Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

In an afterward to the Czech version of Immortality (1992), Kundera disavows a specific stance as social commentator, noting that his works are less concerned with the culture of spectacle than with the understanding that each man carries within him the seed of self-regard through the gaze of others, a...

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In an afterward to the Czech version of Immortality (1992), Kundera disavows a specific stance as social commentator, noting that his works are less concerned with the culture of spectacle than with the understanding that each man carries within him the seed of self-regard through the gaze of others, a seed that is projected into larger, more social spaces. At the same time, it is difficult to read his explorations of the "terminal paradoxes" of our contemporary era without noting the pointed, indeed inescapable, cultural critique present there. In this novel, for the first time, is the milieu of socialist Czechoslovakia left behind, in favor of a setting that is both Kundera's adopted city and thoroughly "Western" as well. The Paris his characters inhabit is present-day: awash in consumerism, technology, image manipulation. Indeed, Kundera notes, "for contemporary man reality is a continent visited less and less often and, besides, justifiably disliked." There are, according to his afterward, two basic themes in the novel: that of the relation between man and his reflection, and that of homo sentimentalis. The interrelated investigation of these themes addresses issues including the rise of sentimentality as a cultural and political force; the terrible intrusiveness of the image constructors (largely media) and the consequent invalidation of a notion of privacy; the elevation of one's desires into rights, especially the right to question and demand an answer; and the raising of individual rights, in an aggressive assertion of self, to the level of a metaphysical imperative.

To the dyad mentioned above I would add the theme of "immortality," both personal and social, as literally a "theme" upon which to pursue variations, a controlling notion, a substructure of ideas determining our actions and reactions. Kundera is here as elsewhere in his fiction consumed with the question of ideology, the notion of privileging an "idea" — be it socialism, kitsch, feminism, or, here, "imagology," the creation and maintenance of image — beyond all rationality or human sympathy. As with litost in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or lehkost (lightness) in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a single yet complex conception underlies all, as nesmrtelnost (immortality) is played with, examined, turned like a jewel in one's hand in order to examine its facets. Of course, with the persistent questioning and unraveling of dearly held illusions, it is no wonder that readers of Kundera can become lost in his intricate web of ironies, nor that they look in vain for a secure anchorage. But as Kundera questions many of the underlying assumptions of contemporary life, he continues to regard even his most fallible characters with amused affection (Bernard Bertrand, for example, may be a "complete ass," yet he is not entirely irredeemable) without allowing his readers the conventionally novelistic comfort of identification with the virtuous and nice.

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Characters