Monday, February 4, 2013

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

In early 1986, I was landing in Dubai on an Air India passenger flight.  The sun had come up an hour or so before and I remember looking out the window at a sea of white rolling sand.  I had spent the last couple of hours since take-off from Bombay (now known as Mumbai) reading a book I picked up at a small store there.  The novel was The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.  I was attracted to the title but knew nothing else about the book or the writer, who would go on to become my favorite living author today.

I read the book during my return trip from India, finishing up after our stop in Dubai on the way to London and then on to New York.  Kundera writes in short sentences and breaks his ideas into small chucks of wisdom.  This gives the illusion that he is simplistic or easier to read than is actually the case.  When you take his books apart they often seem rather basic.  But, when you step back and see the whole then you realize they are far deeper than a casual reading might suggest.  He reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut in this respect though, unlike Vonnegut, each Kundera novel is distinctive.  Vonnegut ended his career pretty much just repeating himself in his last works which turned me off.

Since then I have read most of Kundera’s novels.  Each is special and satisfying in its own way.  I really enjoy his direct phrasing and the way he examines ideas from multiple perspectives.  Quite often the characters misunderstand one another in fundamental ways that motivates various tensions between them.  This is Kundera’s style and I feel it is highly applicable to my own experience; how I am misunderstood and how I often read others incorrectly.

At any rate, I just finished rereading the novel again.  Even though it was underlined, highlighted, and marked up from previous readings (it is the same paperback I bought in Bombay 27 years ago) I still found new passages to mark for future reference.  For me, a great book is a space that reveals itself anew with each visit.  That is why I spend so much reappraising the fiction in my personal library.  So much money and time invested in these gems justifies the effort.  New insights ensure that each reading is rewarding.

In the case of this novel, it has been many years – perhaps a decade – since I read it last.  Some sections of the novel felt very familiar while others were forgotten and entertained me upon re-acquaintance with them.  It is a fairly straightforward story about two couples who never meet but who are joined by the fact that the men in both relationships share a mistress, though not at the same time.  Each relationship has its own challenges and passions and drama.  It is on this canvas, broadly speaking, that Kundera paints several philosophical meanderings.

The primary musing has to do with the juxtaposition of heaviness and lightness in human experience.  Hence the title.  This ties into feelings of freedom (in lightness) versus feelings of constraint (in heaviness).  Kundera uses Beethoven's final string quartet's rather famous "Es muss sein" theme as an artistic representation the burden of doing what has to be done, the antithesis of freedom and lightness.

I related to the novel differently in this reading.  Due to the expanse of time I really don't remember my previous understandings beyond the fact that I found the novel brilliant and the writing concise, direct, yet profound.    One of the things Kundera is saying is that human beings choose heaviness as opposed to lightness because, as it turns out, the weight of life is easier to bear than the unfashionable freedom and boundless lack of definition within lightness.  Hence lightness, rather than weight, is the genuine burden of existence.  Human beings cannot tolerate the lightness of being, they require definition and structure and obligation.

I would express it this way, which is not necessarily the intent of the author - we humans love our freedom and individuality and our open exploration, but ultimately we find definable burdens more comfortable than an open expanse of anythingness. That might be overstating things.  But, the novel hit me this way this time.  In that sense reading Kundera is always refreshing and new to me.

It reminds me of my five or so years of Shambhala training.  I meditated along with my yoga for many years.  I started with Chakra mediation, and then moved to a Hindu practice taught by Sri Ramana Maharshi, before encountering the teachings of Chogyam Trunga.  I found them all of benefit, ultimately enriching my yoga and my encounter with experience.

One of Trungpa Rimpoche's basic teachings is learning to “let go.”  Not just let go of things you want to rid your life of or even need to get rid of.  Letting go is a state of Being where you do not allow any one thing to master you, you remain open to every possibility.  This is close to the anythingness, the lightness of being that Kundera presents vividly in his powerful prose, embedded in the characters themselves, to which they almost all choose weight, and thingness, and commitment to the cares of the physical world.

The majority of the characters in Kundera's book ultimately find lightness unbearable so they instead cling desperately, passionately and frustratingly to weight, to each other, to all the baggage of life and intimate togetherness.  Except for Sabina.  Sabina is the mistress and the painter and the traveler who ultimately lives in Prague then Geneva then Paris and New York.  She is erotic and kinky and enjoys Tomas and Franz, the novel’s two primary male characters, in their different ways.  Likewise, she knows the women of each man and relates to them in different ways.  More than anyone in the novel, Sabina exemplifies Kundera's lightness.

She finds pleasure with each character, even with the women.  Each liaison is separated by an unspecified number of years.  She enjoys Franz who is fit, academic, and attractive.  But, before him, she prefers Tomas, the master surgeon who commands her to "strip" for him while she wears the bowler hat of her grandfather.  They make wild love and then Tomas moves on, unpretentiously, to other mistresses.  Tomas has dozens of mistresses.  Brief affairs and one-night stands are the essence of what Kundera has Tomas term "erotic friendship."  But, for a time, Tomas always returns and enjoys Sabina.

Tomas plays into Sabina's lightness, they find freedom with each other.  Franz, by contrast, wants to marry her.  He seeks of possessively weigh Sabina down.  In the end she remains lightness itself, for she ends up apart from either men committed only to her art and herself.

I have discussed this book with a few friends and acquaintances through the years and most of them seem to dislike what Kundera does with Tomas because of his immense and flagrant infidelity.  What they perhaps forget, or choose not to agree with, is Tomas' insistence that love and love-making have virtually no relationship with each other.  Obviously, it is an open question for Kundera.  Is erotic sex a lightness, an unbound freedom, without commitment beyond the momentary mingling of two bodies?  Is love a weight, synonymous with Eros and yet incapable of being love without governing the erotic impulse?  My personal assessment is that love has weight, while love-making is weightless.  But, for me, the two seem more interrelated than Tomas would admit.

Kundera begins his novel with a brief examination of Nietzsche's concept of eternal return.  According to Kundera, if everything happens over and over again, if we are condemned to live the same lives the same way for infinity, only then do our actions take on true weight and significance.  But, if we do something only once, never to be repeated, then our actions are weightless and without any lasting meaning or importance at all.  This might seem to be twisted logic but I think there is some teaching in taking on this perspective, at least as far as the novel is concerned.

Sabina, the true anti-hero of the great amoral tale, also experiences the unbearable nature of her of lightness of living.  It is interesting that Kundera chooses the word "emptiness" to describe what Sabina might be experiencing.  This is a fundamental concept of Buddhism, so we are back to that again, although Kundera is in no way Buddhist nor does this novel have that flavor beyond the small comparisons I have already made.

Kundera contrasts the weight of Es muss sein with: "Einmal ist keinmal.  What happens once night as well not have happened at all.  The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe.  The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience.  History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow."

In another paragraph: "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 only make one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare versions of decisions."

In part, the issue rests upon the fact that each choice we make in our lives is an only choice.  We do not get to rewind life and work through the various consequences of our decisions.  We do not get to choose three or four different ways and evaluate the best outcome.  No, we must choose rather spontaneously, in lightness, unknowing of how things will turn out due to our choices.  Kundera presents quite an interesting puzzle by pitching eternal return against our apparently intimate singularity of choosing our paths in life.  He draws no definitive conclusions.

Tomas feels trapped by his love for Teresa, who detests his infidelities, which Tomas does not see as having anything to do with his love for her; they are mere "erotic friendships.”  The tension slowly builds in their relationship, with Teresa attempting and failing miserably to join Tomas in his freedom by having liaisons of her own.  But this is simply not her nature and, being bound in love to her, this eventually affects Tomas' practice of perpetual infidelity.

The two move away from Prague, not in an attempt to resolve the sexual tension, but rather due to political circumstances arising out of the communist invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the period in which most of the book is set.  In the countryside, they find a shared happiness within the weight of their relationship.  Again, Kundera seems to be saying that the immensity of lightness is simply too much for his characters, they require the weight of the world and of each other in order to cope with the significance existence.  Except, of course, for Sabina, who finds peace in the apparent emptiness of otherwise unbearable and insignificant lightness.

Kundera muses on many other things in his novel.  Other themes woven into the fabric of the narrative include betrayal, kitsch, the mechanical stupidity of communism, resistance to abusive authority, and possession versus the constant sampling of something new.  But even these ideas are measured in terms of lightness and weight.  Betrayal is light because it is free of commitment.  Kitsch is heavy because it represents the mediocrity and pop culture that the mass of humanity willfully gravitates toward and embraces along with all the associated media-driven and consumer shallowness.

Kundera seems of favor lightness though everyone but Sabina eventually chooses weight.  Upon this reading of the novel I directed this dialectic toward my own life.  (Isn't that one indication you are reading a great novel?)  How I am weighted to my daily routine, my so-called career, and my cultural and social responsibilities.  How I choose to become thusly entangled and by doing so how I become ever more weighted down.  And yet, there is the contemplative side of me.  My association with art, literature, philosophy, music, my intimate Eros, jogging, yoga, writing, walks in my woods, observing the happenings of nature, enjoying friendships.  These make my existence lighter.

I realize that, for me at least, there is a constant choosing between the weight of life and the lightness I seek to connect with.  I choose to live in the countryside and create my living space with Jennifer out of a propensity for light, to dwell in lightness.  Yet, I remain weighted to making money, dealing with the constant, increasingly regulated kitsch of daily life.  Can I escape the weight of kitsch?  Can I find the mingling point of lightness and weight?  Is it true that lightness is ultimately unbearable and I will inevitably fall back toward the weight?  Some would argue this is misguided thinking.  That there are techniques for permeating Being with lightness regardless of the situation.  Kundera is doubtful, however, and for that I use his work to temper the supposed insight of any solution to his puzzle of Being.

I do not know the answers, but Kundera has certainly created a brilliant literary framework with which to see the juxtaposition, to examine the possibilities through vivid and fascinatingly complex characters.  His modern, classic story is just as relevant today as it was upon my original reading on that return flight from India in 1986.  This novel is a (perhaps crude) map of the essence of things.  Like any map, it really doesn't tell you where you want to go.  It only shows the various routes of getting from one place to another.  Where you want to go is up to you, not the map.

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