Warning: The meek and faint of heart should skip this posting.
The summer before last I read Alexander McCall Smith’s The Unbearable Lightness of Scones. I wasn’t particularly surprised by the title of the book because off-the-wall titles seem to be a habit of his (e.g. Morality for Beautiful Girls, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Kalahari Tying School for Men, . . .). But when soon after this I read George Will’s piece in Newsweek, I got the feeling that there might be more to The Unbearable Lightness of . . . than meets the eye:
It struck me, though, that the above authors (Smith and Cox) were probably appropriating an earlier coined phrase, The Unbearable Lightness of __________, and were just filling in a different blank at the end. A Google search confirmed that the phrase is used with a multitude of endings (see quotes below).<2010 “Cox [[a clinical psychologist]] worries about the deficits in the communication abilities of young males for whom a ‘womb of all-encompassing stimulation [[electronic]]’ induces ‘a pleasant trance from which they do not care to be awakened.’ Hence, perhaps, the ‘failure to launch’ of many young males who, preoccupied with self-amusement,’ struggle to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. What Cox calls ‘the unbearable lightness of adolescence’ is not new; what is new is an ‘excess of amusement’ producing a deficient sense of gravity.”—Newsweek, 23 & 30 August, page 28>
After doing a dictionary search for a discussion of the original phrase, I did find one, and only one, word and phrase dictionary that listed it. The phrase was the title of a book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the author appears to have been the coiner – couldn’t find any sign of the it being used prior to his book’s 1984 publication.
BREWER’s DICTIONARY OF MODERN PHRASE & FABLE:
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING: A novel (1984; in Czech as Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí, 1984) of the ‘magic realism’ school [[A style of fiction writing in which the realistic and everyday are blended with the unexpected or inexplicable.]], by Milan Kundera (born 1929), in which the fates of the couples are played out against a background of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. In such circumstances, there is an unbearable foreboding even when the ‘sweet lightness of being’ rises ‘out of the depths of the future.’ An unsatisfying film version (1987), starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche, was directed by Philip Kaufman. [[I think this definition of the phrase is probably far more ‘unsatisfying’ than the unsatisfying film!]]
The false implication in Brewer’s is that “unbearable foreboding even when” is a paraphrasing of Kundera’s words preceding his actual quote “out of the depths of the future.” Using the magic of Amazon book search, I found that Kundera never used the word ‘foreboding,’ much less ‘unbearable foreboding.’ I’m not hiring Brewer’s to write any blurbs for my books.
Kundera’s book contains exactly two lightness of being phrases:
1) the sweet lightness of being and 2) the unbearable lightness of being. So when can the lightness of being be ‘sweet’ and when can it be ‘unbearable?
The sweet signifies something enjoyable, not heavy, not serious, cheerful, unburdened, happy, fun-filled, etc. It is ‘sweet’ while one is experiencing it.
The unbearable occurs when one comes to the realization that the ‘sweet lightness’ may seem enjoyable while one is experiencing it, but that it is actually something without substance, depth, or value – unsubstantial, trivial, superficial, insignificant, and in the extreme, ‘meaninglessness’ and a waste.
So, it appears that both the psychologist Cox (‘the unbearable lightness of adolescence’) and the Kundera in his title (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) are using ‘lightness’ in the negative sense.
The following thumbnail biography indicates that Kundera’s book may have been somewhat autobiographical:
“The author, Milan Kundera, in his early years was a Czechoslovakian Communist. But in his late thirties became a member of the famous ‘Prague Spring’ [[from which the phrase ‘Arab Spring derives’]] movement of 1968, which argued for reform, freedom, human rights, end of political persecution, etc. When Alexander Dubcek came into power, he instituted the freedoms that the Prague Spring had been asking for. This short period lasted about 6 months until the Soviet tanks rolled in and put an end to it. He was forced out of his professorship, his books were banned, and his life became miserable.”
Perhaps ‘the sweet lightness of being’ is what Kundera experienced during those 6 months of freedom and he saw it continuing into the future – “he felt the sweet lightness of being rise up to him out of the depths of the future.”
Perhaps the best way to resolve the question of the meaning of Kundera’s words is to look in his book and see what the author himself had to say. And, using the magic of Google Books here is what I found:
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1984) by Milan Kundera:
Pages 30-31: “Saturday found him for the first time strolling alone through Zurich, breathing in the heady smell of his freedom [[he had broken up with his long-time wife/girlfriend]]. New adventures hid around each corner. . . . Suddenly [[after the breakup]] his step was much lighter. He soared. He had entered Parmenides’ magic field [[see below]]: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being . . . On Monday, everything changed. Tereza forced her way into his thoughts. . . . 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 likes of which he had never known.”
One of the basic themes of the book and the title of two of its chapters is ‘Lightness and Weight’:
Pages 121-122: “When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose. And Sabina—what had become of her? No. She had left a man because she had felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her [[for cheating on him]]? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness [[Sense #1: She had been having a good time of it but without knowing or thinking about what were her ultimate goals]]. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being [[which did not make itself manifest until it finally hit her after living the life of ‘lightness’ for many years]]. And that it was the realization of the lightness of her life that made it unbearable. . . . Sabina was unaware of the goal that lay behind her longing to betray. The unbearable lightness of being—was that the goal?”
And from the back cover of Kundera’s book (the paperback version):
“. . . In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once [[no reincarnation – see below]], existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence, we feel ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ not only as the consequence of our private actions, but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.” (See full quote – 1984 – below)
So for Sabina betrayal was evidently her enjoyment, her lightness, and the life she chose to live. The unbearableness came later when at the end she finally feels emptiness and regrets for living a life without substance, a life without any meaningful goals.
But note that according to Kundera everyone, not just Sabina, lives a life of lightness. So when he says that ‘her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness, this is no great surprise, since if there is no ‘eternal return,’ (perpetual reincarnation) everyone’s life must be ‘light’ and meaningless — talk about pessimism! (>:)
I know that everything above is crystal clear in Kundera’s “School of Befuddlement,” but just to see what an independent source has to say, I referred to Spark Notes. In high school, students used to cheat by not reading the book or play and using Cliff Notes. And for the ultimate degradation, they read the classic comic book, if one happened to have been written on their book or play of interest)
A later form of Cliff Notes is Spark Notes which, I will refer to here because Cliff Notes took the liberty of skipping this fine example of ‘magic realism’:
SPARK NOTES (an excerpt):
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING
The Unbearable Lightness of Being opens with a philosophical discussion of lightness versus heaviness. Kundera contrasts Nietzsche's philosophy of eternal return, or of heaviness, with Parmenides's [[Greek philosopher, circa 450 B. C]] understanding of life as light. Kundera wonders if any meaning or weight can be attributed to life, since there is no eternal return: if man only has the opportunity to try one path, to make one decision, he cannot return to take a different path, and then compare the two lives. Without the ability to compare lives, Kundera argues, we cannot find meaning; where meaning should exist we find only an unbearable weightlessness The uncertain existence of meaning, and the opposition of lightness and heaviness, the key dichotomy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, sets the stage for the entire novel. [[You may read the entire Spark Notes review at The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]]
Hmm! So if we live only once we’re up the creek for improvement. But if we live a second time and happen to remember our previous life we can make course corrections by looking at where we went wrong the first time. And if we live a third time . . . . In each reincarnation we get another chance to get things right, but this would take forever. One would get ever closer, but no cigar. And if we return an infinite number of times (the perpetual reincarnation of some Eastern religions as well as that of Nietzsche's eternal return – heaviness. But is such heaviness not a tremendous burden to bear, or is it a benefit. It’s not clear which!), we can eventually reach perfection – heaviness! On the other hand, if we only have one life, and thus one chance, we don’t have the opportunity to compare what we have done in our past lives to try to get things right this time by taking a different and better path. We are doomed to an unbearable weightlessness/lightness, a life without meaning – to living the meaningless life of a meaningless lightweight. We are screwed!
If you can buy all this, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that you may be interested in purchasing. But I really shouldn’t be too disparaging of the idea of reincarnation because it was/is believed by many philosophers and religions and sounds no more fantastic than what some physicists have been telling us with their multi-universe / parallel universe theories in which each of us live multiple lives following an infinite number of different paths.
Now let’s take a look at how people have actually used the expression. And it should be noted that THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING garnered about 1 million Google hits (at my space-time coordinates) while THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF. . . (sans ‘being’) produced just about 5 million hits, which does seem to indicate that this catchy little phrase has caught on.
The following are some illustrative quotes from archived sources:
P.S. By happenstance, over the summer, my reading group read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the father of the third Viennese school of psychotherapy (called logotherapy) [Sigmund Freud was first school, Alfred Adler was the second]. And one of his tenets was, “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” And this is a pithy piece of advice. Make believe you were living for a second time, but don’t believe it, or shock therapy may be his next piece of advice.<1984 (book review) “A young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing: one of his mistresses and her humbly faithful lover—these are the two couples whose story is told in this masterful novel. In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence, we feel ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ not only as the consequence of our private actions, but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.”—in New York Review of Books by Janet Malcolm> [[This is from the back cover of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, so the author must think she got it right.]]
<1996 “People who have lived for a while with AIDS, or with any other life-threatening illness, will tell you what it does to their hearing. They put it in different ways, but what it comes down to is that the most ordinary conversation can cut like a knife. To begin with, the present tense has a whole new pitch. When you don't know how long you have, the simple words ‘I am’ are enough to remind you of the unbearable lightness of being.”—Time Magazine, 30 December>
<1998 (article title) “The Unbearable Lightness of Fleeing”—Jerusalem Post, 9 October> [[article on financial markets]]
<2001 “Apparently we have all become so callous, have become so accustomed to the unbearable lightness of death in our region, that we need to remember that to murder a human being, whether Israeli or Palestinian, is blatantly to cross a red line.”—Time Magazine, 10 September>
<2003 “Now, with America venturing into the thick of the Middle East's notorious fray with the apparent aim of restructuring it politically and showing it the freedom trail, thoughts about the unbearable lightness of venturing into disastrous crusades inevitably come to mind.”— Jerusalem Post, 3 January >
<2005“. . . this recognition of the nothingness of things, once they are torn from there transcendent source, finds an echo in such twentieth-century movements as the theatre of the absurd, existentialism, and some expressions of postmodern thought in which the ‘nothingness’ of life is transmuted into ‘meaninglessness’ and the ‘unbearable lightness of being.’”—The Recovery of Wonder: The New Freedom and the Asceticism of Power by K. L. Schmitz, page 28> [[Aha! So the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ implies the ‘meaninglessness life’]]
<2006 (article title) The Unbearable Lightness of Regulatory Costs. . . . what is remarkable about regulatory costs is not their heavy economic burden, but rather their lightness.”—Fordham Urban Law Journal, 1 May>
<2010 (article title) The Unbearable Lightness of Reform . . . So we got health care reform this week - but it's a far cry from reformation. You can't blame President Obama for celebrating what he did get . . . Give the victors their due. But reformation. Hardly. For all their screaming and gnashing of teeth, the insurance companies will make out like bandits. . . .”—PBS, Bill Moyers Journal, 27 March>
<2011 “Fresh data on Life Science are presented in the report ‘The unbearable lightness of health science reporting . . .”—Investment Weekly News, 29 January>
<2011 (book review) “McJournalism: The Unbearable Lightness of Thomas Friedman”—Truth-Out, 15 December>
So what have I learned from all of the above? I would say that one thing I’ve learned is that Kundera’s form of Magic Realism could also be called the “School of Unfathomable Implications.” I have read many books from what I would take to be the school of Magic Realism (e.g. Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, House of Spirits (1970) by Isabel Allende, Ghostwalk (2007) by Rebecca Stott, . . . ) and I have found none of them to be as confusing as Kundera’s above work.
But to get at the crux of what THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF . . . is all about, I would summarize it as follows: In Kunder’s case, the lightness of being is unbearable in that when it goes away, the misery felt is worse than if the joy had never existed. Think ‘misspent youth’ or read the above 2010 quote at the beginning of this posting where the clinical psychologist discusses the copycat, fill-in-the blank instance of the unbearable lightness of adolescence.
And what of the meaning of the title of my light summer reading choice The Unbearable Lightness of Scones? It seems to me that it may have nothing at all to do with Kundera’s ideas and may have the implication of something as silly as they are so good that one can’t stand it. Or, it could perhaps signify that after experiencing the bliss of eating them, one is miserable that the experience is over. Or, that one regrets the experience because it was not good for one’s diet. Or that the joy of eating the scone carries no weight and is a fleeting and meaningless experience. Or . . . none of the above.
Ken G – January 10, 2012