Understanding the Prague Spring through The Unbearable Lightness of Being

, by Théo Boucart, Translated by Lorène Weber

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Understanding the Prague Spring through The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Milan Kundera in 1980, one year before accessing French citizenship. CC - Elisa Cabot - Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

The fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was commemorated on the 21st of August. Our author comments this lesser and lesser-known event, which abruptly put an end to the “Prague Spring”, through Milan Kundera, one of the most important names of the Czech and French literature.

“Some ideas have the force of a bomb exploding”. This sentence inevitably evokes the role of the intellectual, writer, poet, painter, scientist, in contemporary societies. It even powerfully resonates in the mind when it concerns the dissident intellectual, morally fighting against the authoritarian or totalitarian regime, a fight which promises only disgrace or forced exile, at best. Ideas spread like wildfire and have the capacity to show the oppressed people how abject an ideology can be, thus making the empire which rests upon it totter.

Milan Kundera is certainly an intellectual whose “ideas had the force of a bomb exploding” for the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and even beyond. This quote actually comes from his most famous book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in English in 1984, and whose plot is closely linked to the Prague Spring, in the first months of 1968 (following the will of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPC) to introduce a “socialism with a human face” by liberalising the regime a little, with economic and political reforms), as well as to the invasion of the countries forming the Warsaw Pact during the night of 21st August 1968 (to stifle these freedoms, considered intolerable by Moscow). Kundera was considered one of the instigators of this “counter-revolution” (according to the post-1968 communist power) ever since 1964, and was forced to flee the country in 1975 to France, where he still lives, at almost 90 years of age.

A story structured around the events of 1968

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is not the only story of Kundera that deals with the Prague Spring. Much if his work alludes to it. This novel is however the most well-known, and certainly the most philosophical one, in which the tragic events of 1968 are expressed in multiple dimensions. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is also extremely rich with some of its subjects discussed (love, sexuality, the complexity of the being, politics).

The main characters embody high ideals, always linked to the novel’s fundamental opposition of lightness and weight: Tomáš represents the ambiguity between faithfulness for his wife Tereza, and libertinism; Tereza, the morality, entirely devoted to Tomáš, but consumed by this devotion; Sabina, Tomáš’ friend and lover, the lightness, sometimes unbearable; and finally Franz, the other lover of Sabina, perfectly represents the weight, in his ideas and sentimental life. These four characters are intellectuals (surgeon, photographer, painter and university professor), the main instigators of the Prague Spring and the main victims of the Soviet counter-attack.

The story is structured around the events of 1968. Despite the numerous digressions and ellipses, one can feel a different atmosphere before and after the invasion of 21st August (which lasted seven days, as the novel reminds). The general insouciance and lightness during the Spring, while the reforms in favour of freedom led by the new Secretary General of the CPC, Alexander Dubček, were coming into effect, contrast with the weight of life after the invasion of the Warsaw Pact and the beginning of “normalisation” (the period between 1968 and 1989 when the Czechoslovak regime was controlled by the conservative branch of the CPC, leading to purges and the hardening of the regime, and the replacement of the reformist Dubček by Gustav Husák).

Tomáš and Tereza suffered from this change of situation, plummeting in the social hierarchy (Tomáš from surgeon to window cleaner and farm truck driver, Tereza from press photographer to farmer), a social decline actually typical of the Czech intellectuals in the 1970s.

The Prague Spring is sensed in many different ways

The euphoria and repression of 1968 are both sensed on different levels in Milan Kundera’s story. If the general atmosphere gives a first insight of the events, they are also evoked more precisely across the book. The theme of exile is a barely cloaked allusion to what Kundera and thousands of other intellectuals had to endure. Tomáš, Tereza and Sabina indeed briefly fled in Switzerland after the Soviet invasion. If the Occident is sublimed and painted as a land of freedom where a certain lightness prevails, this image is tempered by the suffering of exile, making the character’s spirit heavier.

Communism is described as the emptiness of mind, the realm of “totalitarian kitsch” (an aesthetic ideal excessively exaggerated in which doubt and critical man are banned). Milan Kundera makes no distinction between Communism and Nazism, as in both cases the individual is deprived of personality and subject to the primacy of the dehumanized collective (a parallel is drawn between the totalitarian anonymous crowd and Tereza’s childhood, where her individuality was continually denied by her parents). To term communism as “cultural silence” was particularly true at the time of “normalisation”, when Kundera, in an interview of 1979, alarmed France and the Occident on the slow agony of the Czech culture and, by extension, of European culture as a whole.

In his will of realism and faithfulness, Kundera also evokes precise events, such as the tank invasion of the Warsaw Pact in Prague (photographed by Tereza), The Two Thousand Words the manifesto of the writer Ludvík Vaculík, or Dubček’s dire speech, coming back from Moscow, and announcing to the Czech nation the humiliation inflicted by the Kremlin (Dubček is portrayed as an extremely weak man, and Kundera draws a parallel with Tereza’s ancient weakness). The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an eminently political novel, in addition to being intensely philosophical, where the Prague Spring and its tragic consequences are depicted in depth.

50 years later, Nietzsche and the “eternal return”

The year 2018 saw the fiftieth anniversary of the vain introduction of “socialism with a human face” and of its severe repression. As a commemoration, thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets and squares of Prague and Bratislava. The population, irrespective of age, has its heart set on paying tribute to the victims of this dark period.

The Czech President of the Republic, Miloš Zeman, on the other hand, decided to remain silent. His past as an ex-communist and his pro-Russian stances are invoked to explain his position. Some even see a link between the post-1968 normalisation and the constant questioning of democracy in Central Europe.

For all that, is there a link between 1968 and 2018? If the cultural winter of the 1970s and 1980s greatly harmed the Czechoslovak (and then Czech) nation, the rise of Euroscepticism in this region is rather linked to the violent economic and social reforms of the 1990s (especially under the Prime Minister Václav Klaus) and to the identity crisis exacerbated by migratory movements.

Nevertheless, history is cyclical. One should not rest on the peace brought by the European Union, and should remain vigilant regarding political evolutions in Europe. The first pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being remind it with the Nietzschean concept of the “eternal return”, then refuted by Kundera, but still able to produce similar effects, in our case: the reconciliation with a dark past would betray the deep moral perversion inherent to a world based on the inexistence of the Nietzschean return. Everything would be forgiven in advance, and so cynically allowed. This gives food for thought…

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