Happiness Filled the Space of Sadness: the Weight, Tragedy and Paradox of Milan Kundera's Freedom

Jeremy Wattles


Milan Kundera's choice to open his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) with two short chapters discussing Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence is, if nothing else, unconventional. It foregrounds his engagement with Nietzsche and suggests that the novel itself is something of a thought experiment, a working out of how such an abstract but compelling idea can have meaning in the world. The myth of eternal return poses, as Kundera's narrator implies, an ultimate question of existence: will we choose that our lives, and therefore our actions, have weight or lightness? Or, as Nietzsche says in The Gay Science (1882), "If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again' would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight!" (194). In other words, will this thought enslave an individual or will it empower them? Is there a paradoxical, controlling freedom an individual may obtain by embracing the vicissitudes of life, in willing that a chance event and its consequences might recur again and again?

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ISSN 1749-9771

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