Impossibility of knowing truth because things only happen once
Another problem we face on earth is the fact that we cannot test an action to see if it is correct or if it will lead us in the direction we desire. For example, my granddaughter has chosen to attend the University of Washington with a student body numbering around 35,000. She rejected attending smaller schools. Was this a good choice or one that will bring many anguished phone calls home? Would she have been much better off at Seattle University or the University of Portland? We can’t know because we can’t test the choices to see which is more desirable. Kundera says
We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor
going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal
for life is life itself?
Then his protagonist says
“Einmal ist keinmal” loosely translated “One time is no time…”
If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have
lived at all.
Does that make the philosophy of eternal return, with all the horror of repeating the pain one experiences noble, giving significance to life?
As I pointed out yesterday, Kundera suggests that as a result of the myth of eternal return that people have to make decisions as if they were going to last forever. To me, a more interesting corollary of the myth of eternal return is the idea that we can never truly be sure of any decision we make. If, like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, we could repeat an event until we got it right then we could make truly rational decisions. We could use the scientific method to determine the best approach to our problems. Unfortunately, since we only have one life to live and since it cannot be repeated, we can never be truly sure that we have made the right choice.
Tomas confronts this unpleasant reality in trying to decide whether to return to Prague to reunite with Tereza or to stay in Zurich:
We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.
Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?
There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, "sketch" is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.
Einmal ist keinmal, says Tormas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.
The truth is that like Tomas we have to leap ahead in a sort of blind faith, not necessarily a faith in God, per se, though it’s no wonder some people treasure such reassurance, but, rather, a faith in ourselves and our ability to intuit what is best for ourselves.
Kundera suggests that one of the best ways to make such a decision is to follow your (com)passion. Again, we see this in Tomas’ decision to return to Tereza:
How could he have known? How could he have gauged it? Any schoolboy can do experiments in the physics laboratory to test various scientific hypotheses. But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion (compassion) or not.
Kundera suggests that the same rules and the same approach must be taken toward history:
Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.
Historical movements are subject to all the same kinds of errors that humans are. There is no way to prevent mistakes that will cost thousands of people’s lives. Only later may we discover that they are mistakes. Though a leader can never truly know if he is about to make the right decision or not, he must make it as if he knows what the future is:
Once more, and with a nostalgia akin to love, Tomas thought of the tall, stooped editor. That man acted as though history were a finished picture rather than a sketch. He acted as though everything he did were to be repeated endlessly, to return eternally, without the slightest doubt about his actions. He was convinced he was right, and for him that was a sign not of narrow mindedness but of virtue. Yes, that man lived in a history different from Tomas’s: a history that was not (or did not realize it was) a sketch.
In the novel, Tereza took pictures of Hungarian citizens standing up to the Russian invaders, hoping to gain sympathy and support for their revolution in the West. These photographs were much sought after by the Western press and seemed to show the Hungarians in their proudest moment. Tereza seems rightfully proud of her achievements in documenting the Russian brutality. Later, though, we find that these very pictures were being used by the Russians to hunt down the people who took part in the revolution; indeed, they became one of the best tools of the oppressors. So, did she make a mistake in taking the pictures? How could one ever judge?
These are, of course, not merely historical questions. They are precisely the kinds of questions people still face. If a group is demonstrating over something they strongly believe in, should they allow their picture to be taken? Isn’t that precisely what raises public awareness and concern? On the other hand, will the local authorities use those pictures to arrest and prosecute them?
Perhaps more importantly, we have to realize that we are inevitably going to make mistakes in our own personal lives. To err, lest we happen to forget, is human. The hardest part is to admit those mistakes and then to learn to forgive ourselves for making them. The best we can do is to trust to the best part of ourselves, our compassion, and to make the decisions that have to be made. We have no right to demand a certainty from ourselves that is impossible to attain.
If I’d read this book right after my first marriage ended in divorce, I might have spared myself a lot of unnecessary despair and self-flagellation. Or, not. Perhaps you only discover an idea when you’re ready to accept it.