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bearable unbearableness

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a good book, beautifully written, with moments of profound insight. It would be a lot better if Kundera didn’t try so hard to sound like he has it all—people, relationships, politics, life—figured out; no one is profound all the time, regardless of how hard one tries. The omniscient tone is all the more confusing because his core message, the titular “unbearable lightness,” is that we can’t possibly figure it all out.

Here’s an example:

Only from the perspective of such a utopia is it possible to use the concepts of pessimism and optimism with full justification: an optimist is someone who thinks that on planet number five the history of mankind will be less bloody. A pessimist is one who thinks otherwise.

Admittedly, it might help if the discussion preceding this statement were included, but you can imagine entering a conversation at this point and thinking that the speaker was pretty smart. After all, we’re talking about what seem like big ideas (e.g., perspective, utopia, pessimism, optimism, history of mankind). It sounds profound; yet try as I might, the deep wisdom of these words eludes my grasp and leaves me feeling a little stupid. A closer look reveals that the speaker is rehashing the old half-empty/half-full question in new clothes. Not only is this not particularly profound, it’s down right hackneyed—dressing it up in fancier prose can make it more entertaining on the surface, but that’s about all. In this case, I’m only stupid in that I let his virtuosity bamboozle me for a while.

And then there’s Kundera’s philosophical argument about being: in order to understand whether a particular decision is the right one or not, you must know the consequences of your decision; yet, any given decision in life has consequences that you cannot anticipate; therefore, you can never know whether your decision is right or wrong till after you make it. What’s more, since consequences ripple out from their origin, like the proverbial shout in the void, the ultimate consequences of any decision are never known. Kundera concludes that rightness and wrongness are, if not worthless, at least deeply problematic ideas. His theoretical solution to this problem is to live more than one life, to face each decision a multitude of times and therefore play out each decision’s consequences, thereby eventually finding the best decision for each situation. The “heaviness” of this repetitive knowledge is in sharp contrast to the “lightness” of the ephemeral, one-shot lives we actually lead. We all make our decisions—every decision, every day—in the lightness of first-time naiveté.

TULOB is set mostly in Kundera’s homeland, Czechoslovakia, in and around 1968, when the then Soviet Union rolled its tanks into Prague to squelch what we in the West call a democratic revolution. (I am not saying I see it otherwise—on the contrary. Still, there are multiple ways to see events and it possible that the standard interpretation of events in the U.S. may not be correct.) Seen in that context, with secret police, neighbors spying on neighbors, and small ethical dilemmas on a nearly constant basis, Kundera’s obsession with right and wrong is understandable. Further, there is the general Communist preoccupation with history and the subsequent argument that the ends justify the means (based largely on the fact that the victors write the history). Arthur Koestler, another author who wrote in response to what he saw as Soviet Communism’s inhumanity and injustice, claimed in Darkness at Noon and The Gladiators, among others, that the ends do not justify the means; for Koestler, right and wrong are not malleable concepts shaped by whoever is in power; there is right and there is wrong and it doesn’t matter what good you intend if you get to that good through unethical means. Kundera’s argument is an interesting end around of this question: because we live finitely and only once, we can’t know the ends of our means; therefore, right and wrong are unknowable, also know as irrelevant.

Kundera’s approach is essentially inductive. He wants to find truth through repeating the experiment enough times to prove which decision was best. As such, he reveals himself as a scientist, partaking of the Marxist and Hegelian analysis traditions, which is ironic unless Kundera is one of those that feel Communism is theoretically and fundamentally a good approach that fails when applied to the real corrupt and corruptible nature of humans. Apart from any irony, the inductive approach has inherent limitations (even apart from the obvious fact that we can’t do it): what’s wrong with deduction? Why can’t we ascertain the rightness or wrongness of our decisions by thinking them through in what might be called thought experiments? Or, entirely rejecting any pretense of a scientific approach, perhaps we can feel rightness and wrongness? Yes, there are problems with these approaches to ethical decision-making, but I assert that there is no foolproof method; rather than concluding, as Kundera seems to, that we therefore have no basis for right and wrong, I choose to use a combination of induction, deduction, and intuition to make my decisions. Sometimes right and sometimes wrong. So be it. The point for me is to think and feel about it, to learn, and to trust myself.

One of the amazing things about TULOB is that Kundera is able to weave philosophical meanderings similar to those above, along with powerful metaphor, into a beautiful, succinct style (even in translation). In fact, considering the amount of time spent away from the plot, it is surprising that the book is as popular as it is. Of course, a healthy dose of love, infidelity, sex, and the threat of violence doesn’t hurt.

Many readers might also take issue with the novel’s gender politics. The protagonist, Tomas, considers it his right to be constantly and incorrigibly unfaithful to his partner/wife, Tereza, and is simultaneously unable to stand the idea that she might be “impure.” Read the following passage, taking this double standard into account:

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful. From the time he met Tereza, no woman had the right to leave the slightest impression on that part of his brain.
Tereza occupied his brain like a despot and exterminated all trace of other women. . . .
Before he could start wondering what she would be like when they made love, he loved her.
Their love story did not begin until afterward: she fell ill and he was unable to send her home as he had the others. Kneeling by her as she lay sleeping in his bed, he realized that someone had sent her downstream in a bulrush basket. I have said before that metaphors are dangerous. Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into poetic memory [emphasis in the original].

Replace “woman” with “person” and change the pronoun in the last sentence, and we have a wonderful statement about love and the role our life partners play in our lives. Though it doesn’t answer all my questions, this passage helps me understand the difference between a friend and a lover, something I’ve pondered many times and which I think goes beyond just sexual attraction. I think Kundera—who seems to draw a firm line between sex and everything else, including love—would agree.

TULOB has these moments, moments that made me want to cry and laugh and think—and sometimes I just wanted to tell Kundera to knock it off.

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