The Paradisiacal Idyll of Animals – by Milan Kundera

While discussing what it is we’re looking for in life, a passage of prose by Milan Kundera was brought to my mind. It discusses the sanctity of animals, and how our relations to them are important for indicating what kind of people we are. In summary, Kundera proposes that animals never left Eden, and that our individual degree of closeness to them reflects our closeness to Paradise.

Please allow me to quote text from his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The passage is quite long, but if you have the patience, I believe it is worth the read. The context of the (dissected) passage revolves around the female protagonist, Tereza, and her ailing dog, Karenin…

(I bolded the beginnings of particularly important passages just in case you wanted to skim through it instead of read it thoroughly)

The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars…

…Man is as much a parasite on the cow as the tapeworm is on a man: We have sucked their udders like leeches. “Man – the cow parasite” is probably how non-man defines man in his zoology books.

Even though Genesis says that God gave man dominion over all animals, we can also construe it to mean that He merely entrusted them to man’s care. Man was not the planet’s master, merely its administrator, and therefore eventually responsible for his administration.

There’s no particular merit in being nice to one’s fellow man. [Tereza] had to treat the other villagers decently, because otherwise she couldn’t live there. Even with Tomas, she was obliged to behave lovingly because she needed him. We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals.

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.

Raised as we are on the mythology of the Old Testament, we might say that an idyll is an image that has remained with us like a memory of Paradise: life in Paradise was not like following a straight line to the unknown; it was not an adventure. It moved in a circle among known objects. Its monotony bred happiness, not boredom.

As long as people lived in the country, in nature, surrounded by domestic animals, in the bosom of regularly recurring seasons, they retained at least a glimmer of that paradisiac idyll. It is [our] way of looking back, back to Paradise.

Adam, leaning over a well, did not yet realize that what he saw was himself. He would not have understood Tereza when she stood before the mirror as a young girl and tried to see her soul through her body. Adam was like Karenin. Tereza made a game of getting [Karenin] to look at himself in the mirror, but he never recognized his image, gazed at it vacantly, with incredible indifference.

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not yet man. Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are longtime outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man.

Whenever, as a child, [Tereza] came across her mother’s sanitary napkins soiled with menstrual blood, she felt disgusted, and hated her mother for lacking the shame to hide them. But Karenin, who was after all a female, had his periods, too. They came once every six months and lasted a fortnight. To keep him from soiling their flat, Tereza would put a wad of absorbent cotton between his legs and pull a pair of old panties over it, skillfully tying them to his body with a long ribbon. She woudl go on laughing at the outfit for the entire two weeks of each period.

Why is it that a dog’s menstruation made her lighthearted and gay, while her own menstruation made her squeamish? The answer seems simple to me: dogs were never expelled from Paradise. Karenin knew nothing about the duality of body and soul and had no concept of disgust. That is why Tereza felt so free and easy with him. (And that is why it is so dangerous to turn an animal into a machina animata, a cow into an automaton for the production of milk. By so doing, man cuts the thread binding him to Paradise and has nothing left to hold or comfort him on his flight through the emptiness of time.)

From this jumble of ideas came a sacrilegious thought that Tereza could not shake off: the love that tied her to Karenin was better than the love between her and Tomas. Better, not bigger. Tereza did not wish to fault either Tomas or herself; she did not wish to claim that they could love each other more. Her feeling was rather that, given the nature of the human couple, the love of man and woman is a priori inferior to that which can exist (at least in the best instances) in the love between man and dog, that oddity of human history probably unplanned by the Creator.

It is a completely selfless love: Tereza did not want anything of Karenin; she did not ever ask him to love her back. Nor had she ever asked herself the questions that plague human couples: Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.

And something else: Tereza accepted Karenin for what he was; she did not try to make him over in her image; she agreed from the outset with his dog’s life, did not wish to deprive him of it, did not envy him his secret intrigues. The reason she trained him was not to transform him (as a husband tries to reform his wife and a wife her husband), but to provide him with the elementary language that enabled them to communicate and live together.

Then too: No one forced her to love Karenin; love for dogs is voluntary. …But most of all: No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from Paradise. The love between dog and man is idyllic. It knows no conflicts, no hair-raising scenes; it knows no development. Karenin surrounded Tereza and Tomas with a life based on repetition, and he expected the same from them.

If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza, “Look, I’m sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can’t you come up with something different?” And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.

About Doctor Quack

Just another bonehead with an internet connection.
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5 Responses to The Paradisiacal Idyll of Animals – by Milan Kundera

  1. Emina says:

    Sounds like a good author. Do you recommend any less depressing books by him?

  2. Pingback: Time Must be Stopped | Doctor Quack

  3. Pingback: The Perk of Pteromerhanophobia | Doctor Quack

  4. Siddhartha says:

    Great passage. When i read the book this was the essence I took away

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