Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being examines the lives of four main characters—Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz—and their conflicting and contradictory use of words and language. For instance, Tomas and Tereza define sex differently. Tereza defines sex as an intimate act between two people in a committed relationship, and she considers it the physical manifestation of her and Tomas’s love. Tomas, on the other hand, defines sex as a purely physical act, one that is not connected to love whatsoever. “Love and lovemaking are two different things,” Tomas tells Tereza. Similarly, when Franz’s wife, Marie-Claude, meets Sabina for the first time, Marie-Claude tells Sabina that the pendant on her necklace is “ugly.” Yet Franz knows the word “ugly” is subjective. “An object was ugly if [Marie-Claude] willed it ugly, beautiful if she willed it beautiful,” Franz says. Words and language are open to interpretation in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and through examples like these Kundera argues that words and language are inherently unstable—their meanings can never be fixed.
The arbitrary nature of words and language is reflected in Kundera’s explanation of the word “compassion,” which is defined differently depending on the language spoken. These inconsistent definitions suggest that fixed meaning is impossible. According to Kundera, languages that are derived from Latin—like French, Italian, and Spanish—form the word “compassion” by “combining the prefix meaning ‘with’ (com-) and the root meaning ‘suffering’ (Late Latin, passio).” In Latin languages, compassion is being unable to watch others suffering without feeling sympathy. It is akin to “pity,” Kundera claims, and adds that “[t]o love someone out of compassion means not really to love.” Compassionate love in Latin languages is to feel sorry for another, and it is therefore inferior in Kundera’s eyes. But in languages not rooted in Latin, Kundera says, like Czech, Polish, and German, “compassion” is “translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means ‘feeling.’” The word compassion is used much the same way in these languages as it is in Latin-based languages, except that it means one cannot look on any emotion—be it suffering and pain, or happiness and joy—without feeling that emotion as well. In these other languages, compassion “signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination,” Kundera says. “In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.” True compassion, Kundera argues, is the sharing of all emotions, not just the negative. These differences between the definitions for “compassion” clearly outline Kundera’s point: a single word can have many, wildly different meanings. There is not a primary definition of a word that remains fixed; rather, the meaning of the word changes with the language.
Meaning changes not only from language to language, Kundera argues, but from person to person as well. To further illustrate his point of the ambiguity of words, Kundera includes a dictionary of misunderstood words that pass between Sabina and Franz. The competing definitions of these commonly used words again suggest that meaning can never be completely fixed or certain. Sabina uses the word “woman” to “signify one of the two human sexes,” but to Franz, the word “woman” represents “a value. Not every woman was worthy of being called a woman.” Even with such a common and seemingly straightforward word, Sabina and Franz can’t agree on one meaning. Similarly, Franz uses the word “betrayal” to express “the most heinous offense imaginable.” Sabina, on the other hand, sees “betrayal” as “breaking ranks and going off into the unknown.” To Sabina, venturing into the unknown is the most glorious feeling. Thus, her life is full of purposeful betrayals. Again, Franz and Sabina’s understandings of the very same word are worlds apart. Finally, to Sabina, the word “cemetery” represents a place of peace, even in times of war. During the violence of the Russian occupation, Sabina thinks that cemeteries are as “beautiful as a lullaby.” Franz thinks that the word “cemetery” signifies “an ugly dump of stone and bones.” Once more, words and meaning in Kundera’s novel are unstable. Definitions are not fixed, so humans like Sabina and Franz can never reach universal understanding and agreement.
As a professor, words are Franz’s bread and butter. He lectures and writes academic articles, and his words are carefully chosen and meticulously revised. Still, Franz comes to the conclusion that “no words were precise, their meanings were obliterated, their content lost, they turned into trash, chaff, dust, sand.” There is nothing permanent about words and language in The Unbearable Lightness of Being—meaning is ultimately unstable and it inevitably changes across languages and from speaker to speaker.
Words and Language ThemeTracker
Words and Language Quotes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.
Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.
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.
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.
“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.