Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being - a paradoxical beauty

Firstly, I must say that The Unbearable Lightness of Being is up there with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for having the best title ever. I just love the titles of these two books; they're so evocative, so beautifully enigmatic.

In the case of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it's all about the paradox: how can something so light be unbearable, eh? And this exemplifies the paradox at the core of the book, the dichotomy between lightness and weight. I can't be bothered explaining this when Wikipedia does it so well already:
According to Kundera, "being" is full of "unbearable lightness" because each of us has only one life to live: "Einmal ist keinmal" ("once is nonce", i.e., "what happened once might as well have never happened at all"). Therefore, each life is ultimately insignificant; every decision ultimately does not matter. Since decisions do not matter, they are "light": they do not tie us down. But at the same time, the insignificance of our decisions—our lives, or being—is unbearable. Hence, "the unbearable lightness of being".

I love the existentialism of it all. It makes you think. It made me think; my current conclusion (updated daily) is that my life (and hence my decisions) matters to me and the people I touch. Therefore it is not particularly light. I don't find this particularly unbearable, but I do so love the paradox. I love its cleverness and its wit. The way it has, at its core, a kernel of sense, a kernel of something that comes closer to truth than anything else I know. They told me at school that absolute truth does not exist; I believe we come closest to that impossible goal in cliches and paradoxes.

Anyway. I copied no less than twelve passages into my little book of profound quotations; this book spouted profundity at a great rate of knots. And not just profundity, but really, really interesting ideas, such as shit.
"The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don't lock yourself in the bathroom!) or we are created in an unacceptable manner [because we are ostensibly created in God's image. Ask yourself, did God shit? Blasphemy to think it, perhaps, but interesting]."

Isn't that a fascinating idea? This book is full of them. It is also absurdly, heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The image of the park benches floating down the river Vltava is piercingly melancholy. Karenin's death... I don't even want to think about Karenin's death.

The internet tells me that it is also an example of what is apparently known as 'disclaimed fiction'. This is when the author deliberately breaks into the narrative, destroying the illusion of reality created by the novel. He talks about where his characters come from: "... characters are not born of people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that an author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about." But then he says "But isn't it true an author can write only about himself?" Woohoo, two almost opposing ideas, mentioned in virtually the same breath, both equally fascinating and valid. I love this book, dammit.

It's set to the background of the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, and is hence full of interesting political stuff. So we have the main character, Tomas, hounded for his rather fascinating likening of communists to Oedipus. It's complicated, but I'll try to explain. This is what he says about communism (incidentally, I've never seen a better summation of communism):
"Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers."
So he goes on to say that the enthusiasts/criminals defended themselves by saying "but I didn't know!" and that this was not at all a valid defence, because when Oedipus realised that he'd inadvertently fucked his own mother, he plucked out his own eyes in horror at the knowledge of his deeds. Interesting, n'est-ce pas?

Another good and interesting thing is that it pushes the boundaries of novel-writing. I find this fascinating, but in moderation. Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian, left me completely lost. No plot, no narrative, and often no punctuation - it was too much. Completely overdone. I should probably reread it, actually. But The Unbearable Lightness of Being is fascinating without being confusing; there's enough room for thoughts in between the disjointment.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to disappoint you, Cathy(especially upon my first post), but I cannot argue with you about this book. :)

Having just finished it today, I was left stunned and humbled, bewildered and moved. Normally I find philosophical pieces like this awkward and heavy-handed, but here the bulky questions, the questions that normally make you groan "too deep, brain hurts" are delivered with grace and humour.

The one moment that will stay with me, however, is when Karenin gives Tereza that look (which resulted in much blubbering and grasping for tissues) and she knows, just knows, that no one will ever look at her in that way again. For me, even if every word was gibberish, this passage alone makes "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" worthwhile.

I hate to say it...*cringe*...but thank you for introducing it to me. On this book, at least, we can agree.

Placemats Galore said...


Anonymous said...

You've successfully persuaded me to read the book, Cathy~ I shall find it and swallow it whole. And excuse my lack of eloquence, which is painfully obvious after your and suzy's pages of praise XD

Placemats Galore said...

All I can say is... go me! I hope you like it as much as Suzy and I did, BJ - though I don't think I was in such raptures as Suzy apparently is.