09. 28. 2010. 07:37
"The revealed Word, it seems, is always the shattered Word."
– David Robson, in Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End
Redundant as it may seem to state it, the recent turn of the millennium has managed, much as a thousand years previously, to flood the public space with images of apocalypse, whether environmental disaster, religious war, or atomic conflict. In literary terms, however, the apocalyptic imagination has long remained strong in America, from popular religiosity through key works of the literary canon. Closest to us chronologically are the late 20th century imaginations of immediate nuclear conflagration – e.g. Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow – yet even these works draw upon a sense of generalized, free-floating doom that is far earlier, at the very least reaching back to Melville and Poe. The final image of Poe’s often-overlooked novella The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket could be seen as both inspiration for and anticipation of many of the envisionings of human extinction and ‘nuclear winter’ of Cold War-era date.
March 22.- The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him, we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.
Beyond the terrifying premonitions of early American literature, of course, lies the no less apocalyptic theology of Puritanism. As Stephen O’Leary demonstrates in his study Arguing the Apocalypse: A Study of Rhetoric it was in fact Luther and the first Protestants who ‘liberated the possibilities’ of apocalyptic interpretation through an insistence on sola scriptura – the text of Holy Writ alone. In this respect, apocalyptic argument in the hands of English Puritans or German Anabaptists was a return to the original function of a radical, all-embracing defiance of established institutions. After all, the favoured text of Protestant radicalism, the Book of Revelation, was itself a denunciation of the Roman Empire (symbolized by the Harlot of Babylon) and the prophecy of an ultimate victory for the ‘followers of the Lamb’. All beings within Revelation (as noted by Biblical scholar Adela Yarbro Collins) are positioned within a dualistic textual structure: God (the Pantocrator) against Satan (the Dragon); the slain Ruler of all Lands against the two Beasts who rise up from the sea; those with the name of God upon their foreheads against those who bear the mark of the Beast, and so on. Tellingly, the force of apocalypse within Revelation is seen in terms of the chaos of the non-human, the ‘beast which ascends from the bottomless pit’.
Within the actual chaos of early Christianity, Collins notes, one of the functions of Revelation was to bind together the various Christian communities atomized under the fierce persecution of Roman imperial authorities. The bearers of Christian ‘revelation’ were powerless, yet in their possession of the Christian text the paradoxical heirs of the true King. Indeed, the idea of a written text as the subverter of an unjust social order has always stood balanced on the uneasy verge between an absolute messianic hope and an equally absolute despair.
If the ‘apocalyptic genre’ inherently brings with it a sense of subversion, then the recent text Animalinside (published simultaneously by Sylph Editions in Paris and New Directions, New York, as a ‘cahier’) by László Krasznahorkai is both subversive and deeply apocalyptic, and not only through its ostensible content. A series of fourteen brief monologues, Krasznahorkai’s text was produced in close correlation to a series of paintings by Max Neumann: images 2 through 14 were painted on the basis of text number 1, which itself was inspired by Neumann’s very first image of a two-dimensional creature –resembling the silhouette of a dog, yet not quite exactly – appearing to attempt a leap within a three-dimensional space.
Starting with the first monologue, Krasznahorkai’s contribution to Animalinside is well within the framework spelled out for the Western imagination from late-pagan Rome onward. On the one hand, the figure is definitively non-human, indeed inhuman (dog-like, yet more often shown with no visible front legs); on the other, as the likely ‘speaker’ of the texts, it assumes the full charismatic authority of a prophet. As noted by O’Leary,
The promise of the Apocalypse is to make known the imminent End of history and the justification of evil in the cosmos is no less than the promise of the human apprehension of the divine or universal perspective, a standpoint for judgment that reveals the narrative unity of all space and all time, and forecloses every disagreement.
The source of the prophetic authority in these monologues, literally ‘foreclosing every disagreement’ through their relentless cadences, lies within the sentence structure, the endless waves of subordinate clauses hurtling past the reader like a syntactic whirlwind of relentless – if ‘inhuman’ – logic.
Having translated Krasznahorkai’s text into English, I should probably add that shortly before starting work on the translation, I received a highly unequivocal instruction from the author:
…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…
Not only did I adhere to this advice, but even before receiving the message I was personally aware of how appropriate this command was. It is not only because the many repetitions, the circumlocutions and circumnavigations of the (fourteen) sentence-blocks are intrinsic to the aesthetic integrity of Animalinside: even more crucially, repetition is intrinsic to the idea of apocalypse in itself. There is the repetition of the endlessly produced scenarios of ‘cosmic terror’, each one gaining authority from the one previous – and the self-generation of authority through the bestial auto-cannibalism of words and phrases, evoking a bond between narrator and a nihilistic infinity. And yet, as the Beast himself notes, he loathes and detests infinity.
Quite often, these endless verbal whirlwinds are brought to an end with a brief lapidary sentence-fragment of two or three words. Yet, in one of the monologues, the Beast bemoans his inability to get to the end of any given direction:
…for I have no other aspirations; just once, I said, just once to find where the end of a direction is, to go along a road… I have never come upon any plaque where it was written that this is the end, no, it is absurdity to go on…
Of course, this ‘plaque’ is nothing more than the series of monologues themselves, as they make clear how this apocalypse is to be realized in our age:
Withdraw into protection and safeguard all that is important to you, take it down to below the earth, all that you have, take down the jewelry, the food, the children’s photographs, the armchair where you like to sit with a book in your hand, the curtain behind which you feel yourself to be safe…
Deliberately ambiguous, the cataclysm to come can be seen in the figures of the biblical ‘two Beasts’ at the end of time, as well as the ambiguity of the narrative voice of the text (the flattened dog-beast or someone else?). No less ambiguous is the stance of this purported Beast towards the destruction he describes. Indeed, the Beast who confronts his ‘little master’ or the strolling dandy of text VII, reveals his own position, caught inseparably inside the Dandy, i.e. ‘whore of Babylon’:
…And you lean to the left, and you look at me, erroneously, because it’s not me that you’re looking at, even if you think you are, because I, that thing that looks so ghastly, is within you, because I am within you, and I am watching all of your nice thoughts…
This subversion of the apocalyptic order – if we can put it this way – is only one of the ways in which Krasznahorkai inverts the terms and oppositions of the Biblical vision of apocalypse. For in the end, it is not the teleological-theological movement towards the divine Kingdom proposed by Christian teachings: the two Beasts are not defeated but together reach the end of all time without a final resolution. At the end of Animalinside, the earth is reduced to a ‘bare crust’, precisely so that their fight may continue. Indeed, through Krasznahorkai these Beasts are associated finally with the upper heavenly realm (perhaps a vague echo of Pynchon’s equally ambiguously undefined nuclear apocalypse), and not the dark chaos of the netherworld. If the original Greek etymology of ‘apocalypse’ was derived from revelation, unveiling – here there is nothing beyond the certainty of the End to reveal, to unveil. The form that this End would take remains unvoiced, perhaps even too ghastly for articulation.
Krasznahorkai’s apocalypse is an apocalypse without resolution, hence an apocalypse without end – without the literal ‘catharsis’ (i.e. ‘removal of alien matter from the body that is painful’) of the Christian tale of judgment and salvation. For the narrating Beast (this ambiguous standpoint between human and inhuman, even grammatically – in the Hungarian text – between singular and plural), we ourselves are the alien matter, whose removal would bring the earth itself no catharsis, only the stance of a theatre left barren and void, with the two Beasts bringing about their own prediction of the end:
…we want you to withdraw, and already how there is no trace, and the stage is empty, and we were the ones who did it, and it is good this way…
From the horrifying figure confronting Pym at the South Pole, through the abandoned cinema awaiting the final explosion in Gravity’s Rainbow we have reached a similar end: cataclysm without hope – or is perhaps the absence of hope the only hope? As the narrator of Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child states:
… and maybe this is the most insane thing of all: that with the essence of our life, already with its mere preservation, we contribute to the preservation of the totalitarian regime, insomuch as of course as, I said, we are attached to the preservation of our lives…
Yet in the end, Animalinside
cannot entirely be fitted into any Judeo-Christian narratives of apocalypse, whether they end in salvation or in the inferno; as the Beast himself might say, it does not remain ‘still inside something whose dimensions could be called redundantly inabundant‘. Krasznahorkai’s literary work, we should not forget, has long been marked by his extensive knowledge and experience of the Buddhist-Confucian Far East, first in such nonfiction works as Destruction and Sorrow under the Heavens
and most recently in his volume of short stories Seiobo –
very likely to be recognised as one of the masterpieces of the turn of the millennium. And it is in that book that Krasznahorkai explores the narrative of deity-possession by the goddess Seiobo through the point of view of the goddess herself, much as Animalinside
relates the apocalypse not through the observer (survivor) but through the voice of the apocalyptic Beast.
At one and the same time, in Animalinside the biblical framework is undermined yet transformed through its shift into a radically non-European, non-Abrahamic, tale of possession by deities or demons: the witness to the End of Time invaded by one of the two Beasts as if taken over in the manner of a medium or shaman. The prophetic authority of the Witnesses of the End of Time – a category that can be stretched from John of Patmos to Imre Kertész – is, once again, shifted and undermined, the standard categories of ‘self’ and ‘other’ blurred. An apocalypse of a different order – an apocalypse that cannot even promise an end.
This text is based on a talk given at the American University in Paris, September 2010.
László Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann: Animalinside
Sylph Editions, New Directions, 2010
Tags: László Krasznahorkai