The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera: Soul versus Body or Art versus Kitsch

I had scribbled a few lines from ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ onto my journal…this was fifteen years back! About a year ago, in one of the book club meetings, a young college girl asked me if I read this book. My answer being ‘No’, there was an honest enthusiastic recommendation from her end. And, then a month back, I was researching for my piece on ‘Bibliotherapy’ and came across the inevitable ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera…this time I read the book and realized how life is built on many ‘fortuitous’ moments.

You meet someone someday at some point and your life changes inevitably attached to a string of random events. Similarly, somewhere someone heads a nation and sublimely alters the course of your life forever. ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ leaves you at this contemplating juncture.  

Milan Kundera wrote this extraordinary piece of fiction during his exile which was finally published in 1984. For all the obvious reasons, this book becomes a harsh portrayal of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, interspersed with an understanding of life’s meaning – in its lightness and heaviness or emptiness and meaning.

I cannot decide if I can call this book Philosophical, Historical fiction, or a Romance but undoubtedly, it is a masterpiece!

The Meaning of Lightness

Kundera begins with Nietzsche’s philosophy of eternal return as ‘The Greatest Weight’ or heaviness. On the other hand, there is Parmenides who divided the world into pairs of opposites – ‘light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being’. Our problem with the two philosophies is in the understanding or interpretation of what ought to be lightness and heaviness. How do we know for certain that heaviness is terrible and lightness is happiness? We only live once; we do not know of earlier lives (if that ever existed) so how we can ever compare something without a benchmark to measure against. Yet, we seek lightness, a life devoid of burdens and drudgeries.

What happens when there is an external turmoil? The political crisis of a country is lived through its citizens who choose their predicament either in lightness or in its heaviness. You may not be in the direct line of bombardment but certain things affect you for sure under a dictatorial, conservative regime. 

The Sketch – ‘an outline of something

We follow the lives of four people – two couples with Sabina as a common link. Tomas is the divorced, promiscuous surgeon living in Prague and Tereza, a waitress at a café about 125 miles away from Prague. Sabina is a painter who had married an actor, only to leave him and have an affair with Tomas and later with Franz, a Swiss Lecturer. We understand two men, juxtaposed in their character – Tomas, and Franz through Sabina’s eyes. Sabina lives her life away from heaviness; she readily breaks the shackles and embraces everything unacceptable to her father and communism (thoughtfully alike!).

The most important character, indeed, is Karenin, the dog Tomas gifts Tereza. Karenin defines happiness for us, the unconditional love of a dog. Also, symbolic of the defiance of the communist ideals as Karenin’s gender is not stereotypically correlated to her name or characteristics. It is interesting that ‘Karenin’ name is derived from Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ because Tereza carries a copy of the book and Kundera wanted to incorporate his analysis of Anna’s story.

In 1968, Tomas meets Tereza at a café through a string of ‘fortuitous’ moments. Tomas had been married before but now lived a life of ‘lightness’ with his mistresses until Tereza entered his life. Tereza chose to leave her small town, her mother and home when she found Tomas. Teresa wanted to believe in the uniqueness of her soul to defy her mother’s notion of indistinctiveness of human body. Though Tomas loves Tereza, he cannot leave his promiscuous lifestyle which shatters her from within.

The guilt of illicit relationships do not weigh down Tomas or Sabina but Franz cannot set aside emotional love from physical love (like Tereza). Franz confesses his extramarital affair to his wife but the immediate lightness from life riddled under guilt is replaced with the burden of the aftermath. The momentary shift from heaviness to lightness and vice versa is what defines ‘the unbearable lightness of being’.

Amid the romantic/ erotic tribulations, there is nationalism. The ways in which these four characters portray their angst – Sabina through her paintings, Teresa with her photography, Tomas with a small piece in a newspaper and Franz, well devoid of an active participation in political say, he is caught in the paradigm of lectures.

Ideas and Imagery

This book works more around ideas than the plot.

  • The idea of a body not being unique. Tomas isn’t just a surgeon; the idea of a human body is understood through dissection on the surgery table and in a physically intimate moment with a mistress. And, in the opinion and shunning of physical uniqueness by Tereza’s mother.
  • Tomas always felt Tereza ‘was a child who had been put in a bulrush basket and sent downstream to him.’ Tereza’s naïve existence and her quest for idyllic life needs to be protected.
  • Oedipus story in relation to the Czech invasion. Were those people who supported the Russian secret police as innocent as Oedipus? However, this doesn’t let them shirk away from their guilt under the guise of ignorance.
  • Tereza clicking pictures of women on the street kissing strangers as their weapon of protest against the invading Russian soldiers.
  • Importance of banned books. “Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity. That’s why one banned book in your former country means infinitely more than the billions of words spewed out by our universities.

Tereza’s dreams

The one who bears the burdens of life is also burdened with an overdose of dreams. Kundera ties Tereza’s dreams to her fears, her fear of losing her body and soul. As the story goes, you realize the parallels between people in a concentration camp, their invisible existence, and Tereza’s dream of naked bodies being paraded and shot.  

There are loose ends that I still do not understand – what it meant when Tereza saw a dream of giving birth to two rolls and a bee and turning Tomas into a rabbit?

The Political Upheaval in Czechoslovakia

In August 1968, the Russian tanks marched into Czechoslovakia to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ – which was a brief period of liberalization in the communist country.

None of the characters ever become political leaders. Their defiance and regret are personal as they follow a political speech or a piece of news. The undertone of Alexander Dubcek’s public appearance and speech is analyzed, ascertaining people’s perception of their political leaders during crisis. The silent ways of protest is what fascinated me the most, Kundera tells us about Czech towns renamed to Russian names for people had taken down the signs and refused to divulge the real names to the invading Russian army.

Descartes Theory of Machina Animata

Just like Nietzsche and Parmenides, Kundera dissects Descartes theory that animal bodies are machines. While Descartes believed animals have no souls and no feelings, Nietzsche had a nervous breakdown and sunk into mental illness after seeing a coachman whipping a horse.  

Descartes theory robbed animals of their souls, transformed them into indistinguishable bodies. It had a deeper implication as rural communities became mechanized and they started rearing animals for purely economic needs. In the mass production era, livestock are no longer named by their owners and they have become indistinguishable. Tereza could see this change with her ability to see cows in a human sort of way and her deep connect with Karenin.

Lastly,

Honestly, the only unbearable part for me was the stretched out infidelities (the literary descriptions of passion) of Tomas. Probably, the intention was juxtaposing the infidelities of the Czech regime, professing its commitment to the people but unrestrained at keeping the Russian hand at bay.

But, then this is one book that leaves you enriched with an understanding of individual identity and touching upon some great philosophers.

I have taken ‘fortuitous’ as my favourite word from this book, it made me nostalgic and now I just wish to think about those moments!

If this book interests you, surely you will like ‘If One a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ and ‘Soul Mountain’.

2 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera: Soul versus Body or Art versus Kitsch

  1. Pingback: Books Read by Fictional Characters – Bookishloom

  2. Pingback: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: Is there a woman as passionate and unapologetic as Anna Karenina in fiction? – Bookishloom

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