The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by

Milan Kundera

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Kitsch is a German word that expresses tacky or tasteless art, but Kundera uses this term in a slightly different way. He defines kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” Kundera uses his idea of kitsch to explain the complicated politics of Czechoslovakia’s Communist state. He claims that “whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch,” in which anything that threatens said political ideology is “banished for life,” such as individualism, doubt, and irony. While Kundera writes mainly about what he calls “Communist kitsch,” he ultimately contends that kitsch “is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.”

Kitsch Quotes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The The Unbearable Lightness of Being quotes below are all either spoken by Kitsch or refer to Kitsch. For each quote, you can also see the other terms and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Perennial edition of The Unbearable Lightness of Being published in 2009.
Part 6, Chapter 2 Quotes

Rejection and privilege, happiness and woe—no one felt more concretely than Yakov how interchangeable opposites are, how short the step from one pole of human existence to the other.

Then, at the very outset of the war, he fell prisoner to the Germans, and other prisoners, belonging to an incomprehensible, standoffish nation that had always been intrinsically repulsive to him, accused him of being dirty. Was he, who bore on his shoulders a drama of the highest order (as fallen angel and Son of God), to undergo judgment not for something sublime (in the realm of God and the angels) but for shit? Were the very highest of drama and the very lowest so vertiginously close?

Vertiginously close? Can proximity cause vertigo?

It can. When the north pole comes so close as to touch the south pole, the earth disappears and man finds himself in a void that makes his head spin and beckons him to fall.

If rejection and privilege are one and the same, if there is no difference between the sublime and the paltry, if the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light.

Related Characters: Yakov Dzhugashvili
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 6, Chapter 5 Quotes

“Kitsch” is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages. Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 6, Chapter 12 Quotes

All her life she had proclaimed kitsch her enemy. But hadn’t she in fact been carrying it with her? Her kitsch was her image of home, all peace, quiet, and harmony, and ruled by a loving mother and wise father. It was an image that took shape within her after the death of her parents. The less her life resembled that sweetest of dreams, the more sensitive she was to its magic, and more than once she shed tears when the ungrateful daughter in a sentimental film embraced the neglected father as the windows of the happy family’s house shone out into the dying day.

Related Characters: Sabina
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

Related Characters: Sabina
Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 6, Chapter 13 Quotes

The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March.

The dictatorship of the proletariat or democracy? Rejection of the consumer society or demands for increased productivity? The guillotine or an end to the death penalty? It is all beside the point. What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.

Related Characters: Franz
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 6, Chapter 29 Quotes

What remains of the dying population of Cambodia?

One large photograph of an American actress holding an Asian child in her arms.

What remains of Tomas?

An inscription reading HE WANTED THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH

What remains of Beethoven?

A frown, an improbably man, and a somber voice intoning “Es muss sein!

What remains of Franz?

An inscription reading A RETURN AFTER LONG WANDERINGS.

And so on and so forth. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.

Page Number: 277-8
Explanation and Analysis:
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Kitsch Term Timeline in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The timeline below shows where the term Kitsch appears in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 5
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Theme Icon
...does. Sabina understands Tomas, and she likes him because he is “the complete opposite of kitsch.”  (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 5
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies  Theme Icon
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...even though everyone knows it exists. This aesthetic ideal, the narrator says, is known as kitsch. Kitsch is the denial of literal and figurative shit, and it excludes from the world... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 6
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...ethical one. She hates the “mask of beauty” worn by communism, which Sabina calls “Communist kitsch.” A prime example of “Communist kitsch,” according to Sabina, is the May Day parade. Everyone... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 8
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
Kitsch cannot depend on anything unusual. It must be derived from commonplace images of people, like... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 9
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
No one knows kitsch better than politicians, the narrator says, as kitsch is present in all political parties and... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 10
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
When Sabina thinks of Soviet kitsch becoming reality, it sends a shiver down her spine. She feels much like Tereza felt... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 11
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
In the world of totalitarian kitsch, questions are not permitted, which means that one who asks questions is the complete enemy... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 12
Kitsch is Sabina’s nemesis, and she has spent her whole life trying to avoid it. Her... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 13
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return Theme Icon
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
While there is “American kitsch,” and “Jewish kitsch,” and “feminist kitsch,” there is also “political kitsch,” and a sure sign... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 14
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
Franz is not dedicated to kitsch—in fact, he doesn’t even vote—but he is drawn to the idea of the Grand March.... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 16
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...to join a Grand March against communism when communism has always been a leftist idea. Kitsch itself is not a political strategy; it is a strategy of images and metaphors, which... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 29
Power, Politics, and Inequality Theme Icon
...All that is left of Beethoven is “Es muss sein!” All that is left is kitsch, which, the narrator says, is “the stopover” between being and nonbeing. (full context)