The Truth of Representational Art

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1492

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel that functions on many different levels and consequently offers the scholar a host of literary theoretical positions to argue. The sheer number of ways the book has been read indicates this complexity. There are those who see it primarily as an exploration into the notion of love. Others see it as a dramatic account of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. It is also possible to read the novel as a philosophical study, starting with Kundera's fascination with Fredriech Nietzsche and Par-menides. Still other literary critics focus on the novel's structure in that it emulates a musical composition such as a fugue or symphony, with its introduction and reintroduction of themes and events. Finally, many scholars find the oppositions in the novel worthy of close attention.

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In his book Milan Kundera and Feminism: Dangerous Intersections, John O'Brien chooses to develop yet another reading, one asserting that

Sabina's painting offers a clear alternative to oppo-sitional thinking, and in this respect I believe Kundera presents Sabina's theory and practice of painting not only as a focal point of this novel, but also as a paradigm for understanding his work in general. Instead of reproducing surfaces that insist on a totalizing "intelligible lie," Kundera's novels, like Sabina's paintings, turn our attention to the deeper paradoxes, but ... at the expense of the surface representations. In this insistence on and dramatization/staging of double vision, Kundera's novels do not just invite a deconstructionist perspective, but incorporate decon-structionist theory at the level of content.

Such a statement requires some unpacking. O'Brien's critical approach is to see Sabina's painting as metaphor for the entire structure of the novel. In so doing, he asserts that the novel is essentially "deconstructionist." Deconstruction is a critical theory that closely reads texts in order to demonstrate that texts do not generally mean what they appear to mean. In fact, deconstruction would argue that it is the nature of written language to both present and undermine "truth." Deconstructive writing often uses the device of metafiction (or fiction about fiction itself) to call attention to itself as a piece of writing, as opposed to reality. While these concepts may seem complicated, looking carefully at how Kundera uses Sabina's paintings as a metaphor may shed light on both the novel and the theory.

Sabina finds her characteristic style by accident. As an artist in a socialist country, she is both expected and required to embody social realism in her work. As the narrator notes, "art that was not realistic was said to sap the foundations of socialism .. . she had painted in a style concealing the brush strokes and closely resembling color photography." One day, Sabina spills red paint on a picture of a building site. She tells Tereza,

At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it.... On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop's cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract.

Sabina thus accidentally discovers the world behind the apparent world. While her paintings look superficially realistic, and appear to be of building sites and steelworks, they are really about the life hidden behind this realistic facade.

Eva Le Grand, in Kundera: Or the Memory of Desire , offers an idea that may prove useful in this exploration. She suggests that Kundera follows an "esthetic of the palimpsest." The...

(The entire section contains 9977 words.)

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera