WORDS

27 Mar

YoungKundera

Through Vivant Denon’s lifetime, probably only a small group of intimates knew he was the author of Point de lendemain; and the mystery was put to rest, for everyone and (probably) definitely, only a very long time after his death. The work’s own history thus bears an odd resemblance to the story it tells: it was veiled by the penumbra of secrecy, of discretion, of mystification, of anonymity.

Engraver, draftsman, diplomat, traveler, art connoisseur, sorcerer of the salons, a man with a remarkable career, Denon never laid claim to artistic ownership of the novella. Not that he rejected fame, but fame meant something different in his time; I imagine the audience that he cared about, that he hoped to beguile, was not the mass of strangers today’s writer covets but the little company of people he might know personally and respect. The pleasure he derived from success among his readers was not very different from the sort he might experience among the few listeners gathered around him in a salon where he was scintillating.

There was one kind of fame from before the invention of photography, and another thereafter. The Czech king Wenceslaus, in the fourteenth century, liked to visit the Prague inns and chat incognito with the common folk. He had power, fame, liberty. Prince Charles of Britain has no power, no freedom but enormous fame: neither in the virgin forest nor in his bathtub hidden away in a bunker seventeen storeys underground can he escape the eyes that pursue and recognize him. Fame has devoured all his liberty, and now he knows: that only totally unconscious people could willingly consent these days to trail the pots and pans of celebrity along behind them.

You say that, though the nature of fame changes, this still concerns only a few privileged persons. You’re mistaken. For fame concerns not only the famous people, it concerns everyone. These days, famous people are in magazines, on television screens, they invade everyone’s imagination. And everyone considers the possibility, be it only in dreams, of becoming the object of such fame (not the fame of King Wenceslaus who went visiting taverns but the fame of Prince Charles hidden away in his bathtub seventeen storeys underground). The possibility shadows every single person and changes the nature of his life; for (and this is another well-known axiom of existential mathematics) any new possibility that existence acquires, even the least likely, transforms everything about existence.

Milan Kundera
Slowness, 1995

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