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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 3 chapter 7)

2006-08-22 20:21


  A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words (concluded)


  There are houses running along one side of the street, and behind the large ground-floor shop-front windows all the whores have little rooms and plushly pillowed armchairs in which they sit up close to the glass wearing bras and panties. They look like big bored cats.

  On the other side of the street is a gigantic Gothic cathedral dating from the fourteenth century.

  Between the whores' world and God's world, like a river dividing two empires, stretches an intense smell of urine.

  Inside the Old Church, all that is left of the Gothic style is the high, bare, white walls, the columns, the vaulting, and the windows. There is not a single image on the walls, not a single piece of statuary anywhere. The church is as empty as a gymnasium, except in the very center, where several rows of chairs have been arranged in a large square around a miniature podium for the minister. Behind the chairs are wooden booths, stalls for wealthy burghers.

  The chairs and stalls seem to have been placed there without the slightest concern for the shape of the walls or position of the columns, as if wishing to express their indifference to or disdain for Gothic architecture. Centuries ago Calvinist faith turned the cathedral into a hangar, its only function being to keep the prayers of the faithful safe from rain and snow.

  Franz was fascinated by it: the Grand March of History had passed through this gigantic hall!

  Sabina recalled how after the Communist coup all the castles in Bohemia were nationalized and turned into manual training centers, retirement homes, and also cow sheds. She had visited one of the cow sheds: hooks for iron rings had been hammered into the stucco walls, and cows tied to the rings gazed dreamily out of the windows at the castle grounds, now overrun with chickens.

  It's the emptiness of it that fascinates me, said Franz. People collect altars, statues, paintings, chairs, carpets, and books, and then comes a time of joyful relief and they throw it all out like so much refuse from yesterday's dinner table. Can't you just picture Hercules' broom sweeping out this cathedral?

  The poor had to stand, while the rich had stalls, said Sabina, pointing to them. But there was something that bound the bankers to beggars: a hatred of beauty.

  What is beauty? said Franz, and he saw himself attending a recent gallery preview at his wife's side, and at her insistence. The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art.

  When Sabina was working in the student brigade, her soul poisoned by the cheerful marches issuing incessantly from the loudspeakers, she borrowed a motorcycle one Sunday and headed for the hills. She stopped at a tiny remote village she had never seen before, leaned the motorcycle against the church, and went in. A mass happened to be in progress. Religion was persecuted by the regime, and most people gave the church a wide berth. The only people in the pews were old men and old women, because they did not fear the regime. They feared only death.

  The priest intoned words in a singsong voice, and the people repeated them after him in unison. It was a litany. The same words kept coming back, like a wanderer who cannot tear his eyes away from the countryside or like a man who cannot take leave of life. She sat in one of the last pews, closing her eyes to hear the music of the words, opening them to stare up at the blue vault dotted with large gold stars. She was entranced.

  What she had unexpectedly met there in the village church was not God; it was beauty. She knew perfectly well that neither the church nor the litany was beautiful in and of itself, but they were beautiful compared to the construction site, where she spent her days amid the racket of the songs. The mass was beautiful because it appeared to her in a sudden, mysterious revelation as a world betrayed.

  From that time on she had known that beauty is a world betrayed. The only way we can encounter it is if its persecutors have overlooked it somewhere. Beauty hides behind the scenes of the May Day parade. If we want to find it, we must demolish the scenery.

  This is the first time I've ever been fascinated by a church, said Franz.

  It was neither Protestantism nor asceticism that made him so enthusiastic; it was something else, something highly personal, something he did not dare discuss with Sabina. He thought he heard a voice telling him to seize Hercules' broom and sweep all of Marie-Claude's previews, all of Marie-Anne's singers, all lectures and symposia, all useless speeches and vain words-sweep them out of his life. The great empty space of Amsterdam's Old Church had appeared to him in a sudden and mysterious revelation as the image of his own liberation.


  Stroking Franz's arms in bed in one of the many hotels where they made love, Sabina said, The muscles you have! They're unbelievable!

  Franz took pleasure in her praise. He climbed out of bed, got down on his haunches, grabbed a heavy oak chair by one leg, and lifted it slowly into the air. You never have to be afraid, he said. I can protect you no matter what. I used to be a judo champion.

  When he raised the hand with the heavy chair above his head, Sabina said, It's good to know you're so strong.

  But deep down she said to herself, Franz may be strong, but his strength is directed outward; when it comes to the people he lives with, the people he loves, he's weak. Franz's weakness is called goodness. Franz would never give Sabina orders. He would never command her, as Tomas had, to lay the mirror on the floor and walk back and forth on it naked. Not that he lacks sensuality; he simply lacks the strength to give orders. There are things that can be accomplished only by violence. Physical love is unthinkable without violence.

  Sabina watched Franz walk across the room with the chair above his head; the scene struck her as grotesque and filled her with an odd sadness.

  Franz set the chair down on the floor opposite Sabina and sat in it. I enjoy being strong, of course, he said, but what good do these muscles do me in Geneva? They're like an ornament, a peacock feather. I've never fought anyone in my life.

  Sabina proceeded with her melancholy musings: What if she had a man who ordered her about? A man who wanted to master her? How long would she put up with him? Not five minutes! From which it follows that no man was right for her. Strong or weak.

  Why don't you ever use your strength on me? she said.

  Because love means renouncing strength, said Franz softly.

  Sabina realized two things: first, that Franz's words were noble and just; second, that they disqualified him from her love life.


  Such is the formula set forth by Kafka somewhere in the diaries or letters. Franz couldn't quite remember where. But it captivated him. What does it mean to live in truth? Putting it negatively is easy enough: it means not lying, not hiding, and not dissimulating. From the time he met Sabina, however, Franz had been living in lies. He told his wife about nonexistent congresses in Amsterdam and lectures in Madrid; he was afraid to walk with Sabina through the streets of Geneva. And he enjoyed the lying and hiding: it was all so new to him. He was as excited as a teacher's pet who has plucked up the courage to play truant.

  For Sabina, living in truth, lying neither to ourselves nor to others, was possible only away from the public: the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies. Sabina despised literature in which people give away all kinds of intimate secrets about themselves and their friends. A man who loses his privacy loses everything, Sabina thought. And a man who gives it up of his own free will is a monster. That was why Sabina did not suffer in the least from having to keep her love secret. On the contrary, only by doing so could she live in truth.

  Franz, on the other hand, was certain that the division of life into private and public spheres is the source of all lies: a person is one thing in private and something quite different in public. For Franz, living in truth meant breaking down the barriers between the private and the public. He was fond of quoting Andre Breton on the desirability of living in a glass house into which everyone can look and there are no secrets.

  When he heard his wife telling Sabina, That pendant is ugly! he knew he could no longer live in lies and had to stand up for Sabina. He had not done so only because he was afraid of betraying their secret love.

  The day after the cocktail party, he was supposed to go to Rome with Sabina for the weekend. He could not get That pendant is ugly! out of his mind, and it made him see Marie-Claude in a completely new light. Her aggressiveness-invulnerable, noisy, and full of vitality-relieved him of the burden of goodness he had patiently borne all twenty-three years of their marriage. He recalled the enormous inner space of the Old Church in Amsterdam and felt the strange incomprehensible ecstasy that void had evoked in him.

  He was packing his overnight bag when Marie-Claude came into the room, chatting about the guests at the party, energetically endorsing the views of some and laughing off the views of others.

  Franz looked at her for a long time and said, There isn't any conference in Rome.

  She did not see the point. Then why are you going? I've had a mistress for nine months, he said. I don't want to meet her in Geneva. That's why I've been traveling so much. I thought it was time you knew about it.

  After the first few words he lost his nerve. He turned away so as not to see the despair on Marie-Claude's face, the despair he expected his words to produce.

  After a short pause he heard her say, Yes, I think it's time I knew about it.

  Her voice was so firm that Franz turned in her direction. She did not look at all disturbed; in fact, she looked like the very same woman who had said the day before in a raucous voice, That pendant is ugly!

  She continued: Now that you've plucked up the courage to tell me you've been deceiving me for nine months, do you think you can tell me who she is?

  He had always told himself he had no right to hurt Marie-Claude and should respect the woman in her. But where had the woman in her gone? In other words, what had happened to the mother image he mentally linked with his wife? His mother, sad and wounded, his mother, wearing unmatched shoes, had departed from Marie-Claude-or perhaps not, perhaps she had never been inside Marie-Claude at all. The whole thing came to him in a flash of hatred.

  I have no reason to hide it from you, he said. If he had not succeeded in wounding her with his infidelity, he was certain the revelation of her rival would do the trick. Looking her straight in the eye, he told her about Sabina.

  A while later he met Sabina at the airport. As the plane gained altitude, he felt lighter and lighter. At last, he said to himself, after nine months he was living in truth.

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