The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by Milan Kundera

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Paul Gray (review date 16 April 1984)

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SOURCE: “Songs of Exile and Return,” in Time, April 16, 1984, p. 77.

[In the following positive review, Gray notes the similarities between The Book of Laughter and Forgettingand The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, published in the U.S. in 1980, author Milan Kundera brilliantly fused passion and playfulness. That book's collection of seven loosely related stories danced around a central, somber event: the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The resulting oppression halted the liberal reforms that blossomed during the famous Prague Spring of 1968 and eventually drove a number of intellectuals and artists, including Kundera, from their native country. Songs of exile are sad, by definition. Yet Kundera's added a comic vision capable of seeing both oppressors and oppressed locked in battle against a common enemy, the bizarre senselessness of a world in which all human choices lead to debacles.

The tale of that struggle is continued in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which seems at first simply a replication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Again, the Soviet crackdown becomes a watershed in the experience of Kundera's people, making the past irretrievable and the future ominous. Again, the author divides his fiction into seven parts. This time, though, the connections between them are firmer. Four main characters keep reappearing, and their lives, though not always displayed chronologically, assume the extended contours of traditional love stories.

Tomas is a respected Prague surgeon in his 30s and a compulsive womanizer. A business trip to the provinces brings him in contact with Tereza, who tends bar at a local hotel. It is love at first sight as far as she is concerned, and Tomas soon finds her ensconced in his Prague apartment, not just as a sexual drop-in but as someone who evidently plans to spend the rest of her nights there. To his amazement, the prospect pleases him.

His marriage to Tereza does not curb Tomas’ appetite for other women: “Why then give them up? He saw no more reason for that than to deny himself soccer matches.” But Sabina, a painter who is his favorite mistress of the moment, senses a change: “Showing through the outline of Tomas the libertine, incredibly, the face of a romantic lover.” Then it is 1968, a time of more violent change for the entire country. Tomas and Tereza emigrate to Zurich, where he has been promised a job in a prominent hospital. Sabina goes to Geneva and falls into a love affair with Franz, an unhappily married professor. It is her fate to shuck off the past: parents, the precepts of her Communist Youth League childhood and, in turn, all of her lovers: “What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being.” The weight of existence descends on Tomas and Tereza. Homesick and upset by her husband's continued philandering, she returns to Czechoslovakia, and he follows, knowing that the authorities will forbid him to practice medicine at all.

What to make of Tomas’ choice? Philosophically, Kundera insists, such a question is moot: “Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision: we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.” Yet the emotional story reveals a kind of answer. Near the end, Tomas drives a pickup truck for a cooperative farm in a rural village. In a fit of remorse, Tereza apologizes for having dragged him back from a promising career in Switzerland, for using the weakness of her jealousy to enfeeble him. He responds. “Haven't you noticed I've been happy here, Tereza?”

Given all the trials that have preceded it. Tomas’ statement seems inconceivable. Kundera has gracefully marshaled armies of evidence to prove that happiness is impossible “in the trap the world has become.” The villain is not despotic, criminal regimes (although they are thoroughly villainous) but consciousness itself: “Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.” Yet Tomas somehow achieves the impossible.

At its most intense level, Kundera's fiction debates itself to a standstill of lucid repose. Moments of Olympian distance, in which the author shows his mortals ignorantly creeping toward oblivion, alternate with passages of stirring intimacy, with the novelist playing cheerleader, urging victories for everyone. Sabina's discarded lover Franz joins a ragtag crusade of Western intellectuals and liberal hangers-on. This entourage arrives at a remote bridge leading from Thailand to Cambodia. Someone with a bullhorn demands that the occupying Vietnamese allow doctors to cross the border and treat the Cambodian sick and wounded. The answer is silence: “In a flash of insight Franz saw how laughable they all were, but instead of cutting him off from them or flooding him with irony, the thought made him feel the kind of infinite love we feel for the condemned.” The moment is pure Kundera, a triumph of wisdom over bitterness, hope over despair.


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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera

Czech-born French novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet.

The following entry presents criticism on Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). See also Milan Kundera Short Story Criticism, Milan Kundera Literary Criticism (Volume 4), and Volumes 9, 19, 115.

An internationally renowned contemporary author, Milan Kundera is acclaimed for his philosophically complex fiction and essays that explore the conflicting forces of personal desire, private and public morality, and social control. Largely informed by his experiences as a political dissident in his native Czechoslovakia, Kundera's writing is characterized by its ironic tone, inventive narrative structures, and integration of realism, dream, and abstract contemplation. His novel L'insoutenable l'égèreté de l'être (1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being) is highly regarded as a profound examination of intentionality, chance, and individual responsibility under modern political oppression. In part an indictment of communist totalitarianism, the novel is more broadly a metaphysical treatise on the nature of human existence and relationships. At turns lyrical, darkly comic, and expository, the novel focuses on the intertwined lives of two men and two women whose various psychological motivations reflect the paradoxical dualities of history, freedom, and love.

Plot and Major Characters

Set primarily in Czechoslovakia around the time of the 1968 Soviet occupation of that country, the seven-part, non-chronological narrative, punctuated by frequent authorial intrusions, revolves around the interrelated lives of four main characters: Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz. The first part, “Lightness and Weight,” begins with a philosophical disquisition on Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of “eternal return,” then introduces Tomas, a successful Prague surgeon, who reflects upon his relationship with Tereza, a barmaid he met several years earlier in a provincial town and has since married. An unabashed libertine, Tomas engages in constant affairs with other women, most significantly Sabina, a painter, that are deeply hurtful to Tereza. Shortly after the Soviets invade Czechoslovakia, Tomas and Tereza leave for Zurich, Switzerland, where Tomas has found a new job, and the couple seek a fresh start together. However, Sabina has also emigrated to Switzerland and she and Tomas soon resume their affair. Jealous and humiliated, Tereza deserts Tomas and returns to Prague with their dog, Karenin. Soon Tomas follows her back to Prague despite the knowledge that his return to Czechoslovakia will cost him his freedom and career. The second part, “Soul and Body,” provides insight into the psychological history of Tereza. After the early loss of her father, a political prisoner who died in jail, Tereza was traumatized by her resentful mother whose vulgar displays of her naked, obese body and its noisy emissions embarrassed Tereza. The reader learns of Tereza's harrowing dreams about Tomas, most significantly one in which Tomas presides over a line of naked women, including Tereza, who are forced to march around a swimming pool, singing and performing kneebends. In the dream, Tomas shoots those who fail to do a proper kneebend, leaving their bodies to float in the water while the others continue on. It is also revealed that, upon Tereza's first arrival in Prague, Sabina helped her find work as a photojournalist. The peculiar bond between the wife and mistress of Tomas is portrayed in a sexually charged episode in which the two women discuss art and photograph one another in the nude.The third part, “Words Misunderstood,” introduces Franz, a dutiful professor of philosophy who enters into an extramarital affair with Sabina while she is in Geneva. Franz eventually informs his wife, Marie-Claude, of his nine-month relationship with Sabina, effectively ending his marriage. Angered by his confession, Sabina promptly rejects Franz. Suddenly finding himself alone, Franz soon discovers new purpose in political causes and an affair with a student. Sabina later settles in Paris, where she reflects upon the meaning of her rootless life and a letter she has received from Simon, Tomas's son by an earlier marriage, in which the deaths of Tomas and Tereza are reported. The fourth part, a second section entitled “Soul and Body,” focuses on the lack of privacy under totalitarian rule and Tereza's developing sense of self. Rebelling against Tomas's unabated philandering, Tereza initiates a sexual encounter with an engineer, though later regrets the incident when she begins to suspect he is an agent of the state who has staged the episode to blackmail her. She also dreams that Tomas takes her to a park in Prague, informing her that there she will find what she desires. He directs her to the top of Petrin Hill, where she discovers several men with rifles whose apparent function is to help people satisfy their longing to die; they accompany the self-condemned into the forest and shoot them beside their tree of choice. The fifth part, a second section entitled “Lightness and Weight,” focuses on Tomas and events set in motion by an essay he has written that links the story of Oedipus with issues of Czech political guilt. The seemingly fanciful and insignificant essay, published in a local journal before the Soviet occupation, reemerges as a dangerous liability in the hands of the new regime. Facing mounting pressure to recant and to implicate the publisher, Tomas resigns his medical position and takes up work as a humble window-washer in an effort to disappear from scrutiny. However, while on a job he is confronted by his admiring and long-absent son, Simon, and the editor of the journal, who together attempt to persuade Tomas to sign a petition demanding amnesty for Czech political prisoners. Tomas refuses and, to escape the ugliness and complications of Prague, he and Tereza decide to move to the country. The sixth part, “The Grand March,” is devoted to a delineation of political kitsch and Franz's ill-fated activism in Thailand, where he has joined a band of well-intentioned though ridiculously futile Western political protesters and is finally killed by a mugger in the streets of Bangkok. The discussion of kitsch is supplemented by comment on the death of Josef Stalin's son, Yakov, who commits suicide while detained in a Nazi prison camp rather than face embarrassment over his bowel movements. The seventh and final part, “Karenin's Smile,” returns to Tomas and Tereza, who have relocated to a collective farm where they have at last found a degree of contentment in the simplicity and routine of rural life. After the slow, emotionally grueling death of their dog, Karenin, they are killed in an auto accident, as earlier revealed in the letter from Simon to Sabina. In a final dream, Tereza imagines that Tomas is summoned by the authorities and shot. His shrinking corpse then transforms into a living rabbit that she brings with her on her return to her childhood home in Prague.

Major Themes

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is primarily concerned with contradictory physical, emotional, and metaphysical aspects of human existence. The novel's central metaphor—lightness—derives from a dichotomy established by Greek philosopher Parmenides, who, according to the author-narrator, ascribed somewhat arbitrarily a positive value to lightness and a negative value to heaviness. The opposition of lightness (associated with freedom, choice, sexual pleasure, mobility) and weight (associated with fate, responsibility, love, stasis) thus forms the controlling motif in the novel. The quartet of characters each embody opposing aspects of lightness and weight: Tomas, a Don Juan figure, and Sabina, a bohemian artist, represent lightness and unfettered self-direction; Tereza and Franz, through their personal and political loyalties, represent heaviness and the burdens of love and commitment. As the novel develops, each of these characters begins to move toward opposite poles: Tomas resigns himself to Tereza and ends his infidelities; Sabina realizes the emptiness of her vagabond existence and fleeting relationships; Tereza develops a self-identity separate from Tomas and emerges from his control, as reflected in her dreams; and Franz ends his unhappy marriage to pursue sexual pleasure and his political ideals. This psychological modulation among the characters, the use of multiple perspectives, and repeating themes and concepts throughout the text produce a counterpoint effect that reflects the novel's musical structure. The novel also revolves around Nietzsche's “mad myth” of eternal recurrence, the idea that human life attains meaning only through the infinite repetition of events in one's life; by reliving our experiences and the effects of one's choices, life gains authenticity and transcends its seemingly ephemeral nature. The notion of recurrence is invoked throughout the novel in the German proverb “einmal ist keinmal,” translated as “once is no time at all.” Kundera also links the concept of eternal return with historical processes, particularly in the section “The Grand March,” whose title alludes to the idea of progressive historical change and fate, as opposed to a cyclical patterns of ascendancy, decline, and repetition in the development of civilization. A phrase from a Beethoven string quartet—“Es muss sein!,” translated as “It must be!”—appears throughout the novel as an affirmation of fate in the affairs of men and women. The themes of destiny, both personal and political, morality, and responsibility are also associated with the Oedipus myth and its dramatization in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, another recurring leitmotif in the novel. The quest for self-definition and existential meaning is frequently linked with the portrayal of nudity and bodily functions. For example, Tereza's fears and insecurities are associated with her nakedness before Tomas and her mother's shamelessness. Likewise, defecation and excrement are repeatedly presented as emblematic of one's acceptance or denial of mortality and eroticism, also associated with Christian dualities of body and soul. Nakedness and aspects of voyeurism in the novel reflect the stark reality of life under political oppression, as spying, the absence of privacy and personal identity, and perpetual vulnerability at the hands of the state are familiar demoralizing conditions in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. The absurdity of totalitarianism, as well as the efforts of organized resistance under such a system, are reflected in Tomas's pointless demotion for allegedly advocating a cause he subsequently refuses to endorse; his ethical double-bind is thus a farce, though he is still compelled to weigh his personal and public duties, as are others under similar circumstances. Kundera's condemnation of “kitsch,” described in terms of the aesthetization and public expression of empty sentimentality, further indicts the false promises of political ideology—both communist and liberal democratic—and its lobotomizing effect on those under its influence. In the end, the unheroic deaths of Tomas and Tereza, as well as the random nature of Franz's murder, underscores the inherent limitations of human life despite one's best efforts to navigate its irreducible matrix of political, historical, and personal contingencies.

Critical Reception

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is highly regarded as a moving, sophisticated novel of political critique and speculative philosophy that unashamedly examines the essential mysteries of existence. An international best-seller and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1984, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is distinguished as both a critical and popular success. Viewed by many critics as among Kundera's finest work, along with Le livre du rire et de l'oubli (1980; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), the novel is praised for its innovative narrative design and provocative metaphysical concerns. Jim Miller writes, “Kundera has raised the novel of ideas to a new level of dreamlike lyricism and emotional intensity.” Though Kundera has steadfastly rejected attempts by critics to label him a dissident writer, reviewers favorably comment on the novel's obvious political dimension, particularly its treatment of Czech history and repudiation of ideology in its various forms. While most commentators find Kundera's digressive style and high-minded meditations compelling, some regard such authorial interventions in the novel as burdensome and merely clever. Similarly, many critics appreciate Kundera's presentation of sympathetic characters, while others fault his protagonists as unconvincing game pieces for the author's ideas and narrative manipulations. Among the latter, Wendy Lesser describes The Unbearable Lightness of Being as “a bad book,” adding, however, that it is “a bad novel on a high level—extremely intelligent, quite witty, and very certain about its meanings. In fact, Kundera's novel is bad partly because its author knows too clearly and powerfully what he wants to say.” Despite such criticism, most commentators praise the novel's ambitious philosophical scope and Kundera's willingness to raise perplexing questions about the essence of life, regarded in itself as an antidote to the trivialization of kitsch. “For all its burning compassion, extraordinary intelligence, and dazzling artistry,” writes Thomas DePietro, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being leaves us with many questions, questions about love and death, about love and transcendence.”

Jim Miller (review date 30 April 1984)

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SOURCE: “Leap into the Void,” in Newsweek, April 30, 1984, p. 77.

[In the following review, Miller asserts that The Unbearable Lightness of Being “is clearly meant to be the capstone of Kundera's career to date.”]

With each new book, Milan Kundera, the virtuoso Czech novelist exiled in Paris, has enlarged and embellished his bleak vision of man's fate. Like a dour toy designer lavishing his attention on an intricately mirrored kaleidoscope, he has devised delightful new forms and fragments that expand the play of light and darkness. After the somber realism of The Joke (1969) and the rococo tragicomedy of The Farewell Party (1976), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980) came as a revelation—a scintillating collage comprised of parables, autobiographical scraps and blunt scenes of sexual conquest and submission. It had the air of a sublime improvisation—impromptu, serendipitous, inspired.

Kundera's new book evokes a weightier musical analogy: Beethoven's last string quartets. A fantasia on nihilism, it is clearly meant to be the capstone of Kundera's career to date. His starting point is the philosophy of Nietzsche and his own conviction that modern man has proved unfit to master nature or history or himself. “If God is dead,” Kundera has said, “and if man is unable to replace Him, life seems to lose its substance, its weight. We feel ‘the unbearable lightness of being.’”

The longest and best parts of the book concern Tomas and Tereza, two Czech lovers. He is a Prague doctor and philanderer, jealous of his freedom, impulsive in his actions. She is devoted and decent, a small-town girl in love with animals and the solitude of the countryside. Kundera imagines Tomas “standing at the window of his flat and looking across the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.” Tereza is plagued by nightmares: “Each time you knocked at [my] grave … I came out. My eyes were full of dirt. You'd say, ‘How can you see?’ and try to wipe the dirt from my eyes. And I'd say, ‘I can't see anyway. I have holes instead of eyes.’”

After a brief courtship, they are married, but Tomas proves inconstant. His hesitation between the roles of Don Juan and Tristan recalls Kierkegaard's “Either/Or.” Unable to make Kierkegaard's “leap of faith,” Tomas struggles to choose between the lighthearted, “esthetic” path of libertinism (his favorite paramour is a rootless painter) and the burdensome, “ethical” path of authentic love and loyalty to Tereza. At the heart of the book is the elaboration of this dilemma how to hold fast to a passion or a principle in the face of powerful competing impulses and paralyzing doubt. As usual, Kundera is a very visible author. He frequently comments on his characters and interrupts the narrative with short essays on kitsch, man's relationship to animals, even a “theodicy” of excrement. Some of his metaphysical aphorisms seem lifeless. It would be absurd, though, to fault Kundera's new work for being “too philosophical,” since it is his curiosity about “the questions with no answers” that spurs his special genius. As The Unbearable Lightness of Being confirms, Kundera has a remarkable ability to evoke and explore abstract concepts through the repetition of words (like “vertigo”) and the creation of disturbing images. The unforgettable climax of the book, which revolves, improbably enough, around the death of a dog, offers perhaps the clearest evidence yet that Kundera has raised the novel of ideas to a new level of dreamlike lyricism and emotional intensity.

Principal Works

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Zert [The Joke, 1969; definitive English edition, 1992] (novel) 1967

*Smesne lasky [Laughable Loves; first English edition, 1974; definitive English edition, 1987] (short stories) 1970

La vie est ailleurs [Life Is Elsewhere, 1974; definitive English edition, 1986] (novel) 1973

La valse aux adieux [The Farewell Party; first English edition, 1976; new translation by Aaron Asher, based on Kundera's revised French text, published as Farewell Waltz: A Novel, 1998] (novel) 1976

Le livre du rire et de l'oubli [The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1980; new translation by Aaron Asher, 1996] (novel) 1979

Jacques et son maître: Hommage a Denis Diderot [Jacques and His Master, 1985] (drama) 1981

L'insoutenable l'égèreté de l'être [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] (novel) 1984

L'art du roman [The Art of the Novel, 1988] (essays) 1986

L'immortalite [Immortality, 1991] (novel) 1990

Les Testaments trahis [Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, 1995] (essay) 1993

La Lenteur [Slowness, 1996] (novel) 1995

L'identite [Identity, 1998] (novel) 1997

*Kundera collected the eight stories contained in the original Czech edition of this work from three notebooks of short stories: Smesne lasky (“Laughable Loves”), 1963, Druhy sesit smesnych lasek (“The Second Notebook of Laughable Loves”), 1965, and Treti sesit smesnych lasek (“The Third Notebook of Laughable Loves”), 1968. The original notebooks comprised ten stories; translated editions contain only seven stories.

†These works are French translations from the original Czech manuscripts Zivot je jinde, Valcik na rozloucenou, Kniha smichu a zapomneni, Jakub a jeho pan, Nesnesitelna lehkost byti, and Nesmrtelnost, respectively.

Thomas DePietro (review date 18 May 1984)

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SOURCE: “Weighting for Kundera,” in Commonweal, May 18, 1984, pp. 297-300.

[In the following review, DePietro discusses the portrayal of totalitarianism in contemporary world literature and Kundera's political and philosophical concerns in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

Totalitarianism, for all the efforts of political theorists to define it, remains as slippery a term as ever, a concept that usually explains either too much or too little. The testimony of literature on this topic, however, the evidence submitted by a wealth of poets and novelists—from Czeslaw Milosz to Garcia Marquez to J. M. Coetzee and Milan Kundera—brings us back to the issues which occasioned the political science inquiry in the first place. What astonishes even the casual reader of recent world literature is this: writers from countries as unlike as Poland, Colombia, South Africa, and Czechoslovakia all perceive at the core of contemporary experience (and not just in countries we call “totalitarian”) the paradox embodied in the title of Milan Kundera's new novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being: a weightlessness that threatens to crush the life out of us. And yet, modern political life, whether by its steady assault on our everyday sense of reality or by its more explicitly evil potential for genocide, provides fuel for the writer's moral imagination—at least for those writers who face up to it and are burdened with the label “political.” “Censorship,” writes Borges, “is the mother of metaphor.” “We artists are olives,” said Joyce, “squeeze us.”

Nineteen eighty-four finds many of us reading (or at least buying) a political novel that succeeds like no other (to use Irving Howe's words) “in rendering the essential quality of totalitarianism.” The novel is, of course, 1984, and because many of its recent critics waste their time measuring the deliberately extreme, imaginary state of Oceania against past and present governments, they tend to ignore Orwell's genuine insight into the language and imagery of oppression. Orwell envisages in 1984 a world where power seems to exist for its own sake, where moral and political nihilism reign supreme, where humanity has indeed become superfluous. “Anything is possible” in Oceania; in fact, it's probable. In this novel of ideas, Orwell discovers terror in ideas, especially in the slogans and pronouncements of the Party. A simple example: the Party might announce “that two and two made five,” and one “would have to believe it.” As Orwell elaborates: “Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.” The Party, like all monolithic systems of government, undermines the very distinctions that (for us) sustain collective sanity. The breakdown in 1984 is complete: reality is unreal; truth is false.

To my mind, the most horrifying aphorism in 1984 is not the inscription on the Ministry of Truth (WAR IS PEACE/FREEDOM IS SLAVERY/IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH), but the slogan which Winston Smith enacts each day on his job: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Winston must consign to memory holes—the pneumatic shafts leading to an enormous furnace—any evidence of an historical past that doesn't conform to current Party policy. Every day, he rewrites history, robbing it of any possible meaning. Individuals, group of people, nations: along with their histories, all become superfluous. We think inevitably of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's incantatory villages, wiped clean out of time. Or of the unadorned moment in history which introduces us to the otherwise magical The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera.

All Czechs knew this primal scene from the countless copies of a photograph reproduced on posters and in schoolbooks and museums. Klement Gottwald stands on a Prague balcony, flanked by Comrade Clementis, and proclaims the birth of Communist Czechoslovakia. Moments before the photograph was snapped, Clementis had given Gottwald his fur cap to protect him from the snow. Four years later, in 1952, Clementis was hanged for treason and immediately airbrushed from the photograph and history. Down the memory hole. But there's the rub: that hat remains on Gottwald's head, an obscure reminder of an officially forgotten man. And the forgotten man, what is he? He is Kundera's central trope, his figure of a person or people effaced by deliberate or unwitting amnesia, and hence on the way to disembodiment just as truly as if sent to a gas chamber.

But facts as trifling as Clementis's hat stubbornly resist the kind of total manipulation that so successfully alters reality in Orwell's fiction. And this points to the paradoxical advance of Kundera's lustrous art over the killingly prosaic world of Orwell. Although The Book of Laughter and Forgetting begins straightforwardly enough in the black humor of Czechoslovakian reality, it soon veers in and out of a variety of stories and genres: fantasy, autobiography, criticism, and history. “The basic event of the book,” Kundera tells us elsewhere, “is the story of totalitarianism.” But this story, more than Orwell's, acknowledges the contradictions and ambiguities—and therefore the pulse of life—behind the scenes of totalitarian darkness. In fact, the novel embodies these very complexities.

In contrast, Orwell's book reads like an illustrated thesis. Who can forget the lengthy, undigested and, I suspect, often unread chunks of Emmanuel Goldstein's Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism which intrude on what little action there is in 1984? By comparison Kundera penetrates the modern political consciousness with a refracted style reminiscent of his acknowledged literary masters, Kafka, Broch, Musil, and Havek, the great modernists of Central Europe, all of whom, in one way or another, have meditated on the “possible end of European humanity.” (The phrase comes from Kundera's recent essay, “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” published in The New York Review of Books, April 26, 1984.)

Midway through The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Kundera pauses to reveal his intended design: “This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey leading toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, the sense of which shades into the distance.” This reflexive moment captures Kundera's theme: the eclipse of memory and the consequent erosion of being, of substance; in sum, unbearable weightlessness. It might well stand for Kundera's entire work translated into English. From his first novel, The Joke, to his new book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera offers us a series of situations which bear witness not only to the disappearance of his beloved homeland, but also to the moral and social amnesia that pervades our time in both the East and the West. He expresses this European tragedy through his generically disparate stories, which are linked, with one exception—The Farewell Party—in seven-part structures like so many variations on a musical theme.

But even the carefully orchestrated events of The Farewell Party, like the studied philosophical asides in his new book, draw us into a labyrinth of personal, political, and finally ontological questions. What is the human need of richness, beauty? What is weakness, genuine strength, darkness, and light? Is creation acceptable or unacceptable? What does it mean to live in the truth? What is our responsibility to time? It is typical of Kundera's post-Orwellian sensibility that he answers few of these questions. Rather, his art resides in his capacity to put us inside characters for whom these questions are matters of life and death. It is an imagination that penetrates the victimizer as well as the victim and often finds the two symbiotic, as if inflections of a single mind.

In his finest work, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, immediately after he reflects on its structure, Kundera calls our attention to the book's central figure, the Czechoslovakian exile Tamina. Her story, of a woman who tries to remember the simplest things, represents all the previous and subsequent tangle of tales in Kundera's grand fictional project. Not merely the main character in this work, Tamina is the “main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror.” Waiting tables in a drab café somewhere in Western Europe, Tamina desperately clings to memories of her dead husband, with whom she had left Prague illegally in 1968, after the Soviet invasion. As her life with him recedes in time, she realizes that in order to hold on to her own soul (“the sum total of her being”) she needs to retrieve the notebooks and letters left behind during her hasty departure from Czechoslovakia. For a while, her atomized social life in the West takes on new purpose as a result: she must find a courier to fetch her personal archive. But when all prospects fall through, a disgusted Tamina retreats into silence, the only adequate rejoinder to the cacophonous interrogations of contemporary life.

Later in the book, Tamina reappears, seduced by the promise of a world in which she can “forget her forgetting”—the malady not simply of the Communist world but of the Americanized West as well. She begins her journey there “as in a fairy tale, as in a dream (no, it is a fairy tale, it is a dream!).” And when she arrives, this paradise where reality is unreal turns out to be an island of children who repeatedly insult, beat, and rape her. But it is the children's booming guitar music, the kind of elementary music Kundera elsewhere finds inherently idiotic and symptomatic of profound cultural decay, that finally prompts Tamina's attempted escape. Before she swims to her death, Kundera explains,

It is the little things of no weight at all that are making Tamina nauseous. In fact, that hollow feeling in her stomach comes from the unbearable absence of weight. And just as one extreme may at any moment turn into its opposite, so this perfect buoyancy has become a terrifying burden of buoyancy

Given the echo of this scene in its title, Kundera's latest novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, can be considered an extended gloss on Tamina's death. And to see it as such doesn't diminish its achievement for, as I have suggested earlier, Kundera frequently invites us to discover the unity in his overarching literary design.

It goes without saying, however, that The Unbearable Lightness of Being is more than a lengthy epilogue to a masterpiece; it's outstanding in its own right—a series of, yes, variations, many of which can only enhance our appreciation of Kundera's increasingly demanding art. Writing from exile, as he has for the last nine years, Kundera's skeptical eye here turns further inward. But it is not the inwardness we associate with those postmodern writers who retreat from the world around them only to celebrate their vitiated sensibilities. Kundera refuses to acquiesce, to settle into a complacency where answers come easy; no cold-war scold he. He subjects the “free world's” contradictions to equally fierce scrutiny; the issues he confronts—the bearing of time, choice, and being—transcend time and place.

Consider the title of this new book, Unbearable Lightness: a paradox buried in an enigma. We usually welcome lightness, like laughter, like forgetting. Not here though, for Kundera clearly wants us to believe, despite the sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in the Nietzschean premise that opens the book: that if events are to have any meaning, they must happen more than once, and that this eternal return is, in Nietzsche's words, “the heaviest of burdens.” Kundera in fact welcomes heavy burdens, for against them our lives stand out “in all their splendid lightness.”

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

At the same time, however, many events in Kundera's novels suggest that life is subject to constant change, not eternal recurrence, and that meaning (and judgment) depends entirely on context. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for example, one of the main characters, Tomas, a kind of dissident in spite of himself, is asked to sign a petition protesting the treatment of political prisoners. On the one hand he feels the weight of moral reason: one should always raise a voice for the silenced. On the other hand the petition might play into the government's hands as a justification for more persecution. Tomas refuses to sign, allowing uncertainty to translate into inaction. “For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit?” Kundera asks in his prologue. “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” We are meant to be sympathetic. If a “human life occurs only once,” we are here told, how can one measure the outcome of a discrete action? “Is there any answer to such a question?” the novel asks. The only answers are possibilities, the novelist replies, and he relies on character and event, with all their inherent contradictions, as much as on philosophical speculation, to tell us what those possibilities, in each case, are. As a character then, Tomas—like Tereza his lover, like the lovers Sabina and Franz—is “born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about.”

Kundera first sees Tomas in an image, in a sentence, in a situation; he sees him “standing at a window of his flat and looking across the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.” Tomas does not know it at the moment, but he is poised for the choice of weight or lightness. His immediate crisis seems simple: should he summon to Prague the childlike waitress Tereza whom he met by chance in a provincial café? He, the womanizer, who has designed his life so “that no woman could move in with a suitcase”? A chaste hour in the country, a ten-day visit to Prague (during which she had the flu): for the eminent surgeon, Tomas, these events add up to “an inexplicable love” that goes against his principles. Or is it hysteria? Why the crisis anyway? Part of Tomas's perplexity, Kundera lets us infer, is because the soul of man under socialism, the soul of this man in Communist Czechoslovakia, cannot guide his emotions, tied up as they are by the invading hand of politics. Like so many of Kundera's Don Juans, Tomas finds in his private, erotic life the freedom and power he so lacks in the public sphere. But there's no escape for Tomas. Tereza's quiet sufferings pose a challenge greater than politics; to assuage her pain, he marries her. But he cannot make her happy. His failure links itself in time and meaning to his country's failed promise: both reveal themselves in August 1968 as the Russian tanks invade Prague.

Listening to a demoralized, defeated Dubcek stuttering, gasping for breath on the radio, Tereza, like Tamina before her, resigns herself to the company of the weak. Her brief exile with Tomas in Switzerland provides no salvation; she returns to the scene of her primal victimization and all her subsequent ones. But weakness and strength, victim and victimizer, hunter and hunted: the roles change without warning. (In all oppressive countries? Think of the fluid master/slave relation explored so profoundly in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians.) Tomas, who continues to conquer through sex, discovers its illusory power when it is momentarily turned against him. Back in Prague, no longer allowed to practice medicine, he meets his sexual match while on his job washing windows. When he gives her “his standard ‘Strip!’ command,” she fails to comply but counter-commands, “No, you first.” Their lovemaking soon proclaims war. When he finally catches her off-guard, her legs parted expectantly in mid-air, he notices: “they suddenly looked like the raised arms of a soldier surrendering to a gun pointed at him.” Though Tomas wins the battle, he loses the war, for he's still victim to a greater force: Tereza's jealousy. She occupies his poetic memory—the sphere not simply of sex but of love—“like a despot” and exterminates all thoughts of other women. As Kundera reminds us earlier in the book, “loves are like empires.” Nonetheless fragile empires: “when the idea they are founded on crumbles, they, too, fade away.” They dissolve into air, with the lightness Tomas finds in his soulless infidelities.

The “weak” Tereza, on the other hand, brings ballast to her shared tale with Tomas. Her “anachronistic” love, so reminiscent of Tamina's love for her dead husband, carries weight. There is little of this kind of weight in Sabina's life. One of Tomas's former mistresses, she floats higher and higher—compelled by the sentence of her identifying image, one of repeated betrayal. As a disillusioned artist in exile, she views the West with the cool eye of the cynic. She refuses to submit to her new lover Franz's romantic misunderstanding of her exile, and to the aesthetic implied in his banalizing of her life. For that aesthetic—the simplifying power of kitsch—threatens to flatten the world, not just Eastern Europe where social realism means portraits of smiling statesmen and happy workers at May Day parades, but the West as well. Sabina, traveling further West, betraying the prosaic Franz, finds herself in America with a senator, who comments on his four children running through the grass, “Now, that's what I call happiness.” American kitsch.

At that moment an image of the senator standing on a reviewing stand in a Prague square flashed through Sabina's mind. The smile on his face was the smile Communist statesmen beamed from the height of their reviewing stand to the identically smiling citizens in the parade below.

No, Kundera explains in one of his typically taut disquisitions, kitsch comes in more than the totalitarian brand; it is endemic to our age. In a world full of beautiful lies, “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” Its function? “Kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death.”

When Sabina cries, “My enemy is kitsch, not Communism,” then, she seems to speak for Kundera who continuously shows us what both trivialization and absolutism mean. Franz, abandoned by Sabina, resumes his “Grand March,” that example of political kitsch in which mankind joins in the rhetoric of “brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness.” It takes him to the border of Thailand, after the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, where a well-intentioned group of celebrities hoping to bring medical supplies into ravaged Cambodia face the “stunning silence” of indifference. It takes him to his senseless death, beaten by thugs in Bangkok; he thought they were beggars, or as political kitsch would have it, “third-world victims in need of his help.” Kundera tempers this cruel theme—his cynicism here reaches its nadir—with an unmistakable empathy for Franz's idiotic goodness. The novelist in Kundera resists the tug of what can only be deemed another kind of kitsch: knee-jerk caricature. Nevertheless, it is kitsch, a simplistic political vision, that deludes Franz and renders him weightless.

What then does kitsch mean for those who bear burdens? Tereza and Tomas meet equally unheroic deaths when their truck crashes, deep in the countryside to which they have long ago repaired. Tomas's son from a former marriage, a dreamy idealist like Franz, inscribes his father's gravestone: HE WANTED THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH. The son's religious fervor, however sincere, reduces his father's life to a cautionary tale, a moral lesson that misinterprets years of anguished uncertainty. But then kitsch pursues us all in death. Not quite forgotten, we're summarized in facile epitaphs, our lives robbed of dimension and distinction.

Kitsch is no longer kitsch, however, when exposed as a lie. But in a world that assaults truth and reality, how do we expose lies? Kundera mentions one fact time and again in his fiction, and most recently in the New York Review essay to which I have referred. When the Soviet henchman, Gustav Husak, came to power after the Prague Spring was crushed, he fired one hundred and forty-five historians from Czech universities. Down the memory hole. We've come full circle. When History, the story of the Grand March, overwhelms history, the messier tale with a small h, humanity has become superfluous. As in Orwell's Oceania or Garcia Marquez's Macondo, past civilization no longer guides us or provides standards. It's been wiped out, the body of things and people handed over to time's erosion. “In this world,” Kundera writes at the start of his novel, “everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.”

For all its burning compassion, extraordinary intelligence, and dazzling artistry, The Unbearable Lightness of Being leaves us with many questions, questions about love and death, about love and transcendence. These are our burdens, the existential questions that never change but need to be asked anew. What impresses us finally is that, like all the great literature in the struggle of memory against forgetting, it is the incidents, aphorisms, characters, and places in this novel which embed these questions in our consciousness no less strongly than the evil which provokes them: the ever-present threat of extinction.

Further Reading

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Banerjee, Maria Nemcová. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being; or, Epicurus Contemplates Tragedy.” In Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera, pp. 192-251. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Provides analysis of narrative structure, central characters, and the philosophic themes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Calvino, Italo. “On Kundera.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, No. 2 (Summer 1989): 53–7.

Italian author Calvino discusses the digressive and extemporaneous narrative elements in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Doctorow, E. L. “Four Characters under Two Tyrannies.” New York Times Book Review (29 April 1984): 1, 45–6.

American author Doctorow relates notions of nationality and politics to the central characters of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Kramer, Jane. “When There Is No Word for ‘Home.’” New York Times Book Review (29 April 1984): 46-8.

Kundera discusses his life, political, philosophical, and literary perspectives.

Webb, Igor. “Milan Kundera and the Limits of Scepticism.” Massachusetts Review XXXI, No. 3 (Autumn 1990): 357-68.

Draws comparisons among Kundera's literary, political, and philosophic outlooks and those of Enlightenment writers Denis Diderot and Laurence Sterne.

Additional coverage of Kundera's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 19, 52 and 74; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 24.

Marion Glastonbury (review date 25 May 1984)

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SOURCE: “Intimate Motifs,” in New Statesman, May 25, 1984, pp. 26-8.

[In the following review, Glastonbury finds that in The Unbearable Lightness of Being Kundera “defines his characters as ‘my own unrealized possibilities.’”]

This week, Milan Kundera has had as many Western journalists sitting at his feet in Paris as were formerly drawn to the shrine of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. In consequence, the facts of his career, which began in Brno in 1929, have been well publicised: early membership of the Communist Party; expulsion; reinstatement; acclaim during ‘the Prague Spring’ for his satirical first novel The Joke; dismissal from his post at the National Film School following the Russian invasion; continued residence in Czechoslovakia during the ‘normalization’ period, despite the suppression of his books; finally, in 1975, his acceptance of a professorship at the University of Rennes.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he defines his characters as ‘my own unrealized possibilities … Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented'. In a time of peculiarly fateful choices—where, how and with whom to live?—he laments the inescapable singularity of any course of action. Unscripted, unrehearsed, unrepeatable, life is an improvisation from which it is always too late to learn.

But fiction, like film, permits unlimited replays and shifts of perspective—and the intersecting paths of Kundera's four protagonists ingeniously reveal recurrent episodes, dreams and images in different minds.

Franz, the Swiss philosopher, is forever at cross purposes with his adored painter, the exiled Sabine, so their romance is conveyed through a glossary of misunderstood words. Incompatible habits of thought, opposing tastes and divergent responses are subtly traced to the contrasting predispositions of their separate pasts. Tomas the brain surgeon, perplexed by the incongruity of his marriage to a waitress turned photographer, tries to distinguish the essential elements of his destiny—‘Es muss sein’—from the fortuitous. In vain. His impression that Tereza has drifted toward him like an abandoned infant borne on the stream reminds him of other such rescues, in myth and legend. This prompts a reference to Oedipus in a letter to the Press on the subject of national guilt, which costs him his job.

Questions of accident and design, intention and outcome, are the more vexed because private conversations may be officially recorded and a casual liaison turn out to have been engineered by the police. Kundera specialises in intricate patterns of causation and ironic reverses of fortune.

Lest the reader should consider these paradoxes schematic, the author meets the charge with a dextrous pre-emptive thrust. Art has no monopoly on symmetry, he argues, for human lives are composed like music. They take shape according to the significance we assign to random objects and encounters in our formative years. These intimate motifs can be shared in the opening sequences, continuing to resonate thereafter. Hence the enduring fascination for Tomas of Sabina's bowler hat, the secret token of her desire for humiliation.

The example is less felicitous than the idea, which neatly transposes into literature the autobiographical tradition developed by music by Smetana and Janacek. ‘The laws of beauty,’ elegiacally invoked here, belong chiefly to men like Tomas and Franz, who recoil from the coarse and the commonplace and whose intellectual pre-eminence is shown by their swift shedding of domestic encumbrances. ‘In practically no time, Tomas managed to rid himself of wife, son, mother and father.’ Compassion, even curiosity, are notably absent from the portrayal of these nameless extras, the former spouse, the bespectacled girlfriend, the bloated matron in the public baths. By the time Tomas and Tereza take up farming, only animals—a cow, a pig, a dog—seem worthy of attention and attachment. A prophet much honoured outside his own country, Kundera scorns the Grand March of collective hopes and, equally marketably, endows his hero (of course) with sexual omnipotence.

Christopher Hawtree (review date 23 June 1984)

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SOURCE: “Bottom Rung,” in Spectator, June 23, 1984, pp. 29-30.

[In the following review, Hawtree offers a favorable assessment of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

Behind this most off-putting of titles there is a novel that, problematic and even irritating as its elliptical structure might momentarily be, exerts a curious fascination. Fitted together out of sequence by an ingenious, self-conscious writer whose sense of humour saves him from the passé indulgences of modernism, The Unbearable Lightness of Being contains characters of considerably more interest than have previously appeared in Kundera's fiction. At first, it seems that they will become submerged beneath a bale of homespun philosophy that, using people as ciphers to play out an elaborate game, recalls the worst excesses of the French structuralists. The opening pages turn around the contrast between things as they appear at the time and from a later perspective. ‘There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.’ This sense of the past, of continuity—heaviness—is seen as a positive foil to the fleeting sensations and frivolity—lightness—which form contemporary existence. It is between these twin poles of behaviour and attitude that the drama of the novel in its private and public sides is acted out. Such an idea surfaced five years ago in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. ‘In times when history still moved slowly, events were few and far between and easily committed to memory. They formed a commonly accepted backdrop for thrilling scenes of adventure in private life. Nowadays, history moves at a brisk clip. A historical event, though soon forgotten, sparkles the morning after with the dew of novelty. No longer a backdrop, it is now the adventure itself, an adventure enacted before the backdrop of the commonly accepted banality of private life.’

Milan Kundera's recurrent posing of the dilemmas surrounding private faces in public places is discussed in an interview with Ian McEwan printed in the latest issue of Granta. Too much exposition can be a dangerous thing, the characters becoming subsidiary to ideas and as a result mere pieces in the pattern of analogue and allusion. For all the exuberance of its comic situation, The Farewell Party is little more than a game that involves various types coping with a quandary, and the stories in Laughable Loves rehearse similar themes and settings, in particular the sexual one with which Mr. Kundera appears to be obsessed, without creating any characters that remain in the mind. Even The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which as one reads it appears a dizzyingly intelligent comedy, lingers more as brilliant sleight of hand. One often has the impression that when faced by an obvious battery of ideas many reviewers, for fear of looking stupid, automatically reach out for such phrases as ‘intellectual treat’ and those clumps of three commendatory adjectives which are not any substitute for real thinking.

Although the opening scenes appear a long-winded way of suggesting the sense of dislocation which has more than ever characterised Czech life since 1968, the novel gradually, absorbingly, takes shape as the characters are summoned from the author's mind. ‘I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly.’ A pattern emerges, and around his familiar subjects of infidelity, sexual agony, political upheaval and vicious persecution, Mr Kundera builds a structure which, seemingly random but in fact carefully ordered, turns on itself to become a self-referential whole that manages not to alienate the reader. However wary one might have been of such authorial intrusions and homilies, it is soon impossible to imagine the novel without them. If the story were to be cast in a linear form, it could easily seem just another saga of misfortune and hardship at the hands of callous authority—Mr Kundera has been at some pains to reject the easy tag of ‘dissident novelist'. Its structure is not the gratuitous one of, say, Eyeless in Gaza.

We are told a third of the way through that by the end Tomas, a doctor, and his second wife, Tereza, will have died in a car-crash after an evening away from their work on a collective farm. In a letter from the long-lost son by Tomas's first, brief marriage, the news reaches Tomas's former mistress, an artist called Sabina, whose exile has taken her from Geneva to Paris (and eventually America) to escape marriage from Franz who has at last left his wife. This suggests something of the complex relations between the four main characters which were heightened by the Russian invasion and reluctant escape; the mental processes—the contradictions and puzzles—that cause them to behave as they do, apart from any public considerations, are made endlessly interesting; three readings do not yield all that one senses is in it. (The blurb-writer has gone onto automatic pilot and said it ‘embraces, it seems, all aspects of human existence’) Even the dreams—so often the death-blow for fiction—that torment Tereza add convincingly to the whole. From such extraordinary sentences as ‘toilets in modern water closets rise up from the floor like white water lilies’ to disquisitions on Beethoven, the book could have easily become a hideously pseudish con-trick, but everything does take its place. Equally, the death of their dog Karenin (in fact a bitch) could have had all the mawkishness of sentimental fiction or Elvis Presley's ‘Old Shep'. It is possible to weep here without shame.

Throughout the novel, all feelings are heightened by the reader's being allowed without difficulty to view them from so many angles. Impelled, as we know, to follow Tereza back to occupied Prague from Zurich, Tomas finds that a light article he had published in that heady period before the invasion has resurfaced with all the consequences, at the hands of humourless government, that befell the writer of the frivolous postcard in The Joke. As the translator punningly has it, Tomas ‘had descended voluntarily to the lowest rung of the social ladder', which in his case means becoming a window-cleaner. The long section to which the novel has, one realises, been moving revolves around the paradox that although such a life has been forced on them it can be enjoyable. ‘It moved in a circle among known objects. Its monotony bred happiness, not boredom. As long as people lived in the country, in nature, surrounded by domestic animals, in the bosom of regularly recurring seasons, they retained a glimmer of that paradisiac idyll.’ The farm chairman who dotes on his pet pig, Mefisto, could in his way have lived at Blandings Castle. Too complex a work to take simple refuge in pastoral idyll, The Unbearable Lightness of Being none the less shows that such a life is weightier than that which leads Franz to join a junket to protest at the Cambodian border where, ironically enough, he meets his own death. More than ever before, I am impatient to see what Milan Kundera will write next. Meanwhile Michael Heim, whose elegant translations have a life of their own despite an occasional Americanism (‘rest room’ demands a category of Non-U all to itself), should be urged to prepare Life Is Elsewhere which cannot be found in London either in English or French. Sadly, this volume has been produced somewhat perfunctorily.

Wendy Lesser (review date Autumn 1984)

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SOURCE: “The Character as Victim,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Autumn, 1984, pp. 468-82.

[In the following excerpt, Lesser offers a negative assessment of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

What I understand by an author's love for his characters is a delight in their independent existence as other people, an attitude towards them which is analogous to our feelings towards those we love in life; and an intense interest in their personalities combined with a sort of detached solicitude, a respect for their freedom. This might be—indeed should be—a truism, but I suppose it to be one no longer. The writers whom we admire today do not appear to love their characters, and the critics who appraise their books show no sign of doing so either. For a writer or critic to show delight in a character would seem today rather naive, an old-fashioned response left over from the days of Dickens or Surtees. Characters, it seems, are no longer objects of affection.

—John Bayley, The Characters of Love

Among modern novelists, the prevailing idea appears to be that authors and their characters are in direct competition. What one side gains (in terms of verisimilitude, power, affection, fame, or whatever), the other loses. Of course, the author generally being in the dealer's seat, he can pretty much stack the deck to assure his own victory—if indeed victory consists of looking smarter, or nicer, or more lovable than one's characters. In the old days it was considered a victory if the author could eliminate himself as much as possible: “you become a nonentity, like Shakespeare,” said William Carlos Williams, describing the creation of great characters. But the last thing most modern authors want is to disappear from their novels, because then they might not get full credit. And credit appears to be what most of them are finally after—a critical pat on the had, an outpouring of readerly admiration, a place in the Modern Authors Hall of Fame. You can feel this in the very texture of their prose.

These authors will frequently argue that much as they might like to disappear, such conjuring tricks just aren't possible anymore. The whole game of literature has gotten too sophisticated, they will say; readers know they're reading a “text” and can't be fooled into thinking it's real life. But this can be disproved by a few obvious counter—examples: Norman Mailer, for instance, does one of the great disappearing acts of all time in The Executioner's Song, a novel which both creates a great character and comments on how the “fiction” was composed. Maybe it's just that writers have gotten lazier. It's much easier to trumpet out the difficulty of one's authorial task than to make a very difficult thing look easy (as Michael Jackson does when he dances, or Dickens does when he writes). And many modern novelists are simply not good enough—Bayley would say, not loving enough—to spend the world on their characters and have something left over for themselves. So the characters are the ones who consistently get shortchanged by the poverty of their authors’ imaginations.

I have been speaking of “these authors” as an undifferentiated mass, but obviously not all modern novelists suffer equally or similarly from such problems. In the recent season alone, for instance, there is quite a range in the degree to which authors triumph over characters. …

An instructive contrast to this first novel by an unknown writer [Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr] can be found in the recent work of a major novelist: Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This is a bad novel, I think, but it is a bad novel on a high level—extremely intelligent, quite witty, and very certain about its meanings. In fact, Kundera's novel is bad partly because its author knows too clearly and powerfully what he wants to say. Nobody else—in particular, none of the characters—has a chance to say otherwise. The prose has a coy way of suggesting that the novel is partly the product of accident, as when Kundera remarks about an earlier section: “There is something I failed to mention at the time.” But this author defers to no power beyond himself, and the novel's “accidental” deaths—of one character in a political demonstration, or of two others under a truck—all feel excessively contrived. You get the sense that it is easy, too easy, for Kundera to kill off his characters because they were never very much alive in the first place.

Kundera is well guarded against such criticism, in that he builds the answers to it into his novel. This is self-aware fiction of the latest variety, parrying with its right just where the critic is about to throw a left. Thus he counters the comments I've just made by saying in the midst of the novel: “But isn't it true that an author can write only about himself? … The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them.” Certainly this is egotism of a high order (can one only be fond of one's own faults?).

But it is also a lie: Kundera does not love all his characters equally, at least to the extent of giving them independent being. The only character in the novel who seems at all substantial is Tomas, a Czech doctor-turned-window-washer. The central fact about Tomas is that he is a tremendous womanizer (in a manner that is much more evocative of writers than doctors), and this promiscuity is clearly an object of intense enjoyment and delight for the author. Any gestures toward condemning Tomas that occur in the course of the novel are purely ritual ones. Kundera tells us that Tomas's wife, Tereza, is made desperately jealous by his behavior, and we are shown her jealousy and her pain in all its detail. But we can't really feel it. Even when we hear about Tereza's dreams or childhood anxieties, the stories have the ring of something told to the author, not something experienced by him. And this failure of empathy occasionally causes Kundera to misjudge the reader's reaction. Thus, following a tale of Tomas's infidelities and Tereza's discovery of them, Kundera says:

Anyone who has failed to benefit from the Devil's gift of compassion (co-feeling) will condemn Tereza coldly for her deed, because privacy is sacred and drawers containing intimate correspondence are not to be opened. But because compassion was Tomas's fate (or curse), he felt that he himself had knelt before the open desk drawer, unable to tear his eyes from Sabina's letter.

Who is kidding whom here? While we're in the process of coldly condemning, perhaps we might cast a brief glance at Tomas's own behavior—but no. Tomas's infidelities, like the desk drawers, are apparently sacred.

An important character in this novel is a female dog named Karenin. As Russian scholars and readers of Tolstoy will know, Karenin is a man's name. But for various reasons Tomas and Tereza do not want to name their dog Karenina, and she therefore becomes Karenin, after which point in the novel she is invariably referred to as “he.” Somehow this is indicative of Kundera's attitude toward his human characters, but in reverse: his female characters are really just outpourings of a masculine imagination, the results of his determination to give them female names. What they are in themselves does not interest him (though he would have us believe that it does—for this novelist wants full credit for empathy, for “compassion”).

The novel ends with, and gains its emotional clout from, the death of the dog Karenin—this from the writer who has just finished attacking “totalitarian kitsch,” the production of fake and sappy sentiments. Of course, the long discussion of kitsch may well be Kundera's vanguard action to defend his own kitschiness, another case of the “you can't fault me because I've already faulted myself” approach. But one has the feeling that Kundera's kitsch is the one thing he can't control. Even the use of words like “unbearable”—not only in the title, but throughout the novel—is the sign of a kitschy imagination, one that must resort to excess because it no longer responds to understatement.

There is a great deal of discussion about love in this book: love of a betraying husband for his betrayed wife, of a lover for his mistress, of an author for his character, of a master for his dog. Finally, the novel seems to assert that the latter is the only form of “unselfish” love, because a dog can't give us anything back. But as anyone who owns an animal knows, the love you bear your pets is likely to be the most selfish love of all, for an animal depends on you utterly and never violates your definition of its personality. Because an animal can't talk, you give it language and thought; because it only gives you back yourself, it makes you feel both powerful and unselfish, both loving and beloved. The mistake Kundera makes is to treat his characters like pets. He thinks what he feels for them is love, whereas it's merely an excess of self. If it were really love, we would be able to push aside that gigantic authorial face that looms out of the pages of Kundera's novel (and so much other recent fiction), and find behind it the tiny, human, flawed faces of real novelistic characters. But they aren't there. Behind that leering, all-obliterating mask is nothing.

Maureen Howard (review date January 1985)

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SOURCE: “Fiction in Review,” in Yale Review, Vol. 74, No. 2, January, 1985, pp. xxi-xxiii.

[In the following review, Howard describes The Unbearable Lightness of Being as a “superb novel, an important work of fiction.”]

In the first sentence of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera presents us with Nietzsche's “mad myth” of eternal return, the heaviness of responsibility that lies on us if history, personal and public, recurs ad infinitum. This idea is opposed to the transitory nature of life as we experience it, which reduces responsibility: “For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”

This superb novel, an important work of fiction, is launched with theory, but fear not—whoever the narrator may be, he's an entertaining fellow, sophisticated, professional, very European, not daunted by large issues. Following this dazzling introduction to his mind, he moves easily to this story: “I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking across the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.” So after the grand overture, we turn simply to a character, an indecisive one at that, but in the light of these reflections. And we turn to plot: Tomas, against his better judgment, lends himself to entrapment, lets Tereza, a pretty waitress, weight his life with her presence. Tomas, a doctor and a compulsive womanizer, is a charming fellow who has decided firmly in favor of no commitments. His mistress, Sabina, something of a kindred spirit—and so on, through the arrangement of these lives. The indecision and the inquiries continue:

But was it love? The feeling of wanting to die beside her was clearly exaggerated: he had seen her only once before in his life: Was it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware deep down of his inaptitude for love, felt the self-deluding need to simulate it?

Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone? There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the last rehearsal for life is life itself?

But what are we considering? It might well be a soap opera: attractive for afflicted with a case of Don Juanism, homey Tereza: Sabina, a successful painter whose opposition to permanence may amount to no more than lightweight Bohemianism. Something is awry. It is just plain funny, our professional narrator examining these trivial matters under the full light of his monumental questions. Naturally, Tomas and his plot become absurd.

In an interview, published in the New York Review of Books, “Novel against the World,” Kundera speaks of the supposed death of the novel:

I've heard people compare the history of the novel to a seam of coal long since exhausted. But for me, it's more like a mausoleum of missed opportunities and of misunderstood challenges. …

Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Diderot's Jacques le fataliste are for me the two greatest novelistic works of the eighteenth century. The two novels are playful on a grandiose scale and reach pinnacles of unseriousness never scaled before, or since.

Kundera takes up the challenge. He lives in exile, but he is a citizen of the European novel. The opening section of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is intentionally unserious, distracted with its games. Even the Russian occupation, which changes lives irrevocably, is kept light, easy, personal in the first telling:

He made several phone calls to Geneva. A show of Sabina's work had opened there by chance a week after the Russian invasion, and in a wave of sympathy for her tiny country, Geneva's patrons of the arts bought up all her paintings.

“Thanks to the Russians, I'm a rich woman,” she said, laughing into the telephone.

Life as usual. But the fact of the matter is that Tomas's life is constricted by public events and changes of scene. He and Tereza accumulate the history of their time and a history together. Their story gains significance as they do. “Every writer,” Kundera has said, “always wants to speak of essentials. Each book is a response to the question: what is essential? And suddenly, in exile, the great geographical distance permits a better view of the essentials. In one stroke, you see the general in the particular.” Tomas takes a job in Switzerland, but returns to Prague following Tereza—the stone, the draw, the heavy—who cannot live out of her context. She also lives in pain due to his need for other women, his dedication to lightness Sabina floats free around Europe, to America, free of caring: it is a problematic freedom that may prove sanitary, lifeless. She may be as girlish as Tereza.

Kundera's novel is about the agony of exile; the choice which is not choice; the return which is nearly unendurable, probably suicidal. The lives considered are no longer theoretical. Tomas and Tereza, even Sabina, have past histories, just like the people in nineteenth-century novels of the quotidian. Kundera does not love realistic paraphernalia and ordinary chronology, but uses it when he chooses in this novel to great effect. His own play, his ingenuity never diminishes. The Unbearable Lightness of Being opens out, or relaxes, into the story of Tomas, stripped of his profession, sent with Tereza into further exile on a collective farm. He is weighted once and for all with his marriage and a narrow domesticity. Sabina is doomed to an unsettled, touristy life. As the novel takes hold of the narrator, he becomes urgent, fully engaged—no longer the casual theorist, he is a presence to reckon with. His little essays and reflections are now deeply felt. The fiction is fed by his ideas on censorship, on émigré culture, but most perfectly by his beautiful obsession with language. Language, after all, is what the exiled writer is denied, a free possession of his language, and this novel makes the heartbreak of that loss clear. The definition of words, the failure of communication, appear again and again and become central to the fiction. “Compassion” (the word) and “kitsch” (the expression) are set up in brilliant passages which become as active within the novel as incident or setting may be in more traditional stories. We do not know what it is to be cut off from the street use or the intellectual discipline of our language, or to write knowing that our words are to be given up, mostly and always, to the translator. Nabokov knew this and carried on an extravagant love affair with his mother tongue. In Kundera's narrator we now have a passionate etymologist and storyteller whose initial academic questions seem as much a part of the past as Tomas's philandering and, sad to say, his career as a surgeon. Our commentator is weighted with his characters, invested in their stories, and our continuing interest in his voice depends on them. The political factor, recent Czech history, is his material, as it is their material—and it is inescapable. So is his language, which binds them all. Choices are diminished, confined to Tomas's and Tereza's personal life. In the final section, the love of animals is used as a displacement for human emotion. (That is the kind of invention which Kundera comes up with effortlessly throughout this work.) To indulge feelings for a dog, a pig, a cow in an impoverished atmosphere has dignity; it recalls a less limited time. The deathwatch and burial of Karenin, Tereza's dog, is incredibly moving: it is the longest story within the novel, ever so much more detailed and lovingly written than Tomas's and Tereza's own demise.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the most rewarding new novel I've read in years. It has been reviewed with a confused reverence, even a peevishness because, with its stunning structure, it does not declare itself: it is not heavy, not is it light. “Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.” There are no comforting answers to the “mad myth,” but Kundera makes us feel that his narrative is one way to survive hard questions, and his novel is one hell of a gloss.

Rhoda Koenig (review date 1-8 July 1985)

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SOURCE: “All Booked,” in New York, July 1-8, 1985, pp. 130-32.

[In the following review, Koenig offers praise for The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

Love looms large in summer reading, along with angry gods, Hollywood parties, and nervous breakdowns. Many interesting times await you between the covers of paperback books, first published last year and longer ago.

At once clever and somber, joyous and harrowing, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is Milan Kundera's profoundly touching novel about love and freedom. The liberty in question is both personal and political. Tomas, a Prague surgeon, makes love to a waitress who yearns for “something higher,” lets her move into his flat, and, finally, “to assuage Tereza's sufferings he married her.” Though Tereza's sufferings are caused by Tomas's infidelities, he will not give up his mistresses; all he can offer his wife is the right to be jealous and a warm embrace when she wakes, trembling, from her nightmares. But after Tomas runs afoul of the Communist regime and has to become a window washer, his attitudes toward sex and constancy take a new turn. Meanwhile, Sabina, one of Tomas's former mistresses, leaves Prague, where her paintings are thought to be subversive, and takes up with Franz, a Swiss academic whose rapacious wife regards him as one more possession in her overstuffed living room. Kundera traces the follies and ecstasies of these lovers with immense intelligence and tenderness. When Tomas recalls, uneasily, that “his acquaintance with Tereza was the result of six improbable fortuities,” the author interposes, “Necessity knows no magic formulae—they are all left to chance. If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi's shoulder.” And when Sabina shrinks from a man proclaiming his benevolence, Kundera puts in, “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” The translation, by Michael Henry Heim, is faultless.

Guy Scarpetta (essay date Winter 1987)

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SOURCE: “Kundera's Quartet (On The Unbearable Lightness of Being),” translated by John Anzalone, in Salmagundi, No. 73, Winter, 1987, pp. 109-18.

[In the following essay, Scarpetta examines the musical structure and dominant thematic motifs in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]


Milan Kundera's novel opens on an abstract reflection involving certain themes of Nietzsche and Parmenides; its final part, seemingly unrelated to the actions and situations of its characters, essentially concerns the slow death of a dog. Here are indications of an overt desire to destroy the classical notion of “novelistic development” (exposition, peripeteia, reboundings, knotting and denouement). In fact, everything happens as if, for Kundera, a sense of musical composition took on increasing autonomy in the face of plot's traditional necessities. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being there is no homogeneous, centered plot, but instead a calculated tangle of semi-independent story-lines. Musical terms like variation, interval, counterpoint and restatement come to mind to describe the structural devices the book employs. For example, Kundera is expert in the art of variation: the “events” affecting characters seem to depend on abstract, secret, haunting themes. The intersections of story-lines are closely-timed and fleeting suggesting the use of interval. Likewise, the novel seems to have been composed with the deliberate and generalized use of counterpoint, favoring the horizontal development of parallel narratives over their vertical condensation. Finally, as in musical restatement, an apparently gratuitous motif, such as that of Sabina's derby, or that of the photographs taken by Tereza during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, isolated from one sequence, can expand to become the principal motif of another. At the core of the novel, an emblem points to this compositional choice—it is that of Beethoven's last quartet, Opus 135, apparently summoned as a thematic device for the encounter between Tomas and Tereza—for the “muss es sein? es muss sein,”—but which serves in fact as the implicit, metaphoric reference to a formal structural principal.


The novel places in opposition romantic obsession, which seeks THE woman in every woman, and can only lead to disappointment, and the libertine obsession, whose donjuanism aims at the uniqueness of each woman, her “formula.” This basic line of demarcation in the novel's narrative fabric is responsible for splitting the characters into groups. Thus, Tereza represents the romantic partner, Sabina the licentious one. Franz seems the very soul of licentious ineptitude (his wife is “the incarnation of his mother”) and Sabina imagines him, during sex, as “a giant puppy nursing at her breast.” But the dividing line can also run across and divide a single character, such as Tomas, whose fate is precisely his failure to share himself between licentious and passionate love. As it happens, this libertinage, raised as a precarious possibility by the text, and constantly threatened by anything that adheres, in one way or another, is not simply a theme. It also functions as the novelistic device par excellence, that of the cold hard look, that of a radical non-adherence. It is also the device that rejects the illusion of an innocent, homogeneous nature, or of a “good community,” and immediately targets individual singularities. The character of Tomas suggests this, in the pride he feels, after an episode of debauchery, in “having cut a narrow strip of tissue out of the infinite fabric of the universe with his imaginary scalpel.” In other words, libertinage is first and foremost a matter of cutting and thus of language: it joins to the pleasure principle the practice of naming. Not just a part of the novel's content, it is one of the very resources of the writing itself.


It is a common, particularly widespread prejudice to hold in immediate suspicion ideas and abstractions found anywhere in the fictional genre: the good novelist, we are told, owes it to himself to be the least “intellectual” possible (true, most novelists have no trouble meeting this criterium … ). The question is elsewhere. Let us say instead that the real means of appreciation lie first in the value of the ideas or abstractions the novelist proposes (judged according to a viewpoint internal to literature) and then in the way they appear and function within the fictional whole. From this perspective, one must distinguish between the roman a these, in which characters and action are artificially subordinated to a more or less explicit “idea,” and the integration of abstraction into the narrative. Such an integration, moreover, can take place according to a variety of modes: the montage of a series of philosophical sequences in a dialectic-setting context, as in Sade; the commentary of a narrator who is also a character, as in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, or of the main character, as in Musil's Man without Qualities, regarding the action or situations the text portrays; a combination of these two types of commentary, as in Dostoevsky; the inclusion of abstraction within the dialogue, as in Faulkner; a reflexive counterpoint, as in Broch's Sleepwalkers, or a fusion of intellectual register with lyrical flow, as in Broch's Death of Virgil. On this question Kundera's choice is most unusual: by a twist of his text, he seems—perhaps provocatively?—to accept the canons of the roman a these. He presents “ideas” before “illustrating” them, moves from general to specific and from concrete to abstract. Yet in another way he never stops perverting the device, by confronting it with another, strictly opposite device: the move from a fictional or historical case to the law that illustrates it. He multiplies theses, has them branch out from an original narrative situation. He intertwines concrete and abstract registers, even as he maintains the broadest possible separation between them: a fictional sequence is never the pure example of a general thesis, nor is a thesis ever the sole lesson to be found in a specific case; rather, each register preserves its autonomy within the score. In short, things occur as if the novelistic imagination (designated as such even in the exhibition of the methods used to develop characters) served him as the test of an always open thought process, one always capable of nuance and new beginnings. It is not of romans a these that one should speak, but rather of interrogative novels.


One of a number of possible subtitles for Kundera's novel, in opposition to Kafka's well-known expression, might be, “attempted escape from the maternal sphere.” The case of the four main characters provides illustration. On the masculine side, Franz is the most dependent on the maternal universe and at the same time the most inept at libertinage. He is also the most inclined to lyrical illusion, even in the political sphere. He longs for the “cortege,” for the “long march,” for participation in the “march of history.” Tomas, who has deliberately, even willfully (and symptomatically, following his divorce) broken with the values of the maternal universe, seems troubled by his role as father (his relationship with his son is based on equivocation). He barely escapes the classical oedipal conflict, which seeks a radical separation between sexuality and tenderness. He dreams of being able to love Tereza “without being burdened by aggressive sexual foolishness.” As for the women, Sabina never stops replaying symbolically her leaving of the maternal universe, according to a literally interminable principle of “betrayal,” as if the leaving could never be definitive, and had to be endlessly begun again. Finally, Tereza's relationship to her mother is presented as peculiarly traumatic. Her mother embodies “naturalism,” shamelessness, the denial of sin and the will to proclaim the innocence of the body even in its least appetizing aspects. Tereza thinks she can find a way out by a counter-investment in noble values such as music and reading, in her passionate love for Tomas: “She had come to live with him to escape the maternal universe where all bodies were the same.” But she remains caught in the trap of narcissism. She does not desire her partner, but rather “her own body, suddenly revealed” through him. In other words, she is basically caught in the maternal grip; even in her idealism, her need for dignity, she continues to be no more than the inverse extension of “her mother's grand, violent, self-destructive gesture.”

It is not surprising if, in this quartet, relationships can only be based on misunderstanding. Kundera goes so far as to elaborate the lexicon of Franz and Sabina's basic misunderstanding. Each never stops asking the other for exactly what the other can not give, and refuses what is offered. But what is most striking is surely how the degree of independence from the world of the mother coincides in each character with a greater or lesser capacity to resist the grasp of ideology. So, Tereza, exiled for a time after the Soviet invasion, ends up returning to Czechoslovakia, and Franz, the “mama's boy,” obstinately adheres to communal causes that allow him to blend in among the masses. It is as if Kundera were suggesting in a negative way that freedom from political illusion, along with the non-conformism it supposes, were intrinsically linked to a subjective aptitude for cutting the umbilical cord.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being contains seven major divisions or parts. These “movements” do not correspond to either changes in register (as in The Death of Virgil) or to variations in point of view or in the instance of enunciation (as in The Sound and the Fury), but to focal differences. Each part is centered on one or two characters, caught from within and commented on from without. Thus, Parts 1 and 5 focus on Tomas, Parts 2, 4, and 7 on Tereza, Parts 3 and 6 on Sabina and Franz. The architectonic formula would thus be A- B- C- B- A- C- B. The process of multiple focus allows at one and the same time for: the displacement of discourse time with respect to narrative time (The death of Tomas and Tereza, which concludes the book, is mentioned in Part 3; again, there is neither suspense nor linear plot, but a game of combinations that dominates any chronology.); the exposition of several perceptions of the same event (An erotic encounter can thus be taken apart according to the differing “vision” each partner has of it.); and finally the authorization of a set of thematic variations and counterpoints. Moreover, it can be noted that the architectural center of the novel corresponds to a dream sequence, Tereza's dream-fantasy about the Mont-de-Pierre in Prague, which nothing in the discourse allows us to distinguish from a realist sequence—as if this indicated the vanishing point “out of the real,” towards the lightest zone that organizes structure.


One of Kundera's many mini-tales is devoted to Stalin's son. Convinced of his matchless destiny, at once son of the living God, and cursed for it, he was unable to bear the derision of his co-prisoners in a German prison camp, over the shit he left in the latrine after using it. He chose instead to commit suicide by throwing himself on the electrified barbed wire. “Stalin's son,” notes Kundera “gave his life for shit;” this was “the only metaphysical death amidst the universal stupidity of the war.” Kundera allows us to see that shit is the very sign of a metaphysical question, whose implications in theological and gnostic traditions he is not afraid to explore: that of the body and the soul, of the upper and lower, that of a humanity created “in the image of God” but needing to shit every day. How does one reconcile shit with the religious or secular ideologies for which man is essentially good and innocent, those ideologies of the “categorical agreement with being,” of which the author speaks elsewhere? What Kundera's “variations” on this theme suggest is that shit can only be thought of in metonymic relation to original sin, to the indelible stain of the species.

Here is yet another way of dividing the characters: there are those who, aware of the connection between shit and stain, reject shit and consider only “noble” values, like Tereza and Stalin's son. Stalin's son finds the evocation of his own shit an intolerable affront; Tereza's lyrical illusion during her first amorous encounter with Tomas is disturbed by the irrepressible gurgling of her stomach. Here a sometimes scatological irony is at work in the devaluation of idealization or of the obsession with purity. On the other hand, there are those who reject altogether the idea of original sin. They rehabilitate shit and wallow in it; they believe in the body's fundamental innocence, in nature; for them nudity is normal. Such characters, like Tereza's mother, whose “naturalism” leads her to burp and fart in public, are no less ridiculous than the others, only slightly more abject. But these two positions are essentially symmetrical and complementary: the first accepts sin but rejects shit, the second accepts shit but rejects sin. These are two masks for the same repression. The third attitude is libertine: it involves accepting both shit and the idea of sin, and maintaining upper and lower in their respective, hierarchical places. In short, it involves acknowledging that the consciousness of a stain is necessary, if only for the sake of transgressing that consciousness, for example in the erotic. Tomas and Sabina's eroticism does not exclude anality; Tomas finds that a woman's ass is the most “moving” part of her body, and is intensely aroused by the protruding anus of one of his partners. Sabina, during a discretely fetishistic scene (she has spiced up her nakedness with an incongruous derby), has an orgasm while imagining herself shitting in front of her lover. For these characters who are as far from puritanism as they are from pansexualism, from idealism as from naturalism, sexual pleasure presupposes the sense of sin.


The characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being live through grave and tragic historical situations, foremost among them the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and “normalization” at the hands of the police. But the eye the novel casts on these situations is never directly political. Political scrutiny aims at the masses, at collective phenomena, at common measures and denominators; whereas the novelistic scrutiny plumbs the uniqueness of each case, and through it precisely that which escapes political reason. To quote Musil, the novelist's gaze participates in the “vivisector's” art. What does Kundera's novel bring into view? That “rationality,” “analyses,” or “judgments” count for very little in the decisions made by subjects faced with such situations; that the history of an individual is first a field of possibilities and virtualities (here too, we can think of Musil and his “probable man”) in which accidents and the most irrational subjective postures play a sometimes determining role in the achievement of a destiny (exiled in Zurich, if Tomas finally decides to return to Prague, it is in order to be faithful to a metaphor … ). How does the novelistic eye present “normalized” Czechoslovakia? Less as a universe of oppression, exciting our indignation, as would a purely militant vision, than as a grotesque world where “totalitarian kitsch” reigns, a rigged world in which common, everyday logic founders. It is a universe where, for example, the thousands of photos taken in Prague in 1968 to witness the militarily imposed Soviet order end up being used by that very order to identify those who oppose the regime; where it is useless to oppose “truth” to official lies, so long as truth itself can be manipulated, or turned aside to contribute to repression; a universe, in short, where there is no longer any logical link between an act's intentions and its effects.

It is quite interesting from the standpoint of an “esthetic look at the world” to determine the way Kundera uses the notion of kitsch in his novel. The term is common in central Europe, models of kitsch being visible in the Vienna Ring as well as in the castles of Louis of Bavaria, and generally refers to the triumph of stylistic artifice, to “the sentimental and deceptive embellishment of life.” For Hermann Broch, for example, kitsch embodied the “evil” principle in art and was linked to the separation of artistic values and the other political, moral or religious values of social life, that is, to the modern period's inability, since romanticism, to conceive of art other than as an autonomous and despiritualized sphere. Now, Kundera extends and exports the term. For him, kitsch is not simply an esthetic category, but also “an attitude, a world view,” that of institutionalized lying, of the divorce between social life and its official representations, of the distance between announced optimism and the distress of daily life, that of communism. What is most striking is that the extension of a “stylistic” notion into the political realm produces an effect of truth in depth, revealing an essential dimension of communism, one, precisely, that no purely “ideological” discourse had ever before really allowed us to grasp.


Perhaps what is most important is this: the “cold gaze of the true libertine” that Kundera also applies to political behavior tolerates no taboos, not even those demanded by the militant's version of the “good fight” against the totalitarian order. Anticonformist, acute, clinical, cruel, this “cold gaze” extracts ambiguous truths, truths that are embarrassing for all camps, truths that can not “serve.” One of these “truths” is that in the West there is a way of demonstrating against totalitarianism that rests upon the same subjective attitude (the enthusiasm of participating in the “long march” of history) that installed totalitarianism in the first place. Another is that the Soviet invasion of 1968 created a veritable intoxication in the Czech population, the paradoxical and troubling euphoria of a clear struggle that could be engaged in without second thoughts. Then there is the contradictory “fact” that a repressive situation, like that of Tomas, who loses his surgeon's position for political reasons and becomes a window washer, can be sexually more free, more favorable to libertinage, than a “normal position.” And finally there is the irrepressible “truth” that there exists at times a barely perceptible complicity (visible in the simple way one points one's index figure while speaking) between the attitudes of dissidents and of the communist authorities in power—or let us say the same way of appealing to the political superego. Paradoxical, scandalous and insubordinate, these “truths” are irreducible to any political conception whatsoever. Not that Kundera is not a dissident, but here too, he is beyond the strictly political sphere. Like any authentic writer, he is a dissident against all manner of conformism or communal illusion.


In a famous 1957 piece, Alain Robbe-Grillet catalogued “several outdated notions” regarding the novel, to wit: character, story, commitment (engagement), the opposition of form and content, and the latter's primacy. Clearly Kundera does not fit in this type of “progressive” esthetic logic, and does not submit to any of its dictates or decrees. In a novel like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for example, there are characters that create the effect of emotional participation, even identification; there are “stories” trimmed of all classical narrative prestige; ideological, psychological and sexual “contents” that can not be reduced to simple pretexts (Kundera is obviously a writer for whom the “what to say” is just as important as the “how to say it”). And if it is clear that the problem of Sartrien or social realist commitment is radically foreign to him, his novel nonetheless possesses an undeniable ethical dimension: he analyses behaviors and values, denounces hypocrisy, and so forth.

But we must not conclude for all this that Kundera's art of the novel postulates an innocence for the genre, or emerges from the Balzacian “paradise lost” ironically invoked by Robbe-Grillet. There is no trace in Kundera's writing of any naturalization of nineteenth century codes. The elements decried as outdated by the theorists of the new novel are indeed present, but skewed, and treated in the second degree; they are not excluded or subverted, but to use one of Barthes’ terms, they are turned over. As for his characters, Kundera presents them to us as they are, as fictional beings, and goes so far as to indicate how, within the novel's creation, they were bit by bit conceived. His “stories” or his representations never function in a purely referential way; if there are themes, it is in the musical sense of the word, and their musical treatment is always perceptible. The novelist's art of composition is never effaced behind “realistic effects.” As for the ethical judgment the novel elicits, it is neither tacked on to the fiction, nor anterior or exterior to it. It emerges, as I again emphasize, from a “novelist's gaze,” and not from any outside conscience or ready-made analysis. This, no doubt, is the major interest of such a novelistic esthetic: the ability to conjugate representative effects from the classical novel with the “age of suspicion” introduced by modernity; the ability to claim the function of knowledge or of truth for the novel without, for all that, ceasing to assume and even demonstrate writing's artifices. In short, truth for Kundera is not the contrary of artifice, but rather its effect. In other words: if, in his novels, there is a “critique of innocence,” then it is not only the theme of the situations presented, but also a principle that affects writing itself as such.

John Bayley (essay date Summer 1989)

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SOURCE: “Kundera and Jane Austen,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 58-64.

[In the following essay, Bayley draws comparisons between Jane Austen's novelistic departures in Northanger Abbey and Kundera's response to “kitsch” and his narrative innovations in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

In The Art of the Novel Kundera speaks of his “disgust” with those who reduce a work of fiction to its ideas. Yes, but who watches the watchers, who preserves the critic from this primal fault, when the critic is also a novelist? It might seem that there is no answer to this question. Kundera is a writer very different from his admired Kafka, who has no “ideas,” who made a world of his own, a private world in which privacy had no existence; and who thus anticipated—as Kundera says—the society of totalitarianism and the concentration camp. Kafka knew nothing of such a society, and had no idea of prophesying it: his own world was both personal and obsessive, and yet it has become one that is public and accepted, universally recognized.

It is difficult to imagine such a process occurring with Kundera. Many if not most good novelists could indeed be described in the words that Mallarmé used about Poe. Time has changed them into their real selves. Posterity has revealed what they could not have known about their own creation. But could this apply to Kundera, remarkable novelist as he certainly is, or to the other contemporary novelists he admires—Broch, Gombrowicz, Nabokov, Calvino—novelists all concerned in their different ways with that twin activity Kundera himself has described: the “appeal of thought,” and “the appeal of play.” It is tacitly accepted in critical circles today that the ludic function of the novel produces a created equilibrium with its ideas, its thought content; that the two together somehow vouch for each other, canceling the charge of either frivolity or academicism. But if so, what is the reality about them that their authors do not know, and which future readers and critics will discover?

In this essay I shall investigate the question of whether Kundera has, so to speak, any future being as a novelist apart from what now declares itself with such vitality and lucidity in his novels, and in what he has himself written about them. What secret world might be left to declare itself to a coming generation? On the face of it, none, and yet the question is not so simple as that. Oddly enough the work that occurred to me in comparison with Kundera's here is one apparently as unlike his as possible. It seems likely that he has never read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey: possibly nothing by Jane Austen at all. One can imagine him saying, like Conrad, if her novels were brought to his attention, that he could not see the point of them; and it is certainly the case that in his essays and interview discussions in The Art of the Novel he mentions no women novelists. There seems to me to be no male chauvinism in this: only an honest unawareness that women write novels, and write them, usually, in a different way from the male novel, which for Kundera is always, if it comes off, a “conquest of being.” That is of course a significant phrase. Kundera sees the novelist as successively annexing new areas of experience (Ulysses “undertakes” the immense theme of vulgarity) and the parallel with science, war, exploration, is obvious enough. As so often Kundera is paradoxical here. His disgust with ideas is also a disgust with male conquest by metaphysics. He quotes Heidegger: “Since reality consists in the uniformity of calculable reckoning, man too must enter monotonous uniformity in order to keep up with what is real. A man without a uniform today already gives the impression of being something unreal which no longer belongs.” In spite of Kundera's disgust male novelists must be, for him, men in uniform.

Nonetheless, Kundera as a novelist does overcome his own intellectual paradox. The example of Jane Austen's first, most youthful novel helps to show how. She began Northanger Abbey as a skit on the Gothic novel. Not on Mrs. Radcliffe, whom she greatly admired, but on that great novelist's imitators, who were springing up on all sides. Her simple recipe was to involve her young heroine in a commonplace social situation, which she, the heroine, would contrive to see as a “Gothic” one: with the consequence of social follies and misunderstandings. Intent on the development of her idea, Jane Austen did not see that her novel, would in time reveal something quite other from what she had planned: would reveal, indeed, an extraordinarily original image of the self, in relation to the fashions and distractions which she portrayed as creating it. Catherine Morland, her heroine, possesses a good nature and a capacity to love that overcomes all the social “Gothicism” that her author contrives to put in her way. Jane Austen's deliberate and secondary satire goes to show that respected social figures, like General Tilney, are in reality just as much ogres and monsters as the stereotype Catherine—her head stuffed with romances—conceives them to be. Jane Austen was deliberately showing that Gothic novels were far more realistic, in the society in which they were so successful, than their besotted and day-dreaming readers could possibly have supposed.

But beyond that she had done something she knew nothing of, which has secured a deserved immortality for that first slight novel, an immortality which would have come to pass even if she had written no later and more mature masterpieces. She has made a real person out of wholly artificial conventions and contrivances. Her heroine manages somehow to elude the successive tones of satire, amusement, delicate burlesque in which the novelist has presented her. The novel has escaped from ideas and purposes, from what we might now consider—following Kundera—to be the pattern of “thought” and “play.”

And it seems to me that something very similar is happening in Kundera's own best novels, particularly in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The novel's true and distant meaning—its meaning, if not for “eternity” then at least for the following generations—lies in some other dimension than the schema propounded by its author, however much his own deliberate “conquest” of new reality may contribute to it. The Unbearable Lightness of Being not only subsumes the rich underside of Kundera's writing but may reveal an unexpected meaning beyond its schematic one. As Northanger Abbey takes the Gothic as its inspiration and starting—point—what Kundera would call “the already known,” from which the novelist must seek his or her new departure—so The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with the idea of kitsch.

The word is an old piece of Austrian slang which, as Kundera is at pains to explain in an analysis of it, signifies a peculiarly Central European concept of the vulgar-romantic, the facile, the sentimental, the false. Like the Russian poshlost, kitsch signifies a dimension of life which developed as a kind of popularization of the Romantic experience of the early nineteenth century; and in exploring and analyzing it Kundera gives it an extra political dimension. The Brotherhood of Man, that politically Romantic ideal, can only be achieved, he tells us, “on the basis of kitsch”; and kitsch is the chosen instrument of the Communist Party in their manipulation of social consciousness. All pictures of smiling sunburnt farmers, little girls in flowery meadows, contented old grannies—in a word, all advertisement, whether capitalist or communist, which takes an implacably rosy view of human possibility, is the groundwork or raw material of kitsch and its various social and artistic ramifications.

Kundera sees human consciousness, particularly under a communist regime, as besieged by kitsch: and the chief function of art today as having the duty to disown, denounce and replace it. This can be done by the novel in its ludic role and as the natural vessel not of negation but of skepticism—“consubstantial irony.” Irony is the natural enemy of kitsch, its antidote and opposite. But how should the novelist use irony? Kundera is as cunning about this as one would expect. Irony is the novel must be an invisible presence, not an aggressive weapon, as it is used by the satirist. Just by being a novel, in the true sense, the form can dissolve the kitsch universe.

But kitsch possesses a reassuring solidity and weight. That is why the lightness of being seems so intolerable when compelled to a confrontation with it. In Kundera's novel Sabina is the chief anti-kitsch partisan, and it is part of the book's invisible irony that this role destroys her. The “honesty” of communism—the drabness, the shortages, the food queues—she can tolerate, even approve; what she detests are its hypocritical pretences, its façade of a glittering socialist palace. She develops as an artist an unnerving technique for destroying her enemy through subtle kinds of distortion. Having been trained in a socialist art school she applies its precepts to her painting: but in every canvas representing a sheet-metal workers’ factory meeting, or happy schoolchildren at play, she contrives to insert some disturbing touch—a few blood-red dots, or a scrawny bird outline etched in black—which arrests and reverses the reassuringly kitschy expectations the audience has from the picture.

Sabina's tactic earns her fame abroad, when her pictures are smuggled out of the country and become known in the capitalist West. She herself emigrates and becomes successful and prosperous. But she is soon disgusted with the way in which her paintings are, as it were, turned back into kitsch for the benefit of a society which in its own way is just as hungry for it as the Soviets desire their own subjects to be. Her exhibitions are advertised by crafty photos of machine-gun watchtowers seen from below, or tasteful patterns of barbed wire surrounding the text of the announcement. She realizes that her enemy now possesses her, is inside her; and her gaiety and promiscuity cover a deep foundation of despair.

Sabina's predicament is, in a sense, that of the novelist himself. In his attack on the idea of kitsch Kundera has put himself in a decidedly tricky situation. For the idea of the separation between the two worlds—that of kitsch and non-kitsch—is as artificial and as constricting as any other “idea” to which Kundera hates the novel to be reduced. By attacking kitsch has he, like Sabina, fatally involved himself in it? Whereas Jane Austen could expand her whole universe of irony, and also of daily commonsense, by means of her play with the Gothic, Kundera has apparently boxed himself in by making too purely partisan an approach to that anti-world which confronts the novel—the world of kitsch.

This, however, is where the true future of his novel beckons. Jane Austen got her own truth out of the Gothic by naturalizing it in everyday life: Kundera gets his unexpected and “non-partisan” value from kitsch by an invisible accommodation with it, in terms of the art of his novel. This is done in terms of the “hero and heroine” (itself a pretty kitschy notion) of the novel—Tomas and Tereza.

Tomas is like the hero in a soap opera. But the reader does not think of this; nor, apparently, does the author. And Tereza is, of course, the right foil for a soap opera hero. Theirs is the real thing, true love, which will last as long as they live. He is redeemed from promiscuity and aimlessness by the love of a good woman. He sacrifices his career for her. They withdraw from the world to love in a cottage. But so brilliantly has Kundera deployed his ideology and set the scene that these things, in a sense so evident, even so obvious, seem wholly new and fresh, as if “true love” were being discovered in the novel for the first time. In fact, true love has indeed been realized and attained in the creation of the novel, but by the agency of its consciousness of kitsch, in the same way that an absolutely real young woman is established in Northanger Abbey through the medium of the Gothic novel and Jane Austen's use of it. Neither author, it seems to me, is fully, if at all, conscious of the operation, and there is a particular interest in the fact that Northanger Abbey (first titled Susan and then Catherine) was published only after Jane Austen's death, nearly twenty years after she had written it, and at a time when the inspiration she had received from the Gothic novel, and the use she had made of it, would have been much more apparent than when she first composed the work at the end of the eighteenth century.

To what extent is Kundera aware of the peculiar use he has made of kitsch in his novel? I doubt if he is, for the paradox involved depends on what he himself has called the novel's “radical autonomy.” Although Jane Austen was much better disposed towards the Gothic novel—particularly the novels of Ann Radcliffe—than Kundera can be assumed to feel about contemporary artistic and political kitsch, it is nonetheless kitsch in a metamorphosed form which triumphs in his novel, just as the Gothic reversed does in Jane Austen's. The Unbearable Lightness of Being could well have started out by being called Tereza, for it is Tereza who is both the counterpart to kitsch and its apotheosis.

As it happens, one of Kundera's own admired group of Central European novelists may have accidentally suggested to him a key aspect of Tereza. Kundera himself mentions the episode in Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke when the modern young Polish matron goes nonchalantly into the lavatory, drawing attention to the fact, because she regards such frankness as the modern and emancipated line to take. It is an exceedingly funny moment, but also a conscious and satiric one. If Kundera recalled it when writing The Unbearable Lightness of Being he certainly changed its significance. Tereza sitting on the toilet is of course an epitome of the helplessness of physical being—that heavy helplessness which draws Tomas inexorably towards her—but she is also, and by a piece of much more involuntary mystery, a figure of beatified kitsch. Out of Kundera's hatred for this concept, and for its domination of all political and aesthetic life in the Soviet bloc, there has unexpectedly emerged a particularly strange and satisfying case of the novel's radical autonomy: the emergence of something new in place of the “already known.” The invisible and consubstantial irony in the novel unites Tereza and Tomas, as it were, on the toilet seat, in all the saving helplessness of physical dependence. Kitsch has triumphed at the last, but in a transcendent, almost unrecognizable guise. Kundera has endorsed, and perhaps without meaning it, an epigrammatic saying of the Austrian novelist Robert Musil, that the novel exists to overcome kitsch. We could turn that around and say that the novel cannot exist without kitsch, whose function is to be transformed by the novel.

Like Catherine Morland, Tereza emerges as a character entirely clear and authentic from a background of literary artifice and guileful intention. As I have emphasized, it seems likely that neither author planned the character who emerged: Catherine and Tereza are not like James Joyce's Molly Bloom or Henry James's Isabel Archer. They are not portraits of ladies. And although Tereza “stands” for weight, the saving and inevitable burden of life, she is saved from any theoretical status as a character by the bizarre shadow of the kitsch that makes her both “ordinary” and admirable, while redeeming her from intellectual personification. Terezas are in a sense what every advertiser aims at, and every Reader's Digest-style priest (“the most unforgettable character I have met”) exhorts his flock to resemble. She is faithful, patient, long-suffering and kind, and uses (or would use if she had the opportunity and the resources) all the right consumer durables. Like Catherine Morland she is everybody's nice girl; and yet both in their contexts escape the label, become apparently unique individuals.

It is revealing to compare Tereza not only with her Polish counterpart in Ferdydurke, whose toilet-going activities are simply a way of satirizing what was then the modern cultural attitude, but with the haunting heroine of Robert Musil's novella Tonka. Tonka is a simple girl of the people who becomes the narrator's mistress, and in her speechless and undefining way is apparently loyal and faithful to him; but she contracts venereal disease while living with the narrator, and this can only mean that she has had relations during that time with some other man. The hero intuits—indeed knows—that what she says is both true and false, and from this experience in the realm of the erotic he deduces that everything in the world, and in human experience, can be both false and true at the same time. The narrator, and his author Musil, are in fact using Tonka as an example of thinking-about-the-world metaphysically, and especially in terms of erotic metaphysics. The mysterious Tonka, although she makes a deep appeal to the narrator-author, and—because the novella is unquestionably successful—to the reader as well, remains nonetheless a character perceived and manipulated by pure intelligence, not the unconscious work of creation that seems to have gone into Catherine, or into Tereza.

Kundera himself remarks that while most novelists invent or describe a character, Musil thinks a character. This is certainly true, and it remains the reason why Tonka is an aspect of erotic investigation, and hence, for Musil, of discovery about the nature of the world. But Tereza, no more than Anna Karenina, is not there for the purpose of adding a new dimension to our sense of human beings. She is simply there—an achievement more common among classic novelists of the nineteenth century than it is among novelists today. The type of the achievement remains alien to the modern writer. And the novelist of the former time could hardly have said himself how he brought it about. Henry James said of one of Balzac's female characters that it was not by knowing her that he loved her: he knew her by loving her. That gives an important clue to the process.

Tonka dies at the end of her story, seemingly of the complications of pregnancy attended by venereal disease. The significant thing is that she dies, just as the old-time heroine who had “gone wrong” used to die in the novels of the past. A Tonka who simply disappeared into urban limbo would not, oddly enough, have been so effective a vehicle for Musil to think with and through, in terms of his discovery that something may be simultaneously true and false. He needs the old-fashioned solution of death to round off, as it were, the modern problem. For Kundera the problem too comes first: comes, that is to say, before the character; and it seems likely that Kundera follows Musil not only in thinking the character, but in using an old convention to close down the situation which has explored the thought.

“To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen, is to do pretty well.” So Jane Austen takes leave of her hero and heroine at the end of Northanger Abbey. She too is using the convention, but using it in such a way that it operates in the opposite sense to the one it states. From this the reader knows—if he cares, and the success of the story will have been to make him do so—that a pair of perfectly ordinary lives, with the usual ups and downs, joys and sorrows, are in prospect. As Musil wrote, the novel at its best kills kitsch, but does it by removing the distinction between kitsch and “reality.” Kundera completes his novel by means of a convention similar to Jane Austen's, though more radical: he tells us what happened after the novel is over, and in place of perfect “felicity” this is random death in a road accident. Just as Jane Austen's tone does not in fact mock, but rather enhances, the realities that have appeared in her story, so Kundera's ending serves to emphasize the contentment of Tomas and Tereza in their “togetherness.” Kitsch wins by losing; or, alternately, the novel wins by understanding the truth of kitsch. As an intellectual novelist Kundera is especially aware of two things: the novel's need to escape ideas on the one hand, and kitsch on the other. One of the major pleasures of reading him is to see how he does both. At the same time he shows us how the modern novelist's fear of ideas is intimately connected with his fear of kitsch. The novel needs both, but should also lose both in the telling, as the young Jane Austen lost both the Gothic novel and a satire on it in finding her own person, her own place.

Petra von Morstein (essay date Summer 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6635

SOURCE: “Eternal Return and The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 65-78.

[In the following essay, von Morstein examines Kundera's interpretation of existential experience and Nietzsche's philosophical concept of “eternal return” in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with a reflection on Nietzsche's idea of “eternal return.” This idea does not represent an objective worldview which could be established by dispassionate scientific investigation. Yet Nietzsche claims that eternal return is the most scientific of all theories. He means that the idea of eternal return provides comprehension of what it is to be. It expresses existential awareness, what it feels like to be human. Traditional science, by contrast, abstracts from the existential aspect of the human condition. Eternal return is a “theory” through which the existential human situation is shown but not explained or described.

Kundera's reflections on the idea of eternal return pervade The Unbearable Lightness of Being in various ways. They are most clearly focused on Tomas, the main protagonist. I will here show how the idea of eternal return is connected with the characters Tomas and Tereza, and their love.


Nietzsche's idea of eternal return is rooted in his Dionysian conception of existence. Dionysius, Apollo, and Socrates are symbols to express the nature of existence. Dionysius stands for sheer being, prior to structure and organization, prior to individuals and classes of individuals. Dionysian reality is being; but it does not contain beings, entities, things; it contains no-thing.

Apollo stands for reality as immediately given, as present in awareness. Immediate awareness is Einbildungskraft, imagination; it is the power of individuation, of immediate and spontaneous transformation of unstructured Dionysian reality into appearance of individuals. Such appearances or images are immediately given, present, in reality, and yet essentially illusory. They constitute pre-reflective experiences of existence. Human consciousness is rooted in such immediate existential awareness.

Socrates is tied to rational explanation, to identification and classification. Impulses to identify, clarify and explain, to compare and establish interrelations, are immediately given with Apollonian images. But pursuits of Socratic impulses and results of such pursuits by way of rational enquiry are not given. They engender representations of reality which are mediated by rule-bound concepts and propositions. Socratic propositions are not in reality, but about reality. By contrast, Apollonian images are in reality.

Nietzsche understands existential reality as it is immediately given in terms of a symbolic, not a discursive, system. Existential reality consists of Dionysian existence without entities, Apollonian imagination with appearances of entities (i.e., existential awareness), and Socratic impulses to determine such appearances objectively. The three symbols constitute an internally cohesive code through which sheer existence can be comprehended.

This conception gives us a view of existence as dynamic potential, as energy, which is immediately and spontaneously actualized in Apollonian images, as well as mediately and intentionally in Socratic conceptual representations. We have cognitive access to existential reality only through its actualizations. Mere potential without its actualizations is inconceivable.

We can and do intentionally reflect on reality as it is immediately present in Apollonian appearances or images. Appearances differ from moment to moment. They are fleeting, gone forever, as soon as they occur. By means of Socratic reasoning we attempt to arrest the fleeting nature of appearances. We abstract from their immediate lived actuality and represent them through timeless concepts and propositions, thereby losing their component of felt existential awareness. Socratic reasoning typically determines appearances as entities, objective beings; and classes of entities as universals. Thus it is disconnected from, and false to, existential reality.

However, if Socratic reasoning procedures stay grounded in existential awareness; if they are not dissociated from Socratic impulses as constitutive of Apollonian appearances; if entities are established in connection with appearances, differing from moment to moment—then we would come to see entities as processes rather than as fixed beings. Socratic reasoning need not be in opposition to existential awareness, but can be in unity with it.

We must recognize that the roots of any proposition are in existential awareness. Hence objective conditions are not sufficient for the truth of any proposition: “… everything seems far too valuable to be so fleeting: I seek an eternity for everything: ought one to pour the most precious wines and salves into the sea?—My consolation is that everything that has been is eternal: the sea will cast it up again” [Nietzsche, The Will to Power]. Accordingly, both the fleetingness of appearances and the need for eternity are existential. Socratic impulses spontaneously manifest this need. They compel us to focus on the similarities and dissimilarities of experiences in such a way that we can establish temporal continuity for them and timeless law-governed relations between them. Once we attain these goals we realize that we are thereby dissociated from existential awareness. If we acknowledge that Socratic reasoning is rooted in existential awareness, we must endeavor to reunite them.

Nietzsche's cosmology, as his “theory” of eternal return is often called, is to preserve the original union between existential awareness and Socratic impulses. His idea of eternal return is grounded in the existential need for eternity. It is this need that justifies Nietzsche's idea of eternal return.

The idea is tied to his views of the finitude of energy and the infinitude of time. These views, too, are existentially justified: Our concept of energy or force must be compatible with our existential need for value, i.e., sameness in eternity. Existence does not, in Nietzsche's view, accommodate unlimited force and its consequence of infinite novelty.

Having rejected the infinitude of energy Nietzsche must commit himself to the infinitude of time. Given the finitude of energy, the finitude of time would then defeat our existential need for value and eternity. If time were finite, an end state would have been reached, or would have to be reached. But in existential awareness there is no end to change. The fluidity of change is existentially united with the need for eternity. Thus if energy is finite time must be infinite. But to be consistent with the finitude of energy and our need for eternity and sameness it must be circular. The idea of eternal return follows from the conjunction of the finitude of energy and the infinitude of circular time, and expresses immediate existential awareness: the fleetingness of appearances and the need for sameness in eternity. It also fulfills this need. It thus reflects the original unity of the symbolic system of Dionysius, Apollo, and Socrates which makes existential reality comprehensible.

In a world without eternal return we would have to live with a terrifying sense of weightlessness. If we believe in eternal return we transform the weightlessness of fleeting appearances into the greatest weight. It is just this terrifying sense of weightlessness that Tomas experiences and struggles with. Without a curative device, like the idea of eternal return, the lightness of being is unbearable.


In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht). …

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

Das schwerste Gewicht,” “The greatest weight,” is the title of a paragraph on eternal return in Nietzsche's The Gay Science:

The greatest weight.—What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

In this paragraph Nietzsche does not address the cosmological implications of the idea of eternal return, but only its possible psychological impact. A demon follows you into your loneliest loneliness. “You” could be anyone; no specific individual is addressed. But the strict particularity of any “you” is indicated: “… into your loneliest loneliness.” The demon addresses any human being in particular, not human beings in general—the concrete universal of being human, as it were. The demon offers you the exact recurrence of your life, of every event in it, again and again into eternity. Your life and all its occurrences are identical. Zarathustra, the “leader of eternal return,” makes this point more succinctly. This is what he would say, according to his animals:

“Now I die and decay,” you would say, “and in an instant shall be nothingness. Souls are as mortal as bodies.”

“But the complex of causes in which I am entangled will recur—it will create me again! I myself am part of these causes of the eternal recurrence.”

“I shall return, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent—not to a new life or a better life or a similar life:

“I shall return eternally to this identical and self-same life, in the greatest things and in the smallest, to teach once more the eternal recurrence of all things, …”

The infinitude and circularity of time entail the return of every occurrence in every detail, however minute. Therefore it is impossible to recognize any occurrence as a recurrence. For an occurrence to recur is for it to occur in the context of the exact same feelings, cognition and surroundings events. The identity of an occurrence is constituted by its total context. This is to say that my life is encompassed in each of its moments, and that history is encompassed in my life. The idea of eternal return entails the numerical identity of an occurrence with its recurrences. Eternity counts only to One.

In a world of eternal return change of life, of history, of any occurrence whatever, is impossible. However, as became evident in our discussion of Nietzsche's Dionysian conception of existence, change in life, in history, in every occurrence is necessary. There is no fixity in Dionysian reality. Life is change, becoming, process.

Whether or not we believe in eternal return, we have only one life to live. In a world without eternal return there is, according to Nietzsche, no cure for the terrifying sense of weightlessness. You are a “speck of dust.” In a world of eternal return every occurrence, every detail of our lives has the weight of eternity. This is Nietzsche's wager: If you accept the idea of eternal return you have nothing to lose and all to gain. But is the greatest weight a gain? This is Tomas's existential question: “What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” Parmenides, for instance, as the author remarks in his reflections, decides that lightness is positive, and weight negative.

The “you” who responds in extreme horror to the demon's proposal must think of the weight of eternity as a weight you have to carry on your shoulders and which must, of course, crush you. The you who responds in extreme joy, on the other hand, must think of the greatest weight as encompassed by your life and every moment in it. Thus for the joyous you the greatest weight is no load, and there is no choice between lightness and weight. For the joyous individual the greatest weight is neither bearable nor unbearable. Tereza, we shall see (section 3), fits the idea of such an individual.

Without eternal return every moment of Dionysian existence is fortuitous. In eternal return chance is immediately transformed into necessity. Every moment is necessary. As every occurrence in a life encompasses the totality of this life, and as every life encompasses the totality of history, we cannot assign lightness to some and weight to other moments. To accept eternal return for one moment is to accept it for one's whole life and for all history. Equally, to reject eternal return for one moment is to reject it for one's whole life and for all history.

The idea of eternal return holds the ideal of integration of every experience with every other, of living in total harmony with oneself, as a being interconnected with all history. There would be no need for forgetting, repression, regrets, resentment, dissociation. The Dionysian, Apollonian, and Socratic elements of existence would be in complete balance, so that happiness and pain could be experienced with equal acceptance. It would be the life of an individual whose every experience is and remains grounded in immediate existential awareness and for whom the elements of existence are always united and balanced. Thus immediate awareness (Apollonian imagination) and Socratic reasoning would not enter into opposition. Such an individual would always be “together,” would never “fall apart.”

Such an individual would love his destiny whatever happened. Amor fati is the optimal consequence of the idea of eternal return.

In the practice of living this ideal cannot be fully realized. The practice of living is process, becoming. In practice the idea of eternal return can work as a device for cultivating amor fati, in striving to integrate every experience rather than rejecting any. In short, the idea of eternal return is a device in making sense of one's experiences, of one's life, of history.

In practice we live uncertainly between eternity and annihilation: “… how well disposed would you have to become toward yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal?” (The Gay Science). Such craving would characterize the middle ground between extreme horror and extreme joy in response to the demon's proposal. This middle ground is as varied as human lives. It is marked by ambiguity and uncertainty. Nietzsche's world has no Supreme Judge to justify existence eternally. “This ultimate confirmation and seal” would consist in complete balanced integration of every experience with every other. Life, like a work of art, would cohere by virtue of internal laws only and be free of any laws to be imposed from outside. It would, in other words, be self-determined, from within the totality of human experience, rather than by individuals as isolated, discrete individuals. To be a self, then, is to be interconnected with all of human experience: “… it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” Or, as Kundera writes, human lives “are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence … into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life.” The laws of beauty sublate ambiguity and uncertainty, as Tereza's life shows. The laws of reason cannot, as Tomas's life shows.

Kundera's conception of a character in a novel is interwoven with the aspects of the idea of eternal return which I have discussed here. The author's reflections on the idea of eternal return with which the novel begins do not only increase his understandings of Tomas, but of what it is to be a character, any character, in a novel, and how characters in novels are connected with life and lives. To read The Unbearable Lightness of Being is to witness the birth of a novel from the spirit of eternal return. It may hence be difficult to read any (great) novel in any other way. But it is not the task of this essay to pursue this.


Kundera's novel has seven parts. Parts 2 and 5 each bear the title “Lightness and Weight.” These two parts are focused on the male protagonist Tomas. Sections 1 and 2 of part 1 (3-6) contain the author's reflections on Nietzsche's idea of eternal return: “… the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them. They appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature.” The reflections end with the statement: “The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most dangerous, most mysterious of all.”

Kundera characterizes Tomas's existential problem as “the lightness of existence in a world where there is no eternal return”: “To apprehend the self in my novels means to grasp the essence of its existential problem. To grasp its existential code … the code of this or that character is made up of certain key words” (The Art of the Novel). Tomas's key words are “lightness” and “weight.”

The author's initial reflections on Nietzsche's idea of eternal return provide a setting for Tomas. These reflections do not have the self-sufficiency of a philosophical discourse. They are woven into the author's vision and comprehension of the character Tomas. “Even if I am the one speaking, my reflections are connected to a character. I want to think his attitudes, his ways of seeing things, in his stead and more deeply than he could do it himself” (The Art of the Novel). “I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking at the opposite walls not knowing what to do.” The author's reflections clarify the author's vision of this character. Tomas does not himself entertain the idea of eternal return, nor show any familiarity with it. Tomas is in the grip of the mysterious, ambiguous lightness/weight opposition. This is sufficient evidence that Tomas does not believe that the world eternally returns—whether or not he is familiar with the idea. Belief in a world of eternal return precludes the opposition between lightness and weight, as I showed in section 2.

Tomas, while standing at the window and looking at the opposite walls (also “dirty”) is attempting to call a particular recent moment in his life to account. He wonders whether or not to assign weight to it. It is a moment in the beginning of his relationship with Tereza, a relationship which in his view arose from six chance happenings.

Seven years earlier, a complex neurological case happened to have been discovered at the hospital in Tereza's town. They called in the chief surgeon of Tomas's hospital in Prague for consultation, but the chief surgeon of Tomas's hospital happened to be suffering from sciatica, and because he could not move he sent Tomas to the provincial hospital in his place. The town had several hotels, but Tomas happened to be given a room in the one where Tereza was employed. He happened to have had enough free time before his train left to stop at the hotel restaurant. Tereza happened to be on duty, and happened to be serving Tomas's table. It had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza, as if he had little inclination to go to her on his own.

After their first chance encounter Tereza arrived in Prague, because Tomas appeared to her “as chance in the absolute” and their love was a matter of immediate unreflected necessity.

Tomas, standing at the window, reflects on a moment in their first might together:

He kept recalling her lying on his bed; she reminded him of no one in his former life. She was neither mistress nor wife. She was a child whom he had taken from a bulrush basket that had been daubed with pitch and sent to the riverbank of his bed. She fell asleep. He knelt down next to her. Her feverous breath quickened and she gave out a weak moan. He pressed his face to hers and whispered calming words into her sleep After a while he felt her breath return to normal and her face rise unconsciously to meet his He smelled the delicate aroma of her fever and breathed it in, as if trying to glut himself with the intimacy of her body. And all at once he fancied she had been with him for many years and was dying. He had a sudden clear feeling that he would not survive her death. He would lie down beside her and want to die with her. He pressed his face into the pillow beside her head and kept it there for a long time.

In Tomas's reflections every aspect of this moment emerges as ambiguous: Tereza is neither mistress nor wife. His feeling is neither love nor hysteria. He can make no sense of “kneeling at her bed and thinking he would not survive her death.” Even though he recognizes these moments as “the most beautiful moments he had ever experienced,” he is unable to be guided by his sense of beauty (by contrast with Tereza). Not imbued with the perspective that the idea of eternal return implies he realizes “that not knowing what he wanted was actually quite normal”: “We can never know what we want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” That we live only one life is true also in the perspective of eternal return (section 2). But eternal return further implies that, in order to be alive, we must know what we want; and what we want must be everything that occurs. Tereza, by contrast with Tomas, lives through the perspective implied by the idea of eternal return. This, of course, does not mean that she must be familiar with the idea. Like Tomas, she never entertains it. Only the author does, in “the magnetic field of a character” (The Art of the Novel).

Tomas looks out of the window, but fails to see. He endeavors to make rational (Socratic) sense of his experience but does not succeed. His Socratic reflections fall away from his lived experience. Rather, he experiences the disconnection of lived experience and rational reflection.

Weight is tied with necessity. In a world of eternal return, what is must be. But in a world of transience, Tomas's world, one may wonder if there is anything that has weight. Eternal return precludes the distinction between light and weighty moments; one cannot select occurrences as candidates for weightiness. In a transient world, to mitigate the terrifying sense of weightlessness of existence one may seek experiences which may turn out to be weighty and necessary, by contrast with all else. “We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same.”

What Tomas feels to be love in immediate lived experience fails, under rational scrutiny, to fit under the concept. If love is weighty and necessary, can it, by rational criteria, be based on “six laughable fortuities”? The feeling is neither clearly love, nor is it clearly hysteria. The experience is essentially ambiguous. It is not either love or hysteria. “This ‘either-or’ encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge” (The Art of the Novel). Socratic reasoning precludes “the wisdom of uncertainty” which, according to Kundera is “the novel's wisdom” (The Art of the Novel).

In moments of lived experience, of existential awareness, Tomas “had come to feel an inexplicable love for this all but complete stranger.” Tomas aims to explain what in reality, in immediate awareness, is inexplicable. But he has originally comprehended the experience, albeit in terms of images and metaphor. The passage earlier presents a clear understanding of his experience; but it is expressed in the “language of relativity and ambiguity” (The Art of the Novel). The passage expresses what is in the experience. The question “Is it love or hysteria?” is outside it. An apodictic answer to this question would have to be imposed upon the experience. But Tomas remains sufficiently grounded in his lived experience not to allow a rationally established apodictic answer. His indecision does not stem from weakness or lack of understanding, but from the strength to face the inexplicability of his felt love without therefore denying it.

A decision for love and necessity would mean responsibility. “Should he call her back to Prague for good? He feared the responsibility.” A decision for mere fleeting fortuity would mean freedom from the weight of such responsibility.

He makes a decision, but not on rational grounds. His decision to receive Tereza when she arrives in Prague for the second time, and “the suitcase that contained her life,” is immediate, spontaneous, sudden:

How had he come to make such a sudden decision when for nearly a fortnight he had wavered so much that he could not even bring himself to send a postcard asking her how she was?

He himself was surprised. He had acted against his principles.

Tomas now experiences the weight of Tereza and her “enormously heavy suitcase” as an immediate given which precludes wonderings and rational decision procedures. He acts immediately in the lived experience, not in mediate relation to it. His comprehension of the situation now is immediate, sudden—not Socratic, but Apollonian. He comprehends it by the laws of beauty, not laws of reason.

Again it occurred to him that Tereza was a child put in a pitch-daubed bulrush basket and sent downstream. He couldn't very well let a basket with a child in it float down a stormy river! If the Pharaoh's daughter hadn't snatched the basket carrying little Moses from the waves, there would have been no Old Testament, no civilization as we now know it! How many ancient myths begin with the rescue of an abandoned child! If Polybus hadn't taken in the young Oedipus, Sophocles wouldn't have written his most beautiful tragedy!

But centrally Tomas is a Socratic character. He conducts his life by means of rational reflection. He is born from the image of “staring impotently across a courtyard, at a loss for what to do.” The suddenness of his decision to receive Tereza and her suitcase becomes an object to further reflection: “He had acted against his principles.” His decision and his principles are in opposition.

Such opposition is not part of Tereza's life. She does not lead her life according to principles but “according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.” Coincidences which Tomas would try (in vain) to explain are immediately meaningful and compelling for her. Tereza's Socratic thoughts and doubts do not oppose her sudden decision but are aufgehoben by them; of instance:

Her first thought was that he had come back because of her; because of her, he had changed his destiny. Now he would no longer be responsible for her; now she was responsible for him.

The responsibility, she felt, seemed to require more strength than she could muster.

But all at once she recalled that just before he had appeared at the door of their flat the day before, the church bells had chimed six o'clock. On the day they first met, her shift had ended at six. She saw him sitting there in front of her on the yellow bench and heard the bells in the belfry chime six.

No, it was not superstition, it was a sense of beauty that cured her of her depression and imbued here with a new will to live. The birds of fortuity had alighted once more on her shoulders. There were tears in her eyes, and she was unutterably happy to hear him breathing at her side.

Here is the same scene from Tomas's perspective:

He had gone back to Prague because of her. So fateful a decision resting on so fortuitous a love, a love that would not even have existed had it not been for the chief surgeon's sciatica seven years earlier. And that woman, that personification of absolute fortuity, now again lay asleep beside him, breathing deeply.

It was late at night. His stomach started acting up as it tended to do in times of psychic stress.

Once or twice her breathing turned into mild snores. Tomas felt no compassion. All he felt was the pressure in his stomach and the despair of having returned.

Tomas's life, at this stage, continues to be riddled by counterfactuals: “a love that would not even have existed had it not been for the chief surgeon's sciatica some years earlier.” Tereza's life does not accommodate counterfactuals. Absolute fortuity precludes alternative possibilities. Her life is not open to alternative possibilities. It is always complete, internally cohesive. She is one with the eternal weight of her experiences. The one counter factual she entertains—“If I hadn't met you, I'd certainly have fallen in love with him”—does not open an alternative possibility for her. It exercises its logical power only on Tomas who responds with jealousy to what might have been.

Tereza's life perspective is one implied by the idea of eternal return. What is must be. What must be precludes alternatives. She is “impelled by the birds of fortuity,” understands “the message of chance.” From her perspective one cannot question or deny what is given. It is, we might say, a Dionysian perspective, by contrast with Tomas's Socratic perspective.

Chance events appear to Tereza in cohesive inevitable order. For her “necessity knows no magic formulae.”

Necessity in experience precludes resentment, revolt. Tomas struggles against the unbearable lightness of being and seeks necessarily, strives to live by necessity. From his Socratic perspective, from the perspective of either-or, the weight of necessity may become irritating, and the formula “Es muss sein” loses its magic.

It is my feeling that Tomas had long been secretly irritated by the stern, aggressive, solemn “Es muss sein!” and that he harbored a deep desire to follow the spirit of Parmenides and make heavy go to light. Remember that at one point in his life he broke completely with his first wife and his son and that he was relieved when both parents broke with him. What could be at the bottom of it all but a rash and not quite rational move to reject what proclaimed itself to be his weighty duty, his “Es muss sein!”?

That, of course, was an external “Es muss sein!” reserved for him by social convention, whereas the “Es muss sein!” of his love for medicine was internal. So much the worse for him. Internal imperatives are all the more powerful and therefore all the more of an inducement to revolt.

Every “Es muss sein!” is open to the possibility of revolt against it. This does not hold of the necessity determined by the laws of beauty. Tereza who came to be “all that mattered to him” is the reverse side of all his “Es muss sein!”

Tereza had instantly accepted that “this stranger was her fate.” Tomas developed the ability to accept her as his fate. Their love for each other became amor fati. Amor fati, as we have seen (section 2), precludes the category of lightness and weight.


Tereza and Tomas are linked with Nietzsche's Dionysian view of existence through the idea of eternal return. This idea is grounded in Dionysian existence, in Nietzsche's thought. It illuminates the existential situation(s) of Tereza and Tomas.

Kundera's conception of character directly connects with Nietzsche's conception of existence. The author's reflections on the idea of eternal return led him to a clear comprehension of Tomas. According to Kundera, the characters in a novel have lives of their own over which the author has little control. The “wisdom of the novel” supercedes the wisdom of its author. A character is to be found and comprehended, not designed and constructed.

We have found that the author's comprehension of Tereza must also have been affected by his reflections on the idea of eternal return. In fact, it turned out that it is Tereza's, not Tomas's, perspective on life which is implied by eternal return. Tomas's dichotomization of lightness and weight, his struggle against lightness, his attempts at rational distinction between light and weighty experiences, and at rational selection between experiences in favor of weight and necessity, manifest a perspective which is precluded by eternal return.

Far from believing in eternal return Tomas holds that life and history are transient, and that what happened once might as well not have happened at all. His characteristic perspective on life is a function of this belief. “Einmal ist keinmal” is another key to his character, as is the image of him standing by the window, looking out on the dirty walls opposite. “Einmal ist keinmal” is his magical formula of fortuity as “Es muss sein!” is his magical formula of necessity.

Tereza's sense of beauty defies the magic of either formula. In the last phase of their life together Tomas comes to partake of her sense of beauty, and thereby to acquire the attitude of amor fati. The experiences that point him in that direction are those of compassion and of “poetic memory.” At the end of their life which fulfills his initial vision of their common death, the perspective implied by eternal return supercedes his perspective from transience and fleetingness. The magical formulae of necessity and fortuity are both invalidated. The process of their invalidation is his story. In a sense other than biological, he is born of woman, for his development from impotent Socratic reflection to amor fati is rooted in Tereza's sense of beauty and her attitude of amor fati by virtue of which Tomas has been her fate from the first moment.

The attitude of amor fati as connected with the idea of eternal return is far removed from resignation and passive acceptance. On the contrary: it entails the clearest possible comprehension of reality, that of “vision of the real.” The vision of the real is tantamount to love. As I have shown in another essay [“Creative Passion in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being”], Tereza's life is one of creative passion. Her life can be understood in terms of the optimal consequence of the belief that the world eternally returns. Her existence is an aesthetic phenomenon and, therefore, in accordance with Nietzsche's views, “eternally justifiable” (The Birth of Tragedy). Note again that it is irrelevant whether she holds the belief that the world eternally returns, or whether she is at all familiar with the idea of eternal return. Nietzsche's idea of eternal return, far from reflecting on objective scientific theory, is a device for overcoming the terrifying sense of the weightlessness of existence that Tomas is characteristically subject to. Tereza does not need such a device. To understand this is a result of reflecting on the idea of eternal return.

Tomas believes that

Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.

History is similar to individual lives in this respect. There is only one history of the Czechs. One day it will come to an end as surely as Tomas's life, never to be repeated.

Unaware of the possibility of eternal return and thus of the unity of eternity and sameness (oneness), Tomas is committed to the view that, because life occurs only once, “History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.” In his horror of history's unbearable lightness he conceives of a version of eternal return in the perspective of his belief that existence and the world are transient and fleeting.

Somewhere out in space there was a planet where all people would be born again. They would be fully aware of the life they had spent on earth and all the experience they had amassed here.

And perhaps there was still another planet, where we would all be born a third time with the experience of our first two lives.

And perhaps there were yet more and more planets, where mankind would be born one degree (one life) more mature.

That was Tomas's version of eternal return.

This is an utopic vision, not a “vision of the real”: that our lives will be repeated again and again, each time a bit better, if all goes well; every life can be a rehearsal for the next, as every performance of a musical composition can be a rehearsal for the next.

This version of eternal return is not only incompatible with Nietzsche's idea but internally incoherent: I cannot possibly step outside my life in order to lead my life. I cannot relate to my life, in the way in which a musical performer relates to a particular musical composition—mysterious though the latter relation may be in its own right. Nietzsche's idea of eternal return precludes repetition, as I have shown. It entails that life occurs only once and precludes its unbearable lightness.

“In the novel, reflection is essentially inquiring, hypothetical” (The Art of the Novel). Kundera's reflections on Nietzsche's idea of eternal return are placed in “the magnetic field” of the character Tomas. The reflections on eternal return, which I offer in this essay, are placed in the magnetic field of the whole novel and, specifically, of the characters Tereza and Tomas.

“The novel is a mediation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters” (The Art of the Novel). The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a mediation on existence according to Nietzsche's Dionysian conception. Its key is the idea of eternal return. The mediation consists in explorations of the novel's characters. “A character is not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self” (The Art of the Novel). “The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities.” Kundera's conception of a character connects this novel directly with Nietzsche's Dionysian conception of existence. The characters in his novels are creatures born and grown from Apollonian images. They are not living beings in the way in which you and I are living beings, nor indeed are they simulations of such living beings. The Apollonian images from which they and born and grown are in existential reality (section 1). Apollonian images are immediate actualizations of Dionysian potential (section 1); they do not represent objectively identifiable individuals, “living beings” like you or me; rather they present possibilities of being, of human existence, possibilities which are centered around an existential problem like that of lightness and weight for Tomas. The author explores the images, the presentations of existential possibilities, directly. He explores them as chance in the absolute—not relative to a conceptual framework or psychological theory. Theories may enter as devices of exploration and orientation, but not of explanation. This is the status that theories have in Nietzsche's philosophy.

Jennifer M. Green (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4025

SOURCE: “Subject, Object, Camera: Photographing Women in The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” in Sexuality, the Female Gaze, and the Arts: Women, the Arts, and Society, edited by Ronald Dotterer and Susan Bowers, Susquehanna University Press, 1992, pp. 53-63.

[In the following essay, Green discusses aspects of female objectification, sexual difference, and the significance of photography in a scene from the novel and film, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

Two women meet for a photography session. Tereza, the photographer, is married to Tomas, a surgeon. The other, Sabina, is his long-standing mistress. Tereza begins to take photographs of the naked Sabina, but the one behind the camera soon becomes its subject following an exchange of roles:

It took Sabina some time before she could bring herself to slip out of the robe entirely. The situation she found herself in was proving a bit more difficult than she had expected. After several minutes of posing, she went up to Tereza and said, “Now it's my turn to take your picture. Strip!”

Sabina had heard the command “Strip!” so many times from Tomas that it was engraved in her memory. Thus, Tomas's mistress had just given Tomas's command to Tomas's wife. The two women were joined by the same magic word. …

… Tereza took off her clothes. There she stood before Sabina naked and disarmed. Literally disarmed: deprived of the apparatus she had been using to cover her face and aim at Sabina like a weapon.

Undoubtedly the most erotic scene in the movie, this extract from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being has such strong sexual overtones that at its reading we may feel like voyeurs. Print for its readers has a certain quality of anonymity comparable in some ways to the secrecy enjoyed by movie-goers. In the movie theater we sit admittedly in company but isolated by the darkness. We see without ourselves being seen. We read without being read.

Thus the safe anonymity of film and print serves us much as photography serves the defensive Tereza. For her the camera is “both a mechanical eye through which to observe Tomas's mistress and a veil by which to conceal her face from her.” The ambiguity of the double “her” (both women are alternately revealed and concealed by the camera) mirrors the ambiguous position of the female reader/audience. Is she to identify with what Ann Kaplan calls “the male gaze,” or must she align herself with the women who seem to be performing for that gaze? Are there any alternatives to this limited choice?

Kaplan has observed that, “Many male fantasies focus on the man's excitement in arranging for his woman to expose herself (or even give herself) to other men, while he watches.” In the episode quoted above, the performance appears staged specifically for its invisible male audience (Tomas, who originally spoke the magic word “Strip!”)—and, by implicit extension, for its tacitly male reader. However, while both the literary and cinematic texts operate within, or out of, male fantasy, the film version simultaneously and powerfully subverts it. This ostensibly male-oriented piece of theater is somehow smashed, made kaleidoscopic, by the actresses who perform it.

Used as a phallic weapon, the camera in this scene provides an object of male substitution (first Tereza “takes” Sabina, then Sabina “takes” Tereza); but it is also a means, made explicit in the film, by which the two women form a bond no less creative artistically for its sexuality. Indeed, the sexuality of their friendship, despite originating out of a patriarchal fantasy (two women performing for one man, both aroused by invoking the authority of his word), asserts the women's independence from Tomas. In fact, what is at play here is an inversion of the historical exchange of women, in which women are passed between men. Tereza and Sabina turn an economic paradigm into a sexual and artistic game by exchanging the symbol of Tomas (penis-camera) and by using it to forge a bond between them.

In the novel's version of this episode, however, the camera has a sinister significance, being described, as we have seen, first as a mechanical eye, a veil; and then as a means of subjugation, which Tereza is startled to find she enjoys:

She was completely at the mercy of Tomas's mistress. This beautiful submission intoxicated Tereza. She wished that the moments she stood naked opposite Sabina would never end.

I think that Sabina, too, felt the strange enchantment of the situation: her lover's wife standing oddly complaint and timorous before her. But after clicking the shutter two or three times, almost frightened by the enchantment and eager to dispel it, she burst into loud laughter.

Female response to this scene is frequently uncomfortable: we are, after all, viewing it from the perspective neither of Sabina nor Tereza, but from the male narratologic standpoint; thus we may assume this scene to be an example of a particular kind of literary prurience in which women act out for a keyhole audience what it is that their author imagines women do when they are alone together. The narrative strategy, one might argue, determines a reading in which the camera provides not a bond, but a barrier between the women, a means of distancing them by having them watch each other while ultimately being watched. The controlling force is Tomas, or more precisely, the voice of Tomas supplying context and a semantic framework within which the women act out a parody of themselves as sex objects. The women are thus displayed for the reader as enemies, delighted not by the revelation of each other, but by finding themselves, their fear of being the subject, displaced onto the other. Each reaffirms her loyalties to Tomas by alternately assuming his role in the structure of relations; and each perpetuates that structure by alternately acting her own role. Photography in this reading is really in the service of the secret police, which uses its pictures against the individual as incriminating evidence. Rather than being representations of the self (expressions), they are projections (invasions).

Tomas is palpable in his absence. He forms the subject matter for almost precisely a third of the chapter: he participates in the scene by being the one whose magic word is now articulated; by providing the hierarchical relation between the sexes pervading the novel; and by having acted it out with both women—not to mention that he is the reason for this photographic session in the first place: it is in an attempt to bind Tomas closer to her that Tereza approaches Sabina.

The path from such an understanding of this scene to its identification as soft pornography is a short one. Once so identified, small place remains for the female reader in which to produce positive critical responses to the representation of relations between the two women: the order to be naked, the inscribing of Tomas's word upon that which unites them, is synonymous with the order to remain silent. However, if we choose to exercise what Judith Fetterley has demonstrated to be a necessary practice, namely, reclaiming ostensibly male-oriented fiction through feminist rereading and resisting of the text, it is quite possible to read this scene as more than male fantasy: rather, as a triumph of female bonding. We can do this by refusing the invitation to view all events from Tomas's standpoint, by being conscious, for example, of the way in which our attitudes to the women in this work are shaped by a man who perceives his mistresses simply as “his way of living,” and by a narrator who tells us that “in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body.” Resisting the text that would enjoin us to delight in a narratologic and imaginative authority indisputably misogynist, we can read the photographing scene according to linguistic rules that, broken, invoke the notion of trespass and transgression. The resulting eroticism illuminates those unspoken rules and undercuts their authority.

Sabina is enchanted by her displacement of Tomas, achieved not through rejecting the role he plays in her life but by assuming it herself. What we observe here is the duplication of a particular structure, which has its linguistic counterpart in the word “Strip!” (also a command and thereby carrying an assumption of hierarchy). Its symbol is the camera conferring the power of the gaze upon the one who wields it. The question is, does the power structure thus assumed through appropriation of the gaze belong only to Tomas (or to the secret police, or to the powers that forcibly occupy Prague in the spring of 1968), or can it be argued reasonably that Sabina and Tereza in some way reclaim the instrument and thus subvert its political and linguistic authority? The question is an important one, for on its answer depends the potential of real and represented women to break through frames produced by their objectification. Further, the answer is not to be characterized by the assumption that this reader merely seeks another reading permitting her to enjoy the book and feel politically comfortable at the same time. As I shall argue, the potential of the photographing scene to be viewed as a site of production and resistance is its own object, an object emphasized through the enactment of sexual difference.

The construct of sexual difference depends upon what Kaplan identifies as “a complex gaze apparatus and [also] … on dominance-submission patterns.” Although such patterning privileges the male, traditionally bearer of the gaze, women, says Kaplan, “have been permitted in representation to assume (step into) the position defined as ‘masculine,’ as long as the man then steps into her position, thus keeping the whole structure intact.” Yet the structure is surely preserved whoever steps into either position. In our title, for example, “Subject, Object, Camera,” the final word indicates through self-differentiation that it is standing in for something. We expect one word; we see another; and we retain both the given and the expected (“Camera”/“Verb”) to provide a commentary on each other and, of course, in that relation to provide the subject for this essay.

However, if one word or person may replace another without changing the relation described, does assumption of the structure indicate only a mere role reversal? If this is the case, we might conjecture its purpose to be at base reactionary, a mere nod to notions threatening the status quo. As Kaplan says, “Showing images of mere reversal may in fact provide a safety valve for the social tensions that the women's movement has created by demanding a more dominant role for women.” Yet where the novel describes the incident in terms of pure if interchangeable dominance and submission, the film's version of role reversal permits a greater tenderness, as the actresses use the camera first in cruel mock invasion, then as agent of sensitive portrayal. Tereza (Juliette Binoche) weeps as she takes her photographs, uncomfortable with the sensation of having become Tomas's alter-ego; Sabina (Lena Olin) holds Tereza's arm behind her, removes her underwear; but while Tomas's order to strip is echoed by both, each also asks the other to “look at me.” The gender roles are reversed, but they are also exchanged, and ultimately they are altered altogether. Thus it is what Kaplan calls the “patriarchal narcissism” of rendering woman “in likeness to man”—in this case, by allowing her to play at being the one who takes other women—that actually undercuts any implicit denial of the women's independent sexual and artistic selves. The supposedly masculinized images of Tereza and Sabina inadvertently become Kaplan's “resisting image for the female spectator; the male attire [gaze/camera] ‘permits’ female-female bonding … It allows … a form of sexual relating that excludes men and that thus subverts patriarchal domination while acceding to its symbolic force.”

Tereza's pleasure in being the object of Sabina's vision is the pleasure of the illicit: it depends upon a previously established power-relation rooted in a hierarchy, within which the one who watches is empowered by the status of activity (here both symbolized and realized by the camera). The activity of watching, but especially the activity of watching women, is, as feminist critics such as Laura Mulvey have noted, conventionally designated by our culture as belonging to the male, as being in some inherent and mysterious way “masculine.” By sharing and exchanging roles of subject-object in linguistic and sexual democratic play, Sabina and Tereza experience the enjoyably guilty response that is a function of its atmosphere of taboo.

The problematic response to the photographing scene is made more acute in its cinematic presentation. Its female audience is strangely licensed to participate in the activity of double vision: we as women see ourselves watching each other, but simultaneously we know ourselves to be watched by the masculine “I” of both text and movie camera; and, moreover, constrained by the authoritative “I think” of the narrator. Rather than allowing such fission to confuse (or silence) us, though, we should acknowledge the multiplicity of selves with which we compose our identities. In the movie the complexities of multiple and constrained vision are given emphasis through Sabina's studio being full, not just of reflecting glass of varying sizes, but of windows, photographs and paintings; there are even two long mirrors each cut in the shape of a naked female form. At the absurd moment when the two women are discovered together naked and laughing by Sabina's lover, Franz, Tereza is startled by her own self reflected in one of those mirrors. Her reflection seems accusatory, Other: as the novel tells us, since childhood it has been something “through” which she must look to see herself.

The “I” of both women is precarious, ill at ease, undefined. Throughout the novel its insecurity is manifest in Tereza's refusal to identify her sense of self with the body that she sees before her: like Carroll's Alice, she feels a loss of control over the flesh that is hers, a function of the confusion in this novel within subject-object relations, and she is alienated from that which is the object of the world's gaze when it identifies her as Tereza:

Even if Tereza were completely unlike Tereza, her soul inside her would be the same and look on in amazement at what was happening to her body.

Then what was the relationship between Tereza and her body? Had her body the right to call itself Tereza? And if not, then what did the name refer to? Merely something incorporeal, intangible?

The body-soul dichotomy is the classic dilemma between apparently independent realities. As philosophers, we see one thing; we know another to be also the case. We posit a relation between the two, between external and internal, but—like Tereza—we live as though we refuse to acknowledge the relation. Our view of the world, however, is far from monolithic: it is composite, a series of different images, the perceived and nonperceptual overlaid and subject to development and change.

The theme of all Sabina's paintings, as she describes it, is just this composite vision: “‘The meeting of two worlds. A double exposure.’” Of her first cycle of paintings, entitled “Behind the Scenes,” she recalls that

“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. … On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.”… Tereza … began to perceive that all Sabina's paintings, past and present, did indeed treat the same idea, that they all featured the confluence of two themes, two worlds, that they were all double exposures, so to speak. A landscape showing an old-fashioned table lamp shining through it. An idyllic still life of apples, nuts, and a tiny, candle-lit Christmas tree showing a hand ripping through the canvas.

If there were a metaphor controlling this essay, it would be this one, the “hand ripping through the canvas,” the metaphor of multiple exposure supplied us by the camera, as we engage in what seems to be the hopeless task of chasing the many refracted and splintered images of ourselves through an impossible semantic maze. What the novel tacitly offers us, and the film powerfully voices, is the potential of this double-exposure in the representation of female relations, albeit with the eye of the male author/director/audience gleaming through: it is the potential to explode the myth that when a woman is watched, it is a simple, one-way process. It is too easy and self-restricting to identify the gaze as unilaterally male. Women readers and viewers may and do participate in a gaze that is becoming collective, the product not of a hierarchical relation, but of an overlay of multiple visions.

But it is one thing to talk of gaze, another to talk of attitude. While we may assume (I think correctly) that in the novel Kundera writes man to man, and that we read, as it were, through the keyhole, or over the ideal reader's shoulder, we need not construct our own gaze upon the same model as Kundera's—indeed we cannot—although we may, and should, acknowledge the attitude of author to subject. Although that attitude is itself one of the structuring concerns of the novel, the attitude of the novel, it need hardly be said, is male. The story that it tells, undeniably, is male-engendered, the tale of a man unable to choose between the many women available to him. That is its attitude. Gaze, on the other hand, depends upon how we are able to respond to the objects of that attitude, whether we accept the attitude as valid and participate in it. Attitude is not negotiable, but gaze is a matter of choice.

This is most true of the film version, which takes the possibility of multiple vision, breaks the framing device of the keyhole, and relates a story of possible and conflicting gazes—the exclusive property of no one. I do not mean to suggest that the only way to (re)claim the gaze in the representation of the female is to put her on a screen. In this particular case it works because the novel itself concerns the politics of perception and the problems of self-representation. On film the issues thus illuminate themselves doubly as metacinematography, drawing our attention to the act of watching. To explain what it is that occurs when we watch a representation of a woman watching another woman in the act of making a representation of her, we need to turn to the power relations at play within the pre-existing language structures being appropriated here that account for our ambiguous response to this scene.

The actresses playing Sabina and Tereza are able to subvert the stereotype of the hierarchical gaze through physically producing a visible language of propositions. What does it mean to identify the photographing scene between the two women as a proposition? A proposition, loosely, is a sentence containing within it an assertion, be it implicit or otherwise. The explanation of the term is Wittgenstein's: “A proposition shows how things stand if it is true. And it says that they do so stand.” At the same time, because the proposition is clearly a linguistic possibility, it contains the possibility of being either true or false. Whether it is true or false depends upon the relation of the represented (world) to the representation (text, film). The proposition is nonspecific and therefore nonprescriptive; it offers a potential for generating meanings, rather than a method of determining, upon any one in particular.

Tereza and Sabina subvert the visual and linguistic hierarchy by showing how things stand if (x) is true, and by simultaneously claiming that (x) is true, by endowing the camera with the status of a verb, which they exchange. Their positions alter in the structure of the proposition but the verb is unchanged. The relation of this acted-out proposition to the world is one of possibility rather than one of truth or falsehood. Possession of the verb does not confer absolute power: it simply links the two other parts of speech (object and subject).

If the photographing scene is a sentence, what is its assertion? It asserts the freedom of both subject and object from tyranny of the verb. We cannot say for sure, reading Kundera's text, watching the movie, whose gaze(s) we participate in. But we can be sure that the scene of Tereza and Sabina taking pictures of each other represents the possibility of women undercutting the tyranny of any kind of gaze: this is its subject, its object, and its verb—in sum, its semantic whole, made clearer through its physical articulation by two flesh-and-blood women.

Judith Mayne writes that, “Some actresses seem to transcend their roles as sex-objects, to comment on the very nature of spectacle and voyeurism”; she refers to Silvia Bovenschen's comment that “amazingly, it seems that even those images of femininity constructed by men or by the male art industry, are turning against their creator in ever-increasing numbers.” How this Pygmalionesque revolution happens neither Mayne nor Bovenschen can explain. In the film The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the actresses’ parody of their roles, in which Sabina chases the shrieking Tereza around the studio with the camera out and ready for action, couches the entire scene between enormous, invisible, but unmistakable quotation marks. It is a form of what Derrida calls writing under erasure: “Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary [because it is part of the work], it remains legible.” The women do produce a spectacle of male fantasy, but using the handy, if timeworn, tactic of ironic distance, they pass comment on that visual spectacle, as their actions also pass comment on the hierarchical verbal relation that cannot contain them. Thus the self-consciousness of Tereza and Sabina allows the multiple vision of Sabina's paintings to become a physical reality: the hand does rip through the canvas; we do see the lamp shining through the landscape. Perhaps the task for the feminist reader here is not reclaiming the gaze, but rather recognizing that the gaze, like the object, is multiple.

When one is moving between written and cinematic texts, between words and images, it is easy to fall between the two: to lose sight of each medium and unwittingly construct an independent (and purely projected) series of happenings that then becomes subject for discussion. To keep the two versions of the photographing scene separate, I have referred initially to the novel, arguing that it is possible to read this scene as a positive representation of female relations if one can retain a consciousness of the attitude structuring the work and resist Tomas's voice. Moving then to the cinematic depiction of that episode, I have suggested that the resistance that must be brought to the text is already evident within the film, which works to resist the book in different ways: through the nature of film itself, a medium necessarily dependent upon the concept of the gaze and one which therefore provides an arena at once self-reflexive and naive, drawing attention to itself as subject while simultaneously affecting an invisible presence; and also, harder to define and most powerful, through the actresses’ ability to step beyond the frame of the male gaze through constant undercutting of visual and linguistic perspective.

In the novel the episode ends with the women laughing nervously and getting dressed. In the movie the episode really ends not with the arrival of Franz nor the departure of Tereza from Sabina's studio, but with Franz's appearance in the next scene and on the next day, to find Sabina gone, and nothing left of her but some fragments of mirror and some broken glass on the floor. Franz should not expect to find her waiting: he should know that Sabina does not function according to the hierarchical rules of language in which the man has exclusive rights to the active verb any more than she will allow herself to be represented as exclusively subject: she functions according to the rules of photography, which assert that betrayal of the hierarchy, any hierarchy, is a possibility.

Hana Pichova (essay date Summer 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4118

SOURCE: “The Narrator in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 217-26.

[In the following essay, Pichova examines the role of the narrator in The Unbearable Lightness of Being as active character, omniscient observer, and interloper whose manipulations allude to the psychological conditions of totalitarianism.]

The Unbearable Lightness of Being features a narrator whose presence in the text is no less important than that of any other character. The narrator creates his own self as he tells the story. He achieves this not only by narrating but also by adopting the function of a creator of characters and a director of the text. These functions give the narrator visibility within the story and grant him a potential omniscience through which he could control his fictional personae and their world completely. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, however, the narrator intentionally limits his powers to avoid subjugating his characters to the same totalitarian rule they try to escape on the thematic level. Furthermore, the narrator's choice of narratological strategies and organization reflects his desire to create a textual world that in no way resembles the oppressive world he describes thematically. In other words, the narrator does not put up barbed-wire fences to enclose his characters. He chooses an open-ended structure for his narrative. In this way, the characters’ desire for freedom on the thematic level is supported by the narrator, whose choice of narratological techniques enables him to free the characters on the structural level. An analysis of the narrator's functions and organizational choices within the text will provide a closer view of the structural openness the narrator strives for, an openness that provides the characters with what could be called textual freedom.

A narrator's directing function includes the use of what Genette terms the repeating prolepsis or advance notice, a narratological technique that fragments the narrative through temporal disorder (intermingling the present with the future). Advance notices “refer in advance to an event that will be told in full in its place.” Generally, the formula for advance notices is “we will see” or “one will see later.” As Genette points out, their function lies in creating an expectation in the reader. Furthermore, organizing the narrative by means of advance notices positions the narrator in the role of director of the text. The narrator takes charge of the internal organization of the text by manipulating time through the chronological displacement of events. He is able to direct events against the chronological order of the narrative (going forward in time) which shows that the story is continually present in his mind and that he has complete control over it. In other words, such a role enables the narrator to stress both his complete omniscience and his power over the organizational aspect of the text.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being advance notices appear rather infrequently and are not so explicit as to begin with the formulaic “we will see.” Here is a typical advance notice:

Je to možná těch několik náhod (mimochodem docela skromných, šedivých, vskutku hodných tohoto bezvýnamného města), které uvedly do pohybu její lásku a staly se pramenem energie, kterou nevyčerpá do konce života. (51)

[It may well be those few fortuities (quite modest, by the way, even drab, just what one would expect from so lackluster a town) which set her love in motion and provided her with a source of energy she had not yet exhausted at the end of her days. (51)]

This sentence in the original stresses its temporal orientation into the future by using the future perfective form “nevyčerpá.” (A more literal English translation would use the future tense “will not exhaust.”) This advance notice is of course an allusion to Tereza's constant love for Tomáš, which will recur from now on throughout the novel.

A more complex advance notice forewarns of Tomáš’ death: “Po hříchu nedlouho potom začala žárlit sama a její žárlivost nebyla pro Tomáše Nobelovou cenou, nýbrž břemenem, kterého se zbaví teprve krátký čas před smrtí” [“Before long, unfortunately, she began to be jealous herself, and Tomas saw her jealousy not as a Nobel Prize, but as a burden, a burden he would be saddled with until not long before his death”]. Again, the future perfective (here “zbaví”) occurs in the original (the English sequence of tenses requires the conditional). Thematically, the advance notice anticipates not only Tomáš’ future marital problems but also his death, thereby creating the expectation in the reader's mind of a death scene. At the same time, it reveals the climax of the story and eliminates suspense. The reader no longer needs to question what will happen, only how and when. Impatient readers may have turned to the last pages of the novel, expecting the foretold death to appear there, but their expectations are not fulfilled: the death scene appears much earlier, in a letter to Sabina:

Žili prý v posledních letech na vesnici, kde byl Tomáš zaměstnán jako šofér nákladniho auta. Zvykh si jezdit spolu občas do sousedního města, kde vždycky přespal v lacmém hotelu. Cesta tam vedla přes kopce, seprentinanu, a nákladní auto se s nimi zřítilo s vysoké stráně. (114)

[For the past few years they had been living in a village, where Tomas was employed as a driver at a collective farm. From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel. The road there wound through some hills, and their pickup had crashed and hurtled down a steep incline. (122)]

The chronologically displaced death scene appears approximately in the middle of the novel, in Part III, which is devoted to Sabina and the misunderstandings she faces in emigration. Furthermore, the death scene is followed by four more parts (“Soul and Body,” “Lightness and Weight,” “The Grand March,” and “Karenin's Smile”) dealing directly or indirectly with Tomáš’ life. In other words, the reader is told that Tomáš dies on a collective farm before he actually moves there from Prague. To place the death scene of the main protagonist so early in the text seems anticlimactic. Why does the narrator opt for this deliberate chronological displacement?

A close analysis of the last part of the novel, “Karenin's Smile,” provides an answer. “Karenin's Smile” creates the illusion of a happy ending because there is no death scene involving the main protagonists. The critic Susan Moore claims that while living in the country Tomáš and Tereza find fulfillment and peace of mind: “No one envies them; no one interferes with them—certainly not the Red Army or the police; and no one threatens their freedom of speech or movement.” Moreover, Tomáš’ last words to Tereza seem to support the idea that inner peace and freedom may be found there: “A je to ohromná úleva zjistit, že jsi volná, že nemáš poslání” [“And it's a terrific relief to realize you're free, free of all missions”]. Could it be that the two main protagonists, who are driven by their search for “freedom” from Prague to Geneva and then back to Prague again, actually find it on a collective farm? Such a neatly resolved ending would be typical of a Socialist Realist novel and, by leaving little to question, would give the novel a closed-ended structure. I will argue instead that “Karenin's Smile” leaves much to question, is open-ended in its structure, does not conclude on a happy note, and in fact parodies the Socialist Realist novel.

The last part of the novel might not evoke sadness in the reader, for it does not contain the actual death of Tomáš and Tereza. A closer reading, however, proves that it is permeated with secondary deaths: the dog Karenin has cancer and must be put to sleep; Tereza dreams of Tomáš’ death by shooting (which results in his metamorphosis into a rabbit); the narrator recalls the extermination of pigeons in Prague and the campaigns against dogs which were meant to divert attention from the Soviet invasion. The word “smrt” [death] and its verbal or adjectival cognates appear twelve times in this relatively short chapter (thirty pages in the original). These seemingly unimportant deaths and the frequent repetition of the word “smrt” lend the ending a melancholic tone and evoke the death of Tomáš and Tereza. The novel therefore lacks the closed-ended structure provided by an unequivocally happy ending: it leaves much open to question. The narrator brings up but never answers issues such as: Does Tereza's love finally conquer Tomáš completely? Does Tomáš become weak (metamorphosed into a rabbit) at the end? Does the totalitarian system succeed in eliminating freedom from the society in which they live?

The narrator's thematic parody of the Socialist Realist novel comes to light not only because the main protagonists die in the Socialist “paradise” of the collective farm but also because their deaths reveal the true conditions of the place: “Police dodatečnæ zjistila, že brzdy byly v katastro-fßln m stavu” [“The police determined later that the brakes were in disastrous condition”]. The collective farm does not symbolize a new and better life as in Socialist Realist novels; it symbolizes death and decay.

The narrator undercuts the achievements of Socialist reforms in the countryside by describing its dehumanization:

Ale pak se z vesnic udělala velká továrna a krávy prožívaly celý svůj život na dvou čtverečních metrech v kravínu. Od té doby už nemají jména a jsou z nich machinae animatae. (263)

[But then the villages were turned into a large collective factory, and the cows began spending all their lives in the five square feet set aside for them in their cow sheds. From that time on, they have had no names and become mere machinae animatae. (290)]

People too have been stripped of their individuality: “Zemědělec, kterému už nepatŕí půda a je jen dělnikem pracujícím na poli …” [“A farmer who no longer owns his own land and is merely a laborer tilling the soil …”]. Such a “farmer” no longer has any reason to care for the land or the work he does. He becomes apathetic, encloses himself in the four walls of his dwelling (like the cow in its cow shed), and stares “at the refulgent television screen.” Although, people in the country have nothing to lose or fear and have therefore maintained a certain amount of autonomy (for example, they can choose their own collective farm chairman), they are far from free. Tomáš cannot practice medicine, nor can he or Tereza go anywhere else, because they have sold all their possessions to move there. The only reason the collective accepts them is that it suffers from a constant shortage of people and needs them. The countryside is their last exile, a trap from which there is no escape—except in death.

On the structural level, the chronological displacement of the death scene also parodies the Socialist Realist novel. By revealing the conclusion of the novel much earlier than expected, the narrator eliminates suspense and “lays bare” his technique with all its complexities. When a text is dominated by a suspenseful plot, the reader can block out everything but the outcome of the novel. By eliminating suspense, the narrator points to himself and his technique and forces the reader to read beyond the plot. In contrast, the Socialist Realist novel frowns upon experimentation and stresses its formulaic plot with its ever present “message.” Furthermore, the Socialist Realist novel tends to be closed-ended in its structure: it concludes on a happy note and ties all its loose ends together by answering all questions that may remain at the end.

The directing function enables the narrator to create a textual world over which he has power and control. The narrator tears down the conventions of the Socialist Realist novel, or more generally, any novel that is totalitarian in its presentation. Instead, he strives for a narrative that can free its fictional personae on the structural level.

Not surprisingly, then, Kundera's narrator gains visibility within the text: “Vyprávěl jsem ve třetí části tohoto románu o polonahé Sabině, jak stojís buřinkou na hlavě vedle oblečeného Tomáše. Něco jsem tehdy zamlčel” [“In Part Three of this novel I told the tale of Sabina standing half-naked with a bowler hat on her head and the fully dressed Tomas at her side. There is something I failed to mention at the time” (my emphasis)]. The repetition of the pronoun “I” emphasizes the presence of the narrator. He is the one who selects when and how to reveal the plot, the one who lurks behind each page with a compositional strategy that calls attention to his controlling hand. As the critic D. A. Miller writes, it is the “faceless gaze [that] becomes an ideal of the power of regulation” (The Novel and the Police). But Kundera's narrator is obviously not interested in the power of regulation on the thematic level. He subverts his potential power by revealing himself to the reader. He leaves this power to the “faceless gaze” of the secret police which listens in on private conversations and follows its subjects without their knowledge.

Žádný z nich tehdy netušil, že je v profesorově bytě tajné naslouchací zařízení a že jsou dávno sledováni na každém kroku! Procházka vždycky bavil syé přátele hyperbolami a nehoráznostmi. Tedæse ty nehoráznosti ozývaly na pokračování z rozhlasu. Tajná policie, která redigovala pořad, pdtrhla pečlivě místa, kde se romanopisec posmíval svým přátelům, například Dubčeckovi, Lidé, i když sami pomlouvají své přátele při každé příležitosti, se pohoršovali nad milovaným Procházkou víe než and nenáviděnou tajnou policií. (123)

[For a long time, neither of them had any idea that the professor's flat was bugged and their every step dogged. Prochazka loved to regale his friends with hyperbole and excess. Now his excesses had become a weekly radio series. The secret police, who produced and directed the show, took pains to emphasize the sequences in which Prochazka made fun of his friends—Dubcek, for instance. People slander their friends at the drop of a hat, but they were more shocked by the much-loved Prochazka than by the much-hated secret police. (133)]

The secret police have immense destructive powers precisely because they are “faceless,” because they do not operate in the open. Throughout the novel the secret police are referred to as “they.” They are feared because no one knows when and how they will strike. The narrator, through his frequent use of the pronoun “I” and indications of how he will proceed (or has proceeded) with his narration, disowns the power of “the faceless gaze,” of the secret police.

One could argue that although the narrator diminishes his powers through his visibility and the open manipulation of structural aspects of the text, he nevertheless keeps immense power through the other role he assumes within the novel, that of creator of fictional personae. The narrator stresses that the characters “are not born of a mother's womb” and that they never actually lived. Instead, they are born of a situation, a thought, or a phrase set up by the narrator. Tomáš, for example, comes to being through the narrator's thoughts: “Myslím na Tomáše už řadu let, ale teprve ve světle této úvahy jsem ho uviděl jasně.” [“I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly”]. Tereza's character emerges from a situation: “Tereza se tedy zrodila ze situace, která brutálně odhaluje nesmiřitelnou dualitu těla a duše, základní lidskou zkušenost” [“Tereza was therefore born of a situation which brutally reveals the irreconcilable duality of body and soul, that fundamental human experience”]. The narrator, therefore, assumes the creative act of an author. He no longer participates in the text merely as a director, he is a creator, an absolute authority, and as such enjoys the privilege of complete omniscience whether it relates to the outcome of the story or to the characters’ consciousness.

With such powers, the narrator may seem God-like; he has the means to manipulate his characters’ lives and minds in any way he chooses. The characters may seem to be mere puppets in his hands. The narrator could therefore be accused of creating a totalitarian world that is dominated both by “the faceless gaze” of the secret police as well as by the authorial narrator. The characters’ search for freedom in such a world would be a lost cause. Even if they chose to leave their Soviet ruled homeland, their freedom would be hindered by the narrator's total control.

While the characters are trapped in a society without freedom on the thematic level, the narrator diminishes his own powers of omniscience to free his characters structurally. How the narrator undermines his powers of omniscience can be seen through an analysis of his discourse. I will now return to the creation of Tomáš to illustrate the subtle undercutting of his own knowledge in which the narrator engages: “Myslím na Tomáše už řadu let …” [“I have been thinking about Tomas for many years …”]. It is important to note that the narrator uses the present tense verb “myslím” [I have been thinking], rather than the past tense “myself.” If the narrator used the past tense, he would imply that Tomáš’ development was complete. The use of the present tense indicates that there is more character growth to come. In the very sentence in which he describes how he created a character, the narrator backs away and grants the character the power to create himself. Characters may have been given life by the narrator, but they develop on their own throughout The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In fact, the narrator rarely has access to their thoughts.

The narrator openly distances himself from psychological omniscience. He steps aside whenever his omniscience would venture too deeply into his characters’ internal world: Myslím, zě i Sabinu ovanulo zvláštní kouzlo situace, Když před ní stála žena jejího milence, podivně odevzdaná a plachá” (my emphasis) [“I think that Sabina, too, felt the strange enchantment of the situation; her lover's wife standing oddly compliant and timorous before her” (my emphasis)]. Here the narrator merely speculates on what Sabina might have thought of this strange exchange between her and Tereza. That Sabina's own thoughts are never presented, suggests that she has been given the right to her own private thoughts. Furthermore, the reader is given the choice of whether to believe the narrator or not. The next example shows that the narrator only guesses about Franz's love for Sabina: “Nemohu to pochopit jinak, než že láska pro něho nebyla prodloužením jeho veřejného života nýbrž jeho protipólem” (my emphasis) [“The only explanation I can suggest is that for Franz, love was not an extension of public life but its antithesis” (my emphasis)]. At one point the narrator even admits to a total lack of understanding of one of his characters:

Redaktor Tereze řekl skoro omluvným hlasem: “To je pravý opak toho, co jste fotografovala vy.”

Tereza řekla: “Ale kdepak. To je totéž.”

Nikdo této větě nerozuměl a i mně dělá jisté potíže vysvětlit, co vlastně chtěla Tereza říci, když přirovnala nudistickou pláž k ruské invazi. (my emphasis, 66)

[Almost apologetically the editor said to Tereza, “Of course they're completely different from your pictures.”

“Not at all,” said Tereza. “They're the same.”

Neither the editor nor the photographer understood her, and even I find it difficult to explain what she had in mind when she compared a nude beach to the Russian invasion. (my emphasis, 68)]

Instead of analyzing the differences between Sabina and Franz, which would require psychological probing, the narrator writes a dictionary of misunderstood words: “Kdybych sledoval všechny rozhovory mezi Sabinou a Franzem, mohl bych sestavit z jejich neporozumění veliký slovník. Spokojme se s malým slovníkem” [“If I were to make a record of all of Sabina and Franz’ conversations. I could compile a long lexicon of their misunderstandings. Let us be content, instead, with a short dictionary”]. A dictionary is an objective form that gives no reason or motivation for how or why words are used by certain individuals. It shows only generally accepted meanings. Thus, the narrator's lexicon portrays the differences between Sabina's and Franz's personalities without the expected psychological analysis. But the narrator's ideal of psychological non-omniscience is difficult to maintain. At times, the narrator displays total—one might also say Tolstoyan—insight into his characters’ minds. One such instance occurs in the dictionary's “Light and Darkness” category:

Žit znamená pro Sabina vidět Vidění je vymezeno dvojí hrancí: silným světlem, které oslepuje, a totální tmou …

Slovo “světlo” nevyolává ve Franzovi představu krajiny, na níž spočívá měkká zář dne, ale pramen světla sám o sobě; slunce, žárovka, reflektor … (88–9)

[Living for Sabina meant seeing. Seeing is limited by two borders: strong light, which blinds, and total darkness …

In Franz the word “light” did not evoke the picture of a landscape basking in the soft glow of day; it evoked the source of light itself: the sun, a light bulb, a spotlight … (94)]

But this is more the exception than the rule. Even when reporting his characters’ lovemaking, for example, the narrator uses physical rather than psychological detail to make his point: “To nebylo vzdychání, úpění, to byl opravdu křik. Křičela tolik, že Tomáš oddaloval hlavu od její tváře. Zdálo se mu, že její hlas znějící těsně u jeho ucha mu roztrhne bubínek.” [“It was no sigh, no moan; it was a real scream. She screamed so hard that Tomas had to turn his head away from her face, afraid that her voice so close to his ear would rupture his eardrum”]. The narrator renders the scene, so to say, audiologically rather than psychologically. He may know more about the characters’ lives than they themselves: “Tereza ovšem neznala příběh noci, kdy matka šeptala do ucha jejímu otci, aby si dal pozor” [“Of course, Tereza did not know the story of the night when her mother whispered ‘Be careful’ into the ear of her father”]. Here the narrator functions merely as an eavesdropper. His knowledge is limited to that of an observer; he may be ever present, but he has limited access to the inner world of his characters.

Considering the narrator's dislike of psychological probing, it comes as no surprise that interior monologue is completely absent from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As the critic Edward Bloom has written, interior monologue is “the most exploratory of all fictional states of mind, it is also the most intimate.” Kundera explains why he shuns this narratological technique: “Thanks to the fantastic espionage of interior monologue, we have learned an enormous amount about what we are. But, myself, I cannot use that microphone” (Art of the Novel). Kundera's very choice of words shows that he links interior monologue to secret-police techniques. The narrator in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is obviously close to the author in this respect, for he never immerses himself in the interior world of his characters, a world that is sacred to all who have once been denied freedom. The narrator who shows the dangers of totalitarianism in the story of his characters avoids playing the totalitarian within his own created world and provides his characters with an inner world to which he has limited access. Franz, who never lived under oppression, can say that he would like to live “in a glass house” into which all can see and in which nothing remains secret, but the narrator, as well as his East European protagonists, have seen a world where privacy is no longer respected and where the regime tears down the walls of one's house. In such a world the psychological realm is the only realm that cannot be controlled. It is for this reason that the narrator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being protects it with such ferocity.

Fred Misurella (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13495

SOURCE: “Longing for Paradise: The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” in Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs, University of South Carolina Press, 1993, pp. 105-33.

[In the following essay, Misurella provides an overview of the narrative structure, major themes, characters, and recurring motifs in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The ending of The Farewell Party, almost theatrical with its closing emphasis on lights, shadows, and the players walking off the platform into the dark, may remind some readers of the end of The Tempest, where Shakespeare, through the character of Prospero, is said to bid farewell to his art. In certain ways the ending of The Farewell Party is also a good-bye of sorts: to Czechoslovakia and, according to Peter Kussi, one of Kundera's translators, to Kundera's former style of writing fiction. After this novel he will no longer wear the mask of an anonymous third-person narrator. Instead, Kundera will step forward into the new world as himself, a created, fictional self to be sure, a raconteur, telling stories of the old world as well as the new. That narrative stance begins with the opening paragraphs of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, continues into The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and reaches for a new subject and sensibility in Immortality, Kundera's first completely Western novel. By the end of The Farewell Party Kundera has become like Shakespeare's Prospero, as well as his own character Jakub: Having made his peace (perhaps under false, or painful, circumstances), he is ready to go home, not to Czechoslovakia, but to France, the center of European culture in the Modern Era. With that move he will finally realize for himself the potential for Czech literature that he voiced at the Fourth Writers’ Congress in 1967: to move beyond provincialism, to transcend borders instead of guarding them, and to make European culture, not just Czechoslovakia, one of its central targets of concern.

Along with the move to France would come Kundera's new realization of the role the narrative voice could have in his fiction. The character with that voice, an invented Kundera, would be intelligent and rational, like Jakub and Ludvik, but with flaws and weaknesses not usual in narrative personae, especially third-person ones standing in for authors. He would lack knowledge, insight, and power, standing equal with, not superior to, the other characters and the reader. Despite obvious intelligence, despite his acknowledged authorship of the events each novel tells (in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, remember, Kundera confesses that he invented Tamina, a character with a name “no woman has ever had before”), he will not have complete control. Instead, he will puzzle over life as his characters do; and he will, like the reader, try to make sense of the complex personalities, actions, and fates of the characters he creates. In effect, Kundera's concept of the narrator after The Farewell Party can be compared to an eighteenth-century deist's concept of God: a clockmaker who sets the world in motion and then, no longer involved, sits back to watch, with a mixture of interest, happiness, and fear, whatever happens next.

In that manner Kundera's personal narrative voice implies human limitations and constantly reminds the audience of a blurred line, or border, that tradition has erected to separate fact from fiction. He can wonder at the actions and antics of the world he sets in motion, musing with the reader over probable outcomes, possible meanings, particular alternatives in parabatic passages (a technique discussed more fully in chapter three) that are at once comic, human, and philosophical, reflecting Kundera's playful yet serious attempt to understand the world we live in through the model of the world he imagines in his story. Storytelling becomes an act of philosophic inquiry, therefore, an attempt, as Kundera has said about novels in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to understand “human life in the trap the world has become.” That approach makes the act of narration at least as important as the story itself, turning the aesthetic and thematic spotlight of the novel onto the narrator's mind and voice as well as the characters’ actions and fates. Giving himself the role of raconteur, Kundera encourages his readers to understand in the way he does: by sympathizing with the characters, identifying with their experiences and emotions while never losing sight of their true ontological nature. They are people who exist as compilations of words and thoughts—fictions, in other words—who do not die, feel pain, or cry real tears, yet provoke allied feelings in us and, by extension, help the narrator and his reader to better understand the world. Such a technique encourages Kundera's audience to maintain objectivity while urging greater intellectual involvement in his characters’ lives. With that goal in mind, a notable aesthetic advance over the impersonal approach practiced in many modern experimental novels, the reader may better appreciate the narrative voices in the novels following The Farewell Party. They are voices that, as Peter Kussi has pointed out, essentially take Kundera's career as a novelist in a new direction.


When he begins The Book of Laughter and Forgetting with a joke about his country's history (Vladimir Clementis's hat photographed on Gottwald's head), Kundera does so to set the tone of his new novel. It will be historical, philosophic, filled with tragic, often true, events, but at the same time ironic in tone and manner, its power derived from the sense of play in the narrator's thought and tone. In one parabatic passage after another Kundera will undercut our identification with the characters of the story, work to dilute purely political interpretations, and attempt to reason with us about the historical and philosophical meanings of events. Meanwhile, he will move the stories of his fictional characters forward so that we are never quite sure, as we read, whether his interpretations will prove themselves correct or not.

He broadens the narrative perspective enormously in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, moving from the relatively narrow confines of twentieth-century Czech history, striking though it may be, to the broader, more airy philosophic issues he originally touched upon in the first “Angels” section of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, where he discusses the necessity of balance between good and evil in human life. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he opens with a comment on Nietzsche and his “mad myth” of eternal return: that all things we experience happen again, not once but infinitely. This idea adds great weight to experience, Kundera tells us, but the inverse also applies: If things happen only once, as we in fact experience them, no matter how serious, tragic, or painful they are, they have no weight and therefore no meaning. From that perspective Kundera can ask the reader to consider a monumental event such as the French Revolution in the same light as a war between two fourteenth-century African kingdoms. The stories of both contain great human suffering and pain, yet we can pass over the horror of such times, even glorify some awful aspects of them (Kundera points to the French historians’ admiration for Robespierre, whose inclination to behead his enemies made him one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants in European history) simply because they occur only once.

Proceeding by association, as he did so frequently in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera introduces an autobiographical anecdote. A short while ago, he tells us, he leafed through a book about Adolf Hitler and, instead of experiencing the horror of those times, found himself nostalgic for his youth. Several members of his family died in German concentration camps, but their suffering is minuscule compared to the loss he felt for his boyhood in the 1930s. Puzzled by that, Kundera goes on to make a point about the transitory nature of our experience; because it happens once, “everything is pardoned in advance … everything cynically permitted.” But while doing that, he also levels himself with the reader and the characters in his story, saying that all of us, even the narrator, have limitations and no one, including the invented Kundera who “speaks” the words of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, can know or understand everything. As a result, this parabatic introduction to the novel has a clear effect: It reminds us once again that we are reading fiction, not fact; it shows a narrator reaching out to his audience on a very human level, as if his listeners (or readers) were a company of thoughtful friends; it encourages us to speculate, along with Kundera himself, on the meaning and nature of his characters’ lives in the context of real experience; and it urges us to escape, not from the world, but into it through an imagined one, the world of the narrator's story. That story functions as a model, and through it Kundera asks us to think about the meaning of human life as he does, in the context of his characters’ suffering.

After another parabatic essay on lightness and weight, during which he mentions the division that Parmenides (a Greek philosopher in the sixth century before Christ) made between positive and negative poles, much as Kundera divided the world between angels and devils in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he goes on to ask which is positive in the division of things between lightness and weight. Parmenides made lightness positive, but like a good rationalist Kundera does not accept that judgment, calling the lightness/weight division the “most ambiguous” one in human life. This philosophic review completed, Kundera continues his discussion as a novelist normally would, through the more concrete forms of characters, action, and fate.

He opens chapter three of this section by introducing Tomas as a character he has thought about for years but has come to “see,” or imagine, clearly only during his reflections on the myth of eternal return and the values of lightness and weight. In a scene that Kundera says is a key to his character's life, he sees Tomas staring out his window at a wall, thinking about Tereza. He works as a surgeon in Prague, she as a waitress in a small provincial town. After spending an hour with her some three weeks before this thoughtful moment. Tomas finds himself uncharacteristically wanting her in his life and, more intriguing since it implies a sense of real emotional weight and extra burden, pictures himself dying at her side. He doubts the validity of these feelings, annoyed with himself for not knowing what he wants until he realizes that, experiencing life just once, all human beings find it impossible to know what they want. Dismissing his quandary as nothing, Tomas goes about his business without making a decision until Tereza calls him to say that she has just arrived in Prague.

Tomas agrees to meet her at his apartment the next evening. Thirty-six hours later she enters with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina under her arm and, after they make love, Tereza fulfills Tomas's greatest fears: She has no hotel room, so she will have to stay with him, and she has left her bag, a suitcase Tomas imagines as containing her whole life, at the train station. Conceiving of her as a child who, like Moses, has drifted in a basket downstream to enter his life by fate (and chance). Tomas spends nights in his office while Tereza sleeps in his apartment alone. When he finally spends the whole night with her, he feels she has offered her life to him and he cannot let her go. Kundera reflects on the abandoned child as a motif of civilization's important myths, mentioning Oedipus as well as Moses, and ends the chapter with a comment on the “danger” of metaphors. They are not to be trifled with; they can give birth to love, in a sense making the language of life more weighty than the experience.

Kundera provides some background on Tomas's life. Divorced, he has a son whom he has not seen in years, principally because his former wife made meetings difficult and demanded gifts and money in exchange for time with the boy. As a result, Tomas has no family ties, his parents having become sympathetic to his former wife because he gave up his son, and he has developed a series of erotic friendships with women, the most important being an artist named Sabina, who provide him company with no obligations. The rule of threes applies: Tomas sees women three nights in a row and then never again, or he continues their friendship for years but only for meetings at least three weeks apart. Most important, until Tereza brings her suitcase full of fate into his life, he has never slept overnight with any of them. Tomas decides that love asserts itself not in the desire for sex, which might include any number of partners, but shared sleep (or death), which applies to only one. Extending Kundera's rumination on lightness and weight, we can place the desire for sex (Eros) on the side of lightness and the desire for love (shared sleep and death—or its personification, Thanatos) on the side of weight. Lightness implies movement and energy; weight implies stillness and falling. In an interesting combination of those two themes Tomas lives on both sides of the balance by means of his two principal lovers: Sabina, the artist with whom he shares sex and no obligations, and Tereza, with whom he shares love and a desire for rest. Like Klima in The Farewell Party, he is both a conservative husband and a rake, a romantic lover as well as a libertine, Everyman as well as Don Juan, one who lives life under the swell of pears as well as the roar of tanks. And once again the world of pears carries the greater weight, the greater emotional significance.

Giving in to his fate, and hers, after two years, Tomas marries Tereza and gives her a puppy, a mongrel with a German shepherd body and a Saint Bernard head whom they call Karenin, after the dull but faithful husband in the book Tereza carried into Tomas's life. The dog takes to Tereza immediately, becoming child and husband to her in an Oedipus Rex motif that Kundera will call upon frequently in the novel. The dog also frees Tomas somewhat since he cannot, as he admits, cope with Tereza alone, and it provides an orderly pattern to their daily lives. Tomas still carries on affairs with Sabina and other women, and so Tereza cannot be happy with him until, as Kundera explains, the Russian tanks roll into Prague in August 1968. A staff photographer for a magazine now, she enters the historical moment to record it with pictures that she hands over to Western media. Tomas perceives her to be truly happy for the first time since he has known her, and when she urges that they emigrate to Switzerland after Alexander Dubcek's public humiliation at the hands of Soviet officers, he agrees to go, realizing that despite marriage, Karenin, and his own modest efforts at loving her, Tereza has not been happy with him. He accepts an offer from a hospital in Zurich, and they leave Prague for what seems like a new beginning to life.

But Sabina has gone into exile too, and, although she lives in Geneva rather than Zurich, she and Tomas manage to see each other, affairs without obligation being Tomas's “life-support system.” Aware of his continued meetings with other women, Tereza takes Karenin and leaves Switzerland for Prague again, just a half year after their arrival. She leaves Tomas a note, blaming herself for not being strong enough or mature enough to live abroad. Staggered, but happy at first, Tomas revels in his renewed freedom and lightness until three days later the compassion that drew him to her in the first place reasserts itself: “Russian tanks were nothing compared with it.” When Tomas tells the director of the Swiss hospital that he must return to Prague, Kundera refers to the famous Es muss sein (It must be) theme in Ludwig van Beethoven's last quartet, a phrase that Beethoven introduced as the “difficult” or “weighty” resolution of fate. Following that fate, Tomas leaves Switzerland, and as he drives toward the Czech border, Kundera adds a touch of musical humor to lighten the melancholy note of Tomas's imminent imprisonment. Speaking in his narrative persona, he imagines a cartoon-figure Beethoven, “gloomy, shock-headed,” leading a firemen's brass band in a march to the usually somber Es muss sein theme. Tomas himself wonders if it really must be—if he has no choice, in other words—but because he cannot test the possible results of either returning to Prague or remaining in exile, he follows his emotions and crosses the border irrevocably. At their apartment in Prague, instead of falling into Tereza's arms, he stands apart and imagines the two of them outdoors, in the snow, shivering. They have not spoken for days, but we learn in the next section, mainly about Tereza's experiences, that she shares this imagined experience with him.

The section ends with Tomas in bed beside Tereza, tortured by the fact that he has returned to Prague despite himself. Thinking about their marriage, he calculates that six chance occurrences, each potentially yielding a different result, brought them together seven years before and became his fate. The story of their love could easily have been otherwise, he concludes, and so could the story of his fate. Tomas lies awake in bed while Tereza snores, his stomach churning because of difficult thoughts.


Kundera begins the second section of the novel with a parabatic introduction that picks up the theme of the rumbling stomach that closed the previous section. Saying that an author should not even attempt to convince the reader that his characters once existed, he tells us that the German adage he quoted earlier, “Einmal ist keinmal” (What happens but once might as well not have happened at all), gave birth to Tomas. He goes on to say that a rumbling stomach gave birth to Tereza and explores the dichotomy between the two characters by returning to the story of Tereza's entrance into Tomas's apartment. She had not eaten since getting on the train in the morning, and that bodily neglect created the hunger that led the compassionate Tomas to take her into his arms, and life, moments after she arrives. So if cultural voices heard through the words and philosophy of an adage speak for Tomas, then the “ventral voices” of the body speak for Tereza. Appropriately, we may say that the world of the mind and the soul gave birth to Tomas, while the world of the body and heart gave birth to Tereza.

Kundera continues the analysis of his two characters with a philosophic discussion. Saying that the “fundamental human experience” of body and soul duality (growing out of a rumbling stomach) gave birth to Tereza, he describes in four very moving paragraphs the progression of humanity's understanding of itself from fear and amazement over the body's separation from the imagined seer, thinker, and believer trapped inside it, through the scientific understanding of the physical self as a collection of technological instruments (the nose, for instance, is a nozzle on a hose taking air into the body), and finally to a linguistic appraisal where naming body parts gives an illusion of understanding and unity. In actuality, Kundera says, the essential mystery of duality remains until a crisis of love (manifested by Tereza's rumbling stomach) exposes the fiction of such scientific thinking.

But we see a third pattern to this human confusion over identity that Tereza represents in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and that is personal history, a theme that Kundera treated thoroughly in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Here we learn that part of the mystery of Tereza's self, the difficult part, stems from her mother. In a comment that suggests an interpretation without the usual authorial insistence, Kundera says that he “sometimes” feels that Tereza's life merely continues her mother's, as if there were a human fate or theme that crosses the border of generations, fulfilling itself in spite of individual attempts to resist. Tereza's mother, Kundera tells us (and we know this is a fiction, because he has reminded us how the character of Tereza evolved), was a beautiful, vain young woman of the provinces who gave birth to Tereza as a result of a chance pregnancy, settled into an embittered marriage with Tereza's father, and when she noticed signs of age on her face, took up with another man. Downcast, Tereza's father began to speak openly about the faults of the political system, was arrested, tried, and sentenced, and died after a short time in jail. The mother moved in with her lover, gave birth to three more children, and, further embittered by her aging body, sought revenge on her daughter, whom she regards as a “fateful second … named Tereza” that has ruined her life. Left alone by an increasingly unfaithful husband, Tereza's mother turned coarse and cynical. Removing Tereza from school so the young girl could take a job, she forces her daughter to tend the children and do housework as well, shaming her with gross displays of her overweight, aging body as well as its “ventral” functions. Yet Tereza aspired for a better life, “something higher,” not anchored to the body. She had been the brightest student in her class at school, and now even while working and tending children, she reads constantly—thus the copy of Anna Karenina under her arm in Prague—and perceives life with Tomas as a step upward. A surgeon, he views the body objectively, understanding its mechanical parts both inside and out, and yet has the compassion to respond to the emotions it displays. And he too reads. The first time she sees him in the restaurant, he has a book open in front of him. The fact that Tereza hears a Beethoven composition on the radio while serving Tomas confirms her sense of him as representing a higher destiny in her life.

So escape from provincial life for Tereza leads to “fate” in the person of Tomas surrounded by literature, Beethoven, and a journey to Prague. If Tomas reads the events around their love as a scientist obsessed with the mathematics of catastrophe and chance, Tereza reads the same events as an aesthetician obsessed with the search for form. When Tomas speaks to her in the restaurant, Tereza feels the soul within her body ascend “through her blood vessels and pores to show itself to him” in a blush that unifies body and soul. When Tomas thinks of the six coincidences that brought him to Tereza, his stomach rumbles to assert its separation from the internal calculator of the odds. Both characters feel their soul's assertion in the body. Tereza's inclinations make her perceive the event as magical, unforgettable, unifying; Tomas, on the other hand, perceives the event scientifically, in terms of accident, with the stomach's rumble affirming body and soul separation. We can say, therefore, that just as Tereza needs Tomas to ascend to a higher level of living, so Tomas needs Tereza to assert unity, beauty, and form in his life. Unlike Freud, Kundera the narrator speaks of an aesthetic dimension to human psychology. People compose their lives, he says, “like music,” seeking form, following “laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.”

But even though Tereza possesses unity of body and soul, we soon learn of another division in her experience, the one between night and day, between the life of dreams and the life of reality. Kundera describes Tereza's dreams during her years with Tomas and analyzes them as expressions of an inner search for identity. The most prominent dream has feminist connotations, featuring Tomas in a basket hanging over a pool, forcing naked women to march around the pool while they sing and do occasional kneebends. If one of the women does a poor kneebend, Tomas shoots her. She falls into the water while the rest continue marching and singing. The horror of the dream begins before the first shot, the narrator tells us, commencing immediately with the vision of the naked women and Tereza among them. Nakedness levels the women, especially before Tomas's critical eyes, obliterating their individuality in the same way that nakedness denies the individuality of the sad characters on the nude beach in the final episode of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and as it denies individuality among the naked women at the baths in The Farewell Party. Tereza's dream is a variation on a theme Kundera has touched upon several times, but here he develops it in greater, almost martial, detail. A poor kneebend takes a woman out of lockstep, individualizing her before the background of regimen, and the shot Tomas fires not only confirms but erases that uniqueness as a flaw. The fall into the pool, accompanied by shouts of joy from the marching women, renders her “sameness absolute” and, the narrator says, makes futile Tereza's attempt to make her body “unique, irreplaceable” to Tomas.

The dream also becomes Tereza's way of telling Tomas that his affairs with other women deny her individuality, making her the same as they are, even though she reasons during the day that she is, in fact, different and special. Torn by the contrast between her reasonable daytime self and her nightly terrors, she also exposes an impossible division in Tomas's life. He fears that Tereza wants to die, and the fear fills him with guilt. He cannot be both Don Juan and Everyman, libertine and husband. His compassion, a sign of his longing for unity, will not allow it, and at some point he will have to choose. But in certain respects, as with the adult character among adolescents in Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke, Tomas really cannot choose because outside forces, such as chance, social roles, and destiny, make the choices for him. Thus, Tomas's retreat from Geneva to Prague, an act of individual compassion, also represents a surrender to unity and fate, or what Kundera might call fate's long aesthetic curve—from Tereza's mother's destiny, to Tereza's and now his. What's more, the shape of the curve, beautiful though it may be, turns downward, like the plunge of the naked women in Tereza's dream. So it is attractive, powerful, dangerous. No wonder Tomas's stomach rumbles while he lies beside his wife in Prague that night.

The aesthetic dimensions of destiny, its shapeliness and form, lead directly to Sabina, the third important character in this novel and the other important woman in Tomas's life. A painter, she appeals to Tomas's need for beauty, as Tereza does, but not to his need for unity, allowing him the freedom of his Don Juan impulses, placing no claims on him, having other lovers and pursuing her career as an artist by herself. When Tereza first comes to Prague to live with Tomas, Sabina helps her find a job developing and printing photographs on the staff of a magazine. She also instructs Tereza on the principles of graphic art, and Tereza, talented and ambitious, responds rapidly, becoming skilled with the camera, and is soon promoted to staff photographer. But while the two women talk about principles of art, we learn of a technique in Sabina's work that illustrates her own divided vision. All Sabina's paintings, Tereza discovers, illustrate a convergence of two views, one on the surface plane, “an intelligible lie,” Sabina calls it, and another, beneath the surface, which she calls “the unintelligible truth.” Developing this technique by way of an accidental drip of paint on a realistic paining she did as a student, Sabina has expanded it to encompass a vision controlling all her paintings, exposing the socially (or politically) approved version of life's meaning to the criticism of the mysteries of reality, likely less formed, more chaotic, and certainly less comforting to the ordinary citizen. Her openness to these absurd, threatening views derive from the spontaneity of her artistic nature, and in one very important scene that spontaneity and openness to dual vision play off her relationship with Tereza.

In another variation on the theme of nakedness and individual identity, Tereza visits Sabina's studio to do a series of photographs of her. They discuss Sabina's paintings at first, then, after an hour of taking shots, Tereza asks Sabina to pose in the nude. A gulp, a glass of wine, and a conversation about a bowler hat belonging to Sabina's grandfather follows. Again, we must think of Clementis's hat on the head of Gottwald and Papa Clevis's hat sliding into Passer's grave in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Both provide humorous touches for solemn situations, both relate to moral borders, both remind the reader of memory and loss, especially lost individuality. In this variation Kundera has Sabina keep the hat on a model head usually meant for wigs, and he reports with humble, arresting details what she tells Tereza about its former owner. Her grandfather was mayor of a small town; he left just two things behind, the bowler hat and a photograph of himself with other dignitaries standing on a platform for some unknown ceremony. With that sketch of her past completed Sabina enters the bathroom to disrobe.

The scene that follows, short, not very graphic, but memorable because of its latent sexuality, becomes more powerful because of the hat preceding it and the horror of the Russian invasion that Kundera introduces immediately afterward. These elements provide a double exposure in words like those Sabina reveals on canvas. But within that double exposure Kundera places another. The camera, he says, is Tereza's eye to see as well as a veil to hide behind. She can observe a portion of Tomas's life by photographing Sabina, and she hides a part of her own by being the photographer. But then Sabina heightens the situation by issuing Tomas's command to “Strip,” a seduction technique with which they are both familiar. Sabina takes the camera as Tereza disrobes. In a variation on the Narcissus myth that we have seen before (“Mother” in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and the last scene of Life Is Elsewhere), the two women, wife and mistress, become united in their nakedness. Reflecting Tereza's dream, they lose their individuality even as they temporarily and without his presence unify Tomas's life. Their laughter and embarrassment, however, show how impossible that unity would be on a permanent basis. After Sabina takes a couple of pictures, both women laugh at themselves and then get dressed.

From the theme of nakedness and loss of individual identity Kundera moves to loss of national identity by opening the next chapter with the invasion of Russian tanks in August 1968, and the fact that of all the crimes by Russia against its neighbors, the one against Czechoslovakia was the most photographed. Czech cameramen, he says, knew they were the best equipped to record this act of national violence for history. Tereza joins them, passing her undeveloped rolls of film to Western journalists who smuggled them across the border. When she goes to Zurich with Tomas, however, she tries to sell some fifty prints she has left over from the days of the invasion and finds editors no longer interested. They have forgotten the invasion, much as the world might forget the mythical fourteenth-century African war Kundera mentions in the opening paragraphs of the book. One editor is more interested in printing photographs of naked families on a nude beach. Underlining the similarity between lost individuality and national shame, Kundera has Tereza, reminded of her mother's shameless nudity around the house, tell the editor that her pictures of Czechs among the Russian tanks are the same as those of the naked families. Shame, vulnerability, and obscenity are the key similarities here, with loss of identity, public and private, the paramount theme.

Kundera goes on to show us that Tereza's photographs grew out of passion, not for the art of photography, but over her anger at the invasion and the shame it brought to her country. Other subjects do not inspire her. With no need for money, she has little incentive to pursue photography. As a result she feels weak, limited, and when she receives a phone call for Tomas from a woman with a German accent, she feels her weakness doubly exposed by jealousy and decides to return to Czechoslovakia, the country of the weak. Kundera calls her return an example of Tereza's vertigo, which he defines as the “heady, insuperable longing to fall” and “the intoxication of the weak.” Tomas, strong, yet too weak to resist her or his compassion for her, then follows her back, as we know. By the end of the second section, a variation on the ending of the first section, Tomas has finally fallen asleep as he lies beside Tereza. She awakens shortly afterward, concerned that he has changed his destiny for her. Something fundamental has altered in this variation. Now Tereza feels responsible for Tomas's life and fate. In the country of the weak, she has become the strong partner in her marriage (much like Kamila Klima at the end of The Farewell Party). But, despite the burden of responsibility for Tomas that she now fears, the last paragraph of “Soul and Body” shows a heartened Tereza. She remembers that the church clock struck six just before Tomas walked into the apartment, just as, back in her village some years before, the clock had struck six as she began talking to Tomas after work. Seeing this numerical coincidence as meaningful, Tereza feels confident again because beauty and form have returned to the love of her life.


Kundera does five new things in this third, critical, section of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He introduces an important new character, Franz; he turns the focal point of the narrative on Sabina to provide us with yet another variation of viewpoints on his themes (telling us, by the way, that Tereza and Tomas have died in an automobile accident); he introduces an Oedipus motif that has lain dormant in his references to Anna Karenina throughout the first two sections (let us not forget that Anna, already in love with Vronski after meeting him at a dance, refers to him as “that officer boy”); he moves the story and his characterization forward by means of a clever narrative technique, “A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words”; and, finally, he provides a variation on his thematic linkage of public and private concerns, elements of Tereza's dream being further developed through Franz's political liberalism and the idea of the European Grand March.

The section opens with a description of Geneva and the relationship of Franz and Sabina. Franz works at the university, a professor of philosophy who has spent his life “marching in step”; that is, doing the right thing, with a home, a wife, and a child, supporting the right liberal causes, lecturing, publishing papers, achieving enormous success no matter what he does. In his affair with Sabina he wants to continue that march of correctness, and he works to keep his love for her separate from his family life. As Kundera describes him, he accomplishes this separation out of guilt for having married someone other than Sabina, and we come to see that Franz bears a heavy burden of responsibility toward women that limits his freedom and establishes his thematic position within the quartet of lovers now situated at the center of the novel. We learn that, because he felt responsible for his mother's misery after her husband left her, Franz behaves weakly, dutifully, like a good son, toward women, seeking his mother in every woman he loves. With that situation Kundera lays bare the Oedipus theme that I see, along with the four lovers, at the heart of the novel. To this point he has pursued the Oedipus theme by means of Tomas and Tereza, with Tereza gradually gaining ascendance in her marriage to Tomas; he has referred to the theme obliquely with Tereza's dream about marching in step (Oedipus's lame foot, from being tied to a stake and abandoned in the woods as an infant, is a sign of his inability to march correctly, or in step); and he continues in this “Words Misunderstood” dictionary by exploring the characters of Franz and Sabina in pointedly Oedipal ways.

Kundera contrasts the two couples in other ways as well, founding a consideration of their characters on the “marching in step” motif that clearly signifies obeying authority, or at least following the rules of the social game. Tereza must march in step, for instance, in order not to be like her mother, while Sabina absolutely cannot. On the other hand, Tomas can't march in step despite his compassion for Tereza, but Franz absolutely must despite his love for Sabina. In fact, Franz's allegiance to what Kundera calls Europe's Grand March, ultimately leading to his death from a violent blow he receives while defending himself in Bangkok, Thailand, is a variation on the theme of Tereza's nightmare—we can see the Grand March as the public, historical version of Tereza's women marching in step. Drawing a further comparison, and another variation on the theme, we can say that in this novel the Grand March compares to the circular dances Kundera described in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting; it joins hands (and feet), isolating individuals; it asserts the historically “light” world of tanks over the “heavier” world of pears. As narrator, Kundera says, “It never occurred to [Franz] that … the parades he imagined to be reality were nothing but theater, dance, carnival—in other words, a dream.”

Kundera explores other motifs of the Oedipus myth in this section, but none more clearly than the idea of blindness. In Sophocles's play, Oedipus, seeking the murderer who has caused the plague in Thebes, consults the blind soothsayer, Tiresias, who experienced life as both a man and a woman and was struck blind by the gods because they were jealous of his knowledge. Ironically, when Oedipus finally discovers that he has caused the plague by killing his father and having children with his mother, he plunges his mother's brooches into his eyes, striking himself blind, choosing punishment for the truth rather than acceptance of the horror the truth contains.

Kundera plays on the idea of chosen blindness in this section, first, in describing Franz's closed eyes while he makes love to Sabina, underlining his blindness to the Oedipal nature of their love. Less obvious, perhaps, is the idea of linguistic blindness, when Kundera offers the dictionary of misunderstood words to explore the gulf of differing visions and experience dividing Franz and Sabina. As a result of this dictionary, really an exploration of attitudes regarding basic life situations, we can also reflect on the differences between Tomas and Tereza that Kundera has explored in the first two sections of the book and from there make comparisons with Franz and Sabina. If Tomas analyzes his return to Tereza as a result of chance occurrences, Tereza perceives it in light of beauty and form (“the birds of fortuity” twittering around her shoulders at the end of part two); if Franz closes his eyes while making love in order to float in the heady space of oblivion, Sabina keeps her eyes open and likes the light of day in order to see—and understand. If Franz sees the private life of books (his world of pears) as false, Sabina sees public life (the world of tanks) as flawed and, in her paintings, attempts to cut through that surface to find an internal meaning. Similarly, if Tomas, as a compassionate surgeon or as a libertine Don Juan, seeks the truth by entering the privacy of other bodies, Tereza has sought it in public through photographing tanks.

Kundera incorporates an aesthetic dimension into his use of blindness by developing Sabina's thoughts about chance and intention in art. First, during a visit to New York with Franz, she sees European cities representing planned, intentional beauty, while America, at least the America she experiences in New York, represents accidental beauty or, as she says, “beauty by mistake.” Still, she feels attracted by the city (Franz merely feels homesick), and Kundera further explores the relationship between the aesthetics of chance and intention in the story he tells about the emergence of Sabina's painting style. She discovered her double-layered vision by accident as a student, having painted a realistic scene and, by mistake, dripped some paint from her brush onto the canvas. Perceiving that line of drops metaphorically, she saw them as an incision in the canvas and worked to open the incision further until she laid back the surface plane, revealing another, opposing scene, a second level of reality that belied the first.

That breaking through, by means of a mistake or accident, to another vision of reality mimics exactly the experience of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. At the beginning of the play the audience sees the proud, commanding, public figure of Oedipus; but gradually as Sophocles, an aesthetic surgeon cutting through layer after layer of meaning along the way, moves the plot forward by means of accident, mistaken belief, and then full, ironic display, we come to see a second Oedipus hidden beneath the first: the blind, vulnerable child, as man, stumbling into the future, more susceptible to accident than ever before. The image Sophocles unearths at the end of the play is powerful, disturbing, yet the audience perceives it, in the context of tragic form, as beautiful. Thus we might say that Sophocles, attracted by the randomness he saw in the myth of Oedipus's experience, wrote a controlled, meaningful dissection of his character, a laying back of the public for the private self, combining a history of life's accidents with his own artistic vision. Similarly, Sabina creates meaning, intrigued by the shapely form of paint drops on her canvas. Comparing life to art (and a scientist to a painter), if Tomas, because of his compassion, fails to overcome chance in his life with Tereza, Sabina's artistic objectivity allows her to take advantage of it, pursuing accident further into meaning. Many people read Tomas, because of his intelligence and womanizing traits, as the Kundera surrogate in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But very clearly Sabina functions as the author's persona. Her views on accident, art and society, public and private values, match those Kundera has expressed, and the linkage between her artistic methods and those we perceive of Sophocles in Oedipus Rex makes the comparison doubly appropriate, especially when we remember Kundera's beginnings as a playwright and poet.

Kundera explores the Oedipus theme throughout this third section, finally using the motif overtly as an explanation of the demise of love between Franz and Sabina. Before going to Rome with Sabina, Franz tells his wife, Marie-Claude, of his affair, which has been going on for nine months. When Sabina finds out, she regards the public knowledge of their love as a burden, feeling she must now play the role of Sabina the mistress rather than be herself. This public role functions as preordained behavior, as if it were written in a script, providing another example of Witold Gombrowicz's aesthetic in Kundera's work.

For Sabina the former privacy of her affair with Franz contained more meaning, more possibility for accident and life, making her time with Franz susceptible to chance and, important for her, choice. Immediately after describing the change in Sabina's attitude, Kundera provides several Oedipal images that haunt the ending of their love. Of course, the nine-month length of the affair has obvious significance; in a sense, a new Franz has to be born. But then, in Rome, Sabina turns off the light in their hotel room when they make love, leaving them both in the dark, or “blind,” but with a difference: for Sabina darkness means the “refusal to see,” or choice not to; for Franz it means infinity, space without borders, experience without distinctions. Kundera reports Sabina as sickened: “The idea that he was a mature man below and a suckling infant above, that she was therefore having intercourse with a baby, bordered on the disgusting.” Immediately after that chapter Kundera moves to Franz's thoughts of his mother, this time as he returns home contemplating the image of her in his wife.

Kundera continues to use the Oedipus motif thereafter, but with some changes. When Sabina leaves Franz, he finds himself abandoned, Marie-Claude having declared their marriage finished, and he moves into his own apartment. Soon he buys his own desk, hires carpenters to build bookshelves and decorate his apartment, and Kundera describes him as grown up at last. He begins an affair with one of his students. Thus, Kundera presents an inverted image of the Oedipus theme, a variation that, because of their difference in age, we can see as a second layer of the one Sophocles dramatized. But Sabina, though physically absent, has not really left Franz's private world. He thinks of her frequently, conceiving of her as a golden footprint in his life, so that his memory of her is a form of beauty whose shape is yet another variation of the marching in step part of the Oedipus theme.

In the following chapter Kundera switches to Sabina. We find her in Paris now, free but depressed with the burden of the unbearable lightness of her existence. She has spent her life betraying, she thinks, first her father, then her party and her country, and now, without Franz or Tomas, she feels she has nothing more to betray. Moreover, Sabina wonders what purpose her life serves. Is the unbearable lightness of being her one true goal? While thinking those things (after four years in Geneva, three in Paris, Kundera notes), she receives a letter from Tomas's son, Simon, (a name we learn in part six), telling of the deaths of Tomas and Tereza. Simon thinks of Sabina as his father's closest friend, she learns. Moved, she walks to a cemetery, where she wonders at the vanity of the tombstones, some in the form of chapels and houses. Sabina feels depressed by the sight of the stones because to her they mean the living refuse to let the dead get out. Remembering her father's grave with flowers and a tree, their roots yielding a path of escape for the dead, she notes that in Montparnasse Cemetery she sees stone only, and therefore no means of escape, the weight the dead bear being the very antithesis of her life. She pictures Tomas as if he were in one of her double-layered paintings: Don Juan in the foreground but Tristan in the layer of truth beneath the opening. Kundera describes the scene in the painting as like a stage set, reminding us of the double vision of Oedipus Rex, both statesman and the wanderer burdened with guilt. As a result of these reflections, Sabina misses Franz and realizes she will have to move on in order to maintain the freedom, and lightness, of her existence.

At that point Kundera closes the “Words Misunderstood” section by rounding out the story of Franz. Although loving the woman he lives with, he becomes passionate about the plight of Central European countries because of Sabina. He attends lectures and conferences, closing his eyes, Kundera says, in blissful remembrance of his former love. In the dark about Sabina's fate, as well as her emotions and politics, he still shares her search for destiny. Unlike him, however, she wanders, open to chance—and choice—while he follows the drumbeat of Europe's Grand March.


In his essay “The Structural Study of Myth,” the French anthropologist and philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss compares variations on the myth of Oedipus as they are found in several contexts, including his study of origin stories among tribes of Pueblo Indians in North America and the Oedipus complex of Freudian psychology. Comparing specific elements of the myth such as names of characters, slaying of monsters, and deviations within blood relationships, Lévi-Strauss concludes that the Oedipus story holds in opposition two theories about humanity's origins: whether mankind sprang from the earth like a plant (alluded to when the infant Oedipus is tied to the stake in the forest) or whether humanity is born of itself (so Oedipus begets children by his mother). By contrasting those two origins without necessarily resolving the contradictions, the Oedipus myth offers opposing views of human essence: Animal or vegetable is one set of essential possibilities; born from earth or elsewhere is another. So the Oedipus story raises fundamental philosophical as well as biological questions about the essence of humanity. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Kundera raises similar concerns, developing the theme of human essence in “Soul and Body” that he treated in another variation in the second section of the novel, also entitled “Soul and Body” and also about Tereza's search for identity.

Along with the philosophical themes of identity and essence, the section raises the political-social issues of privacy and spying, with the modern world likened to a concentration camp, a comparison developed by Kundera to link the political imprisonment of his country by Russia to his ideas about the imprisonment of modern man caused by the pervasive influence and intrusion of the mass media. In Kundera's fiction privacy and isolation make up, in a Parmenides-like social opposition, positive and negative poles of twentieth-century life: one, privacy, is a route to self-definition and possible fulfillment; the other, isolation, is a form of impotence before large historical and social forces. The threatening of either, but particularly privacy, as we have seen in The Joke, Life Is Elsewhere, and The Farewell Party, diminishes our humanity by increasing the effect of the other. As Kundera says “A concentration camp is the complete obliteration of privacy.”

In “Soul and Body” Kundera makes spying the political and social motif of these two human conditions, and he begins by describing Tereza sniffing Tomas's hair while he sleeps for the odor of other women. Generalizing the condition, he also describes Tomas and Tereza listening to the radio and hearing broadcasts by the secret police of Czech dissidents’ conversations. Apparently the Czech police tried to embarrass dissidents through these broadcasts, their ordinary conversation reducing them from heroic status by exposing their petty concerns and ambitions. Thus, the secret police publicized privacy, according to Kundera, and he compares the political act to the private again when he calls to mind Tereza's mother. He ties her behavior to her daughter's by describing her as “sniffing” out Tereza's diary and reading it at the dinner table while everyone laughed. On her way to a health spa, Tereza looks at Old Town Hall in Prague, left in shambles after World War II and not yet rebuilt. The scene reminds her of her mother parading her nakedness before her family to show, especially to Tereza, the true misery of the human condition, and she reflects that Prague under the Communist government has done the same thing with its buildings. In that way, she thinks, by exposing its private misery, the whole world becomes a concentration camp.

At the same time, through Kundera's narration we do a bit of spying on our own. We observe Tereza at the health club and in her home, struggling with her identity by looking at her body in the mirror, wondering if she would still be Tereza if she had a different body, a different nose. In the absence of a rational answer Tereza's emotions make a statement for her. Having smelled another woman's presence in Tomas's hair, she cannot control her jealousy, feeling that her body has failed her, as if it were the essence of her identity. She tries to dismiss the notion, but the “hidden seer” inside her provides yet another reaction, and statement, by means of a dream. She dreams of Tomas taking her to a park with red, yellow, and blue benches in it. The park lies at the foot of Petrin Hill in Prague, and Tomas, sitting on one of the benches, tells her she will find what she wants if she walks to the top of the hill. Tereza does and when she reaches the top, she finds men who fulfill people's wishes to die. Carrying rifles, the men escort them through a forest until they find a tree they like. There, the men blindfold them, stand them by the tree, and shoot them. This dream is a variation of the one Tereza had earlier, of course, the element of choice replacing the missed kneebend as a sign of individuality deserving of death. But the dream is also a variation on the Oedipus story, the tree comparable to the stake Oedipus is tied to as an infant, and the blindfold a clear variation on his blindness as a mature man. And Tereza's character has changed as well, her stronger inner character illuminating her dream by allowing her the right of refusal. While in her former dream Tomas had absolute authority over life and death, here she must take responsibility herself. When the men tell her the rules, saying she must have walked up the hill of her own free will and that she herself must choose to die, she tells them someone else made the choice, and they respond by freeing her, saying they cannot kill her under those conditions.

Kundera renders another variation on the Oedipus theme in the next few chapters, when Tereza decides to test herself by going to the apartment of a customer she serves in the bar where she works. She tells herself that Tomas sends her to the man (called “the engineer”), but clearly she wants to try other possibilities, perhaps test her independence, perhaps experience sex without love, which is Tomas's explanation of his affairs outside their marriage. In any case, when she enters the engineer's apartment, she feels great confusion and doubt. But the shelves of books on the walls overcome her hesitancy (she has always thought books imply a higher kind of life). She spots a copy of Oedipus Rex and, remembering that Tomas had given her a copy of the play, responds to the engineer when he embraces her. As they undress, however, her soul, Kundera says, resists, even though she feels her body's excitement. Looking at a birthmark just above her public hair, she perceives it as her soul's mark on her body, and as the engineer physically enters her, Tereza's soul and body respond in self-contradictory ways. While her sexual excitement mounts, she swings her fists and spits in the engineer's face.

If we think of Josef Stalin's definition of the writer as “an engineer of human souls,” we can see this scene as Tereza's rejection of manipulation, not only by the engineer but by the teller of her story as well. In that light, the various games, sexual, philosophic, and narrative, that Kundera plays throughout The Unbearable Lightness of Being come together at this moment, with Tereza rebelling against the man she has sex with, her fate, and the narrator of her fate (Kundera, the object of characters’ disdain in Jacques and His Master), in order to affirm her soul, her self, and her own version of her destiny. Through the rest of the novel she gradually, sometimes painfully, gains increased independence and strength as her soul asserts its power against her body and the world around her.

Continuing with that theme, the following chapter contains one of those poetic meditations on a taboo that unite the philosophic with the comic in a typically Kundera way. While Tereza sits in the water closet of the engineer's apartment, Kundera compares the toilet to a white water lily floating on a Venice of defecation, the very image, with its emphasis on beauty and spirit on top of physical waste, bringing together the themes of this section of the novel, Tereza's life, and the Oedipus myth. Becoming absolute body, she voids her bowels and leaves the water closet ready to throw her arms around the engineer in desperation, the way she threw her arms around the tree in her dream, until she hears the engineer's voice and feels her soul reject him. She leaves the apartment immediately. On her walk with Karenin not long afterward, Tereza finds a crow buried up to its head by two young boys. She frees it from the dirt, takes it home, and, laying it on a bed of cloths, stares at the bird as if it were a “reflection of her own fate,” that is, soul weighed down by body, or spirit coming from, and limited by, the earth in a variation of the Oedipus theme as Claude Lévi-Strauss interprets it. Completing the motif of soul and body, Tereza keeps “vigil over a dying sister,” but when she steps away for a moment to eat (that is to feed the body), she returns to find the crow has died.

The section ends with Tereza and Tomas driving to a country spa they went to some years before and discovering that the names of streets and buildings have been changed to commemorate Russian, rather than Czech, history. On the public, political side of the soul and body theme, we perceive that the Russian names indicate two things for Czechoslovakia: the privacy of its land, or body, has been violated, while its history and language, its soul, have been forced to flee. Parallel to this public experience we see Tereza in some private ones. She realizes that the engineer probably worked for the secret police and that they may have photographed her in bed with the man in order to compromise her and force her to spy. In the final chapter, written as if it were real, although it just as well could be a dream, Tereza walks down to the Vltava River and sees park benches floating by in the water. Remembering that she first spoke in a flirtatious way to Tomas while he sat on a park bench, and that he sat on a bench in her dream when he told her to walk to her death on Petrin Hill, we can see this experience as a sign of Tereza's past, like her country's, flowing away. “What she saw was a farewell,” Kundera says.

Not completely negative, the dream bids farewell to a part of herself. Something inside Tereza has changed because of her experiences with the engineer, the crow, and Tomas. In addition, a literary inversion has occurred: Vronski no longer controls Anna; Oedipus no longer dominates Jocasta. Since Tomas plays no role in this dream experience, we can say it shows Tereza no longer lives within his power.


This part of the novel returns to Tomas and his perceptions, showing him as much weaker and less weighty than he has been up to this point, an ironic narrative change since the story of this section consists primarily of Tomas's professional and psychological descent, a situation requiring some symbolic weight.

Kundera begins with the story of Tomas's essay about Oedipus's acceptance of guilt for the crimes that destroyed Thebes, although he in fact spent his entire life trying to avoid his fate. Comparing Oedipus to his countrymen, Tomas asks, How could all those people working in the government before Dubcek came to power look on the results of their acts and not feel guilty? He writes an essay, submits it to a journal and has it printed, in abbreviated, oversimplified form, on the “Letters to the Editor” page. The abbreviation offends Tomas, but he says nothing, mainly because he does not regard the issue as important. But after the Russian invasion, the Husak regime, governing Czechoslovakia in place of Dubcek, uses the essay as a reason to attack him after he returns to Prague.

Tomas's friend, the chief surgeon at the hospital, a job Tomas would probably step into upon his friend's retirement, asks Tomas to retract the letter in order to preserve his position. At first Tomas perceives the issue as completely unimportant, but in a classic manifestation of Aristotelian hubris he says he cannot make a retraction. He would be ashamed if he did. When the chief surgeon tells him that he would not have to publish a retraction but would simply need to write a note for the government saying he holds nothing against them, Tomas agrees to think it over; but the pitying, commiserating looks of his colleagues signal that they know his situation, and he refuses to write the note. Dismissed against the chief surgeon's better judgment, Tomas becomes a medical functionary dispensing aspirin at a clinic outside of Prague until he meets a man from the Ministry of the Interior who flatters him and tries to elicit information about the editors of the journal that had printed his essay. Tomas names no one, but the man again encourages Tomas to retract the Oedipus essay. He provides a model letter to be published that is more servile and false than the one the chief surgeon had suggested. Tempted, but only momentarily, Tomas promises to think over a possible statement of his own but ultimately refuses, resigning his post and becoming a window washer because he knows that in that lowly position the regime will forget about him and his letter.

In a parabatic comment following this incident, Kundera contemplates the forces in Tomas's life, saying that although Tomas himself interpreted his life's events in terms of chance, Kundera perceives necessity, or Es muss sein, in his commitment to medicine, which occurred as a result of compassion and a “deep inner desire” to know that led him to surgery. Making the best of his new work as a window washer, Tomas sees himself as on vacation from his career and resumes his former libertine life, taking advantage of sixteen hours a day without Tereza. Kundera links this libertinism with Tomas's desire to know the individuality of his lovers, seeking the “millionth part dissimilarity” that separates one woman from another and gives a clue to her I (just as Tereza seeks the clue to her I by staring at her image in the mirror and by imagining herself with a longer nose). So Tomas's pursuit of women does not stem from a wish for pleasure, Kundera tells us, as much as it comes from his wish to possess the world. Such a wish lies very close to the comic desire of Dr. Skreta in The Farewell Party, who seeks to populate the world with his illegitimate children. But either wish—Skreta's or Tomas's more serious, philosophic one—must be recognized as impossible and a sign of unreasonable human ambition.

Tomas's pride remains politically neutral, however, and Kundera demonstrates it at work in other directions, not just against governmental intrusion. On one job, when Tomas enters an apartment to wash windows, he finds he knows the people. They are his son, Simon, and the editor of the journal that published his essay on Oedipus. Simon has renounced his mother and her politics and idolizes his father from afar. He and the editor are circulating a petition requesting amnesty for political prisoners in Czechoslovakia, and they have arranged this meeting with Tomas in order to obtain his signature. Tomas, reluctant at first because he thinks the government authorities will use the petition as an excuse to lengthen prisoners’ jail terms, almost signs because his son's presence embarrasses him. But before he picks up the pen, Simon compliments the essay on Oedipus, and as they discuss it, Tomas wonders aloud why he wrote it in the first place. He recalls Tereza who, upon entering his life, made him think of abandoned children such as Romulus, Moses, Oedipus, and he remembers that those thoughts prompted the article. Then he envisions Tereza again in a mythlike image of her holding the injured crow against her breast, and, with that picture of her kindness in mind, he refuses his son's political and moral call. He must do nothing to hurt her, he thinks. So when Simon says it is Tomas's duty to sign the petition, he replies that to dig a crow out of the ground is more important. Immediately, he feels a dark, heady excitement, like vertigo, similar to the emotions he felt upon refusing to retract his Oedipus essay. We can call it the emotional and physical equivalent of the downward spiral of his fate. Tomas realizes his career will suffer further, but he also knows he must follow his preferences. He has crossed a watershed once again, and Kundera underlines the occasion by disclosing that later, when the government publishes a slanderous attack on the signers of the petition, Tomas looks at a wall across from his apartment and tries to remember why he did not sign. That moment brings the reader back to the beginning of the novel and Kundera's original conception of Tomas and what we might call the original image of this novel: man facing a wall and trying to understand.

After a meditation about the history of man on earth being a tale of inexperience and lightness—“Einmal ist Keinmal” (What happens once might as well not have happened at all)—Kundera performs a different variation on the Oedipus theme with another of Tereza's dreams, this one given in her narration. Buried alive, like the crow she saved, Tereza waits until Tomas comes to see her every week. Knocking on the grave to awaken her, he tries to remove the dirt from her eyes after she sits up, but she tells him her eyes are holes, like the eyes of Oedipus after he puts them out. Tomas suggests another month's rest in the grave, but Tereza understands that suggestion as his bid to have a longer time free of her. Miserable as he listens to the dream, Tomas holds her and gradually soothes Tereza to sleep. Imagining himself entering the dream in order to calm her, he comes to a highly personal, torturous understanding of death: Tereza living in nightmares, he not able to bring her back from sleep.

In the following series of passages mixing public and private misery, Kundera narrates the next great step in Tomas's fateful downward spiral. He attends a funeral, seeing the mourners filmed by police and, back home, becomes physically ill with a stomach ailment as he tells Tereza about it. They both say how spiritually and physically ugly Prague has become, and Tereza suggests they move to the country to escape it. Tomas agrees, although he realizes that a rural life will effectively end his pursuit of women. But if he could give up surgery, he realizes, he can certainly give up women, the other necessity of his life. Completing the role reversal hinted at in the progress of Tereza's dreams, she comforts him as he tries to sleep despite his stomachache.

In a parabatic meditation that follows, Kundera discusses the difference between love and sex, calling sex a mechanism invented by God to amuse himself, while love, he says, remains a human trait, something beyond our Es muss sein. In a dream Tomas meets a woman who, in a bland and undefined way, seems perfect for him. If he were to live in paradise, he thinks, he would have to live with her; in fact, she would be what Kundera calls the Es muss sein of his love. Tomas ponders the conflicting demands of two classical myths of necessity—the one from Plato's Symposium about the lover compulsively seeking his other half, and the biblical one about the abandoned child who, like Moses, comes floating into one's life in need of care. Awake from the dream, Tomas realizes that he would abandon the perfect other half of himself for Tereza no matter how many times the choice arose. Beyond experiment, his love and his compassion would force him to follow her. As he thinks of these things, Tereza stirs and half in a dream asks what he is staring at. In fact, Tomas looks at Tereza, but he tells her they are in a plane and he is gazing at the stars. Satisfied, she sleeps again, an accident of stars having become his fate, his constellation, his astrological destiny. It is a lovely moment, resonating with romance and poetic lightness, but we must not forget that they fly in a plane and, even in a dream, what goes up must inevitably, humanly, return to earth again.


Almost entirely parabatic, “The Grand March” concerns Kundera's discussion of kitsch and his playful use of the term as a metaphor for certain kinds of ideas, social causes, and memories. Primarily he discusses the lies we tell ourselves about life and its meaning, especially as we try to deny the limitations and demands of the body to follow higher, “lighter” principles, or ideals. As a result, the “Grand March” of Europe that Kundera relates to kitsch, referring to the history of political and social events that have motivated human beings to band together in a group (or form circular dances, as in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), becomes a metaphor for social and intellectual exclusion banning individuals as well as individualistic thinking. As a political formula the Grand March requires good intentions (it is the “march from revolution to revolution, from struggle to struggle, ever onward”), along with narrowness of perception, an unwillingness to accept alternate views of reality, and a need to see things only in optimistic terms. Needless to say, in aesthetic and moral matters kitsch requires similar limitations. So Kundera, keeping to his image of the commode as a white lily floating above a sewer, opens the “Grand March” segment with a story about the bowel habits of Stalin's son, Yakov, and the embarrassment over them that led to his suicide in a concentration camp during World War II. Referring to Yakov Stalin's death as the “sole metaphysical” one of the war (apparently because it was due to his soul's shame over the behavior of the body), Kundera uses the suicide as a foundation for a broad philosophic discussion, eventually centering on kitsch, a system of values that he defines as an “absolute denial of shit,” allowing us to praise life and, in a religious sense, express our “categorical agreement” with God's creation.

In his discussion Kundera targets theologians generally, followers of social causes on the right and the left, and, most of all, politicians and media personalities in search of attention as he develops the subject of kitsch along with the background of Franz's participation in an international protest march to Cambodia. Referring to kitsch as the realm where the “dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme” over reason, Kundera fills the “Grand March” section of the novel with events that belie its optimistic title. In addition to Yakov Stalin's death at the beginning, we learn about Franz's useless, violent murder in Bangkok after the march accomplishes nothing but a few publicity photos, the accident that kills Tomas and Tereza, and Sabina's aging, lonely trek westward to California where, resigned to her rootless end, she draws up a will asking to be cremated and have her ashes tossed to the winds.

By contrast, we read of the triumph of Marie-Claude, Franz's estranged wife, who welcomes her husband's return and plays the grieving, forgiving widow before a credulous Parisian society. The section ends with an ironic coupling of kitschy epitaphs: Of his father, Tomas, the religious Simon writes, “He wanted the kingdom of God on earth,” while Marie-Claude composes for Franz, “A return after long wanderings.”

In a world that reduces complex events to simple, catchy images—Beethoven's frown of genius, a photo of an actress (or politician) lovingly embracing an Asian child—such epitaphs carry the ring of appropriateness, but certainly not truth. In a civilization that obsessively denies death and the waste of the body, Kundera tells us, kitsch is an oasis in the desert of memory, a brief, illusory rest stop on the journey we all take toward oblivion.


In this novel, as well as in Immortality and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera explores storytelling as a function of self-definition; personality becomes a manifestation of storytelling (rather than vice versa) and, by extension, the character of humanity in general becomes an expression of the stories of ancient myth and their residual variations in the practices, ideas, and stories of modern life. Thus, the classical theatrical device of parabasis influences Kundera's form, while structuralism in general, with particular reference to Lévi-Strauss's “The Structural Study of Myth,” underpins the intellectual, thematic content. As a result The Unbearable Lightness of Being contains playful commentary on human behavior through such devices as “A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words” (Part Three), encyclopedic definitions and discussions of philosophic ideas (Part One) and cultural concepts such as kitsch and the Grand March (Part Six).

Having taken care of human concerns (while disposing, briefly and casually, of the lives and destinies of the four major characters), Kundera moves to animal life in the final section and writes about it in a way that loses none of the seriousness or wit of the previous pages. In so doing, he hints at an animal's conception of man (the cow parasite, as Tereza imagines it) and discusses from that point of view the injustice in man's biblical claim to dominion over animals. As a result, the major emotional event—and climax—of this section becomes the illness and death of Karenin, Tereza's dog, while in a turnabout of the usual narrative logic Kundera merely hints at the tragic accident ending Tomas and Tereza's existence.

He performs this inversion for several reasons. First, he provides a happy ending to the love story of Tomas and Tereza, having put their deaths somewhere off in the distant, unknowable future; second, he subverts the man-centered notion of existence by investing importance and emotion in the loss of an animal; and, third, through Karenin he confronts the fragility of bodily existence and the inability of the human mind to accept death of the body as an end for the mind and spirit as well.

At the same time Karenin embodies some of the thematic notions of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, alternately living as male and female, like the soothsayer Tiresias in the Oedipus myth. In addition to those mythic variations, Kundera humanizes the dog's ordinary, daily character, portraying him as a happy and central part of village life. Also, while narrating Karenin's death, Kundera elevates our conception of him to rather noble heights: (1) we see him diseased with cancer, operated on, and then revived, waking in the middle of the night with full joy at having been reborn; (2) we are moved that Karenin, apparently in pain, still walks with Tereza and Tomas to make them happy; (3) we witness his continued decline and can contrast Tereza's tearful sense of loss with the local farm woman's pragmatic attitude about animals; and (4) we sympathize, with a bit of ironic distance, when Tomas and Tereza argue about Karenin's death in the same way they would a human's.

To be sure, Kundera places some larger intellectual context around Karenin's death, discussing in extended passages of parabasis human beings and their relation to animals. He writes about Descartes's naming of humanity as “master and proprietor over nature,” coupling it with the fact, as we have read already in The Farewell Party, that after the Russian invasion, Czech Communists, in an act of civic kitsch, ordered all stray dogs killed in order to keep streets clean. After that litany of human egocentrism and cruelty, Kundera says, “Mankind's true moral test … consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” He continues in that vein, commenting that he loves Tereza when he thinks of her with Karenin, because she reminds him of the time Nietzsche threw his arms around the neck of a beaten horse. In their sympathy for animals both Tereza and Nietzsche step aside from the road mankind normally follows in yet another Grand March toward progress, toward some unknown but eagerly anticipated future.

From that comment, with its implied criticism of change, Kundera meditates on an opposite obsession, the idyll, a perfect, unchanging condition that he defines as monotony breeding happiness instead of boredom. Humans, who live in the hope of improving life's conditions, need change; yet at the same time they long for stasis, a preeminent condition in one of the envisioned ends of human life: paradise, or heaven.

“The longing for Paradise is man's longing not to be man,” Kundera says, using that sentence as a transition to discuss the life that Tomas and Tereza lead after abandoning Prague for the country. Karenin, completely at home there, revels in daily repetition, and Tereza realizes that, now more used to repetition herself, she could tolerate her mother more easily here than in Prague simply because she would no longer want to improve her and would no longer fear being like her. But even in the country this idyll evolves. Karenin's cancer returns, and in a moving, delicately written scene Tomas puts him to death with an injection. Burying him in their garden beneath two apple trees, Tomas and Tereza give Karenin an epitaph that reflects a dream Tereza had about the dog: “Here lies Karenin. He gave birth to two rolls and a bee.” The two rolls refer to the game Tomas and Karenin repeated each idyllic morning of their country life, the bee to the inevitable yet dreaded idyll, the sting of death.

The emotional climax of the novel reached (and with the emotion of the death of Tomas and Tereza denied us), Kundera winds his story down, preparing for a dissonant ending with a veneer of resolution and harmony. After Karenin's burial Tereza dreams of death in a recapitulation of most of the dreams in the novel: Tomas receives a letter summoning him to the airfield of a neighboring town. Horrified, she leaves for the airfield with him; they board a plane, fly through clouds for a short while, and land. As they descend from the plane, two hooded men with rifles await them. One raises his rifle and aims. Tomas slumps over, dead; Tereza, ready to fling herself on top of him, sees that Tomas's body is shrinking before her eyes. In quick order, he transforms into a rabbit, the men chase and catch it, returning it to Tereza. She finds herself walking through Prague, where she reaches the apartment she lived in as a child with her parents. She enters, taking the rabbit to the room she occupied as a girl. There a lamp burns, as if awaiting her. On the lamp sits a butterfly, its wings outspread, with two large eyes painted on them. “Tereza knew she was at her goal,” Kundera says, underlining the idea of repetition in her return. But she has progressed personally as well, at least in her dreams, for she has Tomas under control and can love him better (“Better, not bigger”) because she thinks the “love of man and woman is a priori inferior” to love between humans and animals. Lying on the bed, Tereza presses the rabbit to her, and we see in the childish, fairy tale image another variation of the Oedipus theme.

In the final chapter of the book Tereza sees Tomas as an aging man and, with a tinge of regret and guilt at the change, feels responsible. Her weakness, “aggressive” weakness, Kundera calls it has destroyed his strength, effectively turning him into a rabbit. They descended from the heights of his profession, Tereza thinks, to make him prove his love. But that night, at a country dance some distance from their home, while Tereza voices her doubts, Tomas reassures her by saying that he, no longer Don Juan but Everyman, feels happy. More important, perhaps, he also feels “free, free of all missions” at last. In their room that night, the last that they will spend together since we know they will die next day on the road homeward, they see a butterfly ascend from the lampshade and hear the sounds of music from the dance hall beneath them. Another lovely moment: The spirit ascends while the music of death sounds from below.

The moth in flight is lightness weighed down by death; the music is heaviness, or fate, lifted by art. If we perceive the music as form, we can interpret the moth as content. Art and nature: they comprise the possibilities as well as the limits, as Kundera sees them, of the joys and sadness of the human condition.

Hana Pichova and Marjorie E. Rhine (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4634

SOURCE: “Reading Oedipus in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1, 1997, pp. 71-83.

[In the following essay, Pichova and Rhine examine the metaphorical and political significance of the Oedipus myth in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. According to the critics, Kundera invokes Sophocles's Oedipus Rex as an intertextual device to underscore aspects of guilt, misunderstanding, and entrapment.]

Early in Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the narrator states that Tomas feels as if Tereza had appeared in his life like a forlorn child cast into a basket. Although the narrator first links the motif of the “found child” to the biblical Moses, the metaphorical tie to Oedipus will prove the most significant:

Again it occurred to him that Tereza was a child put in a pitch-daubed bulrush basket and sent downstream. He couldn't very well let a basket with a child in it float down a stormy river! If the Pharaoh's daughter hadn't snatched the basket carrying the little Moses from the waves, there would have been no Old Testament, no civilization as we know it! How many ancient myths begin with the rescue of an abandoned child! If Polybus hadn't taken in the young Oedipus, Sophocles wouldn't have written his most beautiful tragedy!

Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.

For a first-time reader who does not yet realize the importance of the Oedipus myth within the novel, the narrator's warning suggests that it is love that endangers the ever-womanizing Tomas. In other words, the danger that is said to reside in the metaphor comparing Tereza to a found child, specifically to Oedipus, seems connected to the strictures and risks of love. Later, however, Tomas will know all too well that the dangers of this metaphor extend beyond the realm of love (when his article comparing the Czech communist leaders to Oedipus gets him into trouble with the secret police), and the reader, too, comes to grasp more fully the impact of the myth of Oedipus upon many of the characters’ lives in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In fact, Sophocles’ play serves as an important intertext, appearing in many key scenes as a catalyst of the action that unfolds.

In grappling with the significance of Oedipus in Kundera's novel, the possibility that Oedipus constructs himself as guilty although he is never proven guilty is of utmost importance. As one critic explains, “It is, then, possible that Sophocles’ Oedipus was never wholeheartedly trying to establish his innocence at all, but that he felt compelled to make the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother come true.” Oedipus makes the prophecy come true by rashly accepting others’ unreliable accounts of his past. For example, as a young man in Corinth, Oedipus is quick to believe the words of a drunkard who raises questions about his parentage; later he readily accepts the messenger's version of the recovery of the baby on the mountain. Reading the past in this way proves to be dangerous: “the single man who plays prosecutor, judge, and agent of punishment quickly comes to regard himself as the accused. … The charges against Oedipus are based entirely on his own testimony against himself and unsupported hearsay” ([Frederick] Ahl).

The idea that Oedipus “plays” the parts of prosecutor, judge and punitive agent is clear from a close look at the play. Once questions about character motives are raised, it becomes easy to speculate that Creon's protestations that “What can the despot throne confer more sweet than peaceful sway and princely influence?” (Oedipus) is likely an exaggerated denial, because Creon, as brother to Jocasta, would have become ruler if Oedipus had not so conveniently arrived in Thebes (Ahl). Similarly, it is odd, as Oedipus himself points out, that Teiresias did not mention the identity of the killer earlier if he has in fact known it all along: “That day this wise man did not breathe it. Why?” While not conclusive, this suggests that Teiresias may be manipulating or toying with Oedipus during the complex interrogation scene in which he finally accuses Oedipus of the murder. Perhaps the seer resents Oedipus, who has usurped Teiresias’ status as problem solver because of his victory over the Sphinx, a possibility Oedipus himself considers in lines 390-400. Also, as noted above, the messenger who finally reveals the story of the baby which he received from Laius’ shepherd and handed over to the royal family of Corinth is not necessarily a reliable source of information either. In fact, he is clearly in Thebes to receive gifts as a reward for his information about the death of Polybus, King of Corinth: “That was my chief thought in coming here, to do myself some good on your return” (Oedipus). This messenger listens carefully as Oedipus voices his anxieties; he is on stage while Oedipus explains to Jocasta that he still fears he may fulfill the second half of the prophecy by marrying whom he thinks is his mother (Merope, Queen of Corinth). The messenger is eager to get recompense for his news by convincing Oedipus to go back to Corinth and claim the throne. He quickly begins to question Oedipus about his fears, trying to allay them by proving that Merope is not his mother. The reliability of the messenger's story is also suspect because although he claims to know the old shepherd who supposedly gave him the infant Oedipus quite well, the shepherd, when asked if he recognizes him, responds “I saw him? Saw him when? What man, my lord?” (Oedipus). When the frustrated Oedipus presses the point by explaining, “Yonder!—Did nothing ever pass between you?,” the shepherd sticks to his original story: “No—speaking out of hand, from memory.” The messenger jumps in to remind—or perhaps persuade?—the shepherd that they know each other: “Small wonder he forgets! Come, I'll remind his ignorance, my lord.”

Although it would be hard, if not impossible, to argue that Oedipus is entirely innocent (the scars on his ankles suggest otherwise), it should be clear from the above examples that Sophocles’ play is as much about his ultimate self-deception as it is about his final self discovery. Through his rash judgments, Oedipus allows others—the drunk at a banquet, Creon, Teiresias, the messenger—to his define his identity and his past. He is thus responsible for the outcome, not because of a definitively proven guilt, but because he resigns the freedom of self-determination, opting to accept others’ versions of his past and his actions (Ahl).

Tomas of Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being reads Oedipus in a way that seems to leave no question of Oedipus’ guilt. For instance, the narrator summarizes, “Little did he know that the man he had killed in the mountains was his father and the woman with whom he slept his mother.” However, critical readings which target Oedipus’ insistent and dangerous misreadings of his past yield provocative insights into the question of the role or purpose of Oedipus as intertext in Kundera's novel.

Within the world of this novel, Oedipus and what one might call “Oedipus-texts” operate as puzzling signs: characters try and most often fail to “read” their significance and relevance. For example, when Tomas writes in a newspaper article that the Czech communist leaders should be like Oedipus (rather than arguing over whether or not their past actions are crimes, they should instead responsibly acknowledge their guilt for the consequences), he naively underestimates the political ramifications of his article, thinking that it is merely clever. In turn, Tomas’ article and the consequences of its public reading (the pressure to retract it and his subsequent interrogation by a secret police agent) intensify the private meanings now “weighting” Oedipus as text and sign. This perhaps explains why Oedipus plays such an important role in three encounters that follow in the wake of the publication of Tomas’ article: Tomas’ interrogation by the secret police, Tereza's fall into a seductive premeditated scenario, and Tomas’ awkward meeting with his son, Simon. In each of them, Tomas or Tereza is misled into dangerous terrain, in which the threat of compromise and the elusiveness of freedom are paramount. Given the historical situation in which Kundera's characters find themselves (the oppressive hard-line regime reinstalled after the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia), difficult questions about their own and their country's past, and about freedom and guilt, are inevitable. Because the regime has stripped away the possibility for public dissent, the only space left in which to protect and cherish freedom is the “intimate world of thought,” and it is this world which is most endangered by the staged encounters that occur in several key scenes in Kundera's novel.

The first passage in which Oedipus is discussed at length focuses on the inspiration behind Tomas’ article. It dramatizes how “metaphors are dangerous,” especially in a political climate that limits freedom of expression. Through thinking and writing about Oedipus, Tomas enters a treacherous space, jeopardizing not only his career but also his “intimate world of thought.” Because of his words he is lured into various scenarios in which his integrity is put at extreme risk.

Tomas’ article is inspired by his earlier metaphor linking Tereza to a child who had been put in a bulrush basket. The narrator explains how these thoughts become linked not only to the myth but also to the text of Sophocles’ Oedipus:

The image of the abandoned child had consequently become dear to him, and he often reflected on the ancient myths in which it occurred. It was apparently with this in mind that he picked up a translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus.

Just as the narrator has earlier emphasized that “If Polybus hadn't taken in the young Oedipus, Sophocles wouldn't have written his most beautiful tragedy!,” so if Tomas hadn't taken in Tereza, he wouldn't have written the article. Love itself, then, is not why metaphors might be dangerous. Thinking about Oedipus does not lead Tomas to a deeper love of Tereza; rather it leads him to a “dangerous,” publicly voiced interpretation of the political situation:

When Tomas heard Communists shouting in defense of their inner purity, he said to himself, As a result of your “not knowing,” this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you've done? How is it you aren't horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!

The analogy so pleased him that he often used it in conversation with friends, and his formulation grew increasingly precise and elegant.

When even a weekly newspaper published by the Union of Czech Writers continually rehashes the question of whether or not the Czech Communist leaders knew at the time that their actions were crimes, Tomas sits down and writes his Oedipus-inspired musings—“whether they knew or didn't know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn't know”—and sends them off to the newspaper for publication. Tomas’ essay reveals what one might call a historiography of sorts: his theory of history focuses not on what did happen but on what should have happened, the necessity of responsibly acknowledging guilt and the consequences of one's actions.

The first effect of the publication of Tomas’ provocative articulation of the connections between history, responsibility, and guilt is pressure from the chief surgeon, at the hospital where Tomas works, to retract his stance. Allowed one week to make the retraction decision, Tomas interprets the smiling faces of some of his fellow doctors at the hospital who “had retracted something, … or were prepared to do so” as “the sheepish smile of secret conspiratorial consent.” Tomas, who has “never had the reputation of being a conformist,” is unable to bear the thought that he too will join their ranks, and thus prove that “cowardice was slowly but surely becoming the norm of behavior.” A colleague who smugly assumes that he himself would never compromise explains to Tomas how a retraction will be not only a compromise of his personal integrity but also a trap that will continue to control and inhibit his entire life:

But even after the statement is safely filed away, the author knows that it can be made public at any moment. So from then on he doesn't open his mouth, never criticizes a thing, never makes the slightest protest. The first peep out of him and into print it goes, sullying his good name far and wide. On the whole, it's rather a nice method. One could imagine worse.

Although this comment is not exactly from a reputable source, it does make clear that Tomas has now been pulled deep into a dangerous arena, a space in which words—remember that “metaphors are dangerous”—can wreak havoc. His colleague's words suggest that Tomas’ retraction, were he to write it, would function as a script, dictating and controlling his future actions. Although Tomas is not necessarily influenced by this particular man, he does realize the extent to which signing the retraction would curtail his freedom and compromise his integrity. Consequently, Tomas resists the pressures and refuses to sign, taking full responsibility for his article. The effects are harsh: he is professionally demoted to a post on the outskirts of Prague and is prohibited from performing surgery.

The Oedipus-inspired article resurfaces a year later as the seeming focus of an interrogation scene which is staged by a man from the ministry (a secret police agent) in order to compromise Tomas and to implicate the editor of the article. Initially, Tomas is misled by the theatrically produced scene as a result of the cunning acting of the man from the ministry and his own inexperience. As the narrator explains, “It is a tragicomic fact that our proper upbringing has become an ally of the secret police. We do not know how to lie.” The reader, however, avoids falling into the man's verbal traps because of the narrator's descriptions of the man's voice and emotional treble. These descriptions allow the reader to maintain an ironic distance and emphasize both the agent's duplicity and the theatrical staging of this scene. For example, the narrator does not say that the man scolds Tomas, but that he speaks “as if scolding,” nor does the narrator say that the man speaks in a sad voice, but that his voice “was meant to sound very sad.” Moreover, the narrator does not describe the man as shocked, but says that he “appeared sincerely shocked.” Thus the reader understands the scene to be a staged interrogation before Tomas comes to this understanding. It is the style of the agent's questions—they are short and sharp—that brings Tomas to the realization that he has been led to the edge of a dangerous abyss:

“… Did they put you up to it?”

“To writing it? No. I submitted it on my own.”

“Do you know the people there?”

“What people?”

“The people who published your article.”


“You mean you never spoke to them?”

“They asked me to come in once in person.”


“About the article.”

“And who was it you talked to?”

“One of the editors.”

“What was his name?”

Not until that point did Tomas realize that he was under interrogation. All at once he saw that his every word could put someone in danger.

Even though Tomas once again successfully negotiates a risky terrain, maintaining his integrity and managing this time to slip through the tightening noose of the secret police, words continue to be a hazard, for this and another encounter with the agent lead to a further reduction in Tomas’ professional opportunities: no longer allowed to practice medicine at all, he becomes a window washer.

Oedipus also appears as an intertext in an important scene involving Tereza, in which she too comes across an edition of Sophocles’ play (although she reads only the title on the spine of the book). Once again Oedipus is linked to staging or theatricality, functioning as a prop in a compromising scenario that Tereza can only understand after the fact.

Tereza is seduced into meeting a “self-styled engineer” at his flat for what she thinks will be a chance to exact a sexual revenge against Tomas for his infidelities. The engineer's flat is very theatrical: “The entire flat consisted of a single room with a curtain setting off the first five or six feet from the rest and therefore forming a kind of makeshift anteroom.” Once inside, Tereza tries to calm her turbulent emotions by looking over the impressive array of books:

From childhood, she had regarded books as the emblems of a secret brotherhood. A man with this sort of library couldn't possibly hurt her. …

He disappeared behind the curtain, and she went over to the bookshelves. One of the books caught her eye at once. It was a translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus. How odd to find it here! Years ago, Tomas had given it to her, and after she had read it he went on and on about it then he sent his reflections to a newspaper, and the article turned their life upside down. But now, just looking at the spine of the book seemed to calm her. It made her feel as though Tomas had purposely left a trace, a message that her presence here was his doing.

Throughout the novel, books operate for Tereza as signifiers of a higher, more meaningful existence (hence the importance of books as “props” in her first meetings with Tomas). Tereza reads Sophocles’ Oedipus as just such a sign, as a “trace” or mark of what Tomas represents in her life and of the possibility that she might be able to converse with the engineer on a higher plane:

When the tall engineer came back into the room, she would ask him why he had it, whether he had read it, and what he thought of it. That would be her ruse to turn the conversation away from the hazardous terrain of a stranger's flat to the intimate world of Tomas's thoughts.

The terms the narrator uses to describe the oppositions Tereza imagines here—“hazardous terrain” versus “intimate world of Tomas's thought”—are representative of the spaces available to Tomas and Tereza throughout the novel: a treacherous public space in which compromise is only a word away and an inner space that is the last stronghold of freedom. These terms are literalized in Tereza's encounter with the engineer, because she has entered an unfamiliar physical space. In fact, her physical body, not only her integrity, is under assault: the engineer brusquely takes the book from her hands and forces her into the sexual act.

Tereza is unable to understand just what this encounter was about until her friend, a former ambassador, interprets it as one act in a “prearranged scenario.” As he explains, “The third function [of the secret police] consists of staging situations that will compromise us.” With this friend's help Tereza sees the drama as much more complicated, with roles played not only by the engineer but also by a seemingly love-struck drunken boy, another man who had accused her of providing alcohol to a minor, and the engineer, who had rallied to her defense against the accusatory man and had thus won her trust: “So all three had been playing parts in a prearranged scenario meant to soften her up for the seduction!” She begins to reevaluate the props and scenery:

How could she have missed it! The flat was so odd, and he didn't belong there at all! Why would an elegantly dressed engineer live in a miserable place like that? Was he an engineer? … Besides, how many engineers read Sophocles? … The whole place had more the flavor of a flat confiscated from a poor imprisoned intellectual.

Oedipus serves not as a legible or meaningful “trace” but as part of a misleading set-up, a stage prop, a trap.

The last staged encounter in the novel involves Tomas and his son, Simon, and once again, Oedipus plays a central role. This time it is not the “spine of the book” that recalls the myth but Tomas’ article. Simon functions as both stage director and actor:

Often Simon would wait long hours to arrange an accidental encounter with Tomas. But Tomas never stopped to talk to him.

The only reason he became involved with the big-chinned former editor was that the editor's fate reminded him of his father's. The editor had never heard of Tomas. The Oedipus article had been forgotten. It was Simon who told him about it and asked him to persuade Tomas to sign the petition. The only reason the editor agreed was that he wanted to do something nice for the boy, whom he liked.

It is ironic that Simon wishes to talk with his father about an article based on a reading of Oedipus, for Simon himself is Oedipus-like, having been coldly rejected and left behind by Tomas after a divorce (figuratively if not literally sent down the river in a basket). Just as Tereza is trapped earlier and misled into an apartment that seems to be a “stage” complete with a volume of Oedipus as a prop, so Tomas is led into a staged encounter with Simon, a performance complete with dramatically raised voices for the benefit of the assumed-to-be-listening secret police. Tomas has earlier been asked to sign a retraction of his article; now he is asked to sign a petition to free political prisoners. As Tomas reaches for a pen, however, he is stopped short by Simon's exaggerated comments in praise of the effects of his Oedipus article:

As if rewarding him for his decision, the editor said, “That was a fine piece you wrote about Oedipus.”

Handing him a pen, his son added, “Some ideas have the force of a bomb exploding.”

Although the editor's words of praise pleased him, his son's metaphor struck him as forced and out of place. “Unfortunately, I was the only casualty,” he said. “Thanks to those ideas, I can no longer operate on my patients.”

Simon's misreading of the power and consequences of words is based on his perception of his father as a hero; he has mythologized his father and thus overestimates the potency of the metaphor of Oedipus that Tomas used in the article. True, the metaphor turned out to be dangerous, but Simon fantasizes that the danger lies not only in the impact of the metaphor on Tomas’ life but also in its power to assassinate, to have a dangerous impact in the political realm.

Simon's reading of the article and of his father is influenced by a method of interpretation which operates according to clear-cut, black and white categories, in which there can be no ambiguity or instability of signification. Simon says to his father,

“You know the best thing about what you wrote?” … “Your refusal to compromise. Your clear-cut sense of what's good and what's evil, something we're beginning to lose. … No one could be more innocent, in his soul and in his conscience, than Oedipus. And yet he punished himself when he saw what he had done.”

Tomas responds irritably to Simon's interpretation:

“But it's all a misunderstanding! The border between good and evil is terribly fuzzy! I wasn't out to punish anyone, either. Punishing people who don't know what they've done is barbaric. The myth of Oedipus is a beautiful one, but treating it like this …” He had more to say, but suddenly he remembered that the place might be bugged. He had not the slightest ambition to be quoted by historians of centuries to come. He was simply afraid of being quoted by the police. Wasn't that what they wanted from him, after all? A condemnation of his article? He did not like the idea of feeding it to them from his own lips. Besides, he knew that anything anyone in the country said could be broadcast over the radio at any time. He held his tongue.

Tomas holds his tongue, silencing his own words to protect his “intimate world of thought,” safeguarding both this realm from the acquisition and control of the secret police and his ideas from possibly being broadcast into public space. At this point in the novel Tomas has learned from painful experience that private thoughts (his Oedipus article inspired by his metaphor comparing Tereza to Oedipus, inspired in turn by his love for her) become muddled, misread, and lead to danger when they spill out in the hazardous terrain of a world full of actors operating under the directorial control of the Communist regime.

Similarly, what Tomas might say about Oedipus were he to complete his sentence is withheld from the reader by a puzzling ellipsis. The reader is thus frustrated, prevented from accessing Tomas’ ideas and interpretation of Oedipus, foiled, perhaps, from forming a more definitive understanding of just what the intertext of Oedipus signifies in this novel. In fact, the reader of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, like the characters within the novel, stumbles over strategically placed “Oedipus-texts” and is thus pulled into a performance of sorts, compelled to enact readings of both Oedipus and Tomas’ article that are mirrors of the readings performed by the characters within the confines of the narrative. Just what these readings—the characters’ readings of Oedipus, our readings of their reading of Oedipus—suggest might be clearer if we look in conclusion at yet one more critical insight into Oedipus’ appropriation of guilt:

Rather than an illustration of the myth, the play is a critique of mythogenesis, an examination of the process by which one arbitrary fiction comes to assume the value of truth. … Oedipus discovers that he is guilty of parricide and incest—he translates what the Herdsman tells him into the mythic fulfillment—less by uncovering certain hitherto obscure empirical facts than by voluntarily appropriating an oracular logic which assumes he has always already been guilty. ([Sandor] Goodheart)

Questions of Kundera's authorial intention aside, critical readings which target Oedipus as a play that examines the process by which “one arbitrary fiction comes to assume the value of truth,” suggest that Oedipus in The Unbearable Lightness of Being can be read as intertextual sign marking or highlighting the dangers inherent in any interpretative gesture which assumes one version of history or political reality to be the truth. In all the misreadings involving Oedipus we have examined here—the misreadings of Tomas’ article, Tereza's misreading of her situation, and Simon's of his father, which leads Tomas into a trap he almost fails to read—arbitrary fiction(s) generated or manipulated by the Communist regime are taken to be true or come dangerously close to being taken as such. When this happens, Kundera's characters risk compromising the only space in which they might imagine their own fictions, remember and cherish a history different from that promulgated by the regime. What they give up is comparable to what Oedipus gives up by “appropriating an oracular logic which assumes he has always already been guilty”:

We readers [of Sophocles’ Oedipus] may become Oedipuslike if we assume that the myth is a “given,” that it is “fate,” and that the hero, the self, is the only character who has motives and ambitions. We can remain as oblivious to its [the play's] pluralism as Oedipus. But we do not have to. (Ahl)

So too, readers of Kundera's novel do not have to remain as oblivious to the possible dangers of misreadings as the characters within the novel are.

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Essays and Criticism