Excerpts from Novels by Milan Kundera


The Book of Laughter & Forgetting

From The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the narrator considers the depth and dimension of defeat, and the two-stroke engine of pain and a pitiful desire for revenge, a type of petty despair known in Czech as litost.

Litost

Litost is an untranslatable Czech word. Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.

Take an instance from the studentís childhood. His parents made him take violin lessons. He was not very gifted and his teacher would interrupt him to criticize his mistakes in an old, unbearable voice. He felt humiliated, and he wanted to cry. But instead of trying to play in tune and not make mistakes, he would deliberately play wrong notes, the teacherís voice would become still more unbearable and harsh, and he himself would sink deeper and deeper into his litost.

What then is litost?

Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of oneís own misery.

One of the customary remedies for misery is love. Because someone loved absolutely cannot be miserable. All his faults are redeemed by loveís magical gaze, under which even inept swimming, with the head held high above the surface, can become charming.

Loveís absolute is actually a desire for absolute identity: the woman we love ought to swim as slowly as we do, she ought to have no past of her own to look back on happily. But when the illusion of absolute identity vanishes (the girl looks back happily on her past or swims faster), love becomes a permanent source of the great torment we call litost.

Anyone with wide experience of the common imperfection of mankind is relatively sheltered from the shocks of litost. For him, the sight of his own misery is ordinary and uninteresting. Litost, therefore, is characteristic of the age of inexperience. It is one of the ornaments of youth.

Litost works like a two-stroke engine. Torment is followed by the desire for revenge. The goal of revenge is to make oneís partner look as miserable as oneself. The man cannot swim, but the slapped woman cries. It makes them feel equal and keeps their love going.

Since revenge can never equal its true motive, it must put forward false reasons. Litost is, therefore, always accompanied by a pathetic hypocrisy.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being examines the life that is heavy, full of sanctity, and despair - as lived by Tereza; the life that is light, as if it were nothing at all, as lived by Tomas; and the "gravitational" force of Tereza's heaviness on Thomas. As an omnicient narrator, Kundera reveals to us Tereza's feelings on weakness, and her unhappiness with the disparity between them.

From Soul and Body, p. 73:

The word "weak" no longer sounded like a verdict. Any man confronted with superior strength is weak, even if he has an athletic body like Dubcek's. The very weakness that at the time had seemed unbearable and repulsive, the weakness that had driven Tereza and Tomas from the country, suddenly attracted her. She realized that she belonged among the weak, in the camp of the weak, in the country of the weak, and that she had to be faithful to them precisely because they were weak and gasped for breath in the middle of sentences.

She felt attracted by their weakness as by vertigo. She felt attracted by it because she felt weak herself. Again she began to feel jealous and again her hands shook. When Tomas noticed it, he did what he usually did: he took her hands and tried to calm them by pressing hard. She tore them away from him.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"Nothing."

"What do you want me to do for you?"

"I want you to be old. Ten years older. Twenty years older!"

What she meant was: I want you to be weak. As weak as I am.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Unable to bear the anguish, Tereza leaves Tomas, and returns to their abandoned apartment in Prague. She leaves only a letter. Originally intending to collect her things and start a new life outside of Prague, she lingers there in their old apartment.

From Soul and Body, p. 76:

She longed to do something that would prevent her from turning back to Tomas. She longed to destroy brutally the past seven years of her life. It was vertigo. A heady, insuperable longing to fall.

We might also call vertigo the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down.

She tried to talk herself into settling outside of Prague and giving up her profession as a photographer. She would go back to the small town from which Tomas's voice had once lured her.

But once in Prague, she found she had to spend some time taking care of various practical matters, and began putting off her departure.

On the fifth day, Tomas suddenly turned up. Karenin jumped all over him, so it was a while before they had to make any overtures to each other.

They felt they were standing on a snow-covered plain, shivering with cold.

Then they moved together like lovers who had never kissed before.

"Has everything been all right?"

"Yes," she answered.

"Have you been to the magazine?"

"I've given them a call."

"Well?"

"Nothing yet. I've been waiting."

"For what?"

She made no response. She could not tell him that she had been waiting for him.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Tomas and Tereza are now old, and live in the country. Tereza passes the time in the meadow, with her beloved dog Karenin, looking over the grazing cows. The comforting routine of the country life is analagous to the eternity of paradise: eternity is not a straight line into the unknown, but a circle among the familiar.

Why was the word "idyll" so important for Tereza?

Raised as we are on the mythology of the Old Testament, we might say that an idyll is an image that has remained with us like a memory of Paradise: life in Paradise was not like following a straight line to the unknown; it was not an adventure. It moved in a circle among known objects. Its monotony bred happiness, not boredom.

As long as people lived in the country, in nature, surrounded by domestic animals, in the bosom of regularly recurring seasons, they retained at least a glimmer of that paradisiac idyll. That is why Tereza, when she met the chairman of the collective farm at the spa, conjured up an image of the countryside (a countryside she had never lived in or known) that she found to be enchanting. It was her way of looking back, back to paradise.

Adam, leaning over a well, did not yet realize that what he saw was himself. He would not have understood Tereza when she stood before the mirror as a young girl and tried to see her soul through her body. Adam was like Karenin. Tereza made a game of getting him to look at himself in the mirror, but he never recognized his image, gazed at it vacantly, with incredible indifference.

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not yet man. Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man's path. Now we are longtime outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well, and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man's longing not to be man.

Tereza admires the animals while reconciling herself with her own heaviness, and in the process, considers what it means to love selflessly.
Whenever, as a child, she came across her mother's sanitary napkins soiled with menstrual blood, she felt disgusted, and hated her mother for lacking the shame to hide them. But Karenin, who was after all a female, had his periods too. They came once every six months and lasted a forthight. To keep him from soiling their flat, Tereza would put a wad of absorbent cotton between his legs and pull a pair of old panties over it, skillfully tying them to his body with a long ribbon. She would go on laughing at the outfit for the entire two weeks of each period.

Why is it that a dog's menstruation made her lighthearted and gay, while her own menstruation made her squeamish? The answer seems simple to me: dogs were never expelled from Paradise. Karennin knew nothing about the duality of body and soul and had no concept of disgust. That is why Tereza felt so free and easy with him. (And that is why it is so dangerous to turn an animal into a machina automata, a cow into an automaton for the production of milk. By so doing, man cuts the thread binding him to Paradise and has nothing left to hold or comfort him on his flight through the emptiness of time).

From this jumble of ideas came a sacrilegious thought that Tereza could not shake off: the love that tied her to Karenin was better than the love between her and Tomas. Better, not bigger. Tereza did not wish to fault either Tomas or herself; she did not wish to claim that they could love each other more. Her feeling was rather that, given the nature of the human couple, the love of man and woman is a priori inferior to that which can exist (at least in the best instances) in the love between man and dog, that oddity of human history probably unplanned by the creator.

It is a completely selfless love: Tereza did not want anything of Karenin; she did not ever ask him to love her back. Nor had she ever asked herself the questions that plague human couples: Does he love me? Does he love anymore more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.

And something else: Tereza accepted Karenin for what he was; she did not try to make him over in her image; she agreed from the outset with his dog's life, did not wish to deprive him of it, did not envy him his secret intrigues. The reason she trained him was not to transform him (as a husband tries to reform his wife and a wife her husband), but to provide him with the elementary language that enabled them to communicate and live together.

But most of all: No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from paradeise. The love between dog and man is idyllic. It knows no conflicts, no hair-raising scenes; it knows no development. Karenin surrounded Tereza and Tomas with a life based on repetition, and he expected the same from them.

If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza, "Look, I'm sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can't you come up with something different?" And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.


This concludes my collection of excerpts. All excerpts are from novels by Czech Novelist Milan Kundera. E-mail comments or questions to Sara Cole - furgots (at) gmail (dot) com.

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