To Kundera, in Favor of Sentimentality
By: Kat Mulligan
Photo Credit: Warner Brothers, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
It was May in Vienna, and summer had yet to reach a full boil. I made it into town with my father on a Sunday, weary from travel and candied by the still-delicate Austrian sun. Not long after, I met a man from Dublin who had moved to the city for the summer in order to practice his German.
After about a thousand Simpsons jokes, we untangled ourselves from the bar—which, thanks to a forgetful Berliner, was by then dappled with cigarette smoke—and fell loose to the streets. We mauled the city under our shoes, kissed, begged for more time, and held the encroaching sunrise in our periphery, where we hoped it would drown in the vignette of the eye. “Well, see you around,” he said, perched on the stoop of my hotel as the sun began to yawn and pad around above. I paused, examining him and the incredible sage color of his pants, then replied, “No, you won’t.”
I had only a few days total to pillage Vienna of its treasures. How could love mature in that time? For better or for worse, we would never know each other well enough to hate each other; we had the privilege of encapsulated perfection. What I was keenly aware of, as we held each other and cursed the sheer size of our planet, was that this, with its poetic bells and whistles, was merely a ripe image. I could hardly contain my delight at the idea that this minor romance, with its predetermined end, would be all the more delightful for its apocalypse. The poem—the ode to this one-off evening—will leave its bite marks on the soul, I thought. The next night, in the rapture innate to yearning, I sat down before the page.
A certain Milan Kundera would laugh at the show I was making of my sentimentality.
The Czech author’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being opens with an explanation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence from The Gay Science. Nietzsche asks how his reader would react if visited in the night by a demon who threatens them with infinite repetitions of the life they have lived, down to the last detail. Do they cry out in horror, or do they accept this fate, satisfied with the choices they have made thus far? Kundera assuages the reader’s terror by reminding them that eternal recurrence does not exist as we know it in our reality. No pain will be assumed twice. That whirlwind involving the Dubliner will never again transpire. Every beauty and every tragedy are equally transient. We may therefore consider our lives incredibly light.
The Greek philosopher Parmenides, however, whom Kundera invokes in the coming paragraphs, considered lightness a negative principle. Those who live lightly are less likely to tether themselves to religion, politics, art, and other such features of life; they instead float around, satiating themselves on momentary pleasures, unconcerned with deeper meaning. Kundera’s novel is quartered by two light characters (Tomas and Sabina) and two heavy characters (Tereza and Franz), whose respective approaches to life and resulting sentimentalities engender fundamental misunderstandings among them. Tomas spends his time womanizing and operating on patients. His wife Tereza, when she is not driven to madness by her husband’s infidelity, captures the political unrest of the Czech Republic through photographs. Sabina, the mistress of both Tomas and Franz, is a sexually liberated woman who creates art with great vigor. Finally, Franz, plagued by his own infidelity to his wife, chooses to only court Sabina when on business trips so that he does not come home to his wife afterwards in shame.
The light characters are able to cope with this lightness of being, even sourcing their joie de vivre from it. The heavy characters, in contrast, are tortured by the ultimate meaninglessness of their existences in the face of their rampant attachment to the world.
I, unfortunately a Pisces, would undoubtedly be a heavy character if written by Kundera. It seems at times that I live in service of my sentimentality, rather than the reverse. Arguably, this sentimentality can be a hindrance. If a friend returns a book to me with even one minor imperfection, my nerves descend on me like pins. I depart from every party in unplaceable, slightly farcical sorrow, and I retreat from every trip in despair at the opportunities lost and stunted. Were I any different, I would have hardly noticed the force of time chomping down on me and the Dubliner. What’s the point? There must be a point.
Kundera poses one question both explicitly and implicitly throughout the whole novel—would it not be easier to live on a plateau of neutral contentment, rather than in the valleys and mountains that constitute the topography of a bruising soul? Maybe so. Those who are spiritually nomadic, lacking roots in memory, obviously do not lament the absence of a value (sentimentality) when it is replaced by its perfectly sustainable opposite. However, once sentimentality is introduced into one’s life, it is a challenge to shake it loose.
Now that I have made a habit of it, I cannot imagine living as if any bittersweet symbol will not be wrung out into verse. As a squirrel buries its acorns in the earth, so too do I populate my life with memories. Even as anticipatory nostalgia bubbles inside, giving the moment a gimmicky feel as it did in Vienna, I find it infinitely more rewarding to chase unique experiences to be immortalized on what I like to call my “romantic resume of life”—romantic, of course, being a term liberally applied by those afflicted by this impenetrable sentimentality. The lows sweeten the highs, and any burden that this habit causes is secretly relished by the spirit. The joys and sorrows feed into the same system, I find; submitting to sentimentality does not equate to assuming a life of stress, but a life of variety instead. My sentimentality is the force that drives me towards adventure, that reveals my soul to art, that connects me to others.
When death inevitably pursues me, I hope to hand it a full account of my time.
By the end of the novel, Kundera makes no conclusion about whether it is more beneficial to live lightly or heavily. Tomas and Sabina do not float above the mercurial state of the Czech political system, happy and unbothered. Tereza and Franz do not sink into an invincible despair, casting off their passions. It is for the individual to determine their course of living. However, the easier way to live is, I think, not the question. Ultimately, it is happiness that we toil at; the paths that lead to it are many, whether a sidewalk or a winding mountain road. It would be more apt to ask if it is worth it to resign yourself to sentimentality—if you, in the event of a bedside visit from a demon, would run over the varied richness of your life a second, third, or thousandth time.
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Translated by Michael Henry Heim, Faber & Faber, 1999.