Finishing The Unbearable

Alix’s comment about how the people in Unbearable are shallow made me think harder about the aesthetics of the book, especially vis-a-vis Kundera’s interrogation of the value of the “light” (shallow) vs. the “heavy” (deep). Kundera seems to want to flip this binary and show that the light is “weighty” (the ephemeral or mortal is what is important; “Einmal ist…” nicht keinmal aber alles). Or, this is what I assumed… that he wanted to show that the seemingly fleeting, shallow, light was heavy. And at this, I thought that he failed. In creating what I called “cardboard cut-out” characters who were both in terms of the story and in terms of their “real lives” shallow people, and in writing in a clear, nearly transparent style (in that one is never forced to think about the insufficiency of style to carry the weight of the complexity of Life), he failed to make me think that light was heavy. Of course, I already think that light is heavy. But I was unconvinced by Kundera’s argument, where I am quickly convinced by authors like Woolf, Duras, Proust, that the light is heavy.

But then I read the second half of the book, and I came to the following thoughts:

1. Kundera’s description of animals and specifically of Teresa’s love for Karenin is the strongest part of the book if one is looking for the light to become heavy.

2. Coming as it does on the foot of a discussion of kitsch (about which Kundera has a long definition that is separate from our American definition of the word), the emotions that one feels at Karenin’s death might not be heavy, they may just be kitsch.

3. Kundera may very well be saying that the way that literature works upon us to engage our emotions to consider the light to be heavy, is just a form of kitsch.

4. Thus, Kundera’s objective is to deconstruct kitsch and to write a book that is not kitsch.

I came to respect the book in this “light” (forgive the pun). If Kundera is indeed trying to make the reader feel nothing about his characters, to understand them as cardboard cut-outs, as fabrications (he has a page about how they are not real people, but just fabrications), then he succeeds (I think). And if he succeeds in this, it is to undermine what he thinks of as “kitsch” in culture/society, that is, what makes one feel overly sentimental and naive rather than realistic and besmirched. He is, I would argue, trying to make a literature that is only “light,” that doesn’t pretend to be or ever fall into “kitsch.” That cannot be co-opted for a regime or purpose.

You will probably have to reread the book at this point to understand what I’m talking about. Pay particular attention to the discussion of heavy/light in the first pages and to the discussion of kitsch.

The question that follows, and which Kundera himself asks in the course of the book, is whether a book that is not kitsch, i.e. that makes no impact, that is not “heavy,” is of value. Is the “light” valuable? It becomes a kind of vicious circle of questioning. Is Unbearable light? Is “light” literature valuable? Is Kundera attempting to write “light” literature? Does he succeed? Is that success “light”? Is that success “valuable”? Is the valuable light or heavy? Etc.

Personally, I think that Kundera’s novel tries so hard to be a philosophical investigation that Kundera probably did not mean for it to be “light.” Or, he meant for to turn the “light” into heaviness, as I spoke of Woolf and Duras doing. If that is the case then I think the book fails as a project. Rather, it does not succeed in the same way that great works of literature do. But if the book uses these philosophical inquiries to deconstruct the reader’s expectation that the “light” will be made “heavy,” if the characters are two-dimensional, if the style is simple and linear, all in an effort to create a “light” that absolutely never becomes “kitsch” (i.e. can never be co-opted as “heavy”), then the book is utterly remarkable.

It is like the question of “bad poetry” asked in recent years by people like German poet Franz Josef Czernin and the American Flarfists, but Flarf, at least, is “kitsch” (according to every definition). Kundera seems to be asking, “what if it isn’t serious, isn’t immortal, isn’t tragic, isn’t comic, and isn’t kitsch? then what?” And that is a very interesting question.

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3 Responses to Finishing The Unbearable

  1. Amish says:

    I believe Kundera’s ultimate point is that there is no “light” in the way he defines it. Even the characters ultimately show that they have taken all the events into account even though they are attempt to detach and give little meaning to things. Even Sabina cannot escape the unbearable nature: her detachment from Tomaz is a fascade and his death is not met with the lightness she’s attempting to exhibit. Regardless of life having meaning, we have given it meaning, sometimes without thinking about it. The other night, i was watching a show on the Universe and came to think about how small we are and how useless we are, considering the Earth will one day cease to exist and all things we done on it will mean nothing. And as dead as I felt at that moment, I realized that we still have our lifetimes to get through and that even if human existence is eventually erased, we’ve given meaning to our lives regardless.

    Kind of fits into my post from forever ago about the panopticon and the existence of a “higher power”: it doesn’t matter except that we give it meaning.

  2. ian says:

    Haven’t read it for a while but I remember the theme: Life combines the deep meanings (including love) with primal emotions, circumstances determined by shallow bureaucracies, and the possibility and eventuality of death. Also it starts out with Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, which opposes (in some ways not others) the smallness and arbitrary nature of experience that Amish points out, and opposes fate — a factor that opposes both being and meaning – you simply can’t hold Tolstoy and Diderot in the esteem he does and not be obsessed with fate.

  3. Yes… I get all that. I take all of those things for granted when I talk about the book… since I have just read it and must take such things into account. That’s why I’m actually arguing that the Eternal Return/lightness/heaviness discussion in the beginning might not be the point, or even the most interesting facet, of the book. That’s why I think the interesting stuff that happens happens in the “kitsch” discussion. B/c an effort to give one’s life “meaning” or “weight” can just be co-opted for kitsch. And an effort to make everything “light” either fails (because things become heavy) or is pointless. So my argument, right, is that Kundera is trying to make an absolutely light novel that can never be co-opted for kitsch. Although this interpretation definitely takes “fate”/death/”heaviness” into account, it is also a deconstruction of what is classically spoken of as light/heavy (as Kundera, in those opening pages, seems to want to do– seems to want to at least turn the light/heavy opposition on its head, if not actually deconstruct it, which is what I argue he ends up doing).

    I realize that interpretations like Amish’s are probably much more likely to happen with Kundera and that mine is a reading based on other factors than what the characters seem to be thinking/saying and how they seem to be interacting (the narrator included) and is more based on reader response and structure (the simplicity/transparency of style, shallowness of character development and conspiring discussions of philosophy being a different level of the text than the action).

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