The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim
PART ONELightness and Weight
PART TWOSoul and Body
PART THREEWords Misunderstood
PART FOURSoul and Body
PART FIVELightness and Weight
PART SIXThe Grand March
PART SEVENKarenin's Smile
Lightness and Weight
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 recur-rence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once
and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and
whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean
nothing. 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.
Will the war between two African kingdoms in the four-teenth century itself be altered if
it recurs again and again, in eternal return?
It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuber-ant, its inanity irreparable.
If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud
of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody
years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discus-sions, have
become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between a
Robespierre who oc-curs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally re-turns,
chopping off French heads.
Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return im-plies a perspective from which
things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating
circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from
coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn some-thing that is ephemeral, in transit? In
the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the
Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing a most incred-ible sensation. Leafing
through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my
childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler's
concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost
period in my life, a period that would never return?
This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests
essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in
advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.
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. That is
why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens(das schwerste
If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all
their splendid lightness.
But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?
The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in
the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body.
The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense
fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real
and truthful they become.
Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar
into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real,
his movements as free as they are insignificant.
What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?
Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world
divided into pairs of opposites:
light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being. One half of the
opposition he called positive (light, fine-ness, warmth, being), the other negative. We
might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple ex-cept for one
difficulty: which one is positive, weight or light-ness?
Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative.Was he correct or not? That
is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most
mysteri-ous, most ambiguous of all.
I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these
reflections did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking
across the court-yard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.
He had first met Tereza about three weeks earlier in a small Czech town. They had spent
scarcely an hour together. She had accompanied him to the station and waited with him
until he boarded the train. Ten days later she paid him a visit. They made love the day she
arrived. That night she came down with a fever and stayed a whole week in his flat with
He had come to feel an inexplicable love for this all but complete stranger; she seemed a
child to him, a child someone had put in a bulrush basket daubed with pitch and sent
down-stream for Tomas to fetch at the riverbank of his bed.
She stayed with him a week, until she was well again, then went back to her town, some
hundred and twenty-five miles from Prague. And then came the time I have just spoken
of and see as the key to his life: Standing by the window, he looked out over the
courtyard at the walls opposite him and deliberated.
Should he call her back to Prague for good? He feared the responsibility. If he invited
her to come, then come she would, and offer him up her life.
Or should he refrain from approaching her? Then she would remain a waitress in a hotel
restaurant of a provincial town and he would never see her again.
Did he want her to come or did he not?
He looked out over the courtyard at the opposite walls, seeking an answer.
He kept recalling her lying on his bed; she reminded him of no one in his former life.
She was neither mistress nor wife. She was a child whom he had taken from a bulrush
basket that had been daubed with pitch and sent to the riverbank of his bed. She fell
asleep. He knelt down next to her. Her feverous breath quickened and she gave out a
weak moan. He pressed his face to hers and whispered calming words into her sleep.
After a while he felt her breath return to normal and her face rise unconsciously to meet
his. He smelled the delicate aroma of her fever and breathed it in, as if trying to glut
himself with the intimacy of her body. And all at once he fancied she had been with him
for many years and was dying. He had a sudden clear feeling that he would not survive
her death. He would lie down beside her and want to die with her. He pressed his face
into the pillow beside her head and kept it there for a long time.
Now he was standing at the window trying to call that moment to account. What could it
have been if not love declar-ing itself to him?
But was it love? The feeling of wanting to die beside her was clearly exaggerated: he had
seen her only once before in his life! Was it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware
deep down of his inaptitude for love, felt the self-deluding need to simulate it? His
unconscious was so cowardly that the best part-ner it could choose for its little comedy
was this miserable pro-vincial waitress with practically no chance at all to enter his life!
Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he real-ized he had no idea whether it
was hysteria or love.
And he was distressed that in a situation where a real man would instantly have known
how to act, he was vacillating and therefore depriving the most beautiful moments he had
ever experienced (kneeling at her bed and thinking he would not survive her death) of
He remained annoyed with himself until he realized that not knowing what he wanted
was actually quite natural.
We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare
it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.
Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?
There is no means of testing which decision is better, be-cause there is no basis for
comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on
cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life
is always like a sketch. No, sketch is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of
something, the ground-work for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch
for nothing, an outline with no picture.
Einmal ist keinmal,says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German
adage, might as well not have hap-pened at all. If we have only one life to live,we might
as well not have lived at all.
But then one day at the hospital, during a break between opera-tions, a nurse called him
to the telephone. He heard Tereza's voice coming from the receiver. She had phoned him
from the railway station. He was overjoyed. Unfortunately, he had some-thing on that
evening and could not invite her to his place until the next day. The moment he hung up,
he reproached himself for not telling her to go straight there. He had time enough to
cancel his plans, after all! He tried to imagine what Tereza would do in Prague during the
thirty-six long hours before they were to meet, and had half a mind to jump into his car
and drive through the streets looking for her.
She arrived the next evening, a handbag dangling from her shoulder, looking more
elegant than before. She had a thick book under her arm. It wasAnna Karenina. She
seemed in a good mood, even a little boisterous, and tried to make him think she had just
happened to drop in, things had just worked out that way: she was in Prague on business,
perhaps (at this point she became rather vague) to find a job.
Later, as they lay naked and spent side by side on the bed, he asked her where she was
staying. It was night by then, and he offered to drive her there. Embarrassed, she
answered that she still had to find a hotel and had left her suitcase at the station.
Only two days ago, he had feared that if he invited her to Prague she would offer him up
her life. When she told him her suitcase was at the station, he immediately realized that
the suitcase contained her life and that she had left it at the station only until she could
offer it up to him.
The two of them got into his car, which was parked in front of the house, and drove to
the station. There he claimed the suitcase (it was large and enormously heavy) and took it
and her home.
How had he come to make such a sudden decision when for nearly a fortnight he had
wavered so much that he could not even bring himself to send a postcard asking her how
He himself was surprised. He had acted against his prin-ciples. Ten years earlier, when
he had divorced his wife, he celebrated the event the way others celebrate a marriage. He
understood he was not born to live side by side with any woman and could be fully
himself only as a bachelor. He tried to design his life in such a way that no woman could
move in with a suitcase. That was why his flat had only the one bed. Even though it was
wide enough, Tomas would tell his mistresses that he was unable to fall asleep with
anyone next to him, and drive them home after midnight. And so it was not the flu that
kept him from sleeping with Tereza on her first visit. The first night he had slept in his
large armchair, and the rest of that week he drove each night to the hospital, where he had
a cot in his office.
But this time he fell asleep by her side. When he woke up the next morning, he found
Tereza, who was still asleep, hold-ing his hand. Could they have been hand in hand all
night? It was hard to believe.
And while she breathed the deep breath of sleep and held his hand (firmly: he was
unable to disengage it from her grip), the enormously heavy suitcase stood by the bed.
He refrained from loosening his hand from her grip for fear of waking her, and turned
carefully on his side to observe her better.
Again it occurred to him that Tereza was a child put in a pitch-daubed bulrush basket
and sent downstream. He couldn't very well let a basket with a child in it float down a
stormy river! If the Pharaoh's daughter hadn't snatched the basket carrying little Moses
from the waves, there would have been no Old Testament, no civilization as we now
know it! How many ancient myths begin with the rescue of an abandoned child! If
Polybus hadn't taken in the young Oedipus, Sophocles wouldn't have written his most
Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dan-gerous. Metaphors are not to be
trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.
He lived a scant two years with his wife, and they had a son. At the divorce proceedings,
the judge awarded the infant to its mother and ordered Tomas to pay a third of his salary
for its support. He also granted him the right to visit the boy every other week.
But each time Tomas was supposed to see him, the boy's mother found an excuse to keep
him away. He soon realized that bringing them expensive gifts would make things a good
deal easier, that he was expected to bribe the mother for the son's love. He saw a future of
quixotic attempts to inculcate his views in the boy, views opposed in every way to the
mother's. The very thought of it exhausted him. When, one Sunday, the boy's mother
again canceled a scheduled visit, Tomas decided on the spur of the moment never to see
Why should he feel more for that child, to whom he was bound by nothing but a single
improvident night, than for any other? He would be scrupulous about paying support; he
just didn't want anybody making him fight for his son in the name of paternal sentiments!
Needless to say, he found no sympathizers. His own par-ents condemned him roundly: if
Tomas refused to take an in-terest in his son, then they, Tomas's parents, would no longer
take an interest in theirs. They made a great show of maintain-ing good relations with
their daughter-in-law and trumpeted their exemplary stance and sense of justice.
Thus in practically no time he managed to rid himself of wife, son, mother, and father.
The only thing they bequeathed to him was a fear of women. Tomas desired but feared
them. Needing to create a compromise between fear and desire, he devised what he called
erotic friendship. He would tell his mistresses: the only relationship that can make both
partners happy is one in which sentimentality has no place and neither partner makes any
claim on the life and freedom of the other.
To ensure that erotic friendship never grew into the aggres-sion of love, he would meet
each of his long-term mistresses only at intervals. He considered this method flawless and
propa-gated it among his friends: The important thing is to abide by the rule of threes.
Either you see a woman three times in quick succession and then never again, or you
maintain relations over the years but make sure that the rendezvous are at least three
The rule of threes enabled Tomas to keep intact his liaisons with some women while
continuing to engage in short-term affairs with many others. He was not always
understood. The woman who understood him best was Sabina. She was a paint-er. The
reason I like you, she would say to him, is you're the complete opposite of kitsch. In the
kingdom of kitsch you would be a monster.
It was Sabina he turned to when he needed to find a job for Tereza in Prague. Following
the unwritten rules of erotic friendship, Sabina promised to do everything in her power,
and before long she had in fact located a place for Tereza in the darkroom of an
illustrated weekly. Although her new job did not require any particular qualifications, it
raised her status from waitress to member of the press. When Sabina herself introduced
Tereza to everyone on the weekly, Tomas knew he had never had a better friend as a
mistress than Sabina.
The unwritten contract of erotic friendship stipulated that To-mas should exclude all love
from his life. The moment he violated that clause of the contract, his other mistresses
would assume inferior status and become ripe for insurrection.
Accordingly, he rented a room for Tereza and her heavy suitcase. He wanted to be able
to watch over her, protect her, enjoy her presence, but felt no need to change his way of
life. He did not want word to get out that Tereza was sleeping at his place: spending the
night together was the corpus delicti of love.
He never spent the night with the others. It was easy enough if he was at their place: he
could leave whenever he pleased. It was worse when they were at his and he had to
explain that come midnight he would have to drive them home because he was an
insomniac and found it impossible to fall asleep in close proximity to another person.
Though it was not far from the truth, he never dared tell them the whole truth:
after making love he had an uncontrollable craving to be by himself; waking in the
middle of the night at the side of an alien body was distasteful to him, rising in the
morning with an in-truder repellent; he had no desire to be overheard brushing his teeth
in the bathroom, nor was he enticed by the thought of an intimate breakfast.
That is why he was so surprised to wake up and find Tereza squeezing his hand tightly.
Lying there looking at her, he could not quite understand what had happened. But as he
ran through the previous few hours in his mind, he began to sense an aura of hitherto
unknown happiness emanating from them.
From that time on they both looked forward to sleeping together. I might even say that
the goal of their lovemaking was not so much pleasure as the sleep that followed it. She
especially was affected. Whenever she stayed overnight in her rented room (which
quickly became only an alibi for Tomas), she was unable to fall asleep; in his arms she
would fall asleep no matter how wrought up she might have been. He would whisper
im-promptu fairy tales about her, or gibberish, words he repeated monotonously, words
soothing or comical, which turned into vague visions lulling her through the first dreams
of the night. He had complete control over her sleep: she dozed off at the second he
While they slept, she held him as on the first night, keeping a firm grip on wrist, finger,
or ankle. If he wanted to move without waking her, he had to resort to artifice. After
freeing his finger (wrist, ankle) from her clutches, a process which, since she guarded
him carefully even in her sleep, never failed to rouse her partially, he would calm her by
slipping an object into her hand (a rolled-up pajama top, a slipper, a book), which she
then gripped as tightly as if it were a part of his body.
Once, when he had just lulled her to sleep but she had gone no farther than dream's
antechamber and was therefore still responsive to him, he said to her, Good-bye, I'm
going now. Where? she asked in her sleep. Away, he answered sternly. Then I'm going
with you, she said, sitting up in bed. No, you can't. I'm going away for good, he said,
going out into the hall. She stood up and followed him out, squinting. She was naked
beneath her short nightdress. Her face was blank, expressionless, but she moved
energetically. He walked through the hall of the flat into the hall of the building (the hall
shared by all the occupants), closing the door in her face. She flung it open and continued
to follow him, convinced in her sleep that he meant to leave her for good and she had to
stop him. He walked down the stairs to the first landing and waited for her there. She
went down after him, took him by the hand, and led him back to bed.
Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman
are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself
felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite num-ber of women)
but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limit-ed to one woman).
In the middle of the night she started moaning in her sleep. Tomas woke her up, but
when she saw his face she said, with hatred in her voice, Get away from me! Get away
from me! Then she told him her dream: The two of them and Sabina had been in a big
room together. There was a bed in the middle of the room. It was like a platform in the
theater. Tomas ordered her to stand in the corner while he made love to Sabina. The sight
of it caused Tereza intolerable suffering. Hoping to allevi-ate the pain in her heart by
pains of the flesh, she jabbed needles under her fingernails. It hurt so much, she said,
squeezing her hands into fists as if they actually were wounded.
He pressed her to him, and she gradually (trembling vio-lently for a long time) fell
asleep in his arms.
Thinking about the dream the next day, he remembered something. He opened a desk
drawer and took out a packet of letters Sabina had written to him. He was not long in
finding the following passage: I want to make love to you in my studio. It will be like a
stage surrounded by people. The audi-ence won't be allowed up close, but they won't be
able to take their eyes off us....
The worst of it was that the letter was dated. It was quite recent, written long after Tereza
had moved in with Tomas.
So you've been rummaging in my letters!
She did not deny it. Throw me out, then!
But he did not throw her out. He could picture her pressed against the wall of Sabina's
studio jabbing needles up under her nails. He took her fingers between his hands and
stroked them, brought them to his lips and kissed them, as if they still had drops of blood
But from that time on, everything seemed to conspire against him. Not a day went by
without her learning something about his secret life.
At first he denied it all. Then, when the evidence became too blatant, he argued that his
polygamous way of life did not in the least run counter to his love for her. He was
inconsist-ent: first he disavowed his infidelities, then he tried to justify them.
Once he was saying good-bye after making a date with a woman on the phone, when
from the next room came a strange sound like the chattering of teeth.By chance she had
come home without his realizing it. She was pouring something from a medicine bottle
down her throat, and her hand shook so badly the glass bottle clicked against her teeth.
He pounced on her as if trying to save her from drowning. The bottle fell to the floor,
spotting the carpet with valerian drops. She put up a good fight, and he had to keep her in
a straitjacket-like hold for a quarter of an hour before he could calm her.
He knew he was in an unjustifiable situation, based as it was on complete inequality.
One evening, before she discovered his correspondence with Sabina, they had gone to a
bar with some friends to cele-brate Tereza's new job. She had been promoted at the
weekly from darkroom technician to staff photographer. Because he had never been
much for dancing, one of his younger col-leagues took over. They made a splendid
couple on the dance floor, and Tomas found her more beautiful than ever. He looked on
in amazement at the split-second precision and def-erence with which Tereza anticipated
her partner's will. The dance seemed to him a declaration that her devotion, her ar-dent
desire to satisfy his every whim, was not necessarily bound to his person, that if she
hadn't met Tomas, she would have been ready to respond to the call of any other man she
might have met instead. He had no difficulty imagining Tereza and his young colleague