- Rewriting The Speech Of Alcibiades:Platonic Echoes Of Erotic Desire In Kundera'S "Symposium"
Milan Kundera is among the most prolific and versatile of contemporary Czech writers. Born in Brno in 1929, he began his literary career as a poet, but soon gained a reputation as a film-script author, essayist, and dramatist. Between 1959 and 1969 he composed a series of seven short stories, collectively known as Laughable Loves and the first of his works to reach American readers, which prefigures his inexhaustible fascination with the ironic depiction of erotic relationships and the ineffectual efforts of individuals to outwit fate.1
The "Symposium," the collection's fourth story, is a five-act ironic parody of Plato's homonymous dialogue, in which the author dramatizes the nature of erotic desire. Like its philosophic antecedent, the story is primarily a drama of ideas. Talk occupies the foreground, while a single event, Elisabet's questionable suicide attempt, occurs in the background and is brought forward for commentary. The conversation, which occupies three men and two women, occurs during an improvised party in a hospital staff room. Dr. Havel, a modern Don Juan, and the nurse Elisabet are both on duty, and are joined by three colleagues: the Chief Physician, a bald, aging, and happily married philanderer; the woman doctor, his attractive young mistress; and the handsome, self-absorbed intern Flajsman. Prior to Elisabet's action, the characters engage in witty banter on love and death in a licentious atmosphere charged with erotic tension. The sex-starved nurse desires both Dr. Havel and Flajsman, but her sexual charms have no effect on either man, while the intern is interested in the woman doctor, who in the fourth act makes [End Page 285] a pass at Dr. Havel. Halfway through, Elisabet attempts to achieve sexual provocation by performing a mock striptease but, having failed to attract the desired attention, leaves the room a scorned woman after she has unwittingly swallowed a dose of sleeping pills administered by Dr. Havel instead of the pep pill she asked for. Her unconsious, naked body is later found by Flajsman in a room reeking of exhaust fumes of gas, and the rest of the story is spent mostly in endless speculations about the nature of her act. Flajsman's own explanation of Elisabet's death, as a desperate attempt, on her part, to end her feelings of unrequited love for him leads him to confess his love for the recovering nurse. No account of Elisabet's attempt, however, is ever proclaimed accurate, each one offering a partial and subjective explanation of the motives behind a completely inscrutable event.
In this brief overview of the story, various elements reminiscent of Plato's Symposium become apparent, the most central of them being the theoretical exploration of erotic love from a multiplicity of perspectives and the admixture of myth (Dr. Havel's references to the legend of Don Juan), poetry (Flajsman's sentimental views on love), and specious reasoning (the participants' endless, and mostly hollow, mental exercises). While these affinities between Plato's dialogue and Kundera's story have been noted, they have never been systematically examined. The literary connection with Plato has either been remarked on in passing or altogether ignored.2 In this essay I undertake to remedy this scholarly neglect by exploring the thematic and formal associations between Alcibiades' speech in Plato's Symposium and the most fully developed interaction in Kundera's story, that between Elisabet and Flajsman. In the first part of the essay, I suggest that Elisabet may be shown to be comparable to Socrates, while Alcibiades shares some interesting affinities with Flajsman. These characterological commonalities, I argue, cluster mainly around two conceptual polarities, aggressive/passive eroticism and physical/spiritual beauty, and have important ethical ramifications for the lives of the individuals manifesting them: they shape their understanding of self and others and color their moral choices and actions. In the second part of the essay, I explore the socio-political implications of subjectivity. While Plato uses univocality to question the truthfulness of Alcibiades' account, in Kundera's hands subjectivity helps to convey an ironic stance toward reality that effectively undermines the arbitrary...