"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Unbearable Lightness of Being–Nietzsche, Parmenides, And Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being opens with a philosophical discussion of lightness versus heaviness. Kundera contrasts Nietzsche's philosophy of eternal return, or of heaviness, with Parmenides's understanding of life as light. Kundera wonders if any meaning or weight can be attributed to life, since there is no eternal return: if man only has the opportunity to try one path, to make one decision, he cannot return to take a different path, and then compare the two lives. Without the ability to compare lives, Kundera argues, we cannot find meaning; where meaning should exist we find only an unbearable weightlessness (Sparknotes)

For Nietzsche the concept of Eternal Return was frightening and abhorrent. There could be nothing worse than an endless cycle of recurring events.  Nothing is ever new, and whatever exists has existed before – not just once but a million million times. The world never reaches a final state. There is no finality of time; time is infinite. There is no beginning to time.  It is cyclical, non-linear, bent into a circle.

Heinrich Heine whom Nietzsche greatly admired said:

“Time is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies are finite.... Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again...

Nietzsche’s answer to this philosophical nightmare was acting outside morality, beyond good and evil; and the only validation of such a meaningless life is the expression of individual will. 

Parmenides saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness etc. 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 simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness? Parmenides responded that lightness is positive, weight negative. What Parmenides ends up deducing is that "what is" is ungenerated and unperishable, unchanging, perfect, one, and continuous.

Under these conditions ‘lightness’ is the only logical descriptor of reality.  If reality is one, indivisible, and perfect; then individual actions are meaningless.  There are no Supermen in Parmenides’ conception of life; but no need for them. One can drift lightly from one piece of reality to another without commitment, anxiety, or wonder.

Kundera ponders this dilemma. Do we live in a world of meaning, purpose, commitment, and responsibility? Or do we live in one without them, free to wander in a delightful smorgasbord of life?

Tomas, the main character in Kundera’s book is ‘light’.  He is unattached to anything or anyone and lives a life of sexual freedom and political indifference. Tereza, one of Tomas’ lovers, loves him and is jealous of his many affairs. Ironically she becomes friends with Sabina, another of Tomas’ paramours who is very much like him.  The two women share Tomas but have very different views of the relationship.  Tereza wants love and commitment from him; Sabina is quite happy to live in lightness and freedom.

The events of Prague 1968 intervene and after a brief sojourn in Switzerland Tereza and Tomas, now married return to Czechoslovakia.  Tomas is discredited by the Communists because he refuses to sign a declaration of loyalty to the regime, is forced to leave his profession as a surgeon, and ends up as a window-washer.  Realizing how heaviness (moral principle) has disrupted his comfortable life, Tomas returns to lightness; and continues to have affairs with women he works for.

Sabina, the woman who shared Tomas’ vision of lightness falls in love with a man who does not share her principles. Sabina loves Franz but their views on betrayal differ dramatically; whereas he hates the idea of betrayal, she views betrayal as the first step towards "going off into the unknown," the most glorious thing she can think of.

There are few people in the world who are Nietzschean supermen. Most of us are members of what he describes as ‘the herd’ and find the idea of rejecting traditional morality abhorrent.  Such unbridled narcissism and anti-social egotism have produced Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Khan.  Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’, a paean to National Socialism, is an all too familiar expression of Nietzschean individualism.  At the same time the idea of an amoral life of uninhibited and willful expression is appealing; for who has not rebelled, at least privately and internally, at the dehumanizing slog of life?

Similarly there are few people who are like Tomas who lead lives of benign individualism, unattached, uncompromised, and indifferent to those irritating demands of love, political engagement, or moral principle. Yet we are just as attracted to Tomas’ guiltless, happy existence as we are to Nietzsche’s supermen. Most men dream of a life of sexual openness and the calm that can only come from detachment.

Shakespeare was famous for creating Machiavellian, pre-Nietzschean characters like Iago, Goneril, Regan, Richard III, and Macbeth.  He saw history as an endless repetitive cycle.  Although a particular event might be different from any previous, it would resemble all others because it was fueled by the same permanent, ineluctable forces of human nature. 

Tolstoy understood that every human action was conditioned by hundreds of millions of deliberate or accidental actions which came before – existential billiard balls colliding at random.  Both authors, however, celebrated the uniqueness of individuals acting within this random universe.  Napoleon might not have been the hero he thought he was, but he was dramatic and compelling nonetheless. Richard III might have been replaying familiar scenarios of regal plots and murders, but he is one of Shakespeare’s most alluring characters.

Hinduism posits a third way, distinct from both Nietzsche and Parmenides but in many ways similar to them.  The world is nothing but maya or illusion, say Hindus, and any attachment to it is an unnecessary diversion from the path of Enlightenment.  Only when one finally divorces himself from this illusory ‘reality’ can he become a fully mature spiritual being, subsumed into an eternal and universal consciousness.

Most of us live on at least two planes – the intellectual or philosophical world of  Parmenides, Nietzsche, and the Upanishads; and the immediate world of engagement. Tolstoy said that we all die alone – that understanding the meaning, purpose, and definition of life is the only pursuit – but few of us expect or want such existential purity in our last moments. Few of us end our days in a Himalayan mountain retreat in the third of Hinduism’s four stages of life; and most of us choose to remain as Householders – happily engaged in family, love, sex, and work without much thought of spiritual renewal of final religious epiphanies.

Some of us have been able to draw the parallel lines closer together through ‘selective detachment’.  Any traditional human milestone – birth, death, promotion, wealth, status – is worth little in any wider, more universal context; but rigorous mental discipline and routine are necessary to realize that insight.  Lightness is too airy and simple, say Hindus.  It is work to keep temporal pleasures from becoming too outsized and important; but spiritual rewards can come only from such labors.

Most of us, I suspect, would like to be Tomas and not one of Nietzsche’s dark, violent, and willful supermen.  As much as we would like to dismiss the moral principles which confine us and limit individual expression, we would be happier living a life confected with few consequences – a lightness of being which is not unbearable at all.

“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 as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

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