Monday, June 8, 2009

Circles vs Lines

Milan Kundera makes a bold statement in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and that is this:

If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza, "Look, I'm sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can't you come up with something different?" And herein lies the whole man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle: it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.

This is why in the biblical Paradise, man was not really the man as we know it: time in Paradise turns in a circle. Man was happy the same way Karenin the dog was happy.

Kundera plays with the notion of time being circular vs. going in a straight line, the idea of eternal return, and its philosophical implications: in particular, lightness vs. weight. At first, the circularity of time is described as something heavy. Eventually, however, Kundera's characters finds the lightness of their lives too unbearable, and finds happiness only in old age, in a country side, where life resembles a circle more than a line. (I actually find that the circle is lighter than the line... but that's another story.)

It's interesting because Rand also used the circle vs. line analogy in Atlas Shrugged, in a slightly different manner. Taggart Transcontinental is a railroad, and Rand did not fail to point out that the rails are thin straight lines leading into infinity. There was also one memorable passage (that's too difficult to find without the book) when Dagny had ran away from the company and hid in an old cottage. She felt the need to work on something that lead somewhere, something that went in a straight line. Cleaning and washing and buying vegetables were "circular" kind of work that lead nowhere and need to be redone. She needed to build something - say, a new stone path - something that would require her to think, to design a pulley system to move stones too heavy for her to lift.

Both authors agree that the straight line is what differentiates men from animals. Rand embraces this as something that gives them happiness. She believes that happiness comes from achieving one's best - in Roark's words: "my work done my way." Kundera seem to state otherwise: that the routines, the circle, works to soothe us, relax us, simplifies our lives, and makes us more happy. The desire to rise, to get somewhere, to have a mission - it distracts us from our quest to happiness.

Why the difference?

The answer, I believe, can be found in an unlikely place - an interview with Robert Monroe. Monroe talks about what he learned through his out of body experiences and his encounters with non-physical entities. Regardless of whether this encounter was merely a hallucination, the story is intriguing: he was talking with one of his nonphysical friends about goals. He tells his nonphysical friend that one of his goals was to home. The nonphysical friend commented that yes, this was a noble goal, and asked whether he wanted to go home right then, for a short visit. Monroe of course said yes.

He ended up in a place with beautiful colourful clouds and something analogous to music in the background. Immediate he found peace. But as he stayed and relaxed, he found something unnerving about the place. He observed, and confirmed that - yes - there was something fishy going on. He would see a piece of cloud moving by, swirling as it moved. Then after a while another cloud would come by and swirl the same way as the first. The tune of the "music" was also repetitive, as were the games played by the entities that lived here. This was home: the circle, the paradise.

Monroe understood why he left home: he was bored. He wanted something else, and that's why he was alive on earth. Earth was not boring to him.

I believe that the "circle" type happiness is one that is more mundane, simple and even animalistic. I hesitate in using the word "animalistic" because of the derogatory nature of the term. What I really mean is that this type of happiness takes us only to the first four levels of Maslow's triangle: our physical need would be met, as will our sense of safety, sense of belonging, and if we're good - esteem. These are things that we know that animals can achieve.

The "line" happiness is what would really lead to self actualization. The line for Rand meant progress. The line for Kundera meant a mission - a thing that Tomas considered stupid at the end of the novel. In Tomas' defense, it was probably stupid for him: if what he wanted was not self actualization, but simple, good old happiness. The circle offered that. But for those who do seek self actualization - like Dagny Taggart and perhaps Robert Monroe - the life of the circle is one of boredom. They cannot be happy that way. Once again, there's a tremendous difference between Dagny and Tomas - I dare say that it's the same difference between Plato and the average human being.

It is impossible to conclude this discussion without asking myself: where am I in this picture? Line or circle? I've known this answer for the longest time: I am striving to go forward - in a straight line - but not all willingly. Circle does give me happiness, and I know that should I sink into the life of the circles, I would not be bored. I have the ability to be happy with a simple life, but I pray it wouldn't happen. I feel like it would be a waste of a lifetime - a betrayal, even. Maybe I will stop wanting the circles. Maybe I will look back in my old age (if I live that long) and find mission to be stupid.

I hope the latter will never happen.

End of Entry