Saturday, November 17, 2007

Life and Death in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"

There is a German adage which says, “Einmal ist keinmal,” or, as Milan Kundera translates, “What happens but once… might as well not have happened at all,” (8). He continues to say, “If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all,” (8). But while that may be true with regard to life, Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being begs the question: does the same hold true for death? Life may be transient and insignificant, but in terms of, “Einmal ist keinmal,” death is a monumental event because it experienced repeatedly. Although strictly speaking physically impossible, the psychosomatic impact of fear causes a person to live through their death or that of a loved one before the bodily event transpires. Tereza in particular seems to be most acutely aware that by the time humans pass away, they have already died a thousand times. The death of her dog, Karenin, and one of Tereza’s dreams most accurately demonstrate the idea that a person experiences death repeatedly on a strictly mental basis, instead of just once.
Tereza’s close emotional connection to Karenin causes her to feel the same sense of loss as she would feel when losing a close friend. Therefore, when he falls ill, she finds herself suffering through his death over and over. Kundera writes, “Tereza went out into the garden. She looked down at a patch of grass between two apple trees and imagined burying Karenin there. She dug her heel into the earth and traced a rectangle there,” (294). This demonstrates to the reader that Tereza has already experienced Karenin’s passing in her mind, and, by the time the event takes place in the physical world, it has already happened repeatedly in the cognitive realm. Tereza aches at the idea of losing her beloved dog, but yet she cannot stop the event from occurring again and again in her mind; when the day comes, “She had everything carefully laid out and thought out, having imagined Karenin’s death many days in advance,” (301). Consequently, Karenin’s death transcends the ephemeral state of a one-time occasion, becoming something significant rather than a fleeting moment.
In her sleep, Tereza also experiences her own death as well. Her set of dreams takes her through death long before it happens: “The first was of cats going berserk and referred to the sufferings she had gone through in her lifetime; the second was of her execution and came in countless variations; the third was of her life after death, when humiliation turned into a never-ending state,” (58). Tereza’s fear causes her to live these events over and over again. Although to Tereza the dreams seem to be a constant source of terror, she is actually cementing the legitimacy of her own existence in her mental world. Because she relives her own death repeatedly, she gives weight and meaning to her own death, and, by association, her life. Death is generally considered to be the ultimate one-time event; there is no means of doing it again once the physical event transpires. However, because Tereza’s dreams are recurring, she is actually living through death cognitively, and therefore causing the event to be significant in its repetition.
As far as science understands, humans are the only animals acutely aware of their own mortality. To some, this knowledge may be viewed as a tremendous weight to carry, and it is; however, it is a necessary and ultimately helpful burden. It is only in the knowledge of human mortality that the lives of human beings actually begin. The lives of men are often completely weightless and free, which would, it seems, make them unmemorable. Yet an integral part of human society is the reverence and remembrance of the dead. How is this possible, if life is so weightless? Despite nature of life, which is light and transient because it lacks repetition, death is an even which is lasting because it is replicated continually in the psychological world. This final event, the one event of life which is permanent, is the one moment which makes the lives of men more than just a collection of fleeting moments.

Kochis and "The Kite Runner"

In the novel The Kite Runner, author Khaled Hosseini uses two distinct scenes from protagonist Amir’s life to frame his novel: witnessing the sexual assault of his childhood friend Hassan, and later kite running for his deceased friend’s son Sohrab. By creating these two scenes, Hosseini echoes the sentiment of the passage, “Afghans like to say: Life goes on, unmindful of beginning, end...crisis or catharsis, moving forward like a slow, dusty caravan of kochis.” Hosseini uses these scenes to frame the novel in order to emphasize a major theme in his novel: despite triumph and tragedy, life continues. These two events frame the novel as one of both joy and sadness, and each section demonstrates the truthfulness of part of the old Afghan saying.
The rape of his friend Hassan is a memory which haunts Amir throughout the novel. This scene is significant in the framing of the novel by demonstrating that triumph is not absolute. Despite Amir’s joy at winning the tournament – and therefore his father’s admiration – the victory is quickly turned sour by witnessing such a traumatic event. However, although Amir and Hassan are both deeply affected by antagonist Assef’s egregious actions, the world as a whole remains blissfully unaware that such an event ever occurred. This calamity proves the truth of part of saying: just as a broken axel on one kochis’ wagon will not affect those around him, our personal crises do not affect the lives of those around us.
Decades later, after Amir has rescued Hassan’s son Sohrab from the now-Taliban-enlisted Assef, he finally witnesses a small moment of joy in Sohrab’s otherwise tragic life. In a sense, this is a moment of catharsis for Amir, as he is finally relieved of some of the weight of responsibility for Sohrab’s unhappiness. However, though this is a joyous occasion for Amir and his wife, though, it is simply a small footnote in the lives of those around them. Few others took notice of the small, lopsided smile that crossed Sohrab’s face, and it did not significantly impact the lives of any of the other members of the Afghan community. This scene serves to frame the novel in that it again plays off of the themes of tragedy and triumph: though Sohrab has suffered greatly, he finally found a small moment of happiness.
Amir’s experiences both as a child and later as an adult serve to frame the novel as one of both loss as well as victory, and the interconnectivity of the two. The Afghan saying serves to unify the novel by juxtaposing these themes, noting that life is a continuous journey, and that ultimately the forces of good and evil balance each other. Hosseini’s major point however, is that the world as a whole remains unmoved by the individual’s experiences. Though to Amir each moment will remain with him as monumentally important, life is continuously moving forward; in spite of our best efforts to become significant, we are, and will remain, nothing more than fleeting shadows.