I Enjoy a Heavy Novel

I was surprised how much I enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Perhaps this enjoyment stems from the fact that my philosophy of life has been shaped by literature. As I mentioned in my very first comment about the book, it is almost as much a philosophy lecture as it is a novel. I’m sure many people would consider that a weakness, not a strength, though. In fact, at least in this novel, storytelling is one of Kundera’s weaknesses. The plot of the story seems virtually nonexistent.

When Kundera steps out of the novel and reminds you that his characters are not real but merely his inventions, he breaks one of the fundamental rules of most fiction, the willing suspension of disbelief. I remember that the first time this happened to me in a John Fowles’ novel I was outraged. I threw the book down in disgust and walked off, only to come back because I was required to read it for a college course.

I might have felt the same way here if Kundera hadn’t begun with a reference to Nietsche’s myth of eternal return. But, by beginning the book the way he did, he let the reader know that this was not going to be your typical novel. This is a novel of ideas, and there are more ideas here than I have time to discuss. I ended up with a stack of significant quotations that I simply couldn’t fit within the motifs that I have discussed. If I were to go back and read the book again, I’m sure I could write more than I have already written.

If I had wanted to spend more time on the novel, I would have liked to explore the idea of dreams and what they reveal about ourselves. It would have been equally interesting to explore his concept of vertigo and how it relates to self-destructiveness. It would be equally fascinating to discover whether Kunders, like older Romantics, sees beauty and truth as identical, as it appears.

Perhaps one of the main reasons I find Kudnera so fascinating is that he appears to be attempting to combine the ideas of existentialism and Romanticism in his novel, not an easy thing to do. In fact, in some ways they seem completely opposing philosophies. One of the reasons I find this so interesting, though, is that these are precisely the two philosophies I have found myself attracted to in life.

I’m sure I will be exploring some of Kundera’s other novels in the near future.

For right now, though, after a short break, Diane and I will be focusing on the past, on the Transcendentalists who the Beats claimed as their own.

It’s been a long time since I’ve studied Transcendentalism, but it was very influential in my college years. I’m looking forward to looking back.

Here are some other sources on the web:

Roger Ebert's Movie Review

Nietzsche's Eternal Return

Essays at Info Point

Reading Group Guide to the Novel

A Symphony of Fortuities

Much of what Kundera presents in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is pure existentialism and has been presented by many writers and philosophers before him. Even so, Kundera raises new questions and brings some new ideas to the discussion.

For me, one of the more interesting ideas was the idea of “fortuities” and music that he sets forth:

Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.

Like most existentialists, Kundera believes we have to compose our own lives, but the idea of fortuities is new to me. “Fortuities” seem similar to events that some people refer to as “synchronicities,” especially those who attribute mystical or religious overtones to such events. Having experienced such synchronicities in my own life, it’s tempting to either dismiss them as mere “coincidence,” when things were going well, or cling to them as if they are messages from the Gods, when bad luck was all the luck I had.

Simply treating them as significant events and working them into our lives will add another dimension of beauty to our lives:

It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty

Seen in this light whether such events are the results of mere chance or destiny is irrelevant; they are simply another pattern of events, another motif, to add beauty to our life. We ignore them at our own risk.

It is precisely these fortuities that drives Tomas and Tereza’s romance:

Much more than the card he slipped her at the last minute, it was the call of all those fortuities (the book, Beethoven, the number six, the yellow park bench) which gave her the courage to leave home and change her fate. It may well be those few fortuities (quite modest, by the way, even drab, just what one would expect from so lackluster a town) which set her love in motion and provided her with a source of energy she had not yet exhausted at the end of her days.

Some, of course, would argue that it was irrational for Tereza to leave her small down to see Tomas, and it was. But she was relying on her intuition, that Romantic substitute for intelligence, to guide her to a new and better life. (Of course, it’s easier to take this risk if you’re merely a character in a novel because, after all, the author doesn’t want to look bad in front of his reader, and you don’t have much to lose but a few lines on a piece of paper.)

The power of these fortuities to endear themselves to a person is clearly seen in Tomas’ attachment to Tereza:

She was all that mattered to him. She, born of six fortuities, she, the blossom sprung from the chief surgeon's sciatica, she, the reverse side of all his "Es muss sein!"-she was the only thing he cared about.

Coincidence, or luck as some of us prefer to call it, often plays a large part in the choices we make in life. I like Kundera’s way of seeing these as part of a larger pattern that makes up our life.

I also like his use of a Beethoven composition as a metaphor for life even more. It suggests that, at least to a degree, we are masters of our own life. And if we are sometimes swept away by forces that we have little or no control over, we still have the ability to make choices that will determine the overall pattern of our lives.

The overall tone of our composition may well be driven by forces over which we have little control, but we have the ability to add to the beauty of the composition through our own choices. If beauty and truth are inseparable, and Kundera suggests that several times in this work, we add beauty to our lives every time we find a new truth.

She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Lover

When Tereza leaves Tomas in Zurich to return to Prague, Tomas alludes to Beethoven’s last quartet to stifle a criticism of her for leaving him. Beethoven introduces the movement with a phrase, “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss,” translated as “the difficult resolution:” how do we resolve or determine a course of action? What is Tomas to do about his love for Tereza? The answer is “Es muss sein! (It must be!) Kundera interjects his explanation:

...Beethoven apparently viewed weight as something positive. Since the German word schwer means both ‘difficult ‘ and ’heavy,’ Beethoven’s ‘difficult resolution’ may also be construed as a ‘heavy’ or ‘weighty resolution.’ The weighty resolution is at one with the voice of Fate (‘Es muss sein!); necessity, weight, and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy, and only what is heavy has value.

Another point to ponder: “Only necessity is heavy...and only what is heavy has value”--is that true? I must dedicate some time over the next few weeks to test that statement.

We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same; we feel that Beethoven himself, gloomy and awe-inspiring, is playing the “Es muss sein!” to our own great love.

Thus Beethoven’s music becomes a metaphor for life and underscores the necessity for the love story to carry the progression in the novel. We do what we do and we love whom we love because “It must be.”

Fortuities and music

Just about the time the reader thinks he may have found the answers to the questions this novel raises, another point of view is offered.

Tereza mentions to Tomas that if she hadn’t met him, she could easily have fallen in love with any one of an infinite number of men. Now what to do? Es muss sein! becomes “Es konnte auch anders sein.” (It could just as well be otherwise.)

Tomas remembers the six “improbable fortuities” that led him to his meeting Tereza. He concludes:

Chance and chance alone has a message for us.

Necessity knows no magic formulae--they are all left to chance. If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi’s shoulders.

So which is it? Are our lives a matter of events and loves that must be or are we led by accidental occurrences--fortuities?

No Shit, Man, Life is Tough

Kitsch

The theory of opposites continues in Part six, “The Grand March.” This is purely Kundera, straying from the story for most of this section of the novel.

In essence Kundera ponders the theological question: Is man really created in the image of God? If so we must think of God as having intestines and therefore defecating as we do or if He lacks intestines, we are not created in His image
.

Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil. Since god gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man’s crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.

It was only after Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise that they and henceforth we felt disgust concerning our shit.

Therefore Kundera finds the argument between creationists and the evolutionists as not the important conflict, but rather the division between those who “doubt being as it is granted to man from those who accept it without reservation.” To me that means a separation between those who are disgusted with some aspects of man’s existence--his shit for example--from those who accept all of man’s existence, including his shit.

Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being.

Enter the concept of kitsch, a German word that came into use in the nineteenth century. Now in English it means “art or literature of little or no value.” The metaphysical meaning for Kundera

is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

So as the word was adopted into other languages it took on a definition opposite to its original meaning.


The fact that until recently the word “shit” appeared in print as s--- has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can’t claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.

It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch.

The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.

Kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death.

Kitsch is a denial of man’s total essence, the reality for man, who must deal with his shit and his mortality.

As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the contest of non kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

American kitsch as of the writing of this book in 1984 was sprinkled with such phrases as “our traditional values,” “the barbarity of Communism.” How many current phrases of American kitsch can you recall?

and so on and so forth. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.

Diane McCormick

Kundera’s chapter entitled “The Grand March” blind-sided me when I first read it as it didn’t really seem to fit in with what came before or with what followed. Kundera offers many definitions of kitsch, but since I like concrete definitions, I preferred this definition:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.

In essence, then, kitsch is simply an overgeneralization of a valid feeling; it’s the point at which an honest emotion is turned into false sentimentality, a stereotype, if you will.

The Grand March, it turns out, is the term Kundera uses to describe the false beliefs underlying the leftists, particularly the Communists:

The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles not withstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March

Now, I assume he’s not saying that “brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness” are bad things. Instead, he seems to be saying that when we follow them blindly we can be manipulated by others. One person’s “justice” may well be another person’s “injustice.” Do we really want to be “brothers” with everyone? Don’t we have enough family problems already?

Ironically, the unhappiest person in the novel, Sabina, is the strongest opponent of kitsch:

…the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it. In fact, that was exactly how Sabina had explained the meaning of her paintings to Tereza; on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth show through

Though, Sabina herself is shown to be subject to a kitsch-like idea of a perfect family home, she is able to recognize her own feelings as kitsch and thus escape from its deception:

Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

“For none among us is superhuman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.”

The difficult part, then, seems to be finding the proper balance between sentimentality and objectivity. If one sees life “too realistically,” and that almost sounds like an oxymoron, you’re likely to be a very unhappy person.

Can you be considered a “serious” artist unless you focus on the dark side of life? After all, life in the 20th century civilization is depressing, right? But is a sentimental work necessarily false? Do all, or even most, people end up angry and alienated in life? People seem to want “happy endings?” If that’s true, won’t most people work toward a happy ending? Won’t at least some of them attain that happy ending, even if they have to overlook certain “realities?” If so, how do you show these people without writing kitsch?

Couldn’t Kundera’s ending with Tomas and Tereza deeply in love be considered “kitsch”? Realistically, shouldn’t they have just split up because of Tomas’ mistreatment of Tereza? Does that mean Kundera is not a serious writer?

Of course, it also raises questions about our own attitudes toward life. If you followed this blog through Christmas, you certainly found that Christmas is Kitsch as far as I’m concerned. The more sentimental the better. Aren't Christmas presents supposed to spoil kids or grandkids? What do you mean there’s no Santa Claus?

On the other hand, my daughter has criticized me as being the least sentimental person she’s ever known, and I have to admit I hardly ever look back to good times. Give me the moment. Give me truth straight up.

On the third hand, though, I might be just a little sentimental about Gavin's "pahtah." It's hard not to be sentimental over someone who loves his grandpa that much, particularly when you're the grandpa.