Friday, January 28, 2011
Laszlo Krasznahorkai: The Melancholy of Resistance
Like the novels of W.G. Sebald, Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece The Melancholy of Resistance is vitally untimely; Krasznahorkai’s total commitment to a compellingly dysphoric vision and a demanding, relentless style reveals the narrowness of the contemporary field of literature, which, even at its best, rarely offers more than a refined, topical take on realism or nuanced (that is, hipsterized), metafictional endgames. The story of The Melancholy of Resistance will be familiar to fans of Bela Tarr’s The Werckmeister Harmonies, which loosely adapts the central section of Krasznahorkai’s novel. The novel opens by describing a nightmarish train ride home to a midsized town in Hungary that is caught up in an inexplicable, entropic movement toward decay, anarchy, and chaos. During a brutally cold but snow-free winter, garbage accumulates on the streets, stray cats multiply and become bold, and mysterious events keep occurring. The opening page of the novel describes a general “sense of ever-spreading all-consuming chaos which rendered the future unpredictable, the past unrecallable and ordinary life so haphazard that people simply assumed that whatever could be imagined might come to pass.” The people of the town continuously gossip about “the collapse into anarchy,” “the unstoppable stampede into chaos,” “the approaching catastrophe.” Page after page, Krasznahorkai piles on dense descriptions of this state of universal decay, of a rotting ontology and corrupted nature, creating a suffocating, paranoid atmosphere, which is only occasionally punctured by striking and darkly humorous vignettes. To make matters worse, one night a circus advertising “The Biggest Whale in the World, and other sensational secrets of nature” arrives in the heart of the town. The circus attracts a mysterious and unruly mob of strangers, who seem to be followers of “The Prince,” a monstrous being who speaks about destruction in a chirping language that has to be translated by a factotum. One of Krasznahorkai’s themes here is the Hobbesian opposition of the state and anarchy. The crowd that gathers around the whale, the fallen Leviathan, is described as a “multitude,” and this mob eventually riots over one long, destructive night, only to be subdued by a repressive and hypocritical sovereignty. This political conflict, however, cannot be separated from the novel’s metaphysical inquiry into the struggle between order and chaos. Not just the body politic, but all bodies, organic and inorganic, are swept up in an eternal fight between what resists and what attempts to overcome that resistance. Krasznahorkai assigns his characters contrasting positions on these issues. Mrs. Eszter, “president of the women’s committee” and fond friend of the police, cynically accepts reality as the war of all against all; she sees the general disorder as a sign for the need of a new beginning, and uses the circus to gain power and force her program for “A TIDY YARD, AN ORDERLY HOUSE” onto the community. Valuska, an innocent idiot savant, makes his regular rounds of the town while lost in cosmological visions of “the lowly place of man in the great order of the universe.” Valuska is therefore particularly devastated by The Prince’s proclamation that “there is no whole. . . . the whole does not exist.” Taking a more “rational” approach, Mrs. Eszter’s estranged husband, Gyorgy, has removed himself from society in order to seek out a higher form of order. He once faithfully believed that “music, which consisted of the omnipotent magic of harmony and echo, provided humanity’s only sure stay against the filth and squalor of the surrounding world, music being as close an approximation to perfection as could be imagined.” But he discovered that Werckmeister ignored pure tonalities in the construction of his “well-tempered” tuning system. Shocked by the illusory image of order that is the foundation of Western classical music, Eszter tries to adjust his piano to a more “natural” tuning, but when he performs Bach on the instrument the result is “an unbearably grating din,” which he forces himself to tolerate out of ideological zeal. Even the multitude is allowed to explain the motives for its destructive rampage when Valuska discovers a discarded notebook that describes the night’s events. He reads, “there was nothing left to lose, everything having become intolerable, unbearable, beyond the pale; each house, each fence, each advertising pillar, telegraph post, shop or the post office, even the lightly drifting odours of the bakery, had become intolerable; intolerable too every precept of law and order, every petty demanding obligation, the continuous and hopeless expenditure of energy in the attempt to suggest that there might be some point to all this rather than be faced by the unyielding, indifferent, universal incomprehensibility of things.” Krasznahorkai never harmonizes the clamor created by these different voices, yet, aesthetically, his dense style and labyrinth-like sentences seem to already be on the side of chaos, which, in the final pages, explicitly devours everything, including the book itself.