The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s rare that I come across a title and intuitively tag it as an oxymoron; rarer still, I continue to silently contemplate the space lying between the duo.
Unbearable Lightness. How is lightness, unbearable? Isn’t it the right of heaviness for all I know? But the oxymoron is further granted a neighbor – Being. And that muddles up the equation for good.
What is Being? A floating mass of dissimilar silos, each absorbing and dispersing in surprisingly equal measure to stay afloat? Or a concrete structure of unified sketch without an exit, so everything entering its surface always lay within, if only in pale remnants? It’s the curse of contemplation that draws a bridge between this airborne lightness and earthbound heaviness and lets run a stream under it which, although, palpable, remains an enigma in life’s moonlit moments; we know the stream is running but don’t know whether it’s upstream or downstream; we know it has a temperature but don’t know if a hand dipped in it would come out easy or numb; we know its flow can be moderated by erecting pragmatic wedges but don’t know the location of sturdy land underneath. Just the image of standing immobilized over the bridge, with the reflections of lightness and heaviness banks running through our eyes like a movie, can bear a print of many, many people, the protagonists of this novel included.
A whole lifetime of four intellectuals in the unstable Prague of 1900s was spent in deciding the bank to advance to, although each assumed they had a bank in eye, propped by their distinctive weapons. The doctor in Tomas and the artist in Tereza embraced heaviness of Being in their continued fidelity to each other with the ironic support of his sexual outings and her unvacillating desolation. The artist in Sabina (Tomas’ mistress) and the academic in Franz (Sabina’s partner) responded to lightness of Being in their effortless freeing of each other’s emotions in the favour of the adrenaline rush that uncertainty brings.
On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.
As a spectator perched on Kundera’s hill, I felt sheepishly sorry for the four as their assumptions faded under occasional showers of doubt but they held on to their residual shades since habits are hard to abandon. Everything that cannot be fathomed or fought, is labelled ‘es muss sein’ (it must be).
A whole doctrine can be poured over as guidelines to wade this stream, caressing the surface with strokes of honesty, love, fidelity and optimism and pushing lie, betrayal and cowardice violently behind. But it is way easy to mark the ‘surface’ and ‘underneath’ in a painting; nigh impossible in life. Who knows what thunderous flash might turn either bank unattractive? Everyone who enters this cryptic stream is not looking to reach a bank; some simply grapple in the water, content by the thuds of moving waves of misgivings and contemplation that impart a certain momentum to their otherwise still lives. Sometimes, it’s the chaos that rings in a lullaby and no amount of Beethoven’s notes can prove a worthy competitor.
I continued to look at these four figures that shrunk as the twilight ventured and I was left with this sombre feeling in my heart:
Questioning love, cuts it short a bit,
But questioning is a dogged human habit;
Limping in cowardice is in sour taste,
But often leisure’s baton is flaming haste;
The clamour of new things reinstates the old,
And old remains just as difficult to behold;
Present lays quiet in dreams’ hostage,
And dreams never reach a mature age;
Freedom binds and Binding frees,
But everyone leads a life on lease;
When cemeteries appear gardens and uncertainty, a song,
The heaviness of life takes lightness along.
Note: The references to Nietzsche, Tolstoy and Beethoven are tantalizingly well-placed. But the icing on the cake is the concept of ‘kitsch’!