Lightness vs. Weight: Kundera’s Persuasive Argument in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is as much of a philosophical work as it is a fictional story, not following a typical plotline. The novel includes multiple interwoven plotlines surrounding different characters with the same events being narrated many times from different characters’ points of view. Due to the non-chronological and non-linear nature of the work, it cannot be broken into plot-driven stages. Rather, the work may be viewed as an extended three-part persuasive essay of sorts with the author, Milan Kundera, attempting to prove his philosophy of “Lightness vs. Weight”.   Following the three-part persuasive essay model, the author first explains the fundamental idea behind his philosophy and defines the terms to be used in his essay, then moves on to discuss his stance and other scholars viewpoints and once this is established, he hones the argument with fictional characters that he has interjected himself into to control their actions and validate his point. Part One and Two act as an “introductory” segment for the three-part essay, putting the reader on equal footing as the author in preparation for his argument while establishing his stance on the “Lightness vs. Weight” conflict.

Kundera claims that eternal return is a false premise in order to explain that our lives cannot have weight because of the idea of Einmal ist keinmal, which he translates as “what happens but once, 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.” (8) He further explicates this through the characters of Tomas and Sabina. As Tomas returns to Czechoslovakia to be with Tereza, she attempts to give his actions and their relationship significance; however she ultimately fails as he does not reflect on his past and chooses not to carry this weight. Similarly, Sabina chooses the path of “Lightness”, as she lets go of all aspects of her life that bring weight upon her, which is demonstrated by her choice to leave behind Franz as he begins to seek commitment.   By bringing this abstract concept to life through these characters, Kundera establishes a strong foundation for his thesis. He later reinforces this concept through the short dictionary of “Words Misunderstood” (89), which allows the reader to be sufficiently acquainted with the terms and understand them under one predefined light. Due to the metafictional quality of the work, external scholars are commonly referenced, namely Nietzsche and Parmenides, to add a sense of verisimilitude and create a foundation for the author’s stance on the “Lightness vs. Weight” conflict.

In Part Three, the author begins to delve into the debate of “Lightness vs. Weight,” approaching the topic from multiple angles. Ironically at this point, Kundera rejects the theories of Nietzsche and Parmenides in order to elevate his argument by implying that their beliefs and ideas do not apply to the novel’s characters. In this second segment of the novel, the author uses both fictional anecdotes and self-introspection to narrate the journey of each character. Furthermore, Kundera occasionally steps out of the novel to discuss the actions of these characters and explain how they reflect on his life and the alternate paths he could have taken. Through the use of these self-created examples and attempts at self-justification of his actions, Kundera hopes to persuade the reader to accept his opinions, “but isn’t it true that an author can only write about himself?” (221) As the novel comes to a close, the author moves to the final stage of the three-part essay. Instead of posing new ideas Kundera takes the time to lay down a wide variety of examples to strengthen his argument.  The most notable example lies in Part Seven, “Karenin’s Smile,” where he provides verification of the three-part essay layout. At first glance, Part Six would seem to be the end of the novel, as major thematic issues are wrapped up and the characters are followed to their deaths (concluding the discussion of eternal return). Part Seven, which acts as an epilogue to the work, anchors the discussion of time and “Lightness vs. Weight”. By this point, the author has explained his stance in opposition to Nietzsche. Nietzsche claims that time moves in a circular manner and that our lives repeat indefinitely. Whereas Kundera says that time progresses in a linear fashion and we only live our lives once. Kundera then begins to delve into the character Karenin, who is viewed as an androgynous being, with the use of female and male pronouns used interchangeably.  The “idyll” in which the characters in Part Seven live is paradise of sorts, mirroring the Garden of Eden; man’s attempt at achieving the circular lifestyle that Adam had experienced before the Biblical fall. Kundera explicitly states, “Adam was like Karenin.” (298) Since Adam was not entirely human, much like Karenin is not, he was able to experience time circularly as “in Paradise man was not yet man” (296) This blurs the lines in the “Lightness vs. Weight” debate, with Karenin depicted to be an exception to Kundera’s rules, as are all non-human beings. Karenin lives her life in a routine manner, with routine being the essence of eternal return.

Kundera adds on to the idea of “Lightness vs. Weight” by allowing the characters, noticeably Tereza, to have epiphanies, gaining understanding and coming to conclusions contrasting what he had told the reader throughout the novel. This leaves the discussion open-ended, allowing the reader to ponder on the topic endlessly. Continuing this trend, the author uses political backdrops and personal anecdotes as metafictional levels to provide more examples, mainly in the life of the fictional characters he has created, but also examples related to well-known events/personalities at that period of time. Recognizing that self-created examples alone are not capable of swaying the reader’s opinion, he turns towards referencing these known events and personalities to strengthen his argument and create a sense of verisimilitude, allowing the reader to have a connection of sorts to the characters in the novel.

The setting of Prague in 1968, with the political liberalization it undergoes in the “Prague Spring”, places the characters in situations that pose fundamental questions. This allows Kundera to draw big-picture conclusions based on scaled down scenarios. For example, as Tomas debates the personal consequences of Einmal ist keinmal [Never knowing if one’s decisions are correct] (223) in relation to the Soviet Union’s control of Czechoslovakia after WWII, the narrator moves on to extend the concept to the broader topic of the decisions mankind has made throughout the course of history.

The author’s stance on the “Lightness vs. Weight” debate seems to be quite ironic, as through creating this novel he attempts to give his life weight even though he had previously mentioned that it is unattainable and only achievable by immortals and animals. The use of self-created examples and self-justification gives the author’s actions significance. According to Kundera’s philosophy, a human lives his merry life and then fades away into oblivion with his actions having no recurring effect or extended consequences, for “Human time does not turn in a circle, […] it runs ahead in a straight line” (298). In spite of the author’s rejection of “Eternal Return” throughout the book, he tries to achieve this feat, with the novel itself representing his attempt at doing so.

An Exploration into the Postmodern in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being outlines a richly detailed world of philosophical and metaphysical exploration. The novel projects and addresses a variety of sociocultural, political and ideological issues of the period of publication, with many of the events serving to draw parallels between the lives of the characters and the author himself. He utilizes elements of postmodern literature such as intertextuality, pastiche, temporal distortion and metafiction to convey the grandeur of man’s thoughts through the juxtaposition of the simple plot and complex abstract ideas. Through the use of these elements of the postmodern, Kundera exemplifies how every individual strives to develop and express his spiritual self through analysis and exploration of various arts and studies such as writing, music and philosophy rather than through direct, conventional communication.

Through the use of pastiche and the recurring musical motif, the novel incorporates a plethora of music references, which are used to demonstrate the spiritually lifting, intellectual qualities of this art form and the way it allows individuals to reach a greater understanding of themselves and simultaneously to communicate with others with ease. The first glimpse of this melodious theme is presented in the conversation between Tomas and the director of a hospital, in which the actual notes of Beethoven’s last quarter are incorporated in the text, infusing the novel with a more holistic artistic feeling through the unorthodox structure. Tomas’s explanation of his resignation in the tone of Beethoven’s notes fuels the exploration of the significance of this musical movement in regard to the two characters’ own lives, described in detail as:“[t]his allusion to Beethoven was actually Tomas’ first step back to Tereza, because she was the one to buy records of the Beethoven quartets and sonatas. The allusion was even more pertinent than he had thought because the Swiss doctor was a great music lover. Smiling serenely, he asked, in the melody of Beethoven’s motif, “Muss es sein?” “Ja, es muss sein!” Tomas said again” (32).

The power of a single musical motif to evoke such strong individual reactions in the characters’ minds is a testament to the uplifting, ethereal power of music as an art form. The strong association in Tomas’ mind between Tereza and Beethoven’s compositions immediately induces him to feel nostalgia for their ephemeral domestic life. Through the juxtaposition of the unearthly nature of music and its metaphoric portrayal as the toiling, physical “first step” to their reunion, the author manages to infuse the musical motif with the transcendent qualities of art that allow self-actualization and communication beyond the realms of the corporeal. Moreover, through the usage of the tune, the situation between the two men is relieved, and the hospital director initially “in fact offended” (32) grows “smiling serenely”, peacefully accepting Tomas’ sudden resignation. The way pastiche is utilized to incorporate the original German phrase which inspired the musical movement, in combination with the laconic understanding achieved by the two characters serves to exemplify how interaction between individuals is carried out much better on the divine level of art.

The idea of music as a spiritual assistant and conductor continues to appear in the novel as Tomas’s dependence on Beethoven’s motif as his credo in life is revealed. Guided by this intrinsic “Es muss sein!”, Tomas makes a lot of the decisions in his life based on the merit of whether he feels the moral obligation to proceed or not. The musical motif is augmented to encompass all of Tomas’ life, especially his medical career, dictating his every move as a surgeon. The importance and joy of surgery for him are exemplified through Beethoven’s quartet as “that was the “Es muss sein!” rooted deep inside him, and it was planted there not by chance, not by the chief’s sciatica, or by anything external” (194). The sharp refutation of all external motivation, achieved through the syntactic and lexical parallelism of “not by” and the emphasis of the musical motif metaphorically “rooted deep inside him […] planted there” are employed to highlight the compelling effect music and its motifs can have on an individual, negating all outside influence and allowing him to reach equilibrium with his own innate self.

The exploration and reassessment of this motif is continued through the metafictional introspection of the narrator later on in the text, revealing the true nature and conception of Beethoven’s quartet. The originally light-hearted story concerning Beethoven and Dembscher is alluded to in Kundera’s text, musing how “the words […] had acquired a much more solemn ring; they seemed to issue directly from the lips of Fate” (195). In this passage, the omniscient narrator steps out of the scope of the novel and reveals the important background of the composition of Beethoven’s work, crucial to its understanding in the text. This intertextuality and the allusion to the personified Fates of Greek mythology are used to highlight the unearthly, unlimited power that an art medium such as music can possess. The description of the transformation of the motif’s connotation, in which the words “acquire a much more solemn ring”, evokes the sense of spiritual change, so inherently rooted in the heavenly nature of music. This transforming quality of music is presented throughout the whole text as the characters’ decisions and moods are heavily influenced by the musical motif of Beethoven. Through it, the author effectively demonstrates how the richness and variety of music can dictate a person’s whole existence as well as his interaction with other individuals.

The author takes a similarly sweeping approach in the exploration of writing as an art, incorporating many intertextual references and regularly breaking the fourth wall through metafiction to illustrate intellectual growth and one’s ability to freely express himself through the analysis of the characters and the plot rather than through straightforward character-character interaction. The most striking example of this introspection is the narrator’s analysis of each of the four individuals and his relation to them. While ascribing his qualities to each one of the four central characters, he muses how: “[s]taring impotently across a courtyard, at a loss for what to do during a moment of love; betraying, yet lacking the will to abandon the glamorous path of betrayal; raising one’s fist with the crowds in the grand March; displaying one’s wit before hidden microphones—I have known all these situations, I have experienced them myself, yet none of them has give rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent” (221). The enumeration of the various social situations presented in the characters’ own chapters evoke a sense of great philosophical and metaphysical awareness in the narrator’s mind. His experience with writing the story, conveyed through his extreme familiarity with the four central characters’ personal experiences highlights how virtuous, uplifting and illuminating the writing process can truly be. Through the postmodern technique of metafiction, the author bridges the gap between his own life and the seemingly abstract ideas conveyed in the text by giving the narrator’s account of writing the story within the novel. This is achieved through the repetition of the personal pronoun “I” and the emphasis on the omniscient nature of the narrator. The close analysis of complex human emotions and conditions such as “love, betrayal and wit” and the metafictional awareness of the narrator evoke a sense of a strong spiritual connection between himself and the art of writing.

Through postmodernist writing techniques, the narrator also engages the topic of the Communist in Czechoslovakia, opening up to previously taboo subjects such as the Prague Spring and its infamous consequences. These references are incorporated in many ways, with one of the most prominent being the intertextual reference to “the “Two Thousand Words” [,the] glorious manifesto of the 1968 Prague Spring. It called for the radical democratization of the Communist regime. First it was signed by a number of intellectuals [and] anyone who admitted to having done so was summarily dismissed from his job” (212). This free disclosure of the details of the oppression creates a sense of confidence in regard to the author’s unabashed courage in coming forward and scrutinizing the Communist party so freely. The strength of writing as a medium which allows both personal, spiritual self-reflection and social critique is supported through such frank commentaries on the regime in Czechoslovakia. Through postmodernist writing techniques such as intertextuality and metafiction, Kundera aims to portray writing as a social art form that achieves self-actualization alongside real cultural impact. By utilizing these elements, he makes a two-fold argument: writing about writing is a exemplary medium for spiritual and intellectual exploration, and one is free to do so without becoming the victim of censorship all while making social progress.

Milan Kundera’s novel is a labyrinth of philosophical and spiritual ideas and concepts, expertly woven through the synthesis of postmodernist literary techniques such as pastiche, intertextuality and metafiction. Through the skillful usage of these elements, the author successfully testifies to the vast opportunities that one has upon finding spiritual and physical freedom. Once granted this freedom, a person can extraordinarily develop his intellectual and sacred self through emphasis on arts and studies such as music, philosophy and literature.

Kundera’s Manifestation of Human Alienation

In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera depicts a society almost devoid of human connection. Kundera utilizes the characters Tomas, Sabina, Franz, and Tereza to explore the inability for human beings to allow themselves to attach to others, either consciously or subconsciously. Tomas’s tendency to place his own priorities above others renders him unable to fully comprehend and exhibit the selflessness that love and connection requires. He fears commitment for the responsibility it inevitably brings. The thought of acting purely for the good of others repulses him, as demonstrated by his inability to sustain relationships of any form, whether with women, or family such as his son. He claims an inability to “live side by side with any woman, and could be fully himself only as a bachelor” (Kundera, 10). Tomas’s ideal life is one where he could indulge in the sin of selfishness and live without the influence of others affecting his decisions. He is unwilling to compromise, exhibiting that he honors his own desires above those of others. He is also unable to sleep in the presence of others, demonstrating the innate sense of discomfort once he has to allot for the presence and emotions of others. Love then becomes a burden that would compromise the pure selfishness of his life. However, Tomas seems to free himself of his flaw once he falls in love with Tereza. Tomas explains his newfound love through the idea of compassion, where he experiences emotionally telepathy with Tereza and feels the sensations she feels, whether it is pleasure or pain. Through compassion, Tomas is able to emotionally become one with Tereza. Through alleviating her pain, Tomas alleviates his own as well, providing a solution to his selfish tendencies. Kundera sets up his novel in a duality of opposites; lightness and weight, light and darkness, warmth and cold. Selfishness and compassion therefore becomes another set of opposites, as compassion is capable of diminishing selfish desires and encouraging the compromise that is essential to be able to experience love. Kundera uses Franz to explore an alienation that occurs due to an inclination to live within the fantasy of his dreams and inability to understand his interactions. Franz is established as a dreamer who often opts for the ideal rather than truth. He demonstrates his alienation within his own mindset by his failed relationships with his wife and Sabina. Franz was capable only of a logical understanding of human language, but not the semantics that underlies it. He sheltered his wife emotionally “for twenty years” because “he had seen his mother- a poor, weak creature who need his protection- in his wife… because of a misunderstanding!” (Kundera, 118). Franz lived a lie based on miscommunication for twenty years; without truth and communication, human beings cannot experience love and connection. A combination of his preference for the unreal and lack of human understanding led him to subconsciously sabotage his relationship with Sabina as well. He lived in the “darkness [that] was pure, perfect, thoughtless, visionless… for [Sabina], darkness did not mean infinity; for her, it meant a disagreement with what she saw… the refusal to see” (Kundera, 95). Franz relished in the boundless freedom of his daydreams. He depended upon it too heavily as an escape from life; to the extent it eventually overpowered the reality of his life. Darkness is perfect because it is visionless, he can imagine whatever his heart desires. However, as he dwells in the unreal, he is unable to sustain his relationships and interactions because he does not understand what elements are required to sustain them. He could not comprehend that his desire to live a fantasy cost him his relationship with Sabina, who was repulsed by fantasy as the rejection of the real. Franz is capable of only a façade of human connection, but in reality is alienated due to his inability to understand interactions. Sabina, one of the most extreme characters depicted by Kundera, lives and seemingly revels in her completely emotional alienation. Her detached nature is a manifestation of her disgust with society, either with the repressive influences of society or the human weakness that fall victim to it. She demonstrates obvious disdain for human weakness through her intolerance for Franz. Franz surrenders power to the ones he love, and would never order them around, which “struck her as grotesque” (Kundera, 112). Franz demonstrates the human weakness that surrenders to the ways of society, an idea she detests. She thrives upon betrayals for the freedom and lightness it provides her. She refuses to allow society to control her decisions or impulses. Her ideals are revealed in her lifestyle and mindset. She strictly maintains that love must be private: “Sabina did not suffer in the least from having to keep her love secret. On the contrary, only be doing so could she live in truth” (Kundera, 113). Once her affairs become public, there is now an outside influence affecting her decisions. Sabina well understands this power of destruction society holds. She could only live freely and indulge in her own thoughts without the presence of others that might lead her to subconsciously alter her behavior to accommodate for the norm. However, by considering the presence of society a burden, she ultimately admits a hidden regard for what others think of her. This is reinforced by her idolization of the bowler hat, which not only embodies the past of her family, but also the lovemaking with Tomas. She attempts to recreate that fleeting moment on multiple occasions (such as her encounters with Franz); however, she is continually disappointed in her sole search for eternal return. Sabina also demonstrates a pure affection and connection for Tomas, one of the only men who ever understood her. She attempts to vocalize her strong affection, but instead is only capable of uttering, “’you don’t know how happy I am to be with you’, that was the most her reserved nature allowed her to express” (Kundera, 98). Sabina is so consumed by her overwhelming desire to escape the effects of society that she does not realize she is ultimately entrapping herself by her unrealistic mindset. She regards love as weakness and a surrender of power, and chooses instead to exercise lightness and promiscuity. However, her fear of society and commitment has paralyzed her actions that she cannot express her affection for Tomas. Sabina, one of the most complicated and extremes characters Kundera creates, demonstrates that an absolute intolerance for human weakness, emotions, and love causes a subconscious alienation through a self-entrapment in her inability to break rank of her own expectations. Kundera demonstrates that no one is free of the inevitable alienation, even the most romantic of characters, Tereza. Through her ten year relationship with Tomas, where she relinquished her own desires and needs in order to please Tomas, Tereza is still partially alienated in the end. Tomas will never provide the pure love and devotion, as contrasted by Karenin. Tereza admits Karenin provided a “better love” because: It is a completely selfless love… Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved… we demand something from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company (Kundera, 297). Human alienation is inevitable in today’s society since we have lost sight and understanding of the true purity of love. The insecurities people experience (manifested in attempts to measure and test love) only act as a negative reminder that love is vulnerable to destruction. Kundera exposes the detached nature of human society through the interactions and confessions of Tomas, Franz, Sabina, and Tereza. The alienation of society is a result of selfishness, miscommunication, and fear. People become entrapped within an absolute pursuit for human individuality, freedom, and the illusion of perfection that they disregard the true source of happiness, love and human connection. However, despite the social criticism, Kundera exemplifies through the psyches of his characters that human nature is fragile, and people are ultimately attempting to protect themselves from the pain that accompanies love. Kundera showcases the unfortunate truth that the purity of society has decayed to the extent that each individual must honor his or her own desires above all else. Selfishness permeates, overpowers, and tarnishes the purity and goodness that existed in society, and force individuals to place themselves as the top priority in order to avoid the pain inflicted by others.

Differentiating Sex and Love During the Prague Spring

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, the inquisitive Tereza ponders what makes her unique. While staring at herself in a mirror she wonders if changing her physical features can affect who she is on the inside; whether her exterior shell affects her emotional and mental state. Kundera allows his characters to explore the finer points of ‘self’ and ‘being’ by peppering his novel with reflective moments like the one with Tereza and the mirror.Kundera never formally introduces his characters, and instead plunges the reader straight into the deep end of the plot, sidestepping the ladder completely. Without a physical description, the reader is forced to concoct a mental picture of his own, giving him some leeway to mold the characters. One is never concerned with the physical traits of the characters; reference is rarely made to their exterior appearances. Instead, the reader nose-dives into intimate thoughts of characters whom he barely know. The only common link between all four characters is sex, which permeates every encounter and is one of the best ways to distinguish between the groups.Each of the four characters has a ‘self’. It is purely external, something that can be experienced before knowing their attitudes, mannerisms or feelings. Hair texture, eye color, and lip shape are all part of the ‘self’ of the characters. They also possess a ‘being’, which is everything the ‘self’ is not, essentially, the indispensable qualities that distinguish one person from the next. The ‘being’ also includes the collection of decisions that each character makes. These decisions shape their core and help determine why the characters act the way they do.Tomas’ ‘being’ can be defined by his obsessive and unrepentant womanizing. His philandering is what first links him to Tereza and what keeps him close to Sabina. He is also defined by his evasion of responsibility, something he chose to leave far behind when he discarded his first wife and son. The life Tomas chooses next, one of “erotic friendships” and bachelor living, further describes what makes Tomas truly himself. Only when he is having sexual relations with multiple women, taking something from each of them, is he truly in his element. He can easily differentiate between sex and love, and refuses to give up his affairs even when he realizes he loves his wife.Tereza is on the other end of the spectrum, demonstrating that her ‘being’ is radically dissimilar by sticking by Tomas’ side throughout his affairs. Her ‘being’ can be characterized by her fierce loyalty and desire to be unique to her darling. She desires an exclusive relationship with Tomas, something that is seemingly unattainable because he refuses to end his affairs. Tereza wants to be different and special from all the women Tomas continues to have sex with, and cannot do so because as long as he continues to have affairs, he is telling her that she is not worth the monogamy. The feeling of not being special is destroying her ‘being’ and begins to seep into her dreams. In one of her nightmares she is exactly the same as every other woman walking around the pool, and this will eventually lead to her death. Tereza cannot differentiate between love and sex, although she tries by having an affair. She is emotionally needy and very attached to Tomas, despite his flaws. We can see what kind of character Tereza is because she latches onto Tomas’ hand the first night they spend together, and every night afterwards.Sabina’s ‘being’ can be characterized by her betrayals. She adores clandestine affairs and will abandon anyone who gets too close. She and Tomas share a special relationship because they both take sex so lightly, keeping it separate from the heart. Instead of labeling Sabina the villain and allowing her to take much of the blame, Kundera creates a scenario where Tereza and Sabina meet and actually enjoy each other’s company. She becomes more fully developed after the meeting with Tereza; instead of giving her one role to play, Kundera gives her a human side which is much more life-like.Franz is consumed with his affair with Sabina, and his conscious mind rules his sex life. His ‘self’ is a bit cowardly, but he ends up doing what he considers the right thing, and tells his wife. However, Kundera didn’t write Unbearable Lightness to be a moral story, so the reader shouldn’t be surprised when Sabina promptly leaves him. He intermingles sex and love, confuses one with the other and his mistake gives Sabina a wormhole to escape through.All four characters are associated with one another through sex. Although it runs through the entire novel, Kundera cannot be accused having written a lewd book. He keeps it clean, only using sex as a vehicle to show how each character makes decisions. They all take a different attitude towards becoming attached and staying monogamous, or running away.