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.