Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Humanity's "True Moral Test": Shame, Idyll, and Animal Vulnerability in Milan Kundera's the Unbearable Lightness of Being

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Humanity's "True Moral Test": Shame, Idyll, and Animal Vulnerability in Milan Kundera's the Unbearable Lightness of Being

Article excerpt

Irony and Vulnerability

"Man thinks, God laughs": so goes the proverb that Milan Kundera has so famously associated with the art of the novel (Art 158). According to Kundera, the novel captures an "echo" of God's laughter at the thinking of mankind, a Western Man who thinks that the truth is obvious, the same for all, and that he is capable of knowing himself. When we laugh at the pretentions of characters or when we weep (or scoff) at their weaknesses, we are not necessarily rejecting their aspirations, but understanding these characters as weak in relation to them. And if we look at them with irony, it is because there is a gap between their practical identities--the way they hold themselves forth in being--and how they fulfill them. (1) Novels attach themselves to these ironies with humor, pathos, and sometimes indignation. Their characters begin a voyage out into the world, but discover a world uncannily beyond their intellectual grasp.

Quoted in passim throughout Kundera's work, the recurring figure of Western tradition's aspirations is Descartes's declaration that man is "the master and proprietor of nature" (see, for example, Art 4). Descartes's pronouncement demonstrates a pretention to self-knowledge (a spiritual definition of the "human") and to mankind's place high above the rest of nature. The Kunderian novel toys with such pretentions in ways made familiar by many critics. To the unknowable selves, the terminal paradoxes, and the criticism of totalitarian regimes (among a host of other approaches), this essay adds a new facet to the understanding of Kundera's irony: the significance of the suffering of animals, both human and nonhuman, to human self-conception. By examining animality and suffering in Kundera's best-known novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, this essay will describe how it challenges the borders that Western humanity has erected between humans and their own animality, humans and animals, and generally between humans and the natural world. When the novel was published (1984 in French and English), the philosophical debate on animal welfare was just starting to take on its modern vigor. The ensuing upsurge in thinking about animals, in philosophy and animal studies, prepares a sophisticated background for a new analysis of the book.

That the theme of animal suffering probes deep into the heart of Western anthropogenesis can be sensed in the tone of declarations such as the following:

   Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental [radical] test (which
   lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards
   those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind
   has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that
   all the others stem from it. (289) (2)

Such provocations do not seem like the final summary of a moral argument in favor of animal rights. Since the foundational writings of Peter Singer and Tom Regan, most philosophers and proponents of animal rights have worked hard to establish indisputable criteria, such as sentience or consciousness, which would provide clear answers to moral questions involving animals, often strongly condemning contemporary practices. In the quote above we get the strong condemnation, a biting denunciation, but we do not get the reasoned demonstration. This is because Kundera sees such demonstration as indeed wrapped up in the very spiritualist aspirations of the Western tradition.

Kundera's provocation is entirely coherent with his loose definition of the novel as "an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become" (26):

I would even say it [the novel] is purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, that is to say fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas; it does not judge; it does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs; its form is highly diverse: metaphoric, ironic, hyperbolic, aphoristic, droll, provocative, fanciful; and mainly it never leaves the magic circle of its characters' lives; those lives feed it and justify it. …

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