Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera (2 of 4)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being has as its antithesis lightness and heaviness. Lightness is good, and heaviness is unbearable. But there is a mysterious pull to both of them. Some choose heaviness, and others lightness. What is heaviness, and what is lightness? They’re a mystery that take a whole book to describe. But as best I can, I will summarize. Lightness is that which has no ultimate meaning. Kundera associates lightness with freedom from duty and responsibility, and also of worry.

Heaviness, is the opposite. It is that which is eternal, which has significance. Ideals are heavy. Duty is heavy. Standing up against Communism is heavy. In perhaps my favorite motif of the book, Kundera uses a line from Beethoven to capture the sense of heaviness, “Es muss sein!” in German (“It must be!”). He even writes out the line of sheet music to go along with it (p32). This line is repeated whenever someone has to do something big or ‘important’.

Kundera’s characters each make ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ choices. But in the end, the last chapter shows the happiness that is gained by one who lives in lightness. I think the most powerful chapters, the final few, are in praise of the life of the protagonist’s dog. He glorifies animals because they can live life happy; they can live in a circle, with no ultimate duty, need to march forward. He explains, “That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition” (298).

Key Thematic Quotes:

“In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.” 5

“For there is nothing heavier than compassion.” 31

“Only necessity is heavy, and only what is heavy has value.” 33

“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect some day to suffer vertigo.” 59

“That darkness was pure, perfect, thoughtless, visionless; that darkness was without end, without borders; that darkness was the infinite we each carry within us. (Yes, if you’re looking for infinity, just close your eyes!)… A man with closed eyes is a wreck of a man.” 95 (This was said of Franz, who was the one who sought a heavy life).

 “Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being.” 122

“His choice was not between playacting and action. His choice was between playacting and no action at all.” 268

“That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is longing for repetition” 298

My Favorite Quotes:

“Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with.”11

“Ever since man has learned to give each part of the body a name, the body has given him less trouble. He has also learned that the soul is nothing more than the gray matter of the brain in action. The old duality of body and soul has become shrouded in scientific terminology, and we can laugh at it as merely an obsolete prejudice. But just make someone who has fallen in love listen to his stomach rumble, and the unity of body and soul, that lyrical illusion of the age of science, instantly fades away.” 40

“Sheets of paper covered with words pile up in archives sadder than cemeteries, because no one ever visits them, not even on All Souls’ Day. Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity … a sea of words with no weight and no resemblance to life.” 103

 “Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate.”139

“Sometimes you make up your mind about something without knowing why, and your decision persists by the power of inertia. Every year it gets harder to change.” 308

Table of Contents:
Introduction - Part 1 of 4
Christ and Kundera - Part 3 of 4
Conclusion - Part 4 of 4


  1. I've just finished the book ( and flicking back over the quotes you've listed really helped me reflect on Kundera's meaning. Many thanks.

  2. My pleasure! Let me know when you write your review; I'd like to read it.