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Why Reading ‘The Unbearable Lightness Of Being’ Took Me Back To A Lesson On Nuclear Fusion

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By Sahil Sood

“There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lovers enter the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in a new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire.”

― Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

milan kundera unbearable lightness of beingWhile reading Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness Of Being‘, I was reminded of a science lecture that I once attended in my early school days. The thought of the Sun burning out and getting self-annihilated some time in the distant future is one that has terrified many, and for some, it has been one of their earliest brushes with the apparent meaninglessness or futility of life. It was also the time when I first learned about fusion.

The book, set against the backdrop of Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, chronicles and novelizes the everyday life of four people, who play with their own romantic ideals of love and sex, in desperate attempts to achieve freedom from the burden of existence — the utopian lightness of being.

The reason I draw a parallel of nuclear fusion is because Kundera’s characters are elemental in nature. Until their paths converge, they exist in isolated spheres of thoughts and ideals, only to be set off into elemental turbulence of activity, coalition, and gradual decline.

Tomas, a surgeon, philanders from one woman to another, taking great relish in examining their characteristic oddities by using an imaginary scalpel, while retaining his coldness and solitude. For him romantic love and physical love are two irreconcilable desires — the former being his idea of burden, since it entails attachment and responsibility, and the latter his idea of achieving lightness.

Tereza, his wife, follows her romantic pursuits in the form of achieving her husband’s loyalty. She is repulsed by the sight of her body and regards it as shameful; and grows increasingly burdened and insecure by her husband’s need to find intimacy out of their marital union. Her struggle for lightness is reflected in her acts of humiliation — working as a barmaid, having sex with a stranger, engaging in dissident photojournalism, and defecating in the open.

Franz, who spends his life in rarefied scholarly pursuits, in academia, falls in love with the free-spirited Sabina. He responds to her indifference and strong individualism with amorous display of affection and vows of eternal love. He grows increasingly despondent of being reduced to an intellectual tool-head and wishes to feel the rush of joy and belongingness by participating in protests and struggles, along with the general public.

Sabina, a free-spirited artist, is Franz’s and Tomas’s mistress. She celebrates her rebellion against her puritanical ancestry by painting erotic images and participating in sexual acts with a reckless abandon. She prefers to keep herself intact in her own element, aloof from the teeming multitudes and their collective tastes. Like Tomas, she is stifled by romantic attachments and finds lightness in her repeat acts of betrayal.

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in 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 burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real; his movements are as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

Kundera’s work mirrors life. One can picture him with a sly smile and a bemused look on his face, sketching his characters with deep empathy and part mockery. His characters, in their attempts to soar and become lighter than air, become so oppressed by their lightness that they sink quicker than a diving bell. They become victims of their ideals–their own element. But is it possible to drown in your own element?

We read later in the book that Tomas, burdened by his lightness, moves to the countryside with Tereza, in order to make amends with her and lead a solitary lifestyle, filled with simple pleasures. Tereza recognizes her anima and becomes a recluse, finding solace in the company of domestic animals. Sabina, tired by her own betrayals, finds admirers of her art in the USA and settles there permanently. Franz, weary of his intellectual detachment and fear of inviting Sabina’s derision, sheds his inhibitions and joins the Grand March, as a protester playing an active role and seeking comfort in the company of his fellow men.

Life demands surrender. It is said the Sun will burn out in a few billion years from now. The scientists claim that it will lose its life source—the hydrogen fuel—and will annihilate itself. In nuclear fusion, heavier elements are formed from lighter ones. The hydrogen nuclei combine to form a larger nucleus, helium, releasing massive amounts of energy. But what is often overlooked is the fact that for the nuclei to combine, energy is first needed to bring them together, since they carry the same charge. This occurs naturally in stars, through heat and gravitational forces, but it is also possible to do it on earth, between two people who carry the same longing—to combine and perpetuate. They only have to give up resistance. Perhaps then their lightness will no longer be unbearable.

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  1. Nicole

    This is a lovely piece. Typically I become quite defensive when I read analyses of my favorite author’s work (I always feel like they never stack up, or “get it”, somehow – but maybe we all feel that way a bit when it comes to our favorite authors). But you brought something new to the table while allowing the art to remain intact. Thank you.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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