David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: hobbes (page 2 of 2)

Bela Tarr: Satantango [3]

(Also see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

Bela Tarr in interview

Last time, I said that Tarr’s cinematic style deprivileged the characters humans from the center of the frame and put them with equal weight with the gray, surrounding scenery. Ultimately, I believe this makes Tarr’s style extremely compelling in the most physical sense of the word. But what does he say with it?

The plot of Satantango is very simple. Shocked by the suicide of a young girl, a group of townspeople in an impoverished Hungarian village choose to follow the manipulative “prophet” Irimias who, with promises of a bright new collective beginning, takes their money, leads them to an abandoned mansion, and then disperses them and sends them off to menial labor. This last task puts him right with the local authorities, who have been harassing him for being a petty criminal. With one slight exception, the townspeople are mostly sheep throughout the movie, something Tarr underscores in his long shots of cattle wandering through the streets early on in the film. Irimias too has contempt for them, though he is not above a bit of quasi-religious experience himself.

The center of the film is those two individuals, the girl and Irimias. The girl tortures her cat before poisoning it and herself. The obvious interpretation is that on the great ladder of being, she is taking out her frustration and impotence on the one creature lower than her. (She was earlier robbed by an older boy.) I’m not so certain. In one of the few points where Tarr quotes extensively from the novel, the narrator intones that the girl knows that even in death, she is still incontrovertibly connected to the entire town around her and its people. (Tarr’s shots of spiderwebs echo these words.) It is presented in a neutral manner, but one shouldn’t confuse neutral with benign. These people live together, act together, and are damned together. Irimias manipulates them as a whole, and ultimately there is little to distinguish them. I prefer to see the girl’s actions as a testing of the barriers between herself and an animal, as she wonders what other kinds of relations are even possible between beings. She poisons both the cat and herself alike, and does so, I think, in solidarity with the experience of “shit” of which Tarr speaks.

For Irimias, it’s best to consider another Tarr/Krasznahorkai creation: the Prince of The Melancholy of Resistance (book) and The Werckmeister Harmonies. The Prince is a creature of pure chaos who speaks in an unintelligible language interpreted by his “agent,” and accumulates a mass of followers that, at his command, go berserk and tear up the town, leading to martial law being imposed and a new regime. In contrast, Irimias does what the existing regime wants, but his own imprint is on the way in which he rips apart the community, thus proving the girl ultimately wrong.

Politically, the film is bleaker than Werckmeister. What I saw as a Burkean influence on that work shifts to the more absolutist perpsective of Hobbes in Satantango. Irimias serves as the sovereign: divested of their cattle and their happiness, they place their trust, their money, and their futures in Irimias’s hands. He offers them nothing in return but their lives, though here it is more metaphorical than in Hobbes. Their existing lives were poisoned and taken from them with the girl’s death, and in sending them on their way, Irimias does give them back some direction. It’s shit, of course, but the townspeople are not observably worse off at the end of the film, post-Irimias, than they were at the start. Like the Prince, Irimias is a chaotic force of change, shoving out the old and heralding the (no better) new.

I say absolute because Hobbes saw the power interchange between the people and the sovereign as the best possible choice to avoid a violent end. The liberal hope, from Locke to Rawls and onward, has been that better options can be created. Tarr’s position in Satantango is that such hopes are entirely false. (The Werckmeister Harmonies is more ambivalent and holds out the possibility of ephemeral beauty.) Beyond that, Tarr portrays this state of affairs as primoridally ontological: there is little sense given of how Irimias came to be or the inner minds of any of the characters. They act out their roles in the same way that the cattle, the spiders, and the scenery do theirs.

The overall effect is brutally powerful, but monochromatic. Tarr has put a grim Hobbesian view of the world on display in as visceral a manner as Godard and Antonioni used with their Marxism. Godard’s films succeed where Antonioni’s fail because Godard’s restless and relentless creativity causes the films to escape from their ideological straitjacket. Tarr is somewhere in between. In The Werckmeister Harmonies, the added element of fantasy provides a gateway out of the narrow political dynamics. The more mundane material of Satantango makes for a film that, for all its intensity and sheer length, cannot seem larger than the world in which it exists.

The Return of Philip Latinowicz, Miroslav Krleza

This novel is not what it appears to be. The pretty language and calm, depressed reminiscing give no idea of the grotesque violence that will end the story. Out of context, it seems pointless, but no, there is a reason to it. Krleza just waits a very long time to tip his hand.

Six years after The Return of Philip Latinowicz, Miroslav Krleza wrote On the Edge of Reason. Reason is an excursion into the tyranny of society that anticipates Camus’s The Fall: its style is lean and forcefully direct, and until the end, when it turns into a Communist polemic, it is a balanced indictment of the forces of justice in high society, and the tacit complicity of refined culture with the unseen brutality that feeds it. The Return of Philip Latinowicz is written in a drastically different style. The political and ethical content disappears, replaced by an obsessive, measured chronicling that owes much to Proust. The styles appear incompatible, not just contrary but totally independent. The answer is that Krleza is working against the style of Return even as he writes in it; the book undermines its seeming pretenses. Adopting Proust’s methods and talents, Krleza eventually uses them to mount an assault on him.

Philip is a morose, sedentary painter who returns to his provincial hometown in Croatia to search for inspiration. There is little that is actively bothering him, but there is nothing to suggest joy or involvement. The first third of the book is little more than a detailed chronicling of Philip’s senses as he wanders through the town. There are undercurrents of misery, nostalgia, and disgust, but they remain shadowed by the immanence of the description.

The detachment persists in the middle third, which is a series of detached childhood and adolescent memories with no clear direction to them. One acquaintance is followed for a while, then dropped, and another is picked up and dealt with. The lack of emphasis or acuity in the narration gives the writing a gauzy quality. It resembles Krleza’s contemporary Bruno Schulz, but while Schulz embraced a child’s view of illogical cause and effect, Krleza strips the rationality out of the text. The descriptions of childhood cruelty and classism don’t have any reaction at all associated with them, so the effect is disinterest, not pathos.

The ironic component is that a more “objective” description of the events, without Philip’s distancing tactics of attending to the smallest physical sensation, would be more traditionally provocative and more empathy-provoking. Even in translation, the style in The Return of Philip Latinowicz evokes Proust, but the goals are opposing. Proust wants to recreate the past as present through his writing; Philip is trying to remove himself from it. He thinks, in one of the rare moments that he lapses into generalization:

His idea of the infenalization of reality. This idea, doubtless a diabolical and unhealthy conception, was that in life phenomena have in fact no internal logical or rational connection! That life’s manifestations unfold and develop one beside another, simultaneously: with the sort of infernal simultaneity of the visions of Hieronymus Bosch, or Bruegel…The tall, grimy steeples with dragon’s heads, whitened waterspouts and marble behinds; and the fat Carolina; the English horses, bon jour, Monsieur, the voice of a caged jay,–and everything melting like the chocolate wrapped in silver paper, everything dragging along like Joe Podravec’s coach, everything foolish and swamplike as Pannonia itself!

It’s not a new sentiment, but it’s one that is difficult to pull off in fiction that has basic demands of narrative and interest. It’s even more difficult when the author (Krleza) does not agree with it. The first two thirds of the book are a beautifully written depiction of an attitude that Krleza finds poisonous, and a great attack on apolitical modernists from the inside. I don’t know to what extent Krleza uses Philip’s style in his other work, other than that it is totally absent from On the Edge of Reason, but his disapproval of its intent and its effects makes his mastery of it rather anomalous.

It’s in the last third that the book both falls apart and explains itself. Some of the earlier characters show up and play parts in a little psycho-drama. Philip casually gets involved with Bobocka, the wife of the miserable businessman Balocanski, and strings her along without realizing it (he comes to believe she’s manipulating him). A Greek named Kyriales shows up to assault Philip and anyone in range with Cioran-like nihilism. All of this ends very badly. The shock of the violent ending doesn’t sit well with Philip’s detached observations, Kyriales’ pompous meanderings, or even the melodrama of the love triangle, but that’s the point.

Krleza was a dedicated Communist, and his aim is to strip away the harmlessness and the intimate nature of philosophically-tinged bourgeois novel and replace them with brutality, which he considers to be more honest. In his speech and manner, Kyriales is a caricature of Naphta, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, full of piss and vinegar, spewing Hobbesian and Malthusian arguments to shut out all comers. Mann treated Naphta’s views with respect; I don’t think that Krleza does. They both meet the same suicidal fate, but in The Return of Philip Latinowicz, it seems more pointless than fitting, a waste of a good brain. Likwise with Bobocka and Balocanski and Philip himself, whose defects originate in an unwillingness to confront the basic artificiality of their existences. In this respect, it is closer to Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight than to any so-called “novel of ideas.”

Krleza ends the book with blood on the floor and all that has gone before torn up and dismantled. It is shamefully satisfying, especially to those who are tired of the much-vaunted life of the mind, but deeply disturbing.

The Melancholy of Resistance, Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Geegaw points me to Giornale Nuovo‘s review of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, and since the book seems somewhat relevant to the day’s events, I offer my commentary.

The book is nominally about a circus that comes to a small, anonymous, Hungarian town. The circus has two main features: first, a really huge cadaver of a whale (yes, that would be a Leviathan); and second, the Prince, a homunculus-like figure who sows nihilism and violence, and eventually stirs the town’s people into a frenzy of rioting and killing, which is responded to in kind by the police.

Through this pass two sympathetic figures, the naive man-child Valuska, who does performances of the heavenly bodies in motion for bar patrons, and his mentor Mr. Eszter, who is obsessed with a project of retuning a piano to “natural” harmonies and abandoning the well/equal-temperment that was used as the basis for what Krasznahorkai evidently considers to be the peak of aesthetic achievement, “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Krasznahorkai’s explanations are not especially clear, which is unfortunate, since it’s clearly the major metaphor of the book.

For reference, this explanation seems good, and for those of you with time on your hands, this essay on “Pythagorean Tuning and Medieval Polyphony” seems awfully interesting. The Chicago Reader offers a somewhat-helpful summary, and while this may not be helpful, it’s pretty amusing. The first piece concludes with a great passage:

There are four main reasons why modern scholars have lost interest in the question of what is the best tuning system. First, in the 1930s, Carl Seashore measured the pitch accuracy of real performers and showed that singers and violinists are remarkably inaccurate. For non-fixed-pitch instruments, the pitch accuracy is on the order of 25 cents. Yet Western listeners (and musicians) are not noticeable disturbed by the pitch intonation of professional performers. Secondly, on average, professional piano tuners fail to tune notes more accurately than about 8 cents. This means that even if performers could perform very accurately, they would find it difficult to find suitable instruments. Thirdly, listeners seemingly adapt to whatever system they have been exposed to. Most Western listeners find just intonation “weird” sounding rather than “better”. Moreover, professional musicians appear to prefer equally tempered intervals to their just counterparts. See the results of Vos 1986. Finally, pitch perception has been shown to be categorical in nature. In vision, many shades of red will be perceived as “red”. Similarly, listeners tend to mentally “re-code” mis-tuned pitches so they are experienced as falling in the correct category. Mis-tuning must be remarkably large (>50 cents) before they draw much attention. This insensitivity is especially marked for short duration sounds — which tend to dominant music-making.

But no matter, since Eszter’s obsession is with finding the harmony of the spheres and returning to mathematically pure intervals; all those nasty intervals are to him the indicators of “an indifferent power which offered disappointment at every turn.” But he doesn’t have much luck; in his purer tunings, Bach sounds awful.

After the riots, order is re-estabished by Eszter’s estranged wife, Mrs. Eszter, who cheerfully and aggressively implements new martial law in light of the need to exert control over the town. She is the sort who was born to fill a power vacuum, and she stands in opposition to both Eszter and Valuska, representing the human capacity towards control, organization, and power; she’s effective, functional, but brutal and arbitrary. Just like the imposition of equal temperament on music (it is all but said).

And when Mr. Eszter retunes his piano back to equal temperament at the end of the book so he can again hear the glory of Bach without his ears bleeding…you can guess what that means. Krasznahorkai’s moral position is ambivalent, but his ideological layout seems to still be derived from Hobbes (and to some extent, Burke): we are given limited natural tools out of which we construct edifices that can reach heights of beauty as well as oppress and dullen. But they remain arbitrary, able to be torn down and built back up. Eszter’s appreciation of equal temperament is as good as it’s going to get.

(I don’t agree with this; I actually think there are significant problems with this metaphor, but the book offers enough to chew on that I’m willing to take it on its own terms.)

Krasznahorkai manages to end the book with a masterstroke, though, with a stunning, sustained description of the body’s biology, which he reveals as a more precise metaphor than temperament. The drama offsets the nagging feeling that Krasznahorkai has left a few loose ends hanging. For the record, Eszter ends up fine, and Valuska is beaten but alive.

So I think about this book while watching television and seeing the statue go down for the Nth time, and the looting and the anarchy and the celebrations and the violence, and I think the book may be too nihilistic, not for its painting of inherent natural imperfection or the implication of destruction in every creative act, but for its lack of differentiation: to use the metaphor, for being unwilling to distinguish one tuning from another. The resignation, or lack of attention, makes the book dark for the wrong reason. In pursuing an ornate Faberge egg of a metaphor, Krasznahorkai loses sight of a complex anthropological standpoint and ends up as a reductionist. The book sets lofty philosophical goals and makes immense progress towards them, but I do not find it fully-formed.

As a footnote, the movie adaptation, The Werckmeister Harmonies nearly obscures the main thrust of the book and goes for a more tepid, sensory approach, turning the complexities of the book into a parable.

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