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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera

Part 6: The Grand March

Part 5: Lightness and Weight

Part 7: Karenin's Smile

Summary

The narrator tells the story of Stalin's son's death. In a German camp, Yakov Stalin had a dispute with the British prisoners over the fact that he habitually made a mess in the latrine. Ignored by the German officer in charge and humiliated over the idea that he should be judged because of shit, Yakov threw himself against an electrified wire fence. Yakov was unable to accept the lightness of being. Kundera praises Yakov Stalin's as the only metaphysical death of World War II. The religious problem of shit is raised—does God have intestines, did Adam defecate in the garden on Eden? Kundera links the base or shameful associations of defecation with eroticism.

Most European credos, religious or political, state that the world is good and human existence positive: Kundera calls this "categorical agreement with being." Shit, however, has no place in any of these credos. Instead, their aesthetic ideal is kitsch, which can be considered "the absolute denial of shit." Sabina's lifelong enemy is this same kitsch. She sees it in America when a Senator smiles at children. She describes the first tear as saying the children are lovely and move him. The second tear says, how profound and moving of me to be moved by this sight—"It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch." Sabina always argued with the conventional statement that Communist reality was worse than the Communist ideal; in the world of the ideal, the world of kitsch, she would not be able to survive emotionally for more than a few days.

To escape kitsch, Sabina hides the fact she is Czech, for fear people will interpret her as a romantic persecuted artist. Sabina lives with an elderly couple now, which soothes her guilt over abandoning her family. She realizes her life is not devoid of kitsch, and that she too falls prey to sentimentality.

Franz still lives a happy existence in Geneva, with his mistress. A friend invites him to join the Grand March on Cambodia. At first Franz refuses out of consideration and love for his mistress, but then he feels that Sabine would have wanted him to go. The march to Cambodia is a horror. The French and Americans compete for leadership; a movie star and a pop singer use the march for publicity, and feel proud of themselves when a journalist is accidentally killed and consecrates their publicity stunt with blood. Even Franz, who worships kitsch, is shaken, and when the march fails is not sure how to interpret events.

Kundera discusses categories of men who need to be seen. The first three categories are those who need a public of unknown eyes, those who need a public of familiar eyes, and those who want to be in the eyes of the person they love. Kundera characterizes Franz as a member of the fourth category of men: dreamers who live to be seen and appreciated by an imaginary being. For Franz the imaginary person is Sabina; for Tomas's son Simon, also a dreamer, that person is Tomas.

Simon moves to the country, and becomes a practicing Catholic. He starts writing letters to his father, who eventually responds. The father and son have a friendly visit. Soon after, Tomas and Tereza are killed in an automobile accident.

After Tomas's death, Simon begins writing letters to Sabina; he knows she was his father's mistress, and that she provides a link to Tomas. Sabina, who lives in California, draws up a will and asks to be cremated at death, and her ashes scattered, so she can die as lightly as she lived.

In Cambodia, a group of men ask Franz for money and attack him. Thinking only of Sabina and how she had admired his strength and wanted him to use it, Franz decides to fight. He is hit in the back of the head, and wakes up briefly in the hospital to see his wife Marie-Claude by his bed. He cannot speak to ask her to leave, and closes his eyes. He dies. Marie-Claude claims the body, arranges a lavish funeral, and has the words "A return after long wanderings" written on his tombstone. Simon orders "He wanted the kingdom of God on earth" written on Tomas's grave.

Analysis

This chapter finishes the stories of Franz and Sabina, leaving them to ends that feel inevitable. Franz, who deceived himself all his life, dies an unnecessary death brought on by self-deception. After imbuing his life with heaviness and meaning, Franz dies a meaningless death. Franz did not even have the comfort of total self-deception; at the end of his life he began to understand that he might have been wrong on some counts. He recognized the futility of the Cambodia march, and wanted to be with the woman he loved, his current mistress, despite the fact that she fell short of his ideal.

Sabina, after a life of betrayals and flights, ends up alone and anonymous in California. She is no longer even recognized as Czech; it is as if her lightness has managed to erase even her ethnicity and nationality. We do not know whether or not she is happy; she plans her death, but does so on her own terms and in keeping with the way she has lived.

This chapter is most important for its description and definition of kitsch. Kundera understands kitsch as the second, phony tear of the self-satisfied senator, the forced tear that knows it is being caught on camera or observed by potential voters—in other words, as a lie that pretends the world is perfect. Both Tomas and Sabina want a world in which shit exists—in which darkness and unpleasantness exist so that eroticism, individuality, creativity and playfulness can exist too.

The ending pages, with their almost cruel wrap-ups of Franz and Tomas's lives, are both tragic and light. It seems tragic that the men are so misrepresented and misunderstood, as evidenced by the wrongheadedness of their epithets: "A return after long wanderings" merely acts as wish-fulfillment for Marie-Claude, who would like to believe that Franz returned to her. In reality, Franz did just the opposite, straying farther and farther from her until he found genuine affection with his mistress. Tomas's epithet, "He wanted the kingdom of God on earth", does Tomas an injustice, since he did not want a kingdom on earth; he wanted messy imperfection, shit, individuality, and no kitsch. Still, the narrator points out that these misrepresentations can be understood as humorous, ridiculous, and even liberatingly light.

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