Kundera and the opposition lightness/weight

In his posthumous book of essays, Six Proposals for the Next Millennium (1989), the Italian novelist and essayist Italo Calvino dedicated the first of five essays (he died before writing the sixth essay) to Lightness. There Calvino argues that lightness should be preferred to weight (and his metaphor, gravity): [M]y work has consisted more often than not in subtracting weight; I have tried to remove weight from human figures, from celestial bodies, from cities; I have tried, above all, to remove weight from the structure of the story and the language. And so he begins the conference arguing why lightness should be preferred to heaviness. Calvino’s arguing style is knowledgeable but does not address the unavoidable intertwinings and complicacies of the concept and, thus, it is not easy to argue that lightness should be preferred to weight. The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his best-known novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1985, delves deper into the concept, looking at it as a well tight binomial, the moveable opposition between weight and lightness. Unlike Calvino, Kundera tries to be impartial regarding whether he prefers weight (and with it gravity) or lightness (that at times could get unbearable). A starting point for exploring this opposition is the thesis of eternal return as was put forward by Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who maintained that all life is repeated in an identical way an infinite number of times. This means that, at the moment of their death, the person returns to the exact place and time in which she was born and will repeat each and every act of her life with pinpoint accuracy. Kundera seems to be committed to convincing us that a life that disappears once and for all, that does not return, is like a shadow, weightless, dead beforehand and, if it has been horrible, elevated, that horror, that elevation or that beauty means nothing. That null significance of life (that insignificance) makes whoever considers it in all its depth and consequences realize that it bestows life with such an amount of lightness that no argument could persuade anyone to fight or die for it. Very different would be the case, however, of a war between two African states in the fourteenth century in which thousands of persons died. If that war is repeated forever, it becomes a solid wall.The eternal repetition gives depth and solidity to the irremediable stupidity of that fact. That would be the meaning of that war: a solid stupidity whose opponents would be doomed (predestined) to repeat it for all eternity. On what occasions can you die for defending a meaning as inconsequential as that? Kundera reminds us that the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides in the 6th century BC was one of the first to consider whether we should choose lightness rather than weight or vice versa. For Parmenides, for whom the Universe was constituted on pairs of contradictory principles, lightness was positive and weight was negative. Kundera is not convinced by this statement and he writes in the first pages of the novel: The contradiction between weight and lightness is the most mysterious and equivocal of all contradictions. It is because it mutates according to the occasion or the circumstance. Because of statements such as this one I sustain that Kundera delves deeper into the contradictions and variations of the two terms of the opposition. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel that develops throughout this metaphysical problem, the opposition weight/lightness, seems to have been conceived instrumentally as a space in which the author narrates situations, allowing his characters to decide and act.  The digressions and actions of his characters leave the author free to speculate about various problems inherent to the human condition such as: love, sex, fidelity, death, betrayal, violence, beauty, kitsch, guilt and innocence, and the meaning of life. And almost always, these speculations, tangentially or deeply, touch the weight/lightness opposition. Kundera acts like a pragmatic novelist, showing little interest in the details that build verisimilitude and illusion in literature. Rather, like a deus ex machina, he creates his characters ex nihilo. Well, not exactly. From rather nothing. For example, Tomas, who is a prominent surgeon at a hospital in Prague, was born from a position: he stands by the window and looks across the courtyard at the wall of the building opposite. This is the image from which he was born. But Tomas also was born of the saying: Einmal ist keinmal. Whereas Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach. Thus, the characters are not born as human beings from their mother’s body, but from a situation, a phrase, a metaphor, a sudden turn of events. The characters in my novel are my own possibilities that were not realized. These characters keep a prudent distance from the reader and it is this what discourages the reader to identify with them, what prevents them from suffering or shuddering with these characters as a viewer of Gone with the Wind would do. Not in the novel but in the movie, watching Scarlett O’Hara swearing to God that she is going to do whatever it takes to never be hungry again. Kundera’s novels, which stimulate ideas, deliberately avoid prompting or inviting the reader to express her feelings. And yet, even these instrumental characters with whom the author dialogues, and whom he uses to present or defend an idea, have the ability to arouse our empathy. We connect with them, not only when we realize the consequences that result from their decisions, but also because of how overwhelming the historical circumstances within which they act seem to us. One of these circumstances, the one that operates as a first-order frame of reference, is the drama of living under the communist regime that was established in Czechoslovakia from 1948, when the Second World War ended and that nation was incorporated into the Warsaw Pact. Even though in 1968, during the government of the reformist Alexander Dubček, the country was heading towards a process of economic liberalization and expansion of civil liberties known as the Prague Spring, to the Soviets and other Warsaw Pact nations, this process produced a heavy nuisance and sent troops and tanks to occupy the country, bring order and regain control. The occupation by the Soviets had a wide variety of consequences, from mass exile to the dismissal of dissidents (added to the prohibition to practice the profession), prison, torture and some deaths. This explains why Tomas, who was one of the best surgeons in Prague, ended up as a house window cleaner (while he lived in Prague) and then as a truck driver carrying pigs when he moved to the countryside.

But as I said before, the novel is not a critique of life in a communist regime. In fact, the historical facts that it refers to do not compete with the drama of the characters. Kundera rather seems to be looking for in this novel what, in the collection of his essays collected in An Encounter, he argues Anatole France masterfully achieves in the novel The Gods are Athirst: Let history, unbearably dramatic, and the everyday, unbearably inconsequential, live together. That would be a cohabitation full of irony, since these two opposite aspects of life constantly collide, contradict each other, ridicule each other”. So what we can read in this novel as a criticism of communism is collateral; the central thing is the exploration of the opposition weight / lightness in various situations of the life of four characters: Tomas, Sabina, Tereza and Franz. The narrator thinks that if the eternal return is indeed an unfounded theory, if there is no repetition of even selected episodes of our lives, there is no way to first rehearse how to live something we have never experienced (get married, have a child, work ). This leads the narrator to conclude that “life seems like a sketch. But even sketch is not the precise word, because a sketch is always the preparation of something,… while the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, a draft without a painting. And this thought leads the narrator to state that: Einmal ist keinmal (Once is never). A life that cannot be lived before, not even as a sketch, is as if it were not lived at all. That life that does not repeat, that is so light that you only live once and cannot be rehearsed, would have an unbearable, perhaps undesirable, lightness. Precisely this uniqueness, this unrepeatability (which in this context is a metaphor for lightness) is what Tomas pursues in his life. Aiming at being consistent in such a rare pursuit, 

He has decided to never make love to the same woman more than three times or, alternatively, never to see them more frequently than once every three weeks. And never, in any respect, sleep with any of them all night. The only exception to this rule of life for Tomas is Tereza. Indeed, one day he realized that he allowed Tereza to sleep with him out of compassion, a feeling that Tomas understands as: Knowing how to live his misfortune with another, but also feeling any other feeling with him: joy, anguish, happiness, pain (…), also means the maximum capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme. That compassionate act led Tomas, first to buy a dog that he named Karenin, and then to fall in love with Tereza. Like a couple in love, they emigrated to Geneva together. But since Tomas was a womanizer, even when he was in love he did not give up his erotic relationships with other women. This led Tereza to decide one day to abandon him and return to Prague. During a few days in Geneva, Tomas enjoyed a sweet lightness; the one that came from his recovered freedom. But unexpectedly, that component of love that Tomas called compassion hit him hard, and he immediately realized that compassion was heavy. The tons of iron in Russian tanks were nothing compared to that weight. There is nothing heavier than compassion. It was his spirit kidnapped by his pity that led him to remember the last sentence of Beethoven’s last quartet, written on these two motifs: Muss es sein? Es muss sein (Does it have to be? Has to be). That phrase, its denotation of total inexorability, was a reflection of the seriousness of the decision that Tomas had made to return to Prague, together with Teresa, choosing gravity, and contradicting Parmenides, who believed that lightness was positive. This choice leads Tomas to wonder if, even though love is often born from random circumstances (in Tereza’s case, six coincidences had taken place), which could make it seem light and fresh, this was not an eminently serious space. But for Tereza, who worked as a waitress at the hotel restaurant where Tomas was staying the night she met him, all it took was a coincidence to get her attention: that Tomas was the only customer reading a book that night. And three others to confirm her intuition: that a Beethoven quartet was playing on the radio, that he was staying in room number six (and she left work at six), and that he was waiting for her on the same yellow bench where she had been sitting reading the day before. Teresa constructed from that series of coincidences a story of predestination (the kind of story that Ionesco mocks in The Bald Soprano). We don’t know what Tomas was reading in the restaurant when he met Teresa, but we do know that Teresa was reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on the yellow bench. Regarding the observation that the same theme appears at the beginning and end of Anna Karenina, made up of the triad of events: Train station, platform and the act of throwing oneself under the wheels of the train, Kundera comments that human beings have a propensity to compose their life according to the laws of beauty even in the moments of deepest despair. This symmetry, which is a form of beauty, creates a form, which can at the same time be conceived as a structure, which, even if it is intangible, constrains the absolute freedom of movement that characterizes the lightness of being. Thus, symmetrical beauty, and the desire to order one’s life according to it, would confer gravity and act as a balance to the lightness of being.

Iit is a very different kind of beauty the one associated with the symmetry found by Tomás’s lover, Sabina—who is also Franz’s lover, who is in turn married to Marie-Claude, who is an artist—the day she visits the church of a small town lost in the middle of of the mountains. Sabina thinks that the mass that took place in that church was beautiful because it evoked a betrayed world. And Sabina concludes that beauty is a betrayed world. We can only find it when its pursuers have mistakenly left it somewhere. Only that hidden beauty behind the decoration is light because it is transgressive, surprising and unexpected. Betrayal itself, in most of its forms, is an act that transmutates gravity into lightness, due to its ability to break chains. For this reason, Franz feels relieved and light when he takes off on the plane with Sabina, his lover, after confessing to his wife that he is betraying her with Sabina. Franz thinks that telling the truth made him feel light. But Sabina, who is not only a teacher of betrayal (because of the frequency with which she practices it) but also a tireless inquirer of the lightness of being, at the precise moment when she finds out that Franz has confessed to his wife about the relationship they both had decides to leave him. Love, when it is made public, gains weight, becomes a burden. Sabina was already hunching over in anticipation imagining that weight. The mere imagination of that weight had made Sabina decide to leave him, to leave Zurich and go to Paris. But once in Paris, that decision will make her fall into a deep melancholy that comes from the situation: her drama was not the drama of weight, but that of lightness. What had fallen on Sabina was not a burden, but the unbearable lightness of being. It was that total lack of ropes, reins, chains and tethers. Sabina, with her addiction to betrayal (an act that is known for breaking chains) cannot avoid falling again and again into the abyss of lightness. Until she gets so light that she doesn’t fall. She just floated.

Tereza, working behind the bar, while she serves the drinks that the clients ask for, she feels in her body the tickles that coquetry produces, a concept that the narrator defines as a promise of intercourse without guarantee. Tereza fearfully experiences the approach to that border that separates weight from lightness. Her jealousy for the women that Tomas cannot avoid seducing makes her serious, and if she were capable of giving herself the license to fall into the game of coquetry, she could become mild. She is unable to understand the lightness and amusing inconsequentiality of physical love. I would like to learn to be light!(…) Her coquetry lacks lightness, it is forced, voluntary, exaggerated. This seriousness stems from the fact that Teresa takes flirting too seriously. Coquetry in Tereza ceases to be a graceful and agile game to become a way to get to know herself. Tereza, who understands sexual relations as an exclusive tool of love, cannot act like Tomas. For this reason, she finds it unbearable when Tomas lies down next to her every night realizing that his hair smells of some woman’s sex. Until one day she confesses to Tomas the suffering caused by her jealousy, and Tomas will tell her to go to the top of the Petrin hill. He suggests that when she gets there she will know what to do. As she climbs the Petrin hill, Teresa gazes at the city and confirms to herself that Prague is the most beautiful city in the world. At the top she realizes that Tomas has sent her to meet her executioners. There she will have the choice to decide if living is unbearable for her and end her life immediately. For a few seconds she chose to be shot by those men who eased the pain of those who were unable to bear the suffering of life. But admiring the beauty of the city, the sunlit green of the blossoming chestnut tree against whose trunk she had leaned, followed by listening to the sound of the city, changed her mind. That day, Tereza chose to live. That beauty that triggered an epiphany in Tereza, the one that made her realize that she wanted to continue living, was not a serious and symmetrical beauty (like that of the city of Prague that she contemplated from afar when she went up) but rather a hidden beauty. and light, with which her gaze met fortunately when she raised her head. That instantaneous and sudden contact with her lightness allowed Tereza to continue her life.

The weight/lightness opposition appears hidden in the most unexpected places. One day Tomas and the narrator discuss the innocence or guilt of the officials of the communist regime, who had tortured and executed many people. The point was not whether or not officials knew that by defending the regime they were complicit in genocide, but whether, when a man makes a decision that has terrible consequences for another human being, but ignores those consequences, that act is innocent or not. This dilemma reminds Tomas of the tragedy of Oedipus, who did not know that Jocasta, the woman he lay with, was his mother. And he was unaware that he had assassinated his father, King Laius. When he found out, Oedipus pierced his eyes and went blind. Tomás will write an article about this reflection that he will send to the press waiting for it to be published. A few months later, the hospital director asks Tomas to retract in writing. It is what the regime expects. If he didn’t, his position as surgeon would be in serious jeopardy. Tomas does not retract and is fired. They only allow him to practice as a GP in a rural clinic. After a while, another official approaches him. This time, what the regime asks of him is that he write an article, not only denying what was written, but praising the regime and attacking the dissidents, and especially the intellectuals. By refusing this humiliation, Tomas thought that perhaps he did not love his profession as much as he had always believed. Or perhaps, Tomas was able to abandon his vocation, serious and responsible, in an instant for a job as light as a shop window cleaner because he loved the idea of being morally consistent (and preserving his honor) more than maintaining his trade as a surgeon pleasing his vocation. That is why the narrator says: He was now walking around Prague with the window-washing pole and he noticed that he felt ten years younger. With this new job, he had a lot of free time that Tomas took advantage of to be with a greater number of women. Which would be the cause of new suffering for Tereza. Tomas, whose light conduct towards sexual relations with other women could be described as his light aspect, balanced by a serious aspect, which was expressed in his love for his vocation. Tomas was not very satisfied with the decision he had made and sometimes he reflected on it without being able to conclude what was correct: having or not having signed the document that was presented to him denying what was written in his article. What prevents you from answering this question is that life, which is lived only once, does not allow us to live it a second time by choosing the alternative option. In that unrepeatability lies the virtue and the unbearable tragedy of our lightness as human beings. The only escape from this tragic knot that Tomas conceives reminds me of the quantum concept of the multiverse: In the universe there is a planet where all people will be born a second time. (…) And there is perhaps another planet where we will all be born for the third time, with the experiences of the two previous lives. Another day Tereza expresses to Tomas, with greater emphasis than other times, the anguish that living in Prague causes her. That emphasis had an effect: They made the decision to go to the field. This was not easy for Tomas because it meant a new (clearer and more frank) departure from his vocation, which he previously considered immovable; perhaps the last anchor that prevented him from feeling totally light. Or, perhaps, the last barrier that prevented him from falling into the eternal nets of Tereza’s love. One day Tomas even dreams of that woman who, according to the myth told in Plato’s Banquet, would be the lost half of him. Tomas knows that even if that woman appeared to him, he would be capable of refraining himself from pursuing her for the love to Tereza, the woman born from six ridiculous coincidences. Who is not the lost half of her and for which he feels a love that she has not been able to explain.

Tomas and Tereza died crushed by a truck. They both died under the sign of the weight. Thinking about these deaths, Sabina concludes she would rather die under the sign of lightness. She will be lighter than air. According to Parmenides this is a transformation of the negative into the positive. Sabina wishes to be a living body whose skin, muscle, and bones are strongly attracted by the force of gravity of the Earth. If this were not the case, even the elderly could walk like agile and dancing young people. If the Earth were smaller, and the force of gravity was substantially less, it would not be necessary to resort to the hypothesis of a lighter body because human beings would weigh less. Which leads us to ask ourselves: If we had been born on the Moon, whose gravity is (1.62 m/s2) a little more than six times greater than that of the Earth (9.8 m/s2), would we perhaps be lighter and, therefore, less tormented by everything serious that happens in our lives? Is there an existential or spiritual gravity that has no relationship with the gravity of the celestial body that we inhabit and the weight that it determines for our bodies? For Sabina, in any case, lightness is largely physical. Instead, for Tereza, lightness is conceptual. She thinks that the sequence of less and less professional jobs has brought her and Tomas to a level from which they cannot fall any lower. Those have been works less and less important, transcendent or edifying. In that town where they lived before they were crushed by the truck, Teresa never took a photo again, nor did Tomas practiced his profession as a surgeon anymore. That’s why Tereza tells Tomas: It’s my fault that you got here. So low that it is no longer possible to go anywhere. Given this, Tomas tries to convince her that she is wrong, that they had never before had the freedom they enjoy in that town, hidden in the countryside. He tells her this deeply convinced that any belief that human beings have a mission in life is an illusion that works like an anchor, leash or chain that restricts freedom and drags man down, towards the surface of the earth, or even under it. Only in that town has Tomas freed himself from the belief in that myth that was his vocation. In addition, life in the town freed Tomas and Tereza from that other myth, Tomas’ belief that he could draw transcendental knowledge from each woman with whom he made love, and that this knowledge was essential for him. and it was worth the costs he paid (the worst of them, witnessing the pain he caused Tereza when he did something that aroused jealousy in her). Of all the forms of lightness that Tereza and Tomas had experienced throughout their lives, the one that brought them the greatest happiness, due to the freedom that was associated with it, was the one they enjoyed during the last months of their life in that town. A lightness with not a little happiness that, however, was not without sadness. That sadness meant: We have reached the last station together. That happiness meant: we are together. Sadness was the form and happiness the content.

Karenin is the dog that Tomas had bought for Tereza when she moved into her house. Perhaps he did it to accompany her while he worked, or (also) to be with her while he was making love to one of the two hundred women he had been with in his life, always pursuing the knowledge of that aspect. The uniqueness of each human being that is revealed exclusively in the sexual relationship. When in the end, Tomas and Tereza flee from Prague to the countryside, Karenin is one day diagnosed with a tumor. During the following days, Tereza’s love for Karenin, and Karenin’s love for her will be expressed in multiple ways; in the terminal phase, just with a look (Tereza knew that no one else would ever look at her like that again). The narrator comments on this love: The true goodness of a man can only manifest itself with absolute cleanliness and freedom in relation to whom he does not represent any force. The true test of humanity’s morality, the deepest (…), lies in his relationship with those who are at his mercy: Animals. Then it will be Tereza who ponders about love for an animal while facing Karenin, the dying dog that she loves so much: [T]he love that unites her with Karenin is better than the one that exists between her and Tomás. (…) No person can grant another the gift of idyll. Only the animal knows how to do that, because it has not been expelled from Paradise. The love between a man and a dog is an idyll. This idea of the superiority of love between a human being and an animal is a theme that Kundera has dealt with on more than one occasion. Thus, for example, in Kundera’s Encounter  there is an essay about La Pelle, the novel by Curzio Malaparte, in which the author writes about his dog Febo: I have never loved a woman, a brother, a friend like I loved Phoebus. During the last two years of his exile, Phoebus stays with him and accompanies him to Rome the day he is released. And later, in the same essay, Kundera returns to the theme of Phoebus and Malaparte: In the midst of so much human suffering, the dog’s story is far from being a simple episode, an intermission in the middle of a drama. (…) Faced with an animal, man is just as he is. His cruelty is free. The relationship between man and animal constitutes the eternal background of human existence, a mirror (terrifying mirror) that will never leave it. Kundera defends his admiration for the love between dog and human, which he considers superior to the love between humans; among other things because, it has the possibility of being a kind of love with greater freedom and therefore lightness. Between human beings, on the other hand, jealousy, fidelity and even compassion restrict the freedom between lovers and impregnates love with a gravity from which they could only be freed with deceit and betrayal. And as Sabina reflects in the novel, often a betrayal is not enough, but rather a series of betrayals, so that what is serious becomes light.

Anuncio publicitario

Deja una respuesta

Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de WordPress.com

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de WordPress.com. Salir /  Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Salir /  Cambiar )

Conectando a %s