Stephen Conway December 14, 1996

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The Ring Dance

The ring dance is a central metaphor for the collective control of memory throughout the novel. “Dancing in a ring is magic; a ring dance speaks to us from the ancient depths of our memories” (Kundera 88-9). It “is a structure,” however, “ that must eventually dehumanize those within it” (Pelikan 253). Kundera applies the image of the dance to the fictional lives of Madame Raphael and her students Gabrielle and Michelle, as well as connecting it to his own biographical experience in Czechoslovakia. To Madame Raphael, the ring dance is an expression of her desire “to be in perfect harmony with her students” (Kundera 89). Her desire for absolute unity is qualified by an element of selfishness, however. In order to achieve total consensus, her students must be compelled “to think and say the same things she does, to merge with her into a single body and a single soul in the same circle and the same dance” (Kundera 89). Her dance is an overwhelming, almost tyrannical method of self affirmation. Though her students might bring with them alternate senses of meaning, upon entering the circle all such differences are rendered inconsequential. “A group forms around a theory; the theory is differently understood by individuals; this misunderstanding is based on a common narrative,” a narrative given form as a ring dance (Molesworth 77).

Expanded to the political sphere, the ring dance of the Communist Party Kundera describes from his own life expresses a similar totalitarian desire for conformity and control. Absent from the center, however, is an individual seeking self renewal and affirmation through others. Instead, an abstract ideological institution entices dancers to its dance, hoping to promote its continued survival. The dance remains a dance self-perpetuation, where dissonant voices are unwelcome and immediately silenced.

Kundera was one such voice, and as such, he was “expelled from the party, and had to leave the ring dance” (92). He characterizes his exclusion from this circle as a continuous and irrevocable fall. An amount of weight, a burden is added to his life once outside the circle which causes him to fall without remission until his eventual death. And yet, like Tamina with her head gazing backward on the raft, Kundera cannot help expressing “a kind of faint yearning for the lost ring dance, because we are all inhabitants of a universe where everything turns in circles” (92).

Kundera’s irrepressible nostalgia for the ring dance implies that there exists a fundamental human desire for lightness. The suggestion seems to be that this compelling drive to become weightless is embedded in human memory and is, therefore a yearning for innocence, stability, coherence in meaning. “I realized with anguish in my heart that they were flying like birds and I was falling like a stone, they had wings and I would never have any” (Kundera 95). The sensation of falling away from the ring dance causes Kundera to harbor the desire to rape his friend R., to reach out desperately in an effort to “contain her entirely” within his own circular universe of self (105). Raping R. will allow the narrator to affirm his existence by denying or enveloping the existence of another, to fix a moment in his unrelenting fall. At the other extreme Madame Raphael, Gabrielle, and Michelle join the ring dance and literally become lighter than air. Described as archangels ascending, the three women seem to express a divinely inspired categorical agreement with being. “The three dancing women were unaware of the others, they were concentrating entirely on themselves and on their sensual pleasure” (Kundera 104). Their absolute commitment to the dance, instead of becoming an ultimate act of self affirmation, brings about a process of self abnegation. Their lives lack weight and final physical presence in the novel.

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