01 The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Chance, chance along has a message for us.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Dear Friend,

I’m half way through Yiyun Li’s new book Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life now. I told you last time that because of the heavy reading course load I’m under this semester, I probably wouldn’t have time for it. Yet this weekend (against my wish) I started reading anyhow. Although I’m only half way through the book, I could say that this book has successfully seduced me and that my affection for it is duly returned.

This week, via Kristeva, I also understood a little bit more about the Kundera novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But let me first tell you a bit about Dear Friend so that you could know how this train of though started. In one of Li’s essays Two Lives, she talks about (as I understood it) the magical power of literature that brings strangers’ lives together. The same literature could unknowingly be an umbrella of two, if not more, distinct lives. The title of the essay comes from William Trevor’s Two Lives, a collection of two novellas “Reading Turgenev” and “My House in Umbria”. Although there are echoes and reflections, in fictional reality the two protagonists has very little in common: one a Protestant Irish woman from a small town who has chosen to spend more than thirty years in an asylum, the other an English woman who has a handsome house in Umbria. However, grown up in China and voraciously consumed every word Turgenev had ever written as a teenager (and hospitalized twice in America due to suicidal depression years later), Li unmistakably sees herself reflected in “Reading Turgenev”, if not as a double of the fictional protagonist. She writes, affectionately, “That Turgenev would be read and memorized by an Irishwoman in an asylum is not far from his being singled out in a middle-school library in Beijing.” She also adds, however, “One could easily give meaning to the serendipity of reencountering him in Trever’s work, though to do so is foolish” (93). I felt that I understood her feeling of being tied to fictional characters, that two lives becomes one, thanks to Trevor, but ultimately united by Turgenev. I also understood her reluctance to spell out this “serendipity” and feeling compelled to call it “foolish.” Now we can talk about Kundera and Kristeva. You see, I’m embarrassed to the same degree to say that I’ve read myself in the lives they created, fictional and in reality. But perhaps I’ll venture a narrative anyhow.

I read Kundera’s ULB when I was 11 or 12, in the last year of primary school. Our Chinese teacher Ms. Q is a literature enthusiastic (and a life enthusiastic!). One day in school she introduced to us this “magnificent,” “mind-blowing” book called “The Unbearable Lightness of Life”, as it was translated in Chinese then. I was always eager to find new things to read, and you know, 12-year-olds don’t read literature reviews, so naturally I trusted my teacher and bought this book on a weekend in this bookstore near a newly erected shopping mall. I understood nothing in the book (well, maybe some? I don’t know). However, it left a big impression on me ever since; some scenes like Teresa’s dream of being made watch Sabina and Tomas making love on a theatre stage stayed with me for ever. And I promised myself to read it again while I become older. The title of the book, so beautiful and melancholy, left an inscription on my mind. In retrospect, this is a highly inappropriate book to be introduced to six graders. I wonder really, what made she give that speech in class about this book. What made her think that a bunch of sixth graders could possibly understand this book? But growing up always a little precocious, I welcomed all kinds of inappropriateness.

Then there was a series of heartbreaking teenage romance, none of which “actualized.” I was a good student and that was because I was cruel to myself in many ways. One of the good things about Communist ideology, or that worth being called “heritage”, is one learn to cooperate with a highly demanding set of rules, physically and mentally, and in turn (hopefully) develops an iron-like willpower, a strict self-discipline, a grit that will help you succeed in anything you set your mind to. This mechanism worked well for me during the three whole years of middle school, and the first and half year in high school. During the years of puberty, I had nothing on my mind except studying and competition. I remained top 5% of my class, and my essays got me first-place awards above school level. I had a position as student leader in the student council as well as in my own class. I represented my class to give the “Speech under Red Flag ” to the rally held on Mondays after the singing of the national anthem (Rise! People who do not wish to remain slave!) the headmaster’s speech. In short, my teachers liked me, spoiled me even, and I proved worthy of their indulgence by never stepping outside the line once, being this obedient, yet competitive kid aspiring to very kind of academic excellence.

What on my mind was, despite all that math and sciences I’ve done, vaguely, “literature.” I loved writing, and yearned to read. But my teacher then centered all out classwork around the exams we had to take and eliminated our reading to the few essays included in our thin text book. The sort of writing promoted encourages us to write allusively and to use the most complicated phrase that could be thought of, so my classmates, especially young female students like me, competed in flowery language. We would be tested in our ability to read Classical Chinese (poetry and prose), then asked to analysis essays and short stories in modern Chinese (Mandarin) with very limited freedom of interpretation. In the end we’d be asked to produce a 800-word essay in about an hour. You see, there was, if you follow the design of the system, no need (therefore no time) to read novels. Simply put, we were not taught how to read books. We did not read a single novel in class all those years.

But I did read some, without guidance, very unsystematically. It was not until the latter half of high school, that I finally said goodbye to the public education system in China. I enrolled in private institutions to study English in cities (Shanghai, Hangzhou) near my hometown (Jiaxing), living in hotels, sometimes with other students, sometimes alone. It was then I began my infatuation with films. I escaped, finally; I enjoyed a certain freedom envied by my fellow classmates, you could say. But what they didn’t know was that I was utterly alone and disoriented. The sort of rules that sustained my life was no longer applicable here, in big cities, among students coming from all kinds of backgrounds but with the same goal to compete for admission to a prestigious university in the U.S. I didn’t start the sort of meticulous preperation as early as they did. Until the Junior year of high school I didn’t know that I would be applying to universities in America. Everything was too late, I felt. And in that state of isolation and depression I turned to books and films, under the excuse that I was using them as materials to study English, though most of the films were in European languages and the books too weren’t necessarily in English.

First semester of Senior year, in October I think, I flew to Hong Kong with some fellow students to take my first SAT. Most of the applicants had already taken the test in May and no body with any planning would wait till then to give the first try, except me. I had never been to Hong Kong before, and the first time there only as a test taker. Didn’t do any sightseeing or shopping, as people usually do in Hong Kong. Stayed in a hotel for two or three nights and spent the evenings reviewing my vocabulary book; didn’t go out, didn’t do anything. Not in the mood for fun anyway. Feeling guilty to have fun actually.

I went to Hong Kong three times in three months, all for the SATs. Once, on my way back, I had this long wait at the airport for my flight back to Shanghai. It was already late at night and the majority of duty-free shops and restaurants were closed. I went into this book store (Relay?) that was still open, trying to rid myself of the few HK dollars I had on me. While waiting in line for checkout, I overheard a brief conversation that struck me like a lightning. A white man (excuse me for lack of a better expression…) dressed in a pilot’s uniform, very handsome, with leather shoes and a smart suitcase, asked the store attendant if they had a copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” “What was the title of the book?” I remembered the sales girl asked him as reply, not getting what he was saying. “The-Un-bea-ra-ble-Ligh-tgh-ness-of-Be-ing,” he repeated in slow, careful English. She still couldn’t get it correctly, so she asked him, apologetically, to write it down for her. Then he wrote it down with a pencil on a piece of paper. I didn’t know if he got his copy eventually. I had already checked out my book and left by then. But this melancholy, otherworldly beautiful book title, uttered with such precision and so lovingly by a stranger, suddenly brought all my lost time back. The phrase exerted itself and resonated with me, who was yet eighteen, alone, lost under the florescent light of a busy international airport. Now I had to read that book again, I thought.

So I did. After December all the application work came to an end. My then boyfriend returned all the letters and postcards I wrote him and said we shouldn’t be together (or something like that) on Christmas Eve (not that I celebrate Christmas, but why?!). So you see, I had plenty time starting January to watch films and, read, if I was not busy being sad. I think it was during that few months that I reread ULB (in Chinese, of the copy that I got years ago). I understood it for the first time, at least for then. The book shed light on my thinking of Communism, fidelity and fate; love and sex, too. I produced extensive note on it on my blog in Chinese, now lost. But Kundera has remained my most loved author, someone I had great affinity with because the book had become part of my personal history. There are many more “greater” writers, sure, but it’s difficult to discredit your first love.

Now three years later, toward the end of last semester to be exact, I read ULB for a class in English for the first time. I was studying psychoanalysis theory with the professor who had Kundera on her reading list. There was another book that I read in conjunction, although later taken out from the syllabus, Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran by Gohar Homayounpour. She was invited to give a talk at Harvard by my Professor and almost all my classmates went to sit at the seminar room. I loved the book and loved the author in person. Here is a minor detail that might interest you: I was in both in her Novels class in which we read ULB and the Theory class that introduced psychoanalysis theory. In other words, at the time of the talk, my Theory classmates had not necessarily been familiarized with Kundera’s ULB, and my Novels classmates did not spend as much time with psychoanalysis theory, that is Freud, Lacan, Kristeva, in addition to Gohar’s Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran. Although the book title sounds like it has nothing to do with Kundera, the book is actually, an intimate and lengthy reflection on ULB in disguise. Kundera was trained as a psychoanalyst before he wrote his novel, too. Gohar’s father, now this might interest you, is the translator of ULB in Farsi. I read the following passage from her book in horror—I think this must be a feeling similar to when Yiyun Li first learned the fictional life of the woman in “Reading Turgenev”—

I have to say that my love relationship with Kundera also began because of the Farsi translator. My relationship with the translator of the Unbearable Lightness of Being goes even further back than my relationship with Kundera. I had a very ambivalent relationship with the translator; a very difficult one, to say the least. I would find myself furious at him most of the time, and even more furious the rest of the time. So how come I had fallen in love with the book he had just translated, carrying it with me everywhere I  went, underlining various parts in different colors? I had become a Kundera fan with all the intensity and passion available to the immature heart of an eleven-year-old girl. 

How can I describe this sweet horror, when I discovered the unbearable affinity between me and a stranger? The connection between two lives irrelevant to each other forged by a writer—how is that possible beyond the fictional world? It happened yet, happens and is always going to happen.

Dear Friend, I hope you are not too bored with me yet, for I can finally start telling you what all this has to do with Kristeva…

This semester I continued to study lit theory with the same professor, and we started, as before, with psychoanalysis theory. She quoted Kristeva at the beginning of each semester, that theory is an anti-depressant. It came from the title of the first chapter of Kristeva’s book Black Sun: “Psychoanalysis—A Counterdepressant.” I concur.

The book we read from Kreiteva is a fairly new one, The Severed Head (2012). While I was more interested in death (decapitation in this case) and the need to represent, our class discussion unfortunately centered only around matricide, which I think, is not the major problem discussed in this book. Anyway, I liked reading Kristeva and after some simple search I came across this book co-authored by her and her husband, Philippe Sollers, pulished in English by Columbia University Press in 2015 and French the year before, Marriage as A Fine Art. It is not a scholarly book, as you can judge from the title. Nevertheless, I took a lot interest in reading it. Fortunately it’s only about 100 pages long, and I read it for just one night in the library. It’s a great read. Not necessarily helpful for my paper-writing projects but, I guess could be helpful in a long run?

It’s actually not as cliche as you might think. It’s Kristeva after all and, are you not curious about how she, the author of Tales of Love and the foremost scholar in psychoanalysis—essentially a discipline about love—managed her love life? And I’ve always enjoyed reading writers’ (auto)biographies and letters alongside their work. Sometimes they tell you more and can really help your sense of judgment.

Back to the book with that funny title—the things struck me at first read were many, but one relevant to the discussion here is the part where she gives her autobiographical account of her first arrival in Paris and how she consequently met her future husband Sollers, whom she has been with for fifty years now. And how that whole story sound familiar to The Unbearable Lightness of Being!

I’ll start by quoting a definition of love that I liked by Sollers, on the first page: Love is the full recognition of the other in their otherness. Kristeva continues by clarifying that male and female humans feel a different jouissance, that men and women are mutual foreigners, and a couple, just like her and Sollers, is always formed of two foreigners. It’s just that in their case, they are foreigners–but their different nationalities only accentuate something already present in every couple the majority of people often try avoiding to see.

I remember reading something similar in Rilke’s “Letters to A Young Poet.” His words on on love, poetry and solitude have always been very close to my heart:

I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crows to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharing which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation. . . .

Now let me quote the biographical account Sollers gives of Kristeva:

Julia is a child who went through the experience of totalitarianism. She lived in Bulgaria, under the former Soviet regime, and she underwent a traumatic experience, the death of her father, which she related in a very fine book called The Old Man and the Wolves. I met her as a person just emerging, escaping, from a totalitarian experience. I found that tremendously intriguing and impressive, and it made me ask her over and over again about her childhood. (16)

And then she says, in supplement, a few pages later:

In any case—coming back to your political remarks—when we met, Philippe and I, two years before May ’68, it was not so much France and the French language I discovered— because kindergarten with the Dominican nuns, then the Alliance Française, and then doing Romance philology at Sofia University for my doctorate had more than acquainted me with both. The surprise was that sexual explosion and my long-awaited liberation. The affinity between us was obvious from the start. And that word, obvious, sends me back to the childhood theme, in the sense I was trying to explain: a child-hood recovered in retrospect, via an encounter, that makes one brand-new again, renascent as a different person according to the obviousness of the magnet-lover (aimant-amant); that makes one relive a sensory memory retrieved, revealed, and suddenly more intense, renewed. This is the base. Given this base, an existential complicity that is intellectual, cultural, pro-fessional, and lasting through time becomes possible. For me, the foreigner, this chiming with Philippe’s infant self made me feel I could relate to what he embodies, what sustains him: the French language and mindset, the history of France . . . Of course, I’ll always be this semi-integrated foreigner. How-ever, in the love that rekindles our confided childhoods, and nowhere else, I cease to be a foreigner. (19)

Now from Part Six “The Grand March” in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Sabina’s initial revolt against Communism was aesthetic rather than ethical in character. What repelled her was not nearly so much the ugliness of the Communist world (ruined castles transformed into cow sheds) as the mask of beauty it tried to wear—in other words, Communist kitsch. The model of Communist kitsch is the ceremony called May Day. (249)

Whenever she imagined the world of Soviet kitsch becoming a reality, she felt a shiver run down her back. She would unhesitatingly prefer life in a real Communist regime with all its persecution and meat queues. Life in the real Communist world was still livable. In the world of the Communist ideal made real, in that world of grinning idiots, she would have nothing to say, she would die of horror within a week. (253)

Sabina had once had an exhibit that was organized by a political organization in Germany. When she picked up the catalogue, the first thing she saw was a picture of herself with a drawing of barbed wire superimposed on it. Inside she found a biography that read like the life of a saint or martyr: she had suffered, struggled against injustice, been forced to abandon her bleeding homeland, yet was carrying on the struggle. “Her paintings are a struggle for happiness” was the final sentence.

She protested, but they did not understand her.

Do you mean that modern art isn’t persecuted under Communism?

“My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!” she replied, infuriated.

From that time on, she began to insert mystification in her biography, and by the time she got to America she even managed to hide the fact that she was Czech. It was all merely a desperate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life. (254)

Finally, from Part Three “Words Misunderstood” entry “Sabina’s counttry”:

Sabina understood Franz’s distaste for America. He was the embodiment of Europe: his mother was Viennese, his father French, and he himself was Swiss.

Franz greatly admired Sabina’s country. Whenever she told him about herself and her friends from home, Franz heard the words “prison,” “persecution,” “enemy tanks,” “emigration,” “pamphlets,” “banned books,” “banned exhibitions,” and he felt a curious mixture of envy and nostalgia. . . .

It is in this spirit that we may understand Franz’s weakness in revolution. First he sympathized with Cuba, then with China, and when the cruelty of their regimes began to appall him, he resigned himself with a sigh to a sea of words with no weight and no resemblance of life. He became a professor in Geneva (where there are no demonstrations), and in a burst of abnegation (in womanless, paradeless solitude) he published several scholarly book, all of which received considerable acclaim. Then one day along came Sabina. She was a revelation. She came from a land where revolutionary illusion had long since faded but where the thing he admired most in revolution remained: life on a larger scale: a life of risk, daring, and the danger of death. Sabina had renewed his faith in the grandeur of human endeavor. Superimposing the painful drama of her country on her person, he found her even more beautiful. (103)