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The Impossibility of Choice

The Impossibility of Choice


by Barbara Kasomenakis, contributing reporter

The concepts of virtue, happiness, fulfillment, and meaning have been central to the ideas many great thinkers of the past have espoused.  The manner in which we approach these concepts can create opinions of ourselves and our worldview that differs from person to person. This is not the fault of a facile approach or of an absolutist society; binary opposition has existed for eons. In fact, the tendency of people to think in opposites or in pairs is very natural. However, the world we live in and the people who exist in it, are faced with a universe that cannot be treated as simply black and white. The mere utterance of two mutually exclusive terms such as ‘on’ or ‘off’ does not suggest which is positive or worthy of more attention. The dilemma that undergirds Nietzsche’s “myth of eternal reward” seems to suggest that our lives are existentially contingent on a choice within the “lightness/weight opposition” as introduced in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Yet, the ambivalent representation of lightness and weight in the novel demands for an evaluation of the nature of Being.  It is through characters’ relationships that we are able to examine the power of choice and what individual inclinations ultimately say about what we deem important. Through the willingness to choose between lightness or weight, we are able to observe patterns that interpret our relationships as failures, successes, or something much more complex.

One tries to make language into a weightless element that hovers above us like a distant cloud — a field of magnetic impulses. Others try to give language the weight, density and concreteness of things into familiar sensations or feelings. Associations in language are vital to communication and the development of relationships. However, generalizations of those established associations can often lead to dangerous outcomes. Our impulse of association halts our ability of seeing the world in more than two distinct pairs. The word ‘lightness’, for example, is seemingly used in colloquial language in a positive sense, devoid of any pressure or responsibility. In a world where societal pressures bombard us from every angle, it would seem logical to relish in lightness and to avoid the pain that has hindered our chance at a fulfilling life. The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides saw the world divided into this pair of opposites. For him, lightness is positive and weight, negative (Corazzon 4).  Lightness promotes freedom from struggle, yet it is that struggle that ultimately helps one to achieve purpose. Conversely, it is weight that puts forth responsibility and pain with the ultimate reward of purpose. Accepting the lightness of being means accepting a certain lack of ultimate meaning — living in fleeting, transitory moments, although painless and simple, ultimately results in hollow, unfulfilled lives. However, there is no one correct way to approach this dichotomy. We will never be able to test different options, as we are only given one chance to experience them. (Owen and Nauckhoff, 54). It is Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return and in opposition to that idea, Kundera’s novel that argues that life is always happening for the first time. “Einman ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all.” (Kundera 8). The reasons why we make mistakes is because everything is happening for the first time. We are incapable of knowing the consequences of the decisions we make beforehand and we cannot go back and choose another option. Parmenides’ philosophies also were aligned to Nietzsche’s as he stated, “We can speak and think only of what exists. And what exists is uncreated and imperishable for it is whole and unchanging and complete…” (Megna 14). Improvisation is crucial and in fact the only method we have for our survival. Kundera questions Nietzsche in the opening pages of his novel and asks a question that drives his whole novel: “is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?” (Kundera 2), which he ultimately decides in unanswerable. For Kundera, weight is a crushing burden that “pins us to the ground” (Kundera 3), yet it is that weight that we strive for because “the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become” (Kundera 3). Lightness on the other hand, although joyful at first, often leads to an inconsequential life. To use the word in association to feeling, that is to rejoice in lightness, causes a man to become “lighter than air and soar into unrestricted heights, as his movements and decisions become as free as they are insignificant” (Kundera 3). It is this choice that Kundera explores throughout his novel, when his characters are faced with the idea of external reward. Through his frequent digressions, Kundera questions whether his characters (and his readers, for that matter) have the power to drive their decisions or whether they are simply living their lives without choice, fated to live under the sign of weight or lightness. The responsibilities put forth by their marriages and affairs test their ability to choose and their perspective on lightness and weight as they evolve throughout the novel.

The best way to understand how Kundera imagined his philosophy is to examine the four major characters around which he constructs it, as it cannot and is not meant to exist without that. The characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being are superficially drawn with very few details of dress, appearance, domestic decor, etc. mentioned. Kundera does not rely on superficialities to develop and enrich his characters. Instead, he creates them out of the contrasts in their lives, their struggles, and what they embody (Mohsen 3). A struggle among the ‘heavy’ characters is posed with the novel’s distinct view of sex. Never is there a moment of tenderness among these characters, as sex is an apparatus of control and humiliation. Intimacy breeds inequality and domination for them.  And as sexual promiscuity runs rampant, severe bouts of guilt begin to torment characters Tereza and Franz.

We can reference Aristophanes’s Lysistrata to understand sexual domination. It is sex in this play that permits women to seize control, making it a weapon and a prize to withhold. Aristophanes is plain and straightforward in reminding us of our sexual need, however when sex gives these women a power they would otherwise not hold, it becomes exploited and in turn, makes sex simply a utilitarian and crude tool of desire (Monzini 53). The relationship between men and women in Lysistrata is bound by sex and the withdrawal of it forces men to be all too willing to sacrifice their loyalty on the altar of pure sexual pragmatism. Through this, it would be logical to assume that infidelity would become a reasonable option to remedy this desire. Kundera’s inquiry on whether a person will choose weight or lightness becomes complicated once the battle with infidelity comes between Tereza and Franz. The idea of sex has had a disfiguring effect on her when her husband, Tomas, takes part in an extramarital affair. Tereza is never able to recover, but Kundera implies that her pain does not simply stem from Tomas, a singular entity. Tereza waits for someone like Tomas even before she meets him; even after she establishes a relationship with him, his constant betrayals means she must frequently wait for him to return. The love between them is strong, and they depend on one another, but ultimately, the misery caused by his affair with Sabina becomes too much to bear. An increased self awareness of her body becomes almost obsessive, and her soul, in turn, withers to be overtaken by her flesh. The story of love and betrayal, of womanizing, of lives shattered…this is the story of Tereza’s life. She is haunted by this betrayal and finds it difficult to make sense of this love — of this life.

Not just betrayed by Tomas, Tereza carries the burden of her mother’s betrayal — her refusal to love Tereza. She neglects to explain that Tomas’ love is supposed to free her from the oppression of her mother’s neglect, but it is also what imprisons her (Hildyard and Wolfe 16). As a young girl Tereza was never allowed any privacy, which in her mind was akin to a concentration camp. “A concentration camp is a world in which people live crammed together constantly, night and day….the complete obliteration of privacy” (Kundera 137). This pressure and constant bombardment, caused Tereza to develop a hatred of her body — in her mind it acts as a cage trapping her soul deep beneath it. Although these may be Tereza’s views, the narrator argues that this is a very outdated opinion, and science gives us the power to disprove this. The modern view says, “the soul is nothing more than the gray matter of the brain in action. The old duality of body and soul has become shrouded in scientific terminology, and we can laugh at it as merely an obsolete prejudice” (Kundera 45). These views are very apparent to Tereza but her anachronistic nature still overshadows her view that the body and soul are completely separate. The incompatibility of the two stem from the view that “[Characters are] not born of a mother’s womb… Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach…” (Kundera 39). The body and soul are irreconcilable because the body does what the soul does not want it to do…it betrays the soul. These ideas become complicated when Kundera admits that soul and body are inseparable yet contradictory. In one instance where Tomas tries to explain to Tereza that love and lovemaking are separate things, there was a vehement refusal to understand on her part. The connection to light and weight comes in naturally when you pair the two dichotomies. The body is paired with lightness, while the soul is paired with weight. Tereza’s difficulty to see past her body exemplifies her inability to embrace lightness. The novel sets Tereza as a being wondering what it would be like to live in light, like Tomas, even for a short while.  She proceeds to have an affair, which in turn made her even more uncomfortable with her body. The words “casual sex” cannot exist together. The narrator reflects on her quick adventure and asks “Was she calmer now?” (Kundera 82). The answer to this is tied directly to Tereza’s physical and emotional responses; paranoia, violence, hatred and fear. Tereza is ultimately associated with weight, and her love with Tomas a burden to her happiness. The heavy cannot accept this ‘unbearable lightness of being’, and seek to attach a meaning and weight to what they consider important in life. Tereza is heavy emotionally and cannot cope with the lightness around her, and because of that, she is driven nearly to insanity.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a story in which beauty, betrayal, and existence are blended into an inseparable whole. Tomas is a product of all of that. Unlike Tereza, Tomas is associated with lightness, a seemingly perfect counterpoint to her heaviness. Sex for Tomas is full of eroticism and games — territory unreachable for Tereza but desirable for Sabina. Understanding the way sex functions so prominently in this novel, is demonstrated in the particular politics of sex, among Tomas and Sabina. They both take delight in erotic games solely for the sake of eroticism and enjoy the ‘whimsical’ games that are invented while obsessively staring at themselves in front of a mirror. To know that their bodies and flesh are what drives their soul, and not vice versa, is an adequate source of validation for the two (Goldsmith, Dunkley, Dang, and Gorzalka 3). Their reflections act on their need to exist and these games allow for the pair to find enjoyment in a very heavy world, an escape that excludes any references or notions of love.

We find Tomas continually accusing Russia of destroying Europe, while lacking the sense to accept the country’s guilt/humiliation and its attempt to make up for what they have done. One day it occurs to Tomas that those old communists who acknowledge that “there will be no socialist heaven on Earth” (Banville 1), should by rights follow the example of Oedipus, who, although innocent of crime, nevertheless put out his eyes when he discovered what misfortunes he had unwittingly brought about (Bloom 4). This thesis (his notions about Russia and communism) is later published in the letters column of a radical Prague newspaper, and Tomas is forced out of his job as a surgeon and has to take up general practice in a provincial town. However, it is the nature of totalitarian regimes never to forget, and eventually he is driven out of medicine and has to make a living of menial jobs instead, which he finds surprisingly congenial, not only because of the sudden “lightness” of his new life, but because the job offers endless opportunities for philandering. Tomas’ political plots transcend into sexual games with Sabina. In one sense, they are illustrations of an individual presence and claim to a private world within this totalitarian regime. Like the very disillusionment his country caused him, he does the same to Tereza by lacking the courage to admit guilt and see things through her eyes. Acknowledging pain obstructs his sight and makes the ‘heaviness’ unbearable. In one attempt at eroticism with Tereza, we see apprehension and guilt on her part. She follows Tomas’ dominant/subservient role play, although not without feeling great disgust. “He had complete control over her sleep: she dozed off at the second he chose” (Kundera 9). Tereza embodies what Kundera sees as binary opposites — two pairs of dichotomies: pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. Tomas’ lightness inflicts a great burden on Tereza. “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 heady, insuperable longing to fall” (Kundera 33).The politics of sex in their case yet again play on this power game. Tomas craves domination, and just like the political mastermind he claims to be, he appropriately describes the female body as a country waiting to be conquered, without question, without thought, and of course, with impunity for the humiliation of the female soul.

Although from this analysis it would seem as though Tomas’ womanizing lifestyle of lightness justifies hateful judgement from the reader, this is done without choice. Tomas is at the mercy of his domination, because it is beyond his control. The narrator asks “”Was he genuinely incapable of abandoning his erotic friendships?…He was. It would have torn him apart. He lacked the strength to control his taste for other women” (Kundera 13). His womanizing has turned into a compulsion he cannot do anything about. This lack of choice roots his lifestyle in the weight of fate and compulsion. This connects to the aforementioned philosophy of eternal return — “einmal ist keinmal” which is a direct consequence of Kundera’s claim that our lives happen only once. When we make a decision, we can’t know if it was right or not, because we can’t compare it to other possible outcomes. The many difficult decisions Tomas endures are attempts to embrace lightness, to revel in a life of freedom and meaninglessness. Ultimately he will fail in doing so. Tomas does not evolve as a character. His cynicism deepens and he retreats to exile in the later part of his life. His identity, left misunderstood and judged, is minimized to a single phrase on his epitaph that reads “he wanted the kingdom of god on earth” (Kundera 160). The lightness of being is, and always will be, unbearable, even after life. No one, not even Tereza was there to save him. Whether or not the help was wanted is left ambiguous but the ultimate misrepresentation of his character as seen through his counterparts suggests that his lightness only acted as a facade to create a distinguishable identity. Complexity and depth, after all, were too difficult to digest by any woman he met. The cornucopia of women created an escape from reflection from the self and from others. Tomas would not dare confront his demons, only run away from them.

The linking factors of politics, sex, and emotional responses felt by Tomas and Sabina follow a typical European creed. Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Kundera calls this basic faith “a categorical agreement with being” (Kundera 130). The eroticism and fixation on their reflections, something seemingly indecent and vain, has nothing to do with moral considerations. Kundera also points out that something like excrement also has no place in any of these credos. Both Tomas’ and Sabina’s aesthetic ideal are instead kitsch, “the absolute denial of shit” (Kundera 130). This is meant in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its influence which is essentially unacceptable in human existence. “You can’t claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in your bathroom!) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.” (Kundera 143). The lightness that is prominent in Tomas and Sabina stem from a place of discomfort. It is the idealization and consistency of a world that is attractive to the pair — and through erasing what is uncomfortable to them, they have successfully accomplished obliterating the pressures and worries of life.

Having seen the many ways characters deal with the lightness of being, we may pursue the question what of Kundera’s choice of theme indicates about the novel’s historical significance. Author’s decisions when creating characters are usually based on similar situations an author once experienced. The settings in which the character’s existential possibilities are explored reflect the author’s life — whether directly or indirectly. It is likely that Kundera dealt with the central philosophical idea of weight and lightness on a personal level, and was especially influenced by the Soviet policy that began to overtake much of Czechoslovakia, his place of birth and primary residence (Rice 224). The totalitarian society Tomas so vehemently detested, in its efforts to gain absolute control over the people, sought to establish a uniformity of beliefs, values, and practices.  One of the methods totalitarianism employs to gain control is the creation of a form of kitsch and the ruthless enforcement of it. In such a society, living outside kitsch is no longer an option, and anyone who does not comply with the established kitsch is silenced (Zepetnek 106). This furthers Tomas’ need to embrace lightness. The overwhelming pressure of being an outsider would torment him forcing him to question his identity. However, this is fundamentally dishonest and a sterile way of approaching life. The world, in all of its harsh, unsightly colors and sounds is now painted over in a veneer of pastels and accompanied by numbing muzak, never able to repair or rework itself. Whether The Unbearable Lightness of Being, appears to champion authenticity in the face of the lightness of existence remains ambiguous, because of the very nature of the novel. Several characters and their struggle are presented throughout the novel, yet no method of achieving authenticity is ever made apparent or correct. It does however, seem to say that totalitarianism and oppression are inappropriate ways of bringing people into any sort of authenticity. Some individuals when immersed in the oppressive Soviet Czechoslovak situation were able to achieve true authenticity, while others because they were forced into self realization of lightness by oppression, found authenticity before they were ready to take in the overwhelming blow. This set up Tomas to experience side effects of nihilism, perpetual doubt, and the cynicism that ultimately destroyed him and his relationships.

Erotisicm and fascination with kitsch, is perhaps the penultimate symbol highlighting the necessity of evaluation and making the philosophy of ‘eternal return’ palpable. The attitude of shame and guilt towards life, the yearning for an afterlife, and the ensuing retreat from corporeal existence, becomes the physcologically sickening goal of these character’s humanity. Confronting the heaviest of burdens tests one’s ability not to be overcome by the world’s horror and meaninglessness. Conquering this, however, requires intense and painful self-examination that may ultimately only have slim rewards. The challenge of existential engagement is one we must commit to at every moment, whether the outcome is overwhelming joy or dreadful failure. In doing so, we develop the ability to metamorphose, as depicted in Nietzsche’s Ubermensch in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, who says “There is much that is difficult for the spirit, the strong, reverent spirit that would bear much: but the difficult and the most difficult are what its strength demands” (Nietzsche 26). Whether or not Tomas, Sabina and Tereza had the power and willingness to decide their fate is debated throughout the novel and this idea is illustrated masterfully with “Human life is inexplicable, and still without meaning: a fool may decide its fate.” (Nietzsche 124).

Our leaders, seem to be in denial, confronted with all the dangers that loom over humanity. This is one example where the power of choice is especially relevant to our lives.

Often there seems to be no choice, and realizing the fact, is the beginning of a choice itself.

Nevertheless, a choice has to be made. The burden of choice, the ability to reflect on those decisions and the consequences that follow, is for many, an unbearable burden.

Work Cited:

Banville, John. “Light but Sound.” The Guardian. 30 Apr. 2004. Web.
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999. Print.
Megna, Mark. House on the Hill A Metaphysical Journey into the Glass Bead Game.
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Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Thomas Common. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Place of
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Monzini, Paola. Sex Traffic: Prostitution, Crime, and Exploitation. London: Zed, 2005. Print.
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