Books and Thoughts: Milan Kundera and Harkening Back to Older Times in Search of an Identity

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being proposes evidence for the thesis of harkening back old-fashioned ways in order to be different both from a world treasures beauty to an excess and the other that repudiates it.

Kundera writes that when Tereza meets Tomas for the first time at the restaurant of her small hometown where she works, one of the things that immediately attracts her the most about him is that he has a book open in front of him on the table. That is enough to make her feel a connection between them because firstly, she had never seen anyone reading a book at the table and secondly because she too loves books. Thus, that book to her becomes a symbol of a secret brotherhood they’re both a part of.

On the significance of books for Tereza, the author writes: “[Books] not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century earlier.”

Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche played Tomas and Tereza in the 1988 film adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which Milan Kundera was very critical of.

Kundera expands on the comparison with the dandy, explaining that there’s actually no likeness between Tereza and a dandy; the dandy’s identity is largely built around being perfectly attuned with the times, or the style and fashion of the time. Tereza, on the other hand, is reading books in the ’60s and ’70s, a time during which, according to the author, reading books was already no longer trendy.

Tereza’s idea of being a “dandy” has nothing to do with being modern or up to date with modernity; in fact, it opposes this very idea by harkening back to old fashioned ways. She longs to differentiate herself from the crowd – a crowd that is visible – and would rather be part of a secret brotherhood of lonely intellectuals

Interestingly, her inability to belong to her times coincides with another major character trait of hers, that defines her all throughout The Unbearable Lightness of Being – her inability to live in the moment.

Milan Kundera

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