Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

As if I didn't have a ton of books to read already, I accepted a challenge to read and review this philosophical fiction from my good friend Sergio (he does comics, you should check his site out HERE). In any case, I don't really regret taking this challenge, because The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a fantastic, insightful book that really makes you think. Kundera takes what could have been a standard love story between a man and his wife, and between that man's mistress and another of her lovers, and integrates theories and philosophies regarding the human psyche and the irrevocable decisions we all make in daily life. I fully enjoyed it, and it gets 4 out of 5 stars here on my blog.

From the publisher:
A young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing; one of his mistresses and her humbly faithful lover -- these are the two couples whose story is told in this masterful novel.

Controlled by day, Tereza's jealousy awakens by night, transformed into ineffably sad death-dreams, while Tomas, a successful surgeon, alternates loving devotion to the dependent Tereza with the ardent pursuit of other women. Sabina, an independent, free-spirited artist, lives her life as a series of betrayals -- of parents, husband, country, love itself -- whereas her lover, the intellectual Franz, loses all because of his earnest goodness and fidelity.

In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence we feel, says the novelist, "the unbearable lightness of being" -- not only as the consequence of our private acts but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.

This magnificent novel encompasses the extremes of comedy and tragedy, and embraces, it seems, all aspects of human existence. It juxtaposes geographically distant places (Prague, Geneva, Paris, Thailand, the United States, a forlorn Bohemian village); brilliant and playful reflections (on "eternal return," on kitsch, on man and animals -- Tomas and Tereza have a beloved dog named Karenin); and a variety of styles (from the farcical to the elegiac) to take its place as perhaps the major achievement of one of the world's truly great writers.

My thoughts:
At first, I wasn't sure which way this story was going to go. Who was I going to relate to the most, and why? Should I feel bad for Tereza, who was knowingly staying with a womanizer? Or for Franz, who spent his life still living under the influence of his mistress? Nah, I didn't feel bad for any of them because the decisions they made influenced the person they became, and further influenced other decisions they made. The human life only occurs once, complicating our decision making process. How do we know if the decision we've made is the right one in a given situation, considered we only have one life, and therefore no previous knowledge in that situation to base our decision on? What if we make the wrong decision? (This is particularly poignant to me, as I can never make up my mind and am always thinking about the decisions I've made and what would have happened if I had chosen differently). We don't have another life in which to rectify this and make a different choice. Oh, and I have plenty of quotes from the book to reference in this review!

- 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.

- Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.

Because life only occurs once, does this make our lives more or less meaningful? Is my life valuable because it only happens once, or is it less valuable because once it happens, it's done and that's it? After reading the book, and discussing with Sergio (let's admit it, he's a modest genius), I've come to the conclusion that life has meaning if somebody is around to experience it and for which it holds meaning. A life is finite, and if when somebody passes on there is nothing left of him, or nobody left for whom his life held meaning, then the meaning of that life ceases to be. This is why people are so set on leaving a legacy, be it children, music, art, and so on. "Something that is experienced timelessly to many escapes this meaninglessness" as Sergio put it. This also helps explain religion, the need for an omniscient and omnipresent being to watch over the human race and therefore give our lives meaning (again, the idea being that our lives have meaning so long as they are perceived by someone or something else).

I think this line of philosophy was the most prevalent in this book, although there were plenty of other theories and insightful views throughout. I honestly didn't follow the entire idea of kitsch: "... that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch... kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence." This definition from the book seems to make sense, but I wasn't following Kundera's use of the concept in the latter third of the book. Maybe I need to reread it, or see some discussion in the comments on here ;)

Kundera does a fantastic job blending philosophy and history into The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and makes this story fun and easy to read as well as interesting and insightful. I'll leave with you with a  few other quotes that I liked, and hopefully get a few of you to pick up this novel as well :)

- Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.

- Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. (Must it be? Yes, it must be).

- Es konnte auch anders sein. (It could just as well be otherwise).

- Only the most naïve of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answers is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.

- What is unique about the 'I' hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual 'I' is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered.

- We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions- love, antipathy, charity, or malice- and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals.

- Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test, consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals.

- 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.

Don't forget, leave comments about your own thoughts on my review, these quotes, and the book if you've read it. Happy reading!
- Justin

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