František Hrubín (1910-1971) was a Czech poet and writer who also was a lifelong member of the Communist Party. Though he started to study law and philosophy in 1933, he published his first book of poetry, Sung From Far Away, the following year and did not graduate. Other poetry collections included Hiroshima, Metamorphosis, Crystal Night, and Romance for Flugelhorn.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he worked alongside Kundera as one of the playwrights with Theatre Za Branou (Theater Beyond the Gate), headed by Otomar Krejča, Hrubín was regarded as one of the greatest living Czech poets. Among his plays are the Chekhovian “A Sunday in August” (1958) and the neo-romantic drama “Oldřich a Božena” (1968) based on a semi-historical legend.
He translated French poets such as Verlaine and Rimbaud and ancient Chinese poetry into Czech, loved to write children’s poetry, and founded a legendary Czech children’s magazine called The Thyme.
The narrator suggests that Hrubín was hounded to death by the Communist Party, which kept trying to claim him for its own, and finally did after his death (rather the way Marie-Claude reclaims Franz after his death).
This is the first time the narrator has related any of Tomas’s dreams; they have all been Tereza’s up to this point. Tomas has an absurdly weird dream about being aroused by an enormous naked woman, which is mostly used as part of the narrator’s discussion of mind versus body, love and sex, and the impending discussion of God’s excrement, kitsch, and activities that humans find shameful but that must, by definition, be holy.
And it ends with a hopeful turn: Tomas wakes up and thinks for a while, then drifts back to sleep “certain he had discovered the solution to all riddles … [such as how] Tomas can love Tereza without being disturbed by the aggressive stupidity of sex.”
Tomas has had another erotic dream, one of intense longing but also confusion, because the woman in the dream seems very familiar but he cannot remember her. He becomes upset because “she was the one he had always longed for.”
This vague, allusive dream connects to many other things in the novel. On the most quotidian level, it recalls the incident from not long before, when he ran into a woman he did not recognize on the street but who turned out to be the very woman he had been searching for to keep an assignation -- “the budding actress with the perfect tan” (section 17 of Part Five, page 225).
It also suggests that Tomas either is or is becoming what the narrator called a “lyrical womanizer,” the kind that seeks his ideal woman, rather than the “epic womanizer” the narrator assured us he was earlier (see Bookmark, page 201). And whether or not Tereza is his ideal woman, the dream suggests Tomas may be ready to stay with her and give up chasing skirts.
The Symposium is a philosophical text by Plato that dates from about 385-380 BCE. It deals with the nature of love and, at a deeper level, with the nature of knowledge: how do we know what we know?
A symposium is a men’s drinking party. The section of the text which the narrator of Unbearable Lightness speaks about is presented by Aristophanes, the great comic playwright who is out of place in a meeting of philosophers and is depicted as being very drunk. The symposium scene below is a fresco from the Tomb of the Diver, now in the Paestum Museum in Italy.
Aristophanes explains that when people fall in love, they say they feel “whole” because they have found their other half. In primal times, he claims, people had double bodies, with faces and limbs facing away from each other. Being somewhat spherical and possessed of multiple limbs, they were very powerful and traveled about doing cartwheels. There were actually three sexes: male, female, and “androgynous” -- or half-man, half-woman.
When these creatures sought to ascend Mt Olympus to the home of the gods, Zeus chopped them all in half, thereby separating the two bodies. Ever since, each person has been searching for his or her other half.
Back in section 19 of Part Two, Tereza wrestles with her jealousy at Tomas's womanizing, when she yearns to merge with him into "a "hermaphrodite" (an intimation of Aristophanes' un-cleaved monsters) so that other women's bodies would merely become playthings for both of them.
As a female dog with a male name, who is referred to by the narrator as “he” for most of the book, Karenin is a sort of hermaphrodite figure in this book, who perhaps represents the kind of pre-human state of wholeness that the humans are looking for through love and sex.
Awake after a series of dreams, Tomas has been staring at the sleeping Tereza while feeling “an ineffable love for her.” When she awakes, he gifts her with a loving lie that results in her falling asleep and having a good dream (in other words, in support of the narrator’s criticism of Freud -- see Bookmark, page 59 -- Tomas participates in the imaginative creativity of the dreaming process). This presages the happiness they will soon find together in the country.
The metaphysical points the narrator is trying to make remain valid, or at least worthy of consideration, whether the Yakov tale is true or not.
Paul Gustave Doré (1832-1883), usually referred to as Gustave Doré (“Door-AY”), was a French artist and sculptor who mostly worked in wood engraving and steel engraving. Perhaps his most famous illustrations were for book editions of Dante’s Inferno section of The Divine Comedy and Don Quixote.
This photograph of Doré was taken in the late 1850s by Felix Nadar.
Gnosticism comes from the ancient Greek work for “knowledge.” The Gnostics were various ancient religious movements that attempted to harmonize disparate and contrasting beliefs. Shown here is a Coptic cross, adopted by early Christian Gnostics in Egypt and possibly modeled on the Egyptian Horus, a figure with a hawk's head and human body who served as a sentinel.
One of the primary aspects of Gnosticism is that it is usually dualistic in nature; that is, Gnostics saw balanced and battling forces in the universe -- from the radical dualism of Manichaeism which posits a struggle between equal powers of light and darkness, to more unequal contests.Gnosticism comes from the ancient Greek work for “knowledge.” The Gnostics were various ancient religious movements that attempted to harmonize disparate and contrasting beliefs.
The narrator seems sympathetic to Gnostic criticisms of monotheistic theologies, and there is certainly no shortage of dualisms in this book, from lightness/heaviness, weakness/strength, and music/words to Tomas’s declaration that “It is much more important to dig a half-buried crow out of the ground than to send petitions to a president.”
Valentinus, also spelled Valentinius (circa 100-160), was an early Christian Gnostic theologian born in the Nile delta and educated in Alexandria. He traveled to Rome and when another man was chosen bishop over him, Valentinus broke away and founded his own theological group. Only fragments of his writings survive, mostly in quotations by his critics.
Valentinus is the first of a series of religious thinkers the narrator cites in discussing the ticklish topic of mind versus body, and the extent to which God might be like human beings in their bodily functions.
This Valentinus is not the same person as the martyred saint or saints from whom Valentine’s Day derives its name, nor a Valentinus who led a Roman rebellion in the fourth century, nor again the Valentine who was pope for 30-40 days in 827.
This 1607 painting of the saint is by Caravaggio (1507-1610). It is currently in the possession of St. John's Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.
Johannes Scotus Eriugena (c. 815–877), also known as Johannes Scotus Erigena, Johannes Scottus Eriugena, or John the Irishman, was an Irish theologian and Neoplatonist philosopher. Eriugena was highly proficient in Greek, an ability that was rare in Europe during his time. He moved to France to head the Palatine Academy at the invitation of King Charles the Bald.
One of his surviving treatises was a defense of the doctrine of free will against the monk Gottschalk’s position of extreme predestinarianism, which denied the inherent value of good works.
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.