ad astra per alia porci

suitcases and bowler hats
June 10, 2007, 8:54 am
Filed under: the arts

Einmal ist keinmal – What happens but once might as well not have happened at all.

Revisiting Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being got me thinking about my attitude and philosophies towards life. Kundera tends to play around and lightly probe various amusing ideas and philosophies towards a whole range of subjects without didactically shoving his own views down the reader’s throat, and this is something I appreciate a lot. Literature should not be in the business of didacticism; literature should expose readers to various undiscovered points of view and allow the reader to reach a personal conclusion regarding the ideas mooted in the novel.

The idea of eternal return is the central focus of the book. This idea is given a metaphorical life by the symbol of the bowler hat, which takes on many meanings and appears at many times in the novel; it was a “vague reminder of a forgotten grandfather” of Sabina’s, a memento of Sabina’s father, “a prop for [Sabina’s] love games with Tomas”, “a sign of Sabina’s originality” and “a sentimental object.” Given the infinite nature of time, everything that has happened before will happen again and has happened before an infinite amount of times. Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return is not a new idea; it has been reflected in many different cultures and philosophies. The example of Ouroboros, the ancient mythical symbol of the snake eating its own tail, is proof that the idea of cyclicality is not new. Buddhist concepts of eternal time and reincarnation and the Hindu belief in the inseparable ideas of creation and destruction are all testimony to universality of cyclicality. The universe consists of matter that are simply rearranged constantly to form different objects; nothing truly new is being created. Time is a human concept, an attempt to quantify and deal with infinite “time”.

The problem lies in our attitudes towards the idea of eternal return and how it shapes our lives. We live our lives only once and there is no way to find out what the “best” route to take:

“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 a sketch.”

The idea of a “perfect” and “complete” life is perhaps an impossible conception. I think the common Singaporean emphasis on social status and wealth as a measure of how “good” a life a person has led is flawed and myopic. Who are we to judge what is the best way to lead life? We don’t get to live it many times over and over again and get to compare which path is best; we are like drivers with our front windscreen blocked out totally, we don’t know exactly how each action moulds our lives.

I think the abandonment of perfection and the elevation of the importance of personal satisfaction and tranquility is important. Life might be a sketch but do we really need to have a “perfect” painting for it to be worthwhile? I believe it is important for a person to find a personal goal that is not influenced by any political or social factors (kitsch, in the words of Kundera). In the absence of a meaning for life shoved down our throats, we have to discover and find our own personal meanings.

Tomas and Tereza are the two most interesting characters in the novel since they are the two main characters that embody the contrasting ideas of lightness and weight and they flesh out the problem of body and soul.

Tomas espouses the perception that life is light, that our actions mean nothing within the backdrop of infinity and eternal recurrence, and his approach to sexual and emotional relationships reflects this perception. He is non-committal and does not seek to forge strong and heavy relationships with women, preferring instead to indulge in brief sexual trysts and romps. He believes in the separation between the body and soul, that carnal pleasures are not wedded to spiritual union and that the sexual is entirely separate from the spiritual; he feels that his infidelities are actually not infidelities since he believes his sexual indulgences outside of his union with Tereza is no indication of betrayal or a wavering of his spiritual connection with Tereza.

Tereza, on the other hand, is heavy; her heaviness is given a physical representation in the form of the heavy suitcases that she brought into the house when she moved in with Tomas. She believe in fidelity, constancy and the inseparability of soul and body. She is acutely aware of the awkwardness of the body and her unease over Tomas’s infidelities suggests that she believes that physical infidelity equates to spiritual infidelity.

Reflecting upon these two characters, I feel that I am more of a heavy character. I tend to place importance on most of my actions and reflect upon their consequences before acting; I do not have the carefree and “que sera, sera” attitude of Tomas. However, I am conscious of the insignificant nature of my every action in the larger scheme of things.

I believe the central paradox lies in the fact that the ephemeral, insignificant nature of our lives also gives birth to the importance and value of each individual life. Life happens once, and we will never know what is best for us, and hence our every action gains so much more in terms of it’s importance. In the face of infinite time, what do we do? Do we face it with lightness or heaviness? Personally I feel that uncertainty and ephemerality paradoxically gives our lives even greater weight and meaning. Yes, like Tereza, I own heavy suitcases.


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