Metaphors of Gravity and Geometry: Memory and Meaning
in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Memory is the human faculty that attempts to process one’s passage through time. While memory may aspire to provide continuity, meaning, identity to one’s existence, Milan Kundera, in his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, demonstrates that human memory is frail, fallible, and easily obfuscated. Gravity and geometry provide Kundera with the metaphoric vocabulary to discuss the significance and limitations of memory through images of lightness and weight, the circle and the line. These seemingly dialectical metaphors overlap, interact, inform, and oppose one another. Though “Kundera does not advocate or even suggest life without opposition”, the conflation and continued opposition between these images
is ultimately constructive (O’Brien 108). Kundera associates memory and the process of remembering with the revelation of certain conditions of gravity and geometry. He does not adopt a singular or consistent description of the images manifested by these conditions. Images of circles and lines, lightness and weight are negotiated and remain in flux throughout the novel. These images promise but cannot provide totality, an absolute comprehensible framework for interpreting experience. By aligning these images with memory, Kundera is able to simultaneously reveal and critique a fundamental ethical struggle housed by memory, a conflict between structure, meaning, and absurdity.
Though the work is structurally cyclical, the character Tamina, Kundera clearly states, is a critical nexus for the novel. “It is a novel about Tamina and whenever Tamina goes offstage it is a novel for Tamina” (227). Thematic variations in each section are thus overtly intended to expand and elucidate the reader’s understanding/interpretation of Tamina and her struggle with the past, with her memory. As the narrator, Kundera draws from a particular metaphoric lexicon throughout the novel to describe situations and circumstances where memory and meaning become problematic and remain, perhaps, at some basic level, irreconcilable.
Tamina embodies this conflict and as such, Michael Richards suggests, “...is a commentary on living as an individual in the modern world” (228). Kundera examines this condition by consistently reasserting images of levitation, free fall, ring dances, and borderlines, while allowing the meanings applied to the images themselves to exist in a state of perpetual redefinition, a simultaneous gesture toward harmony and discord. If, as Charles Molesworth suggests, “Tamina is the narrator’s loved one, his alter-ego, and the embodiment of his vision of redemptive interiority all at once,” exploring how the specific metaphors of gravity and geometry affect Tamina’s desires, actions, and discoveries could lead to a better understanding of the metaphoric-philosophical structure of the novel as a whole (71).