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PRIVACY has been my obsession,” Milan Kundera once declared in an interview. “I might exaggerate by saying that I am in a sense ‘sculpted’ for discretion.” Whether the story takes place in Czechoslovakia after 1968 or consumerist western Europe, Kundera brings to life the way privacy protects those experiences that leave the self most vulnerable. He reveals this chiefly by negation, presenting us with the specter of a world not only where the public sphere and the sense of common life have all but disappeared, but also where intimacy and the sense of shame are on the verge of extinction. And it has been Kundera’s singular “obsession” with privacy—the sphere that has always been home to the bodily aspects of life—that has driven him to delve into what the narrator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being calls “the irreconcilable duality of body and soul, that fundamental human experience.” This dualism is, of course, as old as Western civilization, but the modern obsession with privacy is only as old as the nineteenth century, when the cult of domesticity offered for the first time the closeness of personal relations as the truest source of happiness. Even though this new emphasis on romantic love, family, and friendship gave rise to a richness of intimate engagement never before seen in history, a life lived in the narrow confines of the private sphere was a life lived in close proximity to the life process itself—that is, the maintenance and reproduction of the human species. And one of its most disturbing consequences was that SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) The Waning of Shame in Modern Life: Kundera’s Novels as a Case Study ROCHELLE GURSTEIN “the irreconcilable duality of body and soul” moved to the forefront of modern consciousness. Kundera’s characters place enormous weight on these most fragile, intimate experiences and so they repeatedly find themselves at the “border,” which Kundera describes as “the imaginary dividing line beyond which things appear senseless and ridiculous . . . . Man lives in close proximity to this boundary, and can easily find himself on the other side.” By unflinchingly portraying existence at the brink, Kundera draws the reader both to the unsettling recognition of how effortlessly and by what familiar means the body can be split apart from the soul and to the powerful feelings of shame—of mortification, dread, and revulsion— that arise when a character lands on “the other side.” “It takes so little,” observes the narrator in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith, history. Human life—and herein lies its secret—takes place in the immediate proximity of that border, even in direct contact with it; it is not miles away, but a fraction of an inch. A particularly dramatic instance of the way the border between body and soul can be traversed concerns the protagonist of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas, who is a surgeon. The narrator reminds us that “a doctor is someone who consents to spend his life involved with human bodies and all that they entail.” Surgeons , or at least sensitive ones, are continually faced with the “irreconcilable duality of body and soul.” The narrator’s description of Tomas’s first surgery captures the strange violence of this confrontation: Surgery takes the basic imperative of the medical profession to its outermost border, where the human makes contact with the divine. . . . God, it may be assumed, took murder into account; He did not take surgery into account. He never suspected that someone would dare to stick his hand 1260 SOCIAL RESEARCH into the mechanism He had invented, wrapped carefully in skin, and sealed away from human eyes. When Tomas first positioned his scalpel on the skin of a man asleep under an anesthetic, then breached the skin with a decisive incision, and finally cut it open with a precise and even stroke (as if it were a piece of fabric—a coat, a skirt, a curtain), he experienced a brief but intense feeling of blasphemy. Although we do not customarily regard surgery as a violation of privacy or a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1259-1276
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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