Monday, March 29, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Bowler hat by lokarta
( see image information below)

"Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us. We read its messages as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup."

Is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? this is the central question posed by author Milan Kundera in the mosaic of love stories, philosophical musings, political commentary , ancient myths and mirth of a bowler hat that is 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. Based in Prague Spring of former Czechoslovakia's Communist period in 1968, the story revolves around the interwoven lives of four star crossed lovers : Tomas , Tereza , Sabina ( my favorite character) and Franz . There is sumptuous sprinkling of author's first person reflections on the aspirations, fears and hopes of characters of his own creation which makes the narrative very interesting. The book opens with the mysterious idea of eternal return which has been a key element in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche : " to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? ". Nietzche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens ( das schwerste Gewicht) and purported that embracing this burden requires "Amor Fati or love of one's fate". In "Why I Am So Clever", Ecce Homo, section 10 he says : My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it" .

Kundera builds on this idea - talking about weight and lightness as also fate ( both its acknowledgement and lack thereof !) . On one hand, there is the sixth century Greek philosopher Parmenides who saw the world as pairs of opposites while labeling lightness as positive and weight as negative. And then there is Beethovan, who unlike Parmenides, considered weight as positive. Beethovan ( and music per se) plays an important role in the Unbearable Lightness of Being as also Kundera's other works influenced by his own musical background. Kundera's father was an important Czech musicologist and pianist who served as the head of a music academy. Kundera himself studied musicology and his understanding of music is reflected in his work. Beethovan in some ways is the starting of Tomas and Tereza's love story which begins with a serendipitous visit which brings Tomas to the hotel restaurant in Tereza's small town where just as she is taking the order for his Cognac, Beethovan music is playing on the radio. Tereza ( to whom Beethovan is a door to the world she yearns for as is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina - a copy of which she carries at a number of points in the story) later buys Beethovan sonatas and quartets for Tomas. The last movement of Beethovan's last quartet is based on the following two motifs: Muss ess sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein! ( Must it be? It must be! It must be!) ....must fate be as it is? The story in its non linear style takes one back and forth to this question both in lives of its characters while prodding the reader to reflect on their own rendezvous with fate and the idea of eternal return. Then there are myths : Freudian dreams, Plato's symposium and Sophocles's Oedipus - all of which make for what is not an unbearably light though enjoyable circular reading especially if you are philosophically inclined.

One of my favorite parts is the point where Kundera analysis four kinds of people based on the kind of look we wish to live under : The first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public. The second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes. They are the tireless hosts of cocktail parties and dinners. Then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. And finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. They are the dreamers. The book was written in 1982. That was the year when Intel 80286 was released, first luggable computer was introduced and Apple became the first personal computer manufacturer to hit $1 billion mark for annual sales. Fast forward to the next millennium to the age of facebook, twitter and our many virtual worlds. Which kind of person are you?

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