13 September 2006

Everything is Illuminated

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 12:03 pm

“The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!”

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984


In the next sentence of Kundera’s novel his narrator asks: “What does this mad myth signify?” A unique occurrence is insubstantial; whatever returns is heavy. Each repetition of an original event carries within itself all its own prior incarnations; each repetition adds the indiscernible but real increment of its own small weight to the gradually accumulating mass. After awhile that which returns again and again becomes as heavy as eternity.

Third sentence: “Putting it negatively, the myth of the eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.” On the first page of his book The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade asserts that “neither the objects of the external world nor human acts, properly speaking, have any autonomous intrinsic value. Objects or acts acquire a value, and in so doing become real, because they participate, after one fashion or another, in a reality that transcends them.” Only the rare unique event becomes commemorated, ritualized, endlessly repeated until it becomes legendary. It is the accrual of legendary status through the weight of repetition that bestows meaning on the primordial event. Ever afterward, only actions that commemorate the legend have meaning, acquiring their reality by participating in the eternal return. All other actions are unprecedented, unique, meaningless – unbearably light.

Fourth sentence: “We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.” Now, six centuries later, as this long-forgotten war is brought before our imaginations, does its return give it a just little bit more weight? Fifth sentence: “Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return?” This war, repeated in the text, is repeated in our minds – perhaps we remember the war after all? A hundred thousand of us, after reading sentences four and five, advance like a mighty army to the sixth sentence: “It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.”

Citation is a procedure for adding just a little bit more weight to a name, an idea, an event, pulling it a little bit closer to eternity. When we cite we too participate in the heaviness bestowed by repetition, we get a little closer to participating in the larger reality that consists entirely of endlessly repeated mutual recognition.

When God created the heavens and the earth it meant nothing because it had happened only once. After the event had been recreated again and again in its retelling and in the eternal return of the workweek-Sabbath cycle – only then did the Creation become legendary, eternal, meaningful, substantial, real.

Note: You might recognize that the title of this post is identical to the title of a recent novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer was citing Kundera: “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”



  1. There appear to be several problems. This thinking tends to accept the linearity of the universe, or at least occurances as temporal events that have a beginning and an end. Possible quantuum level events may well cause large effects in the entirity of the universe, whether anyone is there to note it does not alter the embedded cause and effect, in or out of time. If eternity is infinite, the number 3 is as large as 3000. Even an unborn child, to be remembered by God places it into eternity. For God to forget, is indeed, Annihilation.


    Comment by Ron MacDonald — 19 September 2006 @ 6:22 am

  2. Ron,

    In Kundera’s novel there’s a persistent vacillation between singularity and repetition, lightness and weight. Observing life from a distance, like a philosopher or scientist or theologian, what seems important are the patterns, the abstractions, the categories that persist across time. What seems important in actually living your own life is the unique event, the specific memory, the person you love, the seemingly haphazard circumstances that brought you down this particular pathway. What’s unbearable to Kundera’s narrator is that these unique occurrences are doomed to perish, certainly in death and then either in forgetfulness or in the endless repetition that is the human condition.

    The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are filled with unique events that happened to otherwise ordinary people. Perhaps God is the source of our persistent Western concerns with individuality, difference, history. “For God to forget, is indeed, Annihilation” — that’s very good. Is God intent on preserving not just the things that bring us together — oneness in Christ, the tradition, the community, etc. — but also our differences?



    Comment by ktismatics — 19 September 2006 @ 8:41 am

  3. I just began reading the novel, but it seemed rather clear to me that Kundera was saying that unless the actual event is repeated it is unbearably light. Where it is stated that the events having only transpired once are ephemeral. I liked this post but I think he was saying that war in Africa doesn’t matter because it didn’t affect anything, then he mentions the French Revolution which did have a great effect, but since it only happened once has become merely words. Nothing of much substance.

    From my reading of the first chapter what is being said is if something ahppens once, it might as well not have happened at all in the grand scheme of things. However if it were to reoccur constantly then it would be important and significant.


    Comment by Ted C — 20 June 2008 @ 9:18 pm

  4. I agree with your reading, Ted, absolutely. I found it sort of ironic that the example he uses of an inconsequential event — this unremembered ancient war in Africa — he alludes to not once, not twice, but three times. And the fact that this lightest of wars now appears in a novel that can be read by thousands, perhaps millions of people, gives this light war the heaviness of being repeated again and again in each reader’s consciousness. So Kundera, by focusing his and our attention on this war, changes it from light to heavy.

    I guess I was going for the clever ironic effect here, early in my blogging career, thinking I could make a splash on my virtually nonexistent audience. Overreaching you think? But it is sort of interesting that this post has accrued a new comment now after nearly 2 years have gone by. And now I’ve responded to your comment. Who knows, maybe as the years go by this post will itself slowly gain weight with repeat readings.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 June 2008 @ 9:41 pm

  5. This is a good sign, and also tells me what was just underneath my conscious perception of you, which, as I’ve told you recently, I have been reaping quite a harvest just by this one little bit of quick-clipping alone. It is this: some moving toward thickening of your things and making them heavier is what you’ll be needing. That’s what will be satisfying and that’s what will be more and more convincing, as opposed to some slightly too quick jumping from one thing to another. It is just to keep in mind, not necessarily to put hard effort toward–in my case, this happened naturally over time, and it did take time; if you have it in mind to see the things that get reinforced, and to leave behind (in most cases) those things that are staying too bare or even emaciated, you’ll be on the track of finding your voice more and more, I’m sure.

    Occurred to me also that phrase, the movie titla ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, which I’ve thankfully never seen. I now see that that is a catchy title and nothing more. I loathe this phrase because you’d think that was the only attribute of being if you paid attention to it–and people did, it’s like a trademark, a designer label–and it’s not unbearably light anyway, just unbearable sometimes, and not nearly always. It could certainly be said to be ‘unbearably heavy’. People will do anything to sell their Old TeeVees.


    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 22 June 2008 @ 1:08 pm

  6. Thanks Patrick. I’m sure it’s been your experience that writing on blogs has an ephemerality to it that’s pleasant and maybe even inspired but that differs qualitatively from writings that are prolonged, cultivated, seasoned. I’m starting to sound culinary here, something like stir-fried versus braised. Both have their savor, and it’s possible to create a really superb dish in a short time, but there’s something more satisfying about the slow cooking. The pleasure is in the eating either way though; you can’t have your cake and eat it too. That’s why there’s fulfillment not just in the writing and in the book sitting on the shelf but in its being read by somebody.

    “finding your voice more and more”

    I find my voice more consistently when either I ignore others altogether and just write, or when others also find my voice and resonate with it. My linking Kundera’s idea of repetition to repeated views by an audience, the equating of popularity with heaviness, turns out to be what Beller talks about as “the attention economy” in his Cinematic Mode of Production. When you expose your creations to an audience you almost can’t help but be influenced by this pop-culture valuation scheme. I find it toxic to my own intrinsic heaviness.

    Kundera’s book really is quite good, and nuanced in a way that finds value in the existential lightness of being as well. It is, like most novels, just the story of a few inconsequential people, forgettable but for the way they’ve been rendered by the writer. Kundera is more of a philosopher than an artist in his treatment, but it works. You’re right about the title having developed and unbearable pop life of its own though.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 June 2008 @ 3:42 pm

  7. Oh, always feel free to get culinary with me, I think it’s a definite characteristic of maturity. My birthday lunch was an incredible paella valenciana with no skimping on the saffron, and a divine white sangria (I’d never had, there’s a little Cointreau added.) Then we watched ‘St. Martin’s Lane’, about buskers in London in the 30s, with Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh, and Rex Harrison. Now she is an interesting case: I now see that I find her a mostly unlovable persona outside Scarlett. Much of her theater work with Olivier must have been good, but a number of critics pointed out her ‘small talent’ compared to his. She was not even very sympathetic here as a street urchin/waif. I since read that once Olivier was cast for Rebecca, she tried hard to get the role of the ‘Second Mrs. DeWynter’, but both Hitchcock and Selznick determined that she had not the requisite innocence–and were they ever right. Casting Joan Fontaine in this film was brilliant, and the film is a kind of masterpiece. And it’s an example of the kind of pulpish novel that will often make the better film adaptation than will the great novel. The same thing happened with ‘The Godfather’.

    Maybe I’ll get to Kundera at some point –and sorry I veered into the matter of the title, momentarily I even forgot that that is Kundera’s and you were discussing him–but right now I seem to be reading books that are usually read in the teen years, but that I didn’t. To wit, right now ‘Wuthering Heights’, which I feel must be read before watching Olivier and Oberon at their magic.


    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 22 June 2008 @ 4:14 pm

  8. Happy birthday Patrick! The paella sounds fantastic. When we lived in Antibes there was an outdoor paella stand down the street from us — after all, we were on the Mediterranean. It was good but not like what you’re talking about. You inspired me to watch Rebecca tonight, but it’s a DVD we bought in France so it’s not compatible with our American player. I cooked up a big pot of bean soup and Anne is making biscuits, so that’s dinner for tonight.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 June 2008 @ 5:24 pm

  9. Happy birthday bitch. Clysmatics, she doesn’t talk to me at all – she’s avoiding me – and the hick goes to the same joints that I do, like dr. Jodianne Fossey’s, where we both sit at the bar and listen to the Southern Diva COMPLAIN about the high temperatures and the overabundance of gentleman callers. As for the Kundera discussion, I think he’s fluffier than fluff but brilliant precisely in this fluffness, which envisaged precisely this nihilistic and neutered politically correct era of the New Millenium.


    Comment by parodycenter — 23 June 2008 @ 9:56 am

  10. Thank you.

    She’s now trying to float Zizek as superhero (irony intended and not, one supposes), which of course is necessary to add to his resume, since ‘rock star’ only covered his genius for all music. Superhero refers to his ability to write about how High Noon exists in real time, despite the inability to get even one banana role in a Spielberg film.

    John, this place is the oldest Spanish restaurant in New York, has ancient cigarette-smoke-darkened murals of Consuela types in red high heels and Don Juans galore. But a restaurant experience in New York that is on the level of what is considered routine in New Orleans is very rare. It’s El Faro, just a few blocks from me, and I’d only been once, alone in 2000, had a panic attack and left. This time it was too warm and close, we wanted this authenticity for a little while till we changed our minds and wanted the AC, which they provided, courtesy of the perfect young waiter. No one else was there except a beautiful young man with a gorgeous much older woman–the type of Spanish woman who knows how to do the socialite blonde hair without it ever reminding you of ‘big hair’ such as the likes of Paula Jones (speaking of hicks) has. It was very inexpensive for such high quality, especially since I’d made my own birthday cake. I was feeling not very well, and the thought of cloying sangria was making me worse, but gradually this white sangria which I’d never heard of restored me to some semblance of historic civilized-identity, which is hard to come by these days.

    Re: Rebecca, I forgot to add that I was immediately aware of how Jeremy Irons must have studied all of Olivier’s technique down to each mannerism in this film (probably some others as well), because in the ‘Brideshead’ period, he had the same physique and was able to approach a good imitation. When you see the original, you are however grateful for Olivier’s nose (fortunately more like Daniel Auteuil’s) and not sorry for the omission of Irons’s strange mouth, as well as his twitty behaviour lounging around as ‘Chahlez’ and his silly scenes with that ridiculous Diana Quick as Julia. Jane Asher as Celia was able to walk out of the room after saying only “but I AM sorry it had to end this way” to prove very easily that yes, she was shallow, but they were no less so, just self-important and somewhat more like heavy New England types and amateurs to boot. Irons is a good actor, just loathsome. I was at a party once where he was being honoured, and he carefully smoked a Turkish cigarette so as to look as much like an Aubrey Beardsley exquisite as possible. Who said being a successful actor meant that you could then give up being a mere poseur? He hadn’t. One can only be glad that he got stuck with Glenn Close as many times as he did.


    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 23 June 2008 @ 10:34 am

  11. What I liked about Kundera’s book is the distance he maintains from his story and characters. Characters and story clearly serve as experimental conduits for exploring ideas. Kundera frequently steps back from them and talks about what they’re doing in abstract sociological terms. Despite this distancing of narrator from narrative, the reader still finds himself enmeshed in the characters’ light and tragic lives. It’s a successful blend of fiction and nonfiction that stands apart, and I think successfully so. I think fictional or speculative nonfiction is a good genre-bending idea, as is this sort of nonfictional fiction that Kundera practices. Melville fills Moby Dick with vast passages of zoology that have no right being in a novel, but I loved all that shit.

    Kundera as a political figure is probably fascinating. I think he critiqued Communism from inside Czechoslovakia, but then he emigrated to France, started writing only in French, and turned his back on his homeland.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 June 2008 @ 12:04 pm

  12. Sounds like a civilized birthday dining experience Patrick. I never heard of white sangria either. I imagine white grapes, white peach, orange as you say — sounds delicious. Spanish white wine I don’t believe I’ve ever drunk. Birthday cake: chocolate?

    I remember the first time I ever ate Spanish food, which was in Sevilla in my backpacking days. I had tipped the porter too much for taking my bags off the train from the Portuguese frontier, and some Spanish soldier was incensed — this was back when Franco was still in power and the guardia civil hung around everwhere with their flashy uniforms and shiny capos and submachine guns. We wandered the streets looking for this porter, eventually gave up, went into a bar and drank rioja and ate tapas (pickled squidlets and potato tortilla) for an hour or two.

    I remember Olivier’s look of remote distaste in Rebecca, and yes I can see the resemblance to Irons’ usual screen persona, which seems to be the only character he can play — or perhaps that anyone will let him play. Olivier’s performance gives more depth, the sense of something tragic that torments him rather than just fatally disappointed finicky taste. You saw Irons at a party? Tres salon. Aubrey Beardsley?


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 June 2008 @ 12:19 pm

  13. Yes, chocolate cheesecake with what Kirsch I had left, and minced Marschinos. With no crust, it was like a mousse, but sometimes when your efforts are at their least inspired (I wasn’t trying in this case), you may get the good result anyway. Chocolate wafer crust is okay for chocolate cheesecake though, elsewhere.

    Your Spanish tale automatically has the flavour of For Whom the Bell Tolls–I only read that a few years ago too, Pilar (?) and her happy memories of Valencia springs to mind again. Proof of happiness nearby as likely as afar–an evening more unlikely example is Mink Snopes in Faulkner, and the heartbreaking story of the Fried Squirrel he and his battered step-mother shared.

    After I posted here last night, I watched again the first part of Importance of Being Earnest, when Algernon says to Earnest ‘I’ve NO patience with people who don’t take meals seriously!’

    Of course, even Arpege eschews luxurious labours like making a nice Chicken or Veal Marsala, because that doesn’t cause quite as much guilt as going to many expensive restaurants night after night. In all fairness, I do remember she noted that she can do a good Steak Poivre, which is actually no mean feat. In the meantime, all the Lady Bloggers are trying out for ‘Maria Callas as Vissi D’Arte’ for next year’s edition of American Idol. NO, she is NOT just a theorist, it is tres, tres delicat…


    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 23 June 2008 @ 1:33 pm

  14. On retrospect Kundera was talking about high society proletariat in Chekoslovakia – people with privileges – and politically this is all very Vaclav Havel, boring and empty. I remember the novel ends up in libertine France, or something avant garde like that. But that distancing as you rightly point out is the good thing in the novel.Reminds of Kubrick.

    Jonquille the secret of Jeremy Iron’s success is his bass voice, in contrast with his Comrade Fox-like gentle demeanor, which by the way is completely boring as half the Dutch men his age look exactly like that. This bass voice makes the housewives and the queens wet with thoughts of fatherly protection. I am not sure whether he actually acts, or SPEAKS (doesn’t matter what). Laurence Olivier was a much more hysterical and therefore interesting top than this phlegmatic and fairly pompous His Lordship.

    By the way I was looking at Comrade Fox’s videos and noticed he has lovely squeezable titties!


    Comment by parodycenter — 23 June 2008 @ 3:50 pm

  15. Not is the people”s judgment always true: The most may err as grossly as the few….

    And plenty makes us poor….


    Trackback by http://sciencestage.com/v/7370/end-o...r-(-lhc-).html — 15 May 2012 @ 7:40 am

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