So, Postmodernism. We Meet Again. For the First Time. For the Last Time. But Not Really the Last Time.

10Mar11

I always take a little more liberty with the “Relevance” category on these than I suppose I’m supposed to.  However.  I’ve got something I want to write about.  It’s this passage, about the meeting of two future lovers, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera:

Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences.  “Co-incidence” means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven.  We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences.  If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence).  But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music.  Whenever she heard it, she would be touched.  Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty.

Early in the novel[1] that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train.  This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end—may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.”  Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.

They are composed like music.  Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life.  But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty.  Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.

It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Veronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life.  For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty. (51-52)

I’ve added emphases that weren’t originally in the book.  I know that’s a long excerpt.  Sorry. But I think what I want to think about in this Think Piece is how we compose reality.  That’s a pretty postmodern thought, I guess: that we look at our lives and reconstruct them into a pattern that’s pleasing to us.  Or—this is the image that keeps coming to mind—that we cruise the aisles of our experience, shopping for ingredients to make a killer soufflé.  And then we make it, and eat it.  Nom nom nom.

So I might have a million things happen to me in a given day, but only the co-incidences that I decide to give meaning to will stick with me, because I’ve incorporated them into a pattern that I label “my life.”  Do you buy that vision?  Because I really, really do.  I guess it’s a more sophisticated way of saying “life is what you make it,” but this rings truer and more representative to me, because it’s less… propagandistic, I guess?  More honest-feeling.

Kundera thinks we do it “according to the laws of beauty,” and while I’m not so sure that The Laws of Beauty exist on any sort of a universal scale, I think there’s a lot of truth there too.  We rearrange our lives to make ourselves protagonists.  We may be tragic heroes or eventual champions of our lives, but we’re always the important ones, and our lives have a symmetry that’s partly provided for us by our culture and partly nuanced by our own visions of reality.  And, as Kundera might say, our own sense of beauty.

One of the best things I’ve taken away from reading a lot of postmodern literature is that there really isn’t all that much difference between storytelling and living our lives.  We tell ourselves stories every day—about what’s important, about how to carry on in the world, about what the best course of action is, about who we are, about who others are, about what the world is like.  These stories are no less fictional than Fiction, but I don’t mean to say that they’re not true.  Our lives take the shape we assign to them.  It’s like the old saying that a person builds their own prison and then is forced to live in it…but people fail to remember that, as the authors of their own personal stories, they can break right out as well, whenever they wish.  Who’s holding the pen here, anyway?

Oh, postmodernism.  There you go, fouling up my metaphor.

My point is…well, my point is generally personal, as any time I’m looking at the world I’m also looking right back at myself; after all, what’s the world if not a big fat mirror?  I wonder what kinds of stories I’ve written for myself.  I hope they’re not terribly clichéd.  I know there are some parts of my life that I’ve worked hard to cement as canon in the library of my experience—ones where I notice, and thus call into being, coincidences: they abound in these places, and are rife with emotion and energy.  In other areas, I rely on timeworn archetypes: the harried public servant with holey socks and a big heart; the small-town girl with big plans who ends up back in the small town in the end; even more embarrassing ones I’ll not share here.  And I wonder, at the end of this think piece, whether the real gift of postmodernism is to point out to us that we can rewrite these stories at will.  Could it be that the whole point of postmodernism is to get us to write better stories about our lives—to embrace our role as writers of our own reality, and to shoulder the responsibility of making those realities more beautiful?

I’m gonna go ahead and say I think so.


[1] Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, in case you’re curious.

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