Conflict, Burden, and Ambiguity
An Existential Reading of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried
For a novelist, a given historic situation is an anthropologic laboratory in which he explores his basic question: What is human existence?
— Milan Kundera
Subjectivity is truth, subjectivity is reality.
— Søren Kierkegaard
In setting out to write such a paper as this, I must first ask myself, what are my goals? What is it that I am trying to say? My own interpretation of the motives of the various characters of these books is clearly just that — my own; it has no objective value beyond my own understanding. But perhaps this is exactly the point. Perhaps, like master storytellers Milan Kundera and Tim O’Brien, I have nothing to prove to you, and no answers to your questions. But I do have something to say about the nature of truth, the purpose of stories in the search for meaning, our often-imperfect realisation of our own freedom and the anxiety this causes when experience conspires to bring us closer to seeing it, and the rôle of conflict in these confrontations with the absurd.
In choosing existentialism as a framework for understanding these two stories, I have revealed two things about myself. First, that I have a bias toward subjective philosophy in general, and towards a contemporary reading of existentialism in particular. Secondly, that I reject the notion of structural and intellectual biases. I mean this with as little irony as possible — my fundamental attraction to existentialism and my appreciation for these two novels is based largely upon their common grounding in ambiguity, and in their respective approaches to truth. Existentialism is, after all, a revolt against traditional philosophy and against systemic thought that is grounded in the presumption of an objective, knowable truth beyond ourselves.
The search for meaning in existence is a constant in human thought and expression, and most are able to convince themselves that they have found it — in their religion, in their country, in their relationships — in some concrete and understandable aspect of their lives. For others, this search for meaning, and the common forms that it takes, is complicated by the sheer impossibility of their situation. Experience conspires to deny them the comfortable illusions that most cherish by forcing them into a direct confrontation with the incomprehensible; that is, with the absurd. Such is the case with the major characters in The Things They Carried and The Unbearable Lightness of Being; for them, war has triggered a chain of events that bring into question everything that they thought they knew about living, and about dying.
But what is the absurd? It would be an over-simplification to say that the world is absurd. In its utter lack of discernible external meaning or motivation, the world beyond ourselves seems to us absurd (when it is, in fact, “seen” at all, which is seldom; few amongst us are willing or able to challenge basic assumptions). The world, however, is not absurd; it simply is. It may seem to us capricious or cruel, beautiful or bizarre, but it is none of these things — in giving expression to such feelings, we demonstrate a false expectation. We have been taught that the world makes sense, and when we are faced with overwhelming and personal evidence that this is not so, what is being challenged is this expectation. French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus tells us that the “world in itself is not unreasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” (Camus 21). The absurd, then, is not found in the world itself, but in our expectation that the world conform to our notions of decency or normality.
Both novels make use of human conflict to bring these notions into question — they are, in effect, creating an existential situation in order to explore the development of human personalities that are faced with the reality of their own lack of control over the world outside themselves. War is perhaps the ultimate existential playground; it is by its very nature pointless, and it causes us to face death and life in stark and naked terms, shorn of the veneer of meaning that we erect to conceal the absurd nature of our existence. How different individuals respond to these circumstances — to the emotional burden of living — is the major theme of both novels. The events depicted in the novels provide the characters an opportunity for a genuine reckoning with their responsibility as free beings; will the characters face it, and the anxiety that such a confrontation brings, or will they retreat into phantasy and delusion?
A Foundation for Existential Analysis
“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (Sartre, “Existentialism” 15). French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre lays out this proposition in his essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in which he attempts to precisely define the form of existentialism that he represents, and to defend it against common criticisms. Continuing, he adds that “existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men” (Sartre, “Existentialism” 16). In making this statement, Sartre is echoing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law,” and in particular the imperative of duty: “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature” (Kant 268). This is a tremendous burden, by any reckoning, and appropriately leads to what most of the existential thinkers call “anxiety.”
This is not the sort of anxiety that should lead one to resignation or passivity — it is precisely the “sort of anguish that anybody who has had responsibilities is familiar with” (Sartre, “Existentialism” 20). Nineteenth-century Danish author Søren Kierkegaard, universally acclaimed as the first existential philosopher, called upon his readers to take up the challenge that this confrontation offers — the either/or choice that he feels defines human freedom. In exhorting us to accept the ability to define our own lives through our decisions, and not to evade this responsibility, Kierkegaard asks:
Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when everyone has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this? (Kierkegaard, “Either/Or” 99)
It is this either/or choice, this form of existential anxiety (or, in Kierkegaard’s words, dread), that the characters in these novels will encounter as a result of their peculiar position in history.
War stands as the ultimate affront to the ideals that we in the Western world have been brought up to cherish; war forces a suspension of conventional morality, and a denial of basic decency. In the name of honour and duty, war forces its participants into acts that they have been taught to abhor — they are forced to kill, and to watch those they care for be killed. War is, then, an existential situation of the first order, in that it forces a confrontation with personal responsibility and with the absurd. It is far easier to adjust to such a reversal when there are obvious reasons to fight, such as a direct threat to the home or family. In the case of Vietnam, no easily discernible threat or logic dictated American involvement; quite the contrary, it was clear to the majority of the men on the ground that the Vietnamese posed no overt threat to the American way of life, and hence the war had no purpose. Killing and dying without a reason brings about a direct confrontation with the absurd, and forces one into a fundamental choice — that betwixt the acceptance of personal responsibility for actions committed under these circumstances, or flight into phantasy or rationalisation, a basic denial of the freedom to choose. This failure to accept the responsibility that absolute human freedom places upon us is what Sartre calls “bad faith” (Sartre, “Being” 86-116). War as depicted in The Things They Carried is an existential situation that forces its characters to act in accordance with a realisation of our own freedom to choose.
Similarly, the occupation of one’s homeland by an alien presence forces one to make a distinct choice — to collaborate, or not to collaborate. The situation itself is largely beyond control; though an individual’s actions can surely impact its success or failure, it must be accepted for what it is. How the individual responds to the situation, on the other hand, is entirely up to her, making such an invasion into another type of existential crisis. The incomprehensibility of the events themselves, combined with the realisation of our own culpability and freedom to act, demands that an authentic decision be made. Authenticity here means an understanding that any decision that we make originates from within ourselves, and it demands that we not seek refuge within a group or shared ethic, or seek to obviate our personal responsibility in any way. True apprehension of existence is, according to German philosopher Martin Heidegger, “either authentic, originating from its own self as such, or else inauthentic” (Heidegger 137). The Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, depicted in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, demands of the characters an authentic response to their situation, one that is predicated on their own understanding of their responsibility to themselves as free agents.
Using the concepts of bad faith and authenticity, as well as other existential criteria, I intend to examine and define the principal characters of each novel in existential terms. Differences in the lives of each character, and in their situations, will allow me to explore various aspects of existential thought along the way. There are four main characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz; all being important counterpoints to one another within Kundera’s own philosophical model, I will address each in their turn. From The Things They Carried, I have limited my study to four characters: Jimmy Cross, Tim O’Brien, Norman Bowker, and Azar; these receive the most extensive treatment in the book, and thus afford me the best opportunities for an existential analysis.
Having addressed the characters, it is also worth mentioning that there are numerous structural similarities and contrasts in the two novels themselves, as the manner in which they are written is every bit as important as the story — perhaps even more so. Whilst both of these books are decidedly post-modern in their approach to storytelling — interweaving narrative passages with reflective sequences and segments that stand out as the author addressing his audience — there is an important distinction to be drawn in their methods. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera the author frequently pauses in his narrative to interject personal observations and reflexions on the nature of the characters he has created, thus blurring the essential distinction betwixt art and artist. His work is also more overtly philosophical, a fact which in large measure inspired my own approach to this review. Kundera makes use of various features of existential and pre-Socratic philosophy throughout, and the novel’s message hinges upon an incomplete interpretation of Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence,” which I will address in due course.
The Things They Carried has a very similar structural aesthetic, most particularly in its use of shifting perspective and lack of direct chronological order to the events depicted. However, the narrative approach is fundamentally different in that O’Brien avoids Kundera’s more unusual device of having the author address his readers, instead providing himself a vehicle for personal expression through the creation of a doppelgänger named, of course, Tim O’Brien. Reading through the novel, aware of the author’s own time in Vietnam, the reader is thereby left to wonder, just where, exactly, does Tim O’Brien the author end and Tim O’Brien the character begin? This “metafictional” approach blurs the line betwixt truth and fiction, bringing to the fore another important feature of existential thought: that of subjectivity.
According to Kierkegaard, all truth is subjective — that is, relative to the individual and their unique point of view. As he explains in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the “Philosophical Fragments”, when a person commits himself to an essential (id est, an existential) proposition with his whole being — when he believes in it enough to stake his life upon it — then it can be considered subjectively true, even if it is factually or objectively false.
When the question of the truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individual’s relationship: if only the mode of this relationship is in the truth, the individual is in the truth, even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true. (Kierkegaard, “Postscript” 211)
An understanding of the individual’s responsibility for his own truths is an important, indeed a critical, aspect of both novels, which is what has drawn me to an existential approach to reviewing them. The authors understand that we create our truths for ourselves just as we create ourselves: through our actions and our decisions. These truths, like those decisions themselves, are never tied to anything in particular, least of all to the past. I am fully responsible for the person I have been in the past, yet I am no longer that same person; this existential paradox is at the heart of our relationship to the stories we tell. The Things They Carried and The Unbearable Lightness of Being are unusual in the degree to which they blur the distinction betwixt story and storyteller, fact and fiction, the past and the present. The reader is not only unable to discern the degree to which the authors’ experiences have shaped the stories they choose to share, we are, by the nature of those stories, discouraged from doing so. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not any of these events occurred — they stand as fundamental, existential truths from the authors’ lives.
Freedom and Responsibility
The first lines of The Things They Carried introduce the character of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, whose inability to concentrate on the business of war leads, he feels, to the death of Ted Lavender. In the face of his over-powering obsession with Martha, a woman back home in New Jersey, he lets his attention slip during that critical moment when Lavender is shot. Unwilling to face the uncontrollable nature of death in a hostile environment, Cross chooses to blame himself for the death — but what could he have done to prevent it? A sniper picked off Lavender as he was on his way back from urinating (O’Brien 12), and he fell silently to the ground before his shocked and traumatised comrades. “Like cement, Kiowa whispered in the dark. I swear to G-d — boom, down. Not a word” (O’Brien 17). For Cross, it is not the manner in which Lavender is killed that is important, it is the fact that he was daydreaming about Martha at that exact moment.
Jimmy Cross has just stood face-to-face with the absurd in warfare and has turned quickly away. He is never able to accept that he could have done nothing for Lavender, any more than he can accept that Martha does not love him, and never will. He takes on the burden of Lavender’s death, like Jesus taking up the cross — accepting punishment for someone else’s sins, in this case, the war’s. Feeling that this burden was just a part of his duty as an officer, he saw it as just another part of his responsibility for the men under his command. He sets out to punish himself for his “failure” by burning all of Martha’s letters, and her two photographs. The pebble that she had sent him, picked up from where the water touched the sand — at the juncture of their two worlds — and that he had carried in his mouth as a good luck charm, is symbolically transformed through the guilt he has taken on into a heavy burden. “He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war” (O’Brien 16).
Later, when Cross makes the mistake of camping his unit in an open field, which is promptly attacked when one of the men turns on his flash light to show off a picture of his girl, Kiowa is sucked into the mud and drowns. Kiowa had been with the unit for some time, and was well-liked; his death was accidental and totally random, yet Cross takes this death on as a personal burden, just as with Lavender. “My own fault” he kept murmuring to himself (O’Brien 169), and spent the day composing a letter to Kiowa’s father in his head, rather than attending to his immediate responsibility, which was to the men who remained alive.
Many years after the war has ended, he continues to carry this cross, unwilling to forgive himself for the deaths under his command. “It was something that would never go away, he said quietly” (O’Brien 27), just as his love for Martha never leaves him. They meet at a reunion in 1979, and she makes it more than clear that she will never be able to reciprocate his feelings for her (the text, in fact, seems to imply that Martha might be a lesbian: O’Brien 28-29), and yet, when reflecting on this event in speaking with Tim, he is clearly still hoping that she will see the story Tim intends to write and will come to him. Back in the jungles of Vietnam, when he had stooped over his foxhole and burnt her pictures, he told himself: “No more fantasies” (O’Brien 24), but he is never really able to let them go, for to him, they define him and his relationship with the world. Jimmy Cross does not accept that he is free, and never moves on from these youthful illusions.
Similarly, the character of Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being never faces her own freedom or the responsibility that that entails in her relationship with Tomas. The background events of her life, like those of every other character in the novel, are dictated by chance and by her own decisions, yet she insists upon finding a deeper, symbolic meaning in each moment, and in delegating responsibility for her own life to someone else. Because she cannot accept that she is responsible for her own happiness, she is never able to find peace in her life — she suffers frequent nightmares in which her fragile sense of security is threatened by her perception of Tomas’s infidelities (Kundera 18, 57). For Tereza, life is an endless trial and, with her eyes closed to her freedom, each morning she “awoke with great reluctance, with a desire to stave off the day by keeping her eyes closed” (Kundera 132).
All of her life, she had been looking for a man to take care of her; someone to enfold her in his arms and take responsibility for her happiness. “Even at the age of eight she would fall asleep by pressing one hand into the other and making believe she was holding the hand of the man whom she loved, the man of her life. So if in her sleep she pressed Tomas’s hand with such tenacity, we can understand why: she had been training for it since childhood” (Kundera 54-55). When she meets Tomas by chance during a brief stop-over he makes in her village, she draws from a series of co-incidences a message that Tomas was “the one” who could save her, and in attaching herself to him, she was finally able to leave her mother (Kundera 47-55). However, leaving home did not afford her the opportunity to grow up that it should have, as she simply substituted Tomas for her mother and became totally dependent upon him.
Afforded ample opportunity to learn that “chance and chance alone has a message for us” (Kundera 48), Tereza never manages to do so. From earliest childhood until the day she dies, she is running from herself by retreating into a phantasy world where every gesture, every co-incidence, has the deepest significance. Utterly convinced that her relationship with Tomas is “meant to be,” she is unable to reconcile herself to his constant affairs with his mistresses; she in unable to separate her own requirements from his and unable to accept Tomas as he is. Despite the fact the Tomas obviously loves her, and only her, she is unable to accept his love because it is not on her exclusive terms.
Even her own body is a source of anxiety for Tereza. Convinced that there must be something more to her than her body, she would stand transfixed before the mirror, staring at her features, convinced that she was seeing her own soul reflected in her face (Kundera 41). Tereza lacks the strength to separate herself from her expectations — she is constantly fleeing her own freedom. Whether running back to Prague in order to make Tomas chase her, attempting suicide to escape her feelings of helplessness (Kundera 17), or phantasizing about Tomas wanting her dead to escape the sense of guilt that she cannot abandon, Tereza never faces the absurd on any level. Like Ted Lavender in The Things They Carried, who chose to spend the war strung out on tranquillisers (O’Brien 230), Tereza is looking for any excuse to escape from her own life. She is thereby both living in bad faith, by refusing to accept her own freedom, and is inauthentic in that she refuses to acknowledge that her decisions are her own to make.
In this way, she is like most individuals, whether fictional or not. Nothing in popular culture encourages the sort of reflexion that would bring about a confrontation with the absurd, and hence most of us continue to expect a life that is fair and meaningful, never quite conscious of the fact that we are creating our own meaning through our decisions. The central characters in these two novels fare slightly better than most in this regard. By the time he writes his novel, Tim is conscious of the fact that he will not find a meaning for his experiences in Vietnam outside of himself, and so must create it through his stories. Tomas seems to understand from the start that his decisions are all that define his existence, and consequently he is more honest with himself about his motives. As we shall see, he is by far the most authentic of the characters in either novel.
Reflecting on the war years later, Tim hits on the essential experience of man at war: “In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human accord, things you never knew you wanted” (O’Brien 81). The depths of man’s inhumanity to man awaken in Tim an understanding that life is not as simple as he thought it was. In his confrontation with the absurd, he discovers that ultimately it is he that must supply the meaning to his life and to his experiences. He takes the incomprehensible experience of the war, and turns it into stories that allow him to explore the elements of deeper truth that seem to exist below the surface of reality. Whilst Tim succeeds in finding a way to generate meaning in his life, through his writing, he fails to come to grips with the fact that life itself does not necessarily have one. He continues to search for the elusive answer to his questions — wanting to know why such things happened to him, and hoping that in his stories he can at least reach a state of catharsis — rather than accepting the events for what they are and moving on.
Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife’s breathing. The war’s over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what’s the point? (O’Brien 82)
Indeed, what is the point? That is what Tim spends the next two decades searching for. His is unable to let go of his past in Vietnam, and whilst his stories allow him some measure of peace, it is never enough to end his search for a deeper meaning. His daughter’s tenth birthday present gives him an excuse to return to Vietnam, and revisit some of the places that have left such deep scars on his psyche. Returning to the “shit field” where his friend Kiowa lost his life, he looks about for a clue to why this place had haunted him for so long. Standing in the field, Tim thinks to himself:
There were times in my life when I couldn’t feel much, not sadness or pity or passion, and somehow I blamed this place for what I had become, and I blamed it for taking away the person I had once been. For twenty years this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror. (O’Brien 185)
What was that field, really? A symbol to him off all that he could not let go from this period in his life? Did Tim ever understand that it was his own decision to remain locked in the past, and was he able, in this final reckoning with the field when he buried Kiowa’s moccasins in the mud (O’Brien 186), to let go of his guilt and anguish over these events?
And what of the man that he may, or may not, have killed? “He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole” (O’Brien 130). What does it mean that he is able to either objectify the death by making it a story, or to take on the responsibility for a death he did not cause by inventing such a story? (O’Brien 180) In the end, the events of that day do not matter — what is important is what Tim took from the experience, and that is the guilt attached to the death of a young Vietnamese man, a sense of guilt that he cannot release. The fact is, he does have a choice, and he does not wish to face that choice — his stories give him a way out, a way to express how he feels without actually dealing with those feelings or his responsibility for them.
Throughout his life, Tim has had to make these kind of choices, and what is more, he has known all along that they were significant. When he received his draft notice, he knew instinctively that he had encountered an existential situation; that is, that how he responded to that notice would determine the course of his entire life. Tim is faced with the anxiety that comes from a realisation that he was completely free to choose his course of action. He can accept the draft and fight a war that he does not believe in, or he can flee to Canada and leave behind everything he loves, necessarily incurring the shame that would accompany such a flight. And so he runs.
Driving north, toward the Canadian border, he has “a giddy feeling, in a way, except there was the dreamy edge of impossibility to it — like running a dead-end maze — no way out — it couldn’t come to a happy conclusion and yet I was doing it anyway because it was all I could think of to do” (O’Brien 47). Tim is confronting his freedom, and is trying to find his way within it. As Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset says in his essay “Man Has No Nature,” “At every moment of my life there opens before me divers possibilities: I can do this or that. If I do this, I shall be A the moment after; if I do that, I shall be B. . . . Man is the entity that makes itself” (Ortega 155).
Throughout his six-day stay at the Tip Top Lodge (O’Brien 47-61) along the Rainy River on the Canadian border, Tim wrestles with himself. He knows what he must do in order to remain authentic — cross the river and enter Canada. He feels that the war is wrong, and that he should have no part in it. Yet in the end, he allows his sense of guilt and obligation, his shame, to draw him back to Minnesota, and into the war. Having stared his own freedom and responsibility to himself in the eye, Tim caves in to social pressures and hence, in bad faith, sets off for Vietnam as a foot soldier.
Tomas makes exactly the opposite choice from a very similar situation — when he expresses his displeasure with the current régime in Prague by publishing an editorial based upon the story of Oedipus in a small intellectual weekly (Kundera 178). This editorial immediately brings to light the possibility that Tomas will be forced from his position at the hospital. As the best surgeon on the staff (Kundera 180), it was widely expected that he would take over for the chief surgeon upon his retirement. Now he is being asked to retract his statement, to deny that he had intended any criticism of the régime. Tomas is faced with the possibility of making an inauthentic statement, and thereby securing his future, or standing by his words and losing his career. What is more, he understands that everyone expects him to make the statement — never mind that he agonises about it for days, revealing the unusual degree to which he is attuned to his own sense of self. For his principled stand, he is, in due course, forced out of his position at the hospital, and takes up practice in a small country clinic fifty miles from Prague (Kundera 184).
This sort of decision, which would be almost impossible for most people in such a situation, is relatively easy for Tomas, given his deep commitment to being honest with himself. The decision was born of his indignation at the Czech Communists who profess ignorance of the crimes the state had committed, and hence proclaim innocence of any wrongdoing. “We didn’t know,” the Communists protest, “We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!” (Kundera 177) Tomas sees this for the lie that it is — a lie they have told themselves, but a lie nonetheless. When Tomas heard them shouting out this defence, he thought to himself:
As a result of your “not knowing,” this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done? How is it that you aren’t horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes! (Kundera 177)
Which brings him to his Oedipus analogy, and the loss of his career, which he has sacrificed on the altar of his principled honesty.
Who amongst us could stand in solidarity with such a man as this? Tomas falls from a position as senior surgeon to the rôle of a lowly window-washer, yet steadfastly refuses to regret his decision, which he had made whilst fully cognizant of its likely outcome. Sartre defines responsibility as “consciousness (of) being the incontestable author or an event or of an object” (Sartre, “Being” 707). Tomas knows that he has no one to blame for the condition of his life but himself; he has accepted his own responsibility.
Tomas’s honesty further extends beyond the professional and deeply into his personal life, informing his choices in love and sexuality. He knows that his conception of “erotic friendship” is a social taboo, and he understands that his continued infidelities hurt Tereza, yet he can see no harm in them himself.
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 number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (Kundera 15)
For Tomas, sex and love are not related; for Tereza they are intimately bound up. In the end, it is his deep love for Tereza that leads Tomas to forsake a life that he is perfectly content with, and to strike out into the country and find another life, equally fulfilling, with only Tereza. In this decision, as in the others, Tomas knows exactly what he is doing, and why. He understands that his life is his own to define, and through his continuous honesty he reveals a level of authenticity that few amongst us can approximate.
Lightness and Weight
Kundera’s book begins with a discussion of the theory of eternal recurrence, one of the major themes in the work of nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Despite its oft-stated centrality within Nietzsche’s own thought, it has been frequently misunderstood — and often dismissed — by other philosophers and authors. Kundera appears to continue this tradition of misrepresentation when he presents the eternal recurrence merely as one component of a polarity betwixt lightness and heaviness. The ancient Greek thinker Parmenides divided the world into opposites, defining one side of each pair as positive and the other negative; for Parmenides, lightness is a positive feature, and weight negative. In evoking this contrast, Kundera is asking the reader to consider human life in terms of overwhelming burden versus total insignificance, and wondering which of these is truly desirable.
In his early discussions of recurrence, Nietzsche himself refers to his idea as “the greatest weight” (Nietzsche, “Science” 273), and Kundera echoes this when he calls recurrence “the heaviest of burdens” and says that “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 heavily on every move we make” (Kundera 5). As Kundera points out, this weight is not entirely negative — there is, for example, great joy to be found in the crushing weight of a lover’s body. Nietzsche, however, goes much further in exploring the beauty inherent in eternal recurrence:
Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, ‘You please me, happiness! Abide, moment!’ then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored — oh, then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants — eternity. (Nietzsche, “Zarathustra” 435)
In directly connecting the burden of recurrence and the joy of living, Nietzsche is already making difficult Kundera’s usage of recurrence as a crushing burden that nevertheless makes life meaningful. For Nietzsche, recurrence is ultimately life-affirming and he speaks of it as liberating and superior to prior theories of free-will.
It is true that there is a certain burden inherent in realising that your every action must stand for all time as representative of your own self and your intentions in that moment, but this is only part of the theory. The most common and egregious error made in interpretations of the eternal recurrence is in seeing it as a physical theory, when in fact it has absolutely nothing to do with this universe — it is the universe itself which will recur, not individual beings within it. Further, the eternal recurrence is itself tied up in Nietzsche’s thought with the will to power, which he conceived of as a replacement for the pre-Socratic notion of a primary element from which all things are derived. For Nietzsche, all of life reflects the will to power, that force operating within nature which seeks a victory over limitations: a transcendence of the possible, if you will. When recurrence is placed within the proper context — that of a replacement for other metaphysical theories of immortality — and viewed in conjunction with the will to power, it is difficult to conceive of recurrence itself as being a burden or crushing weight.
On the contrary, recurrence is a way to free the self from regret and resentment. Nietzsche speaks of recurrence in terms of infinite combinations of elements, and of lives. Every possible decision has been made by an infinite number of subtly-different copies of you — by twins in other universes, to place the idea in the language of modern science. Current studies based upon cosmological observations are lending credence to the science fiction staple of a “multiverse,” and are, according to physicist and astronomer Max Tegmark, “grounded in well-tested theories such as relativity and quantum mechanics” (Tegmark 41).
The “Many Worlds” theory of quantum realities, first put forth by Hugh Everett III in 1957, has been steadily gaining adherents amongst physicists, and has recently displaced the older Copenhagen model. In The Universe Next Door, British physicist Marcus Chown tells us that through the use of this model,
physicists are increasingly accepting the idea that there are infinite realities stacked together like the pages of a never-ending book. So there are infinite versions of you, living out infinite different lives, in infinite parallel realities. In some of these realities . . . you never started to read these words. In other realities, you had an entirely different upbringing, developed radically different interests, made completely different friends. (Chown 25)
In The Will to Power, written seventy years before the “Many Worlds” theory appeared, Nietzsche tells us that:
In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum. (Nietzsche, “Will” 549)
In essence, then, every possible life you could have lived, you have lived already, and will live again perpetually. Where in such a world view is there room for regret? Where is the burden of having made a poor decision, when you can take comfort in the fact that another version of you did not make the same mistake? This understanding of infinite combinations of circumstance is, for Nietzsche, a more elegant solution to the question of free will, and an affirmation of the joy of living.
Having seen that Nietzsche did not consider recurrence to be a burden in the way Kundera uses it, and neither does it have any impact upon the perceived flow of time as human beings experience it (since we cannot experience life from without the universe as G-d would, but only from within it, subjectively), Kundera’s entire lightness-heaviness polarity comes apart. His understanding of the theory is incomplete, and confuses the infinite repetition of universes with an ephemeral quality extant in this world. He states that the eternal recurrence causes events to appear without “the mitigating circumstances of their transitory nature” (Kundera 4), and that only recurrence would allow us to pass judgement on the past. Kundera’s use of recurrence begins by accurately depicting the burden placed upon us in our choices, but neglects to account for the absolute freedom that is inextricably linked to an understanding of the infinite combinations inherent in recurrence.
Placed within Kundera’s own language, Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence is both light and heavy, liberating and encumbering — it makes little sense as only one component of a binary value scale for living. When viewed in this way, our actions are seen as frozen in time and eternally recurring, yet they are only one aspect of an infinite “self” that stretches across time and space and encompasses all possible outcomes. Further, we now can see that both aspects of recurrence — lightness and heaviness — are essential features of an authentic life, or conversely, that an over-emphasis on either aspect leads to bad faith. By focussing on the burden of eternal recurrence, we can deny the essential truth of our freedom, and by seeking to obviate our responsibility for ourselves in denial or escapism, we are defying the individual will to power.
The interplay of these two extremes — of burden and escape — are clearly illustrated in the characters of Norman Bowker and Azar from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Young American foot soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam, these two men have allowed their experiences to dictate their emotional responses, and both have lost themselves in doing so. War, in all of its incomprehensible horror, forces the individual to confront himself and his sense of personal responsibility, just as the military life demands the surrender of the individual will to the needs of the collective.
“The war was over and there was no place in particular to go” (O’Brien 137). Norman’s reflexions, transformed into a story by his old war-buddy Tim, give us a glimpse into the psychology of so many Vietnam veterans, unable to re-adjust to normal civilian life after the brutality they had experienced — that they had perpetrated — in that tiny country half a world away. Norman is unable to reconcile his past in Vietnam with the life he could have had if the war had never dragged him out of the Mid-West and into those distant jungles.
Moreover, he is haunted by his failure to win the medals that, he feels, would have earned him the respect of his father. Years later, when writing of his own experiences in the war, Tim remembers:
Norman Bowker lying on his back one night, watching the stars, then whispering to me, ‘I’ll tell you something, O’Brien. If I could have one wish, anything, I’d wish for my dad to write me a letter and say it’s okay if I don’t win any medals. That’s all my old man talks about, nothing else. How he can’t wait to see my goddamn medals.’ (O’Brien 36)
Given a chance to wish for anything, Norman doesn’t wish to go home, to escape Vietnam; he just wants his father to be proud of him, whether he wins any medals or not. For Norman, this idea of winning medals has grown into an intolerable weight that he cannot let go of, even as it drives him to the edge of despair.
Vietnam is over and Norman is driving around a lake in his home town on the Fourth of July. His father is at home, watching baseball, and all Norman can think of in his endless circuits is how he would be able to tell his father that he just wasn’t “uncommonly brave.” He thinks about the seven medals that he had won, but notes that all of them are for the “routine, daily stuff . . . just enduring” (O’Brien 141) even as he tries to convince himself that they are worth something. By the end of the ’70s, Norman is still obsessing over his perceived failure and, after attempting to get Tim to exorcise the daemons for him with a story about his experiences ends in disappointment, his friends find him “hanging from a water pipe” in the YMCA (O’Brien 160).
“The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus’s seminal essay on the absurd, begins with these words: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (Camus 3). A bold claim, to be sure, but one that lies at the heart of existential thought — if life has no meaning or purpose, why then do we not end it? In his definition of the absurd, Camus sees three consequences for living: revolt, freedom, and passion. Through a combination of these — through an acceptance of these — he can “transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death” and can “refuse suicide” (Camus 64). For Camus, “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” (Camus 123), and this is the essential lesson of existentialism: that life itself may have no meaning beyond our own actions, but we can make it meaningful through our actions. The question of the “meaning of life,” then, becomes an oxymoron — life is its own meaning.
Norman Bowker feels himself trapped beneath a terrible burden; this weight has led him to retreat from a sense of responsibility for his own freedom, and for the consequences of his actions both during and after the war. Wrapped up in his pain, Norman sees no way out save death. In committing suicide, Norman is denying that he has any responsibility for the condition of his life, and denying too that he is free to change and to grow and to leave Vietnam behind.
Similarly, Azar spends the entire war in a self-inflicted emotional isolation, using his childish humour to put up a mental block against the horror he knows that he is a party to. In his resolute refusal to take any part of the war seriously, Azar stands across from Norman as a polar opposite — total lightness and irrelevance against the crushing weight of Norman’s overweening heaviness — yet both are equally clear reflexions of bad faith in their inability to accept responsibility for their rôle in the events unfolding around them.
Through his relentless trivialization of death, Azar seeks to desensitise himself to it, and thereby to evade any sense of accountability for it. Happening upon Tim as the latter contemplates the corpse of a young Vietnamese man he has just killed with a hand grenade, Azar cannot resist remarking “Oh, man, you fuckin’ trashed the fucker . . . You scrambled his sorry self, look at that, you did, you laid him out like Shredded fuckin’ Wheat” (O’Brien 125). Whether or not he notices that Tim is appalled by the death, Azar cannot help making light of it. Tim, meanwhile, is creating an entire life story for the dead man in his head, obsessing over the death almost to the point of catatonia.
Azar clearly is affected by his environment, but is too young and immature to deal effectively with it, hence his attempts to turn death into a game. Sometimes these games reach levels of morbid absurdity, revealing depths of trauma that are difficult for an outsider to comprehend, such as when Azar took a puppy that Ted Lavender had been caring for, “strapped it to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device” (O’Brien 36). Confronted by his comrades over this senseless death, Azar, in his complete emotional disconnexion, reveals more about the psychological effects of Vietnam upon the teenagers drafted to fight than any other single line in the novel: “What’s everyone so upset about? . . . I mean, Christ, I’m just a boy” (O’Brien 37).
The Apprehension of Being
Sartre’s ontology defines the apprehension of physical reality using two distinct models: being-in-itself and being-for-itself. An object which would have substance regardless of human perception is defined as being-in-itself; its existence is not predicated upon, challenged, or affected by human observation — it simply is. Conversely, a human being is defined as being-for-itself, which implies that it creates itself, and is ultimately responsible to itself. Sartrean views on freedom and responsibility have been addressed earlier in this treatment, and I will not belabour the point by repeating them except to say that this ontological model is the foundation for those views.
One of the major problems with being-for-itself — and with subjective views of reality in general — lies in accounting for the presence of other consciousnesses. I am, after all, demonstrably not alone in the world, yet without the ability to directly experience the thoughts and feelings of other people, what can I actually know of them? How can I know that their actions are related to their feelings and desires and perceptions in the same way that mine are?
Sartre solves this problem by presenting a third ontological model: being-for-others. Whilst admitting that he cannot prove the existence of other consciousnesses through deduction, Sartre shows us why we cannot seriously doubt that they do by insisting that we must have a “pre-ontological comprehension” of “the Other” in order to function as human beings. Indeed, he takes the existence of other people to be a factual and indisputable outgrowth of the famous cognito ergo sum, first postulated by René Descartes to establish an existential foundation for the individual consciousness. Using Sartre’s pre-ontological comprehension, I can no more doubt the existence of other people than I can doubt my own existence.
There is, however, a problem in any direct encounter with the Other. If it is true that they are unique beings like myself, then the world around them exists only for them, just as it does for me. In effect, when we encounter the presence of another independent consciousness, we are forced to surrender our sole command of the world outside ourselves — the world no long revolves around us alone. When this happens, Sartre tells us that:
[We] still have to do with my being and not with an image of my being. We are dealing with my being as it is written in and by the Other’s freedom. Everything takes place as if I had a dimension of being from which I was separated by a radical nothingness; and this nothingness is the Other’s freedom. (Sartre, “Being” 351)
In order to re-gain control over our individual perception of reality, we are forced to objectify the Other; to place her in a subordinate position relative to our own. This is never fully possible, because we intuit that the Other is a being just like ourselves, and that she will at the same time be objectifying us.
This act of “being seen” destabilises our freedom, because it forces us into an awareness of theirs. Having been seen, we are now cognizant of the Other’s ability to judge us — his gaze draws our attention to our own appearance, leading to manifestations of such feelings as pride, shame, and embarrassment. There is in this gaze a clear distinction betwixt our perception of ourselves and that of the Other. Sartre says that:
[the] object which I apprehend under the name of the Other appears to me in a radically other form. The Other is not a for-itself as he appears to me; I do not appear to myself as I am for-the-Other. I am incapable of apprehending for myself the self which I am for the Other, just as I am incapable of apprehending on the basis of the Other-as-object which appears to me, what the Other is to himself. (Sartre, “Being” 327)
The common inability to deal rationally with our encounters with the Other and to indefinitely re-claim the world as our own means that we must constantly be aware of the gaze of the Other and prepare ourselves for it. Understanding that the Other and his judgements are not permanent, and do not negate our own freedom, is an important step towards a sincere approach to communitarian living.
Despite this, it is not uncommon to become so wrapped up in the Other’s view of your life that you lose any sense of its value independent of that person’s perceptions. This is what happens to Franz when he gives himself over completely to Sabina, the artist who has spent a year as his secret mistress. In his love-blinded obsession, he never truly understands Sabina and comes instead to worship her more as the Platonic ideal of perfect womanhood than as a woman in her own right.
During one of their first times together, Franz announced to her, in an oddly emphatic way, ‘Sabina, you are a woman.’ She could not understand why he accentuated the obvious . . . Not until later did she understand that the word ‘woman,’ on which he had placed such uncommon emphasis, did not, in his eyes, signify one of the two human sexes; it represented a value. Not every woman was worthy of being called a woman. (Kundera 89)
His perception of himself becomes so thoroughly enmeshed in her perceived approval that he “took pleasure in her praise” (Kundera 111) even when it was nothing more than a casual comment made whilst lying in bed. Never understanding that Sabina “was charmed more by betrayal than by fidelity” (Kundera 91), Franz decides at last to commit himself completely to her, and announces to his wife that he is leaving her (Kundera 114). Predictably, Sabina promptly disappears from his life, and from Geneva; Franz leaves his wife just the same, and feels that in doing so he has “ceased to be a little boy; for the first time in his life he was on his own” (Kundera 119-120).
Franz was not, however, “on his own.” Sabina’s memory hung over his new life like a ghostly echo; he discovered that her “physical presence was much less important than he had expected. What was important was the golden footprint, the magic footprint she had left on his life and no one could ever remove” (Kundera 120). He continued to define every aspect of his life in relation to her, even when he took on a young new mistress from the university — worse, he felt as though Sabina herself, in her new rôle as his “invisible goddess” (Kundera 120) had actually sent the girl to him as a replacement.
Later, Franz is invited to take part in a demonstration-march on Cambodia to protest the Vietnamese invasion and imposed diplomatic isolation, which persisted despite the famine wracking the country and the desperate need for medical supplies. Franz had always been attracted to political demonstrations, despite never voting himself, for he felt it was a way to connect with a sense of shared humanity that was lacking in his own life. At first, he declines this invitation, but reconsiders when it occurs to him that his friend might have “contacted him at Sabina’s secret bidding” (Kundera 259). He thought to himself: “Heavenly bodies know all and see all. If he went on the march, Sabina would gaze down on him enraptured; she would understand that he had remained faithful to her” (Kundera 258-259). Consumed by his false conception of himself as a being for-the-Other, Franz has concocted an idol for himself, one which ultimately leads him to a meaningless death in the dirty streets of Thailand.
And what of Sabina herself? Sabina, who is never able to stand the gaze of the Other when it threatens to penetrate her veneer of detached ambivalence; Sabina who is never able to commit to anything or anyone, least of all herself. Wise enough to accept the things that are beyond her control (Kundera 89), it is only in dealing with her own inner self that Sabina shows her inauthenticity. When life presents choices to her that would force a re-evaluation of, or confrontation with, her long-suppressed daemons, she invariably chooses betrayal and flight.
The security she feels with Franz, the first truly good and noble man she had ever met, makes her want to call out “Don’t let me go, hold me tight, make me your plaything, your slave, be strong!” (Kundera 98), but she never does; these are the words that would break down the walls she has built around her ability to love and to commit. When Franz tells her that “love means renouncing strength,” she recognises in his words the depth and sincerity of his feelings for her, but in her self-imposed isolation those words only “disqualified him from her love life” (Kundera 112).
It is true that Sabina experiences the shame of standing before the Other, as when she met her former lover Tomas’s wife and they decide to take nude photographs of one another. “The situation she found herself in was . . . a bit more difficult than she had expected” (Kundera 65), and she dispels her nervousness by reversing rôles and taking the camera. However, it is not in her relations with the Other that Sabina is most inauthentic — it is in her understanding of her own freedom and responsibility for the condition of her life.
Sabina most completely embodies what Milan Kundera refers to as “the unbearable lightness of being.” Through her constant betrayals — of her family, her husband, her country, herself — Sabina has always sought a new thrill, a new path to adventure. What she was really doing was fleeing from the possibility of commitment, and when at last she has run out of things to betray she finally “felt emptiness all around her.” This emptiness is her own doing, of course; it was “the goal of all her betrayals” (Kundera 122), though she had forbidden herself from becoming aware of this simple fact.
It is significant that, of the four main characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, only Sabina remains alive in the end. Her lightness has prevented her from being dragged down by the tumultuous events that engulfed the lives of her lovers and friends, but it also renders her life completely inconsequential. The will that she has drawn up after settling in California stipulates that “her dead body be cremated and the ashes thrown to the winds” (Kundera 273) in order to retain her lightness to the very end — not even the soil of her adopted country could claim her.
An Existential Valuation
Jean-Paul Sartre’s long-time companion and fellow philosopher and author Simone de Beauvoir contributed the idea of situated freedom to the foundation Sartre had lain in existential ethics. Put simply, situated freedom recognises that certain social groups are not frequently given the opportunity to recognise their potential for freedom, providing a mitigating circumstance when bad faith is applied to their actions. In her 1948 work The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir uses harem women and slaves to explain this concept:
Their behavior is defined and can be judged only within this given situation, and it is possible that in this situation, limited like every human situation, they realize a perfect assertion of their freedom. But once there appears a possibility of liberation, it is resignation of freedom not to exploit the possibility, a resignation which implies dishonesty and which is a positive fault. (De Beauvoir 38)
De Beauvoir’s formulation allows us to apply the individualistic Sartrean conception of bad faith to specific segments of the population in a more general way, and in this way address their instances more accurately. When applied to the characters in the novels under discussion, the second half of the quotation above is of particular importance. As members of two distinct and repressed social classes — the soldier in war and the civilian in an occupied nation — these characters may or may not be expected to recognise their potential for freedom, depending upon the specific events outlined in their respective tales. If we deem them to be operating within sufficiently mitigating circumstances, we may choose to absolve them of moral culpability for failing to act upon their natural human freedom.
Whilst more explicitly defined, and thus more useful for our purposes, this idea remains firmly in line with Sartre’s own view that bad faith is not necessarily to be condemned in all people, but only in those who are cognizant of the condition of their freedom. Sartre lays out his own justification for passing existential moralistic judgements thusly:
[When], in all honesty, I’ve recognized that man is a being in whom existence precedes essence, that he is a free being who, in various circumstances, can want only his freedom, I have at the same time recognized that I can want only the freedom of others. Therefore, in the name of this will for freedom, which freedom itself implies, I may pass judgement on those who seek to hide from themselves the complete arbitrariness and the complete freedom of their existence. Those who hide their complete freedom from themselves out of a spirit of seriousness or by means of deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards . . . (Sartre, “Existentialism” 46)
The critical distinction to be made is betwixt those who would use the “spirit of seriousness” or “deterministic excuses” to evade their responsibility for their own lives and those who may simply remain unwittingly ignorant of that freedom.
The soldier in Vietnam is an almost unique case in the history of American warfare in the unprecedented awareness of the average soldier of their options for escape. Not only were draft cards widely burned and draft notices spurned, many men fled to Canada to avoid the draft entirely, or found ways into the National Guard or the university system. Even those who ended up in Vietnam remained aware of the news from home of growing protests against the war, and were given the possibility of reviewing their participation in it. Finally, there were indirect ways out of the war, such as that eventually taken by Rat Kiley when he put a bullet through his own foot (O’Brien 223). The frequent breakdowns in routine military discipline, the wide availability of media sources, and the many routes for escape from the war make the young soldier in Vietnam unusual in his culpability for evading his freedom to choose.
This same culpability can be applied to those ground beneath the heel of Soviet domination during the Cold War in Europe. Through such avenues as Radio Free Europe and the extensive underground presses, the citizenry of occupied eastern Europe were well aware of their predicament and the alternatives available to them. However, lacking an effective means to resist on a large scale, most chose not to act at all; when faced with such monolithic force, how many of us would not choose the easy way out? After all, what can one man do against the might of the Red Army? Under existentialism, this evasion of responsibility is precisely where authenticity comes into play. In refusing to accept that all of our actions are meaningful, and that we are ultimately to blame for the condition of our own lives, we surrender to inauthenticity.
Using the criterion above, and an understanding of the historical realities that formed the backdrop for these two novels, we can render an existential judgement upon the various characters based upon their individual recognition of their freedom and subsequent actions. Tereza and Azar may have been too under-developed emotionally to ever have come to recognise their freedom, and can be excused for living in uniformly bad faith throughout. We are given to understand that Jimmy Cross and Norman Bowker are of more than adequate intelligence and resources to have made better decisions than they did, and so can condemn their consistent retreat from responsibility. Sabina and Franz are both portrayed as highly intelligent and articulate, and more than capable of asserting their freedom; both, in fact, do so in a variety of ways by making difficult decisions and accepting the consequences of those decisions. They also demonstrate an unusual degree of insight into their own lives and motivations, particularly near their respective endings, and whilst they never accept full responsibility they come closer than many of us do.
The last two characters, Tim O’Brien and Tomas, stand out from the other six by virtue of their far more unambiguously-existential experiences. Tim is significant for the very explicit confrontation he has with the absurd on the Rainy River, and for the deeply-introspective exploration of his possible avenues of escape from Vietnam. Standing face to face with an opportunity to do what he knows is right — what he knows best reflects his own chosen nature — Tim recoils in fear and shame, and returns home to accept his draft notice. Tomas, given the chance to retract his editorial and keep his position at hospital, stands on principle because he knows that his own nature demands an honest response to this challenge to his integrity. From the events recounted in each of these characters’ stories, we can determine that Tim is, in Sartre’s words, a coward, and that Tomas is living an unusually authentic life.
The greatest novels have something to teach us about psychology, reality, or the human condition; the very best try for all three. These two have provided an excellent vehicle for the exploration and explication of the major themes in existential philosophy, but given the depth of their characters and the severity of the settings depicted in each, I could just as easily have made a psychoanalytic evaluation, or a post-modern review, or a historical criticism; the list goes on. The fact is, I chose existentialism for a reason. But having now completed this survey of The Things They Carried and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we should take a moment to ask ourselves, what have we learnt about the novels themselves and about the diverse characters within? What have we learnt about ourselves? If you’re anything like me, you’ll have your own answers to those questions, and all things considered, your answers are probably just as good as mine.
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* Chown, Marcus. The Universe Next Door: The Making of Tomorrow’s Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
* De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Citadel Press, 1994.
* Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
* Kant, Immanuel. “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals.” Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. Chicago: University of Chicago / Britannica Great Books, 1952.
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* Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.
* Ortega y Gasset, José. “Man Has No Nature.” Trans. Helene Weyl. Ed. Walter
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* Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Trans. & Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage International, 1967.
* O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
* Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
* Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism [is a Humanism].” Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Citadel Press, 1987.
* Tegmark, Max. “Parallel Universes.” Scientific American. May 2003: 40-51.