ESSAY
The Weight of Being
POSTED
May 6, 1991

Czech novelist Milan Kundera, though hardly a household name in the English-speaking world, has achieved a certain notoriety in America in recent years, largely on the strength of the English translation and film version of his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.(((Harper and Row, 1984).))

The Unbearable Lightness of Being — the book — is a highly philosophical novel that begins with a discussion of Nietzsche and the idea of the eternal return, a doctrine in which "the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make." But is weight really a curse? Kundera muses whether weight or lightness is truly to be preferred. Typically, he uses sexual imagery to describe the splendor of weight: "The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become."

It is lightness, then, that is unbearable. But it is lightness that characterizes the daily life of Kundera’s characters. Life itself, indeed, appears to be objectively light; at best, Kundera seems to suggest that life is composed of a kind of yin/yang of weight and lightness.

Unbearable Lightness is set in Prague around the time of the 1968 "Prague Spring." The novel centers on three characters: Tomas, a physician reduced to washing windows after writing an article critical of the regime; Sabina, a painter, an apolitical aesthete, and Tomas’s sometime mistress; and Tereza, a photographer and Tomas’s wife. The events of the novel defy summary, because no real events occur. In place of a plot, Kundera provides a string of sex scenes, as Tomas moves from bed to bed, an "epic lover," a "curiosity collector" of erotic experiences.

Tomas’s sexual escapades are evidently to be interpreted within the weight/lightness dualism. Tomas is "aware deep down of his inaptitude for love," his incapacity for a "weighty" love for a woman; he therefore chooses to pursue a variety of "light" affairs. Ironically, he and Tereza ultimately die "under the sign of weight" as a result of Tomas’s foray into journalism. But weight is the exception in Kundera’s world; he writes, "History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow."

The form of Kundera’s novel contributes to the impression of weightlessness. It lacks the standard Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end; time overlaps with time; earlier episodes are later recalled and elaborated; the narrator intrudes frequently with comments on the characters, as well as speculations on philosophy, Czech history, theology, language, politics, and art.

Writing in the July-August Crisis, Thomas Molnar describes the depersonalization and abstraction of contemporary novels, and cites Kundera as an example of this tendency. Rather than depicting the lives of flesh-and-blood people, Molnar argues, recent novels derive their force "from intellectual problems, psychologically monitored complexes, and from stereotyped conflicts of a socio-economic nature." Characters are placed "in a world where good and evil, crime and punishment, sin and redemption no longer make sense." Molnar notes of Kundera: "We find the same non-action and non-reality in the case of Milan Kundera, suddenly lifted to the status of an emblematic witness-of-the-century. Kundera, too, mechanizes his characters, whose sexual acts exhaust all the dimensions of living." For Kundera and other writers, "being is indeed light and porous. . . , unbearable since all its elements are permutable at will. The center of gravity is the bed."

"All is vanity," says the Preacher. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Our days are fleeting, and the glory of man is like the flower that fades. All these images of the "lightness of life" are expressed in Scripture. But this is never the Bible’s ultimate perspective on life. Our final end is not disintegration into dust, but resurrection. God’s purposes will be fulfilled in a renewal and glorification of the heavens and earth. In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis depicts heaven as the habitat of the "Solid People," where the blades of grass are too sharp for bare feet. Solidity, weight, not ethereal lightness, is our destiny.

Not only is "weight" our destiny, but earthly life is itself inherently weighty. Lewis brought this out in his remarkable sermon, "The Weight of Glory." Glory — God’s approbation — is an "almost incredible" promise: "To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is." The thought that men are destined for such awesome glory or equally awesome destruction means that "All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics." There is, in Lewis’s deeply Christian vision, no place for "light" sex such as Tomas wishes for. Instead, all of life is inherently and inescapably filled with ungodly meaning.

Molnar’s comments above imply that the amoral and impersonal universe of the contemporary novel not only runs counter to a Christian view of the world, but also makes for bad literature. For literature to be meaningful, characters, events, life itself must be weighty. They must have at least the potential of glory. Otherwise, men are left with nothing to write about but their own emptiness and shallowness.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons.

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