Monday, November 8, 2010

Aimless Reading: The K's, Part 27 (Milan Kundera)

Kundera, Milan
The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This book belongs to Lori. I am not sure where we bought it. It has a St. Mark's Book Shop bookmark in it, so that's would be high on my list of guesses.

I once heard someone tell a story about the Abbey Theater in Dublin--it must have been a writer or literary person telling the tale. They were talking about a party they'd attended in the lobby of the theater in the weeks after a portrait of playwright Brendan Behan had been hung there. Everyone in Dublin agreed it was a terrible portrait. It was apparently the talk of the town. Whoever told the story had been with someone else at this party who was seeing the portrait for the first time and was said to have looked up at it and quipped, "Ah, that must be the unbearable likeness of Behan." Ba-dump-bum.

I read the book in college and remember liking it. I have a feeling, though, that it's one of those books I should never read again, lest I risk my fond memories of it dissolving. I suspect I feel this way because in the intervening years I have read all of the philosophy he discusses in the book and my recollection is that he does so somewhat cavalierly, interpreting it in ways that suit his purpose, without much regard for the accuracy of his interpretations.

Yes, something tells me I'd best leave it as a fond memory of youth.

I remember the apartment in which I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was my last apartment in college, on Belmont and 188th St. in the Bronx. It had two bedrooms for three people. I had my own room because I was the RA of the building. My room faced 188th St. It had a single bed and a desk. I don't remember much else about it.

When I picture the old cover of the book, the one that uses the same image pictured here, in a slightly wider perspective and framed in black, I picture that bedroom in the Bronx.

I remember I had an old Peavey amplifier and a Martin pick-up for my acoustic guitar, which I used to play endlessly, sitting in my room, the reverb cranked. I used to make recordings of myself playing. I once taped over a cassette a friend had leant me only to discover that Side B had contained the only extant recording of his high school band. I felt bad about recording over it, but I think he read treachery into my actions, as we were always competing with one another.

from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny off the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return?

It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening to no one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.

Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing a most incredible sensation. Leafing through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler’s concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period in my life, a period that would never return?

This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything is cynically permitted.

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