Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ignorance by Milan Kundera

A human lifetime is 80 years long on average. A person imagines and organizes his life with that in mind. What I have just said everyone knows, but only rarely do we realize that the number of years granted us is not merely a quantitative fact, an external feature (like nose length or eyes color), but is part of the very definition of the human. A person who might live, with all his faculties, twice as long, say 160 years, would not belong to our species. Nothing about his life would be like ours – not love, or ambitions, or feelings, or nostalgia; nothing. If after after 20 years abroad an emigre were to come back to his native land with another one hundred years of life ahead of him, it would probably not be a return at all, just one of many byways on the long journey of his life.

For the very notion of homeland, with all its emotional power, is bound up with the relative brevity of our life, which allows us too little time to become attached to some other country, to other countries, to other languages.

Sexual relations can take up the whole of adult life. But if that life were a lot longer, might not staleness stifle the capacity for arousal well before one's physical powers declined? For there is an enormous difference between the first and the tenth, the hundredth, the thousandth, or the ten thousandth coitus. Where lies the boundary line beyond which repetition becomes stereotyped, if not comical or even impossible? And once that boundary is crossed, what would become of the erotic relationship between a man and a woman? Would it vanish? Or, on the contrary, would lovers consider the sexual phase of their lives to be the barbaric prehistory of real love?

Answering these questions is as easy as imagining the psychology of the inhabitants of an unknown planet... We who must die soon, we just don't know.

Memory cannot be understood, either, without a mathematical approach. The fundamental given is the ratio between the amount of time in the lived life and the amount of time from that life which is stored in memory. No one has ever tried to calculate this ratio, and in fact there exists no technique for doing so; yet without much risk of error I could assume that the memory retains no more than a millionth, a hundred-millionth, in short an utterly infinitesimal bit of the lived life. That fact too is part of the essence of man. If someone could retain his memory everything he had experienced, if he could at any time call up any fragment of his past, he would be nothing like human beings: neither his loves nor his friendships nor his anger nor his capacity to forgive or avenge would resemble ours.

We will never cease our critique of those persons who distort the past, rewrite it, falsify it, who exaggerate the importance of one event and fail to mention some other; such a critique is proper (it cannot fail to be), but it doesn't count for much unless a more basic critique precedes it: a critique of human memory as such. For after all, what can memory actually do, the poor thing? It is only capable of retaining a paltry little scrap of the past, and no one knows why just this scrap and not some other, since in each of us the choice occurs mysteriously, outside our will or interests. We don't understand a thing about human life if we persist in avoiding the most obvious fact: that a reality no longer is what it was when it was; it cannot be reconstructed....

I imagine the feelings of two people meeting again after many years. In the past they spent some time together, and therefore they think they are linked by the same experience, the same recollections. The same recollections? That's where the misunderstanding starts: they don't have the same recollections; each of them retains two or three small scenes from the past, but each has his own; their recollections are not similar; they don't intersect; and even in terms of quantity they are not comparable: one person remembers the other more than he is remembered; first because memory capacity varies among individuals (an explanation that each of them would at least find acceptable), but also (and this is more painful to admit) because they don't hold the same importance for each other. When Irena saw Josef at the airport, she remembered every detail of their long-ago adventure; Josef remembered nothing. From the very first moment their encounter was based on an unjust and revolting inequality.

Ignorance by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher; HarperCollins, 2000/2002.

1 comment: