Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reality, ideality, and perception

As I await the arrival of Milan Kundera's latest book of essays. Encounter, I am re-reading a book of his short stories, Laughable Loves. Kundera certainly ranks among those who make-up the high end of my literary universe, along with Camus, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, David Foster Wallace, W.G. Seabald, Jack Kerouac, Paul Auster, et al.

In the very first story of the collection, Nobody Will Laugh, which is about a would-be academic seeking the endorsement of a credible academic in order to have an extensive essay he wrote published in a leading journal, Kundera writes what he says "could serve as a parable on beauty." Mr. Zaturecky, the persistent would-be academic, after suffering a grave insult by the narrator of story, who dishonestly accuses him of trying to sexually assault the young woman with whom the narrator is living when he arrives to inquire about the status of the endorsement while the narrator is not at home, goes to the factory at which the young woman, Klara, works in order to identify her. He says she is tall and blond, when she is neither. It is clear from the beginning of the story that Klara is very beautiful.

When Mr. Zaturecky had seen Klara for the first time at my place, he was so dazzled that he actually hadn't seen her. Beauty created an opaque screen before her. A screen of light behind which she was hidden as if behind a veil...

...Only the inner greatness of beauty lent her in Mr. Zaturecky's eyes a semblance of great physical size. And the glow that emanates from beauty lent her hair the appearance of gold.

And so when the little man finally approached the corner where Klara, in a brown work smock, was huddled over a shirt, he didn't recognize her because he had never seen her

A Pensive Moment, by Eugene de Blaas

While I was struck by this same parable of sorts the first time I read the story, it had more resonance for me this time because of what I am concurrently reading; Giussani's The Religious Sense, specifically chapter seven. In this chapter Giussani outlined the various ways we reduce the existential questions that inevitaby arise as a result of being alive and being human. We reduce them to lessen their impact. One of the ways he gives is to reduce reality to an illusion, like Zaturecky reduces Klara by exaggerating her beauty.

As an example of reducing reality to an illusion he cites a poem by Eugenio Montale, called in English "Perhaps Some Morning:"

Perhaps some morning walking in a vitreous, clear
air, turning I shall see the miracle appear,
the nothingness around my shoulders and the void
behind, and know the terror of the drunken paranoid

Then suddenly, as on a screen, confusion
of hills, and houses, planted in the usual illusion
But it will be too late, and I shall be warier
as I move along those men who do not turn, with my secret terror
Giussani goes on to write that the persistence of reality causes us to realize that things are either created "by an Other, or else they are illusions and nothing." The kind of idealistic response to reality exhibited in Zaturecky's encounter with the lovely Klara makes the poor man more or less everyman. It is reality, not ideality, that leads us to something deeper, to destiny.


  1. Scott, read Ralph Harper's On Presence. I think you'd love it. Some similar themes, beautifully written, wears it's scholarship lightly (so says the back cover, and its right).