The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] “The unbearable heaviness of being” in Korea

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Jan. 30, 2018 - 17:46

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Philosophers have explored the meaning of life for a long time. What then is life? Is it working hard or making money? Fighting over political ideologies? Not quite so. Life is something you should enjoy. That is why people find delight in sports, movies, or the arts. Indeed, life should be delightful, not stressful. But that will be a luxury for people who have to deal with the impending issue of how to make a living. Therefore, for some people, life is frivolously light whereas for others, it is unbearably heavy.

If your life is full of stress and anxiety, you will become miserable. Then you will detest the heavy burden of your life and yearn for lightness instead. However, in a country where political ideologies constantly clash or foreign powers incessantly interfere, you cannot avoid a stressful life. There may be those who still want an ideology-free life nonetheless, and yet they will not be allowed to enjoy the luxury. No one is exempt from political turmoil.

On the other hand, there are those who take life too seriously and prefer a heavy-burdened life saturated with political ideologies that they are often confused with the grand cause.

These people, who believe in their ideology, have a firm conviction that what they are doing is always right. They become self-righteous and preoccupied with the grand cause. They do not realize that their strong conviction could turn out to be nothing but foolish stubbornness, and there is no such thing as the absolute truth or simple justice in this complex world.

Those people should read Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In his celebrated novel, which is set in the Prague Spring of 1968, Kundera depicts how political turmoil affects the lives of the four protagonists: Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz.

Tomas is a surgeon who pursues a life free of burdens and ideology, and enjoys random sex with many women. But he, too, cannot be free from the pressure of political turbulence when Soviet tanks roll into Prague.

Under the communist regime, Tomas is forced to sign a confession that he has written an essay criticizing the government. Otherwise, he will lose his job. Suddenly, Tomas finds two types of people around him. One group is made up of pro-government collaborators who quietly mock him, “You, too, will join us in order to survive, won’t you? What else can you do under the circumstances?” The other consists of anti-government activists who seem to say to him with a condescending smile, “We’ve been there. It won’t be easy to join us.”

Tomas refuses to sign the confession and becomes a window cleaner instead. Now, anti-government activists approach and force him to sign a petition for the release of prisoners of conscience. Although Tomas wants to lead a carefree, politics-free life, the sociopolitical situation will not let him have one.

Tomas’ wife Tereza is the one who seeks a serious and meaningful life. When the Soviet tanks invade Prague in 1968, Tereza, as a photographer, is actively involved in the anti-Soviet protest by taking photos and giving them to the foreign press. She firmly believes that she is doing the right thing by exposing the Soviet troops’ atrocities to the world. Later, however, she is aghast when she finds her photos have been used by the police to identify and arrest the demonstrators. Her firm conviction that she is doing the right thing crumbles, and now Tereza comes to realize the meaning of “the unbearable lightness of being.”

Sabina is an artist who has a free soul. When everybody is talking about political ideologies, she decides to enter the Art School to study Picasso. She cannot stand the self-righteous political activists and their collective shouting of political slogans. Sabina is the one who values individuality, artistic freedom, and the “lightness of being.”

Franz is an idealistic, naive professor in Geneva, who is detached from the political turmoil, but fantasizes about it as an intellectual adventure. In reality, demonstrators are killed during the clashes with the riot police, and yet to Franz, demonstrations are simply an exciting, heroic event. His naivete stems from his abstract knowledge and romantic view of the harsh reality. Franz is a man who lives a stress-free life in a neutral country, and yet who romantically longs for a stressful, burdened life.

In the 1980s when military dictatorship was in power in South Korea, we, too, had people like Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz whose lives were ruined in different ways in the midst of political turmoil. Regrettably, history repeats itself, and in 2018 we are now experiencing the same political turbulence. Once again, it will ruin many people’s lives. In Korea, no one is free from the heavy burden of history or political ideologies. However, sometimes I wonder, “Is it really necessary and worthwhile? Should our lives be so burdened with political ideologies all the time?” Perhaps we should learn from Kundera’s idea of “the unbearable lightness of being.” 

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and distinguished visiting professor at George Washington University. He can be reached at –Ed.