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? These are the fundamental questions posed by 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, when 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, unimportant, and infinitely trivial; 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 which is better, heaviness or lightness? 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]
So both the heaviness and lightness are unsatisfactory. The light life is meaningless. If everything happens only once, it might as well not have happened at all; and our best response to this situation is to live for beauty and pleasure. Yet such lives are insignificant and unbearable—the unbearable lightness of being. But if our actions eternally recur, if life is heavy, then the heaviness of our actions and choices crushes us under their weight.
Despite this conundrum, the main characters in his 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. (Perhaps it is that living as if things matter—whether they do or not—is our best option.) Still, nothing is eternal for Kundera, and if there were eternal things upon which the meaning of our lives depends, then our choices would be too burdensome. As the existential say our choices, our freedom, create anxiety.
Perhaps the fact that some of his characters find love is enough, even if nothing matters ultimately. In the end though, nihilism is both true and unbearable for Kundara. A heavy life crushes us; a light one is unbearable.
As for me, I think we ought to consider life significant, but not too significant; light but not too light. Here it is in 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.
Near the end of the movie Unbearable Lightness of Being, the protagonists Tomas and Tereza, despite the meaninglessness of life seem to have found happiness. Perhaps they have learned what was important—real but transitory love. Perhaps that is sufficient for meaning.
Here is a scene from the movie. (It does NOT act as 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.