“Let the Old Dead Make Way for the Young Dead” is a story in which two people who have known each other in the Biblical sense once in the past meet up again “in a small Czech town,” and have to try to decide whether or not to make love again, fifteen years later. They each have something operating as an impediment, a true enough picture of what I have called in my title “the pulse of humanity.” Each is haunted by a sense of personal failure, the man because he is poor, has no Communist party status, has not done much in his life, and has had little or no success with attractive or alluring women, the woman because she is fifteen years older than he and has in the meantime been made to feel even older by a son who wants her to “act her age” (i.e., who is putting her determinedly in the past with his memories of his father). In the more immediate sense, she has inadvertently allowed her husband’s grave lease to lapse and his corpse to be disposed of, which she knows her grown son will blame her for. Not a promising scenario for a hot romance, is it?
And yet there is a sense of human desperation constant in the story, a sense of two people, each reaching out for something from the past with which to shore up the uncertain and unappealing future. At first when they meet on the street, the man, who is now around thirty-five, doesn’t recognize the woman, who was thirty-five to his twenty when they made love the first time. She is upset because the man at the cemetery refused to admit her claim about her husband’s right to the space and put it to her in concise terms that “the old dead ought to make room for the young dead.” She is tired and footsore and depressed at no longer knowing anyone in town, so she accepts her former acquaintance’s invitation to come up to his bachelor apartment for coffee or tea. This is her reasoning, for at first though she thinks of him as a former lover, there is no desire for him in her mind: “She could wash her hands in his bathroom and then sit in his soft armchair (her legs ached), look around his room, and listen to the boiling water bubbling away behind the screen which separated the kitchen nook from the room.” (This is stated indirectly from her point of view, but unless she is remembering his room from the past–and we are told he has only been living here seven years, so only the furnishings could be the same–she cannot know ahead of time exactly what she will find there. She is in fact postulating the appearance of his room, fantasizing in a way, and she turns out to be fairly correct in her surmise.)
He in his turn is obsessed with his thinning hair and the future bald spot which he often spends time looking at in the mirror. He has been married in the time they have been apart, was faithful, and has been divorced for seven years, and because he cannot afford to date accomplished women, and the town is deficient of eligible women in any case, he has largely been celibate, or has slept with immature women who seemed “stupid” to him. When he asks her about her presence in the town, she tells him that she and her son come every year to her husband’s grave on All Soul’s Day, but she omits to reveal to him her unfortunate failure to hold onto the grave, as if it were a physical fault she were ashamed of; this is pertinent because the two of them are so otherwise obsessed with their physical appearances in relation to the possibility of again making love. He notices her aging, and knows too that he will not continue to find her attractive, but at the same time “he saw the delicate movement of her hand with which she refused the offer of cognac [and] he realized that this charm, this magic, this grace, which had enraptured him, was still the same in her, though hidden beneath the mask of old age, and was in itself still attractive….” He begins to tell her his pessimistic thoughts, only of course “he was silent about the bald spot that was beginning to appear (it was just like her silence about the canceled grave). On the other hand, the vision of the bald spot was transubstantiated into quasi-philosophical maxims to the effect that time passes more quickly than man is able to live, and that life is terrible, because everything in it is necessarily doomed to extinction. He voiced these and similar maxims, to which he awaited a sympathetic response….” Instead, she tells him that it is “superficial” talk and that she doesn’t like to hear it.
Suddenly, however, he breaches the gap between them by reaching across and stroking her hand. He begins to remember the first time they made love fifteen years before, when “she absolutely defied his imagination” not due to her deficits but to his own. He also remembers that at the time she had whispered something to him which he had neglected to ask her about when he didn’t hear it correctly, and now there is no chance to recover it; as well, at the time she was the sexual aggressor, and now he is, and she is reluctant to be with him, is in fact very reluctant. At the time he had been a callow youth, and had made love to her in the dark, and the time is now unrecoverable, because now she looks different, and he will never be able to see her again as she once was. There is of course shallow thinking going on in both of them, but also honest thought, because he and she both know that he will feel the disgust all men feel at a physically imperfect woman (and though this seems like yet another narrow and unfair picture of both men and women alike when taken in the abstract, in the story it rings true, it is a true remark, because it is part of the truth of what these two characters have between them, part of the human reality they are grasping at willy-nilly which they both have need to fear will at some point elude them).
The pertinence of All Soul’s Day suddenly comes to the foreground when the narrative tells us that part of the reason she doesn’t want to give in to his lovemaking in the present-day situation is because she knows that her previous appearance fifteen years before has been a “memorial” to him, a memorial to beauty and sexuality. He keeps telling her “don’t fight me” and “there’s no need to fight me” when he strokes her hand and tries to touch her, and she wars with the memory of her son’s attempts to age her so that he himself can become sexually more mature with the women in his own life, because he is unable to allow his mother to be an attractive woman to someone nearer her own age. The significance of a memorial in this story thus becomes important because in the present tense, the woman finally allows the man to make love to her, and as we are told, “Evening was still a long way off. This time the room was full of light.” These lovely final lines make the point that as long as we have any bloom of life on us at all, death is still far enough away for love and life to intervene between us and the doom of time we all face, thus “evening” is “still a long way off.” Finally, “this time the room was full of light” means not only that in a mature love affair we see our need for what it is and are no longer able to deceive ourselves about what we are doing, but also that our memorials to the past become of less moment and we are full of the “light” of the present, and able to show generosity and love in a complete and fulfilling way. Thus, in terms of memorials, in this story “the old dead” (the memorials of the past) have made way for a present which, because the two lovers have no future together in a permanent sense, will shortly become “the young dead.” Yet in showing the common “pulse of humanity,” this story is about hope, love, and eternal youth, and not about age and despair.
2 responses to “Milan Kundera’s “Let the Old Dead Make Way for the Young Dead” and the Pulse of Humanity–“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”””
Fantastic insight and analysis as always, Doc. Keep up the great work =)
Thank you for the compliment, but in this case, my work was already done for me by a master (Kundera). The insight with which he works is an inspiration in itself.