As Kundera examines the philosophical concept of eternal return at the beginning of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he explains Nietzsche’s view of eternal return as “the heaviest of burdens.” The heaviness implied in Nietzsche’s understanding of eternal return makes the concept appear “unbearable” and negative, yet Kundera isn’t convinced. “But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?” he asks. To answer this question, Kundera references Parmenides, a Greek philosopher from the 5th century B.C.E., who saw the world as divided into opposites, such as lightness and dark, cold and warmth, and being and nonbeing. Parmenides argued that one half of such oppositions is positive, while the other half is negative. Kundera claims the division of these pairs into positive and negative poles is “childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness”? For Parmenides, the answer to this question was simple—lightness has a positive value and weight a negative one—but Kundera argues that it’s more complicated than that. Kundera calls the lightness/weight opposition “mysterious” and “ambiguous,” suggesting that it’s not actually possible to separate these two seeming opposites into a clear dichotomy. Through this analysis of lightness, weight, and their interconnection, Kundera ultimately argues that all similar dichotomies are false as well.
While Kundera presents his characters as either primarily heavy or primarily light, each behaves in ways that suggest they don’t fall strictly on one side of the dichotomy. Sabina is represented as light—she is sexually liberated and adverse to commitment, and she goes out of her way to rid her life of family and other heavy relationships to keep herself as light as possible. But by the end of the novel she is living with an elderly couple in a makeshift family. Sabina can’t escape the pull of her “image of home,” which is “ruled by a loving mother and wise father,” two undeniably heavy relationships. Tomas is likewise represented as light—he, too, is sexually free and, as a general rule, he avoids love to keep from getting bogged down. He even abandons his wife, Tereza, and son, Simon, in the name of making himself weightless. When he first meets and falls in love with Tereza, however, this weightlessness isn’t so easy. After Tereza leaves Tomas in Zurich and heads back to their native Czechoslovakia, Tomas follows her, even though the Communist state of Czechoslovakia mandates that Tomas’s return must be permanent—he won’t be able to leave. Not only does Tomas opt for love—a heavy emotion—he willingly enters into Czechoslovakia during the middle of a very heavy conflict that he may not be able to escape. Conversely, Tereza is represented as heavy both figuratively and literally—she values love and commitment (especially to Tomas) and carries her entire life around in an enormous suitcase. Despite this, however, she still displays light behavior, such as flirting with the male customers at the Prague bar where she works. Tereza even flirts with Sabina, one of Tomas’s mistresses. As Tereza puts stock in serious, committed relationships, the lightness of her flirting is at odds with her heavy values. Even though Tereza is depicted as overwhelmingly heavy, she still manages to be somewhat light, just as Sabina and Tomas are somewhat heavy despite their lightness.
In addition to the blending of lightness and weight, The Unbearable Lightness of Being blends other dichotomies as well, most notably that of gender. This frequent subversion of commonly accepted dichotomies further suggests that people do not fit neatly into what Kundera refers to as “either/or” understanding. When Sabina seduces men, and when she takes nude pictures with Tereza, she does so in lingerie and a black bowler hat. Sabina’s lingerie enhances “the charm of her femininity, while the hard masculine hat denie[s] it.” Wearing the bowler hat, Sabina embodies elements of both femininity and masculinity. Tereza’s dog, Karenin, has a masculine name and everyone refers to the dog using masculine pronouns, but he is actually female. Karenin has “his periods, too,” Kundera confirms. “They come once every six months and last a fortnight.” Like Sabina, Karenin embodies traits that are both masculine and feminine. After Tereza and Tomas are married, his constant infidelity begins to affect her, and Tereza wishes that she and Tomas could “merge into a hermaphrodite. Then the other women’s bodies would be their playthings.” By fantasizing about being both man and woman as a way to save her relationship, Tereza hints at Kundera’s broader point that erasing dichotomies may be more helpful than trying to maintain them. This resistance to dichotomies is also reflected in Karenin’s breed—he is half Saint Bernard, half German shepherd—and Kundera’s attempt to separate Tomas and Tereza into distinct personifications of the body and soul, respectively. Just as Karenin is not wholly Saint Bernard or German shepherd, Tomas and Tereza cannot be defined exclusively as either the body or soul, which again rejects “either/or” thinking and the idea that people and things must be one thing or another.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera argues that the opposition of lightness and weight is the “most ambiguous of all.” While Kundera ultimately rejects the theory of eternal return and argues that life only occurs once and is therefore overwhelmingly light, he does not imply that life is therefore meaningless. On the contrary, life is at once heavy and light, and it’s pointless to try and separate the two.
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies ThemeTracker
Lightness, Weight, and Dichotomies Quotes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being
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 was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.
The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. 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.
Conversely, 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.
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 Tomas 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.
Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).
“Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it “Behind the Scenes.” Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract.”
Rejection and privilege, happiness and woe—no one felt more concretely than Yakov how interchangeable opposites are, how short the step from one pole of human existence to the other.
Then, at the very outset of the war, he fell prisoner to the Germans, and other prisoners, belonging to an incomprehensible, standoffish nation that had always been intrinsically repulsive to him, accused him of being dirty. Was he, who bore on his shoulders a drama of the highest order (as fallen angel and Son of God), to undergo judgment not for something sublime (in the realm of God and the angels) but for shit? Were the very highest of drama and the very lowest so vertiginously close?
Vertiginously close? Can proximity cause vertigo?
It can. When the north pole comes so close as to touch the south pole, the earth disappears and man finds himself in a void that makes his head spin and beckons him to fall.
If rejection and privilege are one and the same, if there is no difference between the sublime and the paltry, if the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light.