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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 9)

2006-08-22 20:49


  When his friends asked him how many women he had had in his life, he would try to evade the question, and when they pressed him further he would say, Well, two hundred, give or take a few. The envious among them accused him of stretching the truth. That's not so many, he said by way of self-defense. I've been involved with women for about twenty-five years now. Divide two hundred by twenty-five and you'll see it comes to only eight or so new women a year. That's not so many, is it?

  But setting up house with Tereza cramped his style. Because of the organizational difficulties it entailed, he had been forced to relegate his erotic activities to a narrow strip of time (between the operating room and home) which, though he had used it intensively (as a mountain farmer tills his narrow plot for all it is worth), was nothing like the sixteen hours that now had suddenly been bestowed on him. (I say sixteen hours because the eight hours he spent washing windows were filled with new salesgirls, housewives, and female functionaries, each of whom represented a potential erotic engagement.)

  What did he look for in them? What attracted him to them? Isn't making love merely an eternal repetition of the same?

  Not at all. There is always the small part that is unimaginable. When he saw a woman in her clothes, he could naturally imagine more or less what she would look like naked (his experience as a doctor supplementing his experience as a lover), but between the approximation of the idea and the precision of reality there was a small gap of the unimaginable, and it was this hiatus that gave him no rest. And then, the pursuit of the unimaginable does not stop with the revelations of nudity; it goes much further: How would she behave while undressing? What would she say when he made love to her? How would her sighs sound? How would her face distort at the moment of orgasm?

  What is unique about the I hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual I is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered.

  Tomas, who had spent the last ten years of his medical practice working exclusively with the human brain, knew that there was nothing more difficult to capture than the human I. There are many more resemblances between Hitler and Einstein or Brezhnev and Solzhenitsyn than there are differences. Using numbers, we might say that there is one-millionth part dissimilarity to nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine millionths parts similarity.

  Tomas was obsessed by the desire to discover and appropriate that one-millionth part; he saw it as the core of his obsession. He was not obsessed with women; he was obsessed with what in each of them is unimaginable, obsessed, in other words, with the one-millionth part that makes a woman dissimilar to others of her sex.

  (Here too, perhaps, his passion for surgery and his passion for women came together. Even with his mistresses, he could never quite put down the imaginary scalpel. Since he longed to take possession of something deep inside them, he needed to slit them open.)

  We may ask, of course, why he sought that millionth part dissimilarity in sex and nowhere else. Why couldn't he find it, say, in a woman's gait or culinary caprices or artistic taste?

  To be sure, the millionth part dissimilarity is present in all areas of human existence, but in all areas other than sex it is exposed and needs no one to discover it, needs no scalpel. One woman prefers cheese at the end of the meal, another loathes cauliflower, and although each may demonstrate her originality thereby, it is an originality that demonstrates its own irrelevance and warns us to pay it no heed, to expect nothing of value to come of it.

  Only in sexuality does the millionth part dissimilarity become precious, because, not accessible in public, it must be conquered. As recently as fifty years ago, this form of conquest took considerable time (weeks, even months!), and the worth of the conquered object was proportional to the time the conquest took. Even today, when conquest time has been drastically cut, sexuality seems still to be a strongbox hiding the mystery of a woman's I.

  So it was a desire not for pleasure (the pleasure came as an extra, a bonus) but for possession of the world (slitting open the outstretched body of the world with his scalpel) that sent him in pursuit of women.

  Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world.

  The obsession of the former is lyrical: what they seek in women is themselves, their ideal, and since an ideal is by definition something that can never be found, they are disappointed again and again. The disappointment that propels them from woman to woman gives their inconstancy a kind of romantic excuse, so that many sentimental women are touched by their unbridled philandering.

  The obsession of the latter is epic, and women see nothing the least bit touching in it: the man projects no subjective ideal on women, and since everything interests him, nothing can disappoint him. This inability to be disappointed has something scandalous about it. The obsession of the epic womanizer strikes people as lacking in redemption (redemption by disappointment)。

  Because the lyrical womanizer always runs after the same type of woman, we even fail to notice when he exchanges one mistress for another. His friends perpetually cause misunderstandings by mixing up his lovers and calling them by the same name.

  In pursuit of knowledge, epic womanizers (and of course Tomas belonged in their ranks) turn away from conventional feminine beauty, of which they quickly tire, and inevitably end up as curiosity collectors. They are aware of this and a little ashamed of it, and to avoid causing their friends embarrassment, they refrain from appearing in public with their mistresses.

  Tomas had been a window washer for nearly two years when he was sent to a new customer whose bizarre appearance struck him the moment he saw her. Though bizarre, it was also discreet, understated, within the bounds of the agreeably ordinary (Tomas's fascination with curiosities had nothing in common with Fellini's fascination with monsters): she was very tall, quite a bit taller than he was, and she had a delicate and very long nose in a face so unusual that it was impossible to call it attractive (everyone would have protested!), yet (in Tomas's eyes, at least) it could not be called unattractive. She was wearing slacks and a white blouse, and looked like an odd combination of giraffe, stork, and sensitive young boy.

  She fixed him with a long, careful, searching stare that was not devoid of irony's intelligent sparkle. Come in, Doctor, she said.

  Although he realized that she knew who he was, he did not want to show it, and asked, Where can I get some water?

  She opened the door to the bathroom. He saw a washbasin, bathtub, and toilet bowl; in front of bath, basin, and bowl lay miniature pink rugs.

  When the woman who looked like a giraffe and a stork smiled, her eyes screwed up, and everything she said seemed full of irony or secret messages.

  The bathroom is all yours, she said. You can do whatever your heart desires in it.

  May I have a bath? Tomas asked.

  Do you like baths? she asked.

  He filled his pail with warm water and went into the living room. Where would you like me to start?

  It's up to you, she said with a shrug of the shoulders.

  May I see the windows in the other rooms?

  So you want to have a look around? Her smile seemed to indicate that window washing was only a caprice that did not interest her.

  He went into the adjoining room. It was a bedroom with one large window, two beds pushed next to each other, and, on the wall, an autumn landscape with birches and a setting sun.

  When he came back, he found an open bottle of wine and two glasses on the table. How about a little something to keep your strength up during the big job ahead?

  I wouldn't mind a little something, actually, said Tomas, and sat down at the table.

  You must find it interesting, seeing how people live, she said.

  I can't complain, said Tomas. All those wives at home alone, waiting for you. You mean grandmothers and mothers-in-law. Don't you ever miss your original profession? Tell me, how did you find out about my original profession?

  Your boss likes to boast about you, said the stork-woman. After all this time! said Tomas in amazement. When I spoke to her on the phone about having the windows washed, she asked whether I didn't want you. She said you were a famous surgeon who'd been kicked out of the hospital. Well, naturally she piqued my curiosity.

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