Monday 14 May 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is what I might have looked like if I was a book. It encompasses fully the storm of thoughts about live, existence, love, and purpose that constantly leaves me sleepless during the night. While reading, I felt that these were the thoughts I was trying to convene to people but I was never able to formulate properly. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was more than words for me; it was a feeling of belonging to something; a feeling that finally I understand why, how, and what. I read it twice - first on a Caribbean cruise, where I felt I wasn't in a philosophical mood to appreciate it. Second time, I bore the benefits of re-reading a novel and I reassessed my own beliefs, feelings, and attitude.

It took 4 chance happenings for The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera to come into my hands. I happened to have to do numerical tests for a job interview. I happened to go to my friend's house so that she can help me out. I happened not to have any book to read at the moment and she randomly gave me Kundera's novel. She happened not to be able to finish it as it was too philosophical for her so I took that as a challenge.

It took 6 chance happenings for Tereza to come into Tomas's life and to stay there indefinitely.Tomas is a surgeon living in Prague just before the famous Spring Uprising of 1968. An incorrigible womanizer, he cannot resist his infatuation with sexual flings. Kundera explains:

What is unique about the "I" hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual "I" is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered.

In that sense, he is infatuated with the unique in a woman and his conquest satisfy his search for that one thing that differentiates one from another. Until Tereza is brought to him by chance. She appears on his door with her luggage after they have only met once. Particularly important about Tereza is her desire to separate her soul from her body. During her childhood her mother constantly embarrassed her trying to show that Tereza's body was like anyone else's and she shouldn't be ashamed of it. Tereza, on the other hand, has been trying to identify through her soul; she was looking at her body trying to prove there is something more to it; that Tereza would still be Tereza even her body is completely different.

In Tereza's eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library, and above all, the novels. She had read any number of them from Fielding to Thomas Mann. They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects. She loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

At that particular moment I stopped to breath. I felt someone was speaking through my voice and reciprocating my thoughts on the white paper in front of me. I have been thinking about my infatuation with books but I never could actually formulate it. Tereza quite actually resembles me. Realizing she is weak, she leans on Tomas, who is the only one to whom she can finally unveil her soul and separate it from her body.

"Pick me up" - is the message of a person who keeps falling.

"Pick me up" is what Tereza keeps telling Tomas. And he always does. He holds her hands until they stop trembling from her latest nightmare. He moves from Prague to Zurich back to Prague and then to the countryside to make her happy. Despite his infidelities, Tomas loves and needs to protect Tereza. Most importantly, he feels a strong sense of compassion for her:

For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.

The other women satisfy his urge for conquest; Tereza, on the other hand, has occupied his soul and heart and no other woman is admitted any more there.

The novel takes place during the famous Spring Uprising in Prague in 1968 and the subsequent Russian invasion. The situation under communist rule is unbearable - people have no right to speak, think, or act against the regime. Many of the intellectuals lose their job (including Tomas). The artists are forbidden to express anything beside the crude, real image of Communism. Amongst them is Sabina, one of Tomas's closest lovers. She is an artist fascinated with aspects of incomparable images in which the interface of the images betray one another. In her own life she is the eternal betrayer, not unlike the tensions in her own paintings. She has betrayed her parents, her home, her relationship with Tomas and her subsequent lover Franz. For her betrayal is a search for boundaries. She keeps betraying everyone and everything hoping to reach a time and place, which she wouldn't want to betray.

Franz is the idealist of the story. Before meeting Sabina he lives a lonely and sad life as a prominent professor trapped in an unhappy marriage. His soul longs for marches, for uprisings, for change. He sees the world as a Grand March towards progress, towards a better and brighter future. Kundera mocks this illusion, as there is no basis for it and as history has numerously disproved it. People no longer believe in the grand march as they realize the meaningless of human action. Franz, who always longed for adventures, finds a rather trivial death.

One of Kundera's central themes is the being that has weight. We have been raised to believe that lightness is positive and weight negative. However, burden is what gives the being value. Only necessity is heavy and only what is heavy has value. In that sense, the greatness of man comes from the fact that he bears his fate in a much similar way Atlas bore the world on his hand. I was greatly attracted to that idea. Throughout my life I have rejected lightness and I have welcomed burden. Burden (and weight) makes me feel alive, as if I am battling some inner demons and only through defeating them would I really have value.

From this idea stems the concept of recurrence:

Human life occurs only once and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.

I spent enormous time going over my past decisions and wondering what would have happened if I made a different move. Kundera gave me a realistic view of the subject - man lives only one life. There is no recurrence and thus no way for us to test our decisions in a laboratory and see which one was right and which one - wrong. We get only one chance and we must bear the consequences. The notion of fate, or what Nietzsche refers to as "amor fati" (love of fate) is the notion that nature presents us with situations which we cannot escape and we simply have to bear them. Tomas must accept and bear his love for Tereza no matter how painful and hopeless.Yet, even this acceptance cannot escape the ultimate "unbearable lightness of being," the meaninglessness of all our acts in a world in which our acts simply don't live forever:

And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.

Thus Kundera seems to accept Nietzsche's argument that only an eternal recurrence allows one to survive meaninglessness, but then the survival itself is impossible since the eternal recurrence does not and cannot happen.

My personally favorite (maybe because I greatly identify with it) was the concept of vertigo

We might call vertigo the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down.

No, vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us, which tempts and lures us; it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified we defend ourselves.

I have felt this utter urge to fall, but I never found the words to describe it. It's a feeling born out of a moment without any particular cause. It, however, encompasses me fully, forcing me to test the boundaries of falling. I had fallen before but now I want to fall harder, deeper, better. This urge to do something that will eventually hurt only myself, this desire to experience pain and to be weaker than ever, has been haunting me without explanation. I have tried to fight it; now I am beginning to accept it. This intoxication is what I (and Kundera's characters) need to overcome the meaningless of our actions in a world where nothing recurs, where whatever happens is subject to fate and random occurrences, of which we make important (but often false) conclusions. Like a dog, we want repetition. Unlike a dog, we only get a straight line, which can take us anywhere. And there is no way we can determine whether this was right or wrong; moreover, our life will have been meaningless because repetition and recurrence give rise to meaning. And man is deprived of that.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a comedy and a tragedy; it is about understanding and accepting the fallacies of human life; it is about enduring the burden and pain and realizing we must accept that weight no matter how painful it might be. It is a philosophical masterpiece with striking ideas on the problem of existence, purpose, fate, life, and LOVE:

Perhaps all the questions asked of love, to measure, test, prove and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.


  1. Thank you for this review oa favorite novel of mine. First time I read it I had no real grasp of philosophical nuances, being 16 at the time. Having gotten interested in Nietzsche as a hobby in my 40's, I reread Kunder's UBLofB which takes more literally Nietzsche's eternal recurrence even though Nietzsche meant it as a though experiment. Nonetheless, it opens up the novel into that great conversation on several matters, and ultimately what our lives mean. I'm reminded of a John Cage quote: No why. Just here. Well pleased to come across someone who's read UBLofB more than once.