Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is fiction thinly disguised as philosophy. It explores the question: is it better being “heavy” (which is negative, according to Parmenides) or “light” (positive)?, and seeks the answer in the territories of love, politics and identity through the lives of four main characters: Tomas, Tereza, Sabina and Franz as well as Tereza’s dog Karenin. As it considers these questions, Kundera’s novel is persistently defiant of the traditional novelistic form, even as it alludes to it. The Unbearable Lightness of Being constantly pauses in its storytelling, addressing the reader and reflecting upon itself.
I will interact with and dissect the main themes and areas in the novel that are of the most interest to me, namely poetry, sex, the dog and death.
Kundera posits that our lives and relationships are but the byproducts of the motifs that scaffold them: “Because human lives are composed in precisely such a [novelistic] fashion. They 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. Without realising it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress”.
To summarise their dynamics, Tomas and Tereza are a married couple; Sabina is mistress to both Tomas and Franz (another married man). The four human characters take seemingly diverse stances on love and relationships, each of them basing their interpretations on their unique take on life and the motifs they have built into their personal vocabularies. Tomas, a serial womaniser, acknowledges that his love for Tereza arose from six fortuities—for example, if they had not been at the same restaurant at the same time, they might never have met and eventually married. Nevertheless, she ends up defining his life up till its end. A recurring motif in the text is that of Beethoven’s “Es muss sein” (it must be), which speaks of an internal reason for our being, our undeniable, overpowering compulsions that drive us. Once, Tomas hypothesises about meeting his (literal) other half, a la Plato’s Symposium, his es muss sein love. He eventually concludes that as difficult—and even illogical—as it would be, he would choose Tereza over that woman. —Kundera suggests that poetry (as mostly portrayed in this novel through motif) is a more powerful force than even human nature (that would logically seek a physically complete state).
Meanwhile, after Franz loses Sabina, he makes a goddess of her, composing his entire life and making decisions based on his fantasy that she watches him from an imaginary heaven, approving or disapproving of whatever he does. He takes this fantasy to the extreme, eventually getting himself killed because of it. For both Tomas and Franz, poetry reigns supreme—for the former, over biological compulsion, for the latter, over practical reality.
But what is poetry, really?—This incredibly strong prime mover. As far as my own limited lived experiences would allow me to understand, I would define poetry as the universal yet personal allegory for the human soul. It is admitting us to ourselves; it is the penetrating gaze into the mirror. Every time we write a poem, it is a confession of sorts. If I were to pick a single image that comprises the act of writing poetry from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it is this: Tereza obsessively staring at her image in the mirror: “It was not vanity that drew her to the mirror; it was amazement at seeing her own ‘I’.. she thought she could see her soul shining through the features of her face”. Poetry is the inward gaze of recognition and surprise. If poetry speaks of a soul, perhaps the vanity inherent in writing poetry is redeeming rather than condemning. Kundera writes, “it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life [motifs]. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty”.
There is such an incredible abundance of sex in this novel; it demands to be addressed.
Most of it centers around Tomas, an “epic womaniser” (used in the novel both to describe his type of womanising and —I believe—as a pun). Until he reaches retirement age and all throughout most of his marriage to Tereza, he sleeps with an untold multitude of women, sometimes up to two or more in a single day.
Mary Ruefle writes, “The simplest possible definition of a secret is something that ‘is kept from knowledge or observation’. Such as… sex, which is, in its human form, kept from observation. Or… the meaning of human existence, which is secluded from our knowledge. And since existence originates in the sexual act, the two are forever linked in the minds of a self-conscious species” (Madness, Rack and Honey).
To Tomas, sex is no different from his quest for knowledge as a surgeon. Similarly, the novel approaches Tomas’ affairs with the same detached air of interested philosophical reasoning: “What is unique about the ‘I’ hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person… Only in sexuality does the millionth part dissimilarity become precious, because, not accessible in public, it must be conquered… So it was a desire not for pleasure (the pleasure came as an extra bonus) but for possession of the world (slitting open the outstretched body of the world with his scalpel) that sent him in pursuit of women”. As much pain as his affairs bring Tereza, they are in fact seeking after the same thing: the unique ‘I’ within the human body. Tomas seeks this without; Tereza within. Either way, we cannot help our compulsion toward poetry.
When regarding Tomas’ affairs, the novel refrains from attaching moral judgement associated with issues like fidelity and other traditional value system metrics. As a matter of fact, its characters are all in one way or another divorced from tradition and institution—family, marriage, religion, community and citizenship are all but arbitrary rules and contracts for the bending and breaking. The ‘being’ Kundera’s work examines, as embodied by its characters, is a highly deconstructed one. Similarly, the novel is a work in constant deconstruction, resisting the ‘ novelistic’ form even as it alludes to it, systematically taking it apart both in form and in content. Unlike the human soul, the attempts to box it in are anything but sacred to this text.
Karenin the Dog
Karenin is Tereza’s dog, named for Anna Karenina’s husband.
All four of the human characters die, yet the dog’s death is the only one described in detail—in beautiful, heart-wrenching detail. The novel attributes to dogs a special, sacred place in relation to the human soul. Unlike human relationships which are riddled with anxiety and its attendant constant questioning (“Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me?”), the love a human has for an animal is love in its purest form, demanding nothing but the other’s company. Kundera suggests that this difference is owed to the unchanging nature of a human-animal relationship as compared to the constant need for progress defining the human existence. The repetitive love of the former offers us a glimpse back into paradise. The only time the novel spends an extended amount of time relieved of its constant self-awareness and deconstruction and relaxes into writing events as they unfold is when it is describing the ending and end of Karenin’s life—when the narrative is centred around a woman’s unconditional love for her dying dog. It is popularly believed that the ability to philosophise is what separates man from animal—in short, what determines that man has a soul. Yet, paradoxically, it is only with animals and in loving them can the human soul find reprieve from itself and rest in its compassionate and still center.
The only death the novel really spends any time on (Karenin’s) is rendered in utmost beauty.
Indeed, Kundera seems to approach death not with horror, but with the suggestion that it is but another stanza in the poem that is our lives. One of the words deconstructed in “A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words” (which explains how Sabina and Franz interpret different words differently) is “Cemetery”.
Part of it goes: “When the sun goes down, the cemetery sparkles with tiny candles. It looks as though the dead are dancing at a children’s ball because the dead are as innocent as children. No matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery…/ For Franz, a cemetery was an ugly dump of stones and bones”.
Kundera uses dreamlike imagery in Sabina’s interpretation in complete defiance of the horror that is death, redeeming and transforming its associated narratives. Like everything else in the novel that defies structure and boundary, death in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is celebrated as a release from the claustrophobic institution that is the human life. The cemetery is a sacred space where is the human soul is loosed from its shackles. Even the seemingly negative ‘last word’ Franz has is in fact beautiful. “Stones and bones” alludes to the popular children’s rhyme; his interpretation merely functions as the last line to the song the dead dance to.—”Peace always reigns in the cemetery”.
Is Kundera suggesting that death is the ultimate answer to what makes a good existence and being? No, I do not think so. It is not death on its own that is the answer, but the freedom from definition—relational, political or otherwise—that it provides. It is this lack of attachment to narratives and the demands and connotations that attend them that ultimately makes bearable the lightness of being.