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Old notes on The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Insights from literature on how to live.— The Unbearable Lightness of Being is unlike other novels I’ve read. I like the philosophical digressions that aren’t really digressions because they fit so well into the self-consciousness of the book and its being a “novel of ideas” rather than characters and plot—or characters only insofar as they illustrate ideas. And the end is touching. The two main characters find happiness—they wish for repetition,[1] which (wish) is how Kundera defines happiness—wish for the repetition of their life in the countryside, its eternal repetition, because they’re together and away from the vagaries of chance and they’ve finally found peace. So Kundera says that although we cannot live again and again eternally and thereby have a “weighty” life, if we desire this situation forever we’ll escape from unbearable lightness and find meaningful happiness. (Cf. Nietzsche.) And he says also that although the path our lives take is horribly contingent, contingency can lead us to happiness, as it did Tomas and Tereza, even if it forces us to abandon what seems to be the “Es muss sein!” of our fate, as Tomas was forced to give up his destiny of practicing medicine by a series of chances that started with Tereza’s arrival in his life. Indeed, such chances can conceivably make us happier than following our inner imperatives can—as Tomas was unhappy being an “epic womanizer,” even if he was addicted to it. But T. and T.’s life together was governed not only by lightness but also weight, by constant doubts about each other’s love, by unbearable pain (in Tereza) and unbearable compassion (in Tomas)—and hence both lightness and weight were essential in guiding them to happiness. On the other hand, Sabina the coquette was forever unhappy with her “light” life, her betrayals and lack of lasting attachments—and Franz, her lover, was unhappy with the weight of his loyalty to Sabina’s memory, the weight of his love, and in the end it caused his death. So Kundera’s answer to the question that opens the book—“Is lightness better than weight or vice versa?”—is that neither is better: both can be bad and both good, both are risky, and both are necessary in order for us to achieve happiness. But happiness itself is more like heaviness than lightness—meaning than meaninglessness[2]—and so the two happy lovers die “under the sign of weight” (by being crushed under a truck).


[1] That’s the meaning of the butterfly flying in circles around their room.

[2] But it’s a “light” meaning, not a heavy one. A simple acceptance and love of the way things are. Living according to a “mission” (such as Tomas’s medical vocation) would be a heavy meaning, and Tomas condemns the idea.

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