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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 8)

2006-08-22 20:49


  Even though he came to love Beethoven through Tereza, Tomas was not particularly knowledgeable about music, and I doubt that he knew the true story behind Beethoven's famous Muss es sein? Es muss sein! motif.

  This is how it goes: A certain Dembscher owed Beethoven fifty florins, and when the composer, who was chronically short of funds, reminded him of the debt, Dembscher heaved a mournful sigh and said, Muss es sein? To which Beethoven replied, with a hearty laugh, Es muss sein! and immediately jotted down these words and their melody. On this realistic motif he then composed a canon for four voices: three voices sing Es muss sein, es muss sein, ja, ja, ja, ja! (It must be, it must be, yes, yes, yes, yes!), and the fourth voice chimes in with Heraus mit dem Beutel! (Out with the purse!)。

  A year later, the same motif showed up as the basis for the fourth movement of the last quartet, Opus 155. By that time, Beethoven had forgotten about Dembscher's purse. The words Es muss sein! had acquired a much more solemn ring; they seemed to issue directly from the lips of Fate. In Kant's language, even Good morning, suitably pronounced, can take the shape of a metaphysical thesis. German is a language of heavy words. Es muss sein! was no longer a joke; it had become der schwer gefasste Entschluss (the difficult or weighty resolution)。

  So Beethoven turned a frivolous inspiration into a serious quartet, a joke into metaphysical truth. It is an interesting tale of light going to heavy or, as Parmenides would have it, positive going to negative. Yet oddly enough, the transformation fails to surprise us. We would have been shocked, on the other hand, if Beethoven had transformed the seriousness of his quartet into the trifling joke of a four-voice canon about Dembscher's purse. Had he done so, however, he would have been in the spirit of Parmenides and made heavy go to light, that is, negative to positive! First (as an unfinished sketch) would have come the great metaphysical truth and last (as a finished masterpiece)-the most frivolous of jokes! But we no longer know how to think as Parmenides thought.

  It is my feeling that Tomas had long been secretly irritated by the stern, aggressive, solemn Es muss sein! and that he harbored a deep desire to follow the spirit of Parmenides and make heavy go to light. Remember that at one point in his life he broke completely with his first wife and his son and that he was relieved when both his parents broke with him. What could be at the bottom of it all but a rash and not quite rational move to reject what proclaimed itself to be his weighty duty, his Es muss sein!' ?

  That, of course, was an external Es muss sein! reserved for him by social convention, whereas the Es muss sein! of his love for medicine was internal. So much the worse for him. Internal imperatives are all the more powerful and therefore all the more of an inducement to revolt.

  Being a surgeon means slitting open the surface of things and looking at what lies hidden inside. Perhaps Tomas was led to surgery by a desire to know what lies hidden on the other side of Es muss sein! ; in other words, what remains of life when a person rejects what he previously considered his mission.

  The day he reported to the good-natured woman responsible for the cleanliness of all shop windows and display cases in Prague, and was confronted with the result of his decision in all its concrete and inescapable reality, he went into a state of shock, a state that kept him in its thrall during the first few days of his new job. But once he got over the astounding strangeness of his new life (it took him about a week), he suddenly realized he was simply on a long holiday.

  Here he was, doing things he didn't care a damn about, and enjoying it. Now he understood what made people (people he always pitied) happy when they took a job without feeling the compulsion of an internal Es muss sein! and forgot it the moment they left for home every evening. This was the first time he had felt that blissful indifference. Whenever anything went wrong on the operating table, he would be despondent and unable to sleep. He would even lose his taste for women. The Es muss sein! of his profession had been like a vampire sucking his blood.

  Now he roamed the streets of Prague with brush and pole, feeling ten years younger. The salesgirls all called him doctor (the Prague bush telegraph was working better than ever) and asked his advice about their colds, aching backs, and irregular periods. They seemed almost embarrassed to watch him douse the glass with water, fit the brush on the end of the pole, and start washing. If they could have left their customers alone in the shops, they would surely have grabbed the pole from his hands and washed the windows for him.

  Most of Tomas's orders came from large shops, but his boss sent him out to private customers, too. People were still reacting to the mass persecution of Czech intellectuals with the euphoria of solidarity, and when his former patients found out that Tomas was washing windows for a living, they would phone in and order him by name. Then they would greet him with a bottle of champagne or slivovitz, sign for thirteen windows on the order slip, and chat with him for two hours, drinking his health all the while. Tomas would move on to his next flat or shop in a capital mood. While the families of Russian officers settled in throughout the land and radios intoned ominous reports of police functionaries who had replaced cashiered broadcasters, Tomas reeled through the streets of Prague from one glass of wine to the next like someone going from party to party. It was his grand holiday.

  He had reverted to his bachelor existence. Tereza was suddenly out of his life. The only times he saw her were when she came back from the bar late at night and he woke befuddled from a half-sleep, and in the morning, when she was the befuddled one and he was hurrying off to work. Each workday, he had sixteen hours to himself, an unexpected field of freedom. And from Tomas's early youth that had meant women.

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