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After 1900, in philosophy there appeared many movements whose idea was to question the value and direction of human life in the turbulent modern world ravaged by war and crises. The most prominent such movement was existentialism, and one of the first novels illustrating the movement was The Stranger, written by Albert Camus in 1942. Its theme is roughly the absurd existence in a meaningless and indifferent universe. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel written nearly half a century later by Czech novelist Milan Kundera, explores similar themes of human existence and the choice of how to spend one's life, illustrated by the opposition "lightness" vs. "heaviness."
Even though the human mind always tries to seek logical connections in order to enable its survival in reality, the two books explore worlds and societies in which there is coincidence and disruption of logical laws. Much of Kundera's novel is a critique towards the Communism regime which negatively affected the author. At some points there is direct disapproval, when the omniscient narrator (who is the embodiment of the author) speaks derisively of communism: "But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch" (p.250).
At other instances the condemnation of the regime is expressed indirectly, through the characters' actions and words. Nearly all of the characters hate communism because it butchers the concept of individuality and of meaningful art (this theme is explored through the idea of kitsch). Something else that is absurd is that in this regime the skilful surgeon Tomas stoops down to the level of an ordinary window washer. The lack of logic is revealed here simply by the existence of a cruel regime so despised by the people. The novel suggest that the absurdity of the modern world is due to flaws in human reasoning. These flaws are best illustrated when Tereza attempts to publish the photos she has taken of the Russian occupation of Prague in the Swiss magazine. The reason she is denied is "because a certain time had elapsed since the events, they hadn't the slightest chanceâ€¦ of being published" (p. 68).
In this world where things follow no certain logic, the photos which reveal the truth about such a horrible event and vouching the preservation of freedom are disregarded: popularity is more important than these concepts. Another instance in which human life is dominated by chance is Tomas and Tereza's first meeting. People tend to have the notion that decisions and important events in their lives are conscious and calculated decisions, but both Tomas and his wife realize the fact that their coming together was caused by mere chance: "What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all" (p.16).
Just in the way the two's meeting was the result of an incident, lacking a deeper meaning, similarly in Camus' novel the events which build up the plot do not have any higher reason. It can be said without exaggeration that Meursault is the embodiment of absurdity because in his actions no logical order can be found. Camus skillfully imposes the notion that this is disturbing and even enraging to the other people as they are unable to establish causality upon his actions:
"â€¦he would like to know whether I had gone back to the spring by myself intending to kill the Arab. "No," I said. Well, then, why was I armed and why did I return to precisely that spot? I said it just happened that way (p.88)."
In both novels, many of the characters feel that it is unbearable for nothing to have deeper meaning. And nevertheless in The Stranger, when Meursault is convicted to be hanged, the decision of the court is illogical. Even though its purpose is to rationalize, its decision is taken really not because of the act of murder, but because Meursault did not cry at his mother's funeral and he shot not one, but several times. Later the anomic clerk will include this occurrence in his realization of the "gentle indifference of the world."
In Milan Kundera's terms, Meursault would surely be described as "light." He might not analyze his personality in this concrete term, but what he does perfectly embodies the concept as stated by the Czech novelist. What Meursault does - directed simply by chance or by whim of desire - fits perfectly with what Kundera describes: "â€¦If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness (p.5)."
The purpose the clerk has in his life can be simply stated: he enjoys the pleasures of the senses and has an unclear concept for momentary beauty; the perfect illustration of this is his observing of people walking in the street. What he does is enough in itself, he does not try to analyze it in any way. What is happening in reality, what is apprehended by the senses is adequate: "At five there was a loud clanging of streetcars. They were coming from the stadium in our suburb where there had been a football match" (p.57).
Ironically Meursault is much "lighter" than Tomas, who in The Unbearable Lightness of Being symbolizes the concept. The surgeon tries to detach his life from any obligations which would impose pseudo-meanings to the world; however, he is not entirely successful at this because he often feels guilty and thinks about norms and responsibilities. For example, in his attitude towards women Meursault does not care or comprehend that Marie is in love with him; he longs for her company because of the pleasant physical sensations she brings him. He is oblivious of the fact that he causes her pain with this attitude of his: "She asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn't mean anything but that I didn't think so (p.49)." Tomas, of course, possesses many of the characteristics of lightness: "It is my feeling that Tomas had long been secretly irritated by the stern, aggressive, solemn Es muss sein! and that he harbored a deep desire to follow the spirit of Parmenides and make heavy go to light" (p. 197). He does not care much that he has lost his job and he has multiple sexual affairs, even though he claims he loves only one woman - Teresa. However, there is a paradox here: the idea of love directly demolishes the idea of lightness, because when Tomas meets Teresa and falls in love with her a huge part of his "lightness" is destroyed. He must now bear responsibility for this person whose happiness and even life is dependent on his actions (in other words introducing "heaviness" in his life).
In contrast to Meursault, the chaplain that tries to somehow "christen" him possesses qualities that would make him "heavy". He is utterly passionate and devoted to serving and believing in God, who dictates everything with a purpose that is not understandable to people. Paradoxically this is what carries for the chaplain the meaning of life. These views, however, appear stupid and unreasonable to the callous Meursault, who remains indifferent. The apathy strongly affects the chaplain, who cannot really convince Meursault that his ideas are the absolute truth: "He seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman's hair" (p. 120). Similarly to him, Franz and Teresa from Kundera's novel cannot accept the possibility that the world is meaningless, causing them torment and suffering. The most eloquent example of this is when Tereza is unable to accept how Tomas' affairs have no significance. She is really tormented by this, as illustrated by her horrible dream sequences.
In conclusion it can be said that both novels explore the idea that life lacks ulterior meaning, or at least none that can be understood by humans. This is what hurts them and renders them unable to enjoy the pleasures of life, like when Tereza is haunted by nightmares. The chaplain also suffers when he is unable to convince Meursault that he is right, as his heaviness is put against the apathy that the condemned one demonstrates. Ultimately lightness prevails in both novels, as Meursault is reconciled with the indifferent universe, whereas Tomas' life ends abruptly and by chance just when it seems he has found what makes him and his wife happy.