My name is Sarah, and I’m an autodidact.
I love a crisp self-definition and in this clattery, accurate little word, I have found one. If you doubt me, let this assure you: I have recently learned the flag of every single country in the world, for No. Reason. At. All. (I know this due to Sporcle, which if you haven’t heard of you should visit immediately – don’t read any more of this drivel.
Of course, to claim I’m an autodidact isn’t to say I haven’t spent much of my life to date rumbling through the education system. I was not home-schooled on a ranch in Nebraska and I did not, Matilda-like, teach myself to read through the scant pieces of printed material my dodgy car-salesman father allowed through the door. No, Mrs Verrall taught me what was what with sturdy principles which will never leave me: tens to the left, units on the right; Mrs Verrall Eats Many Jam Sandwiches Under Nurse’s Protection (clue, Pluto was a planet back then). In my teens I could most safely be found at the front desk, arm aloft, ‘why’ quavering in the air. I couldn’t get enough. Thank God I went to a nerdy enclave of a rural girl’s school otherwise I would have been eaten alive.
By university, the modern world with all of its wiles had got to me. Not, that is to say, clubbing and crack and all the evils that being 19 and away from home supposedly bring you. No, I still beavered away, but now only to secure the last piece of certified assurance that education can give you – a good degree grade. It took a couple of years of mentally stultifying employment to reignite the spark, but it’s back, people, it’s back, and now there are no teachers. It’s just me and knowledge, in hand to hand combat. I have just bought a history of philosophy. My learning WILL NEVER CEASE.
You would think that fiction-reading would be an escape from this yearning for the facts. Oh, ye of little understanding. On the contrary, it makes me seek the one, true, sepulchral MEANING that surely lies at the heart of every novel. Unfortunately, at some stage of the twentieth-century, literature cracked on to this yearning and, sly thing it is, started to systematically thwart this desire. I’m talking to you, The Magus.
So, while I adored Milan Kundera’s intriguing, unique and constantly shifting “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, I was plagued with my usual question: WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?! Delightfully, it is an embarrassment of riches. You could answer my question ten totally different ways and be correct. There are any number of jewel-bright strands I could pick up to discuss here (incidentally, the title strand, lightness of being, I found one of the weakest, and certainly the least clear in terms of meaning). For me, the strand I’ll take away above all others is Kundera’s portrayal of, and insistence upon, individualism. Every character has a very different mindset and understanding. His concentration on the different internal worlds of these characters is very impressive; it is rare to find such understanding of more than two characters’ conflicting mindsets in a novel, and here we have 4 very distinct personalities.
For me, the passages of greatest virtuosity are those explaining 2 characters’ entirely different reactions to the very same words and phrases, in the chapter “Words Misunderstood.” Franz values fidelity highly – for him it ‘gave a unity to lives that would otherwise splinter into thousands of split-second impressions.’ Sabina, however, associates fidelity with her repressive father from whom her whole life is an attempt to escape. For Franz, darkness means connection with the infinite. For Sabina, darkness means extremism and death. As this list of words grows, the scope of Sabina and Franz’s individuality deepens.
Related to this is another concept that Kundera concentrates upon – that of kitsch. Kundera defines kitsch as the single-minded vision which denies all the unpalatable truths which do not fit with it. It starts in emotional subjectivity, what one does not want to acknowledge – “When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.” It is an aestheticised simplification of reality which dumbs everyone’s fundamental differences into falsehood. After his insistence on each character’s individual viewpoint, kitsch emerges as an impossibility on every level from the personal to the societal.
Many ‘existential’ novels end with a vague sense of meaninglessness. Kundera’s does not. Instead, his insistence on the individual makes general movements and messages meaningless – all meaning is posited subjectively within an individual. But somehow, this subjectivity doesn’t mean a hollow descent into nothingness. Instead, it forms a divisive, powerful, celebratory paean to the self.