The Unbearable Lightness of Being

An alternative title for this blog post is “Taste of Food and Drink in Hemingway.” However, the title of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel captures the essence much better.

Both writers’ works are characterised by lively accounts of sensory experiences  –  the taste of wine and good food, the experience of a sunset across a city, an encounter with a lover.

Hemingway cover pic

Hemingway, in his  book A Moveable Feast, shares a meal:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

This literary technique brings their stories alive for the reader, painting taste and touch pictures with mere words.

In doing so, they articulate the ‘existentialist’ ethos of the 20th century. Against a backdrop of war, political regimes, and rapid social changes, the writers contrast simple sensory experiences to meditate on the mystery of being.

Unbearable Lightness of Being

Kundera writes:

The man hunched over his motorcycle can only focus on the present…. he is caught in a fragment of time, cut off from both the past and the future…. he has no fear because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

Existentialism posits that individuals are responsible for giving meaning to their lives. Those who do are termed “authentic”, showing courage to reject the meaning imposed upon them by tradition, religion or political regimes. Those who do not impose meaning into their lives, can easily drift into nihilism.

Both writers seek to ground their lives in the beauty of freedom, and sensual experiences.

PragueSpring2

Set in Prague Spring of the 60s, Kundera’s novel explores the question of  whether any meaning or weight can be attributed to life, since humanity only has the opportunity to live once, a fleeting ephemeral existence.

The novel follows the life and loves of Tomas, a talented surgeon and an avowed philanderer, who though married to Tereza, cannot give up his mistresses. The novel explores his relationship to the various women in his life, and to his definition of love and meaning.

The novel intertwines their story with Sabrina, a talented painter and Franz, her lover all set against the backdrop of the invasion of Prague by the Russians.

Ultimately, Kundera argues, we cannot find meaning; where meaning should exist we find only an unbearable weightlessness.

Hemingway Quotes

Similarly, Hemingway, writing in the 1920s, was part of the “Annes Folles” or “the Crazy Years” so called because of the fertile social, artistic, and cultural collaborations of the period after the First World War.

His generation was also nicknamed “the lost generation”, so named because their youth was grounded in the optimism of the late 19th century and their prime punctuated by World Wars, The Great Depression of the 1930s and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Both writers turn their art to ‘meaning creation’, capturing the sweetness of life, through taste and touch, no matter how fleeting nor how uncertain.

Each writer, a poet to life, meditates on the lostness, the lightness, of being.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Recently, I completed the Gold Coast Half Marathon, slowly and rather painfully. It made me think of one of my favourite writers and his love for long distance running.

Haruki Murakami is a best selling Japanese writer whose works have been translated into 50 languages and sold millions of copies globally. He has completed over 20 marathons since the 1980s and one ultra marathon.

Haruki Murakam

Famous for his fiction works which blend fantasy with realism, it’s his non fiction work “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” [走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること Hashiru Koto ni Tsuite Kataru Toki ni Boku no Kataru Koto] which depicts his love of running so well.

The book’s title was inspired by Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories entitled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Murakami sits within the tradition of post-modern writers such as Carver, Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger. Frequently featuring western pop culture, music and themes, Murakami’s works are a pastiche of impressions, often surrealistic, melancholic or fatalistic, characterised by post-modernist themes of alienation and loneliness.

What_I_Talk_About

The reason he is one of my favourite writers is because he paints a world of magical realism; a world in which dream and reality intertwine curiously lending an otherwise inexplicable existence, something magical, something mythical, something akin to wonder.

“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” recounts Murakami’s foray into long distance running in his early 30s, some five years after becoming a full time writer. 

He equates the process of setting out on a long run with writing, both methodical decisions to complete a journey, often pointless to everyone except the one undertaking it. Used as a metaphor for existence, the race and the novel are both grueling but beautiful endeavours, inexplicable yet sweet, painful yet redemptive, each in their own unique way.

image what I talk about when I talk about running

Through running, as with writing, Murakami has met many people, seen many strange and remote places, thought hours of his own thoughts and suffered great highs and great lows. It is the same methodical discipline that Murakami applies to writing and to life.

As with Carver’s original, what is talked about when talking about running is far more trivial and yet far more profound. By running and by writing about running, Murakami explores the sweetness and mystery of being and becoming. The sweetness and mystery of life.

The True Man Show

In 1998, Truman Burbank tried to break out of his own life.

He had been born and raised inside a highly elaborate TV show. Truman’s life had been scripted. His love life, his family, his career, it had all been controlled for him.

truman show 2

The few things he truly wanted – that girl in high school, that trip across the sea – were all taken from him for the sake of TV show ratings.

FILE - This undated file image originally provided by Paramount Pictures shows Jim Carrey starring as Truman Burbank in the 1998 movie "The Truman Show," in which Carrey's character discovers every moment of his life has been broadcast.  (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Melinda Sue Gordon, file) ** NO SALES **

When he gains inklings of the artifice [a studio lamp falls from the ‘sky’ – among other things] he seeks to escape the story. 

As he punctures through the horizons of his own known existence, the audience of his show, are on the edge of their seats. The daring quest of this man to break free of the contraints of his world – sends ratings through the roof.

He is now becoming a ‘true man’. 

truman show

In a parallel universe, Thomas Anderson, a lonely computer programmer known as “Neo” has inklings all was not well with the world. 

Various clues indicate an alternative reality, and so Neo follows mysterious characters  “down the rabbit” hole. He wakes to find that his previous reality, was in fact an elaborate computer program labelled the Matrix, in which all humans are bound as comatose units of bio-electricity. 

In the Matrix, humans are wired to believe their lives are free but in fact they are litte more than battery cells fueling super-intelligent machines. Neo joins the army of rebels in their quest to “unplug” enslaved humans from the Matrix and to shut down the Matrix. 

neo

What these stories have in common is the question of ‘true freedom’ and thus the question ‘true humanity’.

They join the poems, songs and stories from ancient times that thread together inklings that all is not well with this life – and in fact a greater reality lies beyond. 

 Existential-mirror

But is it true? Are we characters in a play? Is there really a great reality lie outside this dusty cockpit stage, or TV sound studio, or augmented reality?

More importantly is there a  ‘someone’ observing us, or scripting, our story? 

theatrure

Dare we believe there is an ultimate-narrative, and like Neo waking from a dream, that we can better understand our life there? 

Does this greater truth yield greater freedom? 

 neo

Or when we wake from our dream, to “escape our narrative” will we only we find ourselves in ever higher layers of dreams?

inception 3

Moreover, if there is ultimate reality, how would we even know it if we found it?

Religions and faiths can be known as ‘meta-narratives’ or stories that simply explain the nature of reality, the nature of humanity and the nature of ‘true freedom’.  


philosophy-of-science-fiction-e1344750869555

The Christian narrative makes daring claims on ulimate reality and so,  to the nature of ultimate freedom:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light to all mankind.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  ~ John 1:1-4, 14.