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.

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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.

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Recapitulation, narrative and memory

April 25th for us antipodeans is a sacred day.

This year marks the 100th year memorial of the doomed,  Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) storming of the Gallipoli peninsula, a rocky stretch of Turkish beach and cliffs during World War I.

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The bloodshed on those battlefields, was greatly increased by mistakes and ineptitude a by British commanders far away. Young Australians served for freedom of King and country however the war forever changed the national identity. It’s the time when the British colonial outpost of Australia, grew up and became a nation in its own right, despite Federation 14 years earlier.

Every year on April 25th, at memorials around the country and at parades through city streets, the battles are remembered. Diggers, or more accurately, their descendants honour the fallen; servicemen and women pay their respects to those who sacrificed their lives in the war.

These small ceremonies are repeated year after year with the same catch-cry,

“Lest we forget.”

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This is what memorials are, the enactment of a story, the recapitulation of a narrative reminder of what was and what should never be again. War memorials are not enough to stop us ever going to war again, but they serve as a solemn reminder of the truth,

Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana [1905].

Ceremonies are a kind of sacrament, an embodiment of a kernel of truth. They point the participant back to a truth while pointing them forward to live life with the knowledge of this truth.

Sacred stories have always been important to communities; they shape a people conscious of the past and capable of facing the future.