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How Do We Know What We Want: Milan Kundera on the Central Ambivalences of Life and Love

“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… We live everything as it comes, without warning.”

“Live as if you were living already for the second time,” Viktor Frankl wrote in his 1946 masterwork on the human search for meaning, “and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” And yet we only live once, with no rehearsal or reprise — a fact at once so oppressive and so full of possibility that it renders us, in the sublime words of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, “ill-prepared for the privilege of living.” All the while, we walk forward accompanied by the specters of versions of ourselves we failed to or chose not to become. “Our lived lives,” wrote psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his magnificent manifesto for missing out, “might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.” We perform this existential dance of yeses and nos to the siren song of one immutable question: How do we know what we want, what to want?

Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Czech-French writer Milan Kundera examines our ambivalent amble through life with unparalleled grace and poetic precision in his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (public library) — one of the most beloved and enduringly rewarding books of the past century.

Because love heightens all of our senses and amplifies our existing preoccupations, it is perhaps in love that life’s central ambivalences grow most disorienting — something the novel’s protagonist, Tomáš, tussles with as he finds himself consumed with the idea of a lover he barely knows:

He had come to feel an inexplicable love for this all but complete stranger.


But was it love? … 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? … Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love.

The woman eventually becomes Tomáš’s wife, which only further affirms that even the rightest choice can present itself to us shrouded in uncertainty and doubt at the outset, its rightness only crystallized in the clarity of hindsight. Kundera captures the universal predicament undergirding Tomáš’s particular perplexity:

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.


There is no means of testing which decision is better, because 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 groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it bears repeating, is one of the most life-magnifying books one could ever read. Complement this particular point of inflection with Donald Barthelme on the art of not-knowing and Adam Phillips on the rewards of the unlived life.

Published October 16, 2015




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