Milan Kundera, Novelist and Closet Astrologer

by Giuseppe Raudino on November 1, 2009

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“The hands on the dial of a clock turn in a circle. The zodiac, as drawn by an astrologer, also resembles a dial. A horoscope is a clock. Whether we believe in the predictions of astrology or not, a horoscope is a metaphor of life that conceals great wisdom.” (1)

With these words, the famous Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera stated one of his key ideas about human existence: every person’s life has its own theme, a constant group of elements that recur over and over again with slight differences, precisely like a fixed scenario which is, from time to time, affected by positive or negative influences.

It is no accident that all the characters outlined in Kundera’s writings are incapable of escaping their destinies. The purpose for which they exist is something which cannot disappear from their lives, despite any attempt or wish of their own. In the well known novel titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for instance, Tomas is not able to live without his beloved Tereza, even though this choice means the return to his country ruled by a communist regime and, consequently, the total loss of his freedom. Tomas has to decide whether he wants to stay abroad, pursuing a promising career as a brilliant surgeon, or come back to Tereza, joining her in a place where he is not allowed to do any intellectual or scientific work because of his political ideas. At last, Tomas’ mission—or destiny, or life theme—happens to be Teresa, not surgery.

It seems that, besides passions, needs and desires, when it comes to arranging the plot the author takes into account the astral influences his characters are subject to. As a matter of fact, when Tomas makes the ultimate decision to rejoin Tereza, he “shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Es muss sein. Es muss sein.’” (2)

The German expression “Es muss sein” means “It must be” and is taken from the motif of the last movement of Beethoven’s last quartet, entitled “The heavy (or difficult) resolution.” The musical allusion to Tomas’ destiny is explained by Kundera just a couple of paragraphs further: “[W]e believe that the greatness of a man stems from the fact that he bears his fate as Atlas bore the heavens on his shoulders. Beethoven’s hero is a lifter of methaphysical weights.” (2)

Therefore, Tomas’ decision is exceedingly heavy, because it is dictated by a higher, somehow inexplicable necessity which resembles the astrological idea of destiny, fortune or fate. Tomas bears his fate; he feels its heaviness.

Not surprisingly, Milan Kundera shows a careful knowledge about astrology. “How does an astrologer draw your horoscope?” he asks. And then explains: “He makes a circle, an image of the heavenly sphere, and divides it into twelve parts representing the individual signs: the ram, the bull, twins, and so on. Into this zodiac circle he then places symbols representing the sun, moon, and seven planets exactly where these stars stood at the moment of your birth. It is as if he took a clock dial regularly divided into twelve hours and added nine more numbers, irregularly distributed. Nine hands turn on the dial: they are the sun, moon, and planets as they move through the universe in the course of your life. Each planet-hand is constantly forming ever-new relationships with the planet numbers, the fixed signs of your horoscope.” (1)

Drawing of the sign Virgo by novelist Milan Kundera.

Drawing of the sign Virgo by novelist Milan Kundera.

Certainly, an aspect of the great, undisclosed wisdom behind the horoscope is, for Kundera, its analogy with music and, particularly, with one type of composition: “[Life] does not resemble a picaresque novel in which from one chapter to the next the hero is continually being surprised by new events that have no common denominator. It resembles a composition that musicians call a theme with variations.” (1)

Referring to one person’s natal chart, Kundera wrote about an “unrepeatable configuration” which “forms the permanent theme of your life, its algebraic definition, the thumbprint of your personality […]. Supposedly, astrology teaches us fatalism: you won’t escape your fate! But in my view, astrology […] says something far more subtle: you won’t escape your life’s theme!” (1)

Astrology, however, has not merely been a Kunderasque narrative theme; it has been even an activity by which he earned a living, when, as a dissident intellectual, Kundera was kept away from the cultural stage and he couldn’t neither teach nor write books.

Admitted Kundera: “During those years of excommunication I wrote several thousand horoscopes. […] Parisian friends had once given me a whole series of books by the French astrologer André Barbault, whos name on the front page was adorned by the proud title fo Vice-Président du Centre International d’Astrologie. Right underneath, disguising my handwriting, I wrote “À Milan Kundera avec admiration, André Barbault,” and leaving the books thus dedicated lying around unobtrusively on my desk, I would tell my wide-eyed Prague clientele by way of explanation that I had once served as Barbault’s assistant for several months in Paris.” (3)

In addition, Kundera accepted a friend’s proposal that he write an astrology column for a magazine.

“The story about the astrology column of Milan Kundera is true,”  Pavel Turnovsk, founder and former chairman of the Astrological Society in the Czech Republic, confirmed. “Under the pseudonym of Emil Werner, he wrote twelve articles dedicated to 12 signs of zodiac and final comprehensive material about modern psychological astrology based completely on books of French astrologer André Barbault.”

As Pavel Turnovsk suggests, the articles have been published by the youth-targeted weekly Mladý svět. The main article was titled “Hvězdy a lidský osud” (4), that is “Stars and Human Fate”, while the remaining pieces were “monthly texts for individual signs […] with my own drawings of Taurus, Aries, Virgo, Pisces.” (3)

Kundera's astrology column with hand drawing of the sign of Virgo.

Kundera's astrology column with hand drawing of the sign of Virgo.

In conclusion, Milan Kundera is one of the most prominent living writers, his works are of conspicuous importance, but his numerous references to astrology are often unnoticed. Equally neglected are his spiritual ties to the horoscope’s wisdom concealed between the lines of his stories: “The road she drove onto from the highway was quiet, and distant stars, infinitely distant stars, shone over it.” (5)

References and Notes

(1) Milan Kundera, Immortality, Grove Press, 1991, pp. 273-274

(2) Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Faber and Faber, 1984, pp. 30-32

(3) Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Faber and Faber, 1982, pp. 58-60

(4) Emil Werner (pseudonym of Milan Kundera), “Hvězdy a lidský osud”  and other articles in Mladý svět,1972 vol. 14

(5) Milan Kundera, Immortality, Grove Press, 1991, pp. 258-259

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Armando Peña September 28, 2011 at 1:39 am

great article

Some years ago I read The book of laughter and forgetting and i was captivated by this image of Milan, writing the horoscope for the comunist leader.

Yesterday i find myself trying to remember that specific chapter, so i googled the book, and the words “kundera” and “horoscope” without any reference but your article.

Thank you so much, for a moment i thought i was crazy.

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