Book Review: Kundera’s Slowness and the Experience of Time

Time goes. That’s the great thing about it. Whatever one says about Einstein’s relativity or a lover’s forever, one knows that time goes on regardless of us, at its own pace. Effective time management is no more about time than clocks are (how I hate them—I refuse to wear a watch that signifies some arbitrary (ok, not completely arbitrary) human construction, as if we could put Time in stays and pull the laces tighter by measuring and calculating). But time is a consolation as much as a curse, and there’s some comfort in its going.
The experience of it—a red squarrel scales the vertical wall of the apartment building opposite at the height of 5 stories before climbing to the safety of a ledge—can be like living an epiphany or how I imagine the Dalai Lama moves through his days. Slowness allows one to feel its drip-drip-drop as it goes. The sands of time were always watery drips to me. A glass-encased clock is ticking in front of me now, slightly out if time with the other ticking clock in my grandmother’s kitchen. The sound of them when I try to sleep on the couch at night drives me slightly mad if I’ve not sufficiently tired. But to slowness…if one could be enough in a moment, would that moment slow to an infinity if one could encompass it fully? Could you choose the moment, a lover’s kiss perhaps, or would you get stuck in a horrible one, like watching a car crash? I think that slowness, and the chance it gives you to really experience something, is how one wants to know the pleasant things of life. Similarly, quick should be life’s pains. Why is it then, the work days are so long, and the night of fun and fancy are so short?
There is an art to experiencing pleasure—the art of slowness. All the hustle and bustle of New York city, all black coats and blank faces. Maybe it’s too fast to be easily enjoyed, and that’s why my father think all the people there look miserable? (I never look at them myself, so I’m no judge.) But as Evidence #1 for the argument that making an art of slowness is the most satisfying way of knowing pleasure, I put forth Milan Kundera’s Slowness. The long ago love story of a chevalier’s amorous night and the present day buffoonery of Vincent’s attempt at sexual intimacy are linked by the same château as a setting and are mingled at the end when the satisfied chevalier encounters the disappointed Vincent. They have both spent a “marvelous night.” The chevalier’s was one of being led through the ritual of seduction, gradually raising suspense between the lover’s, dividing the night into three stages of lovemaking and handling it all with smooth sophistication. Vincent’s was one in which he saved his precarious self-esteem at an entymologist’s convention by attracting Julie, who is quite willing to follow him as he suggests skinny dipping and then copulating poolside in front of anyone present in a wild chase. Vincent’s penis doesn’t quite cooperate and Julie runs when people come and stare at them. Their marvelous nights are treated completely oppositely as regards time.
Kundera makes the point that “in existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting” and also that Epicurus in his hedonistic beliefs was not seeking unlimited temporary physical pleasures as we now imagine, but rather seeking to enjoy only what could temperately be enjoyed and re-enjoyed to create a long-lasting happiness, more like an absence of pleasure. Both women disappear after the limited night together, but the chevalar’s memory will last while Vincent desperately creates lies about his night to boost him image among his cronies while he puts out of his mind the real longing he feels for Julie. As Vincent loses her and the potential night between them, he regrets the loss almost as much as telling his friend’s of the comic misadventure. Bumbling and rushing through a night of great potential is just my point. It’s much more humorous that the chevalier’s night, but not satisfying. This approach of slowness applies to anything one wishes to enjoy as well as nightly adventures. One might say, “But why should Vincent create some romantic scene for a quick fuck? Why should they talk instead of running around a pool? One isn’t inherently better. Passion and spontaneity seem to be lacking in the chevalier’s tale.” The chevalier knew as little in the morning about his lover as Vincent knew about his would-be lover. Yet he was more satisfied. Slowness is harder to create, but the memory of it is indelible. Must passion be less to go slower, or with greater discipline can one want and fully enjoy more by going slower? Slowing down seems necessary to experiencing fully the thing as it happens, allowing one to appreciate it as it happens. Savor it.
Indeed, the value, and part of the pleasure, is knowing that it goes, is going, will be gone. One can slow things down and feel them pass without speed blurring his view as time goes by. That’s the thing about time, you can count on it going.

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