David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: krasznahorkai (page 1 of 3)

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Chaos

These thoughts are a follow-on to the points I made in The Mythology of Laszlo Krasznahorkai and to a lesser extent in my comments on his Animalinside, which it seems will finally be released in the US in April by New Directions.

Krasznahorkai’s work tends to revolve around an intrusion onto order by chaos. In some of the early work like Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, the order takes a form of a recognizable socio-political situation: a small town, perhaps with echoes of the Communist era in it, though those echoes are never more than secondary associations. In other works, though, it just becomes what’s familiar by definition: the ideas and concepts we use to structure reality. The chaos comes as a pollutant. It’s some force that leaks into the known world and rips it to shreds. The world does recover, and I think this is because it must. Order will not disappear except with the death of every last human being. The chaos is an irruption.

Now, the order/chaos dichotomy is one that I do take fairly seriously. I think that it resists easy dismissal because, as Blumenberg says, it is primordial. The chaos is defined via negativa: it’s whatever our minds and concepts can’t get around. You can use other terms for it, like “infinite” or “other” or “transcendent,” but these are all misleading because they all imply (at least to me) a degree of access that, were it to exist, would domesticize the chaos and make it, well, non-chaotic, non-infinite, non-other, non-transcendent. Kierkegaard is always bizarre to read because he acts like he is on a first-name basis with the infinite, palling around with it and chatting over that crazy character Abraham. The same goes even moreso with Levinas: you can’t bow down to the Other in the way that he wants everyone to do so. This I think is one of his mechanisms for how the Other and the worldly tend to merge at certain points, when such a merging should not be possible, leading to twisty bits of logic like this:

Religion and religious parties do not necessarily coincide. Justice as the raison d’etre of the State: that is religion. It presupposes the high science of justice. The State of Israel will be religious because of the intelligence of its great books which it is not free to forget. It will be religious through the very action that establishes it as a State. It will be religious or it will not be at all.

Levinas, “The State of Israel and the Religion of Israel”

I do not find this objectionable; I merely find it incoherent.

But all this confusion has something to do with the falseness of Gnosticism. For any gnostic worth his salt is not going to come out and start talking about how much he (or she, but usually he) is a gnostic. Any real knowledge of that raw chaos, the way it is manifested far more honestly in Krasznahorkai’s work, causes insanity. By insanity I mean a form of disconnection from the world that no longer allows dialogue with the “order” of the known. Did Daniel Schreber have it? Did Antonin Artaud? (Louis Sass takes these two as studies in schizophrenia in his excellent book The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind.)

Perhaps Cassandra is another case of this sort of intrusion, given more logical form as befits Greek culture, but there the joke is that she actually knew better. They thought she was insane, but really, she was right! It’s an inexact example. In Krasznahorkai’s cases, such as with Korin in War and War and the grandson in From the North by Hill, as well as (I think) the narrator in Animalinside, the chaos is dehumanizing in that it removes the person from the realm of the human. It overruns them with non-sense (not nonsense). In contrast, the gnostic sages that claim secret access to the Truth are false prophets, since they speak our language too well.

In contrast, I think the real sense of what that confrontation with chaos might feel like is partly captured by the ending of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which starts off as beauty and then turns very very frightening, perfectly accompanied by the shift from Bach to Artemiev’s electronics:

(For all the differences between Tarkovsky and Stanislaw Lem, Lem’s focus on human knowledge encountering its limits and being forced to recognize those limits certainly provided a common ground between them, as much as Lem may have loathed admitting it. I wish Tarkovsky had made it clear that Kelvin’s gesture of falling to his knees is pointless, as good a reaction as any to the planet. Tarkovsky may not have thought that, though I know that Lem did. Bach is playing, the day is lovely, you feel in perfect harmony with the universe and in touch with God or whatever, and then you realize everything is wrong.)

And also with this excerpt from Kafka’s The Castle, which I quoted in the article and which still holds as an example of the announcement of that which is beyond you:

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.

Franz Kafka, The Castle

So, likewise but without the religious apparatus, chaos appears in Krasznahorkai’s work as a threat, a breach upon what is safe and orderly, the violation of Hume’s riddle of induction that requires that we take our predictions to be reliable though we have no guarantee that they will be. It is an antagonist, like the Prince and the angry mobs he foments, or a corrupted trickster figure like Iremias in Satantango.

It spreads as well. I think of it a little like Ice-9, except that the process is reversible through the brutal reassertion of order. The infringing agent is destroyed in some manner or reassimilated into the greater orderly whole (remember, despite his seeming power, the Prince is a frail figure who needs the assistance of a factotum, among others). Iremias seems to display both aspects, both chaotic and order, since he rips up the social fabric of the town just as easily as he informs on the townspeople to the authorities, and I take this to be a sign of his malevolent madness. His mystical experiences are not total fabrications, but he is utterly unable to share them with the others; he merely inspires them with high-minded rhetoric to destroy their lives.

I do not think that Krasznahorkai paints an end or resolution to this sort of intrusion and countermeasure. He portrays it as far more imminent and pressing than most people are likely to experience, since we don’t usually suffer such irruptions, and when we do, there are carefully coded social mores and institutions to try to regulate and control them. This provides a feeling of safety and insulation, until it doesn’t. The chaos is something we live with.

The Waste of Spirit in an Expense of Shame

I see Steve Mitchelmore of This Space has called this blog a pile of shit. (I let his Twitter trackback through.) A few years back it probably would have stung me rather sharply, but now it’s more of a scratch than a wound, though of course I feel it, since Steve’s a litblogger colleague with whom I share some tastes. But in this whole world of social lit-blogging and especially in this odd corner of the web that’s mostly reserved for disconsolate freelance intellectual types, I thought I ought to respond. I was going to write to Steve and do sort of an “I demand satisfaction” act, but I figured that no matter what he said, my response would be more or less the same, which is the response I’m writing right now.

I’m off his blogroll too, so evidently my infraction was a serious one. I don’t know its exact nature, but I can imagine what forms his objection might take: I’m focusing too much unimportant matters; I’m casually dismissing something profound; I’ve become shallow, pompous, or supercilious; etc. The thing about writing here is that no one who is blogging in this way is going to do so without a severe personal investment in what they’re writing about, and that’s true of me as much as anyone else. It’s why I do this. And it’s a double-edged sword. Deviations from carefully-monitored aesthetic standards can easily seem like moral failings. To some extent, we all define ourselves by our opposition to (or at least alienation from) traditional institutional modes of intellectual thought, because if we didn’t, we’d probably be trying to work within those institutions. Lord knows, I am relieved that I don’t have to watch what I say in the way that too many of my friends do. I’m grateful that I can jump from topic to topic. I’m happy that I can write without always having to explain myself.

What happened to me? Literature has come to seem like something that I can’t write about off the cuff as much. Doing pieces like the Krasznahorkai essay over at the Quarterly Conversation has been both exhausting but also rewarding, and there are just too many books that I don’t think merit much comment. That is, writing entries about them would be more about just writing entries rather than contributing anything that I think is worth sharing with the world. Well, the fast horizon and disposability of blog entries makes that hardly a crime, but people like Ray at Pseudopodium (who more or less inspired me to start this blog in the first place) taught me that even if you’re throwing a piece of writing into an enormous swirling vortex of content, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be carefully considered and well-wrought.

So I pissed Steve off, evidently. Sorry Steve. I didn’t intend to irritate you. I try to stick to deserving targets. Steve is overreacting, but hey, this little niche of the blogosphere is made for overreaction, since we take refuge in the realms of deep feelings provided by books as an antidote to what seems to be a careless, callous, superficial world. I still don’t understand the mass of people who go into literature as a career who don’t seem to want to pursue that depth of emotion. Perhaps they find it in different forms; perhaps they find it in less subjective matters; but no, it does seem like they treat it more as a workaday job which they enjoy, but which doesn’t hold out much hope for any transcendental meaning. Just a job, an occupation, a practice. I have respect for that, but it’s alien to me. I can’t imagine spending the exhausting effort of working in the humanities if it didn’t hold out that hope to me. The field has done exactly that, of course, since I was barely a teenager, and I haven’t exhausted the hope yet. But there are those people out there who do great work in the humanities who still aren’t interested in hearing about some new strange author or idea, and I never have much to say to them.

It’s easy to get stuck. You latch on to one person or another, be it Robert Musil or Laura Riding or Maurice Blanchot, and soon enough you get very protective about them and very defensive about any appropriation of them by the academy–or by anyone else, really. How my heart sank every time I ran across that neocon blogger who called himself Robert Musil; I know John Galt wasn’t available, but really?  I wrote about Bolano a few years before he hit it big with The Savage Detectives and afterwards I couldn’t quite hold him in my mind the same way I had when I’d first read By Night in Chile. He lost a bit of that quiet mystique when all the profiles came out about him and there was a mad dash to translate and publish as much of his work as possible, as well as other superficially similar South American writers. (I still don’t think much of Cesar Aira.) I’d love for Laszlo Krasznahorkai to get that sort of fame, but I admit I’d feel ambivalent about seeing my own private connection to his works get buried underneath publicity and hype. It happens.

When I wrote the entry on Hamlet a month ago, it was so striking how Shakespeare’s coyness about meaning and interpretation has given so much space for people to continually conjure new relations to him and his work. Sure, this happens to an extent with all big-name writers, but Shakespeare does seem to have been an intuitive master at leaving readers and audiences the space to invent their own profound, personal, and particular meanings of his work. I don’t know. I like the sense of relating to an author, and if the author is so indistinct that I feel there’s more of me in my projection of the author than there is of the actual author, I get restless. It becomes more of myth than literature.

James Joyce certainly tried, I think, to create the same open space for meaning, but he utterly failed. He conjured life with a pluralistic richness that allowed for vastly more variegation than most authors, but Joyce, his temperament, and his personality is always there. You read his letters and accounts of his conversation and it fits with what he wrote. With Euripides, Lucretius, Kleist, Woolf, and so on down the line, the writer is there as a tangible human presence as I read. Reading Shakespeare can be lonely; you have to find your connection with other readers, rather than with the writer.

Bach was more successful than Joyce, though of course it’s far easier in music to cover your tracks. But Gesualdo, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert…all of them left their emotional traces on what they did, while Bach only left a set of extremely prosaic letters and a reputation for being difficult. Whatever was in the music evidently did not manifest itself in his life. Richard Strauss was a money man and it shows in his music (and he knew it, hence him saying that he was a first-rate second-rate composer; dead on), but with Bach…you just don’t know what was in his head as he wrote. Thoughts of God, I suppose, but what the hell are those? I get something of the same impression when listening to Munir Bashir, though there I have a lack of cultural context that makes it harder to judge.


But when you’re doing a blog and you’re writing about this stuff informally, you don’t get to have that gap between what you’re writing and who you are, or at least you don’t get the pretense of it, even though it is in fact there. And so it’s that much easier to piss someone off or read like you’ve suddenly turned into some sell-out who’s full of it. Waggish is a pile of shit: I am a pile of shit. It’s an easy jump to make.

I’ve actually tried to maintain a bit of that gap through various means. I distrust the categorical statement. I distrust high rhetoric as well, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that from reading this blog. But the only measure of the stakes is the extent to which people can be seriously affected by what you write, and so I accept that these things have to happen from time to time.

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…

The Mythology of Laszlo Krasznahorkai

An article of mine on László Krasznahorkai has been published at The Quarterly Conversation:

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.


David B.: The Veiled Prophet (a.k.a. The Prince)


Contrary to what anyone might think, it had not escaped Valuska’s notice, the evidence being so readily available, that everyone he met was preoccupied by the notion of ‘the collapse into anarchy,’ a state that, in the general opinion, was no longer avoidable. Everyone was talking about ‘the unstoppable stampede into chaos’, the ‘unpredictability of daily life’ and ‘the approaching catastrophe’ without a clear notion of the full weight of those frightening words, since, he surmised, this epidemic of fear was not born out of some genuine, daily increasing certainty of disaster but of an infection of the imagination whose susceptibility to its own terrors might eventually lead to an actual catastrophe, in other words the false premonition that a man who had lost his bearings might succumb to once the inner structure of his life, the way his joints and bones were knit, had loosened and he carelessly transgressed the ancestral laws of his soul–if he simply lost control of his undemeaningly ordered world..It bothered him greatly that however he tried to persuade his friends of this they refused to listen to him, but it saddened him most when in tones of unrelieved gloom they proclaimed that the period they were living in was ‘an unfathomable hell between a treacherous future and an unmemorable past’, for such awful thoughts reminded him of the sentiments and unremittingly painful monologues he was used to hearing on a daily basis in the house on Bela Wenckheim Avenue, which was where he had just arrived.

The Melancholy of Resistance

That traditionalism, that reference to the “ancestral laws of the soul” which supposedly keep us all in line and prevent the fall into chaos–that is the voice of fear for me. I used to think that this was indicative of a somewhat conservative tendency in Krasznahorkai, a willingness to accept the strictures of fate out of the worry that challenging them would bring down the weight and fury of the heavens. Now it seems more like a description of some lurking death-instinct, an atavistic tendency that represents something like Moosbrugger did in The Man Without Qualities, except generated in the angst and neurosis of people’s minds, a product of the flaws of order that are built into the systems that emerge: more of a biological process than a political one, the inevitable appearance of the imp of the perverse, the worm in the apple. Valuska is the world-dazzled character who does not fall prey to such autodestruction (at least not internally), but I don’t think Krasznahorkai holds him up as any sort of practical solution for the world.

[Attention Krasznahorkai fans: I have it on good authority that the English translation of Satantango is still a good 2-3 years out. Sorry.]

« Older posts

© 2019 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑