What happens but once might as well not have happened at all…
The story that I am asked to tell most often is how I met my husband, a story that is notable for the coincidence that it involves. We met, of course, in two different venues in a single night. Without exception, people seem to see this story as something involving fate.
But what if we’d met only once?
If I’m to be honest, this is a question that has haunted me for years now, and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, already widely regarded as a modern classic, has resulted in my exploring the idea a good deal further.
Like the circumstances behind how I met my own husband, the meeting between key characters Tomas and Tereza is one steeped in chance and coincidence. Although each of these chance events on their own is meaningless and trivial enough—the repetition of certain numbers, situational happenstance—when confronted with them as a series, it’s almost impossible not to apply some sort of narrative to them, seeing them as interrelated and inter-operative.
And with narrative, of course, comes meaning…and responsibility. Tereza sees the combination of chance events behind her meeting with Tomas as having some sort of essential resonance, enough that she not only predicates an entire relationship on these coincidences, but endures Tomas’s philandering in large part because she feels a sort of existential indebtedness to their relationship because of the circumstances of their meeting.
For Tereza this narrative is mostly unquestionable, but Tomas rails against it, embarking on a prodigious array of fleeting sexual encounters as though to prove that chance meetings are everywhere—and may result in all manner of possible outcomes.
But even Tomas concedes in some ways to the push and shove of fate, most demonstrably when he writes a letter to a newspaper regarding the need to accept personal responsibility for the outcomes of one’s actions, even if one doesn’t know the outcome of those actions. There is a second incident where Thomas bows—ostensibly—to fate: when he follows Tereza back to Prague, something that he claims is beyond his control (Es muss sein!, he cries. It must be so!)
And yet, despite this act in accordance with what he seems to believe is the hand of fate, Tomas conceives of his love life not in terms of Es muss sein, but rather Es konnte auch anders sein (It could just as well be otherwise).
But so too, I think, does Tereza. After all, she sees her relationship with Tomas as having arisen from a series of coincidences (and surely this is partly the motivation behind her decision to see the two of them move to the countryside, thus narrowing the range of possible “other” experiences?). The difference seems to be Tereza searches for positive affirmation of this, while Tomas searches for negative affirmation: that is, that Tereza sees their relationship validated by the things that have happened, and Thomas by the things that might have but have not happened.
Of a related note is the idea of “possible selves”, which Kundera examines at length—at one point breaking the fourth wall in order to posit that all of a novelist’s characters are necessarily hypothetical experiential alternatives.
Given this line of thought I can’t help but wonder whether Tomas’s womanising is his own way of exploring his own possible selves in a manner that is free from responsibility or culpability. After all, he argues the importance of taking responsibility of one’s own actions, and yet this becomes a moot point if we are to return to the idea of einmal ist keinmal. (Our narrator disagrees, however, arguing that things that happen just once can have resonance by the very virtue of their uniqueness.)
I think what strikes me most in all of this is the arbitrariness in the way that we apply the ideas of chance, fate and narrative. The applicability of any and all of these is up to individual interpretation—and possibly an imposed collective interpretation—and surely any narrative that is applied is influenced not only by the events of the time as they occur, but also those that follow.
For example, meeting my future husband twice in one night tends to invite narrative applications of “fate”, but would the same be true if we’d broken up shortly after, or if he’d turned out to be a crazed serial killer? Similarly, what would the interpretations be if we’d only met once?
And finally, what if we apply Tomas’s notion of es konnte auch anders sein?
Personally, I think that although it’s possible to consider this on a hypothetical level, it’s impossible to apply as much weight or import to something that might have happened as it is to something that actually has happened.
But then, maybe I’m just applying a narrative of my own…
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