I just finished yet another Milan Kundera novel: Immortality. He is, as always intense. I happen to be one of his fans, one who patiently understands the flow of his meandering style, knowing the poetic philosopher in him who needs us to read each and every line.
It’s as if I’m in his head when I really listen to his meanders, and can even sense where and how he is sitting when he writes a passage, can feel the women he has known and not known and all the intricate details which make up his life, or least the bit of his life which gives it meaning.
Although there were many, my favorite two excerpts and meanders were these.
The first is about image: A person is nothing but his image says a main male character of the novel. “Philosophers can tell us that it doesn’t matter what they world thinks of us, that nothing matters but what we really are. But philosophers don’t understand anything. As long as we live with other people, we are only what other people consider us to be. Thinking about how others see us and trying to make our image as attractive as possible is considered a kind of dissembling or cheating.” (I’d add, dying).
But does there exist another kind of direct contact between my self and their selves except through the mediation of the eyes? Can we possibly imagine love without anxiously following our image in the mind of the beloved? When we are no longer interested in how we are seen by the person we love, it means we no longer love.”
I thought about a kind of love which isn’t whole, one which leaves behind fragments…mere fragments, as if flashes in time like two ships passing in the night, a long weary night. Or the kind of love that leaves behind the violent yet exciting sound of a thunderbolt on a stormy night, one which will never be repeated in precisely the same way again.
These are loves we never fully understand just as Kundera’s characters never fully understand theirs. As humans, we ache to understand love and what went wrong in love. We grasp for that understanding and repeat the story in our heads as if its a mathmatical equation we must analyze, even if only in our mind’s eye. In that analysis, which we continue to play over and over again like a broken record, we must have an answer, a truth of some kind, for surely it can’t possibly just be about an image, of an image…hers, his, your own.
We look for the truth of that analysis as a way to better understand ourselves and perhaps to better understand humanity; in that understanding, we think we will find a love which is whole, the kind that is rich in color and texture and full of so much vitality and connection, there is no space for fragments.
If we speak of image and of love, we must of course speak of and to the feminine voice, which brings me to my second favorite meander. It couldn’t be a Kundera novel without women, who are brought in as almost subcategories into bigger themes of existence, like Chance, the Dial of Life, Image and of course Immortality itself.
From painters Rubens and Goethe to author Hemingway and a radio host, lawyer and professor in Paris, we hear about their desire of women, their inability to escape from women and their adventures with women.
He asks, isn’t the story of Ruben’s life nothing but a story of physical love? For the artist who looked at women as “life itself?” We hear from Rubens as Kundera’s character, an acute observation when one day he can’t remember anything substantial about any of the women he bedded. The details, their names, their parents, their childhood, any anecdote other than a flash of an instance.
Rather than continue to conquer a future of a string of women, he decides to revert to the past, as told to him by the hand on the dial (of life), of which Kundera dedicates an entire chapter to.
Rubens reflects, “but how is one to be obsessed with the past when one sees it only a desert over which the wind blows a few fragments of memories?” But then he decides that yes, one can in fact be obsessed even with a few fragments.
And, then, Rubens discovered a peculiar thing. That, “memory does not make films, it makes photographs. What he recalled at most were a few mental photographs. He didn’t recall their coherent motions, but only short gestures, but only in the rigidy of a single second.”
One day, a lover he had periodically over many years decides not to see him again which he then becomes fixated on trying to understand, certain that something must be wrong, something he could somehow resolve. And then he thinks of an Australian woman he decided never to see again and she too, was rejected for reasons she couldn’t understand. He wonders if he can understand them himself.
Throughout our lives, don’t we all have stories or chapters of stories which have ended yet we didn’t understand the reasons why? Maybe later, at some future time, we begin to understand those reasons and other times, we don’t and perhaps never will. Time marches forward, each of us never understanding why her or his story ended with yet another person, another association, another encounter.
He quotes Aragon’s “Woman is the future of man.” One of the main male characters in the book explains what he thinks Aragon must have meant.
“This means,” he says, “that the world that was once formed in man’s image will now be transformed into the image of woman. The more technical and mechanical, cold and metallic it becomes, the more it will need the kind of warmth that only a woman can give it. If we want to save the world, we must adapt to the woman, let ourselves be led by the woman, let ourselves be penetrated by the Ewigweibliche, the eternally feminine!”
Later he goes on to say: “Either woman will become man’s future or mankind will perish, because only woman is capable of nourishing within her an unsubstantiated hope and inviting us to a doubtful future, which we would have long ceased to believe in were it not for women. All my life, I’ve been willing to follow their voice, even though that voice is mad. But nothing is more beautiful than when someone who isn’t mad goes into the unknown, led by a mad voice….The eternal feminine draws us in.”
It reminded me of how important it is for us as women to go to our source of strength through that eternal feminine, each and every time we need an answer…the real truth.
It is that source that will guide us out of muddy complicated waters which are led by masculine ego, give us the power to say no when the world forces us to say yes, provide us with the clarity when it is being fogged up by mindless chatter aimed at sinking the very core of who we are and most importantly, ensuring we return to a place of authenticity, love and purpose so we won’t look back years from now as we pass along meaning to a child and not be able to say: I embraced and lived a true life.
Yes. To be able to say I lived a true life, one which I painted on a bright white clean canvas, one which was virgin before I myself lay down the paint brush.
To be able to say I decided what was me and what wasn’t me and along the way, returned to that eternal feminine strength within myself for the truth. In this truth, I’d be my own character and not a facade of another in a novel I didn’t write, nor would I dance to another’s drums I didn’t subscribe to or respect.
Oh, such a noble way to live, I can hear my great grandmother saying. And yet, it has less to do with noble, and more to do with truth, your own truth. Men have this instinct too, even if it shows up with a different voice, a louder thunder and in an external embrace.
When we become lost, which will happen often on this long life journey, we mustn’t forget our truth, that for which we will accept and not accept as a definition of who we are. We must never ever forget that.
It’s ironic that Kundera weaves Goethe in and out of his chapters because just then, at the moment I had turned the corner of the final page of the book, I thought about a quote that I return to often for a source of strength, one which rests on the front page of this blog and has since the very beginning. As I thought of the source of the quote, my heart began to race….it is nothing shy of a quote by Goethe himself…Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It may be only ten words of Johann’s wisdom, but they are ten very powerful words: Just trust yourself, then you will know how to live.
Photo credits: hplusmagazine.com, templeton.org & artmarketblog.