The Ecstasy of Being’s Lightness: Concerning Milan Kundera, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Weakling Smurf.

Posted on February 11, 2009


I am a huge fan of Milan Kundera’s novels and essays. He writes the kind of book that I read straight through in a single sitting and then immediately re-read once I’ve finished.

His writing, his ideas, his story-telling — even in translation — move me like no other. On more than one occasion his novels have brought me to what I can only call an “aesthetic experience” — that is, something akin to what I imagine is experienced by mystics in their moments of noetic ecstasy.

Having said that, in every novel, and in many of his essays, there is always a point at which I feel he and I diverge. It is like we walk the very same path but somehow manage to end up at very different locations.

The difference I think lies in his assessment — or at least the assessment made by his characters — of the path itself and the knowledge and self-understanding it can create in a person once it is taken. Kundera seems to regard all of it — the path, the knowledge, the self-understanding — as being lamentable and — as the famous title states — even unbearable. In contrast, I see it as a source of great happiness.

Now there are probably many sound explanations for this difference of opinion.

We grew up in very different times and places. He was forced to flee his country to avoid persecution by an alien occupying power; whereas my self-imposed exile to New Zealand was wholly voluntary and motivated by no greater urgency than a general desire to live somewhere other than where I was born.

Needless to say, there are significant differences in our life-narratives.

I prefer to believe, nevertheless, that the key difference is that Kundera never watched the Smurfs and, therefore, never saw one episode in particular.

There is an episode in which Papa Smurf gives some magic smurfberry jam to Weakling Smurf to put on his nose — to improve his strength and confidence (an early experiment in Viagra?). Thanks to the magic jam, Weakling Smurf becomes strong, confident, and downright heroic.

Of course, Weakling Smurf eventually learns the jam is not magical at all and, after a moment of existential crisis, realizes, with the help of Papa Smurf, that his “magical” strength and abilities are genuinely his own. The placebo affect of the jam helped him discover these abilities but they were, are, and always will be his own.

It’s a lesson that resonated and always seemed important to me.

About fifteen years or so later, I encountered Ludwig Feuerbach, the 19th Century German philosopher, who essentially makes the same point about religion and God.

Feuerbach’s claim is that whatever characteristics we see and experience in God is in actual fact just a kind of projection of our own abilities. If God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, then so are we. The God-hypothesis — much like the magic jam — can help us see human potential but it can also obscure it if we take the idea of God / Jam too seriously.

Feuerbach is himself an atheist but many true believers can accept his key claim without also accepting his atheism. If we are the children of God and God is in us, than by truly understanding our relationship to God, we can become more God-like in every day life and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth.

Arguably, Feuerbach, who was raised a Christian, is simply offering a secular spin on Christ’s key message. A message also delivered by that other great sage: Papa Smurf.

Bringing this back to Kundera and his wonderful books, my feeling is that he or his characters don’t get what Weakling Smurf comes to understand: we don’t need magic jam to pursue or achieve our Smurfy potential. Sometimes, it may help us to think we have magic jam on our noses, but, if we find out the jam wasn’t magical, it doesn’t mean we are now suddenly worse off. In other words, the lightness of being will only seem unbearable, if someone believes that being should be — or at one time was — heavy.

Being has always been light. Problems begin, I think, because so many of us have thought it needs to be heavy and, as a result, often overlook the importance and wisdom of the Smurfs.

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Posted in: My Life