This section contains 8,075 words
(approx. 27 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by James S. Hans
SOURCE: "Kundera's Laws of Beauty," in Essays in Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Spring, 1992. pp. 144-58.
In the following essay, Hans analyzes Kundera's conception of beauty and shame in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being provides a serious revision of our conceptions of the nature of beauty, and in so doing it forces us to reconsider the relationship between the aesthetic and our daily lives. At the same time, the novel itself reflects the changes Kundera has brought about via his Nietzschean assessment of forms. Part traditional fiction, part essay, part lyrical exclamation, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a decidedly impure form, one that celebrates its mixed heritage even as it establishes an essential relationship between shame and beauty. In addressing the linkages between the beautiful and the shameful, the novel also registers the ways in which our attitude toward these most fundamental regions of human existence affect our political disposition as well, for Kundera demonstrates throughout the book that even as all human relationships have something to do with questions of power, so too do the manifestations of power reflect the individual's attitude toward his or her sense of beauty and shame. The ultimate effect of all these revisions of the basic categories of human experience is to raise again the question that Nietzsche first posed for us, to ask us once more what it means to be wholly human, what it would mean if we were finally capable of accepting existence on the terms through which it presents itself to us.
Kundera's most striking appraisal of beauty occurs early in the novel when he is discussing the relationship between coincidences in life and in fiction. He has established that his two main characters, Tomas and Tereza, have met through a series of rather mundane fortuities and thereby irrevocably changed their lives, and this prompts him to discuss the great importance of chance on the outcome of our individual fates:
Much more than the card he slipped her at the last minute, it was the call of all those fortuities (the book, Beethoven, the number six, the yellow park bench) which gave her [Tereza] the courage to leave home and change her fate. It may well be those few fortuities (quite modest, by the way, even drab, just what one would expect from so lackluster a town) which set her love in motion and provided her with a source of energy she had not yet exhausted at the end of her days.
Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities, or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. "Coincidence" means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence). But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched. Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty.
According to our traditional ways of thinking, the kinds of fortuities that prompt Tereza to take an interest in Tomas—and those that prompt him to be interested in her—are not to be taken seriously. We all know how seemingly unrelated things can come together during the initial moments of important relationships, and we tend to denigrate their importance. These coincidences may enhance the memory of first meetings and the like a bit, but they are not to be taken seriously precisely because of their idiosyncratic nature. Tereza would be most foolish to assert that her love for Tomas was important because it was linked from the beginning with the music of Beethoven, or the number six, or books, or park benches. Yet that is precisely what Kundera argues here.
The initial meeting between Tereza and Tomas prompts us to pay more attention to the fortuities in our own lives, for if Kundera can assert that the small coincidences in Tereza's life may well have "set her love in motion and provided her with a source of energy she had not yet exhausted at the end of her days," we must assume that such events can have great power both to transform and to sustain our lives. Why, then, do we tend to disregard them so much? Why act as though these coincidences are largely unrelated to the outcomes of our lives? And why do we in turn expect our writers of narrative fiction to keep the fortuities in their stories to a minimum? Without directly explaining why, Kundera tells us what we are missing when we ignore them:
Early in the novel that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end—may seem quite "novelistic" to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as "fictive," "fabricated," and "untrue to life" into the word "novelistic." Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.
They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.
It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
Turning the tables on us, Kundera argues that instead of criticizing him for building a relationship between his characters out of such flimsy coincidences, we ourselves are to be faulted for failing to recognize the ways in which similar fortuities shape our own lives.
More importantly, Kundera establishes the fundamental premise of the novel by asserting: "Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress." Instead of creating our lives out of a series of rational considerations about what we should be doing that would be based on various considerations for the future, here we are told that instead we compose our lives according to the laws of beauty. And we do this without realizing it. First and foremost, Kundera has shifted the control of our lives away from any self-aware context and moved it to another location that does its work without any necessary reflection on our part. Unlike Freud's unconscious, though, this location construes our lives in terms of the laws of beauty, a phrase that marks out a considerably different space from one like "libidinal urges" or "the pleasure principle." The motifs in Tereza's life—Beethoven's music, reading books, the number six—have nothing to do with sexual energy per se any more than they concentrate exclusively on the pursuit of pleasure. These are ordering processes that differ precisely because they are self-centered, because they reflect only the interests of the libido or the unconscious forces that urge us into one mode of pleasure-seeking or another. The laws of beauty would by definition be something beyond mere self-interest, something that adds another dimension to our lives rather than something that reduces them to the endless expression of libidinal energies.
Not that Tomas and Tereza don't have active libidos, for they most surely do. Nor is the implication of "the laws of beauty" that sexual and bodily activity in general take a subordinate place to "higher" forms of human expression. On the contrary, the laws of beauty work themselves out most pertinently in sexual and bodily contexts, situations that are not to be separated from Beethoven's music or Tolstoy's novels. If body and soul are not always in accord—as Tereza's rumbling stomach emphasizes—the laws according to which they both operate remain the same, even if we fail too often to recognize this to be so.
Nevertheless, when one considers the fortuities that brought Tereza and Tomas together, "laws of beauty" seems a rather excessive term to apply to them. It is not just that they are fortuities but that they are such slight and meaningless ones. Even Kundera emphasizes their drabness, and their highly idiosyncratic nature seems to deny any linkage to a law, even if in some respects they might have some connection to beauty. The logic of Tereza's interest in Beethoven, for example, is skewed from the beginning, for there is no indication that she properly appreciates the value of the music itself. Instead, she values Beethoven because he symbolizes something "higher" to her, and yet this "higher" sensibility comes not from what others might have suggested about the greatness of his work but rather from the fact that his music was associated with a context that had nothing to do with the music per se. Tereza
had known his music from the time a string quartet from Prague had visited their town. Tereza (who, as we know, yearned for "something higher") went to the concert. The hall was nearly empty. The only other people in the audience were the local pharmacist and his wife. And although the quartet of musicians on stage faced only a trio of spectators down below, they were kind enough not to cancel the concert, and gave a private performance of the last three Beethoven quartets.
Then the pharmacist invited the musicians to dinner and asked the girl in the audience to come along with them. From then on, Beethoven became her image of the world on the other side, the world she yearned for.
If there is beauty here, it has little to do with an aesthetic appreciation of Beethoven's last quartets. Beethoven himself may rightly symbolize in some fashion "something higher," but just what that "something higher" is remains located instead in the special privilege of the private performance of the musicians and the invitation to the pharmacist's house, hardly the sort of things that have to do with beauty.
It is worth noting that as a result of Tereza's interest in Beethoven, Tomas too attends to his music, and consequently Tomas himself establishes one of his own motifs on the basis of "the difficult resolution" to be found in the "Es muss sein" motif in Beethoven's last quartet; it is thus possible for the patterns one establishes on the basis of pure idiosyncracy to bear resemblance finally to their original source. Likewise, it is "co-incidental" in this way that Tereza's rather frivolous use of Beethoven's music becomes more serious when it is connected to Tomas's difficult decision to return to Prague and Tereza, for, as Kundera tells us, the same thing originally happened to the "Es muss sein" formula for Beethoven, which was once part of a humorous anecdote concerning a debt that was owed to Beethoven but was in the end turned into the weighty resolution of the last quartet. These fortuities suggest something beyond mere coincidence, or at the very least offer the possibility that one grows into the full consequences of the coincidences that give shape to one's life.
If we are to take the laws of beauty seriously, though, we have to assume that it doesn't matter that Teresa doesn't understand fully the beauty of Beethoven's music. The laws of beauty as they manifest themselves in her life don't necessarily have anything at all to do with the music, even if the music itself symbolizes "something higher." This is made clear by the complete frivolity of some of the other coincidences connected to Tereza's first meeting with Tomas, particularly the yellow park bench and the number six. Neither the bench nor the number six has anything that intrinsically connects it to beauty; the linkage is a purely idiosyncratic one based on Tereza's life, derived from the emerging motifs that have been established in her past. She herself has conferred special values on these things, and when they turn up again in contexts that may well have further significance for her, their value is increased yet again. The individual items in the motif are, we might say, totally arbitrary. There is nothing in the number six that gives it special value; its value comes only from its place within the lived experience that Tereza places it in, derives from its coincidental connection in her mind with something important in her life. But the pattern that is established on the basis of these arbitrary linkages reflects the laws of beauty and demonstrates the way patterns and motifs are inevitably developed in any domain, regardless of their idiosyncratic origins.
The "Es muss sein" of Beethoven reflects this process very well, for the original context, we could say, is totally idiosyncratic. Beethoven is owed some money, he needs the money and therefore asks the debtor if he can give it to him, and the man asks "Muss es sein?" To which, Kundera tells us, "Beethoven replied, with a hearty laugh, 'Es muss sein!' and immediately jotted down these words and their melody." But the melody is hardly the serious one of the last quartet: "On this realistic motif he then composed a canon for four voices: three voices sing 'Es muss sein, es muss sein, ja, ja, ja!' (It must be, it must be, yes, yes, yes, yes!), and the fourth voice chimes in with 'Heraus mit dem Beutel!' (Out with the purse!)."
This jocular request for money is far from the difficult resolution of the last quartet, and yet there is no reason why the phrase "Es muss sein" should not take on another cast later in Beethoven's life and become a heavier motif about weighty decisions. The phrase itself first has significance only because Beethoven chooses to note it and turn it back on its originator, thereby making fun of the rather serious response to a minor request, and in this way it has no more weight than any other phrase one might pick out of another's conversation to play with. But that idiosyncratic beginning establishes the phrase as a musical motif in Beethoven's life, to which he can return at a later date and translate into a more serious musical enterprise.
Tereza's and Tomas's lives, then, are composed according to the laws of beauty, which means that the coincidental things their own particular situation prompts them to attend to become motifs that reflect the general patterns of beauty and the motifs out of which all aesthetic aspects of the world are constructed. There are laws to their behavior, even if those laws coincide with the purely gratuitous elements of their lives that fate throws in their paths, and those laws give their lives all the beauty they will ever have. Kundera suggests through these characters' lives that our existence is fundamentally aesthetic in nature, even if we fail to recognize this, even if we assume that we are always in rational control of the direction of our lives. Again, he emphasizes that "the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress", when beauty would be the last thing one would likely think about. And again, Kundera does not say that we compose our lives according to the pleasure principle, or on the basis of libidinal flows or the desire for the other or anything like that; he says we compose our lives according to the laws of beauty, establishing that as the fundamental principle out of which the other flows of our lives emerge in turn. Our lives are first and foremost constructed on aesthetic principles, and the patterns we develop reflect laws that go beyond any subjective response to the world.
If existence is fundamentally aesthetic, though, one must ask why humans have resisted this knowledge for so long. After all, if Kundera is forced to assert that he will agree that coincidences are "novelistic" only as long as we do not interpret "novelistic" to mean "fictive," "fabricated" or "untrue to life," we must obviously have a heritage that suggests otherwise. We are normally inclined to do precisely what Kundera suspects: we will look at the coincidences of Tereza's and Tomas's life and belittle them because of their arbitrariness. Their lives look too contrived, we think, for in reality people don't fall in or out of love on the basis of such minor things as the number six or the music playing on the radio. Actually, we probably do know that people fall in love on the basis of such things, but we so along with Aristotle, who preferred his fictions to have probable improbabilities rather than improbable probabilities. And it is precisely that distinction which Kundera is attacking in his novel through the coincidences on which it is based.
Kundera is something of an experimental novelist in the sense that The Unbearable Lightness of Being is reflexive and regularly reminds us that it is a fiction, but as we have just seen, this distinction means something to Kundera that it doesn't ordinarily mean to us. If he has asserted that in some fundamental ways our very lives are fictional, if not in the way we think, it follows in turn that fictions are in some ways as real as our lives are, if not in the way we think. If an American writer like John Barth can humorously exploit the divide between fiction and life that engenders paralyzing self-consciousness because of one's awareness of how fictional (hence unreal) one's life really is in some respects and how real (hence fictional) one's fictions have become, Kundera locates the unreality of fictions elsewhere and is not concerned that his "unreal" characters might have nothing to do with the "reality" of our lives.
The characters are "unreal," to be sure. We are reminded of that again and again, most specifically with Tomas, who, we are told, was born of an image and of the saying "Einmal ist keinmal." Yet in spite of this "unreal" birth, Tomas's "life" in the novel takes on as much "reality," that is, "plausibility" and "richness" and "representational accuracy," as any character in a more traditional novel. Kundera does not call attention to the fictional nature of Tomas and Tereza to make us suspicious of the "reality" of their lives any more than he wants us to question in turn the fictionality of our own lives, at least when it comes to the compositions we create on the basis of the laws of beauty. Kundera is denying the value of the distinction "fictive, unreal" as it applies to both novels and lives, at least as it has developed over the past few hundred years.
The border between real and unreal is not something to be demarcated so easily by distinctions between "literature" and "life," and if there are useful and necessary discriminations to be made between the two, they certainly get lost in the endless babble about the unreality of our artificial linguistic and cultural artifacts and the artificiality of the lives we build on the basis of the constructs our culture presents us with. The crucial markers to be established disappear in this chaffering, Kundera would have us think, and we need therefore to return to a consideration of the notion that our lives are first and foremost aesthetic in nature, that we compose our lives according to the laws of beauty.
We compose our lives according to the laws of beauty, but…. There has to be a but in this utterance somewhere, for otherwise we would not have gotten into the trap that suggests "fiction" means "unreal." In some respects this too may only be a coincidence of our culture, but it is a coincidence we have built into a major motif by now, and if we did so, there must be a but that follows after the assertion that we compose our lives according to the laws of beauty. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that but is to be found in Kundera's discussion of kitsch, that phenomenon that truly does intersect the realm of the fictive and the unreal. And in his essayistic fashion, Kundera is quite straightforward in his exposition of our commitment to kitsch:
Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being.
The fact that until recently the word "shit" appeared in print as s―has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can't claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don't lock yourself in the bathroom!) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.
It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch.
"Kitsch" is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages. Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.
If Kundera's assertions about the place of the laws of beauty in our lives are in striking contrast to our own vision of things, that is because we have adopted a different aesthetic framework in order to convince ourselves that we have a categorical agreement with being. Inasmuch as we are unable to face certain aspects of our existence, expressed here by Kundera under the rubric of "shit," the only way we can bring ourselves to declare the creation good is to live in "a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist." This is the world of kitsch.
Kitsch "excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence," which means that it is an aesthetic based on unreal depictions of the way things are in order to establish a vision in which the world seems at least potentially a pleasing place to us. This view of the aesthetic, of course, is the one best expressed in Nietzsche's famous phrase that "We possess art lest we perish of the truth," and at base such a sentiment reflects a refusal to accept the nature of things at any level. More pertinently still, Kundera elaborates on the nature of the "shit" we deny when he tells us that "kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death." In some respects "the daily defecation session" is no more than a reminder of our bodily natures and hence a demonstration of our mortality, that against which we so strenuously fight. So our world is based on the Bible and on Genesis, on the declaration of the world as essentially good, yet we don't really find it to be so and thus establish an aesthetic of denial rather than acceptance.
It is worth remembering that in contrast to the more famous statement quoted above, Nietzsche was finally devoted to a contrary thesis, one based on "Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems," and this is certainly the sentiment of Kundera as well. Likewise, we need to recognize that although Kundera does finally associate kitsch with a fear of death, he begins with "shit," and not only because it is a more graphic depiction of our distaste for life but rather because it reflects something deeper than mere anxiety in the face of death: it manifests our shame. If Genesis asserts that the world is good and urges us to accede to this categorical agreement with being, it also makes clear that the first thing that Adam and Eve feel after they eat the apple is shame. Indeed, as a description of their prelapsarian state we are told in Genesis 2:25, "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed," a statement suggesting that the distinguishing feature of life after the fall is shame. "Shit" symbolizes that shame, and the consequent revulsion at being human—and the inevitable denial of the categorical agreement with being—that the aesthetic of the West has been based on as far back as Plato's Republic.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, then, establishes two kinds of aesthetic, the traditional one of kitsch, that aesthetic which begins by removing from our purview everything we find unpalatable about the world, and that aesthetic which is based on the attempt to say Yes to life even in its most difficult problems. Both conceptions of beauty are finally based on the essential relationship between beauty and shame, but the one begins by repressing that knowledge while the other embraces it as a necessary aspect of the overall whole. The one creates fictions that are deliberately "unreal," artifacts that are constructed in order to keep us from seeing what is real, and the other creates fictions that, while "artificial," nevertheless approach both the real and a categorical agreement with being.
The laws of beauty operate within both of these visions of the aesthetic, though one is more aware of the fact that the laws of beauty determine the motifs of one's life in the Kunderian perspective, and that is precisely the problem, for when the laws of beauty lose their essential connection to that which we construe as the shameful elements of life, they become disengaged from that which would be a sufficient measure of their "reality." If the real has been put out of play from the outset in the denial of shit, there is no way that the truth value of the aesthetic can be measured, for it has no linkage to the real in the first place. The only way to determine its reality quotient is to look for that which it represses, for when that is found, the aesthetic can be seen as one that is based on kitsch. Likewise, a life that is based on the laws of beauty and on a denial of shit at the same time will inevitably become an unreal life, one that establishes its sense of reality on the basis of kitsch.
If these two kinds of aesthetic were only relevant to the productions of the artistic world, the problem of shit and kitsch would be a relatively meaningless one; they would simply be the standard through which one could establish the validity of a work of art. The problem is that our vision of beauty is not restricted to such a localized environment. Kundera has already told us: "Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good," and if we don't believe this to be the case, the religious and political faiths through which we construct our societies will reflect our refusal to agree with the conditions of being as they are established. This in turn means that our faiths will be based on an aesthetic of kitsch rather than on one that seriously seeks to address the shameful aspects of life: "Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements." In this respect, the fictions with the highest unreality quotient are inevitably political, and they are so because the political system always appeals to our tendencies to want to deny that which is shameful.
Political kitsch is so dangerous because of the mechanisms through which it asserts its power. This is most obviously the case in the realm of what Kundera calls "totalitarian kitsch" because in such a world "everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously)." And whereas we live in more or less pluralistic societies and thus in some respects manage to escape totalitarian kitsch, it is still the case that all political parties and movements depend on kitsch, and life is increasingly overwhelmed by the notion that society is nothing but political parties and movements.
The aesthetic of political kitsch is so dangerous precisely because it seems to saturate virtually every domain in the present world, from the domestic scene to the political movements we all recognize on the evening news. More importantly, the repression of shame that kitsch requires inevitably leads to problems of resentment and the need for victims when the world regularly turns out not to conform to the images of it that one's kitsch presents one with. Kundera gives us examples of the local expression of these problems throughout the novel. In Tereza's case, the embodiment of totalitarian kitsch is her mother, a woman who is determined to find someone to blame for a life gone wrong: "When [Tereza's mother] realized she had lost everything, she initiated a search for the culprit. Anyone would do: her first husband, manly and unloved, who had failed to heed her whispered warning; her second husband, unmanly and much loved, who had dragged her away from Prague to a small town and kept her in a state of permanent jealousy by going through one woman after another. But she was powerless against either. The only person who belonged to her and had no means of escape, the hostage who could do penance for all the culprits, was Tereza." Resentful over the outcome of her life, the product largely of her own choices and the aging process in general, Tereza's mother needs someone to blame for the unfortunate way things have gone and can find only Tereza for a victim. It doesn't matter that the mother's fate is not the fault of the daughter; what matters is that the mother herself find a way of placing the blame for the inevitabilities of her own life onto somebody else.
Curiously, though, Tereza's mother makes another gesture as well, one that would seem to deny the world of kitsch rather than uphold it: "Tereza's mother blew her nose noisily, talked to people in public about her sex life, and enjoyed demonstrating her false teeth. She was remarkably skillful at loosening them with her tongue, and in the midst of a broad smile would cause the uppers to drop down over the lowers in such a way as to give her face a sinister expression." Far from feeling shame in the face of her body and its decaying presence, the mother seems to revel in the most shameless of behavior and even ridicules Tereza when she tries to run from such actions. Rather than reflecting an acceptance of her lot, though, "Her behavior was but a single grand gesture, a casting off of youth and beauty. In the days when she had nine suitors kneeling round her in a circle, she guarded her nakedness apprehensively, as though trying to express the value of her body in terms of the modesty she accorded to it. Now she had not only lost that modesty, she had radically broken with it, ceremoniously using her new immodesty to draw a dividing line through her life and proclaim that youth and beauty were overrated and worthless."
These are hardly the acts of an individual who has put kitsch behind her; Tereza's mother has merely erected her own form of kitsch in order to deny her relationship to death and decay and to attempt to drag others down with her into a utopian community of non-difference: "Tereza's mother demanded justice. She wanted to see the culprit penalized. That is why she insisted her daughter remain with her in the world of immodesty, where youth and beauty mean nothing, where the world is nothing but a vast concentration camp of bodies, one like the next, with souls invisible." If all political images of kitsch are based on the ideal of a universal brotherhood—as Kundera phrases it, "The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch"—Tereza's mother makes use of the same kitsch here, simply arriving at the universal brotherhood by a more ruthless way of stripping away the differences among people.
Tereza's mother is a terrorist, a totalitarian who seeks to impose her own kitschy image of reality onto others out of resentment and denial of who she herself really is, and in this she resembles all too much a great many political movements based on resentment and denial as well. Kundera provides an example from his own country to flesh out the seriousness of the problem:
The first years following the Russian invasion could not yet be characterized as a reign of terror. Because practically no one in the entire nation agreed with the occupation regime, the Russians had to ferret out the few exceptions and push them into power. But where could they look? All faith in Communism and love for Russia was dead. So they sought people who wished to get back at life for something, people with revenge on the brain. Then they had to focus, cultivate, and maintain those people's aggressiveness, give them a temporary substitute to practice on. The substitute they lit upon was animals.
All at once the papers started coming out with cycles of features and organized letters-to-the-editor campaigns demanding, for example, the extermination of all pigeons within city limits. And the pigeons would be exterminated. But the major drive was directed against dogs. People were still disconsolate over the catastrophe of the occupation, but radio, television, and the press went on and on about dogs: how they soil our streets and parks, endanger our children's health, fulfill no useful function, yet must be fed…. Only after a year did the accumulated malice (which until then had been vented, for the sake of training, on animals) find its true goal: people. People started being removed from their jobs, arrested, put on trial. At last the animals could breathe freely.
If the occupying forces are to be able to maintain the fiction that the Russian invasion saved Czechoslovakia from certain ruin, someone must be blamed for the horrors the people had to go through. Moving from pigeons to dogs to people who are presumably inimical to the regime allows the Czech people to accommodate themselves to the victims they need, yet cannot admit to. After all, those who come to be victimized aren't really responsible for the fate of the nation, but, as with Tereza's mother, when one cannot fight back against those who are truly responsible—in this case the Russians—one must find someone else to blame or else seemingly die of shame.
In turn it is not an accident that the regime uses shame as its most masterful weapon, tape-recording conversations among the dissidents in order to discredit them by revealing their all-too-human pettinesses, by coercing individuals like Tomas into silence by way of demands for letters that explain their mistaken opposition to the occupying forces, and by making full use of the normal human tendency to buckle under in order to save one's own position in life. Tomas is forced to confront precisely this kind of shame and recognize its dual nature:
Tomas was considered the best surgeon in the hospital. Rumor had it that the chief surgeon, who was getting on towards retirement age, would soon ask him to take over. When that rumor was supplemented by the rumor that the authorities had requested a statement of self-criticism from him, no one doubted he would comply.
That was the first thing that struck him: although he had never given people cause to doubt his integrity, they were ready to bet on his dishonesty rather than on his virtue.
The second thing that struck him was their reaction to the position they attributed to him. I might divide it into two basic types:
The first type of reaction came from people who themselves (they or their intimates) had retracted something, who had themselves been forced to make public peace with the occupation regime or were prepared to do so (unwillingly, of course—no one wanted to do it)….
The second type of reaction came from people who themselves (they or their intimates) had been persecuted, who had refused to compromise with the occupation powers or were convinced they would refuse to compromise (to sign a statement) even though no one requested it of them….
And suddenly Tomas grasped a strange fact: everyone was smiling at him, everyone wanted him to write the retraction; it would make everyone happy! The people with the first type of reaction would be happy because by inflating cowardice, he would make their actions seem commonplace and thereby give them back their lost honor. The people with the second type of reaction, who had come to consider their honor a special privilege never to be yielded, nurtured a secret love for the cowards, for without them their courage would soon erode into a trivial, monotonous grind admired by no one.
Both those who have been shamed and those who have had to demonstrate (or think they would demonstrate) courage want Tomas to sign a retraction in order to keep their fictions about themselves more comfortably in place. Those who are already shamed will be able to feel that their act was a normal one simply because Tomas, a man of considerable integrity, gave way under the force of the pressure too, and those who have resisted the pressures need to keep their grandiose vision of their courageous acts in place through repeated acts of humiliation on the part of others. Either way, shame is avoided as an essential aspect of the human condition, and either way the kitsch of the world increases.
What Kundera has given us, then, is a novel in which the characters explore the relationship between the aesthetic possibilities of the human condition and their connection to the political world of which they are also always a part. The book is based on the assumption that we invariably compose our lives according to the laws of beauty, but it also shows that those laws of beauty can move in two directions, in accord with the conventions of kitsch that dominate our social and political lives through their perpetual denial of the shit of life and the shame that is an inevitable part of it, or in line with an aesthetic that assumes a necessary relationship to the shame that came about in the moment that Adam and Eve ate the apple and that will never disappear from human existence. The latter vision is admittedly an "Impure" one precisely to the extent that, like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it reflects the ways in which the shit and the beauty of life are intermingled, but it is also an aesthetic that is devoted to the depiction of what is rather than to a repression of that which we should prefer to avoid in this world. And inasmuch as the novel demonstrates again and again the pernicious effects of a sociopolitical system that is based on the illusions of kitsch, the greater value of the impure form of beauty that Kundera presents us with is made manifest throughout the novel.
The direction of Kundera's aesthetic is reflected in his remarks on the value of heaviness, a commentary that embraces both the weighty decision of Beethoven's "Es muss sein" and the heavy burdens that Nietzsche envisioned through his conceptions of the eternal return and the overman. As the appropriate measure of our relation to heaviness, Kundera calls us to account for the relationship we have established with the animals, a relationship that is totally scandalous in all too many respects. This relationship too derives from our understanding of the first books of Genesis, so it is only fitting that Kundera should return there for his elaboration of our treatment of animals:
The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars.
If we asserted dominion over the other animals on the planet for ourselves and invented a God to justify that hubristic act, we know now that our reasons for doing so concerned our need for hierarchical priority, our desire to escape from the shame that would quickly follow in the Bible and from which we ourselves would never be able to escape. To one who is self-conscious, the killing of another animal has to be the most shameful of acts, far more horrifying than the mere recognition of one's own bodily nature and private parts. The endless parade of sacrifice that surrounds the killing of herds for food and the like testifies to our great need to escape from this shame and our thorough inability ever to do so.
But we tried, and when the dominion that the Bible gave to us was not sufficient to help us overcome our shame, we worked on other strategies, reflected most pertinently in Descartes and his attitude toward the animal world:
Even though Genesis says that God gave man dominion over all animals, we can also construe it to mean that He merely entrusted them to man's care. Man was not the planet's master, merely its administrator, and therefore eventually responsible for his administration. Descartes took a decisive step forward: he made man "maître et propriétaire de la nature." And surely there is a deep connection between that step and the fact that he was also the one who point-blank denied animals a soul. Man is master and proprietor, says Descartes, whereas the beast is merely an automaton, an animated machine, a machine animata.
In order finally to escape from the degradation involved in our own bodily condition and that which stemmed from it—the need to devour other species—we had to take one more step and deny that animals had souls, thereby turning them into mere "automatons" that could be dispensed with as we saw fit, surely the way we continue to view them to this very day. In order, that is, to escape from our own degradation, we had to degrade completely all the rest of the species on the planet, the equivalent mode within the animal kingdom that we already saw at work in the political regimes represented by Tereza's mother and the occupying forces within Czechoslovakia.
For Kundera the degradation of animals reflects the larger human shame put on display throughout the novel: "True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it." The kitsch through which we have framed our world—that sociopolitical aesthetic that is nothing more than "a folding screen set up to curtain off death"—has repeatedly attempted to escape from the scandal of its own hypocrisy, yet our need to deny our position in the world has prompted us again and again to degrade ourselves still further in the guise of a higher and purer vision to be found in the kitsch we so desperately want to believe in. There can be no doubt that we have devastated the species on the planet as a result of these urges, and thus one can only conclude that the aesthetic vision upon which our sense of the world has been based has been a complete failure and has shown itself to be morally bankrupt at the core.
The alternative aesthetic imagined by Kundera reflects a break with this tradition even as it acknowledges the chief originator of that break: Nietzsche. Kundera reflects on the moment when Nietzsche's madness overtook him and relates it to the human relationship with animals in order to establish the full difference between the Nietzschean view of things and the kitsch to which it was opposed:
Seeing a horse and a coachman beating it with a whip, Nietzsche went up to the horse and, before the coachman's very eyes, put his arms around the horse's neck and burst into tears.
That took place in 1889, when Nietzsche, too, had removed himself from the world of people. In other words, it was at the time when his mental illness had just erupted. But for that very reason I feel his gesture has broad implications: Nietzsche was trying to apologize to the horse for Descartes. His lunacy (that is, his final break with mankind) began at the very moment he burst into tears over the horse.
And that is the Nietzsche I love, just as I love Tereza with the mortally ill dog resting his head in her lap. I see them one next to the other: both stepping down from the road along which mankind, "the master and proprietor of nature," marches onward.
Our tendency may be to want to quibble with this particular interpretation of the onset of Nietzsche's madness, arguing that Kundera is making far too much of it by suggesting that at this moment Nietzsche both apologizes to the horse for Descartes and steps down from the road on which our civilization continues to march, but given the full weight of existence and the necessary acceptance of it that Nietzsche was devoted to trying to embrace and affirm, there is every reason to think that this is not merely a "poetic"—and hence "fictive" and "unreal"—rendition of the stakes of this touching action on Nietzsche's part.
Like Kundera, Nietzsche was committed to a fundamentally aesthetic view of human existence, one that was both based on the laws of beauty and established through those laws the richness of life in the midst of its most shameful aspects, and if it took Kundera to recognize that the best measure of this new aesthetic was to be found in our relationship to the rest of the animals on the planet, he would be the first to admit that this insight is to be found at the very center of Nietzsche's work and is best represented by his final break with mankind over the shameless treatment of an animal that should not have had to bear our own shame for all these millennia. And if the image of Nietzsche in his madness hugging the horse is a most sobering gauge of the distance between an aesthetic of kitsch and one that embraces life in all of its beauty and shame, it should not deter us from questioning with continuing persistence another possible road for our own species to march on, nor should it keep us from realizing the degree to which our lives continue to be composed according to the laws of beauty even when we least expect it.
This section contains 8,075 words
(approx. 27 pages at 300 words per page)