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Page 1

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being


Milan Kundera


Shahid Riaz

Islamabad – Pakistan

[email protected]

Page 2

"The Unbearable Lightness Of Being" By Milan Kundera 2


Lightness and Weight

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other
philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that
the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once
and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance,
and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean
nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms
in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a
hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it
recurs again and again, in eternal return?

It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud
of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody
years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have
become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between
a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns,
chopping off French heads.

Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which
things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating
circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from
coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit?
In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the

Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing a most incredible sensation. Leafing through
a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my
childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler's
concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost
period in my life, a period that would never return?

This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests
essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in
advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.

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"The Unbearable Lightness Of Being" By Milan Kundera 82

Once more she knelt down and scratched away at the dirt. At last she succeeded in
pulling the crow out of its grave. But the crow was lame and could neither walk nor fly.
She wrapped it up in the red scarf she had been wearing around her neck, and pressed
it to her body with her left hand. With her right hand she untied Karenin from the tree. It
took all the strength she could muster to quiet him down and make him heel.

She rang the doorbell, not having a free hand for the key. Tomas opened the door. She
handed him the leash, and with the words Hold him! took the crow into the bathroom.
She laid it on the floor under the washbasin. It flapped its wings a little, but could move
no more than that. There was a thick yellow liquid oozing from it. She made a bed of old
rags to protect it from the cold tiles. From time to time the bird would give a hopeless
flap of its lame wing and raise its beak as a reproach.

She sat transfixed on the edge of the bath, unable to take her eyes off the dying crow.
In its solitude and desolation she saw a reflection of her own fate, and she repeated
several times to herself, I have no one left in the world but Tomas.

Did her adventure with the engineer teach her that casual sex has nothing to do with
love? That it is light, weightless? Was she calmer now?

Not in the least.

She kept picturing the following scene: She had come out of the toilet and her body was
standing in the anteroom naked and spurned. Her soul was trembling, terrified, buried
in the depths of her bowels. If at that moment the man in the inner room had addressed
her soul, she would have burst out crying and fallen into his arms.

She imagined what it would have been like if the woman standing in the anteroom had
been one of Tomas's mistresses and if the man inside had been Tomas. All he would
have had to do was say one word, a single word, and the girl would have thrown her
arms around him and wept.

Tereza knew what happens during the moment love is born: the woman cannot resist
the voice calling forth her terrified soul; the man cannot resist the woman whose soul
thus responds to his voice. Tomas had no defense against the lure of love, and Tereza
feared for him every minute of every hour.

What weapons did she have at her disposal? None but her fidelity. And she offered him
that at the very outset, the very first day, as if aware she had nothing more to give.
Their love was an oddly asymmetrical construction: it was supported by the absolute
certainty of her fidelity like a gigantic edifice supported by a single column.

Before long, the crow stopped flapping its wings, and gave no more than the twitch of a
broken, mangled leg. Tereza refused to be separated from it. She could have been
keeping vigil over a dying sister. In the end, however, she did step into the kitchen for a
bite to eat.

When she returned, the crow was dead.

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"The Unbearable Lightness Of Being" By Milan Kundera 83

In the first year of her love, Tereza would cry out during intercourse. Screaming, as I
have pointed out, was meant to blind and deafen the senses. With time she screamed
less, but her soul was still blinded by love, and saw nothing. Making love with the
engineer in the absence of love was what finally restored her soul's sight.

During her next visit to the sauna, she stood before the mirror again and, looking at
herself, reviewed the scene of physical love that had taken place in the engineer's flat.
It was not her lover she remembered. In fact, she would have been hard put to describe
him. She may not even have noticed what he looked like naked. What she did
remember (and what she now observed, aroused, in the mirror) was her own body: her
pubic triangle and the circular blotch located just above it. The blotch, which until then
she had regarded as the most prosaic of skin blemishes, had become an obsession.
She longed to see it again and again in that implausible proximity to an alien penis.

Here I must stress again: She had no desire to see another man's organs. She wished
to see her own private parts in close proximity to an alien penis. She did not desire her
lover's body. She desired her own body, newly discovered, intimate and alien beyond
all others, incomparably exciting.

Looking at her body speckled with droplets of shower water, she imagined the engineer
dropping in at the bar. Oh, how she longed for him to come, longed for him to invite her
back! Oh, how she yearned for it!

Every day she feared that the engineer would make his appearance and she would be
unable to say no. But the days passed, and the fear that he would come merged
gradually into the dread that he would not.

A month had gone by, and still the engineer stayed away. Tereza found it inexplicable.
Her frustrated desire receded and turned into a troublesome question: Why did he fail
to come?

Waiting on customers one day, she came upon the bald-headed man who had attacked
her for serving alcohol to a minor. He was telling a dirty joke in a loud voice. It was a
joke she had heard a hundred times before from the drunks in the small town where
she had once served beer. Once more, she had the feeling that her mother's world was
intruding on her. She curtly interrupted the bald man.

I don't take orders from you, the man responded in a huff. You ought to thank your
lucky stars we let you stay here in the bar.

We? Who do you mean by we?

Us, said the man, holding up his glass for another vodka. I won't have any more insults
out of you, is that clear? Oh, and by the way, he added, pointing to Tereza's neck,
which was wound round with a strand of cheap pearls, where did you get those from?
You can't tell me your husband gave them to you. A window washer! He can't afford
gifts like that. It's your customers, isn't it? I wonder what you give them in exchange?

You shut your mouth this instant! she hissed.

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"The Unbearable Lightness Of Being" By Milan Kundera 164

Where do you plan to go? asked Tomas.

The young man named a nearby town where the hotel bar had a dance floor.

You come too, said the young man in an imperative tone of voice to the chairman of the
collective farm, and because by then he had downed a third glass of slivovitz, he
added, If Mefisto misses you so much, we'll take him along. Then we'll have both little
pigs to show off. The women will come begging when they get an eyeful of those two
together! And again he laughed and laughed.

If you're not ashamed of Mefisto, I'm all yours. And they piled into Tomas's pickup—
Tomas behind the wheel, Tereza next to him, and the two men in the back with the half-
empty bottle of slivovitz. Not until they had left the village behind did the chairman
realize that they had forgotten Mefisto. He shouted up to Tomas to turn back.

Never mind, said the young man. One little pig will do the trick. That calmed the
chairman down.

It was growing dark. The road started climbing in hairpin curves.

When they reached the town, they drove straight to the hotel. Tereza and Tomas had
never been there before. They went downstairs to the basement, where they found the
bar, the dance floor, and some tables. A man of about sixty was playing the piano, a
woman of the same age the violin. The hits they played were forty years old. There
were five or so couples out on the floor.

Nothing here for me, said the young man after surveying the situation, and immediately
asked Tereza to dance.

The collective farm chairman sat down at an empty table with Tomas and ordered a
bottle of wine.

I can't drink, Tomas reminded him. I'm driving.

Don't be silly, he said. We're staying the night. And he went off to the reception desk to
book two rooms.

When Tereza came back from the dance floor with the young man, the chairman asked
her to dance, and finally Tomas had a turn with her, too.

Tomas, she said to him out on the floor, everything bad that's happened in your life is
my fault. It's my fault you ended up here, as low as you could possibly go.

Low? What are you talking about?

If we had stayed in Zurich, you'd still be a surgeon.

And you'd be a photographer.

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"The Unbearable Lightness Of Being" By Milan Kundera 165

That's a silly comparison to make, said Tereza. Your work meant everything to you; I
don't care what I do, I can do anything, I haven't lost a thing; you've lost everything.

Haven't you noticed I've been happy here, Tereza? Tomas said.

Surgery was your mission, she said.

Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it's a terrific relief to
realize you're free, free of all missions.

There was no doubting that forthright voice of his. She recalled the scene she had
witnessed earlier in the day when he had been repairing the pickup and looked so old.
She had reached her goal: she had always wanted him to be old. Again she thought of
the rabbit she had pressed to her face in her childhood room.

What does it mean to turn into a rabbit? It means losing all strength. It means that one
is no stronger than the other anymore.

On they danced to the strains of the piano and violin. Tereza leaned her head on
Tomas's shoulder. Just as she had when they flew together in the airplane through the
storm clouds. She was experiencing the same odd happiness and odd sadness as
then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are
together. The sadness was form, the happiness content. Happiness filled the space of

They went back to their table. She danced twice more with the collective farm chairman
and once with the young man who was so drunk he fell with her on the dance floor.

Then they all went upstairs and to their two separate rooms.

Tomas turned the key and switched on the ceiling light. Tereza saw two beds pushed
together, one of them flanked by a bedside table and lamp. Up out of the lampshade,
startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the
room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.

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