Tag Archives: Milan Kundera

Fragonard, Kundera and the Pleasure of Slowness

22 Apr

“Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? All, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor: “They are gazing at Gods windows. A person gazing at God’s windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do. which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.”

(Milan Kundera, Slowness)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Reverie, 1771

Milan Kundera’s novel “Slowness”, his first novel written in French and not in Czech, was published in 1995. Like all of Kundera’s work, “Slowness” is a philosophical novel. The plot line and the characters serve only as a starting point for the exploration of topics such as slowness, pleasure and hedonism as things of the past, and how the modernity, speed suppress sensuality; modern people have no time for idleness of conquests of love, everything is about the goal and not about the process. To contrast the motifs of slowness vs speed, slow seduction vs rash conquest, Kundera combines two plot lines set in different times. One follows a couple driving in a car to a countryside chateau in France, and the other goes back in past, Kundera takes us back to the wonderful 18th century by retelling a story originally written by Vivant Denons in which the two lovers have a night of slow seduction full of secret symbolism and love language. This is how the novel begins:

We suddenly had the urge to spend the evening and night in a chateau. Many of them in France have become hotels: a square of greenery lost in a stretch of ugliness without greenery… I am driving, and in the rearview mirror I notice a car behind me. The small left light is blinking, and the whole car emits waves of impatience. The driver is watching for his chance to pass me; he is watching for the moment the way a hawk watches for a sparrow. (…) I check the rearview mirror: still the same car unable to pass me because of the oncoming traffic.Beside the driver sits a woman: why doesn’t the man tell her something funny? why doesn’t he put his hand on her knee? Instead, he’s cursing the driver ahead of him for not going fast enough, and it doesn’t occur to the woman, either, to touch the driver with her hand; mentally she’s at the wheel with him, and she’s cursing me too.

And I think of another journey from Paris out to a country chateau, which took place more than two hundred years ago, the journey of Madame de T. and the young Chevalier who went with her. It is the first time they are so close to each other, and the inexpressible atmosphere of sensuality around them springs from the very slowness of the rhythm: rocked by the motion of the carriage, the two bodies touch, first inadvertently, then advertently, and the story begins. Then begins their night: a night shaped like a triptych, a night as an excursion in three stages: first, they walk in the park; next, they make love in a pavilion; last, they continue the lovemaking in a secret chamber of the chateau.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Pursuit, 1771-72

I read “Slowness” five years ago, but this philosophical discussion is something that comes to my mind often and it dawned on me now how connected the slow seduction from Kundera’s novel is with the French Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s series called “Progress of Love” which was originally commissioned by Louis XV’s mistress Madame Du Barry for her pleasure pavilion designed by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Despite the beauty and vivacious nature of these canvases, they weren’t displayed for a long time in the pavilion, Du Barry soon ended up returning them to the painter. The reason behind her odd dissatisfaction with the master pieces is unknown, perhaps the resemblance between the young lad and the king Louis and the girl and Du Barry was too strong, or perhaps the Rococo spirit of the paintings was going out of fashion and she wanted something less kitschy, more elegant and simple.

I certainly don’t share Madame Du Barry’s opinion. If I could travel in time, I would have persuaded Fragonard to sell the paintings to me and then I would hang them in my luxurious countryside castle and gaze at them and daydream all day long. I just love the elegance and romance in these artworks, the secrecy and the innocence of this love chase. In “The Pursuit” the young lad is handing her a rose, like a true romantic and cavalier. “It’s thy love I want, don’t run away from me!”, his lovely face seems to say. Her answer to this flirtatious proposal is a ballerina-like pose. Kundera directly mentions Rococo art and Fragonard in “Slowness”: “The art of the eighteenth century drew pleasures out from the fog of moral prohibitions; it brought about the frame of mind we call “libertine,” which beams from the paintings of Fragonard and Watteau, from the pages of Sade, Crebillon the younger, or Charles Duclos. It is why my young friend Vincent adores that century and why, if he could, he would wear the Marquis de Sade’s profile as a badge on his lapel. I share his admiration, but I add (without being really heard) that the true greatness of that art consists not in some propaganda or other for hedonism but in its analysis.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Secret Meeting, 1771

Despite faking fear and disinterest in the first canvas, there is our love heroine again, pale and delightful, dressed in a white silk gown. The place of their secret meeting is part-Rococo and part-Romantical; statues and vases are man-made ornaments, but the trees and the mood are summery and romantical. Pink fragrant roses everywhere, birches, serene blue sky and all those tiny light green leaves on the trees. I love the special shade that appear often in Fragonard’s trees, this turquoise, teal shade, the love-child of green and blue. The girl’s face shows concern, as if she had perhaps heard someone’s footsteps approaching. And he had just climbed up the overgrown ladder to the secret walled garden. Can this get more romantical?

I love to enjoy all the little details of the painting such as this letter the girl is holding in her hand. It seems this is the love letter from the young cavalier, filled with sweet words of seduction and details about the secret meeting in the garden which is now taking place.

First stage: they stroll with arms linked, they converse, they find a bench on the lawn and sit down, still arm in arm, still conversing. The night is moonlit, the garden descends in a series of terraces toward the Seine, whose murmur blends with the murmur of the trees. Let us try to catch a few fragments of the conversation. The Chevalier asks for a kiss. Madame de T. answers: “I’m quite willing: you would be too vain if I refused. Your self-regard would lead you to think I’m afraid of you.”

Everything Madame de T. says is the fruit of an art, the art of conversation, which lets no gesture pass without comment and works over its meaning; here, for instance, she grants the Chevalier the kiss he asks, but after having imposed her own interpretation on her consent: she may be permitting the embrace, but only in order to bring the Chevalier’s pride back within proper bounds.

When by an intellectual maneuver she transforms a kiss into an act of resistance, no one is fooled, not even the Chevalier.

Jean-Honorá Fragonard, The Progress of Love – The Lover Crowned, 1771-72

The third painting of the series “The Lover Crowned” shows the girl crowning her lover with a crown of pink roses. A crown for the man of her dreams who managed to seduce her. The may be the most vibrant painting out of the series, the colours are just wild; look at all that red and pink of the flowers, the red attire of the lad who seems to be painting a portrait of them, and then the lovely mustard yellow dress the girl is wearing. There isn’t a direct connection between Fragonard’s series “Progress of Love” and the 18th century couple in “Slowness” in terms of content, the story line is different, but it is the element of slow seduction, slow approach to pleasure that unites these two eighteenth century arts. Kundera describes the slowness of one summer night’s seduction, with every detail carefully planed and the pleasure delayed, and Fragonard’s approach is even broader because it portrays the slowness not only of one night’s seduction in a pavilion, but a carefully planned, romantic and innocent game of love which ultimately brings sweet, ripe fruit. Here are some passages from “Slowness”:

The end of the first stage of their night: the kiss she granted the Chevalier to keep him from feeling too vain was followed by another, the kisses “grew urgent, they cut into the conversation, they replaced it. …” But then suddenly she stands and decides to turn back.

What stagecraft! After the initial befuddlement of the senses, it was necessary to show that love’s pleasure is not yet a ripened fruit; it was necessary to raise its price, make it more desirable; it was necessary to create a setback, a tension, a suspense. In turning back toward the chateau with the Chevalier, Madame de T. is feigning a descent into nothingness, knowing perfectly well that at the last moment she will have full power to reverse the situation and prolong the rendezvous. All it will take is a phrase, a commonplace of the sort available by the dozen in the age-old art of conversation. But through some unexpected concatenation, some unforeseeable failure of inspiration, she cannot think of a single one. She is like an actor who suddenly forgets his script. For, indeed, she does have to know the script; it’s not like nowadays, when a girl can say, “You want to, I want to, let’s not waste time!” For these two, such frankness still lies beyond a barrier they cannot breach, despite all their libertine convictions.

“I see her leading the Chevalier through the moonlit night. Now she stops and shows him the contours of a roof just visible before them in the penumbra; ah, the sensual moments it has seen, this pavilion; a pity, she says, that she hasn’t the key with her.

As she converses, Madame de T. maps out the territory, sets up the next phase of events, lets her partner know what he should think and how he should proceed. She does this with finesse, with elegance, and indirectly, as if she were speaking of other matters. She leads him to see the Comtesse’s self-absorbed chill, so as to liberate him from the duty of fidelity and to relax him for the nocturnal adventure she plans. She organizes not only the immediate future but the more distant future as well, by giving the Chevalier to understand that in no circumstance does she wish to compete with

They approach the door and (how odd! how unexpected!) the pavilion is open!

Why did she tell him she hadn’t brought the key? Why did she not tell him right off that the pavilion was no longer kept locked? Everything is composed, confected, artificial, everything is staged, nothing is straightforward, or in other words, everything is art; in this case: the art of prolonging the suspense, better yet: the art of staying as long as possible in a state of arousal.”

By slowing the course of their night, by dividing it into different stages, each separate from the next, Madame de T. has succeeded in giving the small span of time accorded them the semblance of a marvelous little architecture, of a form. Imposing form on a period of time is what beauty demands, but so does memory. For what is formless cannot be grasped, or committed to memory. Conceiving their encounter as a form was especially precious for them, since their night was to have no tomorrow and could be repeated only through recollection. There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love – Love Letters, 1771-72

The last painting of the series “Love Letters” shows the lovers in a happy union. Again in some beautiful garden with roses and statues. A little dog is lying near the roses, perhaps hinting at the fidelity of the love union, or perhaps just enriching the painting with his cuteness. The girl’s rosy cheeks and pink dress are cuteness overload, and the way the young cavalier is gazing at her is of equal sweetness. Red parasol is a nice Chinoserie hint. But now, to end, I would like to share another quote from the novel “Slowness” about hedonism:

In everyday language, the term “hedonism” denotes an amoral tendency to a life of sensuality, if not of outright vice. This is inaccurate, of course: Epicurus, the first great theoretician of pleasure, had a highly skeptical understanding of the happy life: pleasure is the absence of suffering. Suffering, then, is the fundamental notion of hedonism: one is happy to the degree that one can avoid suffering, and since pleasures often bring more unhappiness than happiness, Epicurus advises only such pleasures as are prudent and modest. Epicurean wisdom has a melancholy backdrop: flung into the world’s misery, man sees that the only clear and reliable value is the pleasure, however paltry, that he can feel for himself: a gulp of cool water, a look at the sky (at God’s windows), a caress.

Modest or not, pleasures belong only to the person who experiences them, and a philosopher could justifiably criticize hedonism for its grounding in the self. Yet, as I see it, the Achilles’ heel of hedonism is not that it is self-centered but that it is (ah, would that I were mistaken!) hopelessly Utopian: in fact, I doubt that the hedonist ideal could ever be achieved…

I think the whole philosophy of slowness, pleasure, idleness and hedonism is something we could all use in our hectic, fast modern lives over-bombarded with information and changes, just take things slow and enjoy them.

Poetic Memory, Beauty and Milan Kundera

9 Jul

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”

Picture found here. Notice how beautifully the delicate white porcelain and fresh pink roses contrast with the worn out grey surface? In one word – poetic.

As you may already know, I am a big fan of Milan Kundera’s novel “Unbearable Lightness of Being”; I think the way he explored the inner struggles of characters is wonderful, but there’s so much more to the book. Kundera tends to be very analytical and philosophical and while he often explores the ideas of other thinkers such as Nietzsche, he tends to have interesting theses and concepts himself, like this one:

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”

Kundera ends the chapter with this sentence, connecting love and poetic memory, which only emphasises the importance of poetic memory in one’s life.

“Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.”

The first sentence perfectly describes my knightly quest for Beauty in everyday life. Kundera expressed in a sentence something I felt for a long time, but had no words to describe it. I usually just say “this is beautiful” or “I like the aesthetics”, but from now on I shall call it “poetic memory”. Poetic memory is an individual thing; one can see beauty where others do not, but many things are universally beautiful such as sunsets and flowers. But it is not merely about beauty itself as much as it is about a dreamy, charming, heartbreaking sight that makes you sigh and that lingers on in your memory, reappears in your mind again, that touches you and can even brings tear to your eye. I believe one needs to develop sensitivity towards beauty in order to see it every day, and in the most random and strangest of places.

I just love pretty porcelain! Beautiful flowers on this tea cup have dazzled my imagination and stayed in my poetic memory, and so did the dreamy sight of pink magnolia blossoms, pear tree and a cardinal, photo by Molly Dean.

I am constantly fanatically and ecstatically seeking and finding, stumbling upon, beauty all around me, and when I see a sight that deserves a place in my poetic memory, I am overwhelmed by rapture that seems to me better than an acid trip. Here are some examples of scenes from my life that have charmed me, touched me and made my life more beautiful, and that I have rightfully saved to my poetic memory: cherry tree twig that adorns my vase every spring, my neighbour’s laundry drying outdoors and dancing in the breeze, bright yellow flowers in my garden, one decaying used-to-be-white-but-now-grey wall with little windows and bricks showing through and ruby red roses overgrowing it, ginkgo tree in autumn which leaves a magical gold-yellow carpet of leaves, one old grey house with two small windows and rain leaves a trail under them so that it looks like eyes crying and a damp garden with sombre pink and blue hydrangeas, three gentle and sad looking birch trees in front of an old wooden house, silence and stillness of winter afternoons and snowflakes, pink and lavender coloured sunsets as well as the orange and purple autumn sunsets tinged with melancholy with chillness descending, rose petals scattered all over my room and The Smiths in the background, morning dew on roses and white peonies in my garden, old decaying roofs, iron gates adorned with rust, old walls overgrown with moss and ivy, tree branches white and crispy from frost, red poppies near the railway, large white moon, listening to rain and Chopin at the same time; coming home from school last April accompanied by the smell of freshly mown grass, birdsong and pink magnolia blossoms. Colour combinations too; lavender and ruby red, or purple and yellow are amongst my favourites. The sight of flickering candles and old books with yellowy pages. And a special sight I saw last August on one rainy evening, coming home from a walk; apple tree and yellow sunflowers intertwined, like lovers, announcing autumn. Along with the steady beats of hard summer rain on my umbrella, it was enchanting, almost fairy tale like for me….

I imagine poetic memory as a beautiful little antique wooden box with elegant carvings and an invisible silver key that I carry around my neck, and when I see a scene of beauty, I can just unlock the box in my imagination and save it there. And later, in sad and dull moments, I can sit by my window with a cup of tea, close my eyes and enjoy the contents of my “poetic memory box”. Poetic memory isn’t limited to sights you see in your life; it can be found in photos and art as well, anything really that charms you. Here are some pictures that I recently “saved” in my poetic memory:

Seaburn, Sunderland, England by DM Allan.

Photo found here.

Wild flowers of Pacific Northwest, Images taken from around Washington State

Milldale, Staffordshire, Peak District, England, UK; isn’t the contrast between old grey stones and bright greenery around it so so dazzlingly beautiful?

So, what do you think of Kundera’s thesis? Are you building your poetic memory? What kind of scenes charm you? I should also add that it is my opinion that poetic memory is a basis for good writing; poets and artists see beauty everywhere and it later becomes part of their work. As every day, month, year passes, I see more and more beauty around me, so much so that I should probably walk around carrying a notebook and a pen and write it down, “A Book of Beauty” I should call it. Sometimes I walk the streets thinking: “Look at that lantern, look at that crack in the pavement where flowers grew, or a pine tree, how did I never notice it before!?” My point is that noticing beauty is a skill that needs to be learnt, and I’m not pretending I’m above it, in fact, I wonder what sights will charm me five or ten years from now. Perhaps I’ll notice flowers in places I never even thought of looking.

If anything, I hope this post will inspire you to see more beauty around you.

‘Life is so light.’ Is it really?

14 May

Life is so light. It’s like an outline we can’t ever fill in, correct, or make any better. It’s frightening.’ (film quote)

the unbearable lightness of being 2Scene from the film (1988)

I have started reading Milan Kundera’s novel ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being‘ again, and the question of lightness and heaviness of life has not stopped puzzling me since. First of all, if you haven’t read the book, what are you waiting for? It is one of the strangest love stories ever written, and, although philosophical, it is very easy to read, it’s not depressive or dark like Nietzsche for example. And if you have read it, then you know what am I talking/writing about here.

In short, novel is set mainly in Prague in the late 1960s an 1970s, and the main characters are Tomáš; a Czech surgeon, intellectual and a womaniser who considers love and sex to be distinct entities. Tereza; a young wife of Tomáš, a gentle soul who loves reading and photographing, and comes from a small town where nobody ‘reads or discusses anything‘. And Sabina; a passionate and free-spirited artist, and one of Tomáš’ favourite mistresses. She declares war on kitsch and conventionality. While Tomáš and Sabina live a life of lightness and freedom, for Tereza that lightness is unbearable, she feels week, too dependent on Tomáš for love and everything else. Sabina and Tomáš live their lives in freedom, without worries, without a care in the world, they don’t give meaning to ordinary things; they enjoy the pleasures of life, excluding all sentimentality, but Sabina is surrounded by emptiness.

Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden, but the unbearable lightness of being.

At the same time, Tereza finds the insignificance of her life, and life in general, unbearable, but the heaviness of life is crushing her down. She came like a burden into Tomáš’ life. It is her own incapability of confronting the heaviness of life that is making her miserable.

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.(…)

There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, “sketch” is not quite a word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.

Each of us is given only one life. One life. Compared to eternity, we are given less than a hundred years to live our first and only life, unprepared, without a ‘sketch’ or a previous outline, without rules or instructions, therefor life’s so light. But if we were forced to relive our lives again and again for eternity, like in Nietzsche’s concept of ‘eternal recurrence’, we’d be condemned to eternal agony! Imagine that you have to relive every second of your life, whether it’s a joyous or a sad one. Endless repetition is a horrifying weight, an unimaginable burden. Isn’t it a blessing then, that we are living only one life?

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

The contrast of weight and lightness is the most mystical out of all. For me, life is a burden, I’m always worried and the world frightens me, but I long for the power to embrace the lightness of life, to live a life of lightness. I know lightness wouldn’t be unbearable to me in a way it is to Tereza. On the contrary, I admire people like Sabina; she always tries not to be attached to a place, a thing or, a person. It seems like nothing means anything to her, I wish I could feel the same way. The fact that I’m writing this post, and putting effort, not only into this blog, but in other things as well, only proves the weight of life. If I lived the life of lightness, I wouldn’t bother doing anything, I’d be caught in the moment, time would pass slowly, and I’d be fully immersed into the emptiness of life. Still, the very phrase ‘Life is so light.‘ brings tears to my eyes, and the way Tomáš says it in the film, so calmly, and with resignation.

I ask myself why, why I am bothering with life, why can’t I just fade away?! Life is too hard for me. And everything means to me, further pulling me down into the heaviness of life. If only I could rise above it, into the lightness of living, I might be happy. If our lives are insignificant, and they are, why bother, why do anything, why have pointless hobbies and collect things? Why wake up in the morning? Why bother to cooperate in this theatre of life, in a role we are forced to play? It’s funny to me, but at the same time my curiosity compels me to think about it further, how all of us are just dolls, programmed to do certain pointless moves and words for a certain time until we die. It makes me happy to think that this life is not real, but revising for exams reassures me every time.

Light life may be unbearable, but the heavy one crushes us. If nothing matters, life is unbearable. If everything matters, life is also unbearable. A balance would be something in between, most things don’t matter but some do, in which case life is bearable and occasionally meaningful.

Are you living a life of lightness, or a life or heaviness? You don’t have to tell me, but please, take the time to just think about it.