19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has long confounded philosophers with his take on eternal return—the age-old belief that the universe and everything in existence repeat on an infinite loop. According to Nietzsche’s theory, a life that only occurs once is “without weight” and essentially meaningless.
Kundera immediately opens with the theory of eternal return, which he ultimately refutes. While Kundera later argues that human life only occurs once and is therefore incredibly light, he does not depict life as meaningless. Instead, there is “weight” to life—namely love—that adds heft and meaning.
If the French Revolution occurred on a continuous loop, then people wouldn’t be so proud of Maximilien Robespierre. Because the French Revolution only occurred once, the unspeakable violence associated with it has “become lighter than feathers,” and it is no longer frightening. The narrator thinks back to many years before, when he had looked at some portraits painted by Hitler. The narrator was moved by the paintings, which made him quite nostalgic, even though much of his family had been killed in Nazi concentration camps. The ability to appreciate Hitler’s art, the narrator says, illustrates the absence of eternal return—“everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.”
Kundera offers up the violence and pain of the world as proof of the nonexistence of eternal return, and he uses Robespierre, a political leader of the French Revolution, as an example. Robespierre was an exceedingly violent man who sentenced thousands to death at the guillotine, yet he remains a popular French icon. This acceptance of Robespierre and the narrator’s appreciation of Hitler’s art illustrate his point: if the atrocities of Hitler and Robespierre occurred over and over again, people would grow tired of the violence and condemn them both outright. However, since both men only lived once, their violence is more isolated and therefore “lighter” and more distant. Thus, people excuse it “cynically,” even though they know it is wrong.