"This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch"

This is a crucial concept for Kundera, not only in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but in other works, such as the essay collection Testaments Betrayed. As the narrator says, “ ‘Kitsch’ is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages.” The dictionary defines the word as signifying an object of tawdry design, appearance, or content intended to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste.

Kundera extends the concept far beyond its application to mere knickknacks, however. The narrator devotes much of Part Six, “The Grand March,” to a discussion of kitsch as an aesthetic, political, and even metaphysical concept. At various points he says: “Kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death”; “What makes a leftist a leftist is … his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March”; “in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously”; “The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch”; and “Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.”

The book offers a variety of examples, as well, from Communist May Day parades (see Bookmark for page 96) and American politicians’ speeches, to the love stories in Soviet films, Franz’s notion of “The Grand March of History” (see Bookmark for page 99), and the two brightly lit windows of the elderly American couples’ country home where Sabina finds refuge for a time after the rest of the characters are dead. Sabina is the only character in the book who voices an explicit awareness of and opposition to kitsch.

Kundera derived his analysis of kitsch from one of his idols, the Viennese writer Hermann Broch (1886-1951), whose masterpiece, The Death of Virgil, mixes poetry and prose, reality and hallucination, and was begun in a Nazi concentration camp.