Lightness and Weight

In The Art of Travel, 6. Book #1, Prague by Vivian

The first book I had chosen to read for this course is The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, a book that I had been meaning to read for the longest time due to the continuous recommendation from my family and peers. As much as I regret not reading it earlier, I can say that I am unbelievably grateful to have been given the opportunity to read, think about, and analyze this book. If you have not read this book, or if you are on the fence about putting some effort into reading it, go read it. It’ll take you on wonderful adventures of thought, introducing you to new perspectives on life and its meaning.

The novel begins with analyses of the Greek philosopher Parmenides’s perception of the world in terms relative to that of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal return”. Confusing, yes, I know. But let me try to explain.

To start, Kundera discusses Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal return”, which states that humanity and our universe has occurred an infinite number of times before, and will continue to reoccur ad infinitum. Kundera calls Nietzsche’s concept a myth, stating later in the book that “human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line.” He then follows up his analysis of Nietzsche’s theory with one of Parmenides, who believed that the world is “divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being”. Focusing on the juxtaposition of lightness and weight, Kundera argues with Parmenides’s  view that “lightness is positive, weight is negative”. As lightness is the “absolute absence of a burden” and weight the “heaviest of burdens”, in that way weight is also “an image of life’s most intense fulfillment”, and therefore gives meaning, realness, and truth to the lightness of a person’s life. While weight, gives lives meaning and significance, it also brings about responsibilities and burdens. While lightness allows a person to be carefree and void of any responsibilities, it also strips life of any meaning and fulfillment. These contradictions are what bring about the core of the entire novel, which is grounded on the theory that lightness is both enjoyable and unbearable and that people are made up of a careful balance between lightness and weight.

This then brings about the reason as to why this book is relevant to the theme of traveling– traveling is a quintessential example of how humans behave in reaction to the lightness and weight of their lives. It brings up uncannily similar contradictions to those that Kundera claims to be a part of “being”. People travel, to be free, or to escape. People travel to define themselves or to lose themselves. People travel to find weight, or to seek lightness.

This dilemma is demonstrated throughout the entire book, when the characters Tomas, Tereza, Franz, and Sabina are thrown into mental chaos over the lightness and weight of their being. For example, Tereza, who is seen as a weighted character, is consumed by her need to be validated, or in this case, attached to Tomas. Meanwhile, Tomas, who is a character who relies on lightness, is burdened by Tereza’s love for him. Together, their clashing personalities throw each other into confusion, as Tomas is suddenly confronted with a dilemma of accepting Tereza as a weight in his life, while Tereza is forced to tolerate Tomas’s constant pursuit of lightness in his habit of sleeping with other women.

Ultimately, I think Kundera brings up an interesting perspective on the meaning of life, and how different people seek to find it. It allows for incredibly interesting thoughts regarding, why do people seek weight (or lightness) in their lives, and how do they react when confronted with someone who holds a polar opposite view on life.