A Self-referential Paradox:

Milan Kundera´s Unbearable Lightness of Being

Jan Čulík


Milan Kundera’s Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí (published in English as "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") is an extraordinarily complicated, almost mathematical model of the world, constructed along the lines of a musical composition, with several main motifs and numerous variations, which are constantly being paralleled and contrasted to each other.

The novel concerns the story of Tomáš, a Prague surgeon, and his lover Tereza, whom Tomáš meets in a small town, where she works as a waitress. Tomáš has divorced his first wife and the experience has crippled him emotionally. He no longer becomes deeply involved with women, cultivating a large number of superficial erotic liaisons instead. In spite of this, a strong bond of love gradually evolves between Tomáš and Tereza, although Tomáš does not cease seeking out casual sexual encounters with other women. He assures Tereza that these can in no way interfere with their love; Tereza finds it very hard to accept them.

After the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the couple leave for Switzerland, where Tomáš is able to continue his work as a specialist in a hospital. Several months later, however, they decide to return to Prague. Then, Tomáš is sacked from his Prague hospital job for refusing to retract a letter published in a newspaper before the invasion. Tereza is also dismissed from her work as a magazine photographer in Prague. For several years Tomáš works as a window-cleaner and Tereza as a waitress once again. Then, after police harassment, they decide to move to the country, where they find employment on a cooperative farm. Soon afterwards, they both die in a traffic accident.

One of Tomáš’s sexual partners is Sabina, a Prague painter. She also emigrates to Switzerland in 1968. After Tomáš’s return to Prague, she strikes up a relationship with a Swiss lecturer named Franz. Just at the moment when Franz breaks up with his snobbish wife Marie-Claude because of her, Sabina leaves Franz without telling him and disappears to the United States. Sabina’s place in Franz’s life is taken by one of his students, but Franz cannot put Sabina out of his mind. In her memory, he takes part in a protest demonstration organized by Western intellectuals in Thailand on behalf of the Cambodian people. The demonstration sadly fails to achieve its objective. What is more, while still in Thailand, Franz is assaulted in the street by muggers and killed.

The novel is far more complex than this simple outline can convey. The flow of the story is constantly being interrupted by the narrator, who at every step explains and analyzes in great detail the actions of each character. The narrator has direct access to the minds of his characters - he explicitly points out that this is because they are figments of his imagination - and most of the comments on their behavior convey the characters’ own subjective opinions about themselves.

All Kundera’s characters and situations are illustrations of the author’s abstract ideas. Like Páral, Kundera does not ‘depict life’, but by means of practical examples communicates his personal views on life. In creating his characters and situations out of ideas, he is putting these ideas to a practical test, thus ‘proving their validity’. Besides this, he is able to contrast and modify them, and bring out their meaning much more vividly than would be possible in a theoretical treatise. Nevertheless, his novel remains first and foremost a work of rational, philosophical speculation.

In the second half of the novel, when the focus of attention broadens from inter-personal relations to include also the overall social and political atmosphere, Kundera uses startling scraps of documentary material (mostly drawn from post-invasion life in Czechoslovakia) to make the evidence for the validity of his ideas absolutely overwhelming.

At the outset of the novel Kundera introduces what in his view is one of the most fundamental problems of human existence: the problem of time. Human beings are unable to retain the experience of any particular event for longer than the duration of that event. The moment time intercedes between the event and our experience of it, the experience becomes lifeless, distorted and theoretical. Therefore, ‘everything is cynically permitted, because nobody will remember how it really was.’

This idea seems to be related to Parál’s theme of man’s inability to retain the lesson learnt in a life-or-death situation (Perdidistis utilitatem calamitatis), but Kundera develops it further. Since there is no real experience on which we can base our decision-making, we make all our decisions in a vacuum. In spite of the fact that we are totally unequipped for making serious decisions, every decision we make is total and final - since we live only once and cannot retrace our steps and correct our actions in a different version of our lives, if it turns out that we have acted wrongly.

Besides, natural reality is so intricate that a human being is unable to gain an understanding of an event even while it is happening. Man’s interpretations of reality always are merely crude approximations. They are based on prejudice, which is the product of past personal experience, namely another set of crude approximations, based on another past prejudice, and so on ad infinitum. Instead of understanding the world around us, we produce simplified ideological models of it, which we then mistake for the real thing. In so doing, we negate life, ourselves included.

Every person’s interpretation of reality is unique: since it is exclusively based on personal experience, it is incommunicable to others. Our interpretations of things around us are greatly influenced by our momentary emotional states. These change very quickly: hence our interpretation of reality is also very variable. In addition, we acquire new experiences all the time, and these give new meanings to our past experiences. Yet this is not all: because of the limited information available to us, the majority of facts we attempt to interpret are ambiguous from the outset.

Most of the events in the novel are narrated several times, each time from the point of view of a different character. This is a familiar technique of Kundera’s, used first in Směšné lásky and Žert. The accounts of the same events given by different characters, and sometimes even by the same character at different stages in the novel, are totally at variance, although when taken in isolation, all are fully convincing. Especially marked is the complete lack of understanding between Sabina and Franz: Kundera even includes ‘A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words’ in the novel at this point – words that have totally different meanings for Franz and Sabina, without their being at all aware of this. The misunderstanding between Sabina and Franz is perhaps greatest during their last act of love-making: Franz thinks that Sabina is being exceptionally passionate because she has just decided to give herself to him fully and forever: she has in fact just decided that she cannot live with him any longer and will have to leave him.

The real meanings of events are frequently deliberately hijacked by other people: for instance, the deaths of Franz and Tomáš are so grossly misinterpreted in the speeches at their funerals that the deceased men must turn in their graves. Frequently, the backdrop imperceptibly changes and a fact which had one meaning in one particular situation acquires a completely different meaning in the new circumstances. When Tomáš writes in a Letter to the Editor that people should be made accountable for their deeds, even though they at the time of their commission may not have been aware that these deeds were crimes, little does he know that he will soon be made accountable for having written this letter, without having been aware that it will shortly become a crime to have written it.

In Kundera’s view, an objective and reliable cognizance of reality is impossible. No permanent and solid facts are available: there is only total ambiguity and changeability. Therefore, all our actions are illogical and arbitrary. This is the "unbearable lightness of being". All decisions in the novel are taken on the spur of the moment, merely because the character feels like doing that particular thing at that particular time, although he is frequently fooling himself about various ‘rational’ explanations of his own actions. Almost invariably, the decision taken is immediately regretted (the circumstances have changed), but there is no way back. This is the heavy impact of the unbearable lightness of being.

Kundera states that, in a way, his novel is an attempt to defy the fact that one’s life takes place only once. In his view, all his characters and their actions represent the various unrealized possibilities of his own life. By creating them, putting them in a particular set of circumstances and prompting them to act, he is trying to find out whether, if we were given the opportunity to re-enact our lives, the outcome would be different. He concludes bitterly that there would be no difference: as in his novel, the end of all lives is meaningless, embarrassing and pitiful.

Kundera closely scrutinizes man’s myth-making propensity. He finds that the basic vehicle of myth-making is the metaphor. Out of a large number of characteristics, pertaining to two facts or events, we arbitrarily choose one isolated feature which they both have in common, because this superficial similarity happens to please us (it emphasizes an aspect that we momentarily, for no good reason, find important, to the exclusion of all other aspects, most of which we are often not aware of). In Kundera’s view, the laws of man’s perception of life closely resemble those of the novel, since the novel is also based on arbitrary metaphors.

The most pernicious metaphorical constructs of reality are those which consciously set out to exclude the negative aspects of life. Kundera calls these constructs "kitsch". He defines kitsch as ‘a categorical agreement with being.’ For instance all political ideologies, intended for public consumption promising happy future, are kitsch. There are many types of kitsch: there is East European kitsch, there is American kitsch, there is kitsch of the left-wing, there is Catholic kitsch and Protestant kitsch. Kundera is sadly disillusioned about religion. His hero, Tomáš, says at one point in the novel: ‘I used to admire believers. I thought they had an odd transcendental way of perceiving things that was closed to me.’ But is it not so. Tomáš finds that religion is yet another simple ideological construct that negates life.

Kitsch and its manifold forms and manifestations consitute the main theme of the novel. There are many secondary kitsch sub-motifs: an American actress lifts and kisses a child in front of television cameras. A German pop-singer has written 930 songs for peace. Kitsch is rife both in the West and in the East. The idealized beauty-mask of communism could have been imposed by Mary Whitehouse.

One of the most fundamental features of kitsch is its militant abolition of privacy. If it is categorically accepted that life is good, there can be nothing to hide. Tomáš’s casual sexual conquests are kitsch. Collectivity is another major feature of kitsch. Those who serve kitsch enter a huge, happy conspiracy. The epitome of collectivity is pop-music. The recurring image that horrifies Tereza is that of naked women singing and dancing together. Kitsch is against genuine beauty. It is illogical, emotional, aggressive and demagogical in its simplicity. ‘Did you really want the communists to put out their own eyes?’ is a rhetorical question emotionally put to Tomáš by a policeman.

In pluralist societies of the West, different types of kitsch compete and co-exist, so that no one of them is able to assert total sway over reality. Paradoxically, this results in the fact that people in the West are not usually aware of the danger to life inherent in kitsch. Like Franz or his wife and daughter, they enthusiastically embrace their own brands of kitsch, not realizing that they are condemning themselves to leading their lives in an empty limbo of artifical constructs. In the authoritarian sociieties of the East, a single centralized kitsch has assmed supreme control and is aiming to eradicate everything incompatibel with its simplified vision.

While people in the West suffer from the lightness of a vacumm they have entered willingly, people in the East suffer from the heaviness of the claustrophobic grasp of the single dogma that has been imposed upon them. In fact, the suffering of the people in the East is two-fold: like those in the West, they are the victims of their own private misinterpretations of events, but beside this, they also live under the pressure of official misinterpretation. Kundera seems to be saying that as a result of this all-pervasiv pressure, people in the East do realize the destructiveness of kitsch in general and yearn to live a genuine life, free of myth-making.

It is true that al the major Czech characters in the novel – Tomáš, Tereza and Sabina – even though partially affected by the impact of simplifed ideological constructs, are strenuously trying to free themselves from ideological myth-making. This is, however, impossible to achieve, because man’s innermost being seems to be inextricably connected with the process of coining imaginative metaphors and simplifying the perception of reality. Tomáš several times tries to resort to silence, when pressed to opt out for one of the two alternativess offered, but to no avail. In the end, he has to commit himself to one of the alternatives, knowing very well that because of their limitedness, both alternatives constitute the wrong choice. The motif of silence recurs and it is always contrasted with kitsch and myth-making. The pompous bubble of the Western intellectuals’ grand march on Cambodia in Thailand bursts, when they are confronted by the silence of the Khmer Rouge border guards, pointing their guns at them from across the frontier. After his return from Moscow in 1968, from exhaustion, Dubček, punctuates his famous radio and television speech with silence. There are moments in Tomáš’s and Tereza’s life, after their return to Prague, when they ‘sit together in silence’. Kundera seems to imply that silence is the only meaningful statement on natural reality. But the statement is ambiguous: for Kundera, silence is undoubtedly also a metaphor for death.

As a result of the consistent contrast of differing interpretations of the same facts throughout the novel, the reader becomes doubtful and sceptical about all theoretical reasoning, including – inevitably – that of the author himself. Kundera offers many keen analyses and sharp observations, definitions and witticisms – but since, unfortunately, the construction of the novel persuasively shows all intellectual argumentation is false, we must but dismiss also what the author himself has to offer.

Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí is a structure built on what is called a self-referential paradox, of the type: ‘The following statement is true: the preceding statement is false.’ Similarly, when Kundera argues that all argumentation is false, the point that he is making is at the same time being subverted. Thus we end in total impasse, and the only thing remaining is silence. But silence is uncomfortably related to death. Significantly, as we progress through the novel, the images of death, dying and execution become more and more frequent, as the author paints himself further and further into the corner of his own intellectual construct. Throughout the work, he persistently chips away at all the myths enveloping man’s existence, and they fall off, layer by layer, until nothing remains – apart from total negation.

In front of our eyes, Kundera builds up an extraordinarily sophisticated construction – and while building it, he is simultaneously demolishing it. Certainly an impressive intellectual feat – except that one’s instinct rebels against the proposal that life is total negation – that it is an idea constructed out of nothing. Although, when we consider modern sub-nuclear physics, Kundera may be nearer the truth than we think.


This article was originally published in the American literary journal Cosmas in the 1980s.