Milan Kundera on ecstasy

This is a quote from Milan Kundera's book Testaments Betrayed (1993).

I recall my childhood: sitting at the piano, I would throw myself into passionate improvisations for which I needed nothing but a C-minor chord and the subdominant F-minor, played fortissimo over and over again. The two chords and the endlessly repeated primitve melodic motif made me experience an emotion more intense than any Chopin, any Beethoven, has ever given me. (One time my musician father, completely furious -- I never saw him so furious before or after -- rushed into the room, lifted me off the piano stool, and with a disgust he could barely control, carried me into the dining room and set me down under the table.)

What I was experiencing during those improvisations was ecstasy. What is ecstasy? The boy banging on the keyboard feels an enthusiasm (or a sorrow, or a delight), and the emotion rises to such a pitch of intensity that it becomes unbearable: the boy flees into the state of blindness and deafness where everything is forgotten, even oneself. Through ecstasy, emotion reaches its climax, and thereby at the same time its negation (its oblivion).

Ecstasy means being "outside oneself," as indicated by the etymology of the Greek word: the act of leaving one's position (stasis). To be "outside oneself" does not mean outside the present moment, like a dreamer escaping into the past or th future. Just the opposite: ecstasy is the absolute identity with the present instant, total forgetting of past and future. If we obliterate the future and the past, the present moment stands in empty space, outside life and its chronology, outside time and indepndent of it (this is why it can be likened to eternity, which too is the negation of time).

We can see the acoustical image of emotion in the Romantic melody of a lied: its length seems intended for sustaining emotion, building it, causing its slow enjoyment. Ecstasy, on the other hand, cannot be mirrored in a melody, because memory strangled by ecstasy is incapable of retaining the sequence of notes in a melodic phrase, however short; the acoustical image of ecstasy is the cry (or: a very bried melodic motif that imitates a cry).

The classic example of ecstasy is the moment of orgasm. Think back to the time before women had the benefit of the pill. It often happened that at the moment of climax a lover forgot to slide out of his mistress's body and made her a mother, even though, a few moments earlier, he had firmly intended to be extremely careful. That second of ecstasy made him forget both his determination (his immediate past) and his interest (his future).

The instant of ecstasy thus weighed more heavily on the scales than the unwanted child; and since the unwanted child will probably fill the lover's whole life span with his unwanted presence, it may be said that one instance of ecstasy weighed more than a whole lifetime. The lover's lifetime faced the instant of ecstasy from roughly the same inferior status as the finite is facing eternity. Man desires eternity, but all he can get is its imitation: the instant of ecstasy.

I recall a day in my youth: I was with a friend in his car; people were crossing the street in front of us. I saw a person I disliked and pointed him out to my friend: "Run him over!" It was of course only a verbal joke, but my friend was in a state of great euphoria, and he hit the accelerator. The man took fright, slipped, fell. My friend stopped the car just in time. The man was not hurt, but people crowded around and threatened (understandably) to lynch us. Yet my friend was not a murderer by nature. My words had sent him into a momentary ecstasy (actully, one of the oddest: the ecstasy of a joke).

We are used to connecting the notion of ecstasy to great mystical moments. But there is such a thing as everyday, ordinary, vulgar ecstasy: the ecstasy of anger, the ecstasy of speed at the wheel, the ecstasy of ear-splitting noise, ecstasy in the soccer stadium. Living is a perpetual heavy effort not to lose sight of ourselves, to stay solidly present in ourselves, in our stasis. Step outside ourselves for a mere instant, and we verge on death's dominion.

Back to Lifschitz's web page