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


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.

To Tell You the Truth

As if he hadn’t already shown how difficult it is to make good decisions, Kundera also shows how people go through life misunderstanding each other. If you are to believe Kundera, such misunderstandings are inevitable because people’s life experiences are so different. Kundera devotes a whole chapter to “Words Misunderstood.” between Sabina and Franz. He says, “If I were to make a record of all Sabina and Franz’s conversations, I could compile a long lexicon of their misunderstandings. Let us be content, instead, with a short dictionary.”

For instance, Franz:

… assumed that Sabina would be charmed by his ability to be faithful, that it would win her over.

What he did not know was that Sabina was charmed more by betrayal than by “fidelity.” The word “fidelity” reminded her of her father, a small town puritan.

Their very different view of parades is another example of how their personal experiences provide very different views. “Franz felt his book life to be unreal. He yearned for real life, for the touch of people walking side by side with him, for their shouts.” On the hand, Sabina felt that “behind Communism, Facism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”

An even more basic misunderstanding probably doomed their relationship

A man who loses his privacy loses everything, Sabina thought. And a man who gives it up of his own free will is a monster. That was why Sabina did not suffer in the least from having to keep her love secret. On the contrary, only by doing so could she live in truth.

Franz, on the other hand, was certain that the division of life into private and public spheres is the source of all lies: a person is one thing in private and something quite different in public. For Franz, living in truth meant breaking down the barriers between the private and the public.

Not too surprisingly, this sense of irony pervades the novel. My favorite irony in the novel is Franz’s discovery that “the girl with the glasses was his real life.” He is dead a few minutes later, and Kundera suggests, “In death, Franz at last belonged to his wife. He belonged to her as he had never belonged to her before.” Even in death, though I doubt an imaginary character can ever really die, we face the unexpected.

It’s bad enough that we only have one life to live and can never really test our solutions, but to make matters even worse we are told that most of us live our lives with very different perceptions of reality than those closest to us. Considering the obstacles that Kundera points out, it’s not surprising that Franz and Sabina’s relationship falls apart. The only real surprise is that Tomas and Tereza manage to maintain a relationship.

Of course because semantics was one of my favorite English subjects, these kinds of misunderstandings come as no great surprise to me. But I’m sure most of us, including myself, slip into the mistake of assuming that other people understand us when we try to communicate our ideas and feelings.

Now I tend to see these novels as a means of self-discovery, but as Jonathon Delacour pointed out about an earlier blog entry, this same kind of miscommunication is probably inevitable in communication between people from different backgrounds. If people who are lovers can’t communicate effectively, how can we ever expect groups like the Israelis and the Palestinians can do any better? All we can really hope is that the leaders of these people try to do what is really in the best interest of their people and try to overcome the mistrust that may well be inevitable.

Better Expect the Unexpected

Opposing perception of the same event, irony of life

The opposition of heaviness to lightness is repeated in the opposing perceptions of the meaning of the infidelities committed by Tomas, the “epic womanizer.”

Tomas does not see himself obsessed with women per se but

by the desire to discover and appropriate that one millionth part; he saw it as the core of his obsession. He was not obsessed with women; he was obsessed with what in each of them is unimaginable, obsessed, in other words, with the one millionth part that makes a woman dissimilar to others of her sex.

Why must the uniqueness be found only in sex?

Only in sexuality does the millionth part dissimilarity become precious, because, not accessible in public, it must be conquered. As recently as fifty years ago, this form of conquest took considerable time (weeks, even months!), and the worth of the conquered object was proportional to the time` the conquest took. Even today, when conquest time has been drastically cut, sexuality seems still to be a strongbox hiding the mystery of a woman’s “I.”

Ponder this: Why must a woman’s uniqueness be conquered, and why must the conquest derive only from sex? Is this a guy thing?

So Tomas’s perception of his infidelities is one of discovery and conquest, two acceptable motivations for the male. And even after he forms an intimate liaison with Tereza he questions

Was he genuinely incapable of abandoning his erotic friendships? He was. It would have torn him apart. He lacked the strength to control his taste for other women. Besides, he failed to see the need. No one knew better than he how little his exploits threatened Tereza. Why give them up? He saw no more reason for that than to deny himself soccer matches

I will refrain from stating my original reaction to Tomas and write only that he exonerates himself toward the end of the novel which I won’t reveal .

Tereza’s perception of these “erotic friendships” is totally opposite of Tomas’s and one of anguish, a doubting of Tomas’s love for her, creating anxiety that leads to nightmares in which she is in the company of naked ladies by a pool, doing knee bends. Tomas is above them, shooting those women who perform the exercise incorrectly. These are the troubled dreams of a woman who finds her mate’s dalliances destructive.

Tereza and Tomas marry, but here is the irony. One would hope that most marriages are based on love between husband and wife, and yet Kundera remarks

Yes, a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! the climax of her life’s work! The reward for her sufferings!

Diane McCormick

The Impossibility of Knowing Truth

Impossibility of knowing truth because things only happen once

Another problem we face on earth is the fact that we cannot test an action to see if it is correct or if it will lead us in the direction we desire. For example, my granddaughter has chosen to attend the University of Washington with a student body numbering around 35,000. She rejected attending smaller schools. Was this a good choice or one that will bring many anguished phone calls home? Would she have been much better off at Seattle University or the University of Portland? We can’t know because we can’t test the choices to see which is more desirable. Kundera says

We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor
going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal
for life is life itself?

Then his protagonist says

“Einmal ist keinmal” loosely translated “One time is no time...”
If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have
lived at all.

Does that make the philosophy of eternal return, with all the horror of repeating the pain one experiences noble, giving significance to life?

Diane McCormick

As I pointed out yesterday, Kundera suggests that as a result of the myth of eternal return that people have to make decisions as if they were going to last forever. To me, a more interesting corollary of the myth of eternal return is the idea that we can never truly be sure of any decision we make. If, like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, we could repeat an event until we got it right then we could make truly rational decisions. We could use the scientific method to determine the best approach to our problems. Unfortunately, since we only have one life to live and since it cannot be repeated, we can never be truly sure that we have made the right choice.

Tomas confronts this unpleasant reality in trying to decide whether to return to Prague to reunite with Tereza or to stay in Zurich:

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.

Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?

There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, "sketch" is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.

Einmal ist keinmal, says Tormas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.

The truth is that like Tomas we have to leap ahead in a sort of blind faith, not necessarily a faith in God, per se, though it’s no wonder some people treasure such reassurance, but, rather, a faith in ourselves and our ability to intuit what is best for ourselves.

Kundera suggests that one of the best ways to make such a decision is to follow your (com)passion. Again, we see this in Tomas’ decision to return to Tereza:

How could he have known? How could he have gauged it? Any schoolboy can do experiments in the physics laboratory to test various scientific hypotheses. But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion (compassion) or not.

Kundera suggests that the same rules and the same approach must be taken toward history:

Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.

Historical movements are subject to all the same kinds of errors that humans are. There is no way to prevent mistakes that will cost thousands of people’s lives. Only later may we discover that they are mistakes. Though a leader can never truly know if he is about to make the right decision or not, he must make it as if he knows what the future is:

Once more, and with a nostalgia akin to love, Tomas thought of the tall, stooped editor. That man acted as though history were a finished picture rather than a sketch. He acted as though everything he did were to be repeated endlessly, to return eternally, without the slightest doubt about his actions. He was convinced he was right, and for him that was a sign not of narrow mindedness but of virtue. Yes, that man lived in a history different from Tomas's: a history that was not (or did not realize it was) a sketch.

In the novel, Tereza took pictures of Hungarian citizens standing up to the Russian invaders, hoping to gain sympathy and support for their revolution in the West. These photographs were much sought after by the Western press and seemed to show the Hungarians in their proudest moment. Tereza seems rightfully proud of her achievements in documenting the Russian brutality. Later, though, we find that these very pictures were being used by the Russians to hunt down the people who took part in the revolution; indeed, they became one of the best tools of the oppressors. So, did she make a mistake in taking the pictures? How could one ever judge?

These are, of course, not merely historical questions. They are precisely the kinds of questions people still face. If a group is demonstrating over something they strongly believe in, should they allow their picture to be taken? Isn’t that precisely what raises public awareness and concern? On the other hand, will the local authorities use those pictures to arrest and prosecute them?

Perhaps more importantly, we have to realize that we are inevitably going to make mistakes in our own personal lives. To err, lest we happen to forget, is human. The hardest part is to admit those mistakes and then to learn to forgive ourselves for making them. The best we can do is to trust to the best part of ourselves, our compassion, and to make the decisions that have to be made. We have no right to demand a certainty from ourselves that is impossible to attain.

If I’d read this book right after my first marriage ended in divorce, I might have spared myself a lot of unnecessary despair and self-flagellation. Or, not. Perhaps you only discover an idea when you’re ready to accept it.