Monday, July 21, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by Milan Kundera

This is, not to use too strong a language, the most repulsive book I’ve read to the end. Well-written, certainly, and there are books I’ve stopped reading in the middle. But that may well be because reading someone’s musings is always interesting, while a book that focuses solely on the story just has the strength of the characters and the story to go by.

The characters of this book are consistently horrible people. All of them manage to be misogynist and objectifying, and it can hardly be called a saving grace that I don’t know if the men fare much better in the objectification category. The male main character, Tomas, is that so typical a male character who can’t handle relationships, and has sexuality as purely a means to objectify the world around them. Someone you have sex with, in his mind, is someone who is “conquered,” and you can move on to the next one. In the beginning of the novel, we are given a description of how he orders his sex-life to make sure no relationship can spring from it. The sex-life he has seems thus rendered a sad and pointless thing. The idea that sex is a joyous and rewarding experience seems impossible from this description. Tomas, in regards to sex, follows the pattern of how men tritely get described quite often: that they are true machinae animatae. When it comes to sex, man is but an animated machine, an automaton, it is done only because that is what men do. Now, in the novel, Tomas does find a woman that he has a long, often excruciating relationship with. Considering his need to be free and unaccountable on the emotional field, it is not that surprising that the person he finds is someone he sees as a child. The relationship starts by way of metaphor, and the notion of the relationship as an association of equals is laughable. Tereza may be, at day’s end, what motivates his decisions the most, but it is not her as a person, but merely the image he has of her and his love for her. Now, we all create images of one another that we superimpose on their actual existence, but Tomas in great part has women as the objects of his meaningless sexual acting out, and that women are something apart from in relation to his sexual interest or love is quite summarily glossed over. In fact, I would say that it is telling that the closest to somewhat acceptable is at the end of the book, when the characters are older and de-sexualized.

Now, the two main female characters are fascinating misogynists. Tereza loathes other women and have little to do with them except as adversaries (most little-seen) or as the oppressive existence of the mother she left behind. The bodies of “woman” and its functions are vulgar and the common experiences of women are pointless and banal. It is interesting then, that the girl who flees from her mother’s body into her own soul and the world of literature, only has value through her body. Only Tomas matters; Tereza only matters insofar her body can keep Tomas away from other women. To influence a machinatae animatae in such a way is of course hopeless, and her frustrations over the fact are displayed in vivid dream-scenes.
These dream-scenes are fascinating and touching, and the interpretation of them could possibly have lead me to wholly enjoying the book. After all, to read tragic stories is not necessarily something horrible. It could have been something to argue over, what was wrong in the relationship, what could have changed, what does it say about people, and does it say something true? The author of the book, however, deprives us of any such musings, by inserting himself into the story, as the true deus ex machina, not as a plot point that springs from nowhere, but more as the dogma of monotheistic religion. He sets himself as the God that is the supreme moral arbiter of people’s lives. He presents the story and the internal life of the characters, and then presents the interpretation of the events. These musings can certainly be interesting, and written by themselves they would not present a problem. Something that is written is there to be argued against, after all, but I feel it’s used in an insidious way when done in novels. The author voice is objective, the impassive third party, and the reader is basically left with two options: either disagree, and have to deal with an authoritative voice when criticizing the book. The “right” interpretation is already there written black on white, after all; or we can agree, and we can sit and nod in a profoundly masturbatory fashion, satisfied with the affirmation of our beliefs.
This is not made better by the fact that the author voice in this particular novel uses a way of arguing that I find dishonest in the best of situations. Like either/or:
Either this is the one true description of humanity and society and nothing can nay-say it, or it’s a pile of tripe laden with false dichotomies that contribute nothing at all to the discussion.
I’m not so much a fan of false dichotomies, and it is in that form Kundera often sets up his arguments. Another method is to categorize the world and the people in it by type. A valid approach scientifically, no doubt, with all the exceptions and qualifications that should appear in any honest scholarly work. Not so much in a novel.
Not that the author’s musings are always completely deplorable, not by any means. Oftentimes they are funny and insightful. Considering my review leading up to this point, it’s those musings which do not touch on sexuality and/or relationships and how the sexes behave.

So it is in this light that a fascinating part of the book, the dreams of Tereza, becomes so frustrating. I have an interpretation of these dreams, but they are rendered moot, as the mystery of the dreams has already been explained in regards to how they affect Tereza’s life by the author.

Sabina, the other female main character, hates the banality of domesticity, the growth of kitsch and disappearance of beauty in the world. Sabina is probably the most likable character. This is mostly because after being the mistress of Tomas, she finds another lover, who would not use his “strength” to be humiliating or forceful towards her. This, naturally, makes her reject him, and after that she does not have any more sexual or romantic engagements, which thankfully freed me from having to read Kundera Explains How Men and Women Are in her parts, which leaves the field free for quite interesting musings on kitsch.

Now, that I find the musings on kitsch tolerable, even though I don’t exactly agree with them, might be a sign, and certainly will be, to some people who know me, that my main problem is that my problem is just that I disagree with the way Kundera writes gender relations. Since that is most of the book, I can not deny it. Is it, as I’ve suggested, dishonestly written? Maybe I wouldn’t have such objections unless it was a topic hashed over again and again. However, since it is a topic with strong implications for pretty much all of society, I’d say it’s worth taking a step back and take a long hard look at what the author considers categorical truth.
This is made especially important by the fact that he seems to be completely blind to what I find a quite strong theme of the book: the complete objectification of women. Nowhere is this made clearer than in part five. In chapter eleven, Tomas makes a formula for a certain woman’s uniqueness, expressed by the way they made love. The list is “1) clumsiness with ardour, 2) the frightened face of one who has lost her equilibrium and is falling, and 3) legs raised in the air like the arms of a soldier surrendering to a pointed gun.” Yes, that is the formula for what makes a woman unique, according to Tomas. In the beginning of chapter twelve, it states that “his memory recorded only the steep and narrow path of sexual conquest.” On the very next page, the author feels compelled to make the comment, so that we don’t misunderstand the proceedings, “I do not wish to imply that […] he looked upon her as a sex object.”
Thanks for that clarification, dear author, but I don’t think you’ll like what it implies about you. At least we’re helpfully told that he appreciates her personality, but I must admit to seeing that as being of somewhat lesser importance, when it comes to the objectification factor, than explicitly stating that it was only the path to conquest that matters, in his automaton-like sexual conquering of women. And really, just because you’re a gentleman doesn’t mean you’re not an objectifying ass. In fact, I’d say it’s likelier.

The main problem that reoccurs again and again in this book, in my opinion is that Kundera hitches his ride to the concept of dichotomy, mainly through the concepts of strong-weak and male-female, and that he then proceeds to do what is in my mind a complete misread of the characters that are there to illustrate his point, by obsessively fitting them into these categories and the attributes he takes for granted for them.

I do not enjoy making too many assumptions about authors and motivations, but it seems that he sets out to destroy the kitsch of romance, relationships and what motivates people through their lives. But in today’s world where we have the slacker comedies, the death of ideology, “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars” and the misogyny and misandry of the past is constantly recreated in new and inventive ways, I can come to only one conclusion: The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a supreme representative of kitsch, and I can only hope it was on purpose.
But I sort of doubt it.