Identity (Milan Kundera)

Posted: December 22, 2014 in fiction
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Last week I had a conversation with an old coworker about being rehired at a former place of employment (different position, different supervisors, so it feels like a step forward, not back). She told me that the person I had been before would not do well in this position, and I told her that I’m not who I was four years ago. Apparently, I impressed her with that fact enough that she commented on it with a few other people. In thinking about it, the difference is in the way I understand who I am. Four years ago I had several props that I substituted for my own identity – my marriage, my faith community, my career – I don’t think I’m unique in having relied on those things to tell me who I am. But I could see how precarious it all was, and as my awareness of my homosexuality became more pressing, I could foresee the imminent collapse of my life and self. I lived in perpetual fear of ceasing to exist. I thought that without those things I would no longer be. Not death so much as disappearance, like in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ when Prince Prospero unmasks the death figure and finds only an empty robe that falls to the ground. I would lose all my social masks and be revealed as nothing at all. And that was how this potential employer knew me before, as the consciousness on the verge of extinction, the damaged and endangered psyche. And then everything did collapse. I lost all of those crutches that my injured identity was leaning on. But I didn’t die (getting rid of the sleeping pills helped with that one), and I didn’t disappear. I came through it all just fine. It took a few years, but I’m better now than I have ever been in my entire life. I have fewer labels, but I don’t need them. I can’t describe myself as easily, but I know more accurately who I am. And if the paradigm shift called coming out didn’t destroy me, I know that nothing else can.

Milan Kundera’s Identity is about a similar issue: how we derive our identity from the people who love us. Chantal and Jean-Marc don’t split up as the ex and I did, but there are many elements of their relationship that remind me of ours. The relationship is marked by insecurity: they’re excessively afraid of losing each other, possibly through death, possibly through indifference, possibly through forgetting.

I see their two heads, in profile, lit by the light of a little bedside lamp: Jean-Marc’s head, its nape on a pillow; Chantal’s head leaning close above him.

She said: “I’ll never let you out of my sight again. I’m going to keep on looking at you and never stop.”

And after a pause: “I get scared when my eye blinks. Scared that during that second when my gaze is switched off, a snake or a rat or another man could slip into your place.”

He tried to raise himself a little to touch her with his lips.

She shook her head: “No, I just want to look at you.”

And then: “I’m going to leave the lamp on all night. Every night.”

This is what we had, and it’s what I don’t want to have again. I don’t want to be an enthralled captive; I want to be in love with someone who makes me feel free. I want to be with someone who wants me because he likes me, not because he needs me. Love shouldn’t make me feel trapped or afraid.

Part of the insecurity comes from inequality.

All at once he knows that the assertion he often made to Chantal is finally about to be confirmed: that his deepest vocation is to be a marginal person, a marginal person who has lived comfortably, true, but only under completely uncertain and temporary circumstances. Now suddenly here is his true self, thrown back among those he belongs with: among the poor who have no roof to shelter their destitution.

Chantal makes four or five times as much money as Jean-Marc, so he is maintaining a standard of living that he feels he doesn’t have a right to. She’s also a few years older than he is, and with an ex-husband and a dead child, she seems to have a world of experience beyond him. He seems to need her much more than she needs him. In the early days of my marriage, we relied pretty heavily on the ex’s parents for things like rent. We had known that neither of us would ever have money, majoring in literature and music as we did, but the reality of that didn’t hit until we were on the wrong side of the country in jobs that would never pay our bills. Then I went to graduate school and she got a good job, but she didn’t see my studying as work, so she had very little respect for what I was doing. When I finished school, though, I went to work and she stayed home. I’m not sure how much of this was conscious, but she felt all the insecurity of being dependent on another human being for the necessities of life. When she worked, she felt independent enough that she looked into divorcing me, and she was afraid I’d do the same. So she bound me to her with insults, reminding me how lucky I was to be with her, making me feel like no one else could ever want me. I worked at The Home Depot for a year and a half, and I was physically stronger than I had ever been, and I was the happiest with my body I’d ever been, but my muscles get flat instead of rounded, so I was also thinner than I had been in ages, and she’d tell me I looked like a Holocaust survivor and threaten to buy my clothes in the kids’ section. After our third child was born I wanted to go back for a doctorate so I could get a better-paying job, and she told me repeatedly that I was too old, too poor, and had too many children to chase after dreams. What I needed to do was get a shit government job for the next thirty years, give up ever being happy with my life, and content myself with what satisfaction there is in knowing that my abject misery provided the basic needs of my family. That’s what real men did. This is the kind of poison that comes from an insecure person in an unequal relationship. She tended to get between me and family or friends, interpreting and packaging me for them so that I felt like I couldn’t interact socially without her. I felt like Jean-Marc, even after I was the one bringing home the organic preservative-free bacon. And at first I did feel homeless and marginal; Kundera’s novel doesn’t show how it gets better. As I reflect on it now, I don’t wonder that I survived the divorce; I wonder that I survived eight years with her.

Y’know, my parents thought that it was important never to fight in front of us, so when they divorced it sort of came out of nowhere. At the time, I didn’t see it as a conflict between them so much as the natural state of things. People ran away from time to time; my brother did it, every teenager in a 1980s sitcom did it, it’s just what people do. The ex also thought it was important not to fight in front of other people, so we didn’t. Or at least, I didn’t. When she started yelling at me in front of the kids, I knew things were bad. But even when she only yelled at me in private, I felt like everything was ending because I had never seen people who love each other fighting. Right now I’m staying with some friends who have been together for more than thirty years, and they have their disagreements as people do, not in front of me though I can hear when they raise their voices, but I’m finally learning that not every fight ends in divorce, not every disagreement is final, not every frustration is the end of the world two people have built together.

One of the things that frustrates Chantal (and my ex) is what has become of the men in their lives.

Chantal thinks: men have daddified themselves. They aren’t fathers, they’re just daddies, which means: fathers without a father’s authority. She imagines trying to flirt with a daddy pushing a stroller with one baby inside it and carrying another two babies on his back and belly. Taking advantage of a moment when the wife stopped at a shop window, she would whisper an invitation to the husband. What would he do? Could the man transformed into a baby-tree still turn to look at a strange woman? Wouldn’t the babies hanging off his back and his belly start howling about their carrier’s disturbing movement? The idea strikes Chantal funny and puts her in a good mood. She thinks to herself: I live in a world where men will never turn to look at me again.

Then, along with a few morning strollers, she found herself on the seawall: the tide was out; before her the sandy plain stretched away over a kilometer. It was a long time since she had come to the Normandy coast, and she was unfamiliar with the activities in fashion there now: kites and sail-cars. The kite: a colored fabric stretched over a formidably tough frame, let loose into the wind; with the help of two lines, one in each hand, a person forces different directions on it, so that it climbs and drops, twists, emits a dreadful noise like a gigantic horsefly and, from time to time, nose first, falls into the sand like an airplane crashing. She was surprised to see that the owners were neither children nor adolescents but always men. In fact, they were the daddies! The daddies without their children, the daddies who had managed to escape their wives! They didn’t run off to mistresses, they ran off to the beach, to play!

Again the notion of a treacherous seduction struck her: she would come up behind the man holding the two lines and watching the noisy flight of his toy with his head thrown back; into his ear she would whisper an erotic invitation in the lewdest words. His reaction? She hadn’t a doubt: without glancing at her, he would hiss: “Leave me alone, I’m busy!”

Ah, no, men will never turn to look at her again.

Chantal seems to value the old days when Sean Connery was James Bond, when men would drop whatever was happening for a quick lay with whichever objectified female happened to be closest. There’s this weird equation of promiscuity with adult masculinity and paternal authority which seems to run counter to today’s accepted model of male behavior. As if authority can only be exercised at a distance, or as if he’s only a man if his cock is actually inside a woman at the moment. Well, there’s a price to be paid for gender equality – I know we haven’t succeeded in that goal yet, but it’s a useful touchstone just now – we all like to feel physically attractive (regardless of gender), but men have been taught that James Bond is just a fantasy, that real life is not a nonstop sexual buffet, so we don’t act like it is. In general, we’re more guarded in expressing the pleasure we take in the sight of people we find attractive, so attractive people get less external validation. Most guys don’t like to be thought of as rape-y, so we go in the other direction. [I wonder how sexual orientation affects self-esteem in this area. I can look at myself in the mirror and think, yeah, I’d fuck me, without feeling like there’s anything weird about that. Can straight people do the same?] When the ex and I got together, we were both really into changing traditional gender roles, but over time she became more religious, and she felt more strongly that she needed to submit to me (at least superficially), but I never wanted a fuckable child-care worker who has to resort to manipulation to get what she wants. I’ve always wanted to be with someone I felt was my equal, and I’m still not sure how the powerful feminist I loved became a resentful housewife, or why she chose that.

But I can say that the kids strapped to their daddies won’t care if they turn to look at a strange woman. I could use a urinal without waking the baby strapped to my chest; they can handle a slight turn of the torso. Yeah, I was a baby-tree for a while at first, but as I started working full-time, the ex trusted me less and less with the boys. I don’t have any strong memories of carrying my youngest through shops or down the street, though I’m sure I must have done it.

I spent eight years expecting my life to end at any second. Every day I’d wake up and wonder, is it today? Whenever the phone rang unexpectedly, I’d think, is this the call? For a while I thought she was going to kill herself before I got home from work. Then I thought she was going to die in a car crash or some other accident. Then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a worthless shit, and then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a gay worthless shit. Then she did. It wasn’t quite as I had imagined it; in many ways it was worse. I really want to be in love again, but I don’t want to go back to that constant fear of loss.

He was thinking not of her death but of something subtler, something elusive that has been haunting him lately: that one day he wouldn’t recognize her; that one day he would notice that Chantal was not the Chantal he lived with but that woman on the beach he mistook for her; that the certainty Chantal represented for him would turn out to be illusory, and that she would come to mean as little to him as everybody else.

Certainty is illusory, full stop. The only thing I’m really certain of now is that no matter what, I’m going to be okay. Even when I die, that’ll be okay too. But relationships end. Sometimes not until death, but death parts us all. When Chantal’s lamp goes out one night, what will become of Jean-Marc? He’ll rediscover himself, as I did. All the things that he didn’t do because she hated them will come back. He’ll seek out all the friends she didn’t like. He’ll watch the movies and listen to the music she hated. He’ll read the books she didn’t approve of and eat at the restaurants where she felt snubbed. But being fictional, he will never face that. There’s a losing that he won’t have to live with.

In the last three years, I’ve realized that the ex didn’t know herself very well when we got together. I was pretty unaware of myself too, so I’m not judging her for that. But when you don’t know yourself, you can’t present yourself to another person accurately. The person I fell in love with never really existed. Part of her was there, of course, but part of her was the person the ex thought she ought to have been and not who she was, and part was who I wanted to believe her to be. Part reality, part fantasy. It was hard when she left me and I lost her physical presence, but it was also hard when I realized just how much I had blinded myself to. She’s still beautiful and the type of person I can respect, but I cannot imagine being in love with her, let alone making her the mainstay of my own identity. If I passed her on the street as a stranger, I wouldn’t look at her twice. I’d forget her almost immediately. She’s an important part of my past, but as we are in the present, I don’t find anything special about her. Jean-Marc is afraid of this state of things, but I welcome it. Yes, it represents a loss, but it’s healthy to let go of the things that hurt you.

Kundera’s work often resonates with me on some deep levels, and this short novel clearly brings up a lot of things for me. It’s a little love story, and I suppose it could be read allegorically, but I hope not all love is like this. I want to be complemented, not possessed. I want a love that feels secure, without fear. And I have faith that there are other men who want the same thing. I just have to find them.

 

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