Jacques and His Master
6 November 2021
Milan Kundera (1929), one of Europe’s most famous contemporary novelists, wrote his play Jacques and His Master (1981) in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, during the period when he was unable to publish his work because of his political views. He responded to a theatre’s invitation to write an adaptation of F.M. Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot under a pen name, and ended up adapting, or rather writing his own stage version of Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, a novel by the famous French Enlightenment writer Denis Diderot (1722-1787).
In his preface to the play, Kundera gave several reasons for his decision, explaining that he found in Diderot’s unusual novel a condensed form of the essential elements of modern Western thinking: intelligence, humour and imagination. Reason and doubt, playfulness, the relativity of all that is human are essential defining elements of the Western mind in its search for wisdom and beauty. Moreover, Kundera was fascinated by Diderot’s narrative technique, especially the way he absorbed the Irish-English writer Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) and even partially incorporated his epistolary novel Tristram Shandy in his novel. Stern’s and Diderot’s narrative technique was novel and most unusual. Kundera develops it in a different genre: his two central characters keep asking themselves »self-referentially« whether they are »conceived« well, and, even more so, whether they themselves are to take blame for their own fate or perhaps everything is determined somewhere high up above, in some wider and greater scheme. The characters in the play try to tell their mostly love stories and keep interrupting each other, interfering with each other’s stories; they experience rapture of love and carnal passion, they cheat and are cheated on, scheme and get revenge, and end up being punished for their own (and other people’s) mistakes. And yet, in Kundera’s play, they are also redeemed, as this is, after all, theatre, where the essential insight is that one must always carry on, happily or unhappily, even when one does not know which direction to take.
The following features make this distinctly postmodernist play surprisingly original and witty, one might even say »postdramatic«: the use of several distancing procedures; narration which is turning into action and back into narrative again; the characters entering their own and other people’s stories and freely stepping out of their roles or take on others, depending on the situation. Obviously, one can read the play as a critique of the regime in which it was written as it highlights the issue of betrayal, the prevalence of bad poets, rewriting of history, alienation, living with a corked-up mouth, the use of platitudes, etc., These are barbs that have, unfortunately, not been blunted in the half-century since the play was written.
She came in, put both bottles on the table and said, “Come on, Mr Jacques, let’s make out…” The innkeeper was no longer particularly young; she was a large and voluptuous woman, agile, healthy of face, podgy, a little wide-mouthed, pretty of teeth, broad of cheek, a little bulging of eyes, flat of forehead, with a very handsome complexion, an open, lively and cheerful expression, a little firm of arms, but heavenly of hands, hands that one could paint and model. Jacques took her by the waist and embraced her boldly; his resentment never held against good wine and a beautiful woman; it was written up there for him, for you, reader, for me and for many others. “Sir,” she said to the master, “surely you will not let us drink alone? Look here, you may have a hundred miles to go, but along the way you will have no better drink.” And as she was saying this, she squeezed one of the bottles between her knees and pulled out the cork; she did this with unusual skill, stopping its throat with her thumb without spilling a drop of wine. “Come on,” she said to Jacques; “come on, come on, pass me a glass.” Jacques reached out with his glass; the innkeeper laughed, and Jacques and his master laughed too. They drank a few glasses one after the other to the dregs, so as not to miss the wisdom of the bottle, and then the innkeeper said, “Thank God! Now they are all in bed, they will not disturb me anymore, so I can continue my tale.” Jacques looked at her with eyes whose natural vivacity had been multiplied by the champagne wine, and said to her or to his master, “Our innkeeper was as beautiful as an angel; what do you reckon, sir?”
Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
He looks at her and his gaze wanders over her body in a possessed hysteria which is being filled up moment by moment with question after question. His gaze tries to be imperceptible, but at the same time it tries to see everything, to encompass, to recognise, to perceive, to notice, to register, to judge, to assess, to discern everything he sees in her.
While observing her, he forgets who he is looking at and why.
He observes and wonders – who is to blame for his gaze.
He becomes aware of the history of his own gazing.
He is aware of all the gazes, all the gazing, all the observations and all the perceptions.
He is looking at her body and senses his own corporality and detects something strange in his own corporality – the history of his own body, which, for as long as he can remember, has been for him only a machine for his gaze.
He becomes aware of his personal history. He becomes aware of all the images that have shaped his gaze, and he accepts them and affirms them and acknowledges them and sanctifies them and proclaims them and idolises them, and he becomes aware of his own unhappiness and represses it and redirects it and hides it and suppresses it and represses it and looks at it and sees something in it that he has not seen before and represses it and sees it as it is, and he is reassured and he smiles and he reconciles himself to it. And so, they watch and their gaze becomes the only thing that remains of the language. Words become brave, become countless, become omnipotent, and are inscribed in a list of words, which is entitled with an overarching cataloguing word – history. The word becomes conscious of itself and renounces itself and is called the consequence and this consequence renounces itself and is called the consequence and so on for ever. The deeper and deeper he sinks into his understanding of his relation to himself and to it and to history and to words and to the written and to the done and to the learned and to the accepted and to the spoken and to the done and to the irreparable and to the excusable and to the indefensible, the giddier and more helpless and desperate and resigned he feels. Until he is left alone and undaunted. And disembodied. And eternal.
Dorian Šilec Petek