Monday, December 16, 2013

The Cloud of Unknowing • The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Yesterday I concluded my first course Ideas of the 20th Century at - an online education platform founded by MIT & Harvard. Extremely enriching experience, we find ourselves amidst no more excuses - the internet continues to go above and beyond.

Literature Essay

"There were no more wise men; there were no more heroes... Amory had
grown up to a thousand books, a thousand lies; he had listened eagerly
to people who pretended to know, who knew nothing. The mystical
reveries of saints that had once filled him with awe in the still
hours of night, now vaguely repelled him."

Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise


The Cloud of Unknowing · 
The Unbearable Lightness of Being

As we delve into Fitzgerald’s words, imagining we have no previous knowledge of his work, we may come to realize that what was considered reality for Amory fragmented into a new notion of reality. When one first comes in contact with the excerpt it appears as nihilistic, not a single letter retaining value, not a sole phrase persuading to move Amory, not a man on earth worthy.  This would seem as a contradiction in the face of any text, why waste time on text if there is nothing to extract from it?

An author who would not agree with Amory’s loss of faith and rejection of values is the Anonymous writer of a late 14thcentury work titled “The Cloud of Unknowyng”, an invitation into Christian mystic contemplation. It is a book infused of faith with a core value, love. It would seem counterproductive to reference a book written amidst the Middle Ages, a time characterized within ideological framework that often skewed from the truth, yet this piece reads, even today, as extremely avant-garde within the context of religion and spirituality.

The atom, if we follow the definition of good philosophers in the science of astronomy, is the smallest particle of time. “All time is given to you; it shall be asked of you how you have spent it.”… for it is neither longer nor shorter but exactly equal to each single stirring that is in the chief working power of your soul, that is, your will… as there can be and are in your will in one hour, so are there atoms in an hour.[1]

Even if the passage above implies normativity: “how time is spent”, it is taken into consideration within a scientific dimension, time. Time “is neither longer nor shorter but exactly equal to “, it does not classify if time is “goodly” or “wrongly” spent, there is no classification. We could say that due to time’s reality (its very visible effects upon us)– how man and woman consume or contribute to it, may be the fuel to carry out a value, faith: to trust the reality of times effect, a fragile vessel to the unintelligible Love. Though love may be greatly debated, it is a virtue inherent in all mankind at some point or another during the span of his or her lifetime.  Here we have value, we have faith.

"For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens."[2]

The unintelligible-ness of this Love is precisely why the “Cloud” urges the contemplative to lay ALL his knowledge in the “Cloud of Forgetting” and pierce the “Cloud of Unknowing” with the only arrow that can. We may observe that Amory’s- mans knowledge is many times the veil of his ignorance. The arrow is the Unknowingness of Love, Love being Infinite, as God himself, so that “darkness” in a non-negative form: that which is not known of the unknown, may be illumined or at least briefly penetrated with the Infinite itself. A hope Amory looses sight of, all efforts of men are gone, in his own knowledge he sees no knowledge.

On the opposite spectrum is Milan Kundera´s, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, which would stand in agreement with Amory. The novel explores Nietzsche’s “eternal return”. In Nietzsche’s perspective the universe experiences an infinite return, an infinite iteration of all that happens within it, and so mankind reiterates all of its experiences, decisions, outcomes - eternally. Kundera flips the concept and states that there is an aggregated “lightness” to living life only once, he explores the psyche of those who experience the weight of their decisions in contrast to those who do not. In parallel, during communist Czechoslovakia, Kundera exposes the ineffective, brutal regime that oppressed and censured all free thinkers throughout the 60s and 70s. Due to the time, to have a cause, to believe, to consider the slightest thoughts something else, something different, vanish thanks to those who have imposed themselves upon time.

The lightest of his characters takes constant gratification in humiliation and betrayal. The heaviest experiences an incessant shame of her body due to her mother’s uninhibited exhibitions. I would have to conclude that there is in fact little lightness to the lighter in comparison to the heavier – there is no lightness at all, there is only weight, there is “a thousand books and a thousand lies”.

In an interesting way “The Cloud”, as one reads without knowledge, would eventually end up agreeing with Fitzgerald, advising the contemplative to not know, to forget, he is the first who falls, that there is no mystic, that mystical reveries are amusements of texts, that a craving of the wise is wisdom, and this thirst for wisdom makes not a wise man but an ambitious one.


From amō (“I love”) + -or.


amor m (genitive amōris); third declension

love Amor omnia vincit. Love conquers all.[3]



Anonymous, The Cloud Of Unknowying, New York: Harper Collins, 1981.

Kundera, Milan, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 1999.



[1] Anonymous, The Cloud Of Unknowying, New York: Harper Collins, 1981.


[2] Anonymous, The Cloud Of Unknowying, New York: Harper Collins, 1981.