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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 28, New Delhi, June 26, 2021

The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Milan Kundera (1984)

Friday 25 June 2021


by Milan Kundera*

Excerpt from: L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’être, - 1984


She came out into Old Town Square—the stern spires of Tyn Church, the irregular rectangle of Gothic and baroque houses. Old Town Hall, which dated from the fourteenth century and had once stretched over a whole side of the square, was in ruins and had been so for twenty-seven years. Warsaw, Dresden, Berlin, Cologne, Budapest—all were horribly scarred in the last war. But their inhabitants had built them up again and painstakingly restored the old historical sections. The people of Prague had an inferiority complex with respect to these other cities. Old Town Hall was the only monument of note destroyed in the war, and they decided to leave it in ruins so that no Pole or German could accuse them of having suffered less than their share. In front of the glorious ruins, a reminder for now and eternity of the evils perpetrated by war, stood a steel-bar reviewing stand for some demonstration or other that the Communist Party had herded the people of Prague to the day before or would be herding them to the day after.

Gazing at the remains of Old Town Hall, Tereza was suddenly reminded of her mother: that perverse need one has to expose one’s ruins, one’s ugliness, to parade one’s misery, to uncover the stump of one’s amputated arm and force the whole world to look at it. Everything had begun reminding her of her mother lately. Her mother’s world, which she had fled ten years before, seemed to be coming back to her, surrounding her on all sides. That was why she told Tomas that morning about how her mother had read her secret diary at the dinner table to an accompaniment of guffaws. When a private talk over a bottle of wine is broadcast on the radio, what can it mean but that the world is turning into a concentration camp?


The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.

And no one knows this better than politicians. Whenever a camera is in the offing, they immediately run to the nearest child, lift it in the air, kiss it on the cheek. Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.

Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition: the individual can preserve his individuality; the artist can create unusual works. But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.

When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mother who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree “Be fruitful and multiply.”

In this light, we can regard the gulag as a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse.


In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it. In fact, that was exactly how Sabina had explained the meaning of her paintings to Tereza: on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth showing through.

But the people who struggle against what we call totalitarian regimes cannot function with queries and doubts. They, too, need certainties and simple truths to make the multitudes understand, to provoke collective tears.

Sabina had once had an exhibit that was organized by a political organization in Germany. When she picked up the catalogue, the first thing she saw was a picture of herself with a drawing of barbed wire superimposed on it. Inside she found a biography that read like the life of a saint or martyr: she had suffered, struggled against injustice, been forced to abandon her bleeding homeland, yet was carrying on the struggle. “Her paintings are a struggle for happiness” was the final sentence.

She protested, but they did not understand her. Do you mean that modern art isn’t persecuted under Communism?

“My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!” she replied, infuriated.

From that time on, she began to insert mystifications in her biography, and by the time she got to America she even managed to hide the fact that she was Czech. It was all merely a desperate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life.

* (Milan Kundera was is a Czech writer who went into exile in France in 1975, becoming a naturalised French citizen in 1981. Kundera’s best-known work is ’The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ it was published before the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the communist régime in Czechoslovakia banned his books)

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