Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being centers on the story of Tomas and Tereza, two people who fall deeply in love despite Tomas’s constant womanizing and infidelity. Tomas represents lightness—he is sexually liberated and, as a general rule, avoids heavy emotions like love—and his libertine lifestyle and aversion to commitment mean that he is free and unattached. He believes that sex and love are completely unrelated, and he has multiple mistresses, none of whom particularly mean much to him. Tereza, on the other hand, represents weight—she values monogamy and, compared to Tomas, is sexually repressed—and she believes in the power of love and lifelong commitment. For Tereza, sex and love are inextricably intertwined, and each time Tomas is unfaithful, she sees it as a direct threat to their relationship. Kundera depicts Tereza as the personification of the soul, and Tomas, who represents sex and lust rather than love, as the personification of the body. Together, Tereza and Tomas represent the dualism of body and soul, which assumes that the soul and body are two separate and distinct entities. Like most pairs of opposites in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, however, Kundera ultimately argues that the mind and body cannot be separated as easily as their seeming duality might suggest.
According to Tomas, casual sex has nothing to do with love. Casual sex is “light” and “weightless,” and it exists independent of love, which, by comparison, is heavy. Tomas believes that “love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).” Tomas desires sex with many women, but he can only sleep next to Tereza, which suggests that for him, sex and love are two totally different things. Tomas believes that “attaching love to sex is one of the most bizarre ideas the Creator ever had.” To Tomas, the connection between love and sex is just as random as attaching sexual excitement to the sight of a bird. “If a cogwheel in Tomas’s head goes out of phase and he is excited by seeing a swallow, it has absolutely no effect on his love for Tereza,” and, Tomas argues, neither does his engagement in casual sex with other women. Just because Tomas does not love the women he has casual sex with does not mean he sees them merely as “sex objects.” On the contrary, Tomas is quite fond of many of the women he sleeps with; he simply excludes them “from the sphere of love,” which entails much more than sex and the mere meeting of bodies.
Tereza, on the other hand, believes that love and sex are intimately linked and cannot exist independently of one another. For Tereza, the bodily act of sex cannot be extricated from love, an emotion that is rooted deep in the soul. When Tereza discovers that Tomas is unfaithful, she begins to have nightmares in which she is just one of numerous women Tomas has sex with. In Tereza’s dreams, Tomas makes “absolutely no distinction between Tereza’s body and the other bodies.” Tereza wants her body to be “irreplaceable” to Tomas, but he has “drawn an equal sign between her and the rest of them,” and she therefore believes he cannot possibly love her. Tereza tries to understand Tomas’s perspective regarding love and sex, but they cannot seem to see eye to eye. “Oh, I understand,” Tereza says to Tomas. “I know you love me. I know your infidelities are no great tragedy…” Tereza’s sarcasm suggests that, to her, Tomas’s infidelities are a great tragedy. No matter how Tereza tries, she cannot reconcile Tomas’s love for her with his repeated unfaithfulness. When Tereza and Tomas have sex, Tereza screams, but not out of pleasure. Tereza’s screaming is “the naïve idealism of her love trying to banish all contradictions, banish the duality of body and soul.” The only way Tereza can accept Tomas’s betrayal is to find a way to disengage the body (sex) from the soul (love) and accept that they can never be perfectly combined.
However, it eventually becomes clear that even though body and soul cannot become one, their apparent duality doesn’t mean that they’re completely separate, either. For example, when Tereza has a one-night stand with a tall stranger to prove to herself once and for all that sex can exist without love, she immediately goes to the bathroom afterwards and empties her bowels, which suggests that Tereza’s soul, the part of her that is in love with Tomas, rejects the sexual act of her body. Similarly, after Tomas meets and falls in love with Tereza, he is not able to have sex with other women without alcohol, which implies that Tomas must first trick his soul to make his body to engage in casual sex with other women. Despite the popular philosophical opinion that the body and soul are distinct and separate, Kundera implies that like other dichotomies, the dual entities of soul and body cannot truly be separated.
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul ThemeTracker
Sex, Love, and Duality of Body and Soul Quotes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).
Something else raised him above the others as well: he had an open book on his table. No one had ever opened a book in that restaurant before. In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library, and above all, the novels. She had read any number of them, from Fielding to Thomas Mann. They 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 ago. It differentiated her from others.
Let me return to this dream. Its horror did not begin with Tomas’s first pistol shot; it was horrifying from the outset. Marching naked in formation with a group of naked women was for Tereza the quintessential image of horror. When she lived at home, her mother forbade her to lock the bathroom door. What she meant by her injunction was: Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies. In her mother’s world all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation. Since childhood, Tereza had seen nudity as a sign of concentration camp uniformity, a sign of humiliation.
“Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it “Behind the Scenes.” Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract.”
The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina's life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. I might call it Heraclitus’ (“You can’t step twice into the same river”) riverbed; the bowler hat was a bed through which each time Sabina saw another river flow, another semantic river: each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one. Each new experience would resound, each time enriching the harmony. The reason why Tomas and Sabina were touched by the sight of the bowler hat in a Zurich hotel and made love almost in tears was that its black presence was not merely a reminder of their love games but also a memento of Sabina’s father and of her grandfather, who lived in a century without airplanes and cars.
The pain grew more intense. He could not speak. It occurred to him that his womanizing was also something of an “Es muss sein!”—an imperative enslaving him. He longed for a holiday. But for an absolute holiday, a rest from all imperatives, from all “Es muss sein!" If he could take a rest (a permanent rest) from the hospital operating table, then why not from the world operating table, the one where his imaginary scalpel opened the strongbox women use to hide their illusory one-millionth part dissimilarity?
He thought: In the clockwork of the head, two cogwheels turn opposite each other. On the one, images; on the other, the body’s reactions. The cog carrying the image of a naked woman meshes with the corresponding erection-command cog. But when, for one reason or another, the wheels go out of phase and the excitement cog meshes with a cog bearing the image of a swallow in flight, the penis rises at the sight of a swallow.
Moreover, a study by one of Tomas’s colleagues, a specialist in human sleep, claimed that during any kind of dream men have erections, which means that the link between erections and naked women is only one of a thousand ways the Creator can set the clockwork moving in a man’s head.
And what has love in common with all this? Nothing. If a cogwheel in Tomas’s head goes out of phase and he is excited by seeing a swallow, it has absolutely no effect on his love for Tereza.