Books discussed in this essay:
The Melancholy of Resistance László Krasznahorkai (trans. George Szirtes). New Directions. 320pp. $15.95.
War and War László Krasznahorkai (trans. George Szirtes). New Directions. 288pp. $16.95.
Beyond Order and Chaos
All that is transitory is but a parable.
Goethe, Faust II
This line, meant by Goethe to indicate that our worldly lives are but symbols for a greater, permanent afterlife, carries with it ambiguities that Mahler never considered when he used it rather clumsily at the climax of his Eighth Symphony. If we are all Christians, how easy to dispose of the travails of this life by casting them as imperfections of a greater, lesser-known world. But if we do not know that world, how do we construct that parable, and how do we sustain it in the face of reality’s constant resistance to conform to it? This is the question that the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai pursues in his fiction.
In the post-war years, many European authors, especially those from Communist states, engaged in surrealism, parable, and allegory as a way of containing the mid-century chaos that spilled over from the war, where the psychology and rationality of modernism no longer seemed capable of fighting the irrationality of Nazism and Communism. While there have been some stunning works by Ludvik Vaculik (The Guinea Pigs), Bohumil Hrabal (I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude), Imre Kertész (Detective Story, Liquidation), and others, this general approach has more frequently produced limp sentimentality and disposable weirdness (Milan Kundera and Victor Pelevin, spring to mind). Within their own works, Günter Grass and Ismail Kadare have met with both success and disaster plowing this field.
It is Krasznahorkai who has, to my knowledge, engaged in the deepest investigation of how these metaphorical understandings are formed, how they succeed, and, most importantly, how they fail. Like Kertész at his best, he questions the process of making meaning.
Beginning with Satantango in 1985, Krasznahorkai has written, along with stories and scripts, at least half a dozen novels. Only two of these, The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) and War and War (1999), have been published in English (in translations by George Szirtes), though further efforts are currently afoot. I want to focus first on The Melancholy of Resistance, because it is a more linear, less allusive work than War and War.
In outline, The Melancholy of Resistance is the story of the visit of a carnival to a small Hungarian town. The carnival brings its two main attractions, “The biggest whale in the world” held dead and preserved in a trailer, and The Prince, a chirruping demagogue who ominously speaks through his interpreting “factotum” and foments mass riots. After great violence The Prince’s followers are eventually subdued, and after the departure of the carnival a new order is established by the tyrannical Mrs. Eszter, who has placed the town under martial law.
I tell the story in its barest form because adding anything more would be misleading. The story’s meaning is constantly in doubt; this is the very method of the book. The main characters are not those above but the intuitive naïf Valuska and the reclusive crank Mr. Eszter (Mrs. Eszter’s estranged husband). Valuska sees but cannot explain: “He had no sense of proportion and was entirely lacking the compulsive drive to reason,” and so before hell breaks loose he surrenders himself to his circumstances and expects nothing of the universe. Mr. Eszter, in contrast, vainly seeks a new, more natural piano tuning than the arbitrary well temperament of Werckmeister, used by Bach in The Well-Tempered Clavier. Both seek a certain harmony that is beyond human-made reason.
But natural harmony does not appear. The book is about order and chaos, with The Prince loudly declaring he is the latter. His factotum translates the chirruping:
He says, he is always free in himself. His position is between things. And in between things he sees that he is he is himself the sum of things. And what things up to is ruin, nothing but ruin. . . . Only he can see the whole, he says, because he can see there is no whole. And for The Prince this is how things must be . . . as they must always be . . . he must see with his own eyes. His followers will wreak havoc because they understand his vision perfectly. His followers understand that all things are false pride, but don’t know why. The Prince knows: it is because the whole does not exist.
The closest antecedent I see for the Prince’s inflammatory chirruping is the sound of the phone at the beginning of Kafka’s The Castle:
The receiver gave out a buzz of a kind that K. had never heard on a telephone. It was like the hum of countless children’s voices—but yet not a hum, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance—blended by sheer impossibility into one high but resonant sound that vibrated on the ear as if it were trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing.
The buzz is infinite and impossible, beyond human sense, just as, according to The Prince, the nature of the whole is beyond human understanding. But in Kraznahorkai’s vision the menace from such incomprehensibility is more devastating: havoc, ruin, and violence.
Pages after the Prince’s speech, Mrs. Eszter, who will enact her new order “like clockwork,” is already planning for the war against The Prince and his followers. There is much talk like the factotum’s on both sides, and even though it generates terror, it never quite adds up.
Valuska, caught up in the conflict, finds that he cannot make sense of it in the way that he once thought he could, through openness and detachment. Likewise, Mr. Eszter gives up on discovering the natural, perfect tuning he is searching for and returns to the imperfect Werckmeister tuning to hear Bach’s human order restored.
The same tension between order and chaos manifests itself in the novel’s very sentences. It’s difficult to evaluate Krasznahorkai’s style not knowing Hungarian, but having read him in English, French, and German, I think I can triangulate some idea of the effect of his extremely lengthy, disorienting sentences. Of Valuska, we read:
One superfluous phenomenon, however, Eszter immediately added, did not indicate merely that people had ceased to note and were actively neglecting such beings, but that, in his own view, the refined sensibilities and spirit of observation that registered such generosity and incorruptibility as distinct virtues and ornaments did so in the certain knowledge that there was nothing, nor ever was anything, to which such virtue might refer or quality ornament, or, to put it another way, that it referred to or ornamented some singular, useless and undemonstrable form—like some kind of excess or overflow—for which ‘neither explanation, nor apology’ existed.
The story is orchestrated with passages like these, which (if you are of a certain temperament) entrance and confound as they twist back on themselves. They may bear some stylistic similarity to Thomas Bernhard, but that is all at the surface. While Bernhard uses rhythmic repetition and slight variation to hone in on precise but ambiguous motifs, Krasznahorkai piles on contradictions and reversals: not explicitly, not dialectically, but in the ever-lengthening conditions, slight disparities, and digressions inserted into these long sentences. (Javier Marias has used similar devices, though to more prosaic and less effective ends.) What seems like a rephrasing often turns out, on closer examination, to be a reimagining, as one idea turns into another. Far from a stylistic tic, this tortuous writing is the symbolic center of Krasznahorkai’s work. Perhaps it’s better seen in a more concrete example:
Valuska did, however, have to admit that it had been some time since he had made a conscious choice in the matter of his direction, and rather than nearing a place of potential rest he seemed to be getting ever further from it, and, no use denying it, there was something disturbing in the otherwise insignificant fact that the place he seemed to be approaching was indeed the railway station, though, he thought, the similarity ended there, and so, since these contrary thoughts continued to disturb him, he decided simply to throw the notebook away, for it would surely be a serious mistake to waste any part of his remaining strength.
The disorientation is grammatical, semantic, descriptive, and thematic. Concept and sensory experience are dissolved into an increasingly undifferentiable mass before we’re tentatively pulled back out, only to fall in again. As János Szegö has written of Krasznahorkai’s story “He Rises at Daybreak”:
The town’s squares and museum rooms turn into labyrinths, with that labyrinthine quality being faithfully mapped by the sentences, and if the reader is identified with the protagonist, then the reader, in some cases when it seems that the sentence in which he or she is proceeding will grind into nothing, is only able to trust that there is an end somewhere. (tr. Tim Wilkinson)
This is the serpentine motion that is neither progress nor repetition, the forward and backward steps of the “tango” that explicitly structures Satantango. This kind of movement sheds light on how Krasznahorkai attempts to create a space for art that exists outside society in the “spiritual” and “real” worlds simultaneously. His style deliberately collapses these two worlds by moving between them with increasing confusion. The consequent dislocation makes good on Krasznahorkai’s stated view that an artist stands at a liberating distance from contemporary reality:
The impact that a writer can exert over his or her own society is far more subtle, almost indecipherably complex and indirect, working through a number of transformations. I even doubt whether at such a degree of remoteness you can still call this an impact and an influence. In Oriental cultures, this question has found an almost radical solution: art had absolutely nothing to do with the direct, palpable reality of its own age. On the contrary, real artists were not “members” of their own society, in the same way that saints never are. This way, the art they produced did not exist as an integrated, definable, graspable part of society. Instead, it found its place in an emphatically spiritual space which nonetheless was still perceived as a part of reality.
It is limiting to see The Melancholy of Resistance as a Communist allegory, for even as it relates to these events it relentlessly confuses all possible interpretation of them. It is in the tradition of perverse authors, like Kafka, Kleist, and Ingeborg Bachmann, but also Joyce, Goethe, and even Dante, who all pushed against the limits of the received ideas of their time to construct a more autonomous world in the “spiritual space” of which Krasznahorkai speaks. Contemporary reality becomes mere material for deeper, ambiguous parables.
The Modern Presentation of Mythology
I think of this approach as his modern presentation of mythology, suspended between the literal and the theoretical. It captures what Hans Blumenberg terms the “poetry and terror,” the opposing origins of mythology. And indeed, myth may be the best way to approach The Melancholy of Resistance. Years ago I tried to make a logical, theoretical structure out of the novel’s ideas and characters but only created a reductive and incomplete failure. Two particular myths offer a more incisive, more successful way of reading the novel.
The first is that of those two great primeval creatures, the Leviathan and the Behemoth, each the indestructible monster of sea and land, respectively. They served as the titles for Hobbes’s two books: Leviathan, a portrait of the ideal but draconian political state; and Behemoth, a portrait of the breakdown of England into civil war. Once more, brutal order and violent chaos. If the dead, static leviathan is the whale of the circus and Mrs. Eszter’s new order, then the incomprehensible, ever-chirping Prince could be the behemoth. The factotum’s rhetoric is uncannily reminiscent of the apocalyptic, outsized terms used by Carlyle, in this passage quoted by Ruth Scurr:
For ourselves we answer that French Revolution means here the open violent Rebellion, and Victory, of disimprisoned Anarchy against corrupt worn-out Authority: how Anarchy breaks prison; bursts up from the infinite Deep, and rages uncontrollable, immeasurable, enveloping a world; in phasis after phasis of fever-frenzy; — ’till the frenzy burning itself out, and what elements of new Order it held (since all Force holds such) developing themselves, the Uncontrollable be got, if not reimprisoned, yet harnessed, and its mad forces made to work towards their object as sane regulated ones.
It is a mistake to see the Prince and Mrs. Eszter as some allegory of Communism. As this passage shows, it is a much greater, more generalized political myth Krasznahorkai is invoking, of anarchy and authority, both irrational and violent. Their opposition gives us the movement of the novel.
The second myth is the primal origin story from Hesiod’s Works and Days, in which Chaos alone gives birth to Erebus and Night, the two realms of darkness, one the shadow realm of Hades and the other the celestial realm of the sky. If darkness constitutes the first two forms of order, distinct from chaos, then it represents the absolute order described in Leviathan and established by Mrs. Eszter. It stands in opposition to the Prince’s chaos where “intolerable too [were] the inexplicable ground-rules of human conduct,” as one of the Prince’s rioters writes: where any rules are intolerable.
What is going on is not the rejection of morality but the rejection of any organizing principle whatsoever: an embrace of chaos against conceptual integrity. So the imposition of order is less a restoration of decency than some predictable form that allows for the (tentative) avoidance of the unknown. Yet the darkness does permit the possibility of light (and Bach’s music) to emerge through sheer contrast, just as Erebus and Night gave birth to the goddess of day.
These analogies are not meant to be precise; the point is that Krasznahorkai’s approach undermines the exactitude of philosophy, thus entering the realm of mythology, half-spiritual and half-real. Philosophy’s explanations, by which I mean rational conceptualizations, cannot sit next to chaos. It is only mythology that can make space for the chaos of the Prince and see that existence is not merely a contest of competing orders and ideas but the chronicle of how those orders are temporarily imposed onto a brute chaos that endlessly resists them.
Though many novels are praised for diagnosing the malaise of our time (isolation, capitalism, inauthenticity, suburbia, etc.), Krasznahorkai’s books illuminate why their explanations are so often trite. Their authors are frequently trapped in the same myopia as the society they supposedly critique, dispatching received ideas whose premises they do not question, whose premises arise from a lack of questioning the greater conceptual schemas which are seen to fail in The Melancholy of Resistance. For those who believe that in 20 years time Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections will seem as dated as Norman Mailer’s or Sinclair Lewis’s lesser efforts do today, Krasznahorkai provides a more universal fictional landscape.
Ironically, it is perhaps The Werckmeister Harmonies, the film adaptation directed by Béla Tarr (with a screenplay credited to both him and Krasznahorkai), that shows how successfully his work can be untethered from the present-day. The plot is more or less preserved, but the conceptual and textual manipulation of the novel does not survive in the sparse dialogue or even in the images. Tarr himself has said that he doesn’t much care about “ideas” per se, and this is probably the most auspicious way to adapt Krasznahorkai’s work. Instead, Tarr holds the camera for immensely long periods (there are only about 70 shots in the entire film) on people walking, people rioting, and a long tracking shot of Valuska looking at the immense whale. Unlike Tarkovsky or Miklos Jancso, where the shots provide a sensuous or kinetic immersion in the action, Tarr’s camerawork stays with an ordinary and very gray scene until, as when a word is repeatedly spoken, it becomes alien. This is where he most closely approximates the effects that Krasznahorkai achieves with his labyrinthine sentences.
To the East
In the twenty years since Melancholy, Krasznahorkai has moved beyond work that could be easily identified with the Communist or post-Communist situation. (Interviews with him suggest that he never intended his work to be fixed in such a narrow fashion.) He has written several novels dealing with the culture of China and Japan, where he has traveled extensively. In From the North by Hill, from the South by Lake, from the West by Roads, from the East by River, a modern Japanese man identified only as “Prince Genji’s grandson” travels from present-day Kyoto to an ancient monastery in search of a garden depicted in an ancient painting. The reality of the situation remains open to question, it soon becoming apparent that this is the conceit of the novel. The grandson escapes the labyrinth of the city to the calm but menacing space of the monastery, finally arriving at a secret garden where he finds a momentary, possibly illusory clarity of vision. The point is not to extol the garden over contemporary life but to portray an ambivalent aspect of existence itself: that same space between the real and the conceptual that I’ve been calling mythology.
In War and War, the misfit archivist Korin finds that space as he attempts to translate and publish online a mysterious manuscript that describes four distraught men traveling through different historical eras and locales. They repeatedly encounter a nemesis figure named Mastemann, another figure like Mrs. Eszter who seeks a new world order where “money and all that stems from it would no longer be dependent on an external reality, but on intellect alone.” He is always wrong, of course: the 16th-century Genoa that he lives in and extols would lose half its population to plague in the following century and suffer permanent decline thereafter. Mastemann’s efforts become just another form of war against the uncontrollable terror of which Blumenberg speaks.
As Korin recounts the manuscript’s story to his translator, it becomes evident that he has been pulled into a space halfway between mythical history and the present day. It has sensitized him to, well, something. He sees the skyscrapers of New York as ziggurats, towers of Babel. The effects are not salutary; he becomes unable to cope with the contemporary world around him, even as he fails to comprehend the import of the manuscript. And yet the description of the manuscript is familiar:
He, in his dense, stupid, unhealthy way had managed to grasp nothing, but grasp nothing of it in the last few days . . . the manuscript was interested in one thing only, and that was reality examined to the point of madness, and the experience of all those intense mad details . . . the same sentences endlessly repeated but always with some modification, now with some filling out, now a little thinner, now simplified, now darker and denser.
Rather than deserting the world for some Gnostic realm, Korin is drawn into examining it too closely. He is too sensitive for the world by being too sensitive to it, ejected from the “tangled maze of vulgar expediency” that constitutes the order of our own world, just as it did in Genoa and in Kyoto. This is the terrifying labyrinth that we mostly manage to forget.
Both of the later novels go further than Melancholy in analogizing natural order and human order. Retaining the same oblique style, they downplay traditional narrative characterizations in favor of descriptions of landscapes, history, and scientific processes. Geology, biology, and even math enter into the narratives; in From the North by Hill a French crank rants against Cantor and infinity. These scientific explanations, Krasznahorkai makes clear, are also modern parables, and their presence creates the same sort of defamiliarization that occurred to Valuska and Eszter.
Christian allegory has a rich history in Western culture, climaxing perhaps in Langland’s Piers Plowman, but as Christian myths were mutated or destroyed these surrealistic or metaphorical worlds lost their overwhelming power. As Erich Auerbach says of Christian interpretation, “Such attempts were bound to founder upon the multiplicity of events and the unfathomableness of the divine councils.” The literary techniques live on, but with mixed results, as writers reach for a “spiritual space” beyond immediate reality without quite knowing what they are reaching for. By taking apart this very process and showing the valiant, often traumatic results of witnessing the terrifying mythic forces that cause our understanding to fail, Krasznahorkai earns his place as a seminal author of our time.
My thanks to Tim Wilkinson for his invaluable assistance in researching this piece.
David Auerbach writes about literature and philosophy at Waggish. He has been a graduate student in English and philosophy, a software engineer at Google, and a feuilletoniste. He continues to write fiction and criticism.
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