15 July 2023

Subverting the indecency of the mind

'When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.’ That’s a quote from Milan Kundera’s celebrated novel, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.’ I came across it while reading about Kundera having just learned that the Czech-born writer had passed away at the age of 94 in Paris, France.

And I asked myself, ‘how often does the heart speak?’ And I asked myself also, ‘is the mind listening and even if so, does it always hear?’ Maybe, I told myself, the heart doesn’t speak loud enough to be heard. On the other hand, maybe the heart doesn’t speak soft enough because often it is the whisper and not the shout that is noticed.

Anyway, what is all this about decency? Where does it come from and who defines its contours? What are the conditions that warrant the labels, decent and indecent, civilised and uncivilised? Have they been decided upon after long and deep deliberation by people mandated to do so, and were they then placed before the people for ratification?

Obviously it is all arbitrary, governed by place and time, altered as circumstances make the established order of things untenable. Hearts and minds, moreover, are fickle entities; their ability to communicate, be communicated to and draw conclusions are eminently open to subversion. The strongest and most insightful mind is weakened and rendered impotent in an instant. The heart, resolute and warm, can break into a thousand pieces and grow stone cold in a fraction of a second.

Neither are they impervious to external bombardment. The missiles are sometimes directed at heart, sometimes at mind but as frequently it is the shards and shrapnel issuing consequent to explosion somewhere else that lacerate. Mindlessness and heartlessness are not necessarily mind-wrought and heart-wrought respectively.  

Let us assume that the mind, mindful of decency, indeed refuses to object when the heart speaks. Is it when this happens that we call people mindless and insane? Working backwards, are we to assume that those who are thus labeled are in fact people who have heard the words their hearts spoke and therefore resolved not to object?’

The world is made of people, each and everyone endowed with a heart and a mind. So, I wonder if we can read the world in terms of the dynamic proposed by Kundera; an amalgamation of hearts that rarely speak and an amalgamation of minds that feels it would be indecent to object when the former deigns to say something.  

Such things are hard to assess, of course. It’s easier at the personal level. The exercise of extrapolation is easy, but one ought to be wary when drawing conclusions. Everything about ‘humanity’ is not always the sum total of the particular shards in each and every human being.

At the personal level on the other hand we can think about (yes, that’s mind-work) about feelings and reasoning. We can think about a particular moment and ask ourselves, ‘did the heart speak and did the mind object?’

At some level this is just an academic exercise. Maybe psychologists would know better. I don’t. All I know is that I’ve come to realise that the ‘logic’ (if I may use that word for want of anything better) of the heart is more reliable than that of the mind.

Kundera, again in the same novel, dwells on aspirations, of wanting something better or higher. He says that such people must expect someday to suffer vertigo, which he offers is not the fear of falling but ‘the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.’

Well, it’s from the book, so we really can’t say that it was a Kundera Life Lesson. He once wrote (in ‘The Joke,’ the only Kundera book I’ve read, by the way, that optimism is the opium of the masses. That’s not something affirmed by Kundera’s life engagements. Some ideas depicted in his novels are considered part of the larger tradition of existentialism but he was more interested in reality as opposed to existence, he was fascinated by what people are capable of becoming.  And this is perhaps why he had occasion to reflect on vertigo and offer the above explanation.

He’s gone now. He has been unburdened of the vexed questions of heart-mind dynamism, duality and, perhaps, unity. He cannot fall, ever. He cannot fail and can no longer be tormented by the tensions of desiring to fall and at the same time the compulsion to defend himself against falling, against the terror of that possible outcome.

I take heart. My mind finds it indecent to object. So I express love for Milan Kundera and by way of salute make myself promise, ‘I will read “The unbearable lightness of being.”’
['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road