THE GUARDIAN OF HAPPINESS

31 Mar

monumentvalley

I have just finished re-reading Slowness, Milan Kundera’s first novel in the French language.

The tale contrasts the experiences of the narrator/hero of an eighteenth century novella (a Chevalier, Mr. Kundera supposes), Vivant Denon’s Point de lendemain with Vincent, a modern young man of Kundera’s own contriving. Obviously he does this to compare the eras (somewhat like John Fowles). Readers of Kundera will not be surprised to find that the writer favours the 18th century. Favours it as a more suitable environs for the cultivation of elusive happiness. What makes the Chevalier’s experience better than Vincent’s. Both men have reason to be humiliated but only one has been, outright.

And, in the end, after a disconcerting postmodern confrontation with the Chevalier, we find Vincent on his motorcycle screaming back to Paris as fast as possible, in order to… forget. Whereas the Chevalier, now untroubled by the neurotic impulses, all surfeit of human hierarchy, to dwell on the psychology of the night, rides slowly back in a chaise contemplating the pleasure of his evening. Vincent had no pleasure. Why?

Finally, underneath the determinative status games, the Chevalier had a righteous and proper screw, some simply beautiful fucks indeed. And Vincent did not; one chance, he blew it and it actually might’ve been the true love that simply does not exist in the Chevalier’s world.. Vincent’s experience is thoroughly humiliating. He played it all wrong and in the end couldn’t even get it up. And more, due to a melancholy second party and a tragi-comic third Vincent is reduced to a peripheral character in his own humiliation. His impulse is to concoct a lie about the event and his is one of preposterous and pornographic heroics.

Understand, these events take place in the same building two-hundred years apart. In the 18th century this beguiling and mysterious woman the Madam de T invites a handsome young knight to spend the evening with her. Her husband, you understand, is present in the house. But it is an enormous place, privately owned for private use. Due to the courtly rituals of marriage practiced as an aristocratic alliance and wealth consolidation project Madame’s husband is not able to prevents her lover from being a guest in his own house.

This is not a love affair. The Chevalier is open to love but Madame is simply using him. She is trying to fool her husband into thinking that it is the young Chevalier and not her real lover, a Marquis, that cuckolds him. And it works. At dawn all is made clear and the Chevalier knows that he has been used. No matter, he has another lover.

The first time I read it I was visiting Melbourne, at a conference I forget which. It was something to do with multimedia, I did a lot of that back then. I had a job I seem to remember, one that required me following around some Internet Nanostar with a camera.

Oh I remember, there was a dinner party given in one of this city’s stately Belle Époque type rooms. Some function for a bunch of lawyers. I can’t remember why this episode featured in our schedule but there it was. It was in one of those Victorian buildings made on the back of gold rush when Melbourne’s black and white set aspired to being the Antipodean London.

The Nanostar mimed to a pre-recorded bit of his electronic music. His claim to stardom was that he was the first person to use some (now obsolete) bit of software to publish an album on the ‘net. The synthesizer had the word ‘unplugged’ pasted to the front of it just in case you hadn’t noticed. The dude thought this very witty. He obviously didn’t work at things much which is why you’ve never heard of him. The lawyers thought he was good value. They were a sea of ruddy paste-faced navy blue blobs garnished with puschy bits of gold metal and a dash of swide silk, drunk as fuck. They loved him. They thought he was someone they could look down on.

I was billeted with a charming couple (now since split). She worked at the NGV; I don’t know where he worked, but he was a drummer. Good record collection and a small flaking hard-trash bookshelf that would tell you the best stories from the hippie seventies if only it could. I saw Slowness there. It was, I guess, the second paperback edition. They let me borrow it.

What a crazy week. I met some friends. Friends? No, they were, as they say, ‘contacts’. I got almost no sleep and was thrown out of at least one well-established venue of this fair town. The best food and every night a grand dinner. Big screens everywhere. Players from Microsoft and Fox all the way on down the newly merging pyramid of information and entertainment. Zip, zip zip. My mind reeled at the possibilities. Oh the crowd, what a hipster bunch. We were all, we were certain, gonna be rich! We’d been chosen. Kundera writes:

Being among the elect is a theological notion that means: not as a matter of merit but by a supernatural judgment, a free, even capricious, determination of God, a person is chosen for something exceptional and extraordinary. From such a conviction the saints drew the strength to withstand even the most dreadful tortures.

The first time, I read the above quote without bother. I was more impressed by the farcical portrayal of modern sex contrasted by the real-life sub-plots going on around me (in me) while I read it. Untroubled I agreed with Kundera that this idea of the gift of faith, which when you strip away the haughty chauvinism of doctrines like Preselection, is what this ‘elect’ business is all about, was an illusion.

Absolutely. Yet here I was, with my little crew of confidantes (for the length of the conference), conspiring to change the world with the magic of the global electronic network. And change the world by making lots of money! We were all, we all agreed without saying so – the elect. And we agreed without any real discussion or reflection. We never really talked of our responsibilities as ‘the elect’ save for a quick and cursory affirmation of soft, shallow environmentalism. We didn’t say ‘elect’ out loud; we just thought it.

Couple months later and I move to Melbourne; a half -year on I received a gift. I now understand this ‘gift of faith’ palava that the priests talk about. I get that final coffee-shop conversation in Pulp Fiction; Samuel L’s speech viz it doesn’t matter if this was an ‘according to Hoyle miracle’. With me there was nothing that resembled a miracle. It was just a feeling.

When I first read Slowness I was a nihilist. I was a nihilist. Now, re-reading it, I’m a believer. And so in this second tryst with this book, by an author I’ve ‘known’ a long time now, I’m confronted by the above passage as I was not the first time. If faith makes you one of the elect is faith not then an illusion? This happens, I expect, to everyone who professes faith. Many, thus confronted, will toss the book. But that’s wrong. I must stand and ask a question:

An illusion?

Slowness comes to its finish and relates the end of Point de lendemain as it does, that book’s last words:

“I climbed into the chaise that stood waiting. I hunted for the moral of the whole adventure, and… I found none.”

But Kundera, two-hundred years into the future, well after the death of a God that seemed so oppressive to the French in the 1780s, has discovered the moral:

Madame de T embodies it: she lied to her husband, she lied to her lover the Marquis, she lied to the young Chevalier. It is she who is a true disciple of Epicurus. Lovable lover of pleasure. Gentle protective liar. The guardian of happiness.

The guardian of happiness lies. This is the view from scorched earth. Kundera perhaps is crying for a time of an oppressive God that necessitated such lying? But, finally, he agrees with Nietzsche. I heard the word said, God is dead. He hath died of his pity for Man. The guardian of happiness is a liar, is it not clear to you who profess Faith or affirm Scripture? Wake up!

Now I’m not a Christian. Nor am I a believer in a reward in the eternal hereafter. I don’t know about any of that. Does the soul die? I say ‘maybe’. And the whole Heaven/Hell scenario sounds suspiciously like the Santa Claus story: you get presents if you’ve been good. (Do badly behaved children not get presents at Christmastime?) My ‘faith’ does not conform to any existing doctrine about God but instead is tempered by the traditional doctrines of Stoicism which regard faith as a personal matter and reason as primary.

“All of us,” Kundera tells us, “have known the illusion (more or less strong) that we are worthy of that higher level, that we are predestined and chosen for it.” (My italics). Mr Kundera is an existential nihilist after all: a striver after meaning. After the Holocaust, after the totalitarian states, after the death of God: what? I am no longer a nihilist but that does mean that I think now that Slowness is a pack of lies. Indeed I understand it at a deeper level (that is what re-reading does for you after all). My feeling that there is something in this thing we have called many things (now: God) – my faith has not altered my adherence to the metaphysics of Kundera which are those in essence of Nietzsche: God is dead, I still see the truth of that.

But God is always reborn and will be again. Just like Marx’s predictions of a New Tribal Civilization one of advanced technology; equality; inclusiveness sans class; Nietzsche’s superman has not, will not, come about. At least yet. We are still confronted with the Infinite. And so again there’s this burgeoning spiritual movement. But does this not confirm Freud’s “Future of An Illusion” that we are simply instituting a lie to guard against the unhappiness consequence of bleak reality unclothed in religious glamor? Is it not simply a kind of mass hysteria, the usual animal fears filtered thru the standard mass consciousness and professional gurus?

Yes, but still… it does nothing to spoil my feeling – The Feeling. Funny isn’t it? But that is the nature of faith. It is a feeling. It permits one to ascertain a truth for which one is absolutely no material evidence.

In the beginning there was the Void which was Truth (goes a Chinese tale) and then came Form which is Illusion. We humans see as permanent what is anything but because we are short lived. We shape things from baser materials and kid ourselves that what lies beyond our designed rooms and cities does not matter. Until we are reminded otherwise.

tsunami

And we always are, sooner or later. Then we stand and wonder what, why, who is doing this to us.

To have faith is to be plugged into the Infinite, to the Beyond. It is to have consciousness of being part of a larger whole in which your little life is simply another motion picture. To sculpt this into truths by which we live we invent stories and images of God. That is an illusion. That is the lie. The lie that guards happiness. But to function, to actually work, these stories must grow from the seed of an ultimate truth. That is our metaphysical paradox. The Truth is a lie and the Lie is the truth.

So it is, so it seems to me. Still I believe… in what? Well no doctrine (save my own. Ask me my theological disposition and I’ll tell you in all seriousness that I’m an Einsteinian Pantheist. I have no real idea whether he had The Feeling but something tells me he did. His earnest protest against the facts of Quantum Mechanics seem to me a crisis of faith. But he was asking for it. He thought he knew.

How could he? How can we? The Qu’ran teaches us that Allah alone knows all and this was when Allah was a big man with a white beard, a stern face and a finger that was always pointing at us in anger (according to us half-pagan Catholics). In a universe in which a galaxy is a pebble, where bigger whorls have little whorls that feed on their velocity, what anthropomorphic personification suffices? None.

We need a new lie, or do we.

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