We seem to operate under a commonly held assumption about the function of memory. The dominant assumption is that the function of memory is to provide human life with structure, order on some basic level. From this order individuals are capable of deriving or discovering meaning. Moments of crisis or isolation promote this all too human response. In Kundera’s novel, Mama’s loneliness is held in check because “she always had something to occupy her thoughts”, her memories (58). John O’Brien goes so far as to describe Tamina as a curator of memories in his book Milan Kundera and Feminism (101). Tamina attempts to preserve the past with museum-like efficiency and objectivity in order to instill her life and her husband’s existence with meaning.
Rather than an innately structured absolute human faculty, Kundera seems to suggest that memory is capable of accommodating various and even contradictory structures. Fictional characters, living individuals, groups, and governments can each invest a particular sense of structure in memory. Put another way, human beings and the institutions they create assign rational coherence to memory; rational coherence is, thus, not an intrinsic quality of memory itself.
This condition allows Kundera to introduce a set of metaphoric structures to reveal or critique totalizing concepts of memory. Images of unity and absolute harmony float with an almost otherworldly disregard for gravity throughout the novel, enticing characters to trace circular patterns with their dance. Memory, in this context, is a self contained, self sustaining endeavor. Set in stark contrast are images of division, of imperceptible boundary lines, which cause characters to sink under the intense burden of separation. These images highlight an essential disparity, the unknowable gap between the moment of actual experience and the recollection of experience through memory. Kundera seems to assert that we live with our lives caught between these conflicting mnemonic structures, between uncontested meaning and abject meaninglessness.
This assertion has a direct impact on the relationship between memory and meaning. Built upon the structures imposed by individuals or institutions, meaning is applied to memory. Memory, in one sense, then becomes a conduit through which meanings are created rather than discovered. Meaning is thus manufactured, transcribed, and contextualized through memory.
Conditions of geometry and gravity establish specific metaphoric frameworks, contexts, through which meaning or its absence can be defined. The circle is a self-contained, closed system of meaning. Circles establish unity and stability of meaning through assimilation. Circles can expand to include, to embrace, to homogenize. The simple movement of the actress Hanna’s thumb captures the essence of this idea. “It was the conscious and deliberate, lithe and graceful gesture of tracing around herself a magic circle within which she could concentrate entirely on herself and the others could concentrate on her” (Kundera 269). The truth of the circle, by its very nature, denies even the possibility of another opposing vision of truth. In this manner, “circular discourses...are murderous in their intentions; they not only enable the vaporization of cultural ideas but of human beings that live by these ideas” (Pelikan 254). Circles eliminate or categorically exclude voices of dissent, voices that bring the weight of discord or uncertainty. For those within the circle there is a sense of freedom which is expressed as weightlessness. Because the circle posits itself as a universal structure, with neither need or desire to appeal to anything beyond its boundaries, individuals are encouraged to create similar circular notions of self.
This type of self definition is characterized by its levity and freedom, a movement inward, an utterly personal process without the need for outside referents. The ring dance (which will be examined later in greater detail), whose participants dance themselves out of individual existence, is the most potent example of this process in the novel. Circles afford their members a measure of self absorption, though at the cost of eventual and utter self consumption or suppression. Meaning promoted by the circle, its fundamental harmony, overrides the importance or very existence of any individual.
The straight line, on the other hand, establishes meaning by acknowledging and separating it from its opposite, meaninglessness. Border lines exist to define the boundaries of meaning. Unlike the circle, the line is an open formation whose movement is forward looking and progressive. Kundera submits that “joyous words like ‘forward’ and ‘farther’ are the lascivious voice of death urging us to hasten it” (246). Those characters who are able to perceive even the slightest impression of their proximity to the border, the boundary lines of meaning, carry with them a heavy, almost unbearable, psychological burden. Lines that separate individuals and ideas accentuate the contingent nature of human existence. Even peripheral awareness of these lines forces us to reconcile the meaning of our own existences in a vast and constantly evolving web of relations. The capacity to acknowledge others and their unknowable but significant impact on an individual’s existence creates a sensation of unbearable weight. Like Jan in the final section of the novel, Kundera suggests that “the border” between absolute and relational meaning, may be humanity’s “lot from the very beginning” (298).
Within public or private spheres or boundaries, the process of creating meaning through memory is readily apparent. On a personal level, Mama creates an alternate (false) memory of reciting a poem during a graduation ceremony to maintain her status as an equal to her son (Kundera 58). The public policies of President Gustav Husak, whom Kundera dubs “the President of Forgetting,” literally redefine the boundaries of history and culture in order to exclude and thus eliminate certain inappropriate (read: threatening) ideas expressed by individuals (217). Because he “said something” he “should not have said,” Kundera finds himself on the outside looking in, falling away from Czech society (92). “Like a meteorite broken off from a planet, I left the circle and have not yet stopped falling” (Kundera 92). Kundera falls because he has been officially forgotten; those who are excluded from the public circle are relegated to anonymity, their individual existences acquire weight, having been deemed meaningless to and incompatible with mutually accepted public memory. This situation prompts Kundera to ask “is it true that the people will be unable to survive crossing the desert of organized forgetting?” (218).
Forgetting is an intimate and important partner in the creation of memory. Kundera describes two distinct forms of forgetting: one an unavoidable, seemingly arbitrary, effect of the mind’s ability to store and analyze information over time, the other a deliberate and ideologically or emotionally organized endeavor. Memories are shaped, enclosed, by both forms of forgetting.
Some experiences lodge themselves in the mind, while others are forgotten. Human volition, however, seems to have very little to do with this level of memory. Kundera points to this problematic condition throughout the novel. Some memories characters want to forget, but they cannot. Mirek wants desperately to control the memories of his past affair with Zdena (made manifest in the form of his love letters) in order to forget them. He wants to author a new, more palatable destiny for himself , “but Zdena’s existence denied Mirek that author’s prerogative” (Kundera 15). The presence of an other, in this case Zdena, qualifies the amount of freedom an individual possesses over his or her memory. Shared experiences seem to create memories that no single party can completely remember or forget.
For this very reason, Eva, in the section of the novel entitled Mama, is forever chasing “unforgettable experiences” (Kundera 47). Eva desires an existence dominated and defined by sensual experience. She seems to operate on the assumption that intense sensual memories, though shared, are not easily forgotten. She believes intense sensual experience affords one the freedom for complete physical presence in the moment, an existence as a “simple body, without past or memory, but all the more eager and receptive” (Kundera 69). Sensual memory is thus a method of denying the presence of others. Marketa observes this phenomenon in Eva during their sexual encounter with Karel and experiences it herself. Weighed down by her love for Karel, Marketa experiences joy and exhilaration only when she pictures him as a headless representation of masculinity, stripping him of memory and identity. “The anonymity of the body was a suddenly discovered paradise” (Kundera 69). Kundera undercuts this almost epiphanal moment, intruding with Karel’s “unbelievably idiotic words: ‘I’m Bobby Fischer! I’m Bobby Fischer’”, suggesting that even this sensual memory is beyond the control of any individual (69). The impact of this struggle with memory is characterized by a vocabulary of lightness and weight. Other people, because they share our experiences, add weight to our memories and make them impossible to completely master or retain. Because we do not exist in isolation, Kundera suggests the process of forgetting is ongoing and unconscious and often seems irrational or arbitrary.
The second form of forgetting builds upon the first, but is influenced more directly by conscious human choice. In order to form a unified memory, individuals and institutions can selectively ignore, choose to forget, certain stored events or experiences. Evoking the name and the fictional world of Franz Kafka, Kundera is acutely aware that the calculated ability to forget houses the potential to circumvent or utterly destroy the past and with it one’s own identity. “...a name is continuity with the past and a people without a past are a people without a name” (Kundera 216).
The process of remembering seems, ultimately, to imply (or possibly even to be equated with) the process of providing structure and meaning to memory itself. Memory does not, in fact, appear to precede the act of remembering. Remembering is an essential act of revision, the conscious and unconscious editing of experience to produce memory. Each remembrance establishes a new link with past experiences. As an act of conscious construction, a novel (like Banaka’s or Kundera’s) or a diary (like Tamina’s) becomes a tangible transcription of the process of remembering. In this manner, memory is endowed with physical substance; it becomes a commodity, an entity or expression with borders separate from its creator. Through Mirek and his subservience to a destiny whose interests do “not correspond at all to Mirek’s”, Kundera displays a keen understanding that memory, even at a more abstract level, can control or be controlled, can manipulate or be manipulated (15).