Being and Lightness
by Alison Ross
Several months after finishing it, I am still not sure what to think about Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” It has garnered so many critical and popular accolades over the years, for its frank portrayal of a philandering husband and its ethereally poetic style, and yet I am left feeling bemused by its message, if any, and also its seemingly wayward structure. I am pretty sure I am missing something with this supposed modern classic. Either that or the book really is disjointed at times and conveys a sinister sexist "moral."
The novel is predicated on the tumultuous love relationship between a Czech couple, Tomas and Tereza, during the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Tomas loves Tereza deeply, but he cannot seem to refrain from "straying" on a routine basis. He is a consummate womanizer.
Tereza eventually learns of his incessant infidelities, and attempts to leave him, but he follows her. She finally resigns herself to her "fate" of loving a philanderer, while Tomas continues to adulterize in vicious fashion.
Despite their amorous affections, Tereza and Tomas are divided by divergent philosophies about love and sex. For Tomas, sex can be dissociated from love, but for Tereza, the two notions are inexorably intertwined. Because she is so mystified by Tomas' lackadaisical approach toward sex, Tereza explores the domain of casual adultery herself. The aftermath leaves her feeling frigid and none the wiser.
Tereza attempts to "justify" her situation by branding herself as "weak" and characterizing Tomas as "strong." Kundera wraps these notions in the elegantly existential notions of "the unbearable heaviness of being" (Tereza experiencing the weight of life through affixing significance to it) and the "unbearable lightness of being" (Tomas gliding through life without any cumbersome psychological consequences).
As a result of her travails, Tereza has a series of bad dreams that do plague Tomas as well, signaling to him the egregious injustice of his actions. He never really evinces guilt otherwise, but when Tereza narrates her nightmares to him, it sears his conscience.
The problem I have with the novel is that I am never certain what Kundera is trying to “say.” Is he biased toward Tomas’s cavalier, even callous, ethos, does he sympathize with the severe suffering of Tereza, or is his attitude one of equinanimous neutrality? It’s very difficult to discern. Is he simply trying to present these polarized philosophies in order to mine their respective merits and misfortunes? Is his purpose merely to stoically elucidate the convoluted ethical dimensions of carnal relationships, or does he have a more vested interest in such a topic?
One never really knows – or at least I don’t.
The fact is, of course, that adultery is never ethical, because it encompasses a brash breach of the monogamous pledge. Open relationships are the only way in which polygamous pursuits can be considered ethically “sane.”
Naturally one can still manage the mindset that love and sex exist in mutual exclusion, and there might be an argument to be made for that. But when one practices that philosophy within a conventional context, it violates ethical properties because it constitutes a betrayal, and betrayals are not innately defendable.
So again, I remain suspicious of Kundera’s intentions, as some of the novel reeks to me of malevolent misogyny.
It’s not to say that women do not commit adultery, because of course they do. But in his book, Kundera tackles the more traditional male betrayal scenario. Furthermore, despite his feelings of guilt, Tom continues to cheat. One could argue that Tereza allows it by staying with him or not delivering an ultimatum, but she is also a victim of her time, hence more “trapped” (even though she is independently employed, women were even more conditioned than today to tolerate spousal transgressions because they were societally subjugated to men.)
A compelling topic that evolves from the novel, of course, is what drives an adulterous addiction like Tomas’. His philosophy that disentangles love from sex is only partial explanation. If Tomas truly loves his wife, logically speaking he should be able to restrain himself. The fact that he cannot shows that he is succumbing to an unfathomable psychological fragility.
The character of Sabina provides somewhat of a buffer against any accusations of sexism because she symbolizes the female incarnation of the casual sex ethos. Most people associate men with being the most passionate proponents of promiscuity, but a fair amount of women are attracted to that mode of living as well.
Sabina sleeps with Tomas on numerous occasions, even after his marriage to Tereza. She enjoys the leisurely lifestyle of sex sans commitment, and in her world this often involves married men. Indeed, when one of her paramours leaves his wife to be with Sabina full-time, she dumps him; Sabina suffocates within such a scenario, with its sentimental suggestions of dependence and fidelity. Sabina prizes her autocratic autonomy; she is meant to represent the fully freed female.
This is not to say that sleeping with married men is any more ethical than philandering, as clearly that too is injurious anomalous behavior.
Whatever the novel’s ethical ambiguities (and perhaps I’m just too cerebrally juvenile to ascertain the “truths” therein), the fact is that it has some gorgeously written passages. And it's passages such as the one below that practically redeem all other perceived problems because they truly induce metaphysical musing:
"The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed 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 absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into 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?"