May 12, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

When I was a little girl, my brother shared an interesting mathematical conundrum with me. I was only four or five years old, but I've always remembered it. He stood in the hallway with me and pointed at our front door across the living room. He told me that if I tried to walk to the front door and walked half the distance needed to get there, then half again, then half again, I would end up getting very very close to the door but never all the way there. It was a model to demonstrate the infinite space between numbers.

As I grew older I learned that this model can be applied in other ways as well. There are some people that will walk right up to the front doors of their lives without hesitation, fling them open, and walk right on through into the sun. There are others who will only take the distance by halves, never quite reaching the door. Are they afraid of it, or are they simply too self involved? They concentrate so hard on the increasingly tiny steps they take that they don't even see the door anymore, only their feet.

Milan Kundera can't see the door, and he wants us to be as mesmerized by his tiny little steps as he is.

I'm not and never have been a student of philosophy, and this book has a lot to do with philosophy. Stupid philosophy. The book is about the idea that if something only happens once it is worthless and may as well not have happened at all (lightness). In contrast, something that happens repeatedly is heavy and important.

Excuse my French, but that is complete merde. I gave birth to my son once. I got married once. I only once kissed a secret love in a secret room and never saw him again. I only once shook hands for the last time with someone I loved. But those events are some of the most important things that have weighed on my life.

This book is full of completely stupid quotes like "happiness is the longing for repetition." Huh??? No, sorry. Kundera has obviously never been happy, or maybe he's never rolled hundreds of sets of silverware every night for five years. Happiness is an opening of the soul, not an endless tightening of bolts on an assembly line.

There are some very good quotes too, like this one that made me think of blogging: "Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity." Amen to that.

The thing that really damned this book for me though was the stupidest argument I have ever come across against Creationism. Believe what you want, but please have a better explanation than this guy for it. Kundera writes that as a boy he saw an illustration of God in a children's Bible, which depicted Him as an old man in a cloud. Kundera saw that this depicted God had a mouth, and decided that if he has a mouth, he must eat, and if he eats, he must defecate. And God can't defecate because that would be unacceptably coarse, so therefore God could not have made us in His image, so Creationism cannot possibly be correct.

See what I mean? Half steps toward the door, never getting there. God did not draw that picture. An illustrator did. The illustrator created God in his image for the drawing. You cannot base a theological argument on something as groundless as a drawing. Beyond that, no one really knows what that "made in His image" bit really means. It could mean literal physical image, or it could refer to the fact that we have free will. In any case, he missed the part that God is omnipotent. If God wants to defecate, why shouldn't he? Our shame of our bodily functions is our own stigma, not God's.

The story. There really isn't one. There are a couple of situations that he uses to illustrate his ideas of weight and lightness.

The part of this book I did find good and interesting is a section in which Kundera demonstrates how different words mean different things to different people. The word "father" for me makes me feel warm and fuzzy because I have a good father, but for others the word will make them fearful or give them feelings of abandonment. He shows how when we are coming into adulthood we create motifs and symbols in our lives, and that we best create lives with others who share those motifs. When we get older we have a harder time forming relationships with others because the motifs they have created in their lives clash with ours and it's hard to build a relationship on uneven ground.

Overall this book struck me as a work of Emperor's New Clothes. Do I dare admit I didn't get it or thought it was stupid at the risk of looking like I'm stupid myself for not getting it? Yes. I dare. I don't claim to be anything other than a housewife who loves to read, so if you get this, please do explain.

So there was good, and there was bad, and there was really, really stupid. I don't recommend this book, but I give it three stars for quality of writing and the few good points he did make.


  1. I hate when people make stupid arguments like that, no matter what side of an issue they are on.

  2. Wow, that's some review. Very impressed. I like the YUCK tag.

  3. Interesting. I've been told that I should definitely read this. And I've seen the movie (which I don't remember much about, except that there was sex and infidelity and a revolution), but of course, I do feel the need to read the book. At some point. I even bought it, but so farm it's only managed to gather dust on the shelf.


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