The Unbearable Lightness of Being… isn’t that unbearable

I have a couple of books in my collection that I tend to pull out once every year or so, to skim through them and re-read a few chapters. Last week exactly this happened, triggered by an Insta-post of my one my friends who shared that she had just picked up possibly my favorite book of them all: Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

What I like about it so much is how Kundera opens the book with a philosophical contemplation, setting the stage for the actual story of the book. In two short chapters, of no more than two pages each, he introduces what he calls ‘the most mysterious and most ambiguous of all antipoles’: the antipole of lightness versus heaviness.

When you consider that life exists in a void of nothingness, and with death being imminent, it is easy to come to the conclusion that life is, in fact, meaningless. This ephemeral view on being has quite some profound implications. Because when it all passes anyway, and everything becomes a things of the past the moment it happens, there really it’s easy to refrain from taking responsibility for it—because hey: what is done is done. And even more so: when there really is no point to it all, why should we even care about anything?

Against lightness, rooted in the notion that everything happens once and that’s it, Nietzsche places the myth of eternal reoccurrence. It says that everything that has happened will happen again, and again, and again, until forever. Everything is loaded with meaning, which then burdens us with endless responsibility. Nietzsche refers to this as ‘das schwerste Gewicht’.

This is where Kundera wonders: is eternal reoccurrence really the heaviest burden? Because:

“…in the love poetry of all ages, the women craves to feel the weight of the man’s body pressing down on hers. The heaviest burden is therefor also the image of the most intense life fulfilment. The heavier the burden, the closer we are to the ground, and the more real our lives are.”

So isn’t the lightness the unbearable one?

This becomes the context for the novel itself, in which four protagonists struggle with the heaviness of their love lives against the backdrop of the Prague Spring (1968). The intellectual Tomas is married to Tereza, but has an extramarital affair with Sabina, a free spirit symbolising lightness.

So Kundera hands you the glasses to look through when reading, and the book successfully fulfils the setup.

But what always lingers with me is: Do things only get meaning through the notion of eternal reoccurrence?

It is no wonder that Nietzsche himself calls this a myth; it’s a constructed idea that is, of course, silly. In my observation, things actually, and perhaps only, get meaning through what follows. If an act is without consequences, it is considered meaningless, while it is considered meaningful if it has a strong impact.

The complexity lies therein that the impact of an act is very hard to determine, and in many cases completely impossible. This also makes a valuation pretty much senseless: Tomas having his extramarital affair for instance, is that to be regarded good or bad? It’s impossible to tell without being able to look into the future. Who knows what good or bad can come from this in the short or long run? Tomas can only balance what his heart honestly wants with what his head tells him about possible consequences.

But as for the meaning of being: I actually believe that exists. Observe that we are all ingrained with a strong drive to improve, to make something of our lives. And while it seems that our collective actions and innovation are erratic and without specific intent for the species, I recognise that there is actually a direction that this chaos is moving in. All humans have been found to share a palette of universal values, which tells us intuitively what to strive for: a balance between those values.

This understanding can add meaning and guidance to our actions. It gives us a goal for strive for, and a yardstick to measure ourselves against.

I find that uplifting, and not unbearable at all.