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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 4)

2006-08-22 20:49


  Tomas was considered the best surgeon in the hospital. Rumor had it that the chief surgeon, who was getting on towards retirement age, would soon ask him to take over. When that rumor was supplemented by the rumor that the authorities had requested a statement of self-criticism from him, no one doubted he would comply.

  That was the first thing that struck him: although he had never given people cause to doubt his integrity, they were ready to bet on his dishonesty rather than on his virtue.

  The second thing that struck him was their reaction to the position they attributed to him. I might divide it into two basic types:

  The first type of reaction came from people who themselves (they or their intimates) had retracted something, who had themselves been forced to make public peace with the occupation regime or were prepared to do so (unwillingly, of course-no one wanted to do it)。

  These people began to smile a curious smile at him, a smile he had never seen before: the sheepish smile of secret conspiratorial consent. It was the smile of two men meeting accidentally in a brothel: both slightly abashed, they are at the same time glad that the feeling is mutual, and a bond of something akin to brotherhood develops between them.

  Their smiles were all the more complacent because he had never had the reputation of being a conformist. His supposed acceptance of the chief surgeon's proposal was therefore further proof that cowardice was slowly but surely becoming the norm of behavior and would soon cease being taken for what it actually was. He had never been friends with these people, and he realized with dismay that if he did in fact make the statement the chief surgeon had requested of him, they would start inviting him to parties and he would have to make friends with them.

  The second type of reaction came from people who themselves (they or their intimates) had been persecuted, who had refused to compromise with the occupation powers or were convinced they would refuse to compromise (to sign a statement) even though no one had requested it of them (for instance, because they were too young to be seriously involved)。

  One of the latter, Doctor S., a talented young physician, asked Tomas one day, Well, have you written it up for them?

  What in the world are you talking about? Tomas asked in return.

  Why, your retraction, he said. There was no malice in his voice. He even smiled. One more smile from that thick herbal of smiles: the smile of smug moral superiority.

  Tell me, what do you know about my retraction? said Tomas. Have you read it?

  No, said S.

  Then what are you babbling about?

  Still smug, still smiling, S. replied, Look, we know how it goes. You incorporate it into a letter to the chief surgeon or to some minister or somebody, and he promises it won't leak out and humiliate the author. Isn't that right?

  Tomas shrugged his shoulders and let S. go on.

  But even after the statement is safely filed away, the author knows that it can be made public at any moment. So from then on he doesn't open his mouth, never criticizes a thing, never makes the slightest protest. The first peep out of him and into print it goes, sullying his good name far and wide. On the whole, it's rather a nice method. One could imagine worse.

  Yes, it's a very nice method, said Tomas, but would you mind telling me who gave you the idea I'd agreed to go along with it?

  S. shrugged his shoulders, but the smile did not disappear from his face.

  And suddenly Tomas grasped a strange fact: everyone was smiling at him, everyone wanted him to write the retraction; it would make everyone happy! The people with the first type of reaction would be happy because by inflating cowardice, he would make their actions seem commonplace and thereby give them back their lost honor. The people with the second type of reaction, who had come to consider their honor a special privilege never to be yielded, nurtured a secret love for the cowards, for without them their courage would soon erode into a trivial, monotonous grind admired by no one.

  Tomas could not bear the smiles. He thought he saw them everywhere, even on the faces of strangers in the street. He began losing sleep. Could it be? Did he really hold those people in such high esteem? No. He had nothing good to say about them and was angry with himself for letting their glances upset him so. It was completely illogical. How could someone who had so little respect for people be so dependent on what they thought of him?

  Perhaps his deep-seated mistrust of people (his doubts as to their right to decide his destiny and to judge him) had played its part in his choice of profession, a profession that excluded him from public display. A man who chooses to be a politician, say, voluntarily makes the public his judge, with the naive assurance that he will gain its favor. And if the crowd does express its disapproval, it merely goads him on to bigger and better things, much in the way Tomas was spurred on by the difficulty of a diagnosis.

  A doctor (unlike a politician or an actor) is judged only by his patients and immediate colleagues, that is, behind closed doors, man to man. Confronted by the looks of those who judge him, he can respond at once with his own look, to explain or defend himself. Now (for the first time in his life) Tomas found himself in a situation where the looks fixed on him were so numerous that he was unable to register them. He could answer them neither with his own look nor with words. He was at everyone's mercy. People talked about him inside and outside the hospital (it was a time when news about who betrayed, who denounced, and who collaborated spread through nervous Prague with the uncanny speed of a bush telegraph); although he knew about it, he could do nothing to stop it. He was surprised at how unbearable he found it, how panic-stricken it made him feel. The interest they showed in him was as unpleasant as an elbowing crowd or the pawings of the people who tear our clothes off in nightmares.

  He went to the chief surgeon and told him he would not write a word.

  The chief surgeon shook his hand with greater energy than usual and said that he had anticipated Tomas's decision.

  Perhaps you can find a way to keep me on even without a statement, said Tomas, trying to hint that a threat by all his colleagues to resign upon his dismissal would suffice.

  But his colleagues never dreamed of threatening to resign, and so before long (the chief surgeon shook his hand even more energetically than the previous time-it was black and blue for days), he was forced to leave the hospital.

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