The role of the novelist in liberal democracies: The works of Milan Kundera

Paul Isaac Howard, Fordham University


This dissertation aims to make a contribution to political theory by examining the role novelists can play in educating citizens about the fundamental political problems and possibilities open to human beings in modern liberal societies. It argues that political theorists can use novels to better understand the “life-world” in which political actors and citizens formulate their self-understandings, and thereby articulate how liberal institutions interact with civil society over time. The dissertation examines three novels by Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality) and two collections of Kundera's essays (The Art of the Novel, and Testaments Betrayed). It begins by placing Kundera in the context of Communist dissidence, showing linkages and differences with fellow dissidents such as Vaclav Havel. Kundera follows Havel in chastening liberals to return attention to the “life-world”, i.e. to the realm of pre-scientific human values that he believes have been neglected by Cartesian science and mass consumer society. Kundera and Havel both believe that totalitarian societies and modern liberal societies share similar problematic features, as reflected in their mutual dependence on mass bureaucratic political structures and technology. Nonetheless, Kundera parts company with Havel insofar as he shows that modernity is not simply reducible to its Cartesian roots, but must be analyzed in light of the aesthetic and political evolution of Western citizens as “children of the novel.” Kundera argues that liberal institutions take as their ground novelistic culture; these institutions therefore have to be understood as the fruit of an insight into the nature of the life-world that articulates liberal institutions as best suited to the development of that culture. In short, Kundera works develop the theme that modern mass liberal societies tend to take for granted the cultural achievements and commitments that are the prerequisites for liberal self-government. The dissertation concludes by suggesting that novelists can remind otherwise deracinated citizen-readers of the nature and importance of these cultural commitments, and lead political theorists to a better appreciation of the illiberal dangers posed by modern mass societies.

Subject Area

Slavic literature|Political science|Philosophy|Literature

Recommended Citation

Howard, Paul Isaac, "The role of the novelist in liberal democracies: The works of Milan Kundera" (2003). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3098132.