Sunday, May 28, 2017

Kundera and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

All photos from walking tour of Bilbao, País Vasco - Basque Country 
At another time in my life I would have cringed to reference Sparknotes and Wikipedia in a book or film critique, but since the subject is so weighty, with philosophical quotes and dealings of the ancients, I gave myself full license this time. Not to mention the most insightful critique of all I found, written by Reason and Meaning; Philosophical reflections about life, death, and the meaning of life.
Regarding my own commentary, be sure to read to the end to understand why after discussions and political debate I ended up wondering how much Kundera plays devil's advocate and toys with his reader, and found his book to be a classic in philosophical thought regarding the meaning of life.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being opens with a philosophical discussion of lightness versus heaviness. Kundera contrasts Nietzsche's philosophy of eternal return, or of heaviness, with Parmenides's understanding of life as light. Kundera wonders if any meaning or weight can be attributed to life, since there is no eternal return: if man only has the opportunity to try one path, to make one decision, he cannot return to take a different path, and then compare the two lives. Without the ability to compare lives, Kundera argues, we cannot find meaning; where meaning should exist we find only an unbearable weightlessness. The uncertain existence of meaning, and the opposition of lightness and heaviness, the key dichotomy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, sets the stage for the entire novel.
- Sparknotes

Kundera uses Friedrich Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Return to illustrate Lightness. Eternal Return dictates that all things in existence recur over and over again for all eternity. This is to say that human history is a preset circle without progress, the same events arising perpetually and doomed never to alter or to improve. Existence is thus weighty because it stands fixed in an infinite cycle. This weightiness is “the heaviest of burdens”, for “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.” At the same time, it is necessary for any event to occur in the cycle of events exactly as it has always occurred for the cycle to be identical; consequently, everything takes on an eternally fixed meaning. This fact prevents one from believing things to be fleeting and worthless.

The inverse of this concept is Kundera's “unbearable lightness of being.” Assuming that eternal return were impossible, humankind would experience an “absolute absence of burden,” and this would “[cause] man to be lighter than air” in his lack of weight of meaning. Something which does not forever recur has its brief existence, and, once it is complete, the universe goes on existing, utterly indifferent to the completed phenomenon. “Life which disappears once and for all, which does not return” writes Kundera, is “without weight...and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime...means nothing.” Each life is insignificant; every decision does not matter. Since decisions do not matter, they are "light": they do not tie us down. However, at the same time, the insignificance of our decisions - our lives, or being - is unbearable. Hence, "the unbearable lightness of being." On the other hand, eternal existence would demand of us strict adherence to prescripted rules and laws; a sense of duty and rigorous morality.

"What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?" Kundera notes that this is not a new question. Parmenides posed it in the sixth century BC. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness etc. One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative. We might find this division into positive and negative poles simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness? Parmenides responded that lightness is positive, weight negative. Kundera then questions "Was he correct or not?" The lightness/weight opposition remains the most ambiguous of all. Kundera then asks, should one live with weight and duty or with lightness and freedom? In Nietzschean terms, weight is life-affirming in that to live with positive intensity is to live in a way you'd be prepared to repeat. The emptiness of Sabina's life in 'The Unbearable Lightness Of Being', and that she wanted 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. - Opinion piece, Wikipedia

While some might find Tomas' sexual appetite and exploits edgy, daring or on the contrary, maybe even repulsive, I became bored and tired quickly of them. By the end I found his going-ons really unpleasant and distasteful, maybe even as much as Tereza and maybe because of her. I suppose this is due to two reasons. One, I abhor waste and wastefulness and experiencing sex in such consumeristic excess is a total throw away of possibilities, of feelings, loyalties, personalities, friendships, all qualities of humanity and even basic decency. Secondly, said consumerism is entirely void of any nobler or higher emotion. This isn't something to be argued. Maybe for some it's fine, but it's not my idea of anything valuable in life.  The plot, in and of itself, therefore, didn't provide a great read.

What I did find thought provoking and worthwhile was the philosophical journey and even certain application of Nietzsche's premise and its inverse. In Milan Kundera's work we delve into the the study of how life can't have meaning if we're unable to study it from the far end. In other words, if we can't study our lives looking backwards, from the point of view of our death. Instead, in real time, when we must make our most important decisions how can we absolutely know if they are right and wrong if we can never practice what it is to choose well for ourselves, and what choices could be bad and even disastrous? How, therefore, can morality be attached to our choices? This is the deeper, more meaningful essence and redemptive element of the novel. It poses questions about the heaviness and lightness of life. And in the end, many, myself included might decide that while lightness, or lives free as the air we breathe, might be tempting, it might not be the most desirous choice after all. We might decide the light is insignificant, void of meaning and decide that it's simply unbearable and choose heaviness, together with meaning and purpose, instead. Still, in conclusion, not I, nor most lectors will be able to answer simply by the end of this read. That's what gives this book cause for deeper reflection and true value.

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