Milan Kundera opens his celebrated novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by examining Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal return’.
What, asks Kundera, might it mean if everything we do, think, and say recurs ad infinitum – ad nauseum – throughout the eternal black holes of time and space?
What if, contrary to the dogma of most religions, life weren’t a dress rehearsal? What if the mistakes we make in the here and now were never going to be made ‘right’ on some dim, distant redemption day?
Would the knowledge that you had no second chance weigh you down like a butterfly pinned to a collector’s board? Or would it make you savor life, like Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche believed, as if it were a precious, precocious art form?
I’m a firm believer that what one says about something (especially if it’s controversial in any way) tells more about them than about that which they have commented upon.
Keeping that in mind, on the question of ‘eternal return’ I throw in my towel with Existentialism. I accept that the question Kundera and Nietzsche have raised is not whether God (in whatever shape or form) really exists, but why it is that one chooses to believe either way.
To me, the need for any form of escapism from the joys and sorrows of life as experienced is rooted in fear, resentment, and bad conscience. Be honest. How far wrong can anyone go if he or she is prepared to live with the result of his or her choices throughout eternity? In my view, to take action as if you’ve anything less than total commitment to life as experienced is a cop-out to the fullest degree.
Kundera reminds us that Nietzsche believed the idea of ‘eternal return’ to be the heaviest of burdens. If we can’t or won’t carry that burden, then it only makes sense we’ll invent some way to cast off the significance of our lives leaving us light as a bird, free to fly straight to heaven. Do not pass ‘Go’ – do not collect $200. Who cares? It’s only a game…
“The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of 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.”
Isn’t the real question then not as Hamlet suggests ‘to be or not to be’, but instead ‘when and where are we committed to being’?
Kundera frames our dilemma nicely.
“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?”
I choose weight. Which do you choose and more revealing – why?
- Czech poet Ludvik Kundera dies (cbc.ca)
- On Coincidence, Love, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (themillions.com)
- Encounter: Essays by Milan Kundera | Book review (guardian.co.uk)
- Robert Fulford: How Nietzsche ended up on Megan Fox, and other famous places (nationalpost.com)
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