Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Sweet Lightness of Being

The Sweet Lightness of Being

I am glad that I have this habit of scrawling the date on every book that I purchase. I was flipping through my yellowing paperback copy of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being when I realized that I bought the book almost thirteen years ago: 14 April 1992. I remember the book touched me deeply when I first read it.

Of course, I had also watched the movie version starring Daniel Day Lewis, Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche in Singapore roughly around the same time. It was one of the first "R" rated movies shown there and it created quite a sensation then. If I remember correctly, it ran for a long time, almost a year in the theatres!

I enjoyed the movie very much but the book, understandably has more depth. The story centers around the philandering lifestyle of a surgeon, Tomas and his relationship with two women of very different personalities, Tereza and Sabina. It is a book that's worth a reread because Kundera has a very unique way of writing. He has a peculiar fondness for stopping his narration of the story midway to pursue a philosophical point. You are being forced to listen to a philosophical lecture, but you don't mind, because Kundera is so illuminating.

I'm not interested to do a book review here but I want to quote a passage from it (Part 5, Chapter 10):
Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world.
Well, I suppose I don't belong to either category because I don't have a habit of pursuing a "multitude" of women. But of course I know many men from both categories.

The former wants to find his dream woman, and every relatioinship that he's involved in would leave him unsatisfied because the subjective ideal of a dream woman in reality does not exist. So he is never happy.

The second category of men would not refuse any opportunity to bed a woman--no matter how unattractive she is. These men are the happier ones because they are never disappointed. Every woman is the promise of a new experience and a different adventure. Variety to them is the spice of life.

Men of the first category are the more troublesome ones. He will marry alright, but the one he chooses as wife is a compromise. He knows that she doesn't fit his vision of the ideal woman, but on certain key areas, she does. So on that basis, he marries her. But still he will not give up his search for his dream woman. The moment he sees some woman outside who appears to fit the bill, he falls for her. He declares his love for her. But again and again he finds that no single woman can meet his standard of perfection--all of them carry a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle. So in the end to be happy, he has to love them all.

And surprisingly, the ones that you find happily married are men that belong to the second category. They will usually end up choosing a woman whom they they think they can accept on a daily basis as a life partner but will still continue to look for variety outside. Those extra-marital liaisons would be purely for sex and nothing else. They wouldn't be so stupid as to fall in love. What's the point? You only need one wife; so keep her barefoot and pregnant back home and keep those mistresses at a safe distance, purely for pleasure.

Now, since I claim that I don't belong to either category, where then do I stand? Browsing through Kundera's book, I found the passage (in Part 1, Chatper 14) that has somehow lingered in my mind these last thirteen years:
His love for Tereza was beautiful, but it was also tiring... Now what was tiring had disappeared and only the beauty remained.

Saturday found him for the first time time strolling alone through Zurich, breathing in the heady smell of his freedom. New adventures hid around each corner. The future was again a secret. He was on his way back to the bachelor life, the life he had once felt destined for, the life that would let him be what he actually was.

For seven years he had lived bound to her, his every step subject to her scrutiny. She might as well have chained iron balls to his ankles. Suddenly his step was much lighter. He soared. He had entered Parmenides' magic field: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being.

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