Symbiotic Love in "The Hitchhiking Game" by Milan Kundera
Love is often confused with the idea of losing oneself into something that is considered larger than life, larger than the self or sum of one’ parts. Out of the desire for human connection comes a desire to fuse with another person, for the two to become in essence one, to know another as completely and as deeply as one knows oneself. This is what Erich Fromm in his book The Art of Loving describes as immature, symbiotic love.
For Fromm, this sort of love is both transitory and illusory, and cannot not compare to the mature form, in which union is attained through the retention of the individual self rather than loss through symbiosis. Mature love, and the resulting knowledge of another person, can only be attained through the act of love, rather than the illusory state that is immature love. (For a more complete explanation of Fromm's theory of symbiotic love, see When Two Become One: Erich Fromm's Theory of Immature Love.
The Couple in Love
Erich Fromm’s theory of symbiotic union can be applied to Kundera’s “The Hitchhiking Game” as we witness an example of his model in action. The unnamed young couple of the story appear to inhabit a symbiotic union, with the young woman being the passive partner while the young man is the active.
The young woman describes a condition of symbiotic union when it is stated that “She wanted him to be completely hers and she to be completely his, but it often seemed to her that the more she tried to give him everything, the more she denied him something: the very thing that a light and superficial love or a flirtation gives to a person. It worried her that she was not able to combine seriousness with lightheartedess.”
One could argue that the “very thing” about a light and superficial love is a retention of one’s own integrity, and what the young woman was denying her boyfriend was really true self, the aspect of her being that was getting lost as she became incorporated into him. The worry then was not so much that she could not combine seriousness with lightheartedness, but that she could not both retain herself and cultivate union.
The story goes on to tell how “in solitude it was possible for her to get the greatest enjoyment from the presence of the man she loved. If his presence had been continuous, it would have kept on disappearing. Only when alone was she able to hold on to it.” If we consider the “it” to mean her sense of self, we begin to see an even clearer picture of the young woman slowly disappearing through the process of falling in love with the young man, of becoming “so devoted…that she never had doubts about anything he did, and confidently entrust[ing] every moment of her life to him.”
The young man at the beginning is rather subtly depicted as an example of active symbiosis. He is described as welcoming the young woman’s exuberance “with the tender solicitatude of a foster parent,” and considers her usual expression “childish and simple.” Also, the young woman is described repeatedly as “his” girl, indicative of the possessive nature of the active symbiosis that is happening. He engages in a bit of humiliation of the girl, enjoying and provoking her embarrassment about bodily functions, because he “values her purity” and shyness.
This purity that he finds so attractive could be considered a projection of something that he has found lacking in himself, unlike the young woman, he is described as thinking that “he knew everything there was to know about women,” thus she is required to imbue the necessary sense of innocence that he covets, whether or not this is actually the case.
Regardless of the young woman’s feelings, he deliberately draws out what he feels to be an example of purity through embarrassment, and through incorporating her into himself he can thus retain an attribute that would appear otherwise elusive.
The hitchhiking game that the two play, in which the young man and woman pretend to be strangers, is initially exciting to them, allowing the couple to re-experience the initial attraction, desire, and exhiliration of falling in love, or as Fromm would put it, becoming intimate with a stranger and confusing sudden closeness with the act of loving.
The game is a way for each to let go of the roles that have been cultivated through their relationship, the perceived notions of one another and their own beings, and explore their own senses of self. The resulting effect however, is more than a brief shedding of roles or constraints, but rather an exploration of a pathological active symbiosis.
The beginning of the story presents the young woman as an example of passive symbiosis, while the persona of the young man as actively symbiotic is not explored in much depth, the second portion of the story, where the game is being played, is a startling reversal. Here we see the girl breaking away from this role as she plays the part of the hitchhiker in which she “could say, do, and feel whatever she liked,” while the young man reacts by becoming more and more sadistic.
She is stepping away from being the passive partner, from being the pure and innocent person that the young man has perceived, and whom he imagines he loves. Reflects the young man, “What she was acting now was she herself; perhaps it was the part of her being which had formerly been locked up and which the pretext of the game had let out of its cage. He looked at her and felt growing aversion to her.”
The young man feels that he is losing the girl, as she no longer is the idealized version that he has sought to incorporate. “He worshipped rather than loved her…to him her inward nature was real only within the bounds of fidelity and purity, and that beyond these bounds it simply didn’t exist. Beyond these bounds she would cease to be herself.”
It is not that the girl is ceasing to be herself, it is that she is ceasing to be the self that has been stymied through immature love and that has existed as a component or projection of the young man, not with individual integrity. The young man realizes that the image he has held of the girl is not congruent with reality, that it was a projection of his own “desires, his thoughts, and his faith, and that the real girl now standing in front of him was hopelessly alien, hopelessly ambiguous.”
As he loses the illusion of union between the two, as the girl becomes a singular entity separate and alien from himself, he seeks to recapture the sense of union physically. Suspecting that he is losing her person, he tries to posess her corporally, through a sexual relationship that embodies control, shame, and command.
With the illusion of union between the two destroyed, the young man feels that he hates the girl, and so he treats her cruelly. When the sex act, and with it the game, is over the young man “didn’t feel like returning to their customary relationship.” For him, there is now an emptiness to it, it has, like the girls body, been exposed. Initially, he thought that he “knew” the girl, but has discovered that what he thought he knew was only his own projection, his own fantasy.
The girl has been revealed to him in a more complete sense, and what he has discovered is that he didn’t really know her at all. The illusion has disappeared, leaving only estrangement. Reacting to this, he has regressed to a base instinct of inflicting cruelty on the girl, in hopes that through shame and control he will catch some sort of glimpse into her inner being, that she will, as Fromm puts it, “betray a secret in [her] suffering.”
According to Fromm, this is the extreme of sadism, to resort in desparation to attempting to hold complete power over another in attempts to “know” their secrets. At the end, as the girl cries “I am me, I am me…” the boy becomes aware that he cannot know the girl any more than she can know herself, that there an essential sense of mystery to our human personas.
The boy recognizes that the girls assertion is “the unknown defined in terms of the same unknown quantity,” we have no better means of understanding what it means to be “I” than “me,” or likewise “you,” because though as humans we posess self-awareness, this self-awareness does not impart upon us the ability to see to the depths of the soul and to know ourselves and others in all completion and totality.
The Lesson Learned?
The story does not tell what becomes of the young couple, we only know that they have another “thirteen days’ vacation before them.” Perhaps the couple will act as if nothing has happened, and continue on as before. Perhaps the illusions that have been shattered through becoming “two bodies in perfect harmony…alien to each other…love-making without emotion or love,” will serve to erase any sense of union between the two, and they will seek out new strangers with whom to experience falling towards sudden intimacy with.
Or perhaps they will be able to transcend what Fromm calls “the irrationally distorted picture of [one another]” and engage in love in the mature sense, objectively, considerately, learning to truly love and engage in the act of loving, rather than as objects or beneficiaries. It is in this act of loving, says Fromm, that the only true knowledge of the self and the other can occur, because the act of true loving “transcends thought, transcends words…and is the daring plunge into the experience of union,” rather than toying with the illusion of it through games and play.
The hitchhiking game has revealed to the couple that they are no closer than the roles of strangers that they have donned for the night, yet perhaps with this newfound awareness they will be able to learn to really love, to really know one another in a way that will transcend symbiosis and immature love, allowing for the paradox of becoming one yet remaining two, of both truly knowing and not knowing the other, except in the act of love.
"The Hitchhiking Game" is found in Kundera's short story collection Laughable Loves.
First published in 1956, The Art of Loving remains a classic today.