The philosophical concept of eternal recurrence by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was not necessarily one that I was familiar with, but at three different points of the novel – with reference to the title of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” – the concept still resonated:
On Nietzsche’s notion of eternal return as the heaviest of burdens, leading to Kundera’s distinction between weight and lightness: “If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make”.
First, on weight and how the metaphor is oftentimes associated with burden and struggle; and second, on the alternative to the philosophical concept of eternal recurrence: “When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose … But what if the paths came to an end? One could betray one’s parents, husband, country, love, but when parents, husband, country, and love were gone – what was left to betray”?
And – an excerpt which I particularly enjoyed and perhaps even identified with, and which is repeated more than once in different forms throughout the novel – on the implications of non-recurrence: “And again he thought the thought we already know: Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.”
In this vein, the five characters (not including Karenin, the dog of Tomas and Tereza) embody varying features in this contrast between eternal recurrence and the alternative that each person has only one life to live. This Kundera novel was highly recommended by many of my friends, though my paucity of personal experiences – with love and romance, with national crisis or conflict in the background, and even with life in general – means that making a personal comparison across the two is hard. Overall, I enjoyed the pacing of the chapters and the style of the third-person narrator, and in particular with Karenin at the end, the conclusion was an emotional one.