The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This book was heavier than I expected. Many of the author’s ideas were understandable and I even agreed with some of them, but at the same time those I did not agree with, and those which completely left me in the dark, will make me return to the book and read it again eventually.

This is another book that can hardly be called a novel. First, its characters are deliberately sketchy and incomplete. Second, there is no obvious plot, only a bunch of recurring themes throughout the work. Third, and most pleasantly surprising to me, the author uses an original approach to story-telling: he makes believe he is the omniscient narrator, using the third person to convey the story. But beneath this “believable lie” he stays in the mind of a single character in one part, then he switches to another character in the next (7 parts total). While he is in the mind of one character, he does not infiltrate the consciousness of others. Consequently, he is actually a first-person narrator in disguise, not omniscient in the least. As if that were not enough, he also uses ‘I’ to talk about his characters directly, as if discussing his novel with somebody. Whereas in most of what I’ve read so far the narrator tries to be as unobtrusive as possible, here he steps right out of the shadows, openly admitting that the characters are mere playthings of his imagination. Amazing.

The book deals with a number of philosophical ideas, including: contrasts, opposition and relativity; misunderstanding and miscommunication; fate; the layers of love; faith. An idea that I have seen many times and never fails to shock me is that human life is insignificant in its essence. If that is the foundation stone upon which the entire structure of the book is based, then no wonder I failed to grasp the point. Another theme which I will remember is Kundera’s treatment of the condition of Paradise. Paradise is happiness without excitement. Paradise is the nonexistence of disgust, of anything that is unacceptable. Paradise is happiness through repetition. Paradise is time running in a circle instead of a straight line. Living a repetitive life in a village, with no desire to do anything else, is a return to the condition of Paradise. You gotta be kidding me!

That is probably proof that I failed to understand the author’s point. Even so, I am certain that at least a subset of his ideas got through to me. Here is a list of quotes that will one day convince me to reread the book:

  • 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.
  • 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.
    (Einmal ist keinmal.)
  • Metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.
  • A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person.
  • Man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion (compassion) or not.
  • In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood.
  • But is not an event in fact more significant and noteworthy the greater the number of fortuities necessary to bring it about?
    Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.
  • Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.
  • The difference between the university graduate and the autodidact lies not so much in the extent of knowledge as in the extent of vitality and self-confidence.
  • Our dreams prove that to imagine — to dream about things that have not happened — is among mankind’s deepest needs.
  • Anyone whose goal is something higher must expect some day to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? […] It is the voice of the emptiness below us, which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.
  • On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.
  • I want you to be weak. As weak as I am.
  • Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood.
  • But when the strong were too weak to hurt the weak, the weak had to be strong enough to leave.
  • We might also call vertigo the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down.
  • Yes, if you’re looking for infinity, just close your eyes!
  • ‘Beauty by mistake’ — the final phase in the history of beauty.
  • Beauty is a world betrayed. The only way we can encounter it is if its persecutors have overlooked it somewhere.
  • There are things that can be accomplished only by violence.
  • Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies.
  • A concentration camp is the complete obliteration of privacy.
  • Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer 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.
  • How defenseless we are in the face of flattery!
  • 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.
  • But the world was too ugly, and no one decided to rise up out of the grave.
  • Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil.
    (Read the book for an explanation. This is freaking genius!)
  • There was pleasure in Paradise, but no excitement.
  • Life in Paradise was not like following a straight line to the unknown; it was not an adventure. It moved in a circle among known objects. Its monotony bred happiness, not boredom.
  • Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short.
  • 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.
  • Missions are stupid […]. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions.

11 Responses to The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  1. ilovemint says:

    Oh wow I can hardly wait to get my hands on this book. Intriguing by the sound of it. Nice review as well. :]

  2. Constantin says:

    Thanks, I hope you’ll enjoy it!

  3. oh..i loved this book when i first read it 8->. and have called it top ever since.

  4. Constantin says:

    Eye-openers are always good reads :)

  5. poars1982 says:

    Constantin, im leonardo, from Brazil (porto alegre). I recently (the first two weeks of january) read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in portuguese, and i find a really great book. In fact, Kundera uses a several arguments to prove serveral ideas. But, in my point of view, this some of this ideas are contradictory or even paradoxal: whe can see that, for example, in the relation of sabina and franz. Anyway, the incredible thing is that, even that sabina, franz and the other characters have this ideas, they all seen to be, individually, justified. This is, in my point of view, one of the great things of the book: the ideas can be justified, but the truth cant exist in one persons mind.
    you have did one great commentary about the book, and the idea of the list of quotes… amazing. Congratulations, leonardo.

  6. Constantin says:

    Thanks!
    After reading another one of his books (The Joke), I think I am beginning to understand the way Kundera structures his books: each part is told with the voice of a particular character, and, like you said, the truth one sees can be different from the truth seen by another. I don’t know of any other author who can do that, so it’s pretty amazing.

  7. Alex Christen says:

    Hello My name alex
    I am studying The unbearable Lightness of being and was wondering if anyone could explain to me the uses of the metaphor:
    “Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”
    and also why does Milan Kundera constantly use Parentheses?? im at a loss!! any help would be great!! have to present on wednesday!! please help me!!

  8. DavidRefaeli says:

    To Alex (but actually to all others wondering about this),

    I think Kundera was scratching an idea he still didn’t grasp 100%, otherwise he would have explained it more simply and less poeticly, like he does with other ideas in the book.

    The way I understand this idea is – metaphors are gates between two realities. They are a projection from one world of thought to another. The reason they create love, IMO, is because human beings have needs for beauty and higher values – they give them the reason to live, they give meaning to life (According to Frohm, Love overcomes man loneliness. man is lonely because of the seperation from Natural instincts, the awarness of self without having a reason to be.). When the connection between two people is projected to this world of beauty (with the help of a metaphor) the experience is enhanced – and does not only satisfy your basic physical need, but also your need for the divine.

    More or less in Nutshall.

  9. Hey there, cool website, just wondering what spam blocker system you use for filtering out junk websites because I am getting so many spammers on my website.

  10. Constantin says:

    WordPress.com uses Akismet.

  11. Great review, many thanks for the insights. I’ve just finished reading and reviewing the book myself (http://bit.ly/r99VI0) and it’s certainly one to sit and reflect on!

%d bloggers like this: