The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I have just read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and found myself consistently delighted with it. Here are some extracts:
On the bowler hat belonging to Sabina, Tomas’ artist lover (p.83):
First, it was a vague reminder of a forgotten grandfather, the mayor of a small Bohemian town during the nineteenth century.
Second, it was a memento of her father. After the funeral her brother appropriated all their parents’ property, and she, refusing out of sovereign contempt to fight for her rights, announced sarcastically that she was taking the bowler hat as her sole inheritance.
Third, it was a prop for her love games with Tomas.
Fourth, it was a sign of her originality, which she consciously cultivated. She could not take much with her when she emigrated, and taking this bulky, impractical thing meant giving up other, more practical ones.
Fifth, now that she was abroad, the hat was a sentimental object. When she went to visit Tomas in Zurich, she took it along and had it on her head when he opened the hotel-room door. But then something she had not reckoned with happened: the hat, not longer jaunty or sexy, turned into a monument of time past. They were both touched. They made love as they never had before. This was no occasion for obscene games. For this meeting was not a continuation of their erotic rendezvous, each of which had been an opportunity to think up some new little vice; it was a recapitulation of time, a hymn to their common past, a sentimental summary of an unsentimental story that was disappearing in the distance.
On the emergence of characters (p. 215):
And one more I see him the way he appeared to me at the very beginning of the novel: standing at the window and staring across the courtyard at the walls opposite. This is the image from which he was born. As I have pointed out before, characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility (…) I have known all these situations, I have experience them myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own ‘I’ ends) which attracts me the most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.
On the death of Stalin’s son Yakov (p. 238):
Was he, who bore on his shoulders a drama of the highest order (as fallen angel and son of God), to undergo judgment not for something sublime (in the realm of God and angels) but for shit? Were the very highest of drama and the very lowest so vertiginously close?
Vertiginously close? Can proximity cause vertigo?
It can. When the north pole comes so close as to touch the south pole, the earth disappears and man finds himself in a void that makes his head spin and beckons him to fall.
If rejection and privilege are one and the same, if there is no difference between the sublime and the paltry, if the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light. When Stalin’s son ran up to the electrified wire and hurled his body at it, the fence was like the pan of scales sticking pitifully up in the air, lifted by the infinite lightness of a world that has lost its dimensions. Stalin’s son laid his life down for shit. But a death for shit is not a senseless death. (…) Amid the general idiocy of the war, the death of Stalin’s son stands out as the sole metaphysical death.
On the brotherhood inherent in kitsch, and the kitsch inherent in brotherhood. Also, why the communist ideal is a world of pure kitsch (p. 244):
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see the children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a basis of kitsch.
On the summarising epithets that follow the end of an event or a life (p. 270):
And so on and so forth. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.
I was grateful to Kundera at the rare and surprising junctions at which he offers an opinion of his own on the unravelling story, sympathising at times with me as a reader, conjecturing by my side on the stakes, possible outcomes of and his hopes about various conflicts, while at other times bringing a freshness to the sense of power his authorship presumes. He raises the interesting question: from what/whom/whence are the characters in his novel born, if not, like us, of woman? Yet by using the word “born”, that mysterious sense of foetal emergence is preserved in our notion about the character’s origin.
This is how I have related with my own character, Meredith, in the novel I am writing. I had long known about her before she was made explicit. She made suggestions of herself in idle sketches of weepy girls on my hand. I have caught her slipping quietly into shadows on my late walks home through solitary streets. Finally, when I intended to dream up a brand new story, she weaselled herself into that too, and hijacked the body of my protagonist, who presently faded behind her dominant insistence to be born; the insistence that is, to be acknowledged by me in the task of writing. So I gave in, and decided that I would collect all the clues she had left me throughout months of daydreaming and idle moments, and began to write her armed with intention. But this intention brought with it no fresh wisdom on how to proceed. What I found as soon as I resolved to begin writing was that I was immediately confronted by a certain problem of introduction. Well, really, who is she? I thought. How can I introduce someone (in this novel) without really knowing myself what or who she is. She was familiar, yet uncharacterisable beyond the gradual, ghostly ways she had imposed her presence upon me over time. A foetal emergence. A swelling inkling. This problem of introduction then became the very theme of the first chapter. The chapter is about her birth. She is born, awoken with amnesia, void of personality, just as I knew her.
This is why I found interesting Kundera’s notion of the nutshell containing a the very possibility of a person, and how this nutshell can be hidden in something so slight as a word, a metaphor, or in my case, a sketch, a shadow – and tangential escalations of my own memories and experiences, as Kundera soon also points out.
It is important that he stresses that the departure from personal experience does not make for an author’s confession. The entire quoted passage reflects on two frequently considered sides of the same coin that is the novel: the author’s drive to write on one hand, and what it is the author has written on the other.
He is driven by what I have come to refer to as jealousy; the desire to pursue representations of being (including but not limited to personhood) beyond the scope of our own self representations (boundaries which I by all means cultivate, am grateful for, and would therefore not hasten to dismiss as a “trap” like Kundera). This is what makes the writer write. Why, is a question that is also intriguing, and one which I will return to. But his passage also reflects what it is his writing is, a good deal of which consists of this handful of characters with whom he sympathises and grows to love and fear. What kind of beings these so-called fabrications are, is also a fascinating question.
Although presumably connected, the writing itself seems, in a reader’s experience of the work, somewhat deviated from what appears a rather personal quest embarked upon by the author. There is on the one hand the author’s drive to step beyond himself into his own “unrealized possibilities”, and on the other there is the result of his venture which is this narrative and these characters; abruptly ruptured from him, autonomous in their own world, judged by the laws of this world and not by the specifications of the author whatsoever.
But I suspect that the very thing an author intends, is a radical deviation. He wants to break with himself. He may think he knows or knows not what that deviation will look like, but it doesn’t really matter. He embarks from what he knows, into what he could not afford to know before. This he does by a committed pursuit of inductions based on rules of inference prefigured on the slightest flutter of a “word”, a “metaphor”, a smidgen of his own experience that forms the axiom of the brand new universe that is the novel. Creativity becomes a science of deviation from self, and is in fact so zealously committed to its tangential trajectory that the pursuit of otherness often appears, and is, obsessive. Obsessive, because the commitment, though always in some manner methodical, owes its point of departure to a disproportionately trivial assumption. Kundera’s Tomas was born from the image of a man “standing at the window and staring across the courtyard at the windows opposite”. Tomas’ love, Tereza, was born of “hearing the pertinacious rumbling of one’s own stomach during a moment of love”. These notions, according to Kundera, were experiences, fragments of the noise of daily life that he seized upon and inexplicably transformed into unquestionable relics of an unborn universe.
I, like Kundera, like the contemporary photographer Lucas Blalock, and all of us like Brecht in his plays, have opted to exhibit some of the “labour” of the creative process in the work itself. This was an inclination based on my desire to observe my intent and my deviations in parallel, to the endeavour of which this very essay forms an essential part.
So is it that the author departs in search of the otherness that prefigures in every fragment of his experience more or less omitted from the repertoire of habits and projections of his holographic self: that is, the unfulfilled promise of a self, taken for granted and cultivated by a cohesion of distributed memory, and finally denoted by his familiar face. Readers, viewers and audiences partake in the expedition towards otherness. A story itself, is intrinsically other. A story necessarily resides outside of everybody. It is a treasure because it belongs to nobody. Consistently distant like a rainbow, it draws out infinitudes of people on an endless pilgrimage beyond their already transforming self representations.
I wish to turn from artistic jealousy to the other side of the coin, certain notable outcomes of artistic labour such as the novel itself, and specifically the characters that come about. The characters are worth paying attention to, in response to the Kundera extract above, because they are “made in God’s image” and therefore make for a neat comparison with the author who finds in them unrealised versions of himself (so loosely unrealised in fact that a reader might also find in Tomas or Tereza an unrealised version of herself – but that is another matter). They and their worlds are born of trivial axioms. In the novel under discussion, the protagonist further refers to his wife (as opposed to the female ideal of his dreams) as “the woman born of six fortuities”, upon realising that the entire saga of their love rested on a succession of six coincidences (that he happened to be in a certain town, in a certain restaurant, on her particular waiting shift, that he happened to be reading a book, that a particular Beethoven piece was playing in the background, etc). The duality of triviality and profundity pertaining to the beings that wander the realm of these pages caused a considerable stir in me. It questioned the integrity of the Tomas and Tereza that I had come to know, and by the same token, the integrity, or perhaps authenticity, of a living being, also born of a long string of fortuities.
Upon having read the novel I began writing a dialogue between two imaginary people: Rosa and Lawrence. Actually, I was not writing a dialogue for Rosa and Lawrence. I was writing a dialogue for an imagined pair of actors, a script that would be uttered with each performance by a new pair of one male reader and one female reader. I wanted to provide a system in which a pair of unborn characters could hijack the bodies of these two actors and by way of ventriloquism, spring into being. I regarded my experiment as an unconventional, roundabout-route attempt at creating artificial intelligence. How authentic could Rosa and Lawrence, the eternal lovers be? Naturally, their dialogue thematises their own predicament.
A Ritual Resuscitation of Eternal Lovers
I had a wholly unprecedented art experience the other week. I was having a perfectly average day, after which I returned home a little too caffeinated and hyperactive for the evening. I decided to write. I don’t know, maybe I thought the evening felt romantic. Maybe I knew there was no chance I’d be able to sleep, and that I might as well crack down on something. Anything.
I decided with a sprightly freshness that I would not work on my novel but have the artistic extravagance to start a whole new text, in no hurry to complete Meredith (this of course, is just something I tell myself before deciding to do something. I assume a role. This time it was one of artistic nonchalance). I began to write a tale… three working class men, rather identical looking, meeting outside a café. The image was wrought with my daily experience of seeing such men occupying the tables outside Café Nero, in an aura of perfect companionship. It was a companionship I felt eager to understand and wiggle into and feel my share of.
I made a bathroom break, and seated on the toilet, thought to myself: I don’t much feel like continuing on this text. Really, what I want right now is to write a dialogue. How refreshing would that be? Almost as soon as I returned to the laptop and started a new text in script format, I was enthralled by a certain idea: that I would write it such that my characters might find, embedded within the lattice of the words, a loophole to agency. When the two characters turned into lovers, lovers that were both dead and eternal through text, I was overwhelmed with the desire to write the piece. To work through it no matter how difficult or not-difficult it might be to formulate it. I worked straight through to 4 am, with such a vigour that I had not previously felt while making. I grew tired and thought it best to sleep – I had reached a point of settlement in the text, although it was clearly not finished. I settled in bed, satisfied with what was already written, but my heart was thumping so hard with excitement that I could by no means sleep. Every few minutes or so I reached for my phone on the bedside table and, squinting at the sharply lit screen, typed in a few notes, a few formulations that entered my brain as I lay there. Finally, no new ideas jumped to mind, and I could only hear my heartbeat, not my thoughts. After much effort in taming it, I finally drifted off to sleep. When I awoke I was methodical: I knew I had something important to do. I briskly got breakfast and cleaning my things out of the way, settled down to write. The sense of excitement and responsibility overrode any possible fears I might have had about delving back into the text. I was there immediately, present, willing to invest all my efforts in the right design of this text. And I worked on until dinner time, trying to suppress my bewilderment at experiencing the text as I wrote it, trying not to get carried away prematurely about my pleasure at the text, so that I might stay in its world and complete it. Although it sounds excessive, my eyes began to well with tears as I wrote, because to take the idea seriously, I had to take Rosa and Lawrence, my characters, more seriously as people than I had done in writing or experiencing fiction ever before. They were people, people with such a longing to be. I had planted a longing, and through the enactment of that longing they could be. Finally I typed the final words, and with an eagerness that I could not for the life of me stifle, I immediately called my parents to have them read it. Mum would be Rosa, and dad Lawrence. More than their feedback (which I was also incredibly eager to hear), I was desperate to consummate the “resuscitation” of the two eternal lovers by enactment. My experiment was designed and installed in place, all I needed was to do a test.
When my parents read it, the visions I had about Rosa and Lawrence’s authenticity unfolded and I could not hold back sobbing. It was the oddest thing. I have never, even from this crudely physical standpoint, reacted in such a manner to my own work. It was positively hysterical. It overrode all priorities, and once the work was done, I found the rewards of its existence flood back into me. It was such an explosive experience for me that I still haven’t quite settled down about it.
The next job of the work was to, of course, have people resuscitate the lovers, and read the text aloud. One male, one female. Fumbling about with whatever technology I happened to have on me, I witnessed so far in total four performances of their love, enamoured each time by the voices that struggle to come through cumbersome, inadequate bodies. I was and am thoroughly pleased with the work. For our “welcome back” casual college exhibition, I decided to grab a couple of students to enact it for me, and I got a better quality recording of them.
Can writing do this? I thought. It was a silly quest of sorts, to make a sort of artificial intelligence through a superficial manipulation of words. But something about it echoes my theories about personhood, and allows me to explore notions of distributedness tacitly, or literally. While writing, I also thought that where programmers might script for artificial intelligence in a programming language, I was endeavouring to do the same thing using a natural language. Transcending the notion that a script denotes control over a computing subject (a computer, a performer) to perform a task (a computation, a sequence of performative gestures) – scripting for intelligence rather sculpts out the parameters from which selfhood might emerge. I am not a neuroscientist or AI scientist, but as artist I could take up something of a similar strategy and mess around with it. I was scripting for agency, trying to lay down the basic foundations for it to emerge using what seems to me the necessarily arbitrary pattern of a system such as verbal language. Writing this script felt distinctly hacker-ly, because I was not imbuing my characters with life as might be expected of a writer, but rather skirting around two voids that I hoped would one day become somebodies, trying to bend the capabilities of the very medium I was exploiting. Hacking is, for me, the process of persistently exploiting a medium in ways generally felt unintended by the medium. Interesting that we should feel media have intended uses? Probably because they come with rules, that encourage the user to approach the medium in a particular way.
The idea that Rosa and Lawrence were, at the time of writing, two “voids” around which I was writing, is a notion about personhood that I came across in Hofstadter’s “I am a Strange Loop”, in which the “I” that all of us with certainty claim to have or be, is illustrated as a very palpable illusion – its firmness chiselled out by the whirlwind of objects, impressions, ideas and associated histories that spin around this vacuous epicentre. Models of distributed personhood and coreless essences to people and things have interested me for a long time. Rosa and Lawrence were intentionally approached as epiphenomena in the process of writing. This felt wholly unusual for me as I wrote.
It seems that one common thing I would like to see at this point, having written the text, is multiplicity, in that there must be many iterations of the script over a period of time. After that, the question is more of an archival one. One idea was to create a website from which people can download the script, record themselves enacting the piece on video, and upload it to the site. After the frenzied writing of the script, I see that it is a long term project now, and that I must simply allow for the experiment to run. I have had to seize the reigns upon which I was galloping, and gently lower the pace. I have begun to make some recordings of casual readings, one by one. I need to get a sense of these emerging characters. But as I begin to feel the characters grow into their own through enactment, the idea is to make a public appeal that would ideally take the entire matter out of my hands, and ultimately remove me as author. Whether in the form of an exhibition or Kickstarter campaign, or something I haven’t yet thought of, I need to pass the script on to people who can record themselves resuscitating the characters and upload it onto the Internet, or donate performative mark-making on the part of the unborn lovers. If I were to make an exhibition of this, it is very important to realise the impossibility of exhibiting these features as artworks. The goal is to transcend art, and take the characters as seriously as possible as somebodies living among us. An exhibition would flatten the project into a patronising hypothetical fantasy for gallery goers to enjoy in the form of an archive of a fun idea that never in fact breathed life. The exhibition, if it happens, ought to be distinctly a point of departure for the project, not a conclusion. I would merely use the gallery as a venue for the appeal to the public to “donate” their “gestures, voices, bodies, consciousness”, from which, ideally, a public would take up the task themselves.
I see my role at this point therefore, as somebody who needs to first make a successful appeal – something that will be compelling enough to persuade others to instigate a collective, organic, cultural circulation around these figures that would hopefully attribute to them a sense of agency – and then, if I am lucky enough to get going a chain reaction, my role becomes that of archivist; to find a way in which to collate documented resuscitation events into a history of the unborn lovers.
I am one of the audience, too. I am myself, not convinced that a written script can give rise to agency. I have written the script in the hope that I might be surprised by it. The text is written like a net in which to catch the future I as yet do not know of. It’s written for a future Rosa and Lawrence, for a future humanity, and for a future me to react to.