By Milan Kundera. Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim. 314 pagesNew York: Perennial Classics, 1999 (from 1984 original)
Comments by Bob Corbett
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.
Tomas, a surgeon living in Prague just before the famous 1968 Spring uprising, is an incorrigible womanizer, unable to resist his unending stream of meaningless sexual flings. Tereza is drawn to him, sent to him by fate, like Moses in a bulrush basket. Tomas' constant infidelities numb her with pain; yet her unending love and need draw her to him inexorably, and he to her. From the text of a Beethoven composition he 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.
We also meet Sabina, Czech artist 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.
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.
A central theme which runs through the novel is the possibility of being having weight -- something to give it serious meaning. There are at least two cases where Tomas does find such meaning. The first is 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. In a second incident he had published a letter to the editor in a newspaper which explored the notion of being responsible for acts whether or not one KNEW the outcome. His model case was Oedipus who had no idea he was violating so many social and moral rules of his society. Tomas is speaking about those in Czechoslovakia who acted in a similar manner toward the Russians. Later on this is taken as a socially subversive point of view and he is asked to retract. For reasons he himself hardly understands he refuses and his refusal causes him to be banned as a physician and condemned to low-level manual labor, first in Prague and later on a collective farm in a rural area.
But even these choice are more his fate than a choice of meaning. The notion of fate, or what Nietzsche refers to as "amor fati" (love of fate) is the notion that nature somehow presents us with situations which we cannot escape and we simply have to bear them. Tomas must accept and bear his love for Tereza no matter how painful and hopeless. He must accept his Oedipus letter no matter the consequences. Yet, even this acceptance cannot escape the ultimate "unbearable lightness of being," the meaninglessness of all our acts in a world in which our acts simply don't live forever.
Kundera says in the last pages of the novel: "And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition." Thus Kundera seems to accept Nietzsche's argument that only an eternal recurrence allows one to survive meaninglessness, but then leaves Nietzsche in holding that the survival itself is impossible since the eternal recurrence does not and cannot happen.
A secondary Nietzschean theme is the role of fate. Kundera introduces at least three dominant examples of fate in the lives of Tomas and Tereza:
- signs via coincidences which we can trace and understand
- revealing dreams and intuitions
- number mysticism in which the significance of chance events can be understood by numerical coincidences
Yet another part of Kundera's nihilism is revealed in the intriguing chapter called "The Grand March." Franz is the main character here, but the issue is the belief in the future, in a progressive history, a march toward some positive triumph in human existence for the species. Franz has always been a believer in the notion of progress and his role in it. But Kundera mocks this grand illusion. There is no reason for such a false belief and history is against it. Further he argues that the ancient faith in the grand march is fading away in our time as people come to realize the meaninglessness of human action. Franz makes an enormous leap into the grand march in a trip to the Cambodian border in the 1960s as part of an international team to try to embarrass the Vietnamese who hold the border to allow a team of physicians in to treat the sick. After great sacrifice of this group getting there, they make their plea to the guards who control the border crossing only to be greeted by cold and enduring silence. After a number of attempts in which they cannot even illicit a response they give up and turn away in utter defeat. It is a very powerful and distressing scene, one of the greatest futility of the grand march.
Kundera is a masterful story-teller and intriguing philosopher. He pulls no punches and pounds his theme with force and repetition. In this novel his use of Nietzsche as the foil who guides his theme is brilliantly conceived and his rejection of even the moral version of the eternal recurrence (we must act as if), is more persuasive than Nietzsche's seemingly undefended optimism.
This is perhaps the fourth time I've read this novel, but the first time that I have understood it more in the fullness of a story set as a dialectical tool to deal with Nietzsche's themes of eternal recurrence and love of fate. I recommend this mode of reading the novel to anyone who's had the chance to read Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The position of Nietzsche which is attacked in this novel seems best expounded there and in the often quoted passage from The Gay Science at section 341:
The Greatest Burden. What if a demon crept after thee into thy loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to thee: "This life, as thou livest it at present, and hast lived it, thou must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to thee again, and all in the same series and sequence-and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and thou with it, thou speck of dust!"- Wouldst thou not throw thyself down and gnash thy teeth, and curse the demon that so spake? Or hast thou once experienced a tremendous moment in which thou wouldst answer him: "Thou art a God, and never did I hear anything so divine! "If that thought acquired power over thee as thou art, it would transform thee, and perhaps crush thee; the question with regard to all and everything: "Dost thou want this once more, and also for innumerable times?" would lie as the heaviest burden upon thy activity! Or, how wouldst thou have to become favorably inclined to thyself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org