Tuesday, June 30, 2009

115. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

January 2008
History: Written in 1982, and first published in France in 1984. The book centers on Nietzsche's idea of eternal return - that is, the idea that the universe and all the events therein have all happened before, and will continue to recur ad infinitum. Kundera challenges this idea, offering an alternative: each of us has only one life to live, and what happens once will never occur again. He calls this idea "lightness", and refers to the concept of eternal return as "heaviness" or "weight".
Plot: Set against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the story evolves around different fictional topics but could just as well be the story of real people. Tomas, the male protagonist, falls in love with Teresa and marries her, while still having many one-night stands in an attempt to give weight (meaning) to his life. Moreover, he maintains a love-affair with Sabina.
Teresa is aware of Tomas' adulteries and cannot bear the situation, which manifests itself in numerous detailed nightmares illustrating the realities of life. For Teresa, love and sex go together, whereas Tomas believes that having sex without love is possible. The female protagonist therefore suffers from the heaviness of life, while her male counterpart feels the unbearable lightness of being. Teresa later tries to gain this lightness for herself. Most of us carry the heavy and the light, the expression of either part depending on our character and circumstances. For that reason, one can identify with Teresa as well as Tomas and Sabina too.
Kundera led me to understand that the "specialness" of relationships is not really held in the place that we tend to think it is nor manifests itself in the way that we wish. That love is not what we think it is and unfortunately can sometimes only be gained through situations that we would otherwise find abhorrent if not consumed with these feelings. Sex and love are so intimately joined that it is very difficult to distinguish between the two. Tereza stayed with Tomas knowing he spent most days and nights in another woman’s arms because she loved him, and therefore would suffer anything for him. For her, sex and love were the same thing and that is what tormented her but at the same time made her stay.
The very fact that they stay together and seem to find some degree of happiness illustrates that an acceptance of a relationship that falls well short of satisfying and fulfilling hopes, is possible. Is Tomas and Tereza's tolerance of their imperfect love, their acceptance of where they have arrived at simply a reflection of the fact that you can't change the strong’s oppression of the weak? You may hate it, as Tereza hates Thomas' infidelity, but you have to accept it and move on. However, this suggestion that change can only be incremental. (at best) and that basically everyone must cope with life, however awful, must be rejected. Life without dreams is no life at all, but perhaps this is the very point that Kundera was trying to portray. Kundera plays with opposites: life and death, heaviness and lightness throughout his story. The reader can try to decide which life is happier: the light or the dark? What is "The Unbearable Lightness of Being?" It is the realization that, with no hope of knowing the right path from the wrong, there can be no wrong path. One is necessarily absolved of mistakes. The search for meaning in life leans towards the necessity of significance, which comes from a sense of weight.
The novel is an attempt to identify what makes us need companionship in life so badly, trying to understand the relationships between the conflicting desires that humans possess and act upon. It shows how vulnerable we are, and how miserable we can be made by our contradictory desires, aspirations and impulses. If you read deep enough into this novel you’ll repeatedly think, ‘he’s talking about me’.
Review: I really liked this book. It was the poetic and philosophical book about people that are just interacting with each other, mainly the man and the woman he was in love with. A touching and sad novel, at once a compelling love story, philosophical text, and dialogue with Frederich Nietzsche -- The Unbearable Lightness of Being is all of these and more, perhaps most importantly a manifesto of embracing nihilism.
Milan Kundera opens the novel with a discourse on Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal recurrence. He rejects any view of the recurrence as being real or metaphysical. It is metaphorical he assures us. In a world of objective meaninglessness one must fall into nihilism unless one acts as if one's acts recur eternally, thus giving our acts "weight," the weight of those choices we make, as though recurring eternally, living forever. Kundera rejects Nietzsche's optimism and in compelling detail and poignancy he give us the story of the painful love affair of Tomas and Tereza, condemned by fate and choice to live together, yet never ceasing to cause each other enormous pain and suffering.
Opening Line: “The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it; to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!”
Closing Line: “The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.”
Quotes: "Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence...
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a basis of kitsch...”
Rating: Very Good.

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