Page 283. " Mefisto "

Mefisto is a shortened version of Mephistopheles, one of the chief demons of European literary tradition. He first appeared as the name of the demon who struck a deal with Faust, but the name has since been applied to the Devil himself.

Page 285. " a joy of return and rebirth "

The narrator uses this phrase to describe the dog Karenin’s excitement to be reunited with Tomas and Tereza after his (or her) cancer surgery. It appears to be a tongue-in-cheek reminder of Nietzsche’s doctrine of “eternal return” which opens the novel, now that the story is nearing its end.

Page 286. " Genesis "

Smithfield Market, London in 1855
Public DomainSmithfield Market, London in 1855

“Genesis” refers to the Book of Genesis, the first section of the Jewish and Christian holy books. An account of the creation of the world and origins of life on the planet, it also contains some of the most famous Bible stories, including the murder of Abel by Cain, the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark and the Flood, and Joseph and his brothers.

As a segue from Tomas and Tereza’s life on the collective farm to a discussion of the relationship between man and animals (and how the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia abused that relationship as part of its program of control), the narrator of Unbearable Lightness focuses on an early passage of Genesis -- Chapter 1, verse 26 -- which in the King James translation reads:

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

As the narrator drily comments, “Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse,” which anticipates his commentary a few pages later about Nietzsche’s “apology” to a horse, just as he was going insane, for Descartes’ denial of a soul to animals.

The first known prosecution for cruelty to animals was brought in 1822 against two men who had been witnessed beating horses in London's Smithfield Market, where livestock had been sold since the 10th century. The illustration of Smithfield Market, above, is from an 1855 issue of the Illustrated London News.

Page 286. " Milky Way "

The Milky Way is the familiar name given to the galaxy in which our Solar System is located. The name originated as a term for the band of hazy white light that crosses the night sky, made up of billions of distant stars in the flat, disk-like plane of the galaxy.

NGC 1300 galaxy as photographed by the Hubble Telescope
Public DomainNGC 1300 galaxy as photographed by the Hubble Telescope

As best as astronomers have been able to determine, the Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy, like NGC 1300 shown here, and consists of between 200 million and 400 million stars. It measures about 100,000 light-years (or 6 x 10 to the seventeenth miles) across, and the oldest known star so far discovered in it -- HE 1523-0901 -- is about 13.2 billion years old.

Although it is difficult to detect potentially life-bearing planets outside the Solar System, with these kinds of numbers, the odds are not bad that extraterrestrial life may exist elsewhere in the Milky Way, to say nothing of the other estimated 170 billion galaxies in the known universe.

So the narrator’s whimsical notion of “a man … roasted on a spit by inhabitants of the Milky Way” is not entirely outlandish.

Page 288. " Descartes "

René Descartes by Franz Hals
Public DomainRené Descartes by Franz Hals
René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher, mathematician, physicist, and writer who spent most of his life in the Dutch Republic (now the Netherlands). He is known as the “Father of Western Philosophy” because so much of subsequent Western philosophical theories have been reactions to Descartes’ meditations on the natural sciences, methodical skepticism, dualism (see Bookmark, page 40), and the nature of the soul.

Descartes also invented the Cartesian coordinate system, subsequently used in analytical geometry, linear algrebra, calculus, group theory, and other branches of mathematics, as well as astronomy, physics, and engineering.

His most famous remark is the philosophical statement, “Cogito ergo sum” -- Latin for “I think, therefore I am” (or more properly, “I am thinking, therefore I exist”).

The narrator of Unbearable Lightness attacks this giant of philosophy for his extension of the Book of Genesis line that man shall “have dominion” over animals, to the contention that animals have no soul.

Page 288. " maître et propriétaire de la nature "

This is the French phrase for “master and proprietor of (or over) nature,” taken from the writings of Descartes. (See above.)

Page 288. " machina animata "

This Latin phrase for “animated machine” is also from Descartes, who applied it to “soul-less” animals.

Page 290. " Nietzsche leaving his hotel in Turin "
The ill Nietzsche, 1899
Public DomainThe ill Nietzsche, 1899

The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (see Bookmark, page 3) suffered a mental collapse, sparked by either tertiary syphilis or manic-depressive illness with periodic psychosis, on January 3, 1889.

The circumstances -- Nietzsche spying a man whipping a horse and running to throw his arms around the animal, then collapsing -- seem fairly well established, but the narrator turns them into a sort of philosophical metaphor about Nietzsche versus Descartes. To resurrect an old joke that seems especially appropriate in this context, in effect Nietzsche refused to "put Descartes before the horse."

Thereafter, the philosopher’s sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and friends had Nietzsche placed in various clinics, where he survived for another 11 years, though several strokes left him paralyzed and unable to speak in the final few years. The photograph here is from a series taken of the ailing philosopher in June-August 1899.

Rather like Marie-Claude and Franz, Elisabeth had her brother (or more important, his image and legacy) in her power because of his debilitated condition, and compiled his unpublished notebooks into The Will to Power but withheld some of the more radical contents.

Page 296. " Narcissus "

Narcissus by Caravaggio
Public DomainNarcissus by Caravaggio
A human character from Greek myth, Narcissus was renowned for his beauty and his disdainful cruelty to others who loved him. The gods punish him for this by having him fall in love with his own reflection in the surface of a pond, not realizing it is himself. He dies there because he is unable to walk away from that spellbinding image.

Ovid wrote a more detailed version of the myth in his Metamorphoses, in which a nymph named Echo follows Narcissus on the hunt, is spurned by him in the woods, and remains there with only her voice leaving its traces of her existence. Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution for hubris, hears Echo’s prayer and causes the boy to fall in love with his reflection, and upon his death he turns into or is replaced by the narcissus flower.

This 1594-96 painting of Narcissus admiring himself in the water is by Caravaggio.

The narrator refers to Narcissus as an incidental contrast to Adam and animals, who were and are so innocent that they never perceive their own reflection in a mirror or water. Because they are so unaware of themselves, Adam and the animals live(d) in Paradise, from which self-aware and mortal human beings have been ejected and toward which we forever desire to return. “The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man.”

The notion of the duality of -- or opposition between -- body and mind (or soul) is part of what feeds Tereza’s disgust with her bodily functions, while she is not the least bit perturbed by the same functions (for example, menstruation) in her dog Karenin. According to the narrator, this is one of the signs that animals still live in Paradise, with mind and body fully integrated.

Page 299. " euthanasia is not forbidden by law in their case "

The narrator notes that dogs have one advantage over humans that is “extremely important”: the option of euthanasia (from the Greek for “good death”) or hastening death in a painless manner.

Although this is presumably a comforting option for beloved pets like Karenin and their owners, animal euthanasia occurs on a broader and less fortunate scale: The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 3 to 4 million pets are killed every year in shelters across the U.S., and The No Kill Advocacy Center and Alley Cat Allies put the number at closer to 5 million. The remains of animals euthanized in shelters are often forwarded to meat rendering facilities where they are processed for use in cosmetics, fertilizer, gelatin, poultry feed, drugs, and pet food.

The $250 million Maddies Fund provides grants to animal shelters to prevent creatures in their care from being euthanized. The dog below was photographed in the "Paws and More" No Kill Animal Shelter in Washington, Iowa.

Dog in an animal shelter
Creative Commons AttributionDog in an animal shelter - Credit: Nhandler

Although it was true at the time The Unbearable Lightness of Being was written (the early 1980s) that dogs could be euthanized and humans could not, the Netherlands had just begun to observe a policy of not prosecuting physicians who helped terminally ill patients to an early death. That country officially legalized euthanasia in 2002, as did the state of Oregon in 1994, although Oregon’s law had to survive several in-state legal and election challenges (and a Supreme Court challenge by President George W. Bush’s administration in 2006) before becoming firmly established.