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The Beginning of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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The rest of the book is good, but I’ve always especially loved the very beginning of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Thought provoking:

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
guillotine.

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.

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity
as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal
return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That
is  why  Nietzsche  called  the  idea  of  eternal  return  the  heaviest  of  burdens
(das schwerste Gewicht).

If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all
their splendid lightness.

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

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.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar
into  the  heights,  take  leave  of  the  earth  and  his  earthly being,  and  become  only  half
real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Parmenides  posed  this  very  question  in  the  sixth  century  before  Christ.  He  saw  the
world divided into pairs of opposites:

light/darkness,  fineness/coarseness,  warmth/cold,  being/non-being. One  half  of  the  opposition  he  called  positive  (light,  fineness,  warmth,  being), the  other  negative.  We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness?

Parmenides  responded:  lightness is  positive,  weight  negative. Was  he  correct  or  not?

That  is  the  question.  The  only  certainty  is:  the  lightness/weight  opposition  is  the  most  mysterious, most ambiguous of all.

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