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.

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.