“Every love relationship rests on an unwritten agreement unthinkingly concluded by the lovers in the first weeks of their love. They are still in a kind of dream but at the same time, without knowing it, are drawing up, like uncompromising lawyers, the detailed clauses of their contract. O lovers! Be careful in those dangerous first days! Once you’ve brought breakfast in bed you’ll have to bring it forever, unless you want to be accused of lovelessness and betrayal.”
-Milan Kundera in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”.
Love has been the universal theme of all the greatest movies and all the greatest books because it is characteristic of human beings; a tendency we had no choice in cultivating, an inherent yearning, a desire that surpasses our limits of freewill and holds us as an eternal prisoner no matter how hard we try to renounce it. Wars are man-made,genocides are organized, nation-states took birth in front of our eyes and governments were simply ideas that gained solidarity, even God and religion were conspiracies and adulterations but feelings have always been there. No one knows the origin, development and trajectory of love because it is treated as internal to us as our anatomy, as our consciousness, our memory and our collective march towards death.Milan Kundera does not talk of love as a sense of belonging or company. He talks of it as nostalgia, as an aching to be a native of someone’s heart, to have a permanent address of the kind which no Communist regime can seize and no war would demand exodus from, the form of home which we can take along with us on emigration such that no one ever gets to be an emotional refugee. “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine” he says. He writes more about this in his novel “Ignorance”,
“The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. To express that fundamental notion most Europeans can utilize a word derived from the Greek (nostalgia, nostalgie) as well as other words with roots in their national languages: anoranza, say the Spaniards; saudade, say the Portuguese. In each language these words have a different semantic nuance. Often they mean only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one’s country: a longing for country, for home. What in English is called “homesickness.” Or in German:Heimweh. In Dutch: heimwee. But this reduces that great notion to just its spatial element.
One of the oldest European languages, Icelandic (like English)makes a distinction between two terms: soknudur: nostalgia in its general sense; and heimpra: longing for the homeland. Czechs have the Greek-derived nostalgie as well as their own noun, stesk, and their own verb; the most moving Czech expression of love: styska se mi po tobe (“I yearn for you,” “I’m nostalgic for you”; “I cannot bear the pain of your absence”). In Spanish anoranza comes from the verb anorar (to feel nostalgia), which comes from the Catalan enyorar, itself derived from the Latin word ignorare (to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss). In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there. Certain languages have problems with nostalgia: the French can only express it by the noun from the Greek root, and have no verb for it; they can say Je m ‘ennuie de toi (I miss you), but the word s’ennuyer is weak, cold—anyhow too light for so grave a feeling. The Germans rarely use the Greek-derived term Nostalgie, and tend to say Sehnsucht in speaking of the desire for an absent thing. But Sehnsucht can refer both to something that has existed and to something that has never existed (a new adventure), and therefore it does not necessarily imply the nostos idea; to include in Sehnsucht the obsession with returning would require adding a complementary phrase: Sehnsucht nach der Vergangenheit, nach der verlorenen Kindheit, nach der ersten Liebe (longing for the past, for lost childhood, for a first love).”
Kundera does not see love as a transaction or trade, as giving something in return of what we get. Or a set of deadlines for expectations to be met. He defines it as an aid in the personal and individual pursuit of happiness.He looks at it as a radiating source of positive energy since inspiration is often more important than compatibility;because relationships are not about two lovers but two people first, their own different moods and dreams primarily and about a bond, secondarily. “The only relationship that can make both partners happy is one in which sentimentality has no place and neither partner makes any claim on the life and freedom of the other.” Love should not be a responsibility but rather a redemption. It should be unbearably light, spilling out of our hearts easily like our souls and apologies and not an institution to uphold on our shoulders even if it breaks our backs. Having said that, even the heavy things in a relationship can be beautiful comforting; mild jealousy, long distance longing, love bites and the birth of a child.
“Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).”
Fortuity and contingency are two words which Kundera keeps close to his heart. He believes in coincidences, chances and the sweet certainty of uncertainty. It is the benevolence of destiny when two people in love already have similarities in taste of books and movies because the way we look at art tells a lot about us. A person who can find meaning in postmodernist paintings is a man who understands context over content, and can appreciate the ordinary because of relevance rather than aesthetics. On the other hand, someone who is fascinated by frescos and murals might be a man who loves things in the history and in the retrospect more than while they are there in front of him. A person who hates art might have never tried to understand it at the first place, revealing his impatience and unbearable shallowness of being.
“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 in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with with a sudden wondrous poetry…Sabina was very much attracted by the alien quality of New York’s beauty. Franz found it intriguing but frightening; it made him feel homesick for Europe. ”
“Why don’t you ever use your strength on me? she said. “Because love means renouncing strength”, said Franz softly. Sabina realized two things: first, that Franz’s words were noble and just; second, that they disqualified him from her love life”
“Cemeteries in Bohemia are like gardens. The graves are covered with grass and colorful flowers. Modest tombstones are lost in the greenery. When the sun goes down, the cemetery sparkles with tiny candles. It looks as though the dead are dancing at a children’s ball. Yes, a children’s ball, because the dead are as innocent as children. No matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery. Even in wartime, in Hitler’s time, in Stalin’s time, through all occupations. When she felt low, she would get into the car, leave Prague far behind, and walk through one or another of the country cemeteries she loved so well. Against a backdrop of blue hills, they were as beautiful as a lullaby. For Franz a cemetery was an ugly dump of stones and bones.”
Milan Kundera rectifies outdated philosophies. He reduces Descartes to dust by redefining our evidence of being. From his book “Immortality”,
“I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel, therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that’s alive. My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another. However, when someone steps on my foot, only I feel the pain. The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.”
Kundera discusses the probability of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence and wonders, if contrary to it, we had only one life, we should have never lived at all. With a background of Prague Spring, he weaves a story of the rise and fall of Communism and then the regrets and remembrance of it, as if we humans are locked up in a never ending cycle of acquiring and renouncing, pursuing and repenting, hence always going back to square one with a delusional fulfillment. Maybe this could be a possible version of eternal recurrence in the most skewed, scientific and believable manner. We invented plastic and now cannot wait to be plastic free when the pile of garbage in our backyard is growing so huge it might as well turn into a monster. We embraced nuclear power and now are afraid of another Chernobyl, another Fukushima, another Hiroshima. We were so thrilled when machines were invented since we imagined a life of leisure and now that robots are about to take all our jobs, we are afraid of having nothing to do. We crave for entrepreneurship and at one point detest money and commerce to a point that we start reading books on Buddhist Philosophy.Same with regimes and governments and boyfriends and girlfriends; we keep repeating mistakes like it had never happened before. I used to think history was a life lesson(thanks to Hegel), but then when you see Jewish Genocides being repeated in Palestine and Myanmar you know, history is pointless to be learnt. Its a forgotten* life lesson(Foucault and Camus agree). Its not any kind of progression towards a definite goal of advancement. Its a complete circle, like life and like time. One day when you are 23 you will do something which will feel like a deja vu, something that you think you had also done when you were 13. That’s when you will know, its all a loop and you will wait with helplessness till you do the same at 33.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being has often been reduced to its glorification of sex, the human flaws of infidelity that are pronounced in Tomas and Tereza’s helpless habituation with it, Sabina’s leading of a silent revolution through her paintings and Franz’s conservatism in both his relationships and political school of thoughts. But it’s much more; it is a bible for relationships, a reminiscence of Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia’s bittersweet past, a journey through all of Europe, a contemporary reconstruction of nihilistic philosophy and 300 pages of pure solace.