Inordinate Compassion for Animals as a Cure for the Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Clorox splashed around and sanitized the black bucket. I watched with a lump in my throat; that meant they didn’t make it. My dad had taken care of it by dumping the contents of the bucket into the gulley. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, there were four tiny, breathing kittens huddled together in that bucket. I found the first one stuck between the tin siding and the wire wall of the dog cage in the corner of the chicken coop. I was moved to pity as the little blind ball of fur weakly meowed and stuck its tiny paws through the wiring. As I moved closer, I almost stepped on another one lying against the corner of the haystack. Bewildered, I looked all around the haystacks sitting up against the dog cage. In the foot of space between the top of the haystack and the tin roof, a cat had given birth to kittens, and two had fallen off. I carefully reached behind the dog cage and untangled the little paws from the wire, gently picking up the first one and then the second and placing them atop the others with their mother. She hissed weakly; she looked tired and overwhelmed as the little ones crawled atop her body and suckled at her side. I could see that they were just going to keep falling off of the haystack and that the chicken coop was not a good place for them. I placed them in the black bucket and moved them to a quiet place in an unused shed near the back of the property. I grabbed the mother to bring her with her kittens, naïvely thinking that she would again lie down with them and let them suckle in the newfound place. She scratched my arms and bit me hard and deep, but I did not let go until I could place her in the bucket with her babies. She immediately jumped out and ran off. I left them alone the rest of that day and night, hoping that the mother would return and care for her babies. Part of me wanted to take them in and feed them myself. I knew that was unreasonable, but I was distraught. I don’t even like cats that much, but the helplessness of the newborn kittens touched me and I was upset that I couldn’t save them.

I was brought back to a time in my childhood when I had found three baby birds in our backyard flailing in the grass beneath a live oak branch. They had fallen out of their nest and there was no way to put them back. I scooped them up before the dog could find them and prepared a nest for them in a wooden box. Trying to imitate what my ten-year old experience understood a mother bird to do, I dug up worms and smashed them up to pour into the open mouths of the tiny creatures. They were very newly hatched, naked and rather ugly, but I was determined to nurture them and raise them into beautiful grown birds. A few times each day, I would go out and feed them a mixture of water and mashed worms. Within a few days, all three birds were dead and I buried them.

As I grieved over the death of the newborn kittens and remembered the baby birds and other childhood pets that had passed away, I felt foolish and ashamed for being so upset. Was I wrong to feel compassion for these non-rational beings? Was I idolizing these animals by grieving over their deaths? Or was there some redeeming aspect to these feelings? While dealing with these emotions, I happened to come across a chapter in a novel that dealt with these questions.

Towards the end of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the protagonist Tereza laments the terminal cancer of her dog Karenin. She was out in the fields watching her heifers one day as Karenin hobbled along, unable to run and play with the cows as he used to. She met a neighbor who asked why the dog was limping. Tereza told her that he had cancer. “‘There’s no hope.’ And the lump in her throat kept her from going on. The woman noticed Tereza’s tears and nearly lost her temper. ‘Good heavens! Don’t tell me you’re going to bawl your head off over a dog!'” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 287). Tereza knew that her affection for animals could not be lived out by normal people in a functioning society. She realized that “if the local inhabitants loved every rabbit as she loved Karenin, they would be unable to kill any of them and they and their animals would soon starve to death” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 287). Instead of arguing with the lady, Tereza just nodded and continued on her way, feeling isolated from the rest of mankind because of her inordinate love for her dog. As Karenin’s head rested quietly in her lap, she reflected on her love for her dog in contrast with the more confusing factors that play into human relationships:

“We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 289).

Is this true? Can love for animals be a measure of human goodness? Can man’s true moral test really consist of his attitude towards animals? Although there is a way that the feeling of pity for animals can be taken to an extreme that is disordered, I think there is also a way in which compassion for animals can be a means for deepening our own humility and gratitude. Compassion for the lower creatures frees us from the unbearable lightness of infinite human freedom by revealing the weightiness of our own animalness. Reflecting on Tereza’s love for her animals, Kundera offers insight into this.

Interspersed with the story, Milan Kundera reflects more broadly on the Genesis account of God creating man to have dominion over the beasts. On the one hand, we can take this to mean that we have the right to use animals to our advantage. We can hunt and fish for animals as food to eat. We can raise the pig or the cow to butcher for meat. We can take the chickens’ eggs and the cow’s milk away from the chicken and the cow in order to nourish ourselves. We are at the top of the hierarchy and the animals’ quality of life does not have equal dignity to ours. There is truth in this, and yet, there is a way we can cling to this truth as a way of justifying our cruelty and coldness towards lower creatures. In denial of our own creatureliness, we can exaggerate our dominion over the animals in order to puff ourselves up and make ourselves gods over them.

Consider the neighbor Tereza encounters, angry that Tereza feels pity for a mere dog. Although she is “a kind woman” who “merely wanted to comfort Tereza,” her comment “struck her as less than friendly” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 287). There is a sincerity in Tereza’s sadness that the neighbor refuses to consider as legitimate, making Tereza feel that “she needed to hide it more than she would an affair.” Why is her inordinate compassion for her pet more shameful than an adulterous affair? Tereza reflects further that “people are indignant at the thought of someone loving a dog. But if the neighbor had discovered that Tereza had been unfaithful to Tomas, she would have given Tereza a playful pat on the back as a sign of secret solidarity” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 287). The neighbor’s angry reaction towards Tereza’s feelings is a sign of her fear of her own animalness. The neighbor would rather celebrate Tereza’s freedom to break free from moral obligations than acknowledge her own limitations as an animal herself. Unlike the animals, bound to follow their instincts, we are free to do whatever we want, to break free from laws and customs and to be unfaithful to political institutions such as marriage. Rather than seeing the command in Genesis as something binding us to be responsible, it seems that “man invented God to sanctify the dominion he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing that all of mankind can agree upon” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 286). In other words, we perverted God’s command in order to make ourselves gods over our fellow creatures. If we are at the top of the hierarchy, then our will is the good and the lower animals must conform to it.

On the one hand, man does have dominion over the beasts. And yet, this does not mean we must lord it over them and beat them into submitting to our will. As Kundera remarks, “we can also construe it to mean that He merely entrusted them to man’s care. Man was not the planet’s master, merely its administrator, and therefore eventually responsible for his administration” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 288). Perhaps man’s dominion is more like the authority of a steward keeping watch over his master’s goods. In other words, man is meant to treasure the animals as gifts from his Creator, as fellow creatures entrusted to his care and as means to learn about himself through them.

Kundera blames Descartes for finalizing the shift in man’s attitude away from this idea of administrator. “Man is master and proprietor, says Descartes, whereas the beast is merely an automaton, an animated machine, a machina animata” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 288). According to Descartes, “when an animal laments, it is not a lament; it is merely the rasp of a poorly functioning mechanism. When a wagon wheel grates, the wagon is not in pain; it simply needs oiling. Thus, we have no reason to grieve for a dog being carved up alive in the laboratory” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 288). It is fitting that Descartes would be a catalyst for man’s distancing himself from the animal, for he was the first philosopher to deny the reality of the senses, the very thing we share in common with the animals. Whereas previous philosophers accepted that humans come to know and to think by first encountering material reality through the senses, Descartes doubted the senses and made consciousness of his own thoughts his first premise. By thus isolating himself from all other material creatures, he set modern man on the trajectory to be consumed by the unbearable lightness of being.

The “unbearable lightness of being” is not something that can easily be defined, but it is something we know by experience as inheritors of the Cartesian mindset. When Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am,” he made his thought the only binding characteristic of his existence. Unlike material creation, however, the mind itself is infinite and therefore free to think anything. If thought is what makes us exist, then we cannot be contained, defined, limited; thus, we exist very lightly. But that lightness of our being is unbearable; having too many options paralyzes instead of freeing us. We can’t stand the infinite, undetermined, unlimited freedom of our immaterial minds; we want to be defined, contained, limited, finite. In the midst of the unbearable lightness, we long for something to weigh us down, to pull us back to an earth outside of our minds, to connect us with the material reality that Descartes denied. Kundera devotes an entire novel to illustrating this phenomenon as Tereza and the other characters experience it. In the section about Tereza and her sick dog, he shows how compassion for animals is a weight that frees us from the unbearable lightness.

As he reflects on the image of Tereza “sitting on the stump petting Karenin’s head and ruminating on mankind’s debacles” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 290), the image of another character, Nietzsche, comes to mind as well. If there is anyone who took Descartes to the ultimate conclusions of his premise, it was certainly Nietzsche, who called humans to break beyond their inherited moral systems of good and evil and establish true individuality by creating meaning for themselves. Like Tereza’s neighbor, who would have congratulated her for her adultery, Nietzsche believed that it was more human to live in an unlimited “free spirit” that rises above the mediocre morality of the “herd.” In reality, Nietzsche was a pitiful, sickly man, plagued by nervous breakdowns and physical illness for most of his life. As Kundera reflects on the image of Tereza with her sick dog, he invites the reader to consider “another image [that] also comes to mind: Nietzsche leaving his hotel in Turin. Seeing a horse and a coachman beating it with a whip, Nietzsche went up to the horse and, before the coachman’s very eyes, put his arms around the horse’s neck and burst into tears” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 290). As Kundera goes on to recount, this event occurred near the end of Nietzsche’s academic life, “at the time when his mental illness had just erupted” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 290). After weeping over the horse, he collapsed in a nervous breakdown and never recovered. He spent the remainder of his life in a sort of vegetative state, never writing again. “But for that reason,” Kundera claims that “his gesture has broad implications:

“Nietzsche was trying to apologize to the horse for Descartes. His lunacy (that is, his final break with mankind) began at the very moment he burst into tears over the horse. And that is the Nietzsche I love, just as I love Tereza with the mortally ill dog resting his head in her lap. I see them one next to the other: both stepping down from the road along which mankind, ‘the master and proprietor of nature,’ marches onward” (Kundera, Unbearable Lightness, p. 290).

Like Kundera, I like to think of Nietzsche’s gesture towards the horse as his redemptive moment. After spending all of his academic life in pursuit of the ultimate lightness of being, in this moment, he realized that this lightness is unbearable, and he longed to be united to the beaten, weighed down, coachman’s horse. There is something honorable in his compassion for the animal because it implies a recognition of his own animalness. He stepped down from the infinite possibilities of the immaterial world of ideas to suffer with the concrete material horse present before him. By this seemingly inordinate condescension, Nietzsche actually reordered himself to a more proper position of being. Coming down from the pedestal he had created for himself, he recognized that he had common ground with a creature outside of himself. He saw himself not as a god lifting himself beyond good and evil but as a fellow creature with the horse, suffering alongside him. 

Isn’t this a more accurate representation of mankind’s position in the hierarchy of being? We are animals, bound by material reality. To recognize and to choose the weight of this boundedness in the midst of the lightness is truly a testament of man’s greatness. Man alone, of all material creatures, is able to recognize himself and his creatureliness. By seeing himself as an animal, he can see himself reflected in the lower creatures and step down to suffer with them. This seemingly inordinate compassion for the animals does not reduce us but actually makes us more divine, for what better portrayal of compassion for creatures at one’s mercy than the ultimate condescension of God becoming man and suffering with mankind? 

This is not to say that we must become animal rights activists and try to save all of the animals from suffering. The suffering of the beasts does not have the same quality as the suffering of man because the animal cannot know itself as man can. The lower creatures are meant to serve us and we are allowed to use them as nourishment for ourselves. But to take the life of another creature ought to move and to humble us because we should recognize our common state of creatureliness and our common fate of death. We are not gods and so we cannot save the animals just as we cannot save ourselves. When I think about the abandoned kittens and baby birds, I think there is something proper in grieving over their deaths because I, too, like the animal, must endure death. Compassion for animals feels inordinate because we are not mere animals; we do have dominion over the beasts and we are allowed to use them. However, as moderns suffering from the Cartesian inherited unbearable lightness, I think the weight of this animal compassion can be a cure for our state. When overwhelmed with the burden of empathy in the presence of suffering creatures, we don’t have to dismiss our feelings as shameful. This compassion can bring us out of ourselves and connect us with reality outside of our minds, healing us from the unbearable lightness of being. 

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for. 

“Spring and Fall”

Milan Kundera. “Part Seven: Karenin’s Smile” in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. New York: HarperPerrennial, 1991.

2 thoughts on “Inordinate Compassion for Animals as a Cure for the Unbearable Lightness of Being

  1. I really appreciated this article! A lot of folks I work with seem to have the attitude of Tereza’s neighbor, especially when it comes to snakes, even going out of their way to kill one. To a lesser extent, or rather to the extent the sardonic Virginia seems to prefer, Owen Wister addresses this same issue, “The Virginian looked out of the window again, and watched Shorty and Trampas as they rode in the distance. “Shorty is kind to animals,” he said. “He has gentled that hawss Pedro he bought with his first money. Gentled him wonderful. When a man is kind to dumb animals, I always say he had got some good in him.”


  2. I also thought of the Virginian when I was writing this article. I’m glad someone else could appreciate the idea and make a similar connection.


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