You Gotta Tote that Load

Introduction, personal impression and the idea characters are invented

Few books have led me to as much thought as the Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being because Kundera creates his characters to demonstrate complex and interdependent philosophies. In order to even approach understanding, one must conquer the meaning of the first two chapters. More on this later.

Did I like the book? Of course. Did I struggle with its meaning? Of course. A two hour discussion over lunch with Loren reduced most of the anxiety I felt toward making some comment that would not embarrass me when I saw it in print.

The reader also must deal with Kundera’s intrusion into his story, not exactly unheard of ( I remember some Victorian novelists stopping to address their “dear readers”) and the fact that he reminds the reader these characters are not real, only created by his imagination.

Allow me an intrusion here about my choice of the masculine in my writing. I find his/her or any variation of it clumsy and the use of man, he, his, him alone the best if unsatisfactory choices but used universally to include women. I conclude Kundera included women in his philosophies, and I don’t find this book misogynistic. The female characters, especially Tereza and Sabina are developed, influencing the actions of the other characters.

Lightness and heaviness as related to eternal return

So how does one deal with a novel that begins with a reference to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and his philosophy of eternal return? Nietzsche, by the way, rejected this theory, this “mad myth,” after he could find no scientific proof of its existence.

But the idea of eternal return is thought provoking and even led Hollywood to explore it in a movie Groundhog’s Day, starring Bill Murray, proof enough of the philosophy’s influence.

So I offer my definition of eternal return: the notion that the events of our lives will recur again and again, strengthening the human being to a superman, the goal for all human effort, according to Nietzsche. Then like the cosmos which expands and shrinks, the superman will deteriorate back to the elements that created him to begin again the process of expansion. Notice the emphasis is placed on earthly endeavors and not on the rewards of an afterlife. It is heroic for man to accept the horrors and the pleasures of his time on earth.

Awareness that our lives are repeated again and again places on us a terrifying responsibility, “the heaviest of burdens” said Nietzsche. On the stick which measures heaviness and lightness heavy would be a one, light would be a 10, right? Not necessarily. A heavy burden makes a life real, those of us who endure our burdens must be strong--approaching the personification of the superman. A light and uneventful life without travail seems frivolous and unworthy of repetition or remembrance. Thus we return to the emerging superman who accepts his burden, embraces it, rewarded on earth, glad to be alive. Lightness becomes unbearable and takes its place in the novel’s title. Most of us want to live meaningful lives; therefore, we must accept and revel in our burdens.

The novel provokes the question, “Do Kundera’s characters lead heavy and therefore meaningful lives?

Diane McCormick


Since Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with a discussion of Nietzsche’s myth of eternal return, that seems as good a place as any to try to begin to unravel this complex novel of ideas. Briefly, the myth of eternal return suggests that “everything recurs as once we experienced it, and the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum.” In other words, we’re all caught in a virtual Ground Hog’s Day, but without the chance to correct our errors, having to relive our mistakes forever. In religious terms, it seems a lot like the Christian concept of Hell where we are punished eternally for our sins -- but, again, without the chance of atoning for them once they are made. Kundera at first suggests that this myth has horrible consequences:

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity 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 we truly believed we lived in such a world, then we would be forced to be excruciatingly careful in making decisions, knowing that each decision would determine our life throughout eternity.

On the other hand, if we assume that the myth is totally false, then nothing reoccurs and each of our mistakes is relatively minor and our decisions relatively unimportant:

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, dead in advance, and whether it is horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

If there are no real consequences to our acts, life should be delightful, right?

Though we might speculate on the possibility of eternal return, few of us actually believe in the idea, that’s why it’s called the “myth” of eternal return. Or, as Kundera argues, “If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.”

Ah, if life were but that clear, that simple. We know better, of course, or the author would never have raised the issue, and we would never have been reading this novel. Kundera quickly begins questioning his own assertion, “But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?” There’s certainly no arguing that a heavy burden can wear a many down or crush him. But then Kundera argues:

But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

It’s hard to deny that love can be a heavy burden. Kundera goes on to argue that “ the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.” Given these two options, we must choose between “weight or lightness.”

Kundera uses his characters to live out and illustrate these choices. He first introduces us to Tomas and his feelings for Tereza. Tomas has been living his life with a “lightness of being” that many young men would envy. After the failure of his first marriage, he had decided to live without commitment. Women are not allowed to sleep in his apartment over night, and he seldom sleeps over at their house. Still, he manages to sleep with a different woman almost daily. It is only after Tereza gets ill and spends several nights in his apartment that he begins to feel the weight of compassion and commitment. After living together for seven years, Tereza tires of his philandering and decides to leave Zurich and return to Prague. Tomas, despite his apparent desire to forget her, is haunted by Tereza:

Instead of the patients he was treating, Tomas saw Tereza. He tried to remind himself, Don't think about her! Don't think about her! He said to himself, I'm sick with compassion. It's good that she's gone and that I'll never see her again, though it's not Tereza I need to be free of-it's that sickness, compassion, which I thought I was immune to until she infected me with it.

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. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.

Eventually, but not surprisingly, the weight of his compassion for Tereza causes Tomas to return to Prague to be with her, all the more remarkable because in doing so he returns to a Hungary dominated by the hated Russians. He ends up sacrificing virtually everything, particularly his career as a prestigious doctor, for Tereza.

Strangely enough, despite the fact that Tomas and Tereza end up working on a collective farm, a job apparently hated by most, they are happier than they have ever been. In the last scene in the novel they are dancing:

On they danced to the strains of the piano and violin. Tereza leaned her head on Tomas’ shoulder. Just as she had when they flew together in the airplane through the storm clouds. She was experiencing the same odd happiness and odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are together. The sadness was form, the happiness was content. Happiness filled the space of sadness.

While still suggesting there is never truly a resolution of life’s problems, Kundera seems to come down firmly on the side of weight.

Kundera uses Sabina, Tomas’ mistress, to illustrate what happens when a person focuses on the “lightness of being.” Sabina seems unwilling, or unable, to make a real commitment to anyone or anything; she is truly flying light with no baggage, at least no visible baggage. Her career as an artist seems quite successful, though, and she has every opportunity to find love with a man who seems to truly love her. She leaves them all.

And Sabina-what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being.

Until that time, her betrayals had filled her with excitement and joy, because they opened up new paths to new adventures of betrayal. But what if the paths came to an end? One could betray one's parents, husband, country, love, but when parents, husband, country, and love were gone-what was left to betray?

Sabina seems incapable of love. “Sabina was unaware of the goal that lay behind her longing to betray. The unbearable lightness of being -- was that the goal?” Trying to live without any commitments in the end is unbearable for most people, or at least so Kundera would have us believe.

Considering how experimental the writing style of this novel is, I found the emphasis on the need for commitment, for compassion, a little unexpected. In the end, though, perhaps, it isn’t the conclusions that are important but, rather, the new ways the author leads us to these “same old conclusions.” Like a good poet or a good artist, Kundera makes us see old answers in a new light and in the process forces us to raise questions that we must answer for ourselves.

While this is a major theme in the novel, it is certainly not the most exciting or the most controversial idea raised by Kundera. We’ll look at some of those ideas in upcoming days.

One thought on “You Gotta Tote that Load

  1. I understand heaviness/lightness as commitment/non commitment, but I can’t see the relevance of the myth of eternal return. That’s an idea that Nietzsche himself ended up rejecting. It’s metaphysical speculation, quite unverifiable, and heaviness/lightness can be understood without it.

What do you think?