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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Opaque to Ourselves: Milan Kundera on Writing and the Key to Great Storytelling

A torch for traversing “the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Opaque to Ourselves: Milan Kundera on Writing and the Key to Great Storytelling

This might be the most transcendent capacity of consciousness, and the most terrifying: that in the world of the mind, we can construct models of the real world built upon theories of exquisite internal consistency; that those theories can have zero external validity when tested against reality; and that we rarely get to test them, or wish to test them. Just ask Ptolemy.

In its clinical manifestation, we call this tendency delusion. In its creative manifestation, we call it art — the novel, the story, the poem, the song are each a model, an imagistic impression of the world not as it is but as the maker pictures it to be, inviting us to step into this imaginary world in order to better understand the real, including ourselves.

Art from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, depicting the Solar System as it was then understood. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Because we are always partly opaque to ourselves even at our most self-aware, fiction and real life have something wonderful in common, wonderful and disorienting: the ability to surprise even the author — of the story or the life.

Both are a form of walking through the half-mapped territory of being, real or imagined, making the path in the act of walking and so revising the map with each step.

In both, we can set out for one destination and arrive at another, or as another.

In both, we are propelled partly by our directional intentionality and partly by something else, something ineffable yet commanding that draws its momentum from the energy of uncertainty.

The great Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera articulates this something else with uncommon clarity in The Art of the Novel (public library), published two years after The Unbearable Lightness of Being — the 1984 classic that might be read as one long elegiac entreaty for embracing the uncertainties of love and life, challenging Nietzsche’s notion of “the eternal return.”

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. Available as a print and face mask.

With an eye to storytellers’ ability to surprise themselves in the telling as the story crosses the terrain of imagined existence under its self-generated momentum, Kundera writes:

When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.

Kundera locates that suprapersonal wisdom in “the wisdom of uncertainty” — something his poet-contemporary Wisława Szymborska named as the crucible of all creativity in her superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Richard Feynman’s astute observation that uncertainty is the prerequisite for truth and morality, in science as in life, Kundera writes:

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin.

Art from Johannes Kepler’s 1619 treatise The Harmony of the World. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Great storytelling, then, deals in the illumination of complexity — sometimes surprising, sometimes disquieting, always enlarging our understanding and self-understanding as we come to see the opaque parts of ourselves from a new angle, in a new light. Kundera writes:

Every novel says to the reader, “Things are not as simple as they seem.” That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.

So understood, storytelling becomes a way of walking with uncertainty and sitting with nuance, which is in turn a way of broadening the possibilities of existence in each of our lives. Echoing Adrienne Rich’s notion that all forms of literary imagination are “the arts of the possible,” Kundera writes:

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man* can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility. But… to exist means “being-in-the-world.” Thus both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities… [Novels] thereby make us see what we are, and what we are capable of.

A quarter century earlier, James Baldwin had captured this in his lovely notion that the artist’s role, the writer’s role, the storyteller’s role is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

Complement this portion of Kundera’s altogether illuminating The Art of the Novel with Iris Murdoch on storytelling as resistance, Toni Morrison on storytelling as sacrament to beauty, Susan Sontag storytelling as moral calibration, and Ursula K. Le Guin on storytelling as transformation, then revisit poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s advice on writing, Anton Chekhov’s six rules for a great story, and psychologist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story.


The Tree House: A Tender Wordless Story by a Dutch Father-Daughter Artist Duo

An ecological symphony between the bears and the deep blue sea.

The Tree House: A Tender Wordless Story by a Dutch Father-Daughter Artist Duo

“Words are events, they do things, change things… transform both speaker and hearer… feed energy back and forth and amplify it… feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her superb meditation on the magic of human communication. But words have limits, for they are the currency of concepts, yet so much of what we try to communicate to one another — so much of our emotional reality — lies in the realm of immediate experience beyond concept. Bach’s Goldberg Variations or a Rothko painting can color our consciousness with a feeling-tone that reaches beyond words to touch us, to transform us, to feed energy back and forth in ineffable ways. At its best, even poetry, though rendered in words, paints images that speak directly to our senses, sings in feeling-tones that harmonize our innermost experience. Poetry, after all, began with music, and music remains the most powerful instrument we have devised for conveying raw emotional reality — something the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay readily and memorably acknowledged when she proclaimed that she would rather die than live without music and exclaimed, “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is”; the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks found echoes of her sentiment in the science, observing music’s “unique power to express inner states or feelings [and] pierce the heart directly.”

Great picture-books achieve the same thing — which is why Maurice Sendak, perhaps the most poetic picture-book maker of all time, so ardently insisted on musicality as the key to great storytelling. Among the rarest triumphs of the genre is the wordless 2009 masterpiece The Tree House (public library) by Dutch father-daughter artist duo Ronald Tolman, a sculptor, painter, and graphic artist, and Marije Tolman, a graphic designer and children’s book illustrator.

The silent, symphonic story begins with a polar bear swimming gladsomely toward a solitary tree rising from the Arctic waters — a tree already signaling magical realism with its habitational improbability, its magic magnified by the wondrous treehouse poking through its branches.

As the bear settles blissfully onto the platform at the foot of the treehouse, it watches another bear, brown and friendly, approach in a boat.

With smiling curiosity about their new home, the two bears explore the treehouse together, then settle into a quiet companionship.

Absorbed in their books, they don’t notice the flamboyance of flamingos rushing toward the treehouse in a tidal wave of pink.

Soon, other creatures follow — the pandas and the peacock and the storks and the hippo. The rhino first rams into the tree trunk, testing the sturdiness of the structure before sprawling contentedly on the treehouse platform as the pandas play in the branches and the polar bear tenderly cradles a baby owl on its paw.

Like a great poem, this pictorial lyric lends itself to multiple conceptual readings. I watch my own interpretation branch off from the other central themes — solitude, camaraderie, loneliness, change — into the ecological: Trees are growing in the melted Arctic and vulnerable creatures are seeking refuge in the ramshackle safehouse of humanity, turning to us who have put them in peril to save them from perishing.

But humans are also the only creatures absent from the story — the treehouse seems like it was built a long time, abandoned, the cracks in it gaping unrepaired.

In the warm wordless silence of the story, I read a subtle admonition — unless we make wiser and more generous choices in our regard for the rest of nature, a posthuman future is the only possible future for an ecologically harmonious planet.

On the final spread, with all the other creatures vanished — back to their homes, or back to the stardust of nonsurvival — the two bears are left sitting side by side atop the empty treehouse, staring solemnly at the Moon, radiating the tender ecological counterpart to that wonderful line from artist Louise Bourgeois’s diary: “You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love.”

It occurs to me that an ecological ethic is itself a matter of filling our creaturely coexistence — which is always bounded by the finitude of our creaturely existence — with enough trust and love to make the precious improbability of life as gladsome as possible for all beings sharing this miraculous island of spacetime.

It is a pity that a mere decade after its birth, a book as uncommonly soulful as The Tree House can fall out of print in the world’s most ecologically impactful industrial nation — dead of negligence, dead by the commodification of culture that saturates the atmosphere of our epoch. Perhaps one day, some American publisher of sufficient moral courage and a creative ear for the unscreaming masterpieces of thought and feeling will bring it back from extinction. Meanwhile, a U.K. edition is available online from an independent English publisher and a couple of lovely prints from it are available on Marije Tolman’s website.


Love and Symmetry: Poet A. Van Jordan Imagines the Undelivered Feynman Lecture About the Mystery Lying Between Scientific Truth and Human Meaning

“Mysteries inside mysteries in our own bodies of which we can’t make sense, another world waiting for a religion or calculus to explain.”

Love and Symmetry: Poet A. Van Jordan Imagines the Undelivered Feynman Lecture About the Mystery Lying Between Scientific Truth and Human Meaning

It is dazzling enough to live with the knowledge that everything around us — the fiery cardinal that evolved from the T-rex, the blooming daffodil that traded its sallow brown-green for blazing yellow to attract the primordial pollinators, the human eye millennia in the lensing, the eye that now beholds these wonders and inhales them into a consciousness endowed with the triumphal capacity for being wonder-smitten — is a living record of manifest possibility 13.8 billion years in the making.

Now consider living with the knowledge that all of it is not only the change log of the past, but also the pre-composed code of the future.

I consider this one April afternoon, sitting in a Brooklyn garden just coming alive with bud and bee, as I listen to a physicist-saxophonist friend electric with enthusiasm about his research exploring the radical mathematical implication that the universe might be autodidactic — that the fundamental forces, rather than abiding by the static and predictable laws we have so far discerned, might be the evolving self-perpetuating algorithms of the ultimate learning machine, algorithms that began as simple principles and went on to continually revise and elaborate on themselves, not unlike biological evolution is continually revising and elaborating on life. The fundamental poem, composing itself.

Brooklyn Cartesian Poem by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In detailing the physics behind this model, Stephon skips no beat honoring one of his great heroes, on whose shoulders this theory stands: Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), whose Nobel-winning work on quantum electrodynamics laid the foundation of quantum computing and its promise of enlisting phenomena like entanglement and superposition in computing the previously incomputable.

Feynman — physicist, philosopher, painter, bongo-drummer and safe-cracker — belonged to that rare species of scientist who reverenced the elemental poetics of reality in lyrical prose, who composed what may be the world’s most poetic footnote and loved as deeply as he thought and saw the poetic I of his human self as “a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.” His science and his spirit come alive afresh in a stunning prose poem titled “Richard P. Feynman Lecture: Intro to Symmetry” from the slender and splendid Quantum Lyrics (public library) by A. Van Jordan — a rare poet who reverences the elemental science of reality.

Jordan writes:

Love begins in the streets with vibration and ends behind closed doors in jealousy. Creation and destruction. What do we pray for but the equation that helps us make sense of what happens in our daily lives? What do we believe in if not that which tells us we’re alive? Sex, laughter, sweat, and equations elegant enough to figure on our fingers. Math is spirit and spirit is faith in numbers; both take us to the edge but no further than we can imagine. You don’t believe in math? Try to figure the velocity of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to land a man on the Moon without it. You don’t believe in God? Try to use math to calculate what the eye does every second of any given moment. If Big Blue tried to work that differential equation in our lifetime, it couldn’t. Mysteries inside mysteries in our own bodies of which we can’t make sense, another world waiting for a religion or calculus to explain. Look into any mirror; it’s like sitting in a theater watching a silent movie, but you’re the one pantomiming your story. You think you have this world figured out, but you can’t tell which hand you’re using and using and using. And why do we try?

We try, of course, because curiosity is the true triumph of consciousness; because what Einstein called “the passion for comprehension” is the hallmark of our species. We comprehend by parsing the world into categories and classes, constantly computing the distances and differences between them. This, it bears repeating, is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth — but it is also a limiting one, a dangerous one, nowhere more so than in the artificial binaries we create in trying to orient ourselves by differentiation.

With an eye to the limiting binaries of our Cartesian inheritance, and perhaps with an eye to his own experience of love — which every artist cannot but factor into their cosmogony — Jordan writes:

You cannot solve for the use of one side of the body over the other, so there is no single voice that emits from it. You cannot solve for the harmonics of a dual body, facing each other, both inquisitive. You cannot solve for the marriage of opposites, their fit, their match, their endlessness. You cannot solve for the morning stretch that calls to both sides, first this one, then that one, aligning the day. You cannot solve for the bass of one hand and the treble of the other, both keeping rhythm hostage under the skin of the bongo. You cannot solve for the balance of a locked door and a safe cracker’s ear against it and the move X number of clicks to the left and Y number of clicks back to the right and back past and back past till the latch clicks open in your mind.

Complement this fragment of Jordan’s thoroughly wonderful Quantum Lyrics — which imagines the inner lives and animating forces of Einstein, Schrödinger, and other titanic scientific minds who have revolutionized our understanding of external reality — with Feynman on why uncertainty is essential for morality and his touching effort to reconcile what he knows about science with what he knows of love after the death of his young wife, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the complementarity of poetry and science.


The Stoic Antidote to Frustration: Marcus Aurelius on How to Keep Your Mental Composure and Emotional Equanimity When People Let You Down

The art of tempering your fury with an infuriating existential truth.

The Stoic Antidote to Frustration: Marcus Aurelius on How to Keep Your Mental Composure and Emotional Equanimity When People Let You Down

The vast majority of our mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering comes from the violent collision between our expectations and reality. As we dust ourselves off amid the rubble, bruised and indignant, we further pain ourselves with the exertion of staggering emotional energy on outrage at how reality dared defy what we demanded of it.

The remedy, of course, is not to bend the reality of an impartial universe to our will. The remedy is to calibrate our expectations — a remedy that might feel far too pragmatic to be within reach in the heat of the collision-moment, but also one with profound poetic undertones once put into practice.

Walt Whitman understood this when, felled by a paralytic stroke, he considered what makes life worth living and instructed himself: “Tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.” He spared himself the additional self-inflicted suffering of outrage at how his body failed him — perhaps because, having proclaimed himself the poet of the Body and the poet of the Soul, he understood the two to be one. He squandered no emotional energy on the expectation that his suddenly disabled body perform a counterpossible feat against reality to let him enjoy his beloved tree workouts and daily excursions to the river. He simply edited his expectations to accord with his new reality and sought to find his joy there, within these new parameters of being.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

What is true of the poetics of our own body-soul is as true of the poetics of relationship, that beautiful and terrifying interchange between separate body-souls. Little syphons the joy of life more surely than the wasted energy of indignation at how others have failed to behave in accordance with what we expected of them.

Two millennia before the outrage culture of the Internet, the lovesick queer teenager turned Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) addressed this curious self-mauling tendency of the human mind with his characteristic precision of insight and unsentimental problem-solving in the notebooks that became his Meditations (public library) — a timeless book, newly translated and annotated by the British classics scholar Robin Waterfield, which Marcus Aurelius wrote largely for and to himself, like Tolstoy wrote his Calendar of Wisdom and Bruce Lee calibrated his core values, yet a book that went on to stake the pillars of the philosophical system of Stoicism, equipping countless generations with tools for navigating the elemental existential challenges of being human and inspiring others to fill the gaps of its unaddressed questions with exquisite answers of their own.

Marcus Aurelius

Epochs before the birth of probability theory, Marcus Aurelius begins with a probabilistic-statistical consolation:

Whenever a person’s lack of shame offends you, you should immediately ask yourself, “So is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?” It isn’t, and you should therefore stop demanding the impossible. He’s just one of those shameless people who must necessarily exist in the world. You should keep the same thought readily available for when you’re faced with devious and untrustworthy people, and people who are flawed in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible for such people not to exist, you’ll be kinder to each and every one of them. It’s also helpful immediately to consider what virtue nature has granted us human beings to deal with any given offense — gentleness, for instance, to counter discourteous people…

Millennia before William James lit the dawn of modern psychology with the radical assertion that our experience is what we “agree to attend to,” millennia before neuroscience came to locate the seat of consciousness in the qualia of subjective experience, Marcus Aurelius serves that classic Stoic cocktail of simply worded obvious truths that are difficult truths to live up to, earned by a thousand complexities of conduct to be practiced daily:

The things of the world cannot affect the soul; they lie inert outside it, and only internal beliefs disturb it.

Light distribution on soap bubble from a 19th-century French science textbook. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

From this follows a curious, infuriating fundament of our humanity: that no matter what another person does — to us or at us or near the self-membraned bubble of our being — our inner response to it lives in the realm of feeling, that sovereign source of light over which we alone have agency and dominion. Even more infuriatingly, Marcus Aurelius reminds us, our outrage at some entirely predictable misbehavior by a person known to misbehave is a failure not of the other but of our own powers of reason:

You’ll find that none of the people who make you lose your temper has done anything that might affect your mind for the worse; and outside of the mind there’s nothing that is truly detrimental or harmful for you… After all, you even had the resources, in the form of your ability to think rationally, to appreciate that he was likely to commit that fault, yet you forgot it and are now surprised that he did exactly that.

Observing that to explode with rage at the offender would make no positive difference to their conduct and would only further perturb your own soul, he instead offers a two-step process for dealing with the situation, telescoping into the broad existential perspective and then microscoping into your own innermost values:

First, don’t be upset. Nothing happens that isn’t in accord with universal nature, and before long you won’t exist at all, just like [your heroes]… Second, fix your gaze on the matter at hand and see it for what it is, and then, keeping in your mind your obligation to be a good man and the demands of your humanity, go right ahead and do it, in the way that seems to you to be most just. But do it with kindness and modesty, and without dissembling.

This is but one manifestation of the central preoccupation of the Meditations — the lifelong project of learning to see clearly as the greatest self-defense against mental anguish. So much of our disappointment and rage, after all, stem from the clash between our misperceptions of things and the reality of things — they are the pain of disillusionment, inflamed in those moments when the veil of illusion is lifted or violently pierced to let us, finally, see reality.

Reaching across space and time, across cultures and civilizations, Marcus Aurelius prescribes the antidote:

Always define or describe to yourself every impression that occurs to your mind, so that you can clearly see what the thing is like in its entirety, stripped to its essence, and tell yourself its proper name and the names of the elements of which it consists and into which it will be resolved. Nothing is more conducive to objectivity than the ability methodically and honestly to test everything that you come across in life, and always to look at things in such a way that you consider what kind of part each of them plays in what kind of universe, and what value it has for the universe as a whole.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total solar eclipse by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, 1878. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Clarity of vision, he reminds us, is the basis of rightful action, and while our own rightful action may not be a guarantee of our contentment — or what the Romans shorthanded as “the good life” — it is our only assurance toward it:

If you carry out every present task by following right reason assiduously, resolutely, and with kindness; if rather than getting distracted by irrelevancies, you keep your guardian spirit unspoiled and steady, as though you had to surrender it at any moment; if you engage with the task not with expectations or evasions, but satisfied if your current performance is in accord with nature and if what you say and express is spoken with true Roman honesty, you’ll be living the good life. And there’s no one who can stop you doing so!

Complement with Seneca, another apostle of Stoicism, on the antidote to anxiety and Marcus Aurelius himself, in a different translation of his Meditations, on the key to living with presence, the most potent motivation for work, and how to begin each day, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent more-than-translation of another ancient classic from the wisdom tradition of a different civilization, the Tao Te Ching. (One thing that has always troubled me about modern translations of ancient classics is that they present an opportunity to calibrate the inclusiveness of these teachings to our present hard-earned sphere of dignity without changing their message — an opportunity very few translators take, for it requires a formidably delicate balance between the rigors of scholarship and the responsibilities of a social conscience. Count on Le Guin, whose meditation on being “a man” remains the finest thing I have ever read on the history of gender in language, to leap at that opportunity and make something soaring.)


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