Milan Kundera wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It resonated with me when I read it in the 80’s, but then I put it aside for lo these many years. Recently I read an important article by R.R. Reno which brought it back to mind. I’ll tell you why in Strong Gods, but first let’s take a look at The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Kundera was interested in a distinction people make emotionally, between, on the one hand, a sense of heaviness, significance, solidity, and meaningfulness; and on the other hand, lightness, insignificance, frivolousness, and meaninglessness. His novel starts out with the idea that perhaps a greater meaningfulness would attach to life lived within a Nietzchean reality of eternal return, in which the same life is lived out an infinite number of times; perhaps in an infinite number of universes. The idea, Kundera said, is that great significance would attach to every event, major or minor, if our lives were lived infinitely. If there is but one life, one-off events remain insignificant. “Einmal is kienmal.” If there is but one life, then our desire for a frivolous form of existence makes sense.
It is curious to me that Kundera founds his idea of significance on the idea of eternal return. It is as if he has thrown over God, other than as an intellectual foil, and now must cast about for some other source of meaningfulness to make his point. Note that the source he turns to relates specifically to eternity, though it eschews a theist view of heaven as a “place” of timelessness. This premise for Kundera’s lightness motif doesn’t really work. He comes back to it from time to time, in the novel, but beyond the second (very short) chapter, doesn’t really attach this motif to Neitzchean philosophy.
The lightness/heaviness motif is one felt personally, so we must grasp what Kundera is saying about it through people. The tension is displayed in all of the characters in the book, but particularly in two: Tomas and his lover then wife, Tereza. Tomas is a philanderer. He breaks from family commitments and abjures relationships with women beyond sexual encounters. His desires are for lightness; even frivolousness. On the other hand, he cares deeply about his profession, surgery, and he sacrifices for his wife, Tereza, though he cannot remain faithful to her. Tereza, for her part, finds unbearable the false sense of frivolity she endures in her youth. She strains for something higher. She is endued naturally with a sense of significance; of weight.
The lightness or heaviness of being is real enough, but the idea is wasted on the Nietzchean concept of eternal return. If we lament the absence of significance in life, we needn’t find it in a false notion of eternal return. It is there in our significance to the God who made us. There is nothing “heavier” than God. On the other hand, if we seek a less consequential experience of life; if we think that life is heavy enough already without reaching for abstractions to make it seem more so, then we might incline to avoidance of heavy subjects like religion. We might even harbor hostility for it, and for those who would advance it.
Left and right are engaged in perennial tug-of-war, but there is also a meta-politics: a politics of disenchantment. I mean the disenchantment of the world in the same way Matthew Arnold, Max Weber, Charles Taylor, and many others have articulated it. It is a recognition that religious ideals once suffused the world, lending it meaning and weight, and a sense of “enchantment.” We are now in a long period of disenchantment, in which naturalism, the belief that physical reality is all there is, reigns. For many, this is the chief goal of the Enlightenment.
Finishing the Enlightenment Project of disenchantment is important to people who desire, before anything else, a lightness of being; a feeling of freedom from the oppression of heavy, consequential, foreboding, omnipresent Meaning. Discussion of morals is distasteful, not because they desire immorality, but because it implies that what they do matters. Living with a weight of significance feels like a constraint on freedom. People feel these things on a deep level, they don’t think of weightiness and consequence as bad in themselves, but rather as a tension pulling against their desire for freedom. They want personal autonomy, but not just that. They want an absence of consequence to any exercise of personal autonomy they may undertake. The more we emphasize purpose and meaning to life, the more we’re conscious of a sense of consequence, to what we do, and the more threat to personal liberty we may feel.
Heaviness of Being
At the same time, we fear the opposite: that an absence of meaning and purpose in our lives unmoors us from a necessary sense of humanity. Some purpose is necessary. Some meaning. If there is no consequence at all to what I do or refrain from doing, then I am weightless, soaring into the clouds and beyond, unmissed. My existence fades to translucent tissue-thin weightlessness, until I am no more. This is postmodernism. It is forbidden to forbid; there are no solid, enduring truths. We cast off the weight of being, in this way.
For Kundera, the weight, solidity, and consequence of being was represented by Soviet tanks lined up at the Czech border in 1968. His characters were pulled by the opposing forces of weight and lightness; consequence and inconsequence.
There is nothing weightier than God. Your friends and neighbors, and the society around us at large, is throwing off that weight, in favor of a lightness of being that is freeing but renders us evanescent, inconsequential, returnable as mere stardust to the cosmos. It is an element of this perspective that nothing is really important; nothing matters; there is no meaning to anything we experience. Reality can be whatever we desire it to be, when we place our desire for lightness ahead of our need for solidity, but all the while we know that that reality we create for ourselves is an illusion.
Some of us scrabble for that lost sense of significance. They find its loss heartbreaking. Others wish for the weight of consequence to continue to evanesce.
This is the real conflict in the world.