Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an exploration into the philosophical concept of lightness, used in ontology and associated with existentialism. Nietzsche's doctrine of eternal return is used to illustrate lightness. The idea, according to Kundera, is 'a mad myth.' Its reverse shows that 'a life which disappears once and for all……does not return …is like a shadow without weight.' Life's 'horror, sublimity and beauty mean nothing.'
Kundera rejects Nietzsche's optimism by presenting the story of the painful love affair of Tomas and Tereza, condemned by fate, people who compromise to live together, never ceasing to cause enormous pain and suffering to each other.
The Franco-Czech novelist argues that if the French Revolution were to have endless occurrences, would the historian be less proud of Robespierre and the bloody years thereafter? Since there will be no return, the revolution has turned into mere 'words, theories and discussion…lighter than feathers.' The same argument, if extended, explains the War of Liberation in Bangladesh.
The novel, set in 1968 Prague, depicts how artists and intellectuals lived in Communist Czechoslovakia, the uprising, and the invasion by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies during the Prague Spring. Tomas, a surgeon living in Prague, is an incorrigible womaniser, unable to resist his unending stream of meaningless sexual flings. Tereza is drawn to him, sent to him by fate. Tomas' constant infidelities numb her with pain; yet her unending love and need draw her to him inexorably and him to her.
From the text of a Beethoven composition Tomas takes the line: "Es muss Sein" (it must be). He even leaves the safety of Switzerland to follow her back to Prague, sealing their fate to that oppressive regime following the Russian takeover.
Kundera considered his novels unsuitable as movies. The transformation led to loss in their essential qualities in the process, leaving only the accessory stories to produce any intrigue. However, Kundera served as an active consultant during the making of the same film with the same title and composed the poem Tomas whispers into Tereza's ear while she sleeps.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being was rated as 100% "fresh" (positive)and listed as one of the top 100 love stories in American cinema by the American Film Institute.
Kundera settles on a compromise: that the idea of 'eternal return' means adopting an attitude from which things appear different and not as 'we know them,' without the rationale or justification for the impermanent nature of things; which in turn prevents us from arriving at a verdict or judgment. And so the philosopher writer demands to know how we can condemn that which 'is ephemeral', transient and momentary.
This then gives rise to a perverse moral order in which 'everything is pardoned in advance, therefore everything cynically permitted.'
Sabina, the Czech artist, is fascinated with aspects of incomparable images in which the interface of the images betray one another. In her own life, including her love affairs with Tomas and Franz, she is the eternal betrayer, not unlike the tensions in her own paintings. The emptiness of Sabina's life is 'The Unbearable Lightness Of Being': that she wants to "die in lightness" which is to say that she is indifferent to her life shows that she would not want to repeat her life and would not accept an eternal return.
Franz is the idealist, the man who dreams the dream of the great march of history toward some better state and ends up being killed in a trivial mugging while in Thailand on a large but failed humanitarian venture.
The idea of eternal return is heaviest in burden and is deplorable. It 'crushes us,' even so it is 'an image of life's most intense fulfillment.' The idea in the figurative and literal sense indicates that 'the heavier the burden the closer our life comes to earth, the more real and truthful they become.' On the reverse, 'absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth……his movements as free as they are insignificant.'
A central theme which runs through the novel is the possibility of being having weight -- something to give it serious meaning. First, Tomas does find meaning in his "Es muss Sein" in relation to Tereza. They are safely in Switzerland after escaping the Russian invasion. But eventually Tereza, wishing to free Tomas for his mistresses, unable to bear the pain of it and feeling lost away from Prague, leaves --- to go back. Tomas follows in a few days, knowing that somehow this is crazy and he is condemning himself to misery. But he must go. It is his fate. And he returns.
The choice between weight and lightness has reference to the pre-Platonic philosopher Parmenides, who said that 'lightness is positive, weight negative.' How correct this is remains a question…. for sure 'most mysterious most ambiguous of all.'
Kundera then asks: Should one live with weight and duty or with lightness and freedom? A Nietzschean answer would be, weight is life-affirming, with positive intensity, and to live in a way you'd be prepared to repeat.
The novel is an attempt to understand the need for companionship in life, understand the relationships between the conflicting desires that humans possess and act upon. What makes a man leave the woman that he loves and seek something intangible in the arms of a mistress? Why does the same man sacrifice everything he has - freedom, social status, and his life's work - only to go back to the woman he absolutely had to leave before?
Is the absence of any responsibilities and ties in life really “lightness”? Could this absolute lightness turn into absolute emptiness and thus become unbearable at some point - a burden pulling us to the ground? 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'.
Kundera plays with opposites --- life and death, heaviness and lightness. The reader decides which life is happier: the light or the dark? The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the realisation 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 leads to the necessity of significance, which comes from a sense of weight. Are events forgiven in advance because they happen only once? But, is it also not unbearable that events only occur once as we can never go back and rectify our mistakes? Everyone wishes he could replay a past error, a lost opportunity, a lost love, a relationship that should not be. Is this not unbearable? Is this not a weight we feel pressing down on us every day?
Published nearly a quarter century ago, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is recognised as an outstanding modern classic. The novel is totally European in essence; the Czech translation of Nesmesitna lehkost byti by Michael Henry Heim is beautiful English reading. It freshens the mind and cheers the heart!
Farida Shaikh is a critic and writer on contemporary issues.