The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera)

Posted: July 30, 2014 in fiction
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When reading the works of Milan Kundera, it helps to have some knowledge of, or at least interest in, three subjects: philosophy, European history and politics, and sex.

I’ve read this novel before, focusing on plot and character and letting the philosophy wash through me. But having read Sartre recently, I understood the philosophy better, so I paid more attention to it. The title and first two chapters introduce some of the important concepts. Kundera begins with Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return: existence happens in cycles, patterns of behaviour that are repeated within a person’s lifetime, throughout cultures, and on the global scale as well. Many books read this way, including the Old Testament (referenced quite a few times in the text). If this moment is bound to happen again and again, it is infinitely important that we make the right choices because we, and everyone else, are bound to repeat this choice over and over. This sounds like an easier-to-swallow version of Sartre’s idea that what choices we make define humanity. The responsibility for our choices and the awareness that they affect everything in time and space feels like a weight, and this heaviness is roughly equivalent to Sartre’s meaning of the word anguish. On the other hand, the Germans have an old saying, einmal ist keinmal, or, once is never. If something only happens once, it may as well have never happened at all. Kundera seems to champion the belief that life is a series of discrete moments with little connection to each other. Without these causal connections, there is no grand responsibility for the world, no weight. There is an incredible lightness, in which nothing we do matters because we are powerless to affect anything. Hence the unbearable lightness of the title.

Personally, I think lightness and weight are two extremes, and the truth is a blend of the two. There are certain clear causal links between my behaviour and the events in my life. However, I am not responsible for the choices of other people. Kundera only presents the two possibilities, that either events return and we always choose the same thing or events never return and every decision is irrevocable. I think that similar choices recur in our lives, so that we do have the opportunity to change our minds, to choose to be something other than we have always been. We are constantly recreating our identities, and if we want to be different, we can act differently and choose something new. I think this is what Sabina is getting at with her fixation with betrayal of betrayals; choosing something new that contradicts her choices in the past, she has a compulsion to do and be differently than she has done and been. She keeps in the middle between lightness and weight, and you notice she’s the only main character to live through the book.

As with philosophy, Czech history is not my forte. It’d be interesting to read this book in close juxtaposition with Milosz’s The Captive Mind and other books about the spread of communism in Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century. Nearly all of my knowledge of European history comes through its literature, and, as with most novels, you don’t have to understand it all in order to follow the story, so again as with philosophy, I let the history wash through me and piece together a more complete understanding with time.

The aspect of the political situation that I identify with most strongly is the fear of observation. I’ve always been a little paranoid about being watched and judged, and living in a country with strict anti-terrorism legislation doesn’t help. I don’t want to overthrow any specific government; I think the whole idea of government is flawed, but it sure beats having to walk around with a gun all the time. I do object to being asked which books and films I bring into a country, though. Stories are very important to me, and I get heartily offended at the implication that some are unwelcome in an entire country.

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.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

Yes, all of this, yes. This was me as a kid, but I recognized the old-fashionedness of it because I read old-fashioned books. I went all out for it, with huge mutton chop sideburns and pocket watches and bowties and stuff. I don’t mind feeling a little anachronistic at times. The first time my ex saw me naked she said I looked like a Victorian gentleman.

Persons who are uncomfortable with sex should never read Kundera. Sex is very important to him, so he puts lots of it in his novels. Sometimes it’s very graphic, like the clockwork orgy scene in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I welcome it, but I don’t discuss Kundera with my mother. I may not have a ton of sexual experience, but I do have a vivid imagination and a tendency to think about it a lot. I analyze my experiences and fantasies to understand myself, and what things I’d like to try in the future. Kundera discusses the vision of Paradise in terms of unattainable ideals, but two of his characters have an experience that approximates mine. They laugh and suddenly the joke turns into sex.

What could have excited them so? A moment before, the hat on her head had seemed nothing but a joke. Was excitement really a mere step away from laughter?

Yes. My vision of Paradise is the memory of my favourite sexual experience. My laughter is often misunderstood because I don’t laugh at things that are humourous. At funny movies, I remain silent because I’m afraid of missing something. I laugh when I am delighted with the world, or a certain person in it. When I feel a rush of love for someone, I laugh because I’m so happy. Sometimes that makes it seem like I’m laughing at their problems or distress, as at funerals, but that’s really not it at all. So one night I was so happy leading into sex that I started laughing for no apparent reason, and the ex started laughing too, then suddenly we were fucking hard and fast, and when it was over we burst out laughing again. My vision of perfection is this combination of love and joy, where the partner is a source of intense physical and emotional delight, perhaps not constantly, but regularly. Lately I’ve been meeting guys who seem really great and delightful, but once they take their pants off they become violent. I’d prefer to sleep with someone who’s not going to call me a bitch, slap me around, or choke me. That doesn’t seem like an unrealistic goal, but it is proving harder than it looks.

As I move through the world gaining experience, I realize more and more just how separate love and sex really are. Our culture tells us that they’re the same thing, or that one is a sign of the other, and we even refer to sex as making love. It’s all a big lie. I prefer to use the phrase ‘making love’ in the sense that Jane Austen uses it, when two people talk to each other with the purpose of inspiring or encouraging positive feelings between them. Love can be accompanied by physical actions, but we hardly have sex with everyone we love. With nearly all the people I love, I would feel extremely uncomfortable with the implication that they desired a sexual relationship with me. I try to love all the people I come into contact with, so there’s usually at least some involved when I have sex, but I can’t say that I’d want any of my partners back again. I wish them well in future romantic endeavours, so long as they don’t involve me. Love is a patterned emotional response, but sex is a behaviour. It’s great when the two come together, but they don’t always. Intellectually, I can understand the behaviour patterns of the characters in the novel, but I don’t envy Tomas his promiscuity. When two people commit to sexual fidelity, I think they should honour that commitment. I see marriage as a promise of faithfulness; if you’re going to live with one partner while following several others, I say don’t get married. His affairs upset me almost as much as they do his wife.

One of the differences between characters is how they define themselves. What makes me different from other people? How do I know that I am uniquely myself? Tereza has a real problem with her body; she sees the physical bodies of all people as being roughly equivalent, so she only feels herself when clothed. Her self is her soul, that difficult-to-define entity. Her unique combination of intellectual and emotional patterns, I guess you could say. But those are so tied into the body, electrical impulses moving through biological matter, that I don’t see the distinction. Soul and body are so much a part of each other that I can’t imagine a realistic post-death life where they are separate.

For Tomas, on the other hand, a woman’s individuality is made clear in her sexual behaviours. When he meets a woman, he wonders,

How would she behave while undressing? What would she say when he made love to her? How would her sighs sound? How would her face distort at the moment of orgasm?

Even when I meet someone I’d like to sleep with, I don’t spend time on these questions. My concerns are a little different. Is he interested in me? Is he still going to be nice to me after I drop my pants? Is he going to kick me out immediately afterward? Would he be good with my kids? If we’re watching a video on the couch, would he rather put his arm around my shoulders or have mine around his? Will he let me kiss him in public? What would he look like in a kilt? It may seem as though I’m making moral judgments against Tomas, but I don’t feel that I am. According to the culture I was raised in, Tomas’s questions are much more masculine, and since I’m a man, I feel I ought to be somewhat more like him. But then I remind myself that I’d rather be me, and that I’m okay as I am.

Kundera defines kitsch several different ways in this novel. Art is inseparable from the discussion, but it encompasses the body, politics, and philosophy as well. Kitsch is an aesthetic mode that denies the existence of the unpleasant. The first unpleasant thing is shit. We do distance ourselves from our own feces, and consider it an oddity if someone makes a habit of looking at it. But what is shit? Indigestible material we’ve consumed, mixed with waste from the body. Our cells are constantly replicating because they are also constantly dying and being expelled from the body: our shit is composed of the influences on our body that we can’t use any more. It seems like a healthy thing to me to examine what emotional or intellectual influences we’re holding onto and to release those that no longer serve our growth. What happens if we don’t release that shit? Blockages, cancer, regurgitating the same old shit again and again. Kitsch enables the eternal return of unchanging ideologies. Another unpleasant thing kitsch denies is death. We’re all going to die; that’s the only real end to any of our stories; it’s my evidence that nature always overpowers humanity eventually. Much of twentieth century art consciously distances itself from kitsch by embracing shit, death, and ugliness, which is why you rarely see it outside of specialist galleries.

But political movements rely on kitsch, perhaps not bad art itself, but the idea of it. We ignore the unpleasant realities of an ideology in order to convince people to join us; as such, there’s a kitsch for every ideology. Kundera calls liberalism’s kitsch The Grand March – a protest march with fists punching the air, slogans chanted in unison; all that’s missing are the uniforms and the goose-step. Those of us who find a comfortable home for our identities in the humanities can get easily sucked into it, and lose sight of the conformity we are demanding. Everyone should compost for their container gardens and recycle their identically low-BHA plastic bottles. Good ideas, of course, but people can be just as judgmental and controlling about liberal politics as they can be about conservative politics. Eventually Kundera calls kitsch the opposite of individuality. What makes us unique? Our shit, our death. Our faults and failures. What we discard. Perhaps what makes me me is which shit I am willing to forgive myself for.

A quick word on plot structure: This is not a linear story. Each part focuses on a specific person. Part I is for Tomas and is about the lightness and weight above. Part II is for Tereza, and covers approximately the same period of time as the first, but seeing the same events from her perspective instead of his. Tereza focuses on questions of soul and body. Part III is for Sabina and Franz and all their miscommunications. The exact timing re Tomas and Tereza wasn’t clear to me. During or after. Part IV we’re back with Tereza, mostly after Part II, and Part V is Tomas during the same time again. Part VI is Sabina and Franz, now separated, after Part III and at least partially during the time of Parts IV and V. Part VII is back to Tomas and Tereza but focuses on their dog, before the end of Part VI. So, don’t get upset when people die; you’ll probably hear more of them later anyway. If it seems hard to follow, take breaks between sections. We hear stories from people in real life this way, but not all at once. We constantly revise our understanding of people, sometimes based on things they do now, sometimes on things they did in the distant past. If something doesn’t make sense, it probably will after we have better information. Treat it with the patience that you do reality and it’s not too hard to follow.

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