or unhygienic” (Schmidt, 259), lead directly to the gulag, especially among those who have within them a bit of demonic laughter, meaning those who wish to be in the world as a child playing. For the angelic, meaning is everywhere, in every thing. Eagleton points out that
Kundera also sees the angelic as a sphere in which there is too much meaning rather than too little. The kingdom of the angels is one in which everything is instantly, oppressively meaningful, in which no shadow of ambiguity can be tolerated. It is the up-beat world of official ideology, in which language comes to assume an authoritarian over-ripeness and everything is drearily legible and transparent. Kundera is thinking here mostly of the neo-Stalinism with which he grew up. Yet this world in which everything is glaringly on view, flattened and two-dimensional, is also one awash with rumour and innuendo, tell-tale traces, whispered treacheries. Nothing is ever quite what it appears to be, and calls for a constant labour of decipherment. (259)
The overly-angelic, by being overly ethical and thus purely analogical, manages to turn itself into the demonic. This is why angelic laughter is indistinguishable from demonic laughter.
In life, as in art, one can have so much fine detail that what you end up with is seeing nothing. It is this nothing that the demonic is about: “If the angelic is too solemn about meaning, the demonic is too cynical” (Eagleton, 259). We can see this historically if we accept Kundera’s premise that the Communists were angelic, and Eagleton’s premise in the chapter on Demons that the Nazis were demonic, insofar as both were utopian and socialistic, albeit one international, the other national, and in Eagleton’s suggestion that the capitalist United States is angelic (I do think Eagleton is overstating things more than a bit here, but I would agree to include most conservative culture critics, such as former New York mayor Giuliani, in this category), and the postmodernists/poststructuralists (including most leftist/avant garde artists and critics – the demonic is about seeing the world as shit, and much postmodern art reflects this view) are demonic, while both encourage rapid change. Both sides, the angelic and the demonic, are far too serious for the playful, novelistic Kundera. Not everything can have meaning – we cannot remember everything. Nor does nothing have meaning – we cannot (and should not) constantly forget everything. We have to forget the small things so we can remember those things that should have meaning for it. In order to have any meaning at all, not everything can have meaning.
If meaning is found everywhere, in every little thing, then the very word “meaning” itself loses meaning – the overly angelic leads us once again into the demonic. An analog world is featureless. But “things are more complicated than that.” And works of art and literature should be. To be able to see the details in something, there has to be space between the details, between the objects, for there to be any kind of individuality at all. To have Apollonian individuality (the “something” in Heidegger’s question in Introduction to Metaphysics, or the digital world I have been discussing), one has to simultaneously agonally have the Dionysian, or “nothing,” allowing things to be separated out, to dissolve into and emerge out of. This continuous flux, between meaning and meaninglessness, nonetheless allows us to keep laughing, since things we thought were meaningful can still turn out to be meaningless (this is demonic laughter), while at the same time, we can take apparently meaningless things or experiences, and fill them with meaning (bringing us angelic laughter). The former is what we get with comedy – the latter is what we get with satire. Of course, what brings laughter to some can be tragic for others – especially if something once considered extremely valuable and meaningful turns out to have no value or meaning whatsoever. It very much depends on your attitude toward the Apollonian element of physis, whether or not you are one of the angelic (where dissolving any of Apollonian physis into the Dionysian is tragic), or, instead, of a more novelistic, playful mindset (Kundera himself provides an example of this world view), where the Appolonian dissolves into and emerges from the Dionysian in tragic-comic art, such as the novel.
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera investigates the tragic situation created by those who take the most extreme sides regarding the “true nature” of physis, the angelic and the demonic, further expanding on this idea first formulated by Nietzsche. Kundera, being a novelist, does not come to any sort of “conclusion” regarding the tragic nature of physis and our relations with it any more than Nietzsche had – he instead, and in Nietzsche’s spirit, only deepened the discussion in ways exemplified by his characters and the fictional and historical situations he develops. The Dionysian is problematized as much as is the Apollonian. The angelic may impose meaning on too many things, but Kundera’s complaints in his novel about the perpetual presence of music wherever one goes – when shopping, eating out, etc. – show that the Dionysian is also beginning to make itself felt a little too strongly. We remain under the constant and more immediate threat of dissolution into the Dionysian – and this can be just as dangerous (as Eagleton points out with the Nazi’s insistence on the exclusively Dionysian) as perpetually insisting on the Apollonian – of insisting that the world is exclusively analog. These are the ramifications of the old view of “universalism,” a view I oppose on the grounds that it is not an accurate view of the world, and that it was never really properly universal in the first place – since not everyone in the world should act like Europeans of the Modern Era.
The universal is contained in the particular just as the particular is contained in the universal. We are all human beings but the fact of our being human does not manifest itself in its abstraction but in the particularity of real living human beings of different climes and races. We can talk of the human capacity for languages but that capacity manifests itself in real concrete languages as spoken by different peoples of the earth. In other words, we realise language as a universal human phenomenon not in its abstract universality but in its particularity as the different languages of the earth. (Ngg Wa Thiong’o, 26)
If we are going to adopt a universalism, it should be something more like a natural classicism, founded in what is universal in every culture, past and present.