On the unbearably important writing of Milan Kundera

I have known all these situations, I have experienced them myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. 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.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

EXCITING AND IMPORTANT UPDATE! I’ve written a follow-up post that gives Kundera’s biography and explores what I did right, and what I did wrong, in the essay below. Read it here.

(Standard disclaimer: whenever one encounters a work of Freudian literary criticism, there is the temptation to react as though one could simply choose whether or not to accept such a reading — “well, if you’re a Freudian, I’m sure this all makes sense,” etc. However, this is never true. A Freudian reading either imposes itself, as here, or it doesn’t. I would never undertake a Freudian reading of The L Word, for example. There is no getting around Kundera’s psychoanalytic descriptions of shit and dreams, or his heavy emphasis on the Oedipus story itself throughout the novel, in the form of the Oedipal metaphor in Tomas’s article about Communism, where he imagines that all Communists should blind themselves.)

I have just finished re-reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being; I’ve read most of it, perhaps all of it, before, but I was very young. I think I was around fourteen. I had never been kissed; in fact, I would not be kissed for another three years. So it’s pretty funny that I read about so much sex at that age. I certainly didn’t understand what any of it meant; it seems immensely likely that I never finished the book at all.

I’m going to speculate wildly here, and in order to preserve a fundamental honesty, I’m not going to double-check anything I write using Wikipedia. I am perfectly willing to be wrong. The idea that critics writing about novels must present their readers with a series of facts is ridiculous; such an idea only shows that we have completely forgotten what a spaghetti of intertwining lies novels really are.


What happened was this: Kundera’s father died. At the time, Kundera was married; his wife accompanied him to his father’s bedside, but he felt curiously angry and alienated from her. What does she know about my life, really? he wondered. This was unfair: Kundera was not really angry at his wife. He was angry at his mother, who was undoubtedly also there at the funeral, doing fine (relatively speaking). Probably some of Kundera’s anger towards his wife wasn’t even his own, but was inherited from his father’s own domestic sufferings. Anyway, shortly thereafter, when his father was dead, Kundera found that the long Oedipal struggle of his life was over, and a feeling of incredible liberty and possibility filled him. At the same time, he felt guilty; the joyful experience of freedom seemed to suggest that he had in fact been longing for his father to die.

Immediately, Kundera divorced his wife, who now appeared to be the single obstacle remaining between himself and pure, unalloyed freedom. Some of this is at the beginning of the book: recall that Tomas separates himself from his parents and divorces his wife right away, before the real action of the novel begins. Some of this is at the end of the book: the death of the father is replaced, in a really ludicrous fashion, with the death of Karenin the dog (in the final section, which is entitled “Karenin’s Smile”). From a purely literary standpoint, this section shouldn’t be there at all. If the novel is about Communism, which it certainly would like to be, then the novel should end with the previous section, entitled “The Grand March.” But this is precisely what cannot happen, because the irony of Kundera’s rejection of the “leftist Grand March” is that his father’s ghost is catching up to him. The chilling, uncanny smile of Karenin the dog is the smile of Kundera’s father, as he laughs at Kundera’s idea of being able to escape from the “grand march” of generational repetition. Repetition, of course, obsesses the book — The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with a weak reading of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, and towards the end plagiarizes Kierkegaard’s idea that repetition is the secret of happiness.

Yes, happiness is the longing for repetition, Tereza said to herself. (295)

The newly single Kundera, unshackled from his wife, sits down and begins to write the novel that will make him famous. His state of mind is a bit odd: on the one hand, he can finally reveal what awful women he’s had to endure, and on the other, his separation from his wife permits him to become nostalgic about her, and even a little truthful about the marriage. There are four important female characters: Tereza, Sabina, Marie-Claude, and The Ugly Mistress (whom I’ll discuss later). Sabina represents Kundera’s wife in the early stages of their relationship, during courtship and marriage; Sabina is Kundera’s way of admitting that his wife was a pretty hot little number back in the day. Tereza and Marie-Claude, conversely, are versions of the wife/mother as bloodsucking harpy. Both of them entrap their husbands: Tereza with her sad dreams, Marie-Claude by threatening suicide (and afterwards, by refusing to grant a divorce and being relentlessly conventional). Tereza is simply a more ideal and sentimental version of Marie-Claude, through whom Kundera can become the Beautiful Soul who values and understands the sorrows of Woman, all of which are the result of male infidelity (for example, not one woman in the novel is ever threatened by Communist repression, but every man is). Tereza is the grief-stricken, harmless version of the aging mother, whom Kundera can send to her grave, watering her path with his copious tears — the dying mother and father are the aged couple at the end, their souls escaping upwards, as symbolized by the final image of the moth.

Kundera spends an extraordinary amount of time protesting against kitsch — in fact, he completely pauses the novel in order to give us his diatribe — just so we’ll excuse the novel’s unforgivable slide into kitsch immediately thereafter. Not only does the father turn into Old Yeller The Dying Dog (Karenin), but Kundera informs us that “the Nietzsche that I love” is the mad Nietzsche, incapable of writing a single word, who launches himself at a horse to save it from the whip. Kundera even announces that nobody cares for the well-being of animals, as though it is not the 1970s, by which time the ever-growing vegetarian movement was nearly 200 years old (to speak only of vegetarianism in the West).

Yes, the right to kill a deer or cow is the only thing all mankind can agree on, even during the bloodiest of wars. (282)

Kundera projects his own attraction to Christianity onto Tomas’s misunderstood son Simon, and Simon/Kundera the “dreamer” merges with Tereza, the mother and the other “dreamer,” in that both of them are living for the “eyes of one who is absent”: namely, the dead husband and father. But the obscene mother lives on in the figure of Marie-Claude, who gives a horrible oration when Franz dies, and completely usurps his being by laying claim to his memory.

In death, Franz at last belonged to his wife.…Yes, a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her sufferings! (272)

Even the fundamental definition that Kundera provides of kitsch, that it is the world emptied of its “shit,” is a dodge, since the novel deals in death, not in shit, and Kundera does not mention death even once in his definition of kitsch. He gives a kitschy definition of kitsch!

The sexiest, most genuine moments in the novel come fairly early on. I am, of course, referring to Sabina’s bowler hat, her erotic letter, and the lesbian flirtation between Tereza and Sabina. If I had to guess, I would guess that Kundera’s wife had the bowler hat, and that it was part of an early phase of their love-making, as was the erotic submission of Tereza and Sabina to Tomas. Therefore the lesbian encounter is not so much a real encounter between two distinct persons, as it is a way for Kundera to ask how his wonderful Sabina turned into the clingy Tereza, a transformation all the more astonishing since Sabina occasionally “appears” within Tereza, making the past weirdly (albeit briefly) a reality in the present. This explains the fascinating omnipresence of the camera (which, for any couple that has one, means a gradual accumulation of dirty photos and photos of past eras in the relationship), together with the continual presence of mirrors in almost every early scene. It also explains why Sabina is a possession held in common by both Franz and Tomas; as we have seen, the anti-Sabinas are likewise two versions of the same person. The uncanny intimacy between Tereza and Sabina is the precise complement to the absolute estrangement between Marie-Claude and Sabina. In the first case, the brief re-emergence of the past is a merging; in the second, it is a schizophrenia. One need look no further than Sabina’s exciting but incongruous desire to submit herself to Franz, to be his slave, a desire that her “reserved nature” will not permit her to express. This is obviously not written in the voice of Sabina, but in that of Tereza, and the fact that Kundera attributes it to Sabina is one of the novel’s more remarkable slips. Sabina might long for banality, but she (the author of the “let’s have sex on stage” letter) is certainly not reserved.

Franz thinks that his mistress and his wife ought never to be in the same place; his belief that this would somehow violate the marriage is actually his way of building a wall against a threatening reality. This threatening reality is as follows: in taking new lovers, Kundera is trying to find his way back to the young woman, the Sabina, who excited him so much. He has a little success, of course; these chapters are spiced with Kundera’s pride in his ability to dominate (“Strip!”). But the carousel of women comes to a stop with the Ugly Mistress, who appears first as the unpleasant graduate student wearing glasses (Franz), and then returns as the stork-like woman who gives “counter-commands” (Tomas). This fairly annoying woman is what Kundera has really achieved as a replacement for the loss of great, early love.

Now, of course, I could be wrong about all this. Perhaps the Ugly Mistress was not a part of Kundera’s life, or perhaps the bowler hat really was something one of his mistresses wore, or etc. From an aesthetic standpoint, it doesn’t really matter, since it is nonetheless true that the interesting psychological dynamics of the love triangle (Tomas-Tereza-Sabina) disappear into the uninteresting quiet desperation of Franz’s life. Franz is such an afterthought that I’d guess most people who read the novel practically forget about him, but he’s not an afterthought from Kundera’s point of view: if Tomas is who Kundera would like to be as a bachelor, Franz is who Kundera thinks other people think he is.

So far, I know, I’ve said very little about the novel’s anti-Communist sentiments. I’ve also said very little about Kundera’s allusions to Nietzsche and Beethoven, and for the same reason — namely, that Kundera is not a profound thinker, except when it comes to sex, and his thoughts about Nietzsche and Beethoven and Communism aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. I am genuinely starting to believe that Beethoven wrote his Quartets purely as a way of detecting the presence of pseudo-intellectuals; such people always seem to crawl into that music the way wasps crawl into nectar traps.

It is perfectly obvious that Kundera left Czechoslovakia, became an expatriate writer in Switzerland, protested against the Soviet-Czech Communist regime, and never went home. The fact that Tereza and Tomas “go back home” to Prague is simply an allusion to Kundera’s project of writing about his homeland, and the exasperating unreality of Tomas’s encounters with the secret police are the inevitable result of his not having had, in point of fact, to deal with them all that often. I suspect that Kundera was a doctor who later became a full-time writer; in the novel, “washing windows” substitutes for writing. Notice that when Tomas first begins washing windows, he is the toast of the town, while later on he is ignored or taken for granted. “Washing windows” is of course what Kundera thinks he is doing for us: he imagines himself clearing away the grit and noise of modern life so that we can see the realities of Communist totalitarianism more clearly. At best, he is obvious; at worst, he is prone to silly exaggerations, particularly in his attempts to persuade us that (but for Communism) Czechoslovakia would have had one of the greatest national literatures in all of Europe. Nothing is more terrifying, in this life, than reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being and realizing just how little you actually care that Smerdach Olagysk, a famous Czech poet you’ve never heard of before, was forced to write only haikus about zebras after running afoul of the Secret Police. An entire section of the novel, focusing on Tomas’s article about the Oedipal guilt of the Communist revolutionaries, is made absurd by Kundera’s insistence on calling Tomas — the surgeon — a “prominent intellectual.” You don’t need to have watched all that many seasons of Scrubs to understand that “surgeon” and “intellectual” are not synonymous. But here they are synonyms, because Tomas is Milan Kundera.

Kundera’s overarching political critique climaxes with a two-pronged attack: his theory of kitsch, and his theory of the “Grand March.” I’ve already described his theory of kitsch. He links kitsch to political repression by writing that kitsch is the language of politics, and that it drowns out all other modes once a totalitarian regime comes to power. He then focuses in on “leftist” kitsch, which is the narrative of the “Grand March”:

The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March.

On the contrary! says Kundera. We are only marching towards greater bondage! In general, what was once a novel about Tomas and Tereza and Sabina, or perhaps those three plus Franz and Marie-Claude and The Ugly Mistress, dissolves into a series of irrelevant Portraits of the Left, filmed on location in exotic locales like Cambodia. It’s almost as though Kundera is daring us to stop reading, so that, feeling slightly guilty, we will invest his political theories with the admiration we feel for his bedroom scenes. Significantly, it is around this point that Kundera reveals that love is not even the point of Tomas’s life. Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, the point of his life is actually his deep inner desire to heed his professional calling. When he succumbs to love for the last time, it is a sign of impending death.

Anyway, the one character we can recognize is Simon, Tomas’s missing son, who gives up political activism and converts to Christianity. Kundera’s point, which he delivers like a bull in a china shop, is that the idea of the “Grand March” is related to the Christian idea of The Kingdom of God, and more specifically of the Kingdom of God manifesting on Earth (as opposed to remaining upstairs in Heaven). Both leftists and utopian Christians are kitschy, because both of them promote the “affirmation of all Being.” This is either a life without shit, “children running on the grass,” or the monstrous affirmation of shit, which is like Tereza’s mother exposing her sagging, wrinkled nakedness to passersby, and deliberately loosening her dentures in the middle of a polite conversation.

What does this affirmation of all Being sound like, put into philosophical terms? Well, I would imagine it sounds very much like this:

A drop of dew? A haze and fragrance of eternity? Do you not hear it? Do you not smell it? Just now my world became perfect, midnight is also noon — pain is also a joy, a curse is also a blessing, night is also a sun — go away or else you will learn: a wise man is also a fool. Have you ever said Yes to one joy? Oh my friends, then you also said Yes to all pain. All things are enchained, entwined, enamored — if you ever wanted one time two times, if you ever said “I like you, happiness! Whoosh! Moment!” then you wanted everything back! -–Everything anew, everything eternal, everything enchained, entwined, enamored, oh thus you loved the world — you eternal ones, love it eternally and for all time; and say to pain also: refrain, but come back! For all joy wants — eternity!

I can hear you now. Tell me, at once, you say to me, enraged, who is the author of this leftist Christian nonsense? How was it allowed to be published? Whom shall I now denounce as a kitschy affirmer, a fraud, a totalitarian? With which doctrines must I make a definitive break, once and for all, because they seek to plant a Kingdom of God upon the sandy soil of our planet, an attempt which can only yield cruel and twisted fruits?

Listen, and I shall tell you. The author of that paragraph is Friedrich Nietzsche. It is the conclusion to his discussion of his fundamental doctrine: the doctrine so many people know only through Milan Kundera, the doctrine…of the eternal recurrence!

Nietzsche is right that a wise man is also a fool. But that does not mean, unfortunately for Milan Kundera, that the reverse is also true.