Dream in Milan Kundera’s “Life is Elsewhere”

To dream a dream. What is more of an escape? Dreams are the human means to escape the confusion of life – the climax of relaxation is depicted as a wondrous sleep, disturbed only by the passing dream which casually floats through the mind. After a hard day of battling to prove ourselves in life, we revert to our dreams, within which we are given the safety to lick our wounds while exploring uncharted territories. The “lucid chaos” of dreams combined with the monotony of sleep creates the perfect medium for self-discovery, while escaping the harsheties in life.

For much the same reasons, Jaromil in Life Is Elsewhere, dreams. During the early years of his life, Jaromil’s dreams present him with an opportunity to discover himself, while fleeing from his mother’s selfish, domineering love. Jaromil searches for life elsewhere, reverting to his imagination to flee the heavy burdens imposed upon him by real life. He finds safety within his imaginings. In his dreams, Jaromil “prelives” his future while escaping his callous present. However, he sets a trap for himself; he soon is living in his dreams instead of his reality. Moreover, the dreams are in constant motion, spinning in a neverending circle where it soon becomes evident there is no ending. This parallels the active yet self-destructive cycle of Jaromil’s later life: beginning at the denial of his true self as a poet, continuing with the betrayal and abuse of the redhead, and finally, the betrayal of his ideal counterpart at the eclipse of his youth. As he attempts to become the ideal self in his dreams, he shatters not only his life but also the lives of others close to him.

Let us explore his relationship with his “ideal self”; his alter ego, Xavier. Whilst Xavier has everything that Jaromil believes he lacks (and consequently he is born of Jaromil’s yearnings), it is clear within Jaromil’s dreams that such a person would be unable to flourish within the real world. The suave, savvy, and free Xavier is divested of all responsibility for his rash actions. He slips through his life (Jaromil’s dreams) into another “scene” when a need for responsibility surfaces. The stages within which Xavier is “living” are discontinued in the aftermath of his actions as he plunges head first into another dream. Eventually, during Jaromil’s later life, the borders between the dreams and reality are blurred as Jaromil tries to infiltrate the shoes of his alter ego. Given the fact that such a creation as Xavier could not survive in reality, Jaromil’s life is snuffed out by his incapacity to face life and the consequences his decisions have on him.

To analyze such dreams and understand the shirking of responsibility displayed in the colorful scenes, we must also consider the concepts of the dreams themselves. Keeping in mind that Xavier is an active role in Jaromil’s life, we must closely follow the dreams that keep one boy running and keep one “man” alive. Where do the dreams begin? In Jaromil’s life, they are born at the awkward cusp between youth and adolescence; the time when Jaromil begins to pull away from his mother’s suffocating grasp and leap into the unknown arms of a strange new world. This was on of the reasons Jaromil slipped away was his desire to be free of his mother’s self-centered love – a burden that he strained against all of his life. Jaromil has reverted to himself in the past to heal the wounds of his pride, and this behavior becomes unhealthy as it progresses to the point where he creates a dream persona that begins to dominate his life (Xavier). His feelings of being crushed, as well as his natural tendency as a poet to internalize the world around him, are factors that led to the creation of this unhealthy, fictitious world that eventually surrounds him and guides him, blindly, to  his downfall.

The irresponsibility the dreams present, i.e., reversion to himself instead of fighting his battles and the constant need to be considered a hero (although the only “heroic” acts he performs are in his head – and it’s debatable whether or not these could be called heroic since many are executed with self-interest as motive) also leads him stray. Jaromil wishes to sail undauntedly through life, yet puts himself in situations where his refusal to “be a man” and face the consequences ultimately leads to his destruction, evident in his betrayals:

In the case of his denial of himself as a true, surrealist poet, Jaromil one-eighty’s from his original talent that the painter has indirectly help him discover and “sells his soul” to gain acceptance. Instead of fighting for what he knows is his calling (indeed, he began writing surrealist poetry without the guidance of anyone in his life; in fact much of his later surrealist poetry was rejected by his one critic, his mother, because she was afraid of the implications of his content). It is after he is accepted by the young socialist group for “his” ideas (although the words that spewed from his mouth were not his own) that Jaromil begins to write socialist-realist poetry, gaining approval not only of his ‘comrades’ and the janitor’s son but also of his mother. This later leads to the betrayal at the underground resistance party, which will come into perspective further along.

In the case of his betrayal and abuse of the redhead, Jaromil sincerely believes he is acting as a real man would act, to the sickening horror of Kundera’s readers. His relationship with the redhead is comparable to a whirlwind; beginning by mistake, and prolonged to the point where Jaromil “owns” her and then betrays her to the state. His ideals of love are completely unrealistic, and their relationship is sick at the beginning. The redhead is a girl he wishes to own, to have created, to have her completely dependent on him alone, even forcing her to choose between her family and him.

At the end of this tumultuous affair, much as in Xavier’s betrayal of the blond girl in Jaromil’s dreams (hence, Jaromil “prelived” his betrayal), Jaromil turns the redhead over to the authorities for a crime we later learn she did not commit. Although Jaromil is dangerously jealous of any man who comes near his girlfriend, his feeling of power over her destiny (comparable to Xavier’s feeling of control over the blond girl’s destiny) intoxicates him, and he feels his hands on the redhead instead of the guard’s; he sees the humiliation of her having to pee in a bucket instead of the guards’ eyes see it. Yet here is one of the few points where Jaromil’s and Xavier’s feelings do not coincide: Xavier feels remorse for leading the blond girl to death over her love, while Jaromil(who, it can be argued, has done the exact same thing) feels that he has betrayed no one; he is a true patriot to his country and has proven his true love to the redhead. The denial of the certain severity of his actions is evident, but by this point in Life Is Elsewhere, Jaromil has sunk so far into his delusions of grandeur and heroism that he cannot see the implications of his actions and the true part he plays.

In the case of his death at the filmmaker’s house, Jaromil has stepped completely out of his shoes into those of Xavier, thereby freeing him (or so he thinks) of any responsibilities his actions may pin on him. He speaks words not his own, does things he never would have as the true Jaromil (almost willingly cheating on the redhead), but this time, his actions do catch up to him. The previously mentioned denial of self becomes apparent as Jaromil is ridiculed for turning away from the painter (i.e., not having the guts to follow his original talent instead of writing “beautiful shit”). And as Jaromil is shoved out on the winter-stained balcony, it is as if the little boy we once knew and miss is pulled from the dangerous and decrepit persona of the character we have come to loathe. This presents the ultimate betrayal, an example how a betrayal of self leads to self-imposed destruction. His intentions fall to the floor; the responsibilities he has shirked his entire life catch up to him, and Jaromil pays the ultimate price for his fallibilities. Lying on the ice-kissed floor of the balcony, Jaromil finally realizes the fool he has played. Later when he sinks into the illusions of his fever, he confronts his alter ego, his enemy, showing a display of courage that is lacking in Jaromil’s character throughout his life.

We sigh and re-explore the sad worlds of Jaromil and Xavier, and we re-evaluate our own dreams, intentions, escapes, and responsibilities. Do we live life as the fearful Jaromil did, shirking the character-building and growing experience of responsibility? Do we design a dream state to live in because “the grass is always greener” over there? Let Jaromil, a boy so filled with promise, not have died in vain. Instead, let us take heed from his sorrows, to give us the courage to face reality instead of escape from it, to fight for the free yet self-empowered spirit of Jaromil within us, and to resist the illusive charms of our own Xaviers.

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