Should we take life seriously or not? Should we think of it as heavy or light? Perhaps we shouldn’t take it too seriously, enjoy the pleasures it affords, and reject all heavier philosophies of meaning. But is this solution satisfactory? This is the fundamental question posed Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (Kundera is a writer of Czech origin who has lived in exile in France since 1975, where he became a naturalized citizen. His books were banned by the Communists of Czechoslovakia until the downfall of the regime in the Velvet Revolution in 1989.)
Kundera begins his novel by pondering Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence—the notion that everything that has already happened will recur ad infinitum. Although it is hardly Nietzsche’s interpretation, Kundera remarks: “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, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.”[i]
For Kundera a life lived only once is light or unimportant; by contrast, if all recurred infinitely, a tremendous heaviness or significance would be imposed on our lives and choices. Kundera contrasts the heaviness and lightness of life as follows: “If the eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.”[ii] But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? Kundera answers:
the heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But … the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes a 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.[iii]
The problem is that the light life is meaninglessness. If everything happens only once, it might as well not have happened at all. In response, all we can do is live for beauty and pleasure. Yet, we find the insignificance of our lives unbearable—the unbearable lightness of being. But if we act as if our actions eternally recur, then the heaviness of our actions and choices crushes us under their weight.
Despite these conundrums, the main characters in the novel who embrace the heaviness of life and love die happy, while those who live lightly suffer the unbearable lightness of being. This suggests that heaviness is better after all. Still, nothing is eternal for Kundera, and if there were eternal ramifications that followed from our choices, our lives would be too burdensome. Perhaps the fact that some of his characters find love is enough, but nothing matters ultimately. In the end nihilism is, for conscious beings, both true and unbearable. A heavy life crushes us; a light life is unbearable.
Perhaps the best we can do is to consider life significant, but not too significant; light but not too light. Here is this idea in a simple form.
Nothing matters -> life is unbearable
Everything matters -> life is unbearable
Some things matter but most things don’t -> life is bearable and occasionally meaningful.
Wisdom is, in large part, differentiating what matters from what doesn’t.
Here, in a scene from the movie, the protagonists Tomas and Tereza have finally found happiness. Perhaps they learned what was important—real but transitory love. (The scene does NOT act a spoiler.)
[i] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999), 3.
[ii] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 5.
[iii] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 5.