The book that saved me (from philosophy class)
By Ruby Mahoney
‘Perhaps all the questions we ask of [life], to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short.’
Last year I visited an English bookstore in Argentina with my little sister, who was looking for something to read on the flight home. I pointed out to her a title that I liked the sound of. The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Having recently farewelled my second philosophy subject and a boy I thought myself to be madly in love with, I was wandering through the bookstore (and Argentina) in a bit of a postmodern mess – if you know what I mean. I understand that philosophy class is awesome and should be challenging, but being told over and over again for a semester that ‘you can’t ever know anything at all’ can be disheartening, especially when you try to engage with the subject and begin applying it to your own circumstances. Basically, my personal motto at the time had become something along the lines of don’t bother anymore, this life probably isn’t even real. The book I picked out for my sister was exactly what I needed.
Tomas, Tereza, Sabina and Franz are all intellectuals, and all victims of the 1968 invasion of Prague by the Soviet Union. Now in daily contact with death, each character changes the way they live. Tereza is consumed by her lover, her dog and her photography. Tomas gives up his career as a surgeon to become a window cleaner and devoted husband. Franz leaves his spoilt family in search for his youth. Sabina floats through European cities, vowing to remain independent forever.
My sister bought The Unbearable Lightness of Being from the bookstore and we flew home the next day. After two hours in the sky she complained, ‘It’s not even about the characters.’ And my sister is right. Kundera’s novel isn’t about the characters – instead, it’s about us. All of us. I think it speaks especially to us as philosophy students who are continually confronted with postmodern doubt. It’s about how we should respond when we’re told ‘I think therefore I am’. It’s about how the philosopher who tells us life is an illusion has clearly never felt love as we’ve felt love, or sadness as we’ve felt sadness. The emotions hidden so deep within us that we can’t articulate them when we try to argue our point. Kundera names this predicament ‘the unintelligible truth’. The choice to live a wholesome life, even though we can’t prove its existence. He writes that there is a choice we can make between lightness and weight.
To live lightly:
To avoid suffering, to remain free from lovers and possessions. Sabina is the character who chooses lightness. She lives freely but also alone and disenchanted for the rest of her days, sleeping with strangers and drifting across Europe aimlessly just to prove that she can.
To live with weight:
To expose ourselves, to become attached, to allow ourselves to feel deep pain but also immense happiness. To love someone so much that it’s probably unhealthy. To throw ourselves into life wholeheartedly, regardless of the consequences. Otherwise, what’s the point? Kundera declares that this should be our response to postmodern philosophy. ‘The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.’
I took the book from my sister and had devoured it by the time we landed in Melbourne. I’d also begun to realign my goals. Make friends with positive people. Eat more. Get a fricking haircut. Volunteer? While I haven’t faced an invasion like Tomas, Tereza, Franz and Sabina, I’d like to think I don’t need to know death to know how to live. This is the book that saved me from the disenchantment of philosophy class, refreshing my clearly stale views on life. Live with enough weight that you leave a footprint on the world.
A third-year Creative Writing student at RMIT, Ruby Mahoney currently interns at Express Media and is writing a screenplay about vincibility and flying home in the winter.