Saturday, November 17, 2007

Life and Death in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"

There is a German adage which says, “Einmal ist keinmal,” or, as Milan Kundera translates, “What happens but once… might as well not have happened at all,” (8). He continues to say, “If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all,” (8). But while that may be true with regard to life, Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being begs the question: does the same hold true for death? Life may be transient and insignificant, but in terms of, “Einmal ist keinmal,” death is a monumental event because it experienced repeatedly. Although strictly speaking physically impossible, the psychosomatic impact of fear causes a person to live through their death or that of a loved one before the bodily event transpires. Tereza in particular seems to be most acutely aware that by the time humans pass away, they have already died a thousand times. The death of her dog, Karenin, and one of Tereza’s dreams most accurately demonstrate the idea that a person experiences death repeatedly on a strictly mental basis, instead of just once.
Tereza’s close emotional connection to Karenin causes her to feel the same sense of loss as she would feel when losing a close friend. Therefore, when he falls ill, she finds herself suffering through his death over and over. Kundera writes, “Tereza went out into the garden. She looked down at a patch of grass between two apple trees and imagined burying Karenin there. She dug her heel into the earth and traced a rectangle there,” (294). This demonstrates to the reader that Tereza has already experienced Karenin’s passing in her mind, and, by the time the event takes place in the physical world, it has already happened repeatedly in the cognitive realm. Tereza aches at the idea of losing her beloved dog, but yet she cannot stop the event from occurring again and again in her mind; when the day comes, “She had everything carefully laid out and thought out, having imagined Karenin’s death many days in advance,” (301). Consequently, Karenin’s death transcends the ephemeral state of a one-time occasion, becoming something significant rather than a fleeting moment.
In her sleep, Tereza also experiences her own death as well. Her set of dreams takes her through death long before it happens: “The first was of cats going berserk and referred to the sufferings she had gone through in her lifetime; the second was of her execution and came in countless variations; the third was of her life after death, when humiliation turned into a never-ending state,” (58). Tereza’s fear causes her to live these events over and over again. Although to Tereza the dreams seem to be a constant source of terror, she is actually cementing the legitimacy of her own existence in her mental world. Because she relives her own death repeatedly, she gives weight and meaning to her own death, and, by association, her life. Death is generally considered to be the ultimate one-time event; there is no means of doing it again once the physical event transpires. However, because Tereza’s dreams are recurring, she is actually living through death cognitively, and therefore causing the event to be significant in its repetition.
As far as science understands, humans are the only animals acutely aware of their own mortality. To some, this knowledge may be viewed as a tremendous weight to carry, and it is; however, it is a necessary and ultimately helpful burden. It is only in the knowledge of human mortality that the lives of human beings actually begin. The lives of men are often completely weightless and free, which would, it seems, make them unmemorable. Yet an integral part of human society is the reverence and remembrance of the dead. How is this possible, if life is so weightless? Despite nature of life, which is light and transient because it lacks repetition, death is an even which is lasting because it is replicated continually in the psychological world. This final event, the one event of life which is permanent, is the one moment which makes the lives of men more than just a collection of fleeting moments.

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