At the center of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the philosophical concept of eternal return, which assumes that everything in the universe—people, animals, events, and the like—recurs and repeats in a more or less similar fashion over infinite time and space. The theory of eternal return has been around since antiquity and can be found in ancient Indian, Greek, and Egyptian writings; however, in modernity, it is most often associated with 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whom Kundera references directly in the novel. Kundera uses his characters Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz to explore and refute the idea of eternal return, which he claims is “a terrifying prospect.” If life and everything in it are on a continuous loop, Kundera asserts, then “the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.” But while Kundera points out the drawbacks of a cyclical existence, he also acknowledges its benefits. Happiness, according to Kundera, is the desire for repetition. Though Kundera dismisses the theory of eternal return—arguing that time and existence, especially human existence, are linear and occur only once—he asserts that a cyclical existence would be the key to true happiness.
Throughout the novel, Kundera repeatedly rejects the idea of eternal return and instead claims that people only live once, and that their lives exist on a straight and fixed line within space and time. When Tomas first meets Tereza, he thinks he may be in love, but isn’t sure he wants to give up his bachelor lifestyle. This indecisiveness, according to Kundera, is to be expected. “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.” In other words, existence does not repeat on a continuous loop in which one can compare and contrast decisions—it only occurs once. Kundera posits that life is like a sort of “sketch,” because people “live everything as it comes, without warning.” Yet he claims it is not an “outline” or “groundwork for something.” Instead, Kundera argues that “life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.” Because one’s life can never be known before it happens and doesn’t exist until it does, there is no way to prepare, which again dismisses the idea of eternal return. Tereza is a photographer, and she takes hundreds of pictures during the Prague Spring, a period of mass protest in 1968 that responded to Czechoslovakia becoming a Communist state after World War II. She gives much of her film undeveloped to the foreign press, but she tries to sell some photos to a magazine in Zurich about a year after the uprising. The conflict will “never recur,” Kundera writes, but the magazine isn’t interested because the pictures are “out of date.” The Prague Spring has already happened, and Tereza’s pictures are too late. Not only does this imply that events do not recur, it also emphasizes that time and events occur in a linear and chronological way.
While Kundera rejects the idea of eternal return, he also draws a parallel between cyclical time and “the idyll,” or true happiness, which suggests that a cyclical existence is the only way to achieve real happiness. According to Kundera, “the idyll” is rooted in the Old Testament of the Bible and is an image of Paradise. “Life in Paradise was not like following a straight line to the unknown,” Kundera says, “it is not an adventure. It moved in a circle among known objects. Its monotony bred happiness, not boredom.” In other words, the repetitive nature of life in Paradise is the source of its happiness. Kundera argues that no one can give another person “the gift of the idyll,” but an animal can, which is exactly what Tereza’s dog, Karenin, does. Animals did not get expelled from Paradise, Kundera says, and “dog time cannot be plotted along a straight line.” Dog time is circular, “like the hands of a clock,” and because of this, Karenin lives a “life based on repetition.” Karenin brings this repetition to Tereza in the form of his loyalty and love, which are Tereza’s main (perhaps only) sources of happiness in life. Kundera claims that people can retain “at least a glimmer of that paradisiac idyll” if they live in the country, as Tomas and Tereza do at the end of the novel, surrounded by nature and animals and experiencing the recurring seasons. The cyclical nature of seasons and wildlife mimics that of Paradise, bringing people as close to happiness as humanly possible.
Ultimately, Kundera argues that happiness comes from cyclical existence, which, for people at least, makes true and lasting happiness unobtainable. “Human time does not turn in a circle,” Kundera asserts, “it runs in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy; happiness is the longing for repetition.” This general unhappiness and unfulfilled desire for repetition is reflected throughout The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which, Kundera then maintains, is proof positive that life occurs only once.
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return ThemeTracker
Time, Happiness, and Eternal Return 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.
Early in the novel that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end—may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.
The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina's life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. I might call it Heraclitus’ (“You can’t step twice into the same river”) riverbed; the bowler hat was a bed through which each time Sabina saw another river flow, another semantic river: each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one. Each new experience would resound, each time enriching the harmony. The reason why Tomas and Sabina were touched by the sight of the bowler hat in a Zurich hotel and made love almost in tears was that its black presence was not merely a reminder of their love games but also a memento of Sabina’s father and of her grandfather, who lived in a century without airplanes and cars.
What remains of the dying population of Cambodia?
One large photograph of an American actress holding an Asian child in her arms.
What remains of Tomas?
An inscription reading HE WANTED THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH
What remains of Beethoven?
A frown, an improbably man, and a somber voice intoning “Es muss sein!”
What remains of Franz?
An inscription reading A RETURN AFTER LONG WANDERINGS.
And so on and so forth. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.
But most of all: No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from Paradise. The love between dog and man is idyllic. It knows no conflicts, no hair-raising scenes; it knows no development. Karenin surrounded Tereza and Tomas with a life based on repetition, and he expected the same from them.
If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza, “Look, I’m sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can’t you come up with something different?’’ And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition