Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Trans. Michael Henry Heim (Harper, 1984) [IBR2020]

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 recurrs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?
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, did in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.
….This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

Authorial intrusion used to be a common enough practice, but for the most part it’s fallen out of favor to the point where a writer can be scolded in workshop for indulging. But not here: Kundera begins his novel with an exegesis on Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, and pops in over and over again to explain what his characters are doing, why they’re doing it, and how it relates to Nietzsche. It’s disconcerting, sort of like reading a self-analytic novel.

But at least it gives the reader a chance to understand what’s going on. And, if you need more, the internet is full of explanations of Eternal Return (including several short and simple Youtube videos). Basically, it’s a thought experiment: what if you had to live your life over and over, just as you had lived it, without any chance to change anything? If you knew that was the case, you’d be weighted down by every decision. But we only live once, which implies a kind of lightness, but also brings some kind of meaninglessness, and even blanket absolution for the mistakes we make, since we only had one chance. Obviously this gets more convoluted – it’s Nietzsche, he can’t order breakfast without convolution – but the gist is that the price of weightlessness is meaning, and the cost of meaning is heaviness.

I have to take issue with the idea that life is meaningless because it is lived once. On an individual level, our choices often stay with us, haunting us if they were bad choices, uplifting us if they were good. As a personal example – and yes, I know I’m neurotic as hell – I often recall something nasty I said in high school, something I doubt anyone else remembers, but it sticks with me and affects my current emotional state and behavior. Our decisions likewise have effects that persist, whether for good or bad. And on a grander scale, what we do affects others, and has resonances that carry forward. Some of these might be greater than others, and some might be so minor as to be overwhelmed by other resonances, but the present is the sum of the past.

I decided to read this book because it kept coming up in connection to Mad Men, in which so many characters become who they want to be without looking back. Don Draper, of course, who literally became someone else, then told Peggy, as she recovered from a pregnancy she’d been unaware of until she went into labor: “It will shock you how much this never happened.” Then there’s Harry telling would-be writer Paul to forget his crappy Star Trek script, his long slide down the advertising ladder into unemployment, his absurd dalliance with Hare Krishna, and go to California: “You don’t understand what it’s like out there. This failure? This life? It’ll all seem like it happened to someone else.” I see the connection now. But all those characters, they still carried the past with them.

So back to the book: It’s a good thing we start with something thoughtful, because otherwise, the first quarter of the book is just a domestic drama about a guy justifying his need to screw as many women as possible while in a committed relationship with one woman who’s working out big-time mommy issues while the tanks roll in after the Prague Spring. If that gives the impression it’s not a philosophico-political novel, that impression will be corrected by the second half of the book.

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to each Hermitude as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht.
If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative called it “A Dirty Book for Philosophy Geeks.” As much as it pains me to agree with anything in The American Conservative, he’s not wrong. I have a fairly low tolerance for fiction that tries to turn sex into something with mystical, psychosocial, or existential meaning. Sometimes sex is just sex, y’know? But there’s so much in this book aside from that, it’s well worth reading anyway. And, of course, for those who think Freud didn’t psychologize sex enough, hey, enjoy yourself.

Considering my lack of interest in the primary characters of the first two sections, I was surprised by how fond of them I was by the end of the book. Tereza and Tomas meet by chance in her small town, flirt just as he’s lightly fluttering away, and she turns up at his Prague apartment bringing her heaviness and her emotional baggage with her in the form of an overpacked suitcase. Tomas doesn’t let her get in the way of his mission to sleep with as many different women as possible, but he improbably falls in love with her and does modify some of his rules: they sleep together, holding hands. He even marries her. She becomes a photographer. They move to Zurich to get out of the way of the tanks (there are other women in Zurich, after all, and he’s a doctor, he can go jut about anywhere), but Tereza is unhappy and returns to Prague. And to his own surprise, Tomas follows her.

For seven years he had been bound to her, his every step subject to her scrutiny. She might as well have chained iron balls to his ankles. Suddenly his step was much lighter. He soared. He had entered Parmenides’ magic field: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being.

On Saturday and Sunday he felt the sweet lightness of being rise up to him out of the depths of the future. On Monday, he was hit by a weight the likes of which he had never known. The tons of steel of the Russian tanks were nothing compared with it. For there is nothing heavier than compassion.

Yes, it was unbearable for him to stay in Zurich imagining Teresa living on her own in Prague.

Unbearable lightness, indeed.

This compassion Tomas feels is a bit more involved than we might think, as Kundera explains in one of his intrusions. He distinguishes between the Latin-derived word compassion, and non-Latinate words from other languages, including Czech (the language in which he originally wrote the book), where the meaning is emotionally broader and less condescending:

All languages that derive from Latin form the word “compassion” by combining the prefix meaning “with” (com-) and the root meaning “suffering” (Late Latin, passio). In other languages, Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance – this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means “feeling”.
In languages that derive from Latin, “compassion” means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, “pity”, connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer. “To take pity on a woman” means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.
That is why the word “compassion” generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.
In languages that form the word “compassion” not from the root “suffering” but from the word “feeling,” the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion—joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.

I happen to know a native Czech speaker (hi, Andrew!), and he confirmed this, so it’s not just a technicality only a linguist would know, but is in fact part of the life-as-lived understanding of both words. Kundera wrote this book in Czech, while living in France (he started writing in French later on), and I would imagine this became an interesting point of translation. I have to wonder if the prospect of translation made this intrusion necessary. It’s rather a crucial point to realize Tomas’ connection to Tereza was not one of pity, but a bond over the entire range of emotions. He did not pity her; he connected with her. He wasn’t trying to help her or save her; he was trying to love her.

Another motif at play in the scene, and elsewhere, is courtesy of Beethoven. Though Tomas has obviously had more formal education, it’s Tereza who introduces him to the string quartet charmingly designated Op. 135. The final movement is titled “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss,” which can translate as “The difficult decision” or “The Weighty Resolution.” Keep in mind that resolution can be a musical term for the completion of a phrase in melody or harmony. The score itself reflects multiple resonances, as the musical phrase labeled “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) is followed by the musical phrase “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). Musician Martin Saving goes into some depth about the quartet on the Elias String quartet blog, a piece well worth reading to better understand what Beethoven might have meant (nobody’s sure) and, more importantly, its relevance to Tomas’s decision to return to Prague and Tereza. Did it have to be? Free will, or fate?

Lest you think Tereza and Tomas are the only characters in the book, let me introduce Sabine and Franz. They are another heavy/light couple, though in this case, Sabine is the light one and Franz the heavy. Sabine, a painter, intersects with both Tomas, as a lover, and Tereza, as a kind of artistic mentor for a short time. Sabine moves to Zurich and takes up with Franz, a married professor who keeps her a secret. He goes through some kind of epiphany in which he decides to “live in truth” and informs his wife, who says don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out, and Sabine, who takes of running for Paris. It’s ok, because he finds an undergrad with big glasses who worships him.

Sabine, the character most dedicated to lightness, despises kitsch, defined as what shows the good side and ignores the bad. The art mandated by the Communist regime, for example: smiling happy people praising the Movement. She does a different kind of painting, one she wasn’t free to do until she got out of Prague:

Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it Behind the Scenes. Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract. After pausing for a moment, she added, On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.

After leaving Franz, she is overcome with melancholy, the unbearable part of lightness. Still she travels the world, unwilling to be weighted down. My take is that too much lightness makes you float away.

Franz is the comic disaster of fakery, a study in trying to be heavy but really being a fool. After Sabine leaves him, he takes part in The Great March, a highly publicized trek of celebrities, intellectuals, and a few doctors to war-torn Cambodia on a mission to be famous treat sick people and the war-wounded. Alas, they aren’t allowed in, but Franz imagines Sabine watching him, following his great gesture of humanity, though she has been oblivious to him since she left him. He ends up murdered in Thailand because he’s a fool. Franz is the embodiment of kitsch, the kitsch Sabine despises.

That leaves us with Tereza and Tomas, who end up running afoul of the Communist regime once they’re back in Prague. They can’t leave because the borders are now closed (I was unaware the borders were ever open under the Soviet regime, so I learned something). Tomas writes a letter to the editor that has a special resonance in the current era:

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.
Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!
And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!
In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe?
….
It was in this connection that Tomas recalled the tale of Oedipus: Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realized what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by not knowing, he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.
When Tomas heard Communists shouting in defense of their inner purity, he said to himself, As a result of your not knowing, this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done? How is it you aren’t horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!

This goes out to all those concerned senators who aren’t quite concerned enough to do anything about what they’re so concerned about.

Tomas goes through some machinations involving his son from his first marriage after the letter is published, and is eventually demoted from neurosurgeon to window washer. He’s still pretty much ok since it’s amazing how many women you can screw as a window washer. But that gig eventually is barred to him as well, and he and Tereza head for the hills: that is, the countryside, to work on a collective farm. And here is where Tomas finally settles down with his wife and their dog, Karenin.

The dog’s death is highly emotional, partly because, sure, I’m a sucker for a dying pet, but because of how the changes in Tomas and Tereza are demonstrated: he has become less light, and she less heavy. Nietzsche with Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Amor Fata, another Nietzscheism: love whatever fate brings you, the good and the bad. No kitsch. From Karenin’s Smile to the end of the book, I loved these people who I’d merely tolerated pages earlier. Because the stories are interwoven between various characters, we’ve already seen ahead what will happen; the book stops just before then, leaving a poignant ache as the last page turns. I can’t believe it worked on me, but it did.

Seven years earlier, a complex neurological case happened to have been discovered at the hospital in Tereza’s town. They called in the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital in Prague for consultation, what’s the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital happened to be suffering from sciatica, and because he could not move he sent Tomas to the provincial hospital in his place. The town had several hotels, but Tomas happened to be given a room in the one where Teresa was employed. He happened to have enough free time before his train left to stop at the hotel restaurant. Teresa happened to be on duty, and happened to be serving Tomas’s table. It had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza, as if he had little inclination to go to her on his own.

Amor fati. Whether it’s a dying dog, or a girl who just happens to blow your way and teaches you to hold hands in bed. It might take years, it might change your life into something you barely recognize, but love it anyway, because whether it’s guided by fate or our own choices, it’s the only life you’ve got.

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