The concept of individualism has been a major component of modern thought since its inception. Individualism asserts that people are “one and indivisible” (Kundera 21). The problem with individualism arises when one is restrained from doing what one would like to do. This prohibition results in the soul becoming divided against itself. Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents and Friedrich Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals both discuss their perspectives on the origins of the divided soul. In his novel, Milan Kundera offers a comment on individualism, using the ideas of Freud and Nietzsche, in his characterization of Ludvik Jahn as a divided soul.
Freud maintains that man’s purpose in life is to achieve happiness, which he defines as “satisfaction of needs” (Freud 25). This desire to obtain happiness is impossible for people due to the suffering imposed upon us by our own bodies, nature, and our fellow human beings (Freud 37). However, humans still endeavor to fulfill this “pleasure principle” which causes a division in the person between what they desire and what they are able to achieve (Freud 34).
In Kundera’s The Joke, Ludvik exhibits this futile search for happiness. Humiliated by the bourgeois condescension of his aunt and uncle, Ludvik believes he can obtain what he desires by joining the Communist party (Kundera 137). However Ludvik repeatedly comes into conflict with the Communist leadership at his university because of what they refer to as his individualism and intellectualism (Kundera 32). lsm99
Ludvik attempts to conform to the conduct expected of him whi ch results in a “tiny crack opening up between the person [he] had been and the person [he] should be” (Kundera 32). Freud asserts that this conflict between the self and society is the primary source for humanity’s suffering (Freud 38). Despite knowing that the spirit of the times didn’t approve of “pranks or irony,” Ludvik writes a joke about communism that gets him expelled from the Communist party and the university (Kundera 31).
In addition to conflict between self and society creating divisions in people, Ludvik also exhibits the inner division between his ego and superego, as propounded by Freud. The ego is the conscious part of a personality that most directly influences behavior and the superego is derived from internalized aggression that the ego “would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individuals” (Freud 84). In short, the superego is one’s conscience which provides a check upon the actions and thoughts of the ego by imposing a sense of guilt (Freud 86).
While Ludvik’s ego causes him to feel that the words he had written were “nothing so terrible,” his superego imposes feelings of guilt upon him (Kundera 39). Ludvik begins to believe that other people’s evaluation of his actions and personality to be more true than what he considers himself to be (Kundera 46). At his hearing, Ludvik admits to the moral failings of individualism, intellectualism, complacency, skepticism, and cynicism, but still maintains that he is devoted to the Communist party (Kundera 191). This assertion is paradoxical since all the qualities Ludvik possesses are diametric to the values of the party. Thus Ludvik accepts that he must be punished in some manner, but still tries to resist expulsion from the Communist party (Kundera 46).