The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a historical fiction story with strong philosophical underpinnings and incredible prose. Kundera deftly touches on the many difficulties, ironies, and coincidences that make up life.
When I was reading the book, I felt like I was highlighting every other paragraph. After some reflection, below are a few of my favorite spoiler-free quotes.
On eternal return:
“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?
We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come. There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?
“The only explanation I can suggest is that for Franz, love was not an extension of public life but its antithesis. It meant a longing to put himself at the mercy of his partner. He who gives himself up like a prisoner of war must give up his weapons as well. And deprived in advance of defense against a possible blow, he cannot help wondering when the blow will fall. That is why I can say that for Franz, love meant the constant expectation of a blow.”
On beauty by mistake:
“Franz said, Beauty in the European sense has always had a premeditated quality to it. We’ve always had an aesthetic intention and a long-range plan. That’s what enabled Western man to spend decades building a Gothic cathedral or a Renaissance piazza. The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It’s unintentional. It arose independent of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern. Forms which are in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with a sudden wondrous poetry.
Sabina said, Unintentional beauty. Yes. Another way of putting it might be ‘beauty by mistake.’ Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake. ‘Beauty by mistake’—the final phase in the history of beauty.”
On the value of words:
“When a society is rich, its people don’t need to work with their hands; they can devote themselves to activities of the spirit. We have more and more universities and more and more students. If students are going to earn degrees, they’ve got to come up with dissertation topics. And since dissertations can be written about everything under the sun, the number of topics is infinite. Sheets of paper covered with words pile up in archives sadder than cemeteries, because no one ever visits them, not even on All Souls’ Day. Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity. That’s why one banned book in your former country means infinitely more than the billions of words spewed out by our universities.”
On the relationship between you and your body:
“Looking at herself, she wondered what she would be like if her nose grew a millimeter a day. How long would it take before her face began to look like someone else’s?
And if various parts of her body began to grow and shrink and Tereza no longer looked like herself, would she still be herself, would she still be Tereza?
Of course. Even if Tereza were completely unlike Tereza, her soul inside her would be the same and look on in amazement at what was happening to her body.
Then what was the relationship between Tereza and her body? Had her body the right to call itself Tereza? And if not, then what did the name refer to? Merely something incorporeal, intangible?
(These are questions that had been going through Tereza’s head since she was a child. Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities…”
On surgery and God:
“Surgery takes the basic imperative of the medical profession to its outermost border, where the human makes contact with the divine. When a person is clubbed violently on the head, he collapses and stops breathing. Some day, he will stop breathing anyway. Murder simply hastens a bit what God will eventually see to on His own. God, it may be assumed, took murder into account; He did not take surgery into account. He never suspected that someone would dare to stick his hand into the mechanism He had invented, wrapped carefully in skin, and sealed away from human eyes. When Tomas first positioned his scalpel on the skin of a man asleep under an anesthetic, then breached the skin with a decisive incision, and finally cut it open with a precise and even stroke (as if it were a piece of fabric—a coat, a skirt, a curtain), he experienced a brief but intense feeling of blasphemy.”
On man’s longing for Paradise:
“Adam, leaning over a well, did not yet realize that what he saw was himself. He would not have understood Tereza when she stood before the mirror as a young girl and tried to see her soul through her body. Adam was like Karenin [Tereza’s dog]. Tereza made a game of getting Karenin to look at himself in the mirror, but he never recognized his image, gazed at it vacantly, with incredible indifference.
Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not yet man. Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are longtime outcasts, Hying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man.”