Friday, May 08, 2015

Book: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera


The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a highly philosophical novel that I found to be very good in parts but a touch tiring in others. The story is packed to the rafters with introspective depth and meaning, and there are some great passages (see below). However, after a strong start I soon found myself impatiently waiting for the next quotable gem to rear up, instead of being absorbed in the story, which is never a good sign.

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Quotes (my favourite flashes of brilliance)

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?”

And then came the time I have just spoken of and see as the key to his life: Standing by the window, he looked out over the courtyard at the walls opposite him and deliberated.
Should he call her back to Prague for good? He feared the responsibility. If he invited her to come, then come she would, and offer him up her life.
Or should he refrain from approaching her? Then she would remain a waitress in a hotel restaurant of a provincial town and he would never see her again.
Did he want her to come or did he not?

One day Tereza came to him uninvited. One day she left the same way. She came with a heavy suitcase. She left with a heavy suitcase.
He paid the bill, left the restaurant, and started walking through the streets, his melancholy growing more and more beautiful. He had spent seven years of life with Tereza, and now he realised that those seven years were more attractive in retrospect than they were when he was living them.
His love for Tereza was beautiful, but it was also tiring: he had to constantly hide things from her, sham, dissemble, make amends, buck her up, calm her down, give her evidence of his feelings, play the defendent to her jealousy, her suffering and her dreams, feel guilty, make excuses and apologies. Now what was tiring had disappeared and only the beauty remained.

For seven years he had lived bound to her, his every step subject to her scrutiny. She might as well have chained iron balls to his ankles. Suddenly his step was much lighter. He soared. He head entered Pamenide's magic field: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being.

During those two beautiful days of melancholy, his compassion...had taken a holiday. It had slept the sound Sunday sleep of a miner who, after a hard week's work, needs to gather strength for his Monday shift. ...
...On Saturday and Sunday, he felt the sweet lightness of being rise up to him out of the depths of the future. On Monday, he was hit by a weight the like of which he had never known. The tons of steel of the Russian tanks were nothing compared with it. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.

...only necessity is heavy, and only what is heavy has value.

But how long would he have to be tortured by compassion? All his life? A year? Or a month? Or only a week?
How could he have known? How could he have gauged it? Any schoolboy can do experiments in the physics laboratory to test various scientific hypothesis. But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion (compassion) or not.

.... when we ignore the body we are more easily victimised by it.

That call meant a great deal, because it came from someone who knew neither her mother nor the drunks with their daily stereotypically scarbrous remarks. His outsider status raised him above the rest.
Something else raised him above the others as well: he had an open book on his table. No one had ever opened a book in that restaurant before. In Tereza's eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. ...They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. ...Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.

What we have not chosen we cannot consider our merit or our failure.

Franz felt his book of life to be unreal. He yearned for real life, for the touch of people walking side by side with him, for their shouts. It never occurred to him that what he considered unreal (the work he did in the solitude of the office or library) was in fact his real life, whereas the parades he imagined to be reality were nothing but theater, dance, carnival...

It captiavted him (Franz). What does it mean to live in truth? Putting it negatively is easy enough: it means not lying, not hiding and not dissimulating....

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.

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