Through Kundera’s eyes

For those who know me, and most of those reading this blog are among those, know that I have a few authors I am very fond of, and the reason I give is that they talk about the human essence, about ideas that will take millennia to be outdated, and then I throw some names around, like Dostoevsky, or Camus, names hard to argue with. I think I lie. I think the real reason I like who I like is not because they talk about things that will outlast humanity, but because they are kindred, because they have a deeply cynical view of the world, yet they choose to embrace it, make sense of it, and love it. They are not general, they are specific, they are specific to me, in shaping my world, explaining it and then expanding it.

For a long time, I thought Kundera was an Indian author, and I refused to even read about him, filled with a petty jealousy as I myself harbored writerly ambitions, and anyone similar enough was a threat. After I let go of my ambitions, and after I realized Kundera was Franco-Czech, I picked up The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was at a time when I was not reading much, but the stunning beauty of thought in that book made it a ride that felt too short. It is a book that talks about levity and seriousness, through characters that are fighting against themselves in love. But it is not the book I want to talk to you about, although this should be the first of his books you should read.

I want to talk about another masterpiece, that talks about Identity, Memory, Nostalgia, Absurdity (Laughter): The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It instantly became close to my heart because these are the only things I think I care deeply about (maybe Mediocrity is another one, but I won’t know till I meet a kindred who talks about that). I don’t want to describe the book to you, for I will only do it a disservice, rather I will list some of my favorite quotes from the book, and maybe annotate them.

On Idealism (in a communist world, specifically):

“All human beings have always aspired to an idyll, to that garden where nightingales sing, to that realm of harmony where the world does not rise up as a stranger against man and man against other men, but rather where the world and all men are shaped from one and the same matter. There, everyone is a note in a sublime Bach fugue, and anyone who refuses to be one is a mere useless and meaningless black dot that need only be caught and crushed between thumb and finger like a flea.”


“[Mirek] rewrote history just like the Communist Party, like all political parties, like all peoples, like mankind. They shout that they want to shape a better future, but it’s not true. The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.”

This may seem like an overarching poetic statement, but this is in context of explaining the desire of a man to change the future in a way that affects the past, the struggle against memories that won’t cease to exist.


“But are tanks really more important than pears? As time went by, [Karel] realized that the answer to this question was not so obvious as he had always thought, and he began to feel a secret sympathy for Mama’s perspective, which had a big pear tree in the foreground and somewhere in the distance a tank no bigger than a ladybug, ready at any moment to fly away out of sight. Ah yes! In reality it’s Mama who is right: tanks are perishable, pears are eternal.”


On the unwritten rules of relationship constructs:

“Every love relationship rests on an unwritten agreement unthinkingly concluded by the lovers in the first weeks of their love. They are still in a kind of dream but at the same time, without knowing it, are drawing up, like uncompromising lawyers, the detailed clauses of their contract. O lovers! Be careful in those dangerous first days! Once you’ve brought breakfast in bed you’ll have to bring it forever, unless you want to be accused of lovelessness and betrayal.”


“Really as Sisyphus? Wasn’t it Sisyphus Marketa had compared herself to?

Yes, as the years went by, man and wife became twins, with the same vocabulary, the same ideas, the same des-tiny. Each had given the gift of Eva to the other, each to make the other happy. Each had the impression of hav­ing to push a boulder uphill. Each one was tired.”


On the difficulty of listening:

“But is she really listening? Or is she merely looking at them so attentively, so silently? I don’t know, and it’s not very important. What matters is that she doesn’t interrupt anyone. You know what happens when two people talk. One of them speaks and the other breaks in: “It’s absolutely the same with me, I …” and starts talking about himself until the first one manages to slip back in with his own “It’s absolutely the same with me, I…”
The phrase “It’s absolutely the same with me, I …” seems to be an approving echo, a way of con­tinuing the other’s thought, but that is an illusion: in reality it is a brute revolt against a brutal violence, an effort to free our own ear from bondage and to occupy the enemy’s ear by force. Because all of man’s life among his kind is nothing other than a battle to seize the ear of others. The whole secret of Tamina’s popularity is that she has no desire to talk about herself. She submits to the forces occupying her ear, never saying: “It’s absolutely the same with me, I . . .” “


On the feebleness of Memory, and the need to preserve it:

“She knows, of course, that there are also quite a few unpleasant things in the notebooks, days of dissatis-faction, arguments, and even boredom, but that is not what matters. She does not want to give back to the past its poetry. She wants to give back to it its lost body. What is urging her on is not a desire for beauty. It is a desire for life.
For Tamina is adrift on a raft and looking back, looking only back. Her entire being contains only what she sees there, far behind her. Just as her past con-tracts, disintegrates, dissolves, so Tamina is shrinking and losing her contours.”


On Self:

“That night Tamina dreamed about the ostriches. They were standing against the fence, all talking to her at once. She was terrified.

Tamina will never know what those great birds came to tell her. But I know. They did not come to warn her, scold her, or threaten her. They are not at all interested in her. Each one of them came to tell her about itself. Each one to tell her how it had eaten, how it had slept, how it had run up to the fence and seen her behind it. That it had spent its important childhood in the important village of Rourou. That its important orgasm had lasted six hours. That it had seen a woman strolling behind the fence and she was wearing a shawl. That it had gone swimming, that it had fallen ill and then recovered. That when it was young it rode a bike and that today it had gobbled up a sack of grass. They are standing in front of Tamina and talking to her all at once, vehemently, insistently, aggressively, because there is nothing more important than what they want to tell her.”


On Love:

“They got into a conversation. What intrigued Tamina were his questions. Not their content, but the simple fact that he was asking them. My God, it had been so long since anyone had asked her about any­thing! It seemed like an eternity! Only her husband had kept asking her questions, because love is a con-tinual interrogation. I don’t know of a better definition of love.”


On reconciling with the unknowable around you (the infinity in your grasp):

“Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack the other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach. Tamina lacked the infini­tude of her love, I lacked Papa, and all of us are lack­ing in our work because in pursuit of perfection we go toward the core of the matter but never quite get to it.
That the infinitude of the exterior world escapes us we accept as natural. But we reproach ourselves until the end of our lives for lacking that other infinitude.”


On the hatred borne out of a love for your kin:

“Her misfortune is not that the children are bad but that she is beyond their world’s border. Humans do not revolt against the killing of calves in slaughterhouses. Calves are outside human law, just as Tamina is out­side the children’s law.”


On choosing the “best progressive idea”:

“As I have said, the Clevises were forward-looking, and they held progressive ideas. There are many kinds of progressive ideas, and the Clevises always supported the best possible progressive ideas. The best progres­sive ideas are those that include a strong enough dose of provocation to make its supporters feel proud of being original, but at the same time attract so many adherents that the risk of being an isolated exception is immediately averted by the noisy approval of a tri­umphant crowd. If, for instance, the Clevises were not only against tops but against clothing in general, if they announced that people should walk the city streets naked, they would surely still be supporting a progressive idea, but certainly not the best possible one. That idea would be embarrassing because there is something excessive about it, it would take too much energy to defend (while the best possible progressive idea, so to speak, defends itself), and its supporters would never have the satisfaction of seeing their thoroughly nonconformist position suddenly become everyone’s position.
Listening to them fulminate against tops, Jan remembered the small wooden instrument called a level that his grandfather, a bricklayer, would place on the top layer of a wall under construction. At the cen­ter of the instrument was a glass tube of liquid with an air bubble whose position indicated whether the row of bricks was horizontal or not. The Clevis family could serve as an intellectual air bubble. Placed on some idea or other, it would indicate precisely whether or not that was the best progressive idea possible.”


“At the beginning of one’s erotic life, there is arousal without climax, and at the end there is climax without arousal.
Arousal without climax is Daphnis.”


Kundera segments men’s erotic history, in his usually incisive manner:

“Every man has two erotic biographies. The first is the one people mainly talk about, the one consisting of a list of affairs and passing amours.
The other biography is undoubtedly more interest­ing: the procession of women we wanted to have but who eluded us, the painful history of unrealized possi­bilities.
But there is also a third, a mysterious and disturb­ing category of women. These are women we liked and were liked by, but women we quickly saw we would never have, because in relation to them we were on the other side of the border.”

He talks a lot about this border, and I think paragraph would maybe explain the meaning of the border best:
“Only a few millimeters separated physi­cal love from laughter, and he dreaded crossing over them. Only a few millimeters separated him from the other side of the border, where things no longer have meaning.”
This border is the line where serious ideas and objects are reduced to laughter, to an absurd position where they are naked and dumb.


“…midway through his very long journey as a virgin, he already knew what it is to be bored with the female body. Even before he ever experienced climax, he had already arrived mentally at the end of arousal. He had experienced its exhaustibility.
From childhood on, therefore, he had lived within sight of that mysterious border on the other side of which female breasts were merely soft globes hanging from the chest. That border was his lot from the very beginning.”


“”We’re all characters in Barbara’s dream,” said Jan.
“Yes,” replied the bald man. “But it never quite works. Barbara is like a clockmaker who has to keep moving the hands of his clock himself.””


” Jan remem­bered Daphnis. He is lying down, spellbound by Chloe’s nakedness, aroused but with no knowledge of what that arousal is summoning him to, so that the arousal is endless and unappeasable, limited and interminable. A great yearning gripped Jan’s heart, a desire to go back again. Back to that boy. Back to man’s begin­nings, to his own beginnings, to love’s beginnings. He desired desire. He desired the pounding of the heart. He desired to be lying beside Chloe unaware of fleshly love. Unaware of sexual climax. To transform himself into pure arousal, the mysterious, the incomprehensible and miraculous arousal of a man before a woman’s body. And he said out loud: “Daphnis!” ”

“…their bare genitals stared stupidly and sadly at the yellow sand.”