The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera, Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim
It has stricken me how Kundera looks down on his characters. Seeing them with the lightness of a witness, of a mere observer. As if he is only a spectator of the game their fate plays; not the creator, not the one responsible for their fall. With a hint of a sneer in his tone and a sleek smirk flickering at the corners of his month, he is enjoying his experiment of putting together people so different from one another, so distant.
But what is love? The feeling of wanting to die beside her was clearly exaggerated: he had seen her only once before in his life! Was it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware deep down of his inaptitude for love, felt the self-deluding need to simulate it?
He remained annoyed with himself until he realized that not knowing what he wanted was actually quite natural. 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.
They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.
Anyone whose good is “something higher” must expect some day to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.
She longed to do something that would prevent her from turning back to Tomas. She longed to destroy brutally the past seven years of her life. It was vertigo. A ready, insuperable longing to fall. We might also call vertigo the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down. (I got this paragraph not only because that is the same way I feel when I am weak; I want to get lower and experience it as fully as possible. But that is not the main reason I posted it. As a moderate feminist and as a beginner translator, the pronoun “he” and the word “man” emerged so violently from the text that I couldn’t continue reading. Every time I go over these two particular sentences, I picture a man and it deprives me of picturing a human being, a possible woman or man… Isn’t it there a way to avoid that predisposition, this already established way to look at the text? Moreover, is it only me who sees it that way and finds the linguistic and gender conflict in it? )
Being a woman is a fate Sabina did not choose. What we have not chosen we cannot consider either our merit or our failure. Sabina believed that she had to assume the correct attitude to her unchosen fate. To rebel against being born a woman seemed as foolish to her as to take pride in it.
Sabina proceeded with her melancholy musings. what if she had a man who ordered her about? A man who wanted to master her? How long would she out up with him? Not for five minutes! From which it follows that no man was right for her.
And Sabina – what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being.
People usually escape in their troubles into the future; they draw an imaginary line across the path of time, a line beyond which their current troubles will cease to exist.
How could someone who had so little respect for people be so dependent on what they thought of him?
How defenseless we are in the face of flattery!
Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. The obsession with the formal is lyrical: what they seek in women is themselves, their ideal, and since an ideal is by definition something that can never be found, they are disappointed again and again. The disappointment that propels them from woman to woman gives their inconstancy a kind of romantic excuse, so that many sentimental women are touched by their unbridled philandering.
Insofar as it is possible to divide people into categories, the surest criterion is the deep-seated desires that orient them to one or another lifelong activity. Every Frenchman is different. But all actors the world over are similar – in Paris, Prague, or the back of beyond. An actor is someone who in early childhood consents to exhibit himself for the rest of his life to an anonymous public. Without that basic consent, which has nothing to do with talent, which goes deeper than talent, no one cam become an actor. Similarly, a doctor is someone who consents to spend his life involved with human bodies and all that they entail. That basic consent (and not talent or skill) enables them to enter the dissecting room during the first year of medical school and persevere for the requisite number of years.