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To Thine Own Self Be True
On a daily basis, the most fundamental problem of human existence is that individuals are called upon to make choices with insufficient knowledge about the consequences. No matter how long one lives or how wise one becomes, one finds oneself in the same dilemma: one needs to make a decision, but the outcomes of the various possibilities remain unclear. This pragmatic space of individual lives has always been vexing for humans, and over the millennia much thought has been given to various ways of making choices. Many people have attempted to discern the structures through which humans make decisions in order to establish principles that will assist people in the midst of their small and large commitments. But humans have never adequately achieved a coherent sense of the means through which they make sense of their lives. They may have learned a great deal about the actions they take, but most of what they know comes from realizing what they don't know about their choices.
In the contemporary world, Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of the most striking expositions of our ethical difficulties. From beginning to end the novel circles around the question of how people make choices and how they consider the choices they make. Although Kundera is among our best essayists, the great value of his work is found in the mechanics of the novel itself, in his unwillingness to reduce his characters and their actions to a plotline that would make their decisions reasonable. Instead, the novel depends on the fact that choice remains a problem for the characters throughout their lives, though they do learn more about how they make decisions. Even with the increased knowledge of their own behavior, though, they remain caught in the existential dilemma at the center of the novel: how to choose with insufficient information about the situations in which they find themselves. In the end the characters repeatedly find themselves acting on the basis of patterns that derive from their individual sense of taste.
Kundera frames the problem of the novel in the opening pages, when Tomas questions whether he should enter into a sustained relationship with Tereza or continue an independent life punctuated by brief affairs with various women. The conclusion that is thrust upon him is one he is forced to deal with throughout the narrative: "We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come." The narrator quickly adds that "There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison" (8). The uniqueness of every situation individuals face makes it impossible for them to know what to do. They can establish patterns over time, reduce specific circumstances to a generalized grid, but in the end each context is different and leads to unique consequences. As a result, an eighty-year-old person is often as much at the mercy of chance as a teenager is. The rhythm of past choices is often all one has to rely on.
If Kundera had only provided his readers with a vehicle through which to consider the ongoing problem of choice in life, he would have reminded us of difficulties we prefer to hide from. Like Flaubert, he presents ordinary lives in interesting ways while keeping the problem of choice before the characters: even at the end of the novel the characters agonize over specific situations and regret earlier choices that have framed their entire lives. In refusing to reduce the characters to a formula, Kundera charges the boring and everyday aspects of their lives with the aura of the unknown. Both characters and readers learn as they go, even as they discern the consequences of their choices. Kundera's novel shows the few fundamental ways humans have developed to assess the difficulties inherent in any choice. They have believed that their decisions come from God, that they are part of some larger plan, that they derive from an essential or fabricated self, that they are a function of the social constructions they inhabit, or that their choices are situationally defined without much regard for self or for some larger framework. For the most part these are the categories through which people construe the nature of choice, and many of these possibilities are reflected in the action of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But none of these ways of thinking about how choices are made is adequate to the manner in which events unfold in life. Thus, Kundera is careful not to lay down a law about choice that is inherent in our decisions. Everything happens only once, he reminds us again and again, so humans can never be sure that any pattern will develop.
One of the most important moments in the novel comes when Tomas is faced with the decision to give up his life as a surgeon. Having made the choice to renounce his profession, "Tomas suddenly realized that he was not at all sure he had made the proper choice, but he felt bound to it by then by an unspoken vow of fidelity, so he stood fast. And that is ho w he be came a window washer" (192). Kundera places Tomas in a context where he is forced to choose one kind of life over another—his preferred role as respected surgeon over the lesser role of window washer—and Tomas's choice changes everything that comes after it, stripping him of his social status and pushing him further and further onto the periphery of Czech life. He ends up doing menial work in a rural town, far from his expected place of achievement in the city in an honored profession. He even has some sense of what he is giving up when he makes the choice to resign from the hospital, but he cannot know what it will feel like to be a window washer rather than a surgeon. Nor can he comprehend his movement to the edges of social importance. He has replaced a comfortable rhythm of life for one that has no pattern or feel to it at all.
Tomas comes to realize that the only way he can be safe from the state police is to make himself so socially small that he becomes useless in any oppressive scheme they might have in mind. He reasons that "after he had descended voluntarily to the lowest rung of the social ladder (a descent being made by thousands of intellectuals in other fields at the same time), the police would have no more hold over him and he would cease to interest them" (192). Tomas is correct in his judgment. He becomes irrelevant, and he is no longer pestered to sign a "confession" or to admit his "wrongdoing" in public. He has escaped, but at great cost, as he reminds us when he tells us that he is far from certain that he made the right choice. He got rid of the police, but only at the expense of the life he most wanted to live. Perhaps the trade-off wasn't worth it. Yet even as this choice defines Tomas's life as starkly as any could, it places too much emphasis on a specific incident by implying that this decision was made only in the moment as the result of regular provocation by the police. At the center of Tomas's indecision, after all, is that curious word fidelity. Tomas tells us that he makes his choice and then feels "bound to it ... by an unspoken vow of fidelity," yet the reader is never informed about that to which he has fidelity. This is a small detail in the novel, yet the word fidelity stands out for its very lack of definition. Kundera doesn't assert that Tomas's commitment to Tereza prompts him to make this choice, though that would be one possibility. But there is no ready evidence of concern for Tereza in this particular context, so one must assume that he feels fidelity to something else.
If love for Tereza doesn't push Tomas to resign, to what might he have fidelity? If one were to try to flesh the situation out, one might hypothesize that Tomas wishes to remain true to an idea of himself that he has grown fond of over the years, a sense of who he is that drives him forward from one moment to the next. This might be true in a general way. Tomas is hardly the kind of character who thinks about himself like this, though. He doesn't seem to consider his self either as a predefined essence to which he must adhere or as a social construction that is measured in terms of what other people think of him. On the contrary, his consideration of his situations through the lens of other people's perceptions never helps clarify his choices.
Tomas is a perfect character through which to consider the nature of fidelity because he seems to lack the kinds of commitment humans expect in an individual. Tomas shows little fidelity to Tereza throughout most of their relationship. He shamelessly beds other women as often as he can for many years in spite of the fact that he knows this causes Tereza great trauma. He does what he can to mask his infidelities, yet he is so indifferent to Tereza that he repeatedly forgets to wash his hair in order to get the smell of women's genitals out of it (131). This is hardly a man devoted to making life easier for his wife. When Tomas finally chooses to give up his infidelities, concern for Tereza is a secondary matter. He decides that perhaps his womanizing has become "an imperative enslaving him" (234) and is therefore something he should give up to get away from such a terrible constraint on his life. He moves to the country to protect Tereza, and in part this choice eliminates his sexual torture of her, but in the end Tomas's fidelity to Tereza can't be measured by his willingness to have sexual congress with her and her alone.
At the same time, Tomas's sense of fidelity cannot apply to a socially constructed self, for he deliberately gives up his role in society by choosing to become a window washer. Rather than preserving a social self that would confer respect on him among his friends and acquaintances, he abandons that network of relations. Tomas gives up his social existence because he sees that no matter what he does, his persona has been destroyed by the situation the police force upon him. He knows that he will be socially defaced regardless of his choice: "That was the first thing that struck him: although he had never given people cause to doubt his integrity, they were ready to bet on his dishonesty rather than on his virtue" (181). This awareness appears before Tomas chooses to become a window washer, produced out of the agonizing dilemma of whether or not to retract his Oedipus article. But he realizes that people already assume the worst of him. Likewise, he quickly discerns that regardless of whether he compromises himself by signing a confession or refuses to do so, his social relations are permanently polluted, chiefly because "everyone wanted him to write the retraction" (182). The cowards would feel better about their cowardice, and those who had never been forced to make such a choice would feel morally superior to him because they had never been pushed into such a terrible compromise (183). Tomas knows he cannot choose on the basis of other people's reactions to his decision because they will invariably construe what he does through the lens of their own self-interest, and the self he sought to preserve will be degraded no matter what he does.
At the same time, there doesn't seem to be any essential self to which Tomas could have fidelity, for his progress through life produces striking changes in him. If there is an essential self, it should have been the imperative that pushed him to become a surgeon. That, we are told, is the "Es muss sein!" of his life: "He had come to medicine not by coincidence or calculation but by a deep inner desire" (193). Tereza was a coincidence beyond any imperative in Tomas's character, and nothing else that happens to him throughout his life comes closer to defining a kind of "inner essence" than his choice to become a surgeon. Kundera emphasizes this point in his commentary on the nature of professions in general: "Insofar as it is possible to divide people into categories, the surest criterion is the deep-seated desires that orient them to one or another lifelong activity. Every Frenchman is different. But all actors the world over are similar.... Similarly, a doctor is someone who consents to spend his life involved with human bodies and all that they entail" (193).
If humans have some kind of essential self that asserts coherence over their actions throughout life, that self is most likely to manifest itself in the choice of profession. Those decisions are made on the basis of an intrinsic attraction to the profession's activity, regardless of whether or not one possesses the skills that are needed to pursue the attraction.
Tomas, however, chooses to abandon his profession at the moment when he decides to become a window washer. Up to that point, he had hoped to return to the life of a surgeon. He was buying time through his lowered status without having fully given up on the imperatives that prompted him to become a doctor. When he decides to resign from his position, though, he gives up his commitment to the imperative that drove him for many years even as he declares that his decision was based on fidelity. But I have yet to locate anything that would make sense of the word, even though I have looked in the most likely places: the socially and essentially constructed selves and the love of another person. If fidelity is not found here, where can it be located? It is precisely a lack of pattern that calls the idea of fidelity into question. There appears to be no principle of taste underlying anything Tomas does.
The reader knows, for example, that Tomas chooses to abandon his profession, but from a standard viewpoint, he gives up too easily. He too willingly renounces his trade, which is all the more evident when Kundera repeatedly insists that for Tomas medicine is the great imperative. If that were so, surely he would have worked harder to try to convince the chief surgeon to intervene on his behalf. Surely he would have tried in one way or another to get his colleagues to band together and protest what was being done to him. Surely he should have made more effort to keep what he so deeply desired. But he doesn't push very hard at all, even if he has hopes that the chief surgeon or his colleagues will help. "'Perhaps you can find a way to keep me on even without a statement,'" Tomas suggests to the chief surgeon, "trying to hint that a threat by all his colleagues to resign upon his dismissal would suffice" (184). But "his colleagues never dreamed of threatening to resign." Tomas was simply abandoned to his fate.
Why doesn't Tomas try harder? Why isn't he at least more insistent with the chief surgeon? The easy answer is that Tomas isn't the kind of character who would be interested in pushing his own agenda on others. He is defined by the fact that he does excellent work as a surgeon, and he believes excellent work is worthy of respect. Therefore, he assumes that when excellent work is undermined by forces that have nothing to do with the quality of labor, anyone with integrity will be more than willing to stand up for the individual. For Tomas this line of reasoning has nothing to do with a self, essential or constructed. He is an excellent surgeon, excellent surgeons are hard to find, and therefore his surgical skills need to be defended by those who recognize the value of what he does. Given this sense of the world and his skills, Tomas doesn't feel the need for a self-interested argument. The facts speak for themselves.
Readers should be struck by the fact that Tomas doesn't try very hard to keep his job, but they should also be aware that his colleagues do little to try to help him out. Even more importantly, Tomas doesn't become resentful as a result of the lack of support. I would suggest that ordinarily someone like Tomas would have reorganized his sense of who he is around that resentment and would have spent the rest of his life reflecting bitterly on the fact that he was abandoned by his colleagues in his time of need. The rhythms of resentment are also a function of people's taste, a means through which they develop patterns that make sense of their past and future. Such an individual would imagine two lives, the flourishing professional one that allowed him to employ his skills and the loss of that life that led to the withering away of possibilities as he moved down the social ladder throughout the rest of his life. But Tomas seems relatively free of resentment, and he certainly doesn't see his life as an endless downward spiral after he loses his job as surgeon.
If one expects Tomas's character to define itself through the choices he makes, one can see that there will be no unifying theme to his life, largely because of his loss of profession, but also because of the other choices he makes. If it seems out of character for him to give up his profession so easily, it is also un usual for him to love Tereza and to remain committed to her in his own way throughout his life. Kundera tells us early on that after his divorce from his first wife Tomas carefully created a scenario whereby he kept significant relationships at bay, the so-called "rule of threes": "Either you see a woman three times in quick succession and then never again, or you maintain relations over the years but make sure that the rendezvous are at least three weeks apart" (12). Commitment to profession for Tomas is linked to lack of commitment to other human beings, from his parents and his child to his sexual liaisons. But Tereza walks into his life with her suitcase, and he quickly begins violating the rule of threes, forcing him to live at odds with himself for a long time, committed to ongoing sexual infidelities even as he also loves Tereza. The intrusion of Tereza into his life forces Tomas to live with two conflicting patterns of thought about himself, and the result causes both Tereza and Tomas considerable agony.
At the same time, Tomas's love for Tereza plays a great part in his social devolution, for he chooses to move more and more to the periphery at least in part with her in mind. This is most apparent in the decision to relocate to the countryside, a commitment that is made to get away from the troubles Tereza faces as much as it is to ease Tomas's guilt over his treatment of her. "His stomach was killing him," the reader is told, "and he longed for peace and quiet" (235). He eliminates the stomach pains—a bodily response to the regular violation of his sense of taste by the situation he is forced to live in—by addressing the threats to Tereza's sense of self and heading for the country. The final move in his life is an attempt to redress the wrongs he has done to Tereza, an effort to compensate for the woe he caused her through his infidelities. In contrast to his own expectations, Tomas allows his life to be governed more and more by the question of what is best for Tereza and his relationship with her.
Excerpted from The Sovereignty of Taste by JAMES S. HANS. Copyright © 2002 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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1. To Thine Own Self Be True.................... 17
2. The Production of the Gods.................... 46
3. The Principle of Taste.................... 79
4. The Frenzy of Regret.................... 107
5. Demonic Possession.................... 140
6. The City of Demons.................... 170