Monday, March 29, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Bowler hat by lokarta
( see image information below)

"Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us. We read its messages as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup."



Is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? this is the central question posed by author Milan Kundera in the mosaic of love stories, philosophical musings, political commentary , ancient myths and mirth of a bowler hat that is 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. Based in Prague Spring of former Czechoslovakia's Communist period in 1968, the story revolves around the interwoven lives of four star crossed lovers : Tomas , Tereza , Sabina ( my favorite character) and Franz . There is sumptuous sprinkling of author's first person reflections on the aspirations, fears and hopes of characters of his own creation which makes the narrative very interesting. The book opens with the mysterious idea of eternal return which has been a key element in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche : " to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? ". Nietzche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens ( das schwerste Gewicht) and purported that embracing this burden requires "Amor Fati or love of one's fate". In "Why I Am So Clever", Ecce Homo, section 10 he says : My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it" .


Kundera builds on this idea - talking about weight and lightness as also fate ( both its acknowledgement and lack thereof !) . On one hand, there is the sixth century Greek philosopher Parmenides who saw the world as pairs of opposites while labeling lightness as positive and weight as negative. And then there is Beethovan, who unlike Parmenides, considered weight as positive. Beethovan ( and music per se) plays an important role in the Unbearable Lightness of Being as also Kundera's other works influenced by his own musical background. Kundera's father was an important Czech musicologist and pianist who served as the head of a music academy. Kundera himself studied musicology and his understanding of music is reflected in his work. Beethovan in some ways is the starting of Tomas and Tereza's love story which begins with a serendipitous visit which brings Tomas to the hotel restaurant in Tereza's small town where just as she is taking the order for his Cognac, Beethovan music is playing on the radio. Tereza ( to whom Beethovan is a door to the world she yearns for as is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina - a copy of which she carries at a number of points in the story) later buys Beethovan sonatas and quartets for Tomas. The last movement of Beethovan's last quartet is based on the following two motifs: Muss ess sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein! ( Must it be? It must be! It must be!) ....must fate be as it is? The story in its non linear style takes one back and forth to this question both in lives of its characters while prodding the reader to reflect on their own rendezvous with fate and the idea of eternal return. Then there are myths : Freudian dreams, Plato's symposium and Sophocles's Oedipus - all of which make for what is not an unbearably light though enjoyable circular reading especially if you are philosophically inclined.


One of my favorite parts is the point where Kundera analysis four kinds of people based on the kind of look we wish to live under : The first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public. The second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes. They are the tireless hosts of cocktail parties and dinners. Then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. And finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. They are the dreamers. The book was written in 1982. That was the year when Intel 80286 was released, first luggable computer was introduced and Apple became the first personal computer manufacturer to hit $1 billion mark for annual sales. Fast forward to the next millennium to the age of facebook, twitter and our many virtual worlds. Which kind of person are you?


Image information: The image is from http://www.flickr.com/photos/lokar/3345753029/

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Towards the Splendid City

" I did not learn from books any recipe for writing a poem, and I, in my turn, will avoid giving any advice on mode or style which might give the new poets even a drop of supposed insight. When I am recounting in this speech something about past events, when reliving on this occasion a never-forgotten occurrence, in this place which is so different from what that was, it is because in the course of my life I have always found somewhere the necessary support, the formula which had been waiting for me not in order to be petrified in my words but in order to explain me to myself.

During this long journey I found the necessary components for the making of the poem. There I received contributions from the earth and from the soul. And I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature. And no less strongly I think that all this is sustained - man and his shadow, man and his conduct, man and his poetry - by an ever-wider sense of community, by an effort which will for ever bring together the reality and the dreams in us because it is precisely in this way that poetry unites and mingles them. And therefore I say that I do not know, after so many years, whether the lessons I learned when I crossed a daunting river, when I danced around the skull of an ox, when I bathed my body in the cleansing water from the topmost heights - I do not know whether these lessons welled forth from me in order to be imparted to many others or whether it was all a message which was sent to me by others as a demand or an accusation. I do not know whether I experienced this or created it, I do not know whether it was truth or poetry, something passing or permanent, the poems I experienced in this hour, the experiences which I later put into verse.

From all this, my friends, there arises an insight which the poet must learn through other people. There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song - but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny..."

- Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize Lecture , 1971

Note: Read the full lecture at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1971/neruda-lecture-e.html

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Me Imperturbe

" Peace by Neha"

Me imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all or mistress of all, aplomb in the midst of irrational things,
Imbued as they, passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes, less important than I thought,
Me toward the Mexican sea, or in the Mannahatta or the Tennessee, or far north or inland,
A river man, or a man of the woods or of any farm-life of these States or of the coast, or the lakes or Kanada,
Me wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies,
To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.

- Walt Whitman ( from Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman. Brooklyn: Fowler & Wells, 1856)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Perspective

The way by Neha

Light, shade, angle and this sign
From where I see you
there lies the design.

Signs, strokes, yours and mine
from where I see you
there lies no fine line.

-Neha

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Look what I found


I looked and I found love
love and the answer
answer to my search
search beyond words

I looked and I found eternal
eternal and the present
present in my world
world since time of timeless

I looked and I found arms
arms open with kindness
kindness for one and all
all beyond right or wrong

I looked and I found a song
song of us, them, everyone
everyone hoping, dreaming, looking
looking as I have been looking

-Neha

Cannery Row

Canned by Neha

" CANNERY ROW in Monterey, California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and the scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses..." Text Color

"How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise - the quality of light, the one, the habit and the dream- be set down alive? ", asks author John Steinbeck after a brief introduction to the beautiful poetic prose that is Cannery Row. The story takes the reader through the streets of Cannery row, its people : Doc - the marine biologist , the fountain of philosophy, art and science who has done something nice for everyone at Cannery Row and for whom everyone at Cannery Row want's to do something nice , Lee Chong and his grocery store - the lifeline of Cannery Row's paraphernalia, Mack - the leader of a small group of men ( call them bums or call them free spirits) who have in common no family, no money and no ambitions beyond food, drink and contentment, Dora - the owner of the bear flag restaurant ( which is not a restaurant as you'd find!) , the male Gopher waiting to welcome his dream lady Gopher at his perfect residence on the vacant lot on Cannery Row and myriad of other incredibly interesting and quirky characters.

I love Cannery Row. For beginners, I am enchanted by my copy of the book which I picked from an old used book store I discovered. The store has three floors filled with books of all sizes, colors, shapes and languages. As I entered on a Sunday afternoon , the sleepy fan was making its usual rounds while its slow moving sound brought home a familiar comfort of tropical kind. And there it was - Cannery Row waiting for me to pick it up. The copy I found ( or rather which found me) was published in 1963 , 18 years after the book's first publication in 1945. The pages are yellow and it smells musty ...a bit like Cannery Row itself I like to think. The story of Cannery Row is a dream. Yet, it is so real. It is comical. Yet, it is deeply philosophical ( from beer milkshakes to moral, physical and aesthetic effect of Model T Ford on the American generations to beards to fortune to misfortune to surprise to frogs and rattlesnakes). The words sing and paint at the same time - a treat for an art lover .

The story has parallel themes with Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men ( which was written in 1937 and which I confess I also deeply love!). The misadventures of men of Of Mice and Men are of a different kind yet they evoke similar emotions as the men of Cannery Row. They have no family and share a deep camaraderie. They want a li'l place of their own where they can belong. While for Lennie and Milton ( in Of Mice and Men), it remains a distant dream which lives in their heart, Mack and the boys of Cannery Row are lucky in having made their home at the Palace Flophouse. Such must have also been the camaraderie between Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist on whom the Doc's character is based and to whom Steinbeck Dedicated the Cannery Row saying " For Ed Ricketts, who knows why or should". I love the Doc. Who doesn't. He's kind, eccentric and mysterious. I love when he reads the Black Marigold's , a 11th century love poem called Caurapañcāśikā written by an Indian poet, translated from Sanskrit by E Powy's Matherrs. A poem which only makes him more mysterious.

In a journal entry in 1938, Steinbeck wrote " In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other. " And so it is with Cannery Row. It is honest and compassionate. Read it !

Notes: Read the Black Marigold translation here http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/bilhana/index.htm