Tag Archives: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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.