Sex and Love in the Sorrow of War and the Unbearable Lightness of Being

It is rare to find two such dissimilar entities so irrevocably entwined. Sacred, fragile and emotional, love inhabits a higher plane, while carnal activity is rough, dirty and basic. The steps taken to distance ourselves from our simian cousins and amoebic forefathers seem altogether futile when potential sexual activity can still reduce us as a species to primitive cavemen hell-bent on procreation. However, by connecting the two in our concept of marriage, we are able to elevate this nasty pleasantry to love’s higher plane.

Nonetheless, in moving towards secular society, giving into temptation or consciously desecrating moral codes of old, the fragile trial separation of intimacy and sex increasingly coagulates. It is perhaps no coincidence that Bao Ninh’s the Sorrow of War and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, both having been published in the last fifty years, present this separation. However, while Kundera seems content to describe without prejudice, Ninh’s presentation of this separation shows fundamental moral disapproval, indicating the vital disparity that characterises the two texts.

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The great love story of the Sorrow of War is one painted with nostalgia, disappointment and a pathetic sense of beautiful disaster. ‘Ordinary love’, as Kien refers to it, is rapt with nonsense and petty elations. With a sense of nostalgia, Kien notes, ‘Those were the days when all of us were young, pure and sincere. ‘ Most intrinsic is this purity of lien. Never consummated, Kien and Phuong’s relationship is ‘so intimate, so perfect, that it made [Kien] ache’, grieving him years on, while the reader is drawn into the immeasurable sadness of a very two-dimensional relationship.

There is a conscious effort, in fact, to maintain this purity on Kien’s part: while Phuong tempts, teases and cajoles, he ‘dared not accept her challenge to make love to her. ‘ As the text’s central romantic relationship, it is difficult to belittle, yet its sheer impotence is ridiculous. Kien and Phuong, while soul-mates, are nonetheless teenagers and, should the rest of his life not have been rooted in disaster, this little love-story might have ended in a mere spat. War having destroyed this possibility, her ‘beautiful youth’ manifests itself as a symbol of the ‘lost opportunities’ of his youthful love.

By presenting to us their tragedy, Ninh intimates his disapproval on some aspect of their coupling. Could this be a warning nod on the pointless exaltation and frivolities of teenage love? Is pubescence is an unfit state for love? Kien talks of their romance as being ‘tinged with painful forebodings of disaster’: while it is in fact the war that provokes this disaster, why should it not have been the painful process of maturity? This may also be comment on what happens should love and sex be separated.

As sexual connection gets taken out of love’s equation, Ninh presents to us a rather hollow liaison which, while heart-rendingly exquisite in its desperate purity, remains a hopeless what-could-have-been, infiltrating Kien’s dreams even in adulthood. This sexless situation is unapparent in the Unbearable Lightness of Being; Tomas’s libidinous nature perhaps preventing it even as a concept. Where we can draw parallels, however, is in the relationship of Tomas and Tereza for, despite its sexual dimension, it is able to retain a degree of purity.

As Tereza seeks spiritual elevation through culture, her sexual relationships too generate a flurry of emotional depth which succeed in pushing them to almost virginal heights. Her innocence and hope also contribute to this. As no serious prior relationship is mentioned in the text, it is possible that Tereza’s expectations of a romantic relationship have been gained by those she has read about; she is thus expecting a fantastic relationship as opposed to a real one, and we see that, like Phoung and Kien, Tereza is holding out for unattainable perfection. Tomas’s lust for carnal knowledge, however, can easily fuel a display of loveless sex.

As a scientist, his constant need for specifics and knowledge manifests itself in his spare time as his erotic friendships, giving him a key to understanding varied sexual response. Governed by rules, these affairs lack the capacity to develop any degree of love, for the battle is gratification and the war is knowledge. To win these both requires a merely physical connection and ‘stipulates that he should exclude all love from his life’. Tomas is able to continue in this manner for years without undue stress, until such point as he meets Tereza. From this point, he can no longer view his mistresses equally as Tereza triumphs over them all.

All his mistresses therefore ‘become ripe for insurrection. ‘ Immediately, this loveless sex begins to crumble. Being neither an oversensitive man nor a romantic idealist, his propensity toward independent thought leaves him largely unable to take seriously the laws of romantic fidelity. Why should he eventually give up these sexual misadventures? It is perhaps a comment on the nature of the relationship between sex and love that, despite consciously thinking ‘attaching love to sex [to be] one of the most bizarre ideas the Creator ever had,’ he eventually succeeds in doing so as he grows to understand Tereza’s point of view.

This is an indication of the relationship between purest love and purest sex: while both can be had, neither can thrive while the other endures. Tereza’s and Tomas’s views of sex allow us to see disparity in belief and it is in this manner that Kundera introduces the concept of these two discrete entities. Kundera appears to see no real flaws in this as a moral concept yet, as a reassessment of priorities is necessary, it is evident that there is some fault. This lies, however, in pragmatism: no amount of lust is able to conquer the all-consuming nature of love.

Love and sex may certainly be viewed as discrete, but their irrefutably linking manifests itself by preventing them from coexisting harmoniously. Kundera presents this also in attempt to demonstrate to the reader a pull at Tomas’s heartstrings: as the novel progresses, Tomas is unable to engage with his mistresses without the softening blow of a pre-coital alcoholic beverage. Ninh’s loveless sex is altogether softer and kinder. At once excited and desperate, it flirts with romantic development, yet, ravaged by war, is in fact only hope and escapism from the horrors of war culminating in well-meant lust.

This array of emotion is demonstrated when Kien discovers that some of the soldiers in his platoon have been visiting nearby farm girls. Ninh describes ‘these small acts of love [as] an omen of terrible things to come. ‘ The usage of the word love is somewhat tongue-in-cheek as the men’s affairs last only a couple of weeks. These ‘terrible things’ come to a head when the men discover that their sweethearts have been shot. Again, Ninh’s motives are unclear.

While it is evident that the nature of the affair meets his disapproval, demonstrated by its violent end, we are again left wondering whether it is the specifics of the affair which have incurred his authorial wrath or the nature of the rushed romance in general. This is an ‘escapist’ relationship; the boys expect to be killed in the near future and cannot truly profess to see the girls as anything more than an opportunity for off-duty fun and games. Ironically, it is the thing the soldiers seek to escape, as in war itself, which ravages the relationship, for the girls are shot.

More generally, however, this is a good example of well-intended loveless sex. Despite these good intentions, we see that it all ends in tears. This could be indication of Ninh’s belief that any attempt at separation, be it in attempt to hold onto sanctity or in search of entertainment, can only ever culminate in disaster, whether it be the all-consuming questions of what if or the destruction of a bond by circumstance. Although the circumstances are different and Tomas and Tereza do not have to contest with the brutalities of war, the themes across the texts are not dissimilar.

Both authors present a vision of sexual connection and sanctified love and compare and contrast the two. As all four relationships are forced to change, preventing them from continuing the separation, we see that Kundera and Ninh are in agreement that it is, if not impossible, certainly a challenging prospect, to separate the two. The major difference here comes from the authorial comment. While Kundera seems content to observe Tomas’ philandering and Tereza’s rhapsodising, Ninh’s presentation is tinged with disapproval. We should note, thus, the circumstances that provoke the end.

For Ninh, both relationships are unshakeably doomed, simply because he believes it to be necessary that love and sex should be co-dependent. Kundera however indicates that while love and sex can be discrete, it is impossible to have both without some confrontation. For harmony to be restored, a change must be made. The texts are written in different continents, decades and conditions, yet this acknowledgement that physical intimacy and romantic love cannot be separated creates links between the two texts, as the two writers nod to one another in accepting that, modern amorality forgotten , resistance is futile.