Tuesday 07 May 2002

The unbearable sweetness of friendship

Tonight at the video store, where I’d gone to pick up Philip Kaufman’s movie of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the rental clerk asked me if I had a reward card (Rent Five, Get One Free). I found it, along with two photo booth pictures that I’d put there for safe keeping, then promptly forgotten.

Photo booth pictures of two young women

The photographs had been sandwiched between pages 200 and 201 of the copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being that I bought from Gould’s bookstore six weeks ago. In Chapter 9 of Part Five (which ends on page 200) and Chapter 10 (which begins on page 201), Kundera attempts to explain the reasons for Tomas’s compulsive womanizing. Chapter 10 opens:

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world.

The obsession of the former is lyrical: what they seek in women is themselves, their ideal, and since an ideal is by definition something that can never be found, they are disappointed again and again. The disappointment that propels them from woman to woman gives their inconstancy a kind of romantic excuse, so that many sentimental women are touched by their unbridled philandering.

The obsession of the latter is epic, and women see nothing the least bit touching in it: the man projects no subjective ideal on women, and since everything interests him, nothing can disappoint him. This inability to be disappointed has something scandalous about it. The obsession of the epic womanizer strikes people as lacking in redemption (redemption by disappointment).

It’s reasonable to assume that my copy of Kundera’s novel originally belonged to one or other of the young women. In the book, Sabina (Tomas’s mistress) encourages Tereza (his wife) to become a photographer, lending her “three or four monographs of famous photographers” and explaining “what made each of the photographs interesting.”

[Tereza] felt a rush of admiration for Sabina, and because Sabina treated her as a friend it was an admiration free of fear and suspicion and quickly turned into friendship.

What makes the photo booth pictures (formally) interesting is that they are framed as mirror images, except that the women have changed places so that each appears in the foreground of one photo and the background of another. The real interest is, however, in the pair rather than the single images; in the juxtaposition of two portraits of two women, happily mugging for a camera without an operator, as it records a tiny sliver of “the endless variety of the objective female world.”

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