I finished Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being last night. It is a story about two women, two men, and a dog. It follows their lives as it plays out over time and geographies, reflecting on the nature of a post–war twentieth–century concept of being in the face of accident and chance. I loved it for its obsession with beauty and philosophical foundation yet something about it bothered me. I had been stuck on page 250 out of 300 for weeks, couldn’t get myself to finish it and couldn’t understand why. There was something to it that I just did not accept. I am still not sure I understand what it was, but in any case it made me think of this: fictions.
Human beings create fictions. We live in a world of storytelling. The reason we are able to create grand narratives is the same reason we are able to uphold grand societies. Religion is a fiction. As are communism and country borders. But fictions do not only serve the grand and pompous. They also serve the individual.
We create fictions about the people around us and ourselves because it grounds us and provides us meaning. Why am I acting in this manner? Because of the things that has happened to you, the inclinations that you have and the circumstances you find yourself in. In order to understand the self that inhabit your mind and body you engage in constant self–psychoanalysis. In doing this you create a story, and the story you create provide you answers and the answers give you comfort. Why? Because now you know. Inhabiting the unknown and the unknowable is uncomfortable. If you do not know where you are, you do no know how to act. And if you do not know how to act, you do not know what to do.
So your fictions keep you safe. Granted. But how do you know that they are true?
Perhaps at one point they were. But perhaps today they have expired. You have reinvented yourself. You live and grow and experience and one day you find the fiction you have lived your life within no longer accommodate the person you’ve become. As a child you were afraid and apprehensive but now twenty years have passed and your soul has since evolved. Your hair is messier. Your nails a little dirty. Your sheets are bloodied, elbows scratched and heart a little torn and jagged.
So what do you do?
You burn your past. The past that trapped you in a shape you were but no longer inhabit. The past of childhood friends and ageing relatives, the ones who only knew the blue–eyed girl from childhood. And you reinvent yourself. You write a brand new story. You contradict all that defined your former self and you leave it all behind. Your taste in music, the way you speak, the men whose eyes and hands you seek in love and combat and the way you make your bed.
Your new story isn’t frail and captive. The book you write today isn’t locked and hidden in disgrace. It is thick and fierce and maddening. It loves repose and refrain, French–born existentials and bleeding battered bruised black hands.
And? Now that you have burned it down, dug up the foundation and ground the pieces to a fine–grained dust. Are you free?
No. You aren’t free. You’re simply trapped within a newborn fiction. It may be grander and aflame but it is still a cage you forged yourself. It still fits neatly in someone’s narrow–minded brain and it still follows a path that’s predetermined.
What you want is to escape. You want contradiction and complexity. Discomfort and irregularity. The truth is not a neat and fitted custom–made affair you made to soothe your need for order. The truth is messy, dirty, politically incorrect, counteractive and condescending. And you know what? That is why it’s beautiful. Frictions are what causes sparks.
So tear your walls. Contradict the stories you tell yourself to feel safe and intact and content. Safety is no place for madness and creation. The known has never made a man surprised. By tearing down the house you built to keep you dry you are forced to enter unknown waters. That is where you find what’s interesting. That is where you want to be.
But you knew this. Right? This is why you love the new, the scary and the unattained. The jungles of the rough grand cities, the hypothetical and intricate and the anti–realism of limitless abstraction. The modernists figured this out. Their paintings of solid black squares are preposterous to some. What? This is nothing. True. It it nothing. But by virtue of being nothing, it is also everything.
What you did in the past does not matter. Where you were born and whom your parents were, how much melanin your skin contains or the hormones flowing through your veins. None of that defines you.
What defines you is today. What defines you are the actions you undertake right now. The words you speak and listen to and where you go and what you see and seek. Do what your mind tells you at this moment and do it fully, truly, without fear of consequence or repercussion. Sure, you may look back tomorrow and wonder what the damn went through your mind. That’s fine. It’s great, actually. It shows you you have grown.
That is it. That is what The Unbearable Lightness of Being is about. It is about a band of human beings trapped within their self–narrated stories of who they are and why they are that way. And because they are so rigid and determined and so sure this is the truth, the love they harbour for each other becomes not liberation but their deepest source of pain. Because they capture each other within their stories. Like animals within a cage.
“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight”, Kundera writes. “Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy; happiness is the longing for repetition.” Yes, human life runs straight ahead, and it does so because we are aware that we will one day perish. “It means to know that one is food for worms“, as Becker so elegantly put it. But that does not mean one cannot be happy. Human beings long for repetition because in this way the fictions we create are reassured. To be happy one need simply disregard the need for affirmation. Accept the irrationality and contradictions. And find the beauty within them.
“Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” the man, surprised, asks the woman at the novel’s very end. In her eyes, her faults and flaws and weaknesses had ruined her lover’s life, forced him to abandon his life’s mission and surrender to a life of quietude. “Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. And it’s a terrific relief to realise you’re free, free of all missions.”