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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 14)

2006-08-22 20:49


  As if rewarding him for his decision, the editor said, That was a fine piece you wrote about Oedipus.

  Handing him a pen, his son added, Some ideas have the force of a bomb exploding.

  Although the editor's words of praise pleased him, his son's metaphor struck him as forced and out of place. Unfortunately, I was the only casualty, he said. Thanks to those ideas, I can no longer operate on my patients.

  It sounded cold, almost hostile.

  Apparently hoping to counteract the discordant note, the editor said, by way of apology, But think of all the people your article helped!

  From childhood, Tomas had associated the words helping people with one thing and one thing only: medicine. How could an article help people? What were these two trying to make him swallow, reducing his whole life to a single small idea about Oedipus or even less: to a single primitive no! in the face of the regime.

  Maybe it helped people, maybe it didn't, he said (in a voice still cold, though he probably did not realize it), but as a surgeon I know I saved a few lives.

  Another silence set in. Tomas's son broke it. Ideas can save lives, too.

  Watching his own mouth in the boy's face, Tomas thought How strange to see one's own lips stammer.

  You know the best thing about what you wrote? the boy went on, and Tomas could see the effort it cost him to speak. Your refusal to compromise. Your clear-cut sense of what's good and what's evil, something we're beginning to lose. We have no idea anymore what it means to feel guilty. The Communists have the excuse that Stalin misled them. Murderers have the excuse that their mothers didn't love them. And suddenly you come out and say: there is no excuse. No one could be more innocent, in his soul and conscience, than Oedipus. And yet he punished himself when he saw what he had done.

  Tomas tore his eyes away from his son's mouth and tried to focus on the editor. He was irritated and felt like arguing with them. But it's all a misunderstanding! The border between good and evil is terribly fuzzy. I wasn't out to punish anyone, either. Punishing people who don't know what they've done is barbaric. The myth of Oedipus is a beautiful one, but treating it like this. . . He had more to say, but suddenly he remembered that the place might be bugged. He had not the slightest ambition to be quoted by historians of centuries to come. He was simply afraid of being quoted by the police. Wasn't that what they wanted from him, after all? A condemnation of the article? He did not like the idea of feeding it to them from his own lips. Besides, he knew that anything anyone in the country said could be broadcast over the radio at any time. He held his tongue.

  I wonder what's made you change your mind, said the editor.

  What I wonder is what made me write the thing in the first place, said Tomas, and just then he remembered: She had landed at his bedside like a child sent downstream in a bulrush basket. Yes, that was why he had picked up the book and gone back to the stories of Romulus, Moses, and Oedipus. And now she was with him again. He saw her pressing the crow wrapped in red to her breast. The image of her brought him peace. It seemed to tell him that Tereza was alive, that she was with him in the same city, and that nothing else counted.

  This time, the editor broke the silence. I understand. I don't like the idea of punishment, either. After all, he added, smiling, we don't call for punishment to be inflicted; we call for it to cease.

  I know, said Tomas. In the next few moments he would do something possibly noble but certainly, and totally, useless (because it would not help the political prisoners) and unpleasant to himself (because it took place under conditions the two of them had imposed on him)。

  It's your duty to sign, his son added, almost pleading.

  Duty? His son reminding him of his duty? That was the worst word anyone could have used on him! Once more, the image of Tereza appeared before his eyes, Tereza holding the crow in her arms. Then he remembered that she had been accosted by an undercover agent the day before. Her hands had started trembling again. She had aged. She was all that mattered to him. She, born of six fortuities, she, the blossom sprung from the chief surgeon's sciatica, she, the reverse side of all his Es muss sein! -she was the only thing he cared about.

  Why even think about whether to sign or not? There was only one criterion for all his decisions: he must do nothing that could harm her. Tomas could not save political prisoners, but he could make Tereza happy. He could not really succeed in doing even that. But if he signed the petition, he could be fairly certain that she would have more frequent visits from undercover agents, and that her hands would tremble more and more.

  It is much more important to dig a half-buried crow out of the ground, he said, than to send petitions to a president.

  He knew that his words were incomprehensible, but enjoyed them all the more for it. He felt a sudden, unexpected intoxication come over him. It was the same black intoxication he had felt when he solemnly announced to his wife that he no longer wished to see her or his son. It was the same black intoxication he had felt when he sent off the letter that meant the end of his career in medicine. He was not at all sure he was doing the right thing, but he was sure he was doing what he wanted to do.

  I'm sorry, he said, but I'm not going to sign.

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