The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Kundera

Milan Kundera writes with a unique prose style that is akin to reading a handful of short stories, all relating to the same characters and topic; the result is a grand symphony that feels light to read, yet captures the details better than a heavier, wordier contemporary.

Kundera makes you feel the agony that love and life can be. Without intending it, I feel this novel is a perfect embodiment of the suffering that a life without self-reflection and direction can be. After suffering the painful life of the protagonists, Kundera leaves us with the message that our suffering in life comes from desiring our world to be a certain way; that the “it must be” of our lives, are the parts that make us suffer most.

Reading Notes:

  • Core: Anything that happens once, might not have happened at all.
  • Core: That both lightness and heaviness can burden us down in life.
  • A story of suffering; the suffering that we endure through life as we search for a balance between lightness and heaviness; freedom and commitment; me and us.
  • The things we feel as intrinsically bad (heavy) might not be so; that lightness can be as painful a burden as weightiness.
  • The inseparable tangle that love draws people into.
  • The irony of communication; how misunderstood we are when we talk with on another; each person brining their own views and interpretations to each idea; this makes it impossible to truly understand each other.
  • Highlights to me that a life lacking in self-reflection is a life of misery; but Milan argues that this is an inevitable part of the human condition as we can only live it once – we can never know if a decision we made was right or wrong as we can never know how the alternative decision would have played out.
  • This inability to make “good” decisions in life makes life a mere sketch instead of a masterpiece; a first draft that lacks any real importance due to its lacking in perfection.
  • Milan refutes the “it must be” of our existence. That only when we free ourselves from this feeling of imperative that we can truly be free and happy.
  • This resonates with Buddhist thought in that when we stop trying to force reality to be a certain way (desire) is when we can end suffering and find happiness.
  • We admire courage in people who fight for their way; but it is the same courage that we detest when unnecessarily wielded against us.
  • The idea that “kitsch” (the idealistic perfection) is how we all imagine our futures; we rarely imagine them realistically with ups and downs but rather as a utopia of perfection. Kundera argues that this is dangerous as our lives will never live up to our kitsch idealism, and more importantly never should!
  • Kundera’s writing style is extremely light! It is almost like a collection of short stories about the same key characters and ideas, that when composed together make a beautiful grand symphony.
  • Brilliant mix of fictional storytelling with philosophical insight.

Quotes:

  • “Anything that happens once, might not have happened at all”
  • “The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.”
  • “She had taken many pictures of those young women against the backdrop of tanks. How she had admired them! And now these same women were bumping into her, meanly and spitefully. Instead of flags, they held umbrellas, but they held them with the same pride. They were ready to fight as obstinately against a foreign army as against an umbrella that refused to move out of their way.”
  • “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.”
  • “What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.”
  • “This is the image from which he was born. As I have pointed out before, characters are not born like people, of women; they are born of a situation, a sentence , a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about.”
  • “But isn’t it true, that an author can only write about himself?”
  • “Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?”
  • “Somewhere out in space there was another planet where all people would be born again. They would be fully aware of the life they had spent on earth and of all the experience they had amassed here.
    And perhaps there was still another planet, where we would all be born a third time with the experience of our first two lives.
    And perhaps there were yet more and more planets, where mankind would be born on degree (one life) more mature.
    That was Tomas’s version of eternal return.
    Of course we here on earth (planet one, the planet of inexperience) can only fabricate vague fantasies of what will happen to man on those other planets. Will he be wiser? Is maturity within man’s power? Can he attain it through repetition?
    Only from the perspective of such is it possible to use the concepts of pessimism and optimism with full justification: an optimist is someone who things that on planet number five the history of mankind will be less bloody. A pessimist is one who thinks the opposite.”
  • “Stalin’s son laid down his life for shit. But a death for shit is not a senseless death. The Germans who sacrificed their lives to expand their country’s territory to the east, the Russians who died to extend their country’s power to the west – yes, they died for something idiotic, and their deaths have no meaning or general validity. Amid the general idiocy of the war, the death of Stalin’s son stands out as the sole metaphysical death.”
  • “There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse.”
  • “The reason we take that right for granted is that we stand at the top of the hierarchy. But let a third party enter the gam – a visitor from another planet, for example, someone to whom God say, ‘Thou shalt have dominion over creatures of all other stars’ – and all at once taking Genesis for granted becomes problematical. Perhaps a man hitched to the cart of a Martian or roasted on the spit by inhabitants of the Milky Way will recall the veal cutlet he used to slice his dinner plate and apologise (belatedly!) to the cow.”
  • “We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is a result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity or malice – and what part is predetermined y the constant power play among individuals.”
  • “True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power.”
  • “Missions are stupid. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realise you’re free, free of all missions.”

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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