The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Reprinted from the novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." [EXCERPTED unless otherwise noted]

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experience it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinimum! What does this mad myth signify?

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful or sublime, its horror, subliminality, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return?

It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its insanity irreparable.

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.

Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them; they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their migratory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht.)

If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighted down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment.


The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute essence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Permenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/no-nbeing. One half of the population he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative. We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness?

Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative.

Was he correct or not? That is the question. The only certainty is: The lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious ... the most ambiguous of all.


Metaphors of heaviness

("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," pg. 121) 
When we want to give an expression to a dramatic situation in our lives we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either beat the burden or fail and do down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose.


Positive weight

("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," pg. 33) 
Unlike Pharmenides, Beethoven apparently viewed weight as something positive. Since the German word schwer means both "difficult" and "heavy," Beethoven's "difficult resolution" may also be construed as a "heavy" or "weighty resolution." The weighty resolution is at one with the voice of Fate ("Es muss sein!"); necessity, weight and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy, and only what is heavy has value.



("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," pg. 142) 
What is flirtation? One might say that it is behavior leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty.

»  "Which is another way of saying that she gave everyone the impression of being there for the taking. But when men responded by asking for what they felt they had been promised, they met with strong resistance, and their only explanation for it was that she was deceiptful and malicious."


On first meeting

("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," pg. 78) 
On the day they first met, her shift had ended at six. She saw him sitting there in front of her on the yellow bench, and heard the bells in the belfry chime six.

No, it was not superstition, it was was a sense of beauty that cured her of depression and imbued her with a new will to live. The birds of fortuity had alighted once more on her shoulders. There were tears in her eyes, and she was unutterably happy to hear him breathing at her side.


Midsummer rains

(Written by Jim W. Coleman III) 
When sudden, unexpected warmth overrides an entrenched coldness, thunderstorms erupt. They wreak havoc in minutes and move from range as quickly as they came, leaving a peculiar static in the air.

So too does love borne of convenience or necessity.

What then shall we do - when the season spawns overwhelming downpours that only flood and drown?

Take cover. Love, like a midsummer rainfall, comes best in measures, experienced best as random droplets. Physical and emotional favors must be continuously and gently sprinkled. Without them we die. But if showered with even the best of intentions, umbrellas come out and the feet are left cold and soggy.

These gifts, unannounced and unexpected, while being the simplest of gestures, also are monumental by virtue of their simplicity. And there is never so much as a slightest inclination to seek shelter from the rain.


To keep erotic friendship just that

("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," pg. 12) 
To ensure that erotic friendship never grew into the aggression of love, he would meet each of his long-term mistresses only at intervals. He considered this method flawless and propagated it among his friends: "The most important thing is to abide by the rule of threes. Either you see a woman three times in quick succession and then never again, or you maintain relations over the years but make sure the rendezvous are at least three weeks apart."


Attaching love to sex

("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," pg. 237) 
Tomas thought: Attaching love to sex is one of the most bizarre ideas the Creator ever had.

He also thought: One way of saving love from the stupidity of sex would be to set the clockwork in our head in such a way as to excite us at the sight of a swallow.

And with that very sweet thought he started dozing off. But on the very threshold of sleep, in that no-man's-land of muddled concepts, he was suddenly certain he had just discovered the solution to all riddles, the key to all mysteries, a new utopia, a paradise: a world where man is excited by seeing a swallow and Tomas can love Tereza without being disturbed by the aggressive stupidity of sex.

Then he fell asleep.


Excluding love

(pg. 13) 
The unwritten contract of erotic friendship stipulated that he [Tomas] should exclude all love from his life. The moment he violated that clause of the contract his other mistresses would assume inferior status and become ripe for insurrection.



("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," pages 48 & 49) 
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 message much as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup.

Necessity knows no magic formulae - they are all left to chance. If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi's shoulders.


Plato's myth

("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," pg. 239) 
He suddenly recalled the famous myth from Plato's Symposium: People were hermaphrodites until God split them in two and now all the halves wander the world over seeking one another. Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.

Let us suppose that this is the case, that somewhere in the world each of us has a partner who once formed part of our body. Tomas's other part is the young woman he dreamed about. The trouble is, man does not find the other part of himself. Instead, he is sent a Tereza in a balrush basket. But what happens if he nevertheless later meets the one who was meant for him, the other part of himself? Whom is he to prefer? The woman from the balrush basket or the woman from Plato's myth?


Expectation of a blow

("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," pg. 83) 
The only explanation I can suggest is that for Franz, love was not an extension of public life but its antithesis. It meant a longing to put himself at the mercy of his partner. He who gives himself up like a prisoner of war must give up his weapons as well. And deprived in advance of defense against a possible blow, he cannot help wondering when the blow will fall. That is why I can say that for Franz, love meant the constant expectation of a blow.



("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," pg. 120)

»  And at some point, he realized to his great surprise that he was not particularly unhappy. Sabina's physical presence was much less important than he had suspected. What was important was the golden footprint, the magic footprint she had left on his life and no one could ever remove. Just before disappearing from his horizon, she had slipped him Hercules' broom, and he has used it to sweep everything he despised out of his life. A sudden happiness, a feeling of bliss, the joy that came of freedom and a new life - these were the gifts she had left him.

"What do you care about?" 
"Love," she said with a smile. 
"Love?" Franz asked in amazement. 
"Love is a battle," said Marie-Claude, still smiling. "And I plan to go on fighting. To the end." 
"Love is a battle?" said Franz. "Well I don't feel at all like fighting." And he left.