The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

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Originally published in 1984, Milan Kundera’s most famous book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, examines how a police state gnarled the existentialist journey of its main characters. After Soviet troops crushed the 1968 Prague Spring, the newly emboldened Communist Party of Czechoslovakia imposed a new regime of conformist irrationality. Politics lost all authentithành phố. Decades after the fall of Communism in Europe, here are six reasons the book applies lớn our time.

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1. When facts no longer matter, nothing halts the onslaught of meaninglessness

Sabimãng cầu, the artist, hates the May Day Parades. In her voice, Kundera writes,

The May Day ceremony drew its inspiration from the deep well of the categorical agreement with being. The unwritten, unsung motto lớn of the parade was not “Long Live sầu Communism” but “Long live life!” The power & cunning of Communist politics lay in the fact that it appropriated this biểu ngữ. For it was this idiotic tautology (“Long live life!”) which attracted people indifferent khổng lồ the theses of Communism khổng lồ the Communist Parade. (251)

The irony of politics is that a political các buổi tiệc nhỏ attains its greathử nghiệm strength when it harnesses the seismic force of the portion of the population that cares nothing for politics. The large-scale abandonment of debate will not bring civil war, but will instead bring a retreat inkhổng lồ simpliđô thị.

In our time, the defeat of Communism removed the urgency for citizens of Western capitamenu democracies lớn argue the case for liberalism. After the Cold Warriors came home, onkhổng lồ what pieces of ideological furniture did they sit baông xã và relax? Freedom, certainly. Wealth, maybe. Yet no one felt the need to lớn define freedom with any exactitude & no one could explain why wealth seemed lớn dissipate in the years following the victory. With only one ideology left, that ideology sank into banal simplicity. Intellectual laziness became permitted & experts became the enemy. Here is the menu of things that become extinguished at the kết thúc of this road: displays of individualism, doubts, irony, non-traditional lifestyles. (252) Sabina identifies these as the forces that push back against totalitarian political conformity (which she calls kitsch). All of these become suppressed as a society demands a feeling of unity from its citizens. Political leaders begin to lớn articulate this conformity because nationalism thrives in the space abandoned by authentic debate.

The less debate occurs, the less pressure will be applied to maintain thoughtfulness. People become satisfied with simplistic explanations. Facts become irrelevant as the conversation centers on disgust with public figures. According to lớn Sabina, prothử nghiệm marches và counter-protest marches only exacerbate the simplification of the mind. Sabimãng cầu hates “The Gr& March” in which people đại bại their individuality as they chant political slogans. Only insistence on individuality, and resistance against conformity, truly combat totalitarianism.

2. Both collaborators & resistors feed corruption

Kundera traces reactions lớn the Communist Party’s demands of political conformity. One of the main characters, the surgeon Tomas, must retract a political article that he wrote in an opposition journal. If he refuses to lớn retract it, he will thảm bại his job. In a moment of shochồng, Tomas realizes, “everyone wanted hlặng khổng lồ write the retraction; it would make everyone happy!” (183) By “everyone,” he means both the collaborators with the Soviet puppet state & the resistors. The collaborators wanted Tomas to lớn legitimate their cowardice and the resisters wanted lớn boast that they had more courage than a prominent surgeon. Those who thrive on smug superiority, be they collaborator or resistor, gain from the expansion of corruption. As this boasting becomes fashionable, it reduces personal integrity, thereby increasing corruption, which in turn further reduces integrity — reinforcing the cycle. Kundera’s major point about corruption is that the beneficiaries include those victimized by it. Moreover, when corruption is given room to lớn grow, it will bloom rapidly.

3. The tactics of resistance over up helping the oppressor

Tereza arrives khổng lồ Prague with nothing & gradually works her way up to become a staff photographer of a large-circulation newspaper. When the Soviet soldiers arrive khổng lồ suppress the Prague Spring, she photographs the resistors.


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Photograph of the Prague Spring protests against Soviet soldiers in tanks. (Wikipedia Commons, labelled for reuse)

Her pictures become famous as documents of the invasion. The opposition khổng lồ the invasion became impossible for the Soviets to lớn deny on the international stage. A year later, though, Tereza regrets it: “she thought of the days she had spent photographing tanks. How naive sầu they had been, thinking they were risking their lives for their country when in fact they were helping the Russian police.” (142)

The police use photographs like hers lớn identify, & then punish, dissenters.

When the Soviets invaded, Czechs in a small town near Prague tore down the road signs so that the invaders would be unable to lớn orient themselves. After the invasion, the government renamed the streets after Soviet places và luminaries.

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Hindsight now made that anonymity seem quite dangerous khổng lồ the country. The streets and buildings could no longer return lớn their original names. As a result, a Czech spa chăm sóc sức khỏe và làm đẹp had suddenly metamorphosed into lớn a miniature imaginary Russia, và the past that Tereza had gone there to lớn find had turned out to lớn be confiscated. (166)

Defeat soured the freedom relished during the months of defiance. Reading this, it’s easy khổng lồ imagine the protestors of the Arab Spring and the Color Revolutions facing even worse agony as the world watches the stifling of their cries for freedom & justice. In our own country, if the forces of reaction reach tidal strength, how much of our current freedom will fuel the fires that come for us?

4. Losing privacy meant the total elimination of liberty

Tereza’s mother read her childhood diary aloud in public lớn produce dramatic humiliation. Tereza later reflects on the state’s radio broadcast of the private conversations of a Prague Spring intellectual in order khổng lồ ruin his public image. She says, “When a private talk over a bottle of wine is broadcast on the radio, what can it mean but that the world is turning inlớn a concentration camp? …A concentration camp is the complete obliteration of privacy.” (136–137) Interestingly, Tereza then goes on khổng lồ observe that the absence of privacy is something “very basic, a given into which we are born & from which we can escape only with the greakiểm tra of efforts.” (137) Tereza attained privacy through struggle và fights to lớn retain it. What should we make of this in our time, when millions of people willfully surrender their privacy on Facebook & other social truyền thông media networks? Are we all constructing a massive sầu concentration camp around ourselves?


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Photo lớn by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

We have sầu not, as a society, seriously examined the potential costs of abandoning privacy. Those living in totalitarian regimes of the 20th century yearned for something that we carelessly throw away. There will be consequences for this.

5. The factory farming of animals must stop

Reflecting on the terminal illness of her dog, Karenin, Tereza thinks the following:

True human goodness, in all its purity & freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental demo (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it. (289)

At the over of a dense book on human relationships & existentialism, Tereza states that the fundamental debacle concerns humanity’s treatment of animals.

In the 21st century, we are disconnected from the process by which animals provide nourishment for our bodies. Kundera wrote his critique of animal cruelty at a time when the brutality shown lớn animals was less, on an order of many magnitudes. Read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Stop giving your money khổng lồ those who multiply this debacle through the sacrilege of life known as the meat và dairy industry.

6. The “mute power” of death provides the sadness that happiness requires

Kundera ends the novel with a long narrative sầu of the death of a beloved pet dog. The deaths of the two main characters, Tomas and Tereza, get a mention in the middle of the book, almost as an aside. In our time, many blogs & books about personal growth và empowerment, extolling the idea that happiness arrives from achieving goals. On the other hvà, writers such as Brene Brown encourage us to lớn be “in the arena,” engaging in conversations that can hurt. True happiness comes not from career advancement, but from resisting the temptation of avoid conflict. Only conflict and vulnerability, Brown asserts, bring authentiđô thị. At the over of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas & Tereza reach true happiness before they die, but only because they confront the hurt they caused each other.

It was sad, what she said, yet without realizing it they were happy. They were happy not in spite of their sadness but thanks to it. They were holding hands và both had the same image in their eyes: a limping dog who represented ten years of their lives. (293)

One of the minor characters, Franz, dies a stupid death in Cambodia. He journeys there to lớn prothử nghiệm the expansion of the Vietphái mạnh War. Kundera’s description of the prochạy thử march, a biting critique of superficial political activism, emphasizes Franz’s cowardly attempt at achieving something he thinks is meaningful. Franz errs because he’s desperately looking for a chance to demonstrate masculine heroics instead of authentically facing his own existence. His brutal post-mortem punishment consists of the complete capture of his memory by his vindictive conformist ex-wife. Such a fate awaits those who avoid authentic engagement with the emotional struggle of your relationships.

Kundera provides two contrasting prisms through which to view the existentiadanh sách end-game: the kết thúc of life for a sweet dog and the obliteration of the identity of Franz. Although Tomas’s son never understands his father, Tomas and Tereza reach full understanding of each other through a full confrontation of the pain & loss they inflict on each other.


Phokhổng lồ by Andrew Spencer on Unsplash

Kundera reminds us khổng lồ examine our definition of contentment. The Unbearable Lightness of Being asserts that meaning only emerges alongside mourning. In our culture, meaningless happiness usually gets equated with contentment. In the contemporary critique of Facebook’s emotional effects, Americans might begin a real cultural investigation of the ingredients of true contentment.

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In the end, happiness without meaning provides no contentment. Someone who never has a bad day might be the most unhappy of all.

(Page numbers refer to the 1999 Perennial Classics edition of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.)

(There are so many additional important ideas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being on topics such as — inevitability versus contingency, lust versus love, mind versus body toàn thân, art versus kitsch. Watch this space in the upcoming weeks for a sequel to this post, 6 More Reasons khổng lồ Read An Unbearable Lightness of Being.)