The Intrusive Author in Milan Kunderas “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”The Intrusive Author in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being
In an interview he gave after the reprinting of one of his later novels, Milan Kundera said, most eloquently, that “the stupidity of the world comes from having an answer for everything the wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything” (qtd. in O’Brien 4). This statement is one most indicative of the unique authorial style found in all of Kundera’s works, particularly his most famous novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Unlike previous traditional, non-autobiographical novels, Kundera chooses to indirectly reveal himself as the narrator, who, while omniscient in the control of his characters, poses questions of deep philosophical interest that even he cannot answer. This method has become problematic, however, as many critics have wrongly proclaimed this technique to represent the author’s hatred for the totalitarian regime under which his novel was written; in doing so, not only have they wrongly labeled Kundera “a passionate defender of Western culture” (Angyal 4), but they also have ignored the larger, philosophical issues that Kundera attempts to accomplish in the novel. While many of the themes in the novel undoubtedly reveal the totalitarian regime for what it is, it will be argued that the role of the intrusive author serves to create a sense of play and freedom of movement that digs deeper than history or politics to get to the heart of more important philosophical issues.
An analysis of Kundera’s structural functions and choices within The Unbearable Lightness of Being will provide a closer view of the openness, or “play” he strives for. One of the primary functions of Kundera as an intrusive narrator in the novel is to establish his characters as creations of his own mind. Whereas in traditional novels, the fictitious characters are assumed to be real in some imaginary world, Kundera almost immediately admits that “it would be senseless for the author to try convince the reader that his characters once actually livedthey were born of a stimulating phrase or two from a basic situation” (39). His characters were created in light of the author’s contemplations. However, this does not automatically make the characters flat “types”, as some have argued. To the contrary, the author’s admittance of the characters as fictional creations whom he has pondered very deeply lend them more depth and credibility than a character designed simply to serve a purpose. In other words, in this particular novel, the story does not create the characters, but the characters create the story. This enables Kundera a greater sense of structural openness and play, or freedom of movement, in the novel.
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According to Hana Pichova, “a narrator’s directing function includes the use ofthe repeating prolepsis or advance notice, a narratological technique that fragments the narrative through temporal disorder” (217). Kundera utilizes such a technique first and foremost in the relationship between Tomas and Tereza, for example: “It may well be those few fortuities 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.” Before coming to the end of the book, Kundera has already described Tereza’s undying love for Tomas as he sees it. According to Pichova, this technique serves to establish the author as omniscient director of the novel, enabling him to create a textual world over which he has power and control. However, as Pichova notes, “Kundera’s narrator is obviously not interested in the power of regulation on the thematic level. He subverts his potential power by revealing himself to the reader.” When considered in the context of totalitarian regimes, the act of revelation is one most destructive to its very goals. Through his frequent use of “I” and advanced notice of things to come, Pichova argues, Kundera has “disowned the faceless gaze'” of totalitarianism.
However, as Kundera himself has said, a literary work that can not survive outside of a historical context has completely missed its target. According to John O’Brien in his article “Milan Kundera: Meaning, Play and the Role of the Author,” the intrusive author figure in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is established less in terms as a literary rebellion against totalitarianism than for the purpose of advocating literary play that goes against the kitschy sameness that is characteristic of both East and West:
Take out this intrusive dynamic, and the text is far less radical, because it is precisely this “I” that rips away the facade of verisimilitude, that questions the possibility of meaning, and that carries through a recognizable disgust for any system that refuses free play with codes – whether political (Communist or Western), linguistic, or literary. (O’Brien 4)
Going back to Pichova’s argument about advanced notice, then, it is more important to note the function of advanced notice as Kundera’s way of eliminating the plot of suspense. By establishing Tereza’s love for Tomas as one that will not die by novel’s end, Kundera relinquishes the novel of any kind of suspense. This is also seen later in the novel when the only mention of Tomas’s and Tereza’s death comes in the form of a letter Sabina receives, followed by a chapter in which Tomas and Tereza are still alive. The elimination of suspense from the novel allows the reader to step back from the plot and engross him/herself, more importantly, in the overarching meanings and questions the author has posed.
Kundera’s technique for asking questions is central to the book’s self-titled exploration of meaning, most notably in the question of lightness and weight. While, as Pichova notes, he indeed directs the text insofar as the events and characters are completely of his control, Kundera’s posing of questions is never paired with a definite answer. For example, in the Second Chapter of the Part One, “Lightness and Weight”, Kundera poses many questions:
We might find division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness? Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative. Was he correct or not? That is the question.
The only answer that Kundera provides is attributed to a source that is not himself, and furthermore, he questions the answer without showing favor to one side. This establishes the pursuit of meaning as a personal endeavor that the author cannot answer for anyone but himself, and the reader for him/herself alike. According to John O’Brien, “Kundera exploits this technique repeatedly to assert his aesthetics of ambiguitythey do not contribute to an understanding as much as they are inconclusive in comparably similar ways” (7). This makes it notably “harder” for the reader to find answers. However, this is arguably the very goal for which Kundera has strived. The entire narrative of the novel is devoted to the characters’ struggles to find (or escape from) meaning in their lives. To make that meaning easily accessible to the reader would be to negate the entire exploration of the themes of lightness and weight.
Just as the questions that the novel poses offer either many answers or none in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, so does the very nature of language itself. Kundera uses the intrusive author figure to attack the arbitrary nature of language, and give it meaning that applies to his own characters, particularly in the relationship between Franz and Sabina. Kundera describes Franz and Sabina’s inability to understand each other on a deep, emotional level: “if people meet when they are older, like Franz and Sabina, the musical compositions of their lives are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them” (89). The ironically lengthy “Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words” underscores the “clash of codes and cliches” that is produced beneath the deceivingly smooth surface of language (O’Brien 10). Kundera’s intrusive voice strips language of any universal meaning and demonstrates the problematic relationship it creates between Franz and Sabina.
Similarly, Kundera uses the intrusive author to deconstruct the language of gender roles outside the scope of totalitarian politics. While in the text Tereza (the woman) indeed sees herself as weak and Tomas (the man) as strong, as O’Brien notes, “pages before the end of the novel, she betrays the inadequacy of the signifiers weak’ and strong’ to explain the complexity of the apparently simple roles” (12). Furthermore, it is the intrusive author figure who asks the reader to examine the situation more closely:
We all have a tendency to consider strength the culprit and weak the innocent victim. But now Tereza realized that in her case, the opposite was true. Even her dreams, as if aware of the single weakness in a man otherwise strong, made a display of her suffering to him, thereby forcing him to retreat. Her weakness was aggressive and kept forcing him to capitulate until eventually he lost his strength and was transformed into the rabbit in her arms (310).
The intrusive author deconstructs the meaning of “weak” and “strong” for the reader, not to show his control of the text but to discredit the arbitrary nature of language as he had previously done with “A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words.” Kundera reveals the “true” meaning of the words much in the same way of Sabina’s art.
The question still remains as to Kundera’s overarching goal in writing The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When considering this, one should consider Kundera’s spoken feelings on the value of written art:
If you cannot view the art that comes to you from Prague, Budapest, or Warsaw in any other way than by means of this wretched political code, you murder it, no less brutally than the worst of the Stalinist dogmatists. And you are quite unable to hear its true voice. The importance of this art does not lie in the fact that it pillories this or that political regime but that, on the strength of social and human experience of a kind people here in the West cannot even imagine, it offers new testimony about mankind (qtd. in O’Brien 6).
While certainly thrusting off the techniques of the Social Realist novel, this novel seeks to achieve greater ends than establishing the historical context of Communism and his stance against it. What then, is Kundera’s true “enemy?” It brings to mind Sabina’s statement, “My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!” It is arguable that this mantra embodies Kundera’s overriding theme.
A greater part of the novel is notably devoted to the discussion of kitsch. Most European credos, religious or political, state that the world is good and human existence positive: Kundera calls this “categorical agreement with being.” He points out that something like shit, however, has no place in any of these credos. Their aesthetic ideal is instead kitsch, which can be considered “the absolute denial of shit.”
In other words, in order to present a consistent, idealized, and romantic view of the world, all of these credos erase what is uncomfortable to them, and in a sense become cliched to the point of entering collective memory. As Kundera describes,
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. They first tear says:
How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: HowNice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on thegrass!(251).
Kitsch, then, is the foundation for brotherhood, eventually leading to the destruction of the individual.
Just as nothing inappropriate or marring can be allowed in the aesthetic of kitsch, individuals cannot be allowed either. The Grand March, therefore, is based on people marching in step, screaming slogans together with one voice. Sabina points out that this “ideal” is actually much worse than any violent or imperfect totalitarian reality, and though it exists fundamentally in Communism, its existence is not limited to simply political spheres.
As in the rest of the book, the intrusive author figure appears in the discussion of kitsch with the specific pronoun “I”, particularly, “When I say totalitarian’, what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for lifein this light, we can regard the gulag as a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse” (252). Here lies the very indicator of Kundera’s overall message. By leaving “totalitarian” un-capitalized and pairing it with the word “kitsch,” Kundera has created an entirely different term altogether. Rather than describing some kind of government regime, “totalitarian” comes to simply embody the idea of kitsch. While kitsch is a characteristic of totalitarianism, more importantly, totalitarianism is a characteristic of kitsch, which, as Kundera points out, exists in the Western world as well as the East.
While the setting of Kundera’s novel against the backdrop of the Soviet occupation of Prague is not one that can or should be easily ignored, it is important to understand Kundera’s purposes outside of this historical context. This is the fundamental purpose of the intrusive author figure in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: to strip the traditional novel of kitschy, political codes and grind beneath the surface to greater, more complicated questions of existence that, while unanswerable by the author, are more fruitful pursuits than historical or political messages. The philosophy can be summed up in Sabina’s mantra, “On the surface, the intelligible lie; underneath the surface, the unintelligible truth.”
Angyal, Andrew. “Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” MagillOnLiterature.
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Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper and RowPublishers, Inc., 1984
O’Brien, John. “Milan Kundera: Meaning, Play, and the Role of the Author.” Studies in
Contemporary Fiction. Fall 1992. Vol. 34, Issue 1. 1-20.
Pichova, Hana. “The Narrator in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
Slavic and East European Journal. 1992. Vol. 36, Issue 32. 217-226.