David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: September 2010

Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann: Animalinside

(I recently wrote an overview of Krasznahorkai for The Quarterly Conversation, which may help give some context to the themes here.)

Animalinside, a short work which is published as part of the Cahiers series on writing and translation, is a formal experiment for Krasznahorkai. Krasznahorkai wrote a text to accompany a drawing by Max Neumann, and Neumann drew over a dozen more in response, and Krasznahorkai wrote a short text for each one. There’s an obvious unity to it all: the pictures all feature the (usually) black silhouette of some sort of feral animal poised to jump, and the texts are all about some sort of beast or beasts, usually written in the first person singular or plural. (Notably, the first text is in the third person and quotes the beast.)

The interaction of images and text is not new for Krasznahorkai, as he collaborated with Bela Tarr on at least four films, including two based on his novels. Those last two films diverge significantly from their source texts, and Tarr has said that modifications were made throughout the filming. So here again, despite appearances, I tried not to make too literal a tie between the images and the texts. The affiliation feels more thematic than literal. The beast’s silhouette is usually black, but occasionally white or gray. These shifts make themselves felt in the beast’s attitudes in the text for each picture.  The color as well as the use of space is treated metaphysically. Neumann’s subsequent drawings after the first seem to bring out themes already present in the first text, which Krasznahorkai then elaborates on. Whether they form an actual narrative is ambiguous, but they certainly form a whole.

The beast is angry, but helpless. The beast rants about how he is beyond any constraint that can be put on him by thought or concept. He is unique and beyond comparison: “It is impossible to confuse me with anyone else.” He is within you, caged in one picture, but he is struggling to break free. And so another of Krasznahorkai’s conceptual contradictions emerges: the beast that is at once free beyond everything and yet trapped.

The beast is beyond imagination, beyond containment, beyond conception…but not beyond language. At first, his rantings about chaos and the destruction of anything and everything call to mind The Prince, from The Melancholy of Resistance. But The Prince himself spoke gibberish which was then translated by a Factotum. (In the movie version, however, he speaks Slovak! Thanks to Gwenyth Jones for pointing this out to me.) Our beast here speaks for himself, and in doing so he reveals a weak spot. When the beast faces infinity in the picture accompanying the ninth text, he must rail against it too:

I hate all that is infinite, there burns within me an unspeakable hatred towards the infinite…the infinite is a deception, the infinite is a deception in space, the infinite is a deception in measuring, and every aspiration to the infinite is a trap, but the kind of trap that has to be walked into again and again by him who, just like myself, is searching for the end of a direction, for I have no other aspirations.

Is the beast railing at the infinite itself, the inadequacy of the concept of the infinite, or the representation of the infinite (as in this picture)? I’m not sure. This tension is the same one that occurred in Krasznahorkai’s earlier From the North by Hill, from the South by Lake, from the West by Roads, from the East by River, which contained a book by a mad Frenchman ranting against Cantor’s mathematical conception of infinity. Perhaps the idea is that the conception traps us while simultaneously facing us with its inadequacy, and this is unbearable because, as with the ideas of mortality and immortality, neither side is a conceivable solution.

Because the text is more rarefied and abstract than Kraznahorkai’s other work, it seems to resemble Beckett at times. But Beckett never portrayed such a vicious antagonism. His personae always collapse into themselves. Even their assertions of antagonism are hopeful but futile gestures against solipsistic nightmares. That is not the case in Krasznahorkai. I do not think it ever is. His characters and voices are always struggling within a larger cosmos of forces and others.

Anyone who has been reading me knows that I think Krasznahorkai is one of the greatest living writers, and as I’ve read more, his work hooks together in an increasingly revealing way. I know that a translation of Satantango is due out next year, and hope that more is on the way.

Update: Daniel Medin points me to an article by the translator of Animalinside, Ottilie Mulzet. She analyzes the work in the context of the apocalyptic imagery of the Bible, an approach similar to that which I saw in The Melancholy of Resistance. The key line in the essay for me is “The form that this End would take remains unvoiced, perhaps even too ghastly for articulation. [emphasis mine]” Also notable is this instruction that Krasznahorkai gave Mulzet:

…there are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS…

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

From the introduction to Steven Moore’s The Novel:

In the early 1990s I was an editor at Dalkey Archive Press, which specialized in what one bookseller disparaged as “egghead” fiction. The most difficult and demanding novel we published was probably Julián Ríos’s Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel, sort of Spain’s answer to Finnegans Wake. It received fine reviews across the country, including a spirited one from Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, but since the New York Times Book Review adamantly ignored it (despite Carlos Fuentes’s pleading) and a promised review in the Voice Literary Supplement fell through, I decided to try to reach that hip demographic with an ad in the VLS captioned “Are You Reader Enough for Larva?” The mock-macho appeal was intended to attract those who like a literary challenge, as well as those who are open to new artistic experiences. Since I’m convinced those who malign innovative fiction do so more for personal, temperamental reasons than for the aesthetic ones they publicly espouse, here’s a test you can take to see if you’re the right kind of reader for writerly texts:

1. You are an average Joe or Jane and have moved to a big city offering lots of culture. One night you’re strolling past an art-house theater and the manager is out front giving away tickets to fill the house (the money’s in the concessions). Having nothing better to do, you take a seat and soon learn the movie is in a foreign language and has no subtitles. Do you:

(a) automatically get up and leave, knowing you won’t completely understand it?

(b) stay and get what you can out of it: appreciate the cinematography, the background music, the way an actress holds her purse, the possibility of a sex scene, etc.?

2. A neighbor gives you a free ticket to the ballet in gratitude for babysitting her cat last week. You go and discover it’s not a simple story ballet like Gisele or Swan Lake but an evening of abstract dance. Do you:

(a) give your ticket away because you don’t “understand” modern dance?

(b) stay and enjoy the show: the unusual choreography, the beautiful bodies poured into bodystockings, the weird music, etc.?

3. Speaking of weird music: you go to a club hoping for some good ol’ rock ’n’ roll, but instead of a long-haired band there’s a bald DJ spinning some techno-ambient concoction unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Do you:

(a) pull an Ashbery by crying, “I don’t understand this at all” and burst into tears?

(b) let the music wash over you, let yourself find the pulse, maybe even ask that purple-haired girl in the striped tights to dance?

4. You’ve had enough of the big city and decide to return home. Waiting for a bus, you pick up a discarded copy of Larva and, because you have a long bus-ride ahead of you, begin reading. You quickly discover it is not a conventional novel. Do you:

(a) discard it and stare out the window all the way back home?


From an old interview with Steve Albini:

I can dig the Ramones and the Birthday Party and the Stooges and SPK and Minor Threat and Whitehouse and Link Wray and Chrome and Pere Ubu and Rudimentary Peni and Four Skins and Throbbing Gristle and Skrewdriver and the Ex and Minimal Man and US Chaos and Gang Green and Tommi Stumpff and the Swans and Bad Brains all at the same time, and if you can’t then fuck you.

Jose Donoso: The Garden Next Door

This is a late novel by Donoso, and it bears very little resemblance to anything else I’ve read by him. The Obscene Bird of Night and A House in the Country are two of the greatest Latin American novels I have read; hell, two of the greatest novels I have read, period. (Just for comparison, I would easily rate both above Hopscotch, Avalovara, Terra Nostra, Three Trapped Tigers, Paradiso, and anything by Garcia Marquez.) Garden does not even seem to try for such heights: it is realistic and contemporary, two characteristics utterly lacking from the other works. And it is more or less a joke, which is not to say that it’s not brilliant. It’s just that the book is perplexing until the “punchline” of the last chapter, which is one hell of a punchline.

It’s also fascinating for how much it prefigures Roberto Bolano. There is very little similarity between Bolano’s work and Donoso’s earlier novels, but the overlap here is ridiculous. The novel uses a first-person reportage style to describe a sad Chilean expatriate writer living in Spain, a Boom also-ran associating with his obnoxious betters, and so has lots of sniping and sour grapes about the politics of the Boom and the poor standards used to decide who gets anointed as genius. Our narrator Julio is bitter, and so he creates his own, even more exclusive world in the strange, aristocratic house next to his apartment, shutting out even the famous writers:

Ah, the splendor…the old heart-rending nostalgia for impossible times and bodies! The Gatsby-F. Scott Fitzgerald part of a world out of my reach, the party I wasn’t invited to and can only dream about…. Ah, the childish fantasy, the terror at being left out! Left out? Impossible? What about my novel, that fierce weapon, to start forcing the breach? Nuria Monclus, Vargas Llosa, Roa Bastos, Fuentes, Chiriboga, Cortazar…do they have access? No. This is a closed circuit, with its own language and values, an underworld with its different stars. I long to pass through to the other side of the looking glass they live in, where perhaps the air is so thick it stops you from breathing.

It is the fictional Chiriboga to whom Julio has the most animosity, and his rants against him are hilarious. (Does Chiriboga have a real-life analogue? It seems unlikely.) He is also vexed by kingmaker editor Nuria Monclus, who does not seem to have much interest in making him into the next Cortazar. Julio is in agony because he also realizes he does not have it in him to write the great novel that he can conceive of in his mind, the one that would beat out all these other pretenders and give him the fame he thinks he deserves. But as Julio listlessly drags himself to art parties and associates with the local lowlife, his wife descends into alcoholic stupor assisted by the street kid Bijou and her friend Katy, while Julio remains utterly ineffective and sidelined. These are the Pinochet years: the expatriates either seem to delude themselves into their own private world of importance, or they are simply resigned and lost.

And then, after the novel enters the impoverished streets of Spain, the narrative turns into something out of The Sheltering Sky with a detour to Tangiers, and then…well, I can’t give away the punchline. The novel is short enough that I won’t ruin it other than saying that it is a damn near perfect double-punchline, ironic, incisive, and ambivalent all at once, and I had no idea Donoso had it in him to pull something like this off. It gives greater resonance and cruel humor to all that has happened up to that point, and makes it clear that the novel is about more than writing, but the use and abuse of human imagination in losing and finding one’s self. Bravo.

Blumenberg’s Metaphorology

Two new Hans Blumenberg books are out in English translation, both short: Paradigms for a Metaphorology (and Care Crosses the River (1987). The second one is more aphoristic than anything else I’ve read by him and seems very mysterious at first glance (Stanford’s back-cover comment about how this book “eschews academic ponderousness” is probably not going to help capture the audience they desire). Metaphorolgy is dauntingly abstract but less abstruse, though I’m surprised exactly how much Blumenberg had worked out aspects of his “system” at this early point. This paragraph in particular, from the introduction, seems to be as concise a statement of his concerns as any:

These historical remarks on the ‘concealment’ of metaphor lead us to the fundamental question of the conditions under which metaphors can claim legitimacy in philosophical language. Metaphors can first of all be leftover elements, rudiments on the path from mythos to logos; as such, they indicate the Cartesian provisionality of the historical situation in which philosophy finds itself at any given time, measured against the regulative ideality of the pure logos. Metaphorology would here be a critical reflection charged with unmasking and counteracting the inauthenticity of figurative speech. But metaphors can also–hypothetically, for the time being–be foundational elements of philosophical language, ‘translations’ that resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality. If it could be shown that such translations, which would have to be called ‘absolute metaphors’, exist, then one of the essential tasks of conceptual history (in the thus expanded sense) would be to ascertain and analyze their conceptually irredeemable expressive function. Furthermore, the evidence of absolute metaphors would make the rudimentary metaphors mentioned above appear in a different light, since the Cartesian teleology of logicization in the context of which they were identified as ‘leftover elements’ in the first place would already have foundered on the existence of absolute translations. Here the presumed equivalence of figurative and ‘inauthentic’ speech proves questionable; Vico had already declared metaphorical language to be no less ‘proper’ than the language commonly held to be such, only lapsing into the Cartesian schema in reserving the language of fantasy for an earlier historical epoch. Evidence of absolute metaphors would force us to reconsider the relationship between logos and the imagination. The realm of the imagination could no longer be regarded solely as the substrate for transformations into conceptuality–on the assumption that each element could be processed and converted in turn, so to speak, until the supply of images was used up–but as a catalytic sphere from which the universe of concepts continually renews itself, without thereby converting and exhausting this founding reserve.

Remember, Blumenberg thinks of Descartes (at least in Legitimacy of the Modern Age) as a somewhat reactionary thinker who ignores the experimental and proto-scientific mindset of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno in order to think of the world as a rarefied, perfect realm of method. He’s not the caricature that so many contemporary theorists use to trash the entirety of modernity, but a philosopher who seeks refuge in a form of theological thought that had already broken down, Scholasticism. So here, I think, Blumenberg projects mythology and irreducible metaphors as ‘leftover’ aspects of the world that prevent Descartes’ absolutist thought from fully encompassing it. And the more fundamental the metaphors are, the more important the historicism becomes.

Anyway, I find it rough-going.

Care Crosses the River does have a nice little write-up of the infamous meeting between Joyce and Proust, which Tim Kreider dramatized in The Comics Journal [click to enlarge]:

After the Sophomore’s Work

This doesn’t really bother me emotionally, but I think it’s a pretty dangerous fallacy to say that as you get older, things don’t hit you the way they did when you were younger. I hear this so frequently from all angles (lit, music, film, you name it), and to me it seems like nothing other than encouraging complacency. As I’ve aged, I feel the thrill of discovery less frequently for all the obvious reasons: I’ve seen similar things, I’ve seen better things, I have more context, etc. But I don’t suddenly find myself thinking that something or other would have affected me so much more deeply had I encountered it when I was a teenager. It might be associated with more traumatic memories, which has a certain indelible effect on the scribing of memory, but I don’t think the aesthetic experience was any more or less intense.

So I can only figure that people who say that they’re cut off from the intensity of early aesthetic experiences have either had their horizons narrowed sufficiently that they no longer are open to that which is novel to them, or, more likely, they’ve just become lax about finding those new things. And yes, it does get tougher, not just because deeper digging is required but because the criteria for fulfillment evolve, and it takes a fair bit of work to satisfy the absence of what Robert Musil describes in this passage:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as we all know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon.

And if it wasn’t an article of faith that the movement to the small yields equally visceral and more meaningful results than the easy transcendence of adolescent (and arrested-adolescent) poetic narcissism…I wouldn’t be writing here.

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