When we’re young, we worry and wonder about how life will turn out.
Will it get easier, does it get better, will it become clear who we’re supposed to be and will we be able to find the right way there?
We know nothing of consequence. The future is all anticipation and expectation.
Then we find ourselves there, or rather, time passes and the future is suddenly now. We look back down the tunnel of our lives, wondering if we have become what we set out to be, if we ever really figured out what that was, lament how we changed and wonder where we lost our way, with half realised dreams and patchy memories.
The philosopher Alan Watts describes this as "the typical human problem", whereby the very thing that makes us distinct from our fellow sentient beings, our ability to think as well as to feel, is the same thing that keeps us in a perpetually dissatisfied state of being.
In his essay, Pain and Time, Watts describes how we waste our lives because we are “much more concerned to have enjoyable memories and expectations”. In fact, it’s the thought of those other times, remembered and imagined, that helps us “put up with an extremely miserable present”.
Memory’s fragile power
Everyone in Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting exemplifies this harsh truth, even Kundera himself, concealed as the contemplative narrator. All of them live their lives in the shadow of the past, or as Watts describes it, “the spoiler of the present”.
The book intersperses tales of people redefining themselves in the aftermath of the 1968 Prague Spring, with Kundera’s own reflections as a writer exiled for his participation in the Czech reform movement, clinging to words as a means of intellectual survival in the face of attempts to erase the lives of the dissidents from history.
Is it people who change, or is it the world around them that shifts? Is it age that causes our memories to recede, causing us to cling in desperation to our fading selves?
The French Romanticist writer Francois-Rene de Chateubriand, suggested that memories are the very thing that give us a consistent sense of our own identity. Without that connection to the past, what are we?
“We should forget our friendships, our loves, our pleasures, our work; the genius would be unable to collect his thoughts; the most ardent lover would lose his tenderness if he could remember nothing. Our existence would be reduced to the successive moments of a perpetually fading present.”
It is this fear of loss that grips all of Kundera’s characters, who are inescapably oppressed and sustained by the idea of their former selves, such that snippets from their former lives keep recurring like ghosts, keeping them in a perpetual state of restlessness.
Tamina spends most of her time trying to retrieve eleven years’ worth of old notebooks and love letters chronicling her relationship with her dead husband, whose image she struggles to conjure with each passing day, which intensifies her sense of loss and the dread that all she will be left with is the present, “that invisible point, that nothingness moving slowly towards death”.
Her desperation is increased because she fears that the secret police or the mother-in-law with whom she left her documents will read her past and so diminish its meaning.
“She does not want to give back to the past its poetry. She wants to give back to it its lost body. What is urging her on is not a desire for beauty. It is a desire for life.”
While Tamina yearns to hold on to the past, Mirek is distracted by an acute need to erase the anguish connected to his past, perversely, by revisiting the lover whose ugliness is a reminder of his own lack of self-worth. Mirek wants to rewrite history:
"….like all peoples, like mankind. They shout that they want to shape a better future, but it's not true. The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repelling, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past."
A universe of words
Kundera returns repeatedly to the idea of writing, of words, love letters and poetry and the books that even taxi drivers are desperate to write through a maniacal obsession with immortality.
Tamina needs the words she wrote to make her life meaningful. Without them, she has no backstory, her life isn’t real.
Kundera’s narrator recalls his own fear of disappearing, of being forgotten, which is why, he says, that:
“Everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words.”
His own motivation is linked to the loss of his father, whose death he recalls with anguish, because of his failure to know him when he was alive and now be condemned to remember only the memories of his dying.
Explaining why he has devoted his life to writing love songs, the singer-songwriter Nick Cave says he was driven by a desire to fill the void left by his father’s death, a void he tried to fill with words, in a bid to “articulate the almost palpable sense of loss which had laid claim to [his] life”.
Introducing The Complete Lyrics, Nica Cave describes how during his childhood, he swore to himself that he’d never turn into his father. Then his father died unexpectedly when Cave was 19, altering his future.
Almost twenty years later, while giving a lecture about the art of the Love Song, Cave recalls looking at where he was, and looking back, to realise that he had indeed turned into his father. His songs, his life’s work, is a homage to love, to loss, to memory and to the power of language to bring connectivity to our lives where we otherwise struggle to make sense of who, when and why we are.
A howl in the void
For Cave, “language became a salve to longing”. Writing gave him direct access to his imagination as the only route by which he might know God, “the invisible man”, to whom each of his Love Songs is a cosmic link, “a howl in the void for love and comfort”.
We reproach ourselves for the loss we feel, for the void, for the anguish inside. Why?
Because we never paid attention to the past moments in our youth. Cave didn’t want to be his father, he turned away from him. Then all the conversations he could have were no longer even a resented possibility. And he concluded that he was destined to become what he did.
We like to imagine a connectivity with the past because it offers an explanation for who we are at a time in our lives when we wonder what it all means, when youth has gone, when experience has clouded our idealism, when we’ve observed and experienced that all of life is just a stream of repeated events, internal and external, leading towards the inevitable demise, drawing nearer.
“For it would seem that, in man, life is in hopeless conflict with itself,” concludes Watts.
Conflicts between and within continents come and go, each generation suffers and survives the same existential crises, the bloodshed and drama of every era is drowned out by the next, until, as Kundera puts "everyone has completely forgotten everything" and we’re destined, by the natureof our make-up, to do it to ourselves again and again.
Such is the laughable truth of the human condition, it is the price we pay for consciousness.
Only when the time has passed, when life is diminishing, do we come to realise the trappings of the axiom expressed by Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century forefather of existentialism, that very branch of philosophy that takes the self as the signifier and subject of meaning:
"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."