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Naked Body and Death in The Unbearable Lightness of Being Essay

This paper will argue that Teresa’s dreams in The Unbearable Lightness of Being foreground the character’s suppressed fear of uniformization and her alternative representation of Tomas, as the Apollonian, reasoning masculine figure par excellence. This argument will be developed alongside the lines of the interpretation of dreams provided by Sigmund Freud and by Carl Gustav Jung.

In his Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud argued that dreams are manifestations of the unconscious and that their imagery is a combination of motifs drawn from reality and distortions operated by suppressed feelings like fear and sexuality residing in the subconscious: the strict seclusion or isolation of the dream from real, true life on the one hand, and on the other the continual encroachment of the one on the other, the constant dependence of the one on the other.

—The dream is something altogether separate from the reality we experience when awake; one might call it an existence hermetically closed within itself, cut off from real life by an unbridgeable chasm. It frees us from reality, extinguishes our normal recollection of it, and places us in another world and in a quite different life-story, which has fundamentally nothing to do with our real one (Hildebrandt, quoted in Freud, 1976). The notion that dreams bring to the fore an alternative life story is quite significant for our analysis of the presence of dreams in Kundera’s novel.

Teresa’s dreams represent a parallel life story in the novel, which compliments and explicates the character’s manifest life. As compared to Tomas, who strives for the obliteration of the differences between spirit and matter, Teresa recognizes the importance of individuality as translated by one’s awareness of the body. However, her relationship with her body is a problematic one because her mother had imposed a wholly different corporeal philosophy on her in her childhood.

The exposure of the naked body, devoid of any reticence or libido represents, in the eyes of adult Teresa, the uniformization of the self. It is also a mark of endless anonymous sexual intercourse which is epitomized in the novel by Tomas’ illicit love affairs. In one of her recurrent dreams, which she recounts to Tomas, the fear of corporeal aneantization, which she suppresses while awake, surfaces with a vengeance: I was at a large indoor swimming pool. There were about twenty of us. All women. We were naked and had to march around the pool.

There was a basket hanging from the ceiling and a man hanging in the basket. The man wore a broad-brimmed hat shading his face, but I could see it was you. You kept giving us orders. Shouting at us. We had to sing as we marched, sing and do knee bends. If one of us did a bad knee band, you would shoot her and she would fall dead into the pool. Which made everybody laugh and sing even louder. You never took your eyes off us, and the minute we did something wrong, you would shoot. The pool was full of corpses floating just below the surface.

And I knew I lacked the strength to do the next knee bend and you would shoot me! (Kundera, 1999, p. 18). Corporeal sameness signifies, as the narrator explains, the anonymity of sexuality and individuality which Teresa fears intensely. As in Freud’s interpretation, the fear of homogenisation translates the fear of death, which Teresa clearly expresses in this dream in contrast to the other women whose laughter and song seem to celebrate the approaching absolute sameness in death. The particular instantiation of Tomas, wearing a hat is highly significant too.

According to Jung, “the hat, as a covering for the head, has the general sense of something that epitomizes the head. […] a stranger’s hat imparts a strange personality” (p. 120). Tomas appears in this dream as a conductor and murderer because, on the one hand, because of his philandering in real life, he forces Teresa into the anonymity of sexual bodies and, on the other hand, his “strangeness” could signify his equation with absolutism. Teresa’s dream therefore draws a parallel between unrepressed sexuality and death, the bodies’ nakedness ambiguously alluding either to sexuality or to the death camps.

These dreams express Teresa’s fear of the obliteration of individuality (and ultimately, her fear of death) through Tomas’ infidelities which undermine her self-image as a wonderful accumulation of contingencies which she values so much. References: Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Penguin Books, 1976. Jung, Carl Gustav. Dreams. Routledge, 2001. Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. trans Michael Henry Heim, New York: Harper Collins, 1999. Porter, Laurence M. The Interpretation of Dreams: Freud’s Theories Revisited. Twayne Publishers, 1987.

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