Some years ago, reading a book of systemic psychology, I came across the idea of “the enigmatic episode.” The idea is simple enough. Two people from quite different backgrounds meet and become involved in a relationship. Attracted erotically perhaps, each fascinated by the other, they become good friends. Then something occurs—meeting the other’s parents perhaps, participating in a political movement, contemplating some particular sexual activity—that reveals to them that they have quite different outlooks on life. Not just that they don’t agree, but that they don’t, as we say, understand where the other is coming from; the other person’s position is inexplicable, perhaps threatening.
In her book Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family, the Italian psychologist Valeria Ugazio draws on two characters in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being to explain the idea:
[Franz and Sabina’s] relationship is marked from the very beginning by enigmatic episodes: Kundera calls them “words misunderstood” and develops a short glossary of them…
Sabina asked Franz at a certain point: “Why don’t you sometimes use your strength on me?” Franz replied: “Because love means relinquishing strength.” And Sabina realized two things: firstly, that Franz’s words were noble and just; second, that with these words Franz disqualified himself in her eyes as a sexual partner.
Franz often told Sabina about his mother, perhaps with a sort of unconscious calculation. He imagined that Sabina would be attracted by his capacity for faithfulness and thus would have been won over by him. Franz did not know that Sabina was attracted by betrayal, and not by faithfulness.
When Sabina told him once about her walks in cemeteries, Franz shuddered with disgust. For him, cemeteries were “bone and stone dumps,” but for her they provided the only nostalgic memory of her country of birth, Bohemia.
Franz admired Sabina’s homeland. When she told him about herself and her Czech friends, Franz heard the words prison, persecution, tanks in the streets, emigration, posters and banned literature, and Sabina appeared even more beautiful because behind her he could glimpse the painful drama of her country…. Sabina felt no love for that drama. Prison, persecution, banned books, occupation and tanks were ugly words to her, devoid of the slightest romantic intrigue.
For Franz and Sabina to go on being a couple beyond the first phase of intense erotic attraction, each will have to open up and change, learn to see the world differently. But since, as Ugazio, points out, not everyone is eager to step outside the positions they have grown up with, many relationships will founder on the hazards of “words misunderstood.” So Franz and Sabina eventually break up. Yet that is not quite the end of the matter. After they have parted, Sabina begins to miss Franz. In the Montparnasse Cemetery she suddenly finds herself able to see, perhaps even to feel, cemeteries the way Franz did. To understand where he was coming from. Then she wishes she hadn’t been so impatient with him. The enigmatic episode has prompted a moment of growth.
Tim Parks, The Books We Don’t Understand, The New York review of Books , August 15 2017