Exploring the Self Through the Other

The Effects of Limited Omniscience in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being

L’amour rend aveugle — love makes people blind. This French proverb describes the numbing power of love, which often incapacitates people to see the person they love as he/she really is. The most typical use of that expression might be upon discovering an extramarital affair: disillusioned, the cheated side would realise how credulous he/she has been when the partner has made up excuses to see the secret lover. Adding on to one’s feelings of betrayal and sadness, one might also feel a certain guilt for his/her blindness. It seems however that long-time love partners know sometimes better about the other than the other him/herself. There are times when people can be reminded by their partner of their own qualities and achievements, becoming their real selves again. The partner offers a complementary perspective on oneself, and might even shape that self who feels receptive to how it is being perceived. Could it be that love partners are not so blind after all, but even more lucid, even stimulating their partner’s interiority?

“I see him, standing at one of his apartment windows, the eyes fixed towards the other side of the courtyard on the wall of the building on the opposite side, and he does not know what he should do.” (4)

Tomas’ mental deliberation concerns Tereza, more precisely whether he should actively seek a relationship with her or give up and continue his life of celibacy. The use of the term “should” is important to understand Tomas; indeed, he seems concerned about the idea of necessity, symbolized by the German term “es muss sein” (it must be) that he keeps on repeating to himself. Towards the end of the novel however, he seems to overcome such imperative, reflecting that “love is beyond the necessity, beyond the ‘es muss sein!’” (175). Despite his reluctance towards love, Tomas does seem attracted by it, despite himself maybe. While he embraces sexual freedom and enjoys ‘collecting’ women for their peculiarities, eventually he somehow sees love as another source of freedom; the freedom from the animality of existence, from any necessity (175). This contrasts with earlier reflections in which he described freedom as his time without Tereza, his time to pursue his sexual affairs (142).

“They had created a hell to each other, mutually, even though they loved each other. It was true that they loved each other, and that was the proof that the fault did not come from themselves (…) but really from their incompatibility because he was strong and she was weak.” (52)

This passage interestingly echoes Tomas’ thoughts of “despair for having come home” (26) mentioned earlier in this essay. At the beginning of their relationship, both Tomas and Teresa thus feel responsible for the unhappiness that struck them. While Tereza is concerned about the feelings of both herself and Tomas, the latter however is only preoccupied about his own unhappiness. Such difference does not suggest egoism, but rather a contrast in the understanding of love. Tereza seems convinced that she knows what Tomas feels (in hell), thinks (incompatible with her) and is (strong). When the focalization is on Tomas however, the latter never expresses such guesses on his wife. Such contrast highlights that for Tomas there is no such thing as becoming one with a partner. Even in love, humans are still two separate beings, incapable to control or to really know the other because they are limited to their own subjectivity. Crossing the information from the two focalizations, on Tomas and on Tereza, thus help understanding in greater depth Tomas’ personality.

“[Tereza] had come to live with [Tomas] to escape the maternal universe where all bodies were equal. She had come to live with him so that her body would become unique and irreplaceable. And now he had traces a sign of equality between her and the others: he was kissing them all in the same way, caressing them in the same way, did not make any, any, really any difference between the body of Tereza and the other bodies. He had sent her back to the universe she thought she was escaping from.” (39)

The focalization on Tereza allows a deeper understanding of her nightmares, and thereof of her problems. Tomas’ lightness reminds her of her mother’s vulgarity she has always suffered from. While she hoped that love would make her feel better about her body, the “unique and irreplaceable” object of desire of her partner, Tomas’ affairs destroyed such hope. Regarding seuxal freedom, Tomas and Tereza are on opposite lines: Tereza indeed resents jealousy, destruction of her hope of self-confidence, and unhappiness. The readers might thus reconsider sexual freedom as a selfish or even cruel demeanor, or at least come to question it with different perspectives in mind. Their image of Tomas might become more negative because of Tereza’s negative feelings on his sexual freedom.

Liberal Art Master student, I write my small answers to the big issues that obsess me in politics, development, literature, art, LGBTQ, …