Words misunderstood

Sometimes it is very interesting to observe people having a conversation where they totally misunderstand each other. Sometimes, when a really juicy misunderstood situation presents itself, it feels like you’ve been handed a front row seat to a farce.

Observing the mimics, body language, intonations is fascinating. Perhaps the participants are benevolent towards each other despite not understanding anything. This is when awkward, sheeplike smiles come out. At other times, more hostile hand gestures or frowns may take place.

Recently, sitting in a train, I witnessed a conversation between a teenage boy and his mother. At the end, I could not help laughing out loud. It was so obvious that the chat I witnessed was merely a small minuet in a larger symphony or a small poem in an epic history. I had a feeling they had gone through this before.  The son was excited about a new hobby, and the mother did not want to hear anything about it. It sounded like the mother was heartless, but I could tell she misunderstood this new obsession as a way of asking for money. Hence, the mother came up with icy remarks. The mother was determined not to be “fooled” and shot down any of the son’s attempts to be cheerful. Those two spoke such a different language. At the end I didn’t know who to side with; the “all-knowing” mother or the arrogant youngster.

I believe misunderstandings are at the heart of many conflicts. I would really like to be better at understanding, to avoid misunderstandings. Still, I’ve surely been a part of these type of train chats, and had other people chuckle at my misunderstandings.

Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being has an entire section devoted to “words misunderstood”. This section is written like an encyclopedia, where words and concepts are presented from different characters’ points of view. One example being: “Living in truth”, a concept presented through Franz and Sabina, two characters having an extramarital fling.

…What does it mean to live in truth? Putting it negatively, it is easy enough: it means not lying, not hiding and not dissimulating. From the time he met Sabina, however, Franz had been living in lies. (TULoB, pp 111, Penguin Books 2003) Franz had told his wife lies about his whereabouts and enjoyed this game and his relationship with Sabina.

For Sabina, living in truth, lying neither to ourselves nor to others, was possible only away from the public: the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies. Sabina despised literature in which people gave away all kinds of intimate secrets about themselves and their friends. A man who loses his privacy loses everything, Sabina thought. … That was why Sabina did not suffer in the least from having to keep her love secret. On the contrary, only by doing so could she live in truth.

Franz, on the other hand, was certain that the division of life into private and public spheres is the source of all lies: a person is one thing in private and something quite different in public. For Franz, living in truth meant breaking down the barriers between the private and the public. He was fond of quoting Andre Breton on the desirability of living ‘in a glass house’, into which everyone can look and there are no secrets.

The mother and son combo had their own set of words, their own encyclopedia of words misunderstood, very different from this couple having a secret fling. I wonder what my own encyclopedias in my different relationships may be? If you see me get into a big misunderstanding in a train, please let me know. Jot down an encyclopedia entry for me.

Also, sitting in the front row of the mother/son misunderstandings farce, I felt uncomfortable with how close to their lives I had suddenly become. I wonder if the “Big brother” culture has changed the way we feel about hiding personal life from strangers. The train was a “glass house”, where the mother and son were living their lives without boundaries toward strangers. They were exposing their lives and relationship issues in return for fifteen minutes of the other passengers’ undivided attention.

Now, thinking back to the trainride with this particular mother and son, I think I personally agree with Sabina, I think it’s good to keep your thoughts to yourself. Living in truth is possible only away from the public. A man who loses his privacy loses everything.


2 responses to “Words misunderstood

  1. I love Milan Kundera. But don’t you think its so hard to live in truth? At every by way there is a lie, and however insignificant, once you investigate its existence and try to purge it, you realize its necessity in everyday life.

    In fact, i don’t know if it is even possible to live in truth. So many say they aren’t sure of the existence of God, but how many of those truly live a life devoid of some sort of superego?

    Please post more on this sort of thing Hanba… its the only thing that gets me up in the morning; everything else is just distraction.

  2. Hi Kaefka!

    Your comment made my day. 🙂 Actually, I agree with you. It is impossible to “live in truth”. Sabina is no more right than Franz. I changed my mind.

    ‘Truth’ is an overrated concept. It implies the existence of a single statement, point of view, lemma superior to others. (Often defined by whoever is in power and/or wants you to do things a certain way.) The concept is often synonymous with coercion. Either by an external force (religious entity, state etc) or an internal “superego”, as you and Freud call it. I’m attracted to the hermeneutic view, according to which there are several parallel truths, contradicting each other while being just as true at the same time. Thinking this way, things become less black and white, less binary. You don’t need to spend so much time attempting to ‘purge’ lies away from your life.

    Thinking this way, I grant myself the possibility to change my mind about things. Not be stuck with a set of ‘truths’, or a certain set of puzzle pieces to build my views on. So I’m completely ok and totally in control even though I just made a 180 degrees flipflop turn in my statements – First siding with Sabina and now settling with a deuce between Franz and Sabina.

    Hey, I quite enjoy your comments, Kaefka – and your blog! Keep up the good work! 🙂

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