Quotes for "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"

Milan Kundera

  • 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
  • Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with.
  • It is entirely possible, said Tomas, that a female dog addressed continually by a male name will develop lesbian tendencies.
  • Looking back on the years he had spent with her, he came to feel that their story could have had no better ending. If someone had invented the story, this is how he would have had to end it.
  • It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived. They were not born of a mother's womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation.
  • Where and when did it begin, the movement that later  turned into Tereza’s life?
  • Her behavior was but a single grand gesture, a casting off of youth and beauty. In the days when she had had nine suitors kneeling round her in a circle, she guarded her nakedness apprehensively, as though trying to express the value of her body in terms of the modesty she accorded it. Now she had not only lost that modesty, she had radically broken with it, ceremoniously using her new immodesty to draw a dividing line through her life and proclaim that youth and beauty were overrated and worthless.
  • It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
  • They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life.
  • This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end—may seem quite novelistic to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as fictive, fabricated, and untrue to life into the word novelistic. Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.
  • The difference between the university graduate and the autodidact lies not so much in the extent of knowledge as in the extent of vitality and self-confidence.
  • A young woman forced to keep drunks supplied with beer and siblings with clean underwear—instead of being allowed to pursue something higher —stores up great reserves of vitality, a vitality never dreamed of by university students yawning over their books.
  • What she meant by her injunction was: Your body is just like all other bodies; you have no right to shame; you have no reason to hide something that exists in millions of identical copies. In her mother's world all bodies were the same and marched behind one another in formation.
  • Anyone whose goal is something higher must expect some day to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? Then why do we feel it even when the observation tower comes equipped with a sturdy handrail? No, vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.
  • She was in the grip of an insuperable longing to fall. She lived in a constant state of vertigo. Pck me up, is the message of a person who keeps falling. Tomas kept picking her up, patiently.
  • After pausing for a moment, she added,'' On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.''
  • The woman photographer responded in kind:''You mean you think of yourself as happy?'' Tereza, still annoyed, said ,'' Of course I'm happy! '' The woman said, '' The only kind of woman who can say that is very ..''. She stopped short. Tereza finished it for her: ...  '' limited. That's what you mean, isn't it? '' The woman regained control of herself and said, '' Not limited. Anachronistic.'' ''You're right,'' said Tereza wistfully. ''That's just what my husband says about me.''
  • Dog time cannot be plotted along a straight line; it does not move on and on, from one thing to the next. It moves in a circle like the hands of a clock, which—they, too, unwilling to dash madly ahead—turn round and round the face, day in and day out following the same path. In Prague, when Tomas and Tereza bought a new chair or moved a flower pot, Karenin would look on in displeasure. It disturbed his sense of time. It was as though they were trying to dupe the hands of the clock by changing the numbers on its face.
  • We might also call vertigo the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down.
  • ''Nothing yet. I've been waiting.''  ''For what?''  She made no response. She could not tell him that she had been waiting for him.
  • No, it was not superstition, it was a sense of beauty that cured her of her depression and imbued her with a new will to live. The birds of fortuity had alighted once more on her shoulders. There were tears in her eyes, and she was unutterably happy to hear him breathing at her side.
  • Her first thought was that he had come back because of her; because of her, he had changed his destiny. Now he would no longer be responsible for her; now she was responsible for him. The responsibility, she felt, seemed to require more strength than she could muster.
  • True, he would rather have slept by himself, but the marriage bed is still the symbol of the marriage bond, and symbols, as we know, are inviolable.
  • Now, perhaps, we are in a better position to understand the abyss separating Sabina and Franz: he listened eagerly to the story of her life and she was equally eager to hear the story of his, but although they had a clear understanding of the logical meaning of the words they exchanged, they failed to hear the semantic susurrus of the river flowing through them.
  • Being a woman is a fate Sabina did not choose. What we have not chosen we cannot consider either our merit or our failure. Sabina believed that she had to assume the correct attitude to her unchosen fate. To rebel against being born a woman seemed as foolish to her as to take pride in it.
  • Not until later did she understand that the word ''woman'', on which he had placed such uncommon emphasis, did not, in his eyes, signify one of the two human sexes; it represented a value. Not every woman was worthy of being called a woman.
  • Betrayal. From tender youth we are told by father and teacher that betrayal is the most heinous offense imaginable. But what is betrayal? Betrayal means breaking ranks. Betrayal means breaking ranks and going off into the unknown. Sabina knew of nothing more magnificent than going off into the unknown.
  • Dionysian beauty in the sense of intoxication.
  • Franz said, 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 are in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with a sudden wondrous poetry.
  • Sabina protested. She said that conflict, drama, and tragedy didn't mean a thing; there was nothing inherently valuable in them, nothing deserving of respect or admiration. What was truly enviable was Franz's work and the fact that he had the peace and quiet to devote himself to it.
  • He made a confession to Sabina. ''A philosopher once wrote that everything in my work is unverifiable speculation and called me a 'pseudo-Socrates.' I felt terribly humiliated and made a furious response. And just think, that laughable episode was the greatest conflict I've ever experienced! The pinnacle of the dramatic possibilities available to my life!
  • Why, then, did she decide that the pendant Sabina had made herself was ugly? Franz suddenly saw the answer plainly: Marie-Claude proclaimed Sabina's pendant ugly because she could afford to do so. Or to be more precise: Marie-Claude proclaimed Sabina's pendant ugly to make it clear that she could afford to tell Sabina her pendant was ugly.
  • It was neither Protestantism nor asceticism that made him so enthusiastic; it was something else, something highly personal, something he did not dare discuss with Sabina.
  • ''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.
  • She knew, of course, that she was being supremely unfair, that Franz was the best man she had ever had—he was intelligent, he understood her paintings, he was handsome and good—but the more she thought about it, the more she longed to ravish his intelligence, defile his kindheartedness, and violate his powerless strength.
  • Each was riding the other like a horse, and both were galloping off into the distance of their desires, drunk on the betrayals that freed them. Franz was riding Sabina and had betrayed his wife; Sabina was riding Franz and had betrayed Franz.
  • ''Love is a battle,'' said Marie-Claude, still smiling.'' And I plan to go on fighting. To the end.'' ''Love is a battle?'' said Franz. ''Well, I don't feel at all like fighting.'' And he left.
  • Perhaps if they had stayed together longer, Sabina and Franz would have begun to understand the words they used.
  • Waking up was sheer delight for him: he always showed a naive and simple amazement at the discovery that he was back on earth; he was sincerely pleased.
  • Almost from childhood, she knew that a concentration camp was nothing exceptional or startling but something very basic, a given into which we are born and from which we can escape only with the greatest of efforts.
  • She had two unbelievably large, pendulous breasts
  • Tereza knew what happens during the moment love is born: the woman cannot resist the voice calling forth her terrified soul; the man cannot resist the woman whose soul thus responds to his voice.
  • People usually escape from their troubles into the future; they draw an imaginary line across the path of time, a line beyond which their current troubles will cease to exist.
  • loves are like empires: when the idea they are founded on crumbles, they, too, fade away.
  • But, he said to himself, whether they knew or didn't know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn't know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?
  • Since no one had thought to praise Tomas in quite some time, he listened to the plump official very carefully, and he was surprised by the precision and detail of the man's knowledge of his professional career. How defenseless we are in the face of flattery! Tomas was unable to prevent himself from taking seriously what the Ministry official said.
  • When you sit face to face with someone who is pleasant, respectful, and polite, you have a hard time reminding yourself that nothing he says is true, that nothing is sincere. Maintaining nonbelief (constantly, systematically, without the slightest vacillation) requires a tremendous effort and the proper training—in other words, frequent police interrogations.
  • This was the first time he had felt that blissful indifference. Whenever anything went wrong on the operating table, he would be despondent and unable to sleep. He would even lose his taste for women. The ''Es muss sein!'' of his profession had been like a vampire sucking his blood.
  • But once he got over the astounding strangeness of his new life (it took him about a week), he suddenly realized he was simply on a long holiday. Here he was, doing things he didn't care a damn about, and enjoying it.
  • When he saw a woman in her clothes, he could naturally imagine more or less what she would look like naked (his experience as a doctor supplementing his experience as a lover),
  • Tomas was obsessed by the desire to discover and appropriate that one-millionth part; he saw it as the core of his obsession. He was not obsessed with women; he was obsessed with what in each of them is unimaginable, obsessed, in other words, with the one-millionth part that makes a woman dissimilar to others of her sex.
  • What is unique about the ''I'' hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual ''I'' is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered.
  • The obsession of the former is lyrical: what they seek in women is themselves, their ideal, and since an ideal is by definition something that can never be found, they are disappointed again and again.
  • Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world.
  • The obsession of the latter is epic, and women see nothing the least bit touching in it: the man projects no subjective ideal on women, and since everything interests him, nothing can disappoint him.
  • Going over them, he felt the joy of having acquired yet another piece of the world, of having taken his imaginary scalpel and snipped yet another strip off the infinite canvas of the universe.
  • Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.
  • Now that they were looking each other in the eye, Tomas noticed that when concentrating the boy slightly raised the left side of his upper lip. It was an expression he saw on his own face whenever he peered into the mirror to determine whether it was clean-shaven. Discovering it on the face of another made him uneasy.
  • ''You know the best thing about what you wrote?'' the boy went on, and Tomas could see the effort it cost him to speak. ''Your refusal to compromise. Your clear-cut sense of what's good and what's evil, something we're beginning to lose. We have no idea anymore what it means to feel guilty. The Communists have the excuse that Stalin misled them. Murderers have the excuse that their mothers didn't love them. And suddenly you come out and say: there is no excuse.
  • It is much more important to dig a half-buried crow out of the ground, he said, than to send petitions to a president.
  • He was not at all sure he was doing the right thing, but he was sure he was doing what he wanted to do.
  • This is the image from which he was born. As I have pointed out before, characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about.
  • What then should he have done? Sign or not? Another way of formulating the question is, Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death? Is there any answer to these questions?
  • Is it right to raise one's voice when others are being silenced? Yes.
  • The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.
  • he found himself straining his forces to the utmost. (Let me add that the strain was on his physical, not his sexual powers; his problem was with his breath, not with his penis,
  • Silence lay between them like an agony. It grew heavier by the minute.
  • He had never heard anything more harrowing. Holding her tightly in his arms and feeling her body tremble, he thought he could not endure his love.
  • I saw the Lord God standing on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious.
  • Amid the general idiocy of the war, the death of Stalin's son stands out as the sole metaphysical death.
  • Johannes Scotus Erigena, the great ninth-century theologian, accepted the idea. He believed, moreover, that Adam's virile member could be made to rise like an arm or a leg, when and as its owner wished. We must not dismiss this fancy as the recurrent dream of a man obsessed with the threat of impotence.
  • Sabina's initial inner revolt against Communism was aesthetic rather than ethical in character.
  • It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.
  • What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.
  • His choice was not between playacting and action. His choice was between playacting and no action at all.
  • Franz was right. I can't help thinking about the editor in Prague who organized the petition for the amnesty of political prisoners. He knew perfectly well that his petition would not help the prisoners. His true goal was not to free the prisoners; it was to show that people without fear still exist.
  • The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars.
  • Karenin kept her company. He had been going along daily to the pasture with her for two years. He always enjoyed being strict with the heifers, barking at them, asserting his authority. (His God had given him dominion over cows, and he was proud of it.)
  • ''Haven't you noticed I've been happy here, Tereza?'' Tomas said. ''Surgery was your mission,'' she said. ''Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it's a terrific relief to realize you're free, free of all missions.''