Every time I think of Kundera I recall my favorite line from Unbearable Lightness: “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” And as I wrote these words, I went back to refresh my memory and was surprised to see that sentence on page 4—page 4!—of the book. Could something so meaningful to me have come so early in the text? Does that make it any more or any less significant? I’m pretty sure the man would say: both.
Kundera opens his Unbearable Lightness with a reflection on the concept of “eternal recurrence,” an involved excursus with one thing to say: there is a weight to events. Things that happen once feel light, while things that happen many times feel heavy; things that feel light, feel beautiful, while things that feel heavy do not. And through the story of Tereza and Tomas that later unfolds, we also learn that there’s no standard measure for the weight of significance:
“The book, Beethoven, the number six, the yellow park bench”—these were the “birds of fortuity” that Tereza understood as the most real; “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.”
Composing, collating, mixing, framing, baking, sculpting, pruning, communing, romancing, exposing, enchanting, enacting—we had many words for the same operation: to take what is and generate what will be, however unlikely that may seem.
“Is not an event in fact more significant and noteworthy the greater the number of fortuities necessary to bring it about?”
Would this work as a definition? Ro·man·ti·cize, /rōˈman(t)əˌsīz/, as in, “to fashion the real deal in an idealistic or appealing tendency and make (something) really better than it seems.”
It’s that time of year that comes around once every year, that we feel compelled to mark with something to say, even though, according to my records, that only started for me last year; once is nonce but twice is the beginning of a trend.
On a day like today, twelve months ago, I braved the oppressive heft of a heat dome to pose for a portrait like a man on death row. I don’t put it that way to sound dramatic, though I’m sure I do; I just really really don’t like getting my photograph taken.
But I did it anyway because I wanted to subject myself to the tyranny of time. As a good student of modernism, I’ve tended to think of time as a river or a gale with our efforts to memorialize any moment being something like a net trailing the currents. I too thought every haul was precious, yet just like Kundera’s Agnes, I imagined myself as ceaselessly swimming with only ripples in my wake. But I’ve been imagining time a little differently as of late; time seems more like a rock face that we chip away, inlaying flecks of memories on the surface of our minds; polishing, arranging—bejeweling. My photo was a crack at the vein.
This year, I have a lot to say but it’s all strewn across the table. Over here, I have my aura photo—red with a hint of violet. Over there, Kundera’s book—found in a little free library on Union Street. Somewhere in between is a constellation of episodes that I could string together and fasten at the end, bringing these two points together like the rosary around my neck: a portrait, a camera someone found, some books on photography, a novel about imagology—it kinda makes strange sense when run your thumb across it all.
This photo, that book, this day—episodes awaiting their history. It’s like a daffodil or a snowdrop or a dogwood or a thistle or the squelch of autumn leaves to come recalling the autumn leaves long gone: it’s magic realism, it’s alchemy, it’s wondrous poetry if we make it so.
I’ve spent a whole year repeating this refrain and I feel it coming to crescendo.
I’ve seen a mention of the “romanticized life” twice in the last week. At first, I didn’t know if these were just coincidences or if they were evidence of a broader trend, so I looked it up and learned that “the ‘romanticize your life’ trend has been a TikTok and Instagram movement for over two years. In short videos, users show themselves ‘romanticizing’ their everyday lives by creating good habits, enjoying simple things, and recognizing beauty in the world around them.”
If you know anything about me, you’ll probably guess my gut reaction. But even the dictionary might balk at first! Here’s the very first definition that Google spits out: Ro·man·ti·cize, /rōˈman(t)əˌsīz/, as in, “deal with or describe in an idealized or unrealistic fashion; make (something) seem better or more appealing than it really is,” as in, ‘the tendency to romanticize nonindustrial societies.’
The immanent critique is right there on the glossary page. And yet, I can’t really gloss over it so quickly—I’m too much of a romantic to do that. Because what those two mentions were doing was, at base, naming (albeit unfortunately) a human tendency with deeper roots than any media trend.
Ritual, art, technique—that is how we romance the stone: how we take what “is” and coax out what can or will or must “be.” Why else would we mark the seasons?