The Unbearable Lightness of Being

In Literature & the Arts by gravierhouseLeave a Comment

Milan Kundera begins with a somewhat abstract and philosophical exposition on the unbearable lightness, or weight, of being. It is pretty much all tell, and no show. And yet I loved it. I thought it was pure genius.

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return?

It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have become mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one….

….If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross….

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, to take leave of the earth and its earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

I assumed that the narrative to follow would compliment with an equally compelling, and corresponding, show.

But I never really saw it.

I liked several of the parts. On thing that resonated for me, for example, was the freedom in being a janitor, as opposed to being a doctor. Kundera touches on the political, the personal, love, country, profession, freedom, censorship, art, and pretty much everything. But it seemed disjointed in a sense. I never really got the whole.

Men who “can’t help themselves” from having various liaisons with various women is a tired and tedious plot line. I guess it’s supposed to signify the “unbearable lightness” as contrasted with the “unbearable weight” of true love. But that seems to give the matter a lot more weight than it deserves.

Maybe I missed it, but I’m not sure how they got out of Prague. Nor did I understand why they went back. Or, in particular, why Tereza went back. (Presumably, Tomas went back because of her.) And why weren’t they thrown in jail, or sent to Siberia, or otherwise punished for fleeing, or escaping, or criticizing the government or whatever in the first place?

I vaguely recall that there was a movie when I was in high school that was fairly well celebrated and somewhat controversial due to sex or nudity. But I never saw it. Now having read the book, I am not sure how or why you would make The Unbearable Lightness of Being into a movie.

The parts of the book that can’t be dramatized are the ones worth reading.

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