The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Critical Essay by Italo Calvino

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
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Critical Essay by Italo Calvino

SOURCE: "On Kundera," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 53-7.

In the essay below, originally published in the periodical La Repubblica on May 5, 1985, Calvino discusses the significance of digressive elements of Kundera's narrative style in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

When he was twelve, she suddenly found herself alone, abandoned by Franz's father. The boy suspected something serious had happened, but his mother muted the drama with mild, insipid words so as not to upset him. The day his father left, Franz and his mother went into town together, and as they left home Franz noticed that she was wearing a different shoe on each foot. He was in a quandary: he wanted to point out her mistake, but was afraid he would hurt her. So during the two hours they spent walking through the city together he kept his eyes fixed on her feet. It was then that he had his first inkling of what it means to suffer.

This passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being illustrates well Milan Kundera's art of storytelling—its concreteness, its finesse—and brings us closer to understanding the secret due to which, in his last novel, the pleasure of reading is continuously rekindled. Among so many writers of novels, Kundera is a true novelist in the sense that the characters' stories are his first interest: private stories, stories, above all, of couples, in their singularity and unpredictability. His manner of storytelling progresses by successive waves (most of the action develops within the first thirty pages; the conclusion is already announced halfway through; every story is completed and illuminated layer by layer) and by means of digressions and remarks that transform the private problem into a universal problem and, thereby, one that is ours. But this overall development, rather than increasing the seriousness of the situation, functions as an ironic filter lightening its pathos. Among Kundera's readers, there will be those taken more with the goings-on and those (I, for example) more with the digressions. But even these become the tale. Like his eighteenth-century masters Sterne and Diderot, Kundera makes of his extemporaneous reflections almost a diary of his thoughts and moods.

The universal-existential problematic also involves that which, given that we are dealing with Czechoslovakia, cannot be forgotten even for a minute: that ensemble of shame and folly that once was called history and that now can only be called the cursed misfortune of being born in one country rather than another. But Kundera, making of this not "the problem" but merely one more complication of life's inconveniences, eliminates that dutiful, distancing respect that every literature of the oppressed rouses within us, the undeserving privileged, thereby involving us in the daily despair of Communist regimes much more than if he were to appeal to pathos.

The nucleus of the book resides in a truth as simple as it is ineludible: It is impossible to act according to experience because every situation we face is unique and presents itself to us for the first time. "Any schoolboy can do experiments in the physics laboratory to test various scientific hypotheses. But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion (compassion) or not."

Kundera links this fundamental axiom with corollaries not as solid: the lightness of living for him resides in the fact that things only happen once, fleetingly, and it is therefore as if they had not happened. Weight, instead, is to be found in the "eternal recurrence" hypothesized by Nietzsche: every fact becomes dreadful if we know that it will repeat itself infinitely. But (I would object) if the "eternal recurrence"—the possible meaning of which has never been agreed upon—is the return of the same, a unique and unrepeatable life is precisely equal to a life infinitely repeated: every act is irrevocable, non-modifiable for eternity. If the "eternal recurrence" is, instead, a repetition of rhythms, patterns, structures, hieroglyphics of fate that leave room for infinite little variants in detail, then one could consider the possible as an ensemble of statistical fluctuations in which every event would not exclude better or worse alternatives and the finality of every gesture would end up lightened.

Lightness of living, for Kundera, is that which is opposed to irrevocability, to exclusive univocity: as much in love (the Prague doctor Tomas likes to practice only "erotic friendships" avoiding passionate involvements and conjugal cohabitation) as in politics (this is not explicitly said, but the tongue hits where the tooth hurts, and the tooth is, naturally, the impossibility of Eastern Europe's changing—or at least alleviating—a destiny it never dreamed of choosing).

But Tomas ends up taking in and marrying Tereza, a waitress in a country restaurant, out of "compassion." Not just that: after the Russian invasion of '68, Tomas succeeds in escaping from Prague and emigrating to Switzerland with Tereza who, after a few months, is overcome by a nostalgia that manifests itself as a vertigo of weakness over the weakness of her country without hope, and she returns. Here it is then that Tomas, who would have every reason, ideal and practical, to remain in Zurich, also decides to return to Prague, despite an awareness that he is entrapping himself, and to face persecutions and humiliations (he will no longer be able to practice medicine and will end up a window washer).

Why does he do it? Because, despite his professing the ideal of the lightness of living, and despite the practical example of his relationship with his friend, the painter Sabina, he has always suspected that truth lies in the opposing idea, in weight, in necessity. "Es muss sein!" / "It must be" says the last movement of Beethoven's last quartet. And Tereza, love nourished by compassion, love not chosen but imposed by fate, assumes in his eyes the meaning of this burden of the ineluctable, of the "Es muss sein!"

We come to know a little later (and here is how the digressions form almost a parallel novel) that the pretext that led Beethoven to write "Es muss sein!" was in no way sublime, but a banal story of loaned money to be repaid, just as the fate that had brought Tereza into Tomas's life was only a series of fortuitous coincidences.

In reality, this novel dedicated to lightness speaks to us above all of constraint: the web of public and private constraints that envelops people, that exercises its weight over every human relationship (and does not even spare those that Tomas would consider passing couchuges). Even the Don Juanism, on which Kundera gives us a page of original definitions, has entirely other than "light" motivations: whether it be when it answers to a "lyrical obsession," which is to say it seeks among many women the unique and ideal woman, or when it is motivated by an "epic obsession," which is to say it seeks a universal knowledge in diversity.

Among the parallel stories, the most notable is that of Sabina and Franz. Sabina, as the representative of lightness and the bearer of the meanings of the book, is more persuasive than the character with whom she is contrasted, that is, Tereza. (I would say that Tereza does not succeed in having the "weight" necessary to justify a decision as self-destructive as that of Tomas.) It is through Sabina that lightness is shown to be a "semantic river," that is to say, a web of associations and images and words on which is based her amorous agreement with Tomas, a complicity that Tomas cannot find again with Tereza, or Sabina with Franz. Franz, the Swiss scientist, is the Western progressive intellectual, as can be seen by he who, from Eastern Europe, considers him with the impassive objectivity of the ethnologist studying the customs of an inhabitant of the antipodes. The vertigo of indetermination that has sustained the leftist passions of the last twenty years is indicated by Kundera with the maximum of precision compatible with so elusive an object: "The dictatorship of the proletariat or democracy? Rejection of the consumer society or demands for increased productivity? The guillotine or an end to the death penalty? It is all beside the point." What characterizes the Western left, according to Kundera, is what he calls the Grand March, which develops with the same vagueness of purpose and emotion:

… yesterday against the American occupation of Vietnam, today against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia; yesterday for Israel, today for the Palestinians; yesterday for Cuba, tomorrow against Cuba—and always against America; at times against massacres and at times in support of other massacres: Europe marches on, and to keep up with events, to leave none of them out, its pace grows faster and faster, until finally the Grand March is a procession of rushing, galloping people and the platform is shrinking and shrinking until one day it will be reduced to a mere dimensionless dot.

In accordance with the agonized imperatives of Franz's sense of duty, Kundera brings us to the threshold of the most monstrous hell generated by ideological abstractions become reality, Cambodia, and describes an international humanitarian march in pages that are a masterpiece of political satire.

At the opposite extreme of Franz, his temporary partner Sabina, by virtue of her lucid mind, acts as the author's mouthpiece, establishing comparisons and contrasts and parallels between the experience of the Communist society in which she grew up and the Western experience. One of the pivotal bases for these comparisons is the category of kitsch. Kundera explores kitsch in the sense of edulcorated, edifying, "Victorian" representation, and he thinks naturally of "socialist realism" and of political propaganda, the hypocritical mask of all horrors. Sabina, who, having established herself in the United States, loves New York for what there is there of "non-intentional beauty," "beauty by error," is upset when she sees American kitsch. Coca-Cola-like publicity, surface to remind her of the radiant images of virtue and health in which she grew up. But Kundera justly specifies:

Kitsch is the aesthetic idea of all politicians and all political parties and movements.

Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition…. But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.

The step that remains to be taken is to free oneself of the fear of kitsch, once having saved oneself from its totalitarianism, and to be able to see it as an element among others, an image that quickly loses its own mystifying power to conserve only the color of passing time, evidence of mediocrity or of yesterday's naïveté. This is what seems to me to happen to Sabina, in whose story we can recognize a spiritual itinerary of reconciliation with the world. At the sight, typical of the American idyll, of windows lit in a white clapboard house on a lawn, Sabina is surprised by an emotional realization. And nothing remains but for her to conclude: "No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition."

A much sadder conclusion is that of the story of Tereza and Tomas; but here, through the death of a dog, and the obliteration of their own selves in a lost site in the country, there is almost an absorption into the cycle of nature, into an idea of the world that not only does not have man at its center, but that is absolutely not made for man.

My objections to Kundera are twofold: one terminological and one metaphysical. The terminological concerns the category of kitsch within which Kundera takes into consideration only one among many meanings. But the kitsch that claims to represent the most audacious and "cursed" broad-mindedness with facile and banal effects is also part of the bad taste of mass culture. Indeed, it is less dangerous than the other, but it must be taken into account to avoid our believing it an antidote. For example, to see the absolute contrast with kitsch in the image of a naked woman wearing a man's bowler hat does not seem to me totally convincing.

The metaphysical objection takes us farther. It regards the "categorical agreement with being," an attitude that, for Kundera, is the basis of kitsch as an aesthetic ideal. "The line separating those who doubt being as it is granted to man (no matter how or by whom) from those who accept it without reservation" resides in the fact that adherence imposes the illusion of a world in which defecation does not exist because, according to Kundera, shit is absolute metaphysical negativity. I would object that for pantheists and for the constipated (I belong to one of these two categories, though I will not specify which) defecation is one of the greatest proofs of the generosity of the universe (of nature or providence or necessity or what have you). That shit is to be considered of value and not worthless is for me a matter of principle.

From this some fundamental consequences derive. In order not to fall either into vague sentiments of a universal redemption that end up by producing monstrous police states or into generalized and temperamental pseudo-rebellions that are resolved in sheepish obedience, it is necessary to recognize how things are, whether we like them or not, both within the realm of the great, against which it is useless to struggle, and that of the small, which can be modified by our will. I believe then that a certain degree of agreement with the existent (shit included) is necessary precisely because it is incompatible with the kitsch that Kundera justly detests.

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This section contains 2,281 words
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Critical Essay by Italo Calvino from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.