“. . . Where people love with all their body and soul (yes, Lucie, body and soul). . .” (Kundera, pg. 265).
Milan Kundera’s first novel, “The Joke,” was torn apart and misunderstood as a political piece and a novel of brutality against women. Once the reader reaches beyond these overarching principles though, there is much to be said of Kundera’s hopes. His tragic tale of devastating love between Lucie, Helena and Ludvik demonstrates a yearning for love with both body and soul. In every instance Ludvik cannot fully participate in sexual love at the same moment of experiencing complete tender love. His bouts with sex are all but aggressive acts of pleasure that read more like rape rather than eroticism.
While in the mines in the all but depressing living conditions he is able to come close to that fullness of love with Lucie. After a walk in which Lucie gives him flowers Ludvik states, ” I was inhabited again. My inner space was clean and tidy. There was someone living then” (Kundera, pg. 59). Shortly after though, Ludvik’s lust for her is intertwined with his love in a confusing and devastating manner, resulting in what appears as attempted rape. Ludvik’s struggle with the duality of body and soul (represented as sexual pleasure and heartfelt love) is aligned with the Communist totalitarianism present in the novel. One could perhaps even argue that Kundera is merely reflecting the mirror of public structures in the very private lives of Czech citizens. Just as the Communist believed in absolute control over the state, cleanly dividing those in the party and outside, Kundera’s reflections on love cleanly divide the schism between body and soul due to Ludvik’s lack of control.
Toward the end of Kunderas, “The Joke” Ludvik sexually chases Helena only as an act of revenge against his old friend Pavel. Ludvik enters the affair under the assumption that Helena only desires him as a ploy against her husband, Pavel. When Ludvik discovers that Helena no longer even loves her husband, Ludvik immediately loses interest. “Now that she stood before me bare, without a a husband or conjugal bonds, utterly herself, her lack of physical charm lost its ability to excite me; it too became itself- a simple lack of charm” (Kundera, pg.176). For if Helena didn’t love her husband, then she may very well love Ludvik, and sex with a woman who loved him was far too awful.
Why is it that Kundera’s characters cannot reach the human potential of duality between body and soul, sex and love? A world in which sex is never performed with loving eyes is tragic one. While many continue to claim Kundera disgusts the West with his brutal men and weak women, he also screams for the isomorphic struggle of human sexuality. The destiny of the human race as a whole is at stake if we can’t even love anymore. Kundera’s concerns are clearly heard in Helena’s plea, “I don’t want to split my life down the middle, I want it to be one from beginning to end” (Kundera, pg. 11). And thus is the aim of Kundera’s characters. To be a part of the magic circle where people love with all their being. To be one with body and soul.
Kundera, Milan. The Joke. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.