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Milan kundera: an indictment against lightness

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A Project

Presented to the

Faculty of

Simon Fraser University


In Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts
Liberal Studies


Miguel B. Llora
Spring 1998

Copyright 1998

Miguel B. Llora

Milan KUNDERA: an indictment against Lightness

There are essentially three interrelated stories contained in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. First, there is the question of the eternal recurrence as developed by Nietzsche and the discourse of the opposition between lightness and weight. Secondly, through the love story of Tomas, Tereza and Sabina, Kundera illustrates his genius, by placing the duality of lightness and weight side by side, seemingly not endorsing one or the other. Thirdly, there are the historical and political questions surrounding the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of 1968: Are events forgiven in advance because they happen only once?

The question of the eternal recurrence as developed by Friedrich Nietzsche and the discourse of the opposition between lightness and weight, moves us to consider whether the accidental nature of human existence (Einmal ist keinmal) makes it less significant. Is lightness positive or negative? Parmenides posits that lightness is positive and weight negative. Conversely, Kundera’s position is that it is negative. Kundera and Nietzsche see the heaviest of burdens as the image of life’s most intense fulfillment.

In the love story of Tomas, Tereza and Sabina, Kundera places the duality of lightness and weight side by side. He portrays Sabina as a character who has lost everything because her goal, be it conscious or unconscious, was lightness. Despite the purposeful ambiguity, the search for meaning leans towards the necessity of significance and a need for weight, hence an indictment against lightness. Kundera makes his indictment come full circle in the character of Sabina.

Kundera poses questions of historical and political significance surrounding the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of 1968. Are events forgiven in advance because they happen only once? History repeats itself while collectively we tend to forget that a similar event occurred previously. We regard events with little significance because we see occurrences in isolation, never to occur again. In this sense, his indictment against lightness is justified, accurate and timely. Action is a necessity despite what might seem like insurmountable odds. The situation currently confronting Tibet parallels the historic events of Communist Czechoslovakia. A comparison of these nations’ experiences contrasts the duality of lightness and weight within the context of the eternal recurrence.

Part 1 -- The Eternal Recurrence

In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche introduces and attempts to reconcile the Dionysian and Apollonian. To be human is to be stretched between these two domains. The Dionysian is raw impulses, chaos, and the absurdity of existence. The Apollonian seeks order, the eternal (in logic, religion, or morality) and beauty. We are comprised of the raw stuff, which is life at its very core. We are contradiction, passions, chaotic; but we cannot live in this domain alone because it is ugly, terrifying and absurd. Thus, we need to make it beautiful, to create from it a habitable and beautiful world (and self). Nietzsche was trying to convey a partnership between the Dionysian and Apollonian, more than a countering or perhaps better, a healthy tension. Without the Dionysian, there can be no Apollonian. Without the Apollonian, life would be unbearable. Nietzsche does not advocate a return to our bestial natures. He does declare that it is better to be a Cesare Borgia than a Christian, for at least great things are possible with the raw power and nobility of the beast. The Christian, to him, is an emasculation and disfigurement of the nobility and power inherent in humankind. The Christian esteems everything that is meek, pitiful and weak. Action is evil, the world is evil, and we must quietly await a better one. To be capable of greatness, one must be capable of both evil and good. Nietzsche and the other existentialists will resist any attempt to ascribe a “nature” which predetermines us: we are flux; we are change. We are in a constant state of becoming and there is no prior nature, which determines what we will become. The bear hibernates, the human chooses. Existentialists talk about the human condition and the structures of human existence, what it means to be human. These structures consist of, among other things, a radical freedom. Human nature will not be uncovered in empirical terms (molecules, cells, evolutionary theory), but in phenomenological terms or the experience of living. The empirical world is only a truncated version of reality at whose periphery logic “goes in circles and bites itself on the tail.”

For Nietzsche, listening to music unhinges the rigid categories with which we have grown accustomed to in life. The neat and ordered systems, the mundane aspects of our life, all are bypassed. Music kindles in us the experience of the rawness and primordial nature of our existential condition. We are awoken from a slumber. What then? THAT is the question. We know that ensconcing in the Apollonian world lulls us to sleep, into a death without dying. What shall we do when we are awakened from sleep, into a death without dying. What shall we do when we are awakened and remember our essential condition, the essential condition of all life? What shall we do when we see through the now transparent veneer that has hitherto hidden us from the absurdity and potency of our life? Nietzsche wants us to live in the tension. The one who lives in the domain of Dionysian is a barbarian. The one who lives in the domain of the Apollonian is asleep, dreaming. Neither unto themselves offers the answer. To begin to live, we must live the tension: live our passions, our contradictions, but sublimated and transfigured through the beauty, weaving attributes of the Apollonian.

In his work On the Genealogy of Morals, for Nietzsche, the only original distinction was the nonmoral one between good and bad. Good is strength while bad is weakness. Strength was honored. One loved one's enemies because they were strong. Hector and Achilles, both honorable persons who loved and respected each other, chased one another around the walls of Troy because they must fight over Helen. They did not hate one another; they did not resent one another. The masters are strong. They affirm themselves and all the actions that flow out of them. They love the world and life. The slaves, on the other hand, resent the masters. Thus the word “evil” enters human vocabulary. “They” (the masters) are evil, and thus, we must be good. Their actions are reactions, born in a hatred of the world, which infers with their own moral goodness. What are they? They are weak, pitiable, meek, poor in spirit and these become the virtues heralded by the slave morality. This morality looms ever larger, consuming masters who destroy themselves with guilt, a power turned against itself. Nietzsche longs for a return to the healthy world of good and bad, where the virtues of love, respect and honor are truly possible. In the slave morality, one receives dignity by virtue of being a slave (but of course, how can they be merited for not biting when they have no teeth). In the master morality, dignity is something you earn. It is not a given. You must prove yourself worthy of respect. The slave morality is ultimately unhealthy and destructive, born in resentment and hatred.

Nietzsche would see law as an Apollonian tool. It creates order where there is disorder, sense in the midst of nonsense. All laws moral, whether religious, social or legal, are ultimately an encroachment upon our freedom for a variety of reasons. They replace the freedom of individual spirit with the machinery of law. What is healthy and right becomes wrong because of universal edict. The law represents the subsumption of the individual into the universal. As part of the universal, the individual loses his or her ability to act. The individual who has interiorized the rules of social life does not really act at all. The freedom to create value and meaning disappears. We are told what is meaningful and what has value and what the limits of our activity can be. The artist feels constrained to work within the limits of acceptable art forms. Persons are unable to choose what they feel is right because that decision is already made for him or her within the moral, legal, or social paradigm. Law gives us the freedom to say yes or no. It does not give us the freedom to express our individuality over its universality, the limiting factor on all our lives. To prevent the slide into nihilism he develops the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche first introduced the eternal recurrence in the Gay Science and developed it further in Thus Spake Zarathustra. We are asked to consider this:

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 ... must return to you - all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moon light between the trees, and even this moment and myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over 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 were to gain possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, “do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (FW 341) (Kaufmann 324).

There are two dimensions to the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche attempts to prove that, given a finite amount of matter and infinite amount of time, life would repeat itself, in identical detail, repeatedly.1 It also had significance to Nietzsche as a doctrine that reminds us that this is the only life, and which would also allow us to glimpse our own existential posture towards it. Nietzsche challenges us to affirm the here and the now:

“My formula for the greatness of a human being is Amor Fati: that one wants nothing to be different - not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. (EH II 10) (Kaufmann 307).”

Nietzsche asks us to remain faithful to the earth and not to believe those who speak of other worldly hopes. Imagine, he asks, that your whole life has been and will continue to be repeated from here to eternity. Imagine that every suffering, every illness, every anxiety would be felt repeatedly. Now, does that inspire in you dread, fear, horror? If so, then your fundamental attitude is negation. You negate the world. You are still stuck in the slavish mentality, which begins in a negation of the world. Do you rejoice? Do you affirm all of life it’s suffering especially? Then you display more of a master’s disposition, a disposition that affirms oneself and the world, which is beyond good and evil. This is the way to Overman.

Kundera’s believes Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence the heaviest of burdens (das schwertse Gewicht). Significance comes from weight, as the absence of burden causes us to be lighter than air, thus, insignificant.

“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” (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 5)
If weight gives significance and lightness is insignificant, then it would be safe to say that the need for weight is essential so long as it does not crush us. Nietzsche asks us to live in healthy tension.

Against the context of Nietzsche’s psychological paradigm of the eternal recurrence, we consider the opposite in the question posed by Parmenides almost 2600 years ago:

Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/nonbeing. One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative. We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness? Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative. Was he correct or not? That is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 5).
Kundera challenges us to examine Parmenides’ question as a backdrop to examining the human condition. The novel began with the introduction of the Nietzschean psychological context of the eternal recurrence, but is contrasted by the question posed by Parmenides. While Nietzsche and Kundera advocate the need for weight, the need for significance, Parmenides sees weight as negative and lightness as positive. Kundera asks us what the mad myth signifies in all of its perplexity. I will explore that question to reconcile the opposition of lightness and weight through the examination of both the interaction between Tomas, Teresa and Sabina as well as the historic events that beset the Czechoslovakia of 1968 and the Tibet of 1949.

Part 2 -- Tomas, Tereza and Sabina

Tomas is the epic womanizer who searches for meaning. Tomas searches for weight. In the description of Tomas below, he is portrayed as the classic image of “boy behaving badly.” At the outset, he is not redemptive: he does not suffer the romantic notions of an ideal unfulfilled. In a world oversimplified by stereotypes and binary thinking, identification to effect understanding becomes the mode of choice. Tomas, as well as Sabina, are the personification of the libertines. Both may suffer some stigma in the minds of inattentive readers. The situation is not that simple. Moralizing causes us to miss the mark.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world.

The obsession of the former is lyrical: what they seek in women is themselves, their ideal, and since an ideal is by definition something that can never be found, they are disappointed again and again. The disappointment that propels them from woman to woman gives their inconstancy a kind of romantic excuse, so that many sentimental women are touched by their unbridled philandering.

The obsession of the latter is epic, and women see nothing the least bit touching in it: the man projects no subjective ideal on women, and since everything interests him, nothing can disappoint him. This inability to be disappointed has something scandalous about it. The obsession of the epic womanizer strikes people as lacking in redemption (redemption by disappointment).

Because the lyrical womanizer always runs after the same type of woman, we even fail to notice when he exchanges one mistress for another. His friends perpetually cause misunderstanding by mixing up his lovers and calling them by the same name.

In pursuit of knowledge, epic womanizers (and of course Tomas belongs in their ranks) turn away from conventional feminine beauty, of which they quickly tire, and inevitably end up as curiosity collectors. They are aware of this and a little ashamed of it, and to avoid causing their friends embarrassment, they refrain from appearing in public with their mistress (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 201).
Even as an epic lover, Tomas seems to have found something compelling in Tereza. Tomas’ poetic memory belongs only to Tereza. From the time he met Tereza, no other woman was allowed to occupy that part of his brain. Despite being prompted by the desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world, Tomas is drawn to her. Is Tomas’ dilemma due to the human tendency toward polarized thinking?

Tomas’ dilemma is foreshadowed by the human tendency towards polarized thinking. Tomas is tormented by Tereza’s need for mutual exclusivity. She needs to capture his hand and hold it all night long, even though that ties him to her bed. Yet, every woman has something to teach him; he has to experience them all. The bind that Tomas finds himself in, is that he cannot fulfill both wants. Each encroaches on the other:

Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman) (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 15).
Is it the opposition of love and sex in his thinking (sleeping versus copulation) that subjects him to two sets of demands that cannot be reconciled? The answer lies in the examination of the relationship between Tomas and Tereza, where heaviness overcomes lightness.

Irreconcilability of Body and Soul

While the relation between the body and the soul is a source of wonder for Tereza, it is also a source of anguish. Tereza becomes the centerpiece to understanding the mind/body duality that Kundera is trying to explore. Essentially, Kundera makes a statement that human existence lacks opportunity for lasting happiness and fulfillment in his portrayals of characters as victims of mind/body duality, alienated and unsatisfied by either mental or physical pleasure.

The irreconcilability of body and soul is a theme that Kundera attempts to deal with across several works. Examining the body and soul duality outside the limited confines of The Unbearable Lightness gives us a broader base to reflect on Kundera’s examination. Taking other example of Kunderan examinations enhances our understanding of his process. The most graphic portrayal of this lack of ability to reconcile the psychological and physical unity occurs in The Hitchhiking Game. In this story, the female initially believes that her boyfriend “never separates her body from her soul and she could live with him wholly” (Kundera, Laughable Loves 67). They proceed to enact a role-playing scenario and change identities. To her boyfriend, the girl grows more physically attractive as she withdraws from him psychically. The young man joins goodness and beauty which he worshipped as real only within the bounds of fidelity and purity and that beyond these bounds she is no longer herself. The young man realizes that “It seemed to him that the girl he loved was a creation of his desire, his thoughts, and his faith and that the real girl now standing in front of him hopelessly alien, hopelessly ambiguous. He hated her” (Kundera, Laughable Loves 83). As the game turns ugly, the girl as prostitute, the boy as her client, their love making causes a transformation, “On the bed there were soon two bodies in perfect harmony, two sensual bodies, alien to each other” (Kundera, Laughable Loves 86). At that moment the sexual act makes the young woman take note of the mind/body duality as she, feeling horror at the thought and realizing that she has never known such pleasure as she experiences love making without emotion or love. Kundera’s emphasis is on an inevitable duality of mind and body is accompanied by an inability to achieve satisfaction in either state.

Kundera describes Tereza standing before a mirror looking at her alien body, a body that lacked the power to become the only body in Tomas’ life. It had disappointed her and deceived her. The mind/body duality and the problems it poses for Teresa in particular and for us in general, goes beyond the physical. Kundera plays with the notion that the genesis of the irreconcilability began when humanity (then consequently Teresa) was expelled from paradise, a paradise we yearn to return to. While we yearn for paradise we are actually yearning for our lost innocence. Animals, who were not expelled from paradise can look in the mirror and not see their reflection. We, like Tereza, gaze into the mirror and gaze at our souls. The so called Cartesian automatons do not worry about their reflection, they do not need to reconcile body and soul.

Tereza’s secret vice of looking into the mirror was more than a reflection of lost innocence; it was also a battle with her mother. Tereza resists her mother’s understanding of the body. She wanted to be body unlike other bodies, looking for that section of her face that reflected her soul below. She resists the idea that all bodies are identical in their meaninglessness. In the character of Tereza, Kundera offers love as a modality for transcendence, as the possibility of a union between body and soul.

Weakness and Vertigo
In Dangerous Intersections: Milan Kundera and Feminism, John O’Brian argues that Kundera’s representation of women is essentially one of weakness. Tereza is the most developed female character in Kundera’s fiction whose weakness is most apparent. Tereza expresses her weakness by seriously contemplating suicide.

Primarily, Tereza finds herself convinced that she belonged among the weak, in the camp of the weak, in the country of the weak. She felt attracted to their weakness as if by vertigo. She felt attracted to it because she felt weak herself. Kundera further explains the issue of vertigo and weakness in his book The Art of the Novel.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tereza lives with Tomas, but her love requires mobilization of all her strength, and suddenly she can’t go on, she longs to retreat down below, to where she came from. And I ask myself: What is happening with her? And this is the answer I find: She is overcome by vertigo. But what is vertigo? I look for a definition and I say: “A heady, insuperable longing to fall.” But immediately I correct myself, I sharpen the definition: Vertigo is “the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down.” Vertigo is one of the keys to understanding Tereza (Kundera, The Art of the Novel 31).
Acting as a counterpoint to Tomas, Tereza’s attraction to weakness is better understood, given Tomas’ need for domination of women. Tomas makes women take the role of the weaker erotic partner. With his play on the use of the command “strip” a command used on both Sabina and Tereza, it becomes the command that magically joins them. When Tereza accepts the invitation to Sabina’s flat to take her picture, the three are joined as one with the imperative to “strip.”

Sabina, contra Mundum

Sabina is the embodiment of three very crucial themes: she is the anti-kitsch, she lives in truth (as defined by Sabina), and she is the unbearable lightness of being. Defined by the bowler hat, the one-millionth part that makes her unique, Sabina floats into the lives of all the major characters. She is the bond that links them. To Tomas, she is his libertine lover and the only one who understands him. To Tereza, she is friend, rival and benefactor. To Franz, she is lover and enigma. Through it all, she manages to betray them all and in the end, betrays herself. In essence, it is Sabina contra Mundum. Sabina is Kundera’s most vivid representation of his indictment against lightness.

Sabina, the Anti-Kitsch
Kitsch - All images of smiling workers, young children in grassy fields, the contented elderly, all the sentimental propaganda, Capitalist or Communist, which take a sentimental view of human possibility is the raw material for kitsch. Kitsch is romanticism, hypocrisy and the avoidance of the unpleasant truth of our existence. Artists are the enemy of kitsch because they poke and prod with examination and expose it for what it is - illusion.

Sabina prefers Communism to declare itself with honesty; with its drabness, its shortages, its food queues. What she abhors are the hypocritical pretenses of the misty eyed images of a communist utopia. She evolves as an artist, through a technique for destroying her enemy (kitsch not Communism) through the subtle distortions of her double exposure. Kundera writes that “the Grand March to brotherhood, equality, justice and happiness,” stems not from a rational philosophy but from images, metaphors, and vocabulary:

Since the days of the French Revolution, one half of Europe has been referred to as the left, the other half as the right. Yet to define one or the other by means of the theoretical principles it professes is all but impossible. And no wonder: political movements rest not so much on rational attitudes as on fantasies, images, words, and archetypes that come together to make up this or that political kitsch (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 257).
Kundera protests through Sabina against the sentimental evaluation of her paintings as a “struggle for happiness and freedom” in the face of the iron curtain of Communism; the enemy is kitsch, not Communism. Kundera, wishing to brutally expose the lie, sees questioning as the enemy of kitsch. There is no greater enemy to a totalitarian state than an artist who questions. Kitsch can only be exposed through subjecting it to a more rigorous examination. Sabina, though double exposure of her paintings cuts through the veneer of Communist kitsch to expose the intelligible lie and the unintelligible truth.

Sabina, Living in Truth
Unlike Franz, truth to Sabina is not living in a glass house. For both Franz and Tereza, living in truth is not lying, not hiding. While Franz wishes to expose all, Sabina prefers to live in privacy. For Sabina, living in truth is knowing what reality is and not playing a role for anyone. While Franz defines truth by breaking down the barriers between the private and the public, Sabina sees truth as possible only in the private sphere. Acting as a microcosm of a totalitarian state, the Kafkaesque nature of the public sphere manifests itself by erasing the already unrecognizable line between public and private lives. A person who loses his privacy loses all. In Sabina’s mind, loosing one’s privacy is loosing everything. Sabina did not suffer while keeping her love for Franz or Tomas a secret, only by doing so could she live in truth. What is the intelligible lie? What is the unintelligible truth?

The violence of the revelation to Marie-Claude would mean a change of public identity for Sabina. Suddenly she is rival, mistress, and public figure. Suddenly, Sabina feels weighted down by the burden this roles place for her. She is forced to betray again.

Sabina, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Betrayal is at the core of Sabina as the lightning rod of the unbearable lightness. To give something significance, a metaphor for heaviness is generally used. It becomes a burden from which we either bear or are crushed. A string of betrayals leads Sabina to a life without burden, without significance. She has betrayed all and is left with no one. While simply trying to live in truth, to break new ground, she has evolved lighter than air. Kundera asks us to ponder whether it was her goal to achieve the unbearable lightness. How could that have been her goal? How could she wish for something she knew nothing about? Why does Kundera portray Sabina as floating and directionless? In this sense, his characterization is disturbing. Why penalize Sabina for living in truth?

Why constrict a creative person for wishing to live a life without burden? I feel that Kundera is flogging Sabina akin to the horseman who flogged the horse at Turin. Labels are at the core of this conundrum. Once something is labeled fewer problems arise in dealing with it. Kundera labeled Sabina light and labeled her life as insignificant. Something more sinister is brewing, labeling leads to objectification. Objects are easier to deal with than sentient beings. Once I felt Kundera label Sabina as light, I wanted to throw my arms around Sabina, and like Nietzsche apologize to her for the judgmental flogging, for what Kundera sees as a lack of grounding, a lack of significance, a lack of weight.

Tomas and Tereza
Weight overcomes lightness in the relationship of Tomas and Tereza. Tomas sets himself up for a fall by creating the duality of shared sleep versus copulation. To modify or abandon the binary opposition would relieve Tomas’ misery. Does Tomas really love Tereza and want to sleep by her side? Does Tomas really desire all women, and want to make love with every one? Are these two wants really opposites? Are love and sex genuinely direct opposites?

The reader pictures Tomas and Teresa driving off into the country, this image has something decidedly kitsch to it. It brings a tear to our eye as we picture Tomas our hero and Tereza the perfect antithesis to our hero leaving Kafkaesque Prague for the freedom of the countryside. They have found the “real thing.” He is saved by the love of a good woman. He gives up everything to be by her side. They retreat from the world to love in a country cottage. It is not that simple. Does Tomas really love Teresa? Tomas proves his love for Tereza a love, which according to his definition, is expressed in the desire for shared sleep. Tomas goes with Tereza to a countryside community, at her request; and winds up driving the farm truck to the eternal ditch of shared sleep.

On the one hand, our philosophical and theological tradition tells us that love and sex are mutually exclusive, as mutually exclusive as body and soul. On the other hand, our everyday lives tell us the exact opposite. Kundera shows us that our human weakness to gravitate to words deciphering dilemmas as Either/Or. By allowing us to re-examine the question we are dealt the very dangerous freedom to consider the possibilities of Both/And. The question then takes on a whole new dimension: the challenge not only is to keep the binary opposition, but also to change our perspective and ask the question in a different way. Can Tomas BOTH love Tereza AND pursue all women. If we use his original premise that love and sex are “not merely different but opposite,” then having sex with other women does not affect loving Tereza.

Tereza tries to live within this construct, but she sees it as a contradiction. Tomas cannot be the libertine and the conventional spouse. In this case it is either Don Juan or everyman. Tereza closes the question, as she wants an exclusive relationship. The question does not preclude any moralizing by Kundera. In this context, Tomas is not “behaving badly” because he wants to love Tereza and pursue all women. He has reconciled the difference through his explanation of love versus copulation. Tomas’ easy “out” of a simplistic dichotomy is complicated by Tereza’s need for an exclusive relationship. In this context, there is no easy answer. Tomas and Tereza represent a more realistic reflection of the human condition; suddenly it is not all black and white. The genius of Kundera is that he sets individual experiences side by side and allows us to reexamine our traditional values. In an interview with Dr. Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, she succinctly articulates Kundera’s attempts at playing with duality:

Kundera is always struggling with opposites with demons and angels with the light and the heaviness, tragedy and comedy, with life and death and he is taking these opposites and pitches them against each other. This is what he sees as his task as a writer and that is why he tries to break new grounds. Also, you know, other things in his novels, you have explicit sexual scenes and then you have philosophical analysis of language let's say, always total opposite elements. He brings them to clash in his text. Does not really dissolve them but lets them boil in their own juice next to each other in a sense (Goetz-Stankiewicz, (personal communication))2.
Tereza sees Tomas’ having sex with others as a negation of her individuality. She is suddenly just one of the many -- her dreams tell her so. If the Tereza/Tomas dilemma is examined from the traditional theological or philosophical duality of good and evil, then the characters are stuck in a system of oppositions that measures acts on a moral rubric. Teresa and Tomas are stuck with competing values, the type of competing values that allowed for the birth of absolutes. Within the Nietzschean context, Teresa and Tomas are allowed to transcend good and evil. The Nietzschean challenge is to reflect on the issue and account to the context of the eternal recurrence. Would either one dread the result if it were to repeat itself all again. Neither is good nor bad based on the needs and demands of the other. They just are.

Let us stretch our imaginations just a little more and consider Tomas and Tereza outside this moralizing rubric of good and evil. Could Tomas both love Tereza and have sex with other women and not do any damage to Tereza? Could Tomas sleep beside Tereza every night and have sex with other women? It is not a viable option for Tereza. Maybe they are both victims of their metaphors; for Tomas, the need to make the distinction and for Tereza the need for individuality in exclusivity. If it were to happen all again, would they affirm it or be crushed? As Tomas reconsiders, Tereza knows that despite being somewhat unfair to Tomas she cannot reconcile his need for other women (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 309). In the end, Tomas does suffer and heaviness conquers light the moment she requests him to wash his hair. As if to wash away the source of all hurt, Tereza request him to wash his hair and they drive off into the country.

No such dilemma exists with Tomas and Sabina. Tomas and Sabina have a love not weighted by demand of mutual exclusivity. On the surface, the lack of burden on Tomas (when examined by way of the Nietzsche and Kundera matrix) would equate the lack of burden (weight) to a lack of significance. Is Tomas and Sabina’s “light” relationship positive? Conversely, is the “weighted” relationship between Tomas and Tereza negative? If we revisit the question posed by Parmenides and agree with him, then we are compelled to answer yes. The love between Tomas and Sabina is not better or worse than his love for Tereza. The questions asked are different, the demands different. In the end, truth is, Tomas and Tereza, both together and separately, have decided that they prefer an exclusive love and sex relation with each other. Tomas, staring outside the window, would now have to answer his questions considering the eternal recurrence. Did he make the right choice? This is not a question of good over evil but preferences and actions based on choice that communicate elaborate shared and personal values.

Tomas and Sabina

Tomas and Sabina reflect mirror images of each other but they have chosen alternative paths. Tomas, on the one hand, is the libertine who chooses to stay with a single partner and yearns for his former bachelor life. Sabina, on the other hand, is the true libertine who eventually becomes nostalgic for Franz. In her book Terminal Paradoxes, Maria Nemcova Banerjee has an interesting interpretation of Tomas as a laughable fool.

The other pole of Tomas’s life, his libertinage, cannot remain hidden from Tereza for long. She suffers from a perpetual, tormenting jealousy that centers primarily on Tomas’s longtime mistress and companion, the gifted painter Sabina. But Sabina, whose nature is fundamentally more libertine than Tomas’s, recognizes his ambivalence. One day she catches him looking at his watch while making love to her, for which she punishes him by hiding one of his socks. Tomas is forced to return home with a net stocking of Sabina’s on his foot. Thus appareled, he is the very image of the laughable fool in love (209).

Franz does not understand Sabina and she is forced to leave him. To live in truth, she is compelled to move on. While in Switzerland, lightness inevitably finds lightness. Despite the distance, Tomas and Sabina still meet.

As a painter, Sabina often uses the technique of “double exposure,” which she defines by the formula “On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth” (p. 63). The technique was an accidental discovery, revealed to her one day in art school while she was playing with an imaginary crack that a trickle of red paint had suddenly opened in a canvas already filled with the compulsory socialist realist image of a steel factory under construction. Sabina the highly intellectual artist, who sees with the power of two, in mutual contradiction, describes Tomas as the embodiment of her aesthetic paradigm: “The meeting of two worlds. A double exposure. Showing through the outline of Tomas the libertine, incredibly, the face of a romantic lover. Or, the other way, through a Tristan, always thinking of his Tereza, I see the beautiful, betrayed world of the libertine” (p.22). This brilliant definition reveals a Tomas conditioned by Sabina’s own mentality. What she says is only provisionally true of him. In pursuing Tereza, Tomas will ultimately disappear from Sabina’s field of vision altogether (Banerjee, Terminal Paradox 209).

Ironic as it might seem, the double exposure can apply to Tomas as well. The true nature of Tomas is as libertine, as it is for Sabina. He, too, is living the unintelligible truth. The relationship between Tomas and Sabina is one of the great loves of the novel. It does leave one to speculate that if the situation where different and Tomas had never met Tereza, would Sabina remain his true love? Sabina is portrayed as a libertine but different from Tomas. She loves her freedom. As the flipside of Tomas, her representation needs further exploration. She is neither epic nor lyric lover. She does not seek the idyll or is looking for the difference in all men. She does allow Tomas to be who and what he is. She understands him, and he her. It is moot to examine Tomas and Sabina without Tereza, in a conventional relationship. If either one should tire of the arrangement they would just leave. In The Unbearable Lightness, Kundera’s indictment reaches its peak in the personification of Sabina. He contrasts Sabina’s unbearable lightness with the burdens carried by Tomas. Sabina takes flight in the unbearable lightness of being and is crushed by the heaviest burdens. Tomas drives his truck into the ditch, and is crushed in the eternal sleep of true love. The epic lover and the libertine are both crushed in the end.

Tereza and Sabina

Weight meets lightness and is overcome in the meeting of Tereza and Sabina. Two poles apart, they embody the two dimensions of Tomas’ existential dilemma. Tereza decides to conquer her demons by accepting Sabina’s invitation to her studio. Sabina, it seems, has reconciled herself to the relationship and has even helped Tomas by finding Tereza employment. In an attempt to understand Tomas and Sabina, Tereza began to cultivate her friendship with Sabina and started out by offering to do a series of photographs of her. What resulted from this encounter, as we shall examine, was foreshadowed in the early dreams. Tereza awakes one evening moaning, jabbing fingernails into Tomas as she fully experiences the threat of Sabina as well as all women. In a later dream, in a pool with naked women, Tereza remembers her past.

In the middle of the night she started moaning in her sleep. Tomas woke her up, but when she saw his face she said, with hatred in her voice, “Get away from me!” Then she told him her dream: The two of them and Sabina had been in a big room together. There was a bed in the middle of the room. it was like a platform in the theater. Tomas ordered her to stand in the corner while he made love to Sabina. The sight caused Tereza intolerable suffering. Hoping to alleviate the pain in her heart by pains of the flesh, she jabbed needles under her fingernails. “It hurts so much,” she said, squeezing her hands into fists as they were actually wounded (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 17).

Tomas discovers that Tereza had been going though his desk drawers and confronts her. She does not deny it and challenges him to throw her out. He instead goes on to kiss her. The bulrush baby suddenly develops claws. The weight of his compassion is suddenly taking on a different dimension. She begins to demand mutual exclusivity. She does not want to be like all the rest. Tereza hurts, she dreams.

Let me return to this dream. Its horror did not begin with Tomas’s first pistol shot; it was horrifying from the outset. Marching naked in formation with a group of naked women was for Tereza the quintessential image of horror. When she lived at home, her mother forbade her to lock the bathroom door. What she meant by her injunction was: Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies. In her mother’s world all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation. Since childhood, Tereza had seen nudity as a sign of concentration camp uniformity, a sign of humiliation (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 57).

In his book Understanding Milan Kundera: public events, private affairs, Fred Misurella reminds us that the encounter of Tereza and Sabina had a dynamic beyond the latent sexuality, and centers his examination on the theme of nakedness and the loss of individuality. The encounter sequence leads us into an examination of the individuality of Sabina, the bowler hat.

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 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 of 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 a wigs, and he reports with humble, arresting details what she tells Tereza about its former owner. Her grandfather was a 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 (Misurella, Understanding Milan Kundera 115).

In a change of roles, Tereza comes to terms with her body. They lose their individuality in their nakedness and form the duality of Tomas’s dilemma. Since the two cannot be permanently reconciled, there is lightness in the encounter. Light gazes on heavy and shoots a few pictures. Heavy gazes on light and while contemplating the possibility of being an alter ego of his polygamous life.

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 (Misurella, Understanding Milan Kundera 115).

With the language of the encounter, one can read a double message. In the discussion of “Behind the Scenes,” Sabina’s abstract art, she adds expresses “On the surface, and intelligible lie; underneath the unintelligible truth” (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 63). Examining the political overtones in his examination of the “double exposure” (O’Brien 121), John O'Brian sees a previous link by comparing the nude beach pictures to photographs taken by Tereza of the Russian invasion. What is important is what is not seen in the pictures. What we do not see from the pictures will be the inner turmoil of Tereza’s ambiguity in facing this situation. The difficulty she has in facing her husband’s lover. What we see in the abstraction is Sabina’s perspective of living in truth. For Sabina, living in truth, is lying neither to ourselves nor to others. In Sabina’s mind, loosing one’s privacy is loosing everything. Sabina did not suffer while keeping her love for Franz or Tomas a secret and only by doing so could she live in truth. What is the intelligible lie? What is the unintelligible truth? Again, we are challenged to come to our own conclusions.

Tomas, Tereza and Sabina

The relations of Tomas, Sabina and Tereza exemplify different kinds of love. Misurella places the significance of weight in the relations of Tomas with Tereza and Sabina on the extent of their emotional significance.

Extending Kundera’s rumination of 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, Thantos) 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 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 (Misurella, Understanding Milan Kundera 109-10).

If we examine the loves in terms of emotional significance, than we can see why Tomas returns to Tereza time after time, despite the obvious incompatibility and divergent views on sexuality.

Part 3 -- Political Statement

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off heads (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 4).

Wrong. Robespierre is alive and well. He has taken on different forms. The situation that occurred in Czechoslovakia has come and gone, and they are now working to repair the damage. Finally, those nightmare years of complicity, loss of identity and freedom of expression can be put to rest and written about in retrospect. The Czechs and Slovaks can form some collective closure. It has already happened and we can look back with a strange sense of nostalgia. We can look on those years with the same detachment that we view the carnage of the holocaust. If we fool ourselves into believing that these events occur only once then the only people left to blame are ourselves. In terms of the collective eternal recurrence, we can all be armchair quarterbacks who condemn those in collusion with Robespierre and those who made deals with the Nazis. Yet the chopping of heads is still going on.

For those of our generation, we can only imagine the shock of the Czechs of Kundera’s generation who woke up on the morning of August 21, 1968. Consider the image of Russian tanks under their windows. The tanks symbolized the destruction of their cherished cultural heritage. The events of 1968 were reminiscent of the 1948 occupation by the Nazis. Savagely torn from their old as well as their newer possibilities, they must have heard rumbling echoes of time, transporting them back to the Munich surrender in 1938 when the Sudetenland was ceded to Germany. Bloody as the invasion was in Prague, it paled in comparison to the 1949 invasion of Tibet by the Maoist Peoples Liberation Army. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949 ushered in an era of cultural and environmental destruction, the effects of which still need to be ascertained.

The Maoist Communists of mainland China have decreed that Tibet is historically part of China. In 1949, ignoring centuries of difference and using the power of the gun, China invaded Tibet. The Marxist in the Soviet Union, watchful of the threat posed by the freedoms of the Prague Spring and reforms of “Socialism with a Human Face,” using the power of the tanks, invaded Czechoslovakia. In two similar scenarios, the Grand March marshaled in its forces; red flags flying, marching two grand histories into the abyss of totalitarianism.

The takeover of Tibet in 1949 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 reverberated with the eternal recurrence of National Socialism of 1938. True, they are not raising the swastika of the superior race with rights to the Sudetenland and beyond. Under the banner of a promised utopia and liberation from the clutches of a decadent theocracy and the bourgeoisie, the communists were given carte blanche to do as they pleased. In Czechoslovakia, the “power of the powerless” later flexed its muscle in the Velvet Revolution. The moment the iron curtain came tumbling down, countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania felt the freedoms and the dangers of free enterprise and democracy. Do we build monuments to remember the atrocities or do we destroy the scenes of the crimes and forget? To learn from the past and not repeat the mistakes, it is vital that we remember. We can rewrite history but must never forget the tragedy of the events themselves.

Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 223).
When we look back at the Holocaust and the Gulags of USSR, we see the loss of life, freedom and a loss of innocence. We are collectively shocked when these things happen. When we read about Bosnia, Rwanda or East Timor, we act as if these are all isolated incidents with a start and a possible finish. We act as if these are seemingly unrelated events, each one standing apart. If one stands atop a peak of any one of many tropical islands of the South Pacific and surveys the horizon, one gets impression that the neighboring islands stand apart. In many ways, each island is unique. The unintelligible truth is that they are a chain of outcroppings of a single geological formation. We watch the news and see a collection of what seems to be pockets of local racial and political disputes. Underneath, we find the unintelligible truth of the eternal recurrence. Like a single geological formation masked by the sea, we only see the intelligible lie.

When the looming threat of Saddam Hussein reared his ugly head, history repeated itself, the threat of a variation of the eternal recurrence and felt compelled (not to mention justified) to bomb. Hitler should never be allowed to resurface, we screamed. We sleep soundly under the illusion that these scenarios are not playing themselves out repeatedly. Kundera’s indictment against lightness is accurate, justified and timely.

This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 4).
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas questions those who where complicit with the Communists and like Oedipus should they gauge out their eyes. What does it really mean to be complicit? Complicity transcends those who carried out actions under orders or fear. What about those who stand by and watch it all happen? To all those who walk the Grand March to a bankrupt promise of a Communist utopia, I say that we can never build the Overman under the tyranny of a concentration camp. You have eyes but cannot see. Who is more dangerous, one who does harm knowing it is harmful or one who does harm thinking one is saving the world, making it safe from capitalism. Who is guilty of delusion? How can one look into the eyes of those whom you have made suffer and for no better reason than a noble lie. Oedipus realized that he was living a lie and in order to make things right, he left. Kundera’s reference to Oedipus in The Unbearable Lightness of Being reminds us that it would be a greater wrong to continue living a lie. Can one see when ones eyes are misty from the kitsch of the Grand March? The Oedipus reference should not be misread. Tomas argues with his son and the editor. In the novel, Kundera writes:

Tomas tore his eyes away from his son’s mouth and tried to focus on the editor. He was irritated and felt like arguing with them. “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...” (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 218)

Certainly Kundera’s never advocated punishment for those who did not realize what they were doing. Tomas’s article concerning Oedipus and those in complicity was not written to punish -- Tomas just wanted it to stop. Readers will read this section and conclude that I misread Kundera. A reading of this section can be described as seeing Kundera making an indictment on Communism alone and hijacking it to make a thin connection in my advocacy of the Tibetan cause. Kundera sees the novel as a love story and that the task of literature is to go beyond politics and to explore the complexities of the human condition. Because politics affects lives in so many ways and with such magnitude, life becomes politicized. In that sense, politics and life are one.

The story finds Tomas struggling as to whether he should sign the petition to free political prisoners. In deliberating, he asks whether it would be beneficial or would it play into the hands of the government. Would it mark those who signed as targets? Would it give cause to the government for further repression? Countering this, the editor answers that it would show the government that there are people who are not afraid. Tomas is convinced that the only thing such a petition would accomplish was to keep political prisoners from being amnestied (if there happened to be a plan afoot to do so!) (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 215). Tomas concludes that signing would not make any difference in the lives of political prisoners. Is Kundera making a statement about the futility of signing petitions? Is he making us stand at the window and stare across the courtyard at the walls opposite and challenge us out of our apathy? Is it a conservative political statement?

Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence then also applies to the Tibetan situation. Pitted against the forces of a system ruled by violence, His Holiness the Dalai Lama reminds us that a sense of universal responsibility is essential and a sense of compassion is key. Communism has proven itself bankrupt in the decline of the Soviet Union: the jury is out -- it is only a matter of time until it will be China’s turn. Accountable to our collective eternal recurrence, we should be ashamed of ourselves. Would we celebrate this event or would we look back into this nightmare with dread and gnashing of teeth. In that sense, it would be a negation of our collective lives. We would never celebrate this madness.


For Kundera, questions without answers form boundaries. Boundaries serve as borders of unrealized possibilities. Locked in the purposeful ambiguity, we ponder questions that cannot be answered. Questions are the basic premise for Kundera’s work:

These are questions that had been going through Tereza’s head since she was a child. Indeed, the only serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answers is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 139).
Questions with no answers form borders must be constantly tested, constantly questioned. In Kundera’s own words “the trap the world has become” merits exploration:

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. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own “I” ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become (Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 221).

Questions are the tools we use to create the healthy tension between lightness and weight.

Parmenides posed the question concerning the positive nature of lightness. Kundera tries to lose us in purposeful ambiguity. Suddenly it is a question that results in more questions. In reference to a Kunderan quote outlining the heaviest burden becoming an image of life’s most intense fulfillment, we are drawn to avoid lightness and seek weight. The discourse moves us to consider whether the accidental nature of human existence (Einmal ist keinmal) makes life and its events less significant.

In Sabina’s case, Kundera’s position is that it is negative. Her life has no weight as her life has no significance. She becomes the novels negative representation of lightness. To that extent the indictment against lightness is unfair. To label Sabina so harshly would make the heaviest burden unbearable, as everything would have to have significance. The healthy tension that Nietzsche advocated allows us some room for lightness lest we be crushed by the burden of weight.

In terms of Kundera’s historical reference of a world bent on the lightness of non-remembrance is accurate, fair and justified. The modified eternal recurrence tells us that history does repeat itself. The exact context might change but the essential disruption is the same. Are we to suffer the collective crush of our collective eternal recurrence as we allow history to be lighter than feathers, lighter than air? Are we as individuals destined to make our lives lighter than feathers, lighter than air?


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