11. 03. 2008. 08:42

Asian simulacrum

The Chinese journeys of László Krasznahorkai

What of the remnants of Eastern culture in the East itself? This is the question that prompted Krasznahorkai’s writing of Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, which the author himself in one interview termed a “literary reportage” – not quite a novel, but something more than a travel diary.

“…they stood and laughed and talked; Stranson had instantly whisked the shock out of the way, to keep it for private consumption…. That new woman, that hired performer Mrs. Creston!”
The reader of László Krasznahorkai’s Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens may well be put in mind of the protagonist of Henry James’s novella “The Altar of the Dead,” who receives something like a traumatic jolt upon discovering that one of his best friends, Paul Creston, has recently re-married after the death in childbirth of his first wife:
was not Mrs. Creston dead?… [Stranson was] staring, staring back across the months at the different face, the wholly other face, the poor man had shown him last, the blurred ravaged mask bent over the open grave by which they had stood together. That son of affliction wasn’t in mourning now.
Stranson, in other words, is confronted with the realization that authenticity has been replaced with inauthenticity, the genuine with the fake, or (in more contemporary terminology) the real with the simulacrum.
While, undoubtedly, James’s novella, in which Stranson discreetly engages in the continued ritual of mourning for “his Dead”, probably resembles the closest phenomenon in Western literature to the Eastern cult of the ancestors, what of the remnants of Eastern culture in the East itself? This is clearly the question that prompted Krasznahorkai’s writing of Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, which the author himself in one interview termed a “literary reportage” – not quite a novel, but something more than a travel diary.
Krasznahorkai’s first “Asian” publication, The Prisoner of Urga was described by critic Edit Zsadányi as drawing upon the tradition of the picaresque novel – a form particularly well developed in Hungarian writing – regardless of whether the events were true (as the author himself stated) or fictitious (as voiced in one review). By contrast, Destruction and Sorrow... is much less ambiguously factual: its closest thematic relation may be the Anglophone literary travelogue, a form emerging in the waning days of colonialism, and reaching, it now would seem, its apex in the final decades of the twentieth century. More recent practitioners, such as the American journalist P. J. O’Rourke (“at worst, Asian music sounds as if a truck full of wind chimes collided with a stack of empty oil drums during a birdcall contest”, in All the trouble in the world. The lighter side of famine, pestilence, destruction and death) or political commentator Robert Kaplan (“a rundown, crowded planet of skinhead Cossacks and juju warriors, influenced by the worst refuse of Western pop culture and ancient tribal hatreds, and battling over scraps of overused earth in guerrilla conflicts that ripple across continents and intersect in no discernible pattern”, in The Coming Anarchy) may find it somewhat more difficult to avoid the temptations of facile superiority or prophetic messianism than such predecessors as Graham Greene or Rebecca West. 
Usually, the literary travelogue follows one of two basic patterns. One is the arrival of the Writer in a purportedly exotic locale at precisely the correct pivotal juncture in History: e.g., Timothy Garton Ash’s writings from the time of the 1989 revolutions, which carry an undeniable historic value. The second narrative is the Writer’s quest for an authentic local colour that can never quite be found in full. “There were gypsies, there were tramps and professional poets, to be sure, but their appearances were fugitive and had the air of being illusory” – or so Lawrence Durrell, at the beginning of Bitter Lemons, expressed his disappointment with a Cyprus that failed to meet his Hellenophilic expectations.
In the best cases of English-language travel writing, the writer’s motivation is the genuine desire to understand a very different milieu and culture (most recently expressed in the writings of Bruce Chatwin); in the worst, curiosity is sparked by a prurient voyeurism verging on the pornography of another’s suffering – as all too often occurred, for instance, during the Bosnian civil war. Nonetheless, the trope of the expedition to the East falls into a very special category. Very little effort is needed to elicit specimens of outright “Orientalism,” as if deliberately written to back up Edward Said’s definition of the phenomenon. And the “Orient” need not be any particularly defined cultural area, but merely any point on the map eastward of the writer’s own residence (the American or western European “orientalism” towards the former Communist bloc as a whole, the central European “orientalism” towards the “Asiatic-Orthodox” east, or Russia’s imperial stance towards its Caucasian, Turkic, Persian colonial subjects).
Krasznahorkai’s involvement with Asia and Asian culture began in the early 1990s, when he found himself traveling “completely by accident” to Beijing through the Gobi desert. “I rumbled (by train) into this frantic and astonishing empire…” The impressions and thoughts garnered during this trip were described at length in The Prisoner of Urga: Krasznahorkai has spoken at length in interviews about the overwhelming impact made upon him: “I saw, or at least I believed I saw, the last existing ancient empire in its full glory… I saw something which I am incapable of grasping with mere intellect. I saw something which is beyond reality. It was not a vision, I didn’t imagine it, I wasn’t dreaming, I saw it. I saw: them.”
Continuing the theme of literary involvement with Asia is the volume A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, A River to the East (2003), based on a sojourn in Kyoto. A Mountain to the North… is a complex and labyrinthine re-writing of the Japanese classic The Tales of Genji, in which the protagonist is an abandoned monastery in Kyoto. Krasznahorkai, however, sees a fundamental difference in the relationships of Japan and China to their own traditional cultures: while finding a “museum culture” of the past in Japan, his third trip to China resulted in a book that found “destruction and sorrow” in China’s own relationship to its heritage.
Destruction and Sorrow... met with a mixed reception in the influential literary journal Élet és irodalom. Critic Sándor Bazsányi questioned Krasznahorkai’s familiarity with the language and culture he was purporting to describe, as well as pointing out that many of the “dialogues” in the book more closely resemble monologues, and so on. To an extent, many of these objections are not entirely unjustified, and it in no way detracts from the value of the book to state that it may not be a sustained piece of literary art on the level of Krasznahorkai’s Satan Tango (see our review), The Melancholy of Resistance (English edition: New Directions, 2002, tr. George Szirtes), or War and War (New Directions, 2006, tr. George Szirtes). Having said that, however, Destruction and Sorrow... does make one indisputable contribution, particularly in the age of “irreconcilable” civilisational differences, for despite being filtered through the English of his interlocutor or the Chinese of his interpreter, the volume does attempt to answer the question of what relevance – if any – the Chinese philosophical tradition has for the post-Tian-An-Men Chinese elite.
This question, somewhat surprisingly, is one only rarely raised in English-language narratives of travel in contemporary Asia. Generally speaking, the most serious writers on Asia, such as Ian Buruma or Pico Ayer, have taken a stance of almost programmatic anti-exoticism, finding Asian modernity not to be the disruption but indeed the actual fulfillment of longstanding traditions. “Your idol is shattered in the dust to prove that God's dust is greater than your idol,” so Buruma quotes Rabindranath Tagore at the outset of his travel narrative of eastern Asia, entitled God’s Dust, arguing that an insistence on formal continuity is, in essence, a relic of European metaphysics without any relevance for Asia. Indeed, one well-known contemporary poet, Ouyang Jianghe, tells Krasznahorkai that he does not see “museum culture” in a positive light; “Europeans believe that culture is something which they can grasp or touch, because for them culture is contained within objects, or the remnants of those objects.”
Krasznahorkai’s contrasting stance – finding the all-persuasive “lack in the midst of plenty” that characterizes modern Chinese life to be distressing – did not meet with much sympathy in Bazsányi’s review: as he rightly notes, the skyscrapers of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz are hardly any less “new and fake” than the tower blocks of Shanghai. “Of course, you don’t have to like the new China, and in a certain sense, it is not even possible to do so,” Bazsányi comments.
In a sense, Destruction and Sorrow... is, as Bazsányi notes, the record of a series of failed attempts at dialogue. Perhaps, though, we should see the failure of dialogue as the enactment of a different kind of dialogue: that of the European hermetically enclosed in categorical language, by definition incapable of using this very language as a medium of escape from itself (just as, according to Zsadányi, the overriding narrative of The Prisoner of Urga was the unsuccessful attempt of the author to free himself from the bonds of Western metaphysics). Krasznahorkai himself has at the same time spoken of repetition, “or in other words monotony, the continual returning to one thing” as “the single such experience that connects us with eternity”.  Whether or not the repeated questioning might at times seem to descend into a near-Beckettian futility, the fact remains that the very difficulties in communication encountered by the author are an integral part of the text, perhaps even its most valuable aspect.
For, in response to the query (posed inter alia by Bazsányi) – what is the frequently invoked yet never completely defined “Chinese philosophical heritage”? – it is necessary to recall, as Czech sinologist Oldrich Král describes in his survey Chinese Philosophy: A Historical Perspective, that this philosophical tradition can in no way be understood “as a mere extension of our own history of philosophy”. “Speak, speak, replied the Master when asked what is Chan. What else could the koan [in Chinese, gong’an] signify, but that there is no path to comprehension than to speak, speak, at the price of a thousand misunderstandings.” Král emphasises the lyric and correlative character of Chinese thought, as opposed to the epic and analytical character of the West, and notes that Chinese, in contrast to Western languages, differentiates between the existential and the essential functions of the verb “to be”. He speaks of the remarkably suggestive power of Chinese philosophy and comments that we cannot disregard the unique character of the language, described by one of Krasznahorkai’s respondents as “a vision, a revelation”.
The cited parable equally underscores the predominant importance of verbal transmission, of the dialogue of teacher and pupil in Taoism and Buddhism (in China as much as across Asia). Krasznahorkai rightly points out the potential fault-lines in the transmission of Buddha’s words, recorded in writing only centuries after his death, into Chinese, Tibetan and other Asian languages very far removed from Buddha’s native Maghata: “How can I find the path that really leads to his original thinking?” – he asks one of the abbots of the Guoqing Si monastery. And it is indisputably true that this tradition remains alive only when the chain of personal transmission remains unbroken: when the bond between teacher and pupil is not split by famine, imprisonment, forced labour or state-directed economic reforms. Fascinatingly, Král notes that modern Chinese readers of ancient philosophical texts “also read the text of (their own?) philosophy in translation, from an external position... Attesting to the way in which the contemporary Chinese reader approaches a classic Chinese philosophic text are the many translations of Chinese philosophers into contemporary Chinese, their unclear approach and highly variable level of expertise.”
Each chapter of Destruction and Sorrow... recounts a specific pilgrimage to a site linked to China’s intellectual and spiritual traditions: Jiuhuashan Monastery, a visit to a Beijing calligrapher, one of China’s most important private libraries in the industrial port of Ningbo. All of these locations, in some sense, represent an attempt to travel back to the source of the Chinese philosophical mind – a source, however, often masked or directly obliterated by the noisome present, with a continual slippage into an even more disturbing future. “… And we gaze in disbelief at the site of the Jinshan Monastery, our eyes do not betray us, it really is a playground, and in this playground, everything is of course created from plastic, everything which would be absolutely necessary for a child’s place of amusement situated in the courtyard of a Buddhist monastery; everything from Snow White to Donald Duck – the entire Euro-American fairytale cosmos is there…” Shanghai, perhaps the very epitome of the “hideous speed” of Chinese modernization (thanks to the fact that “Marxism was here”, according to one respondent), no longer has any past to speak of, but rather has “enclosed its illustrious future into a ghetto”; “ it has no time for its present”.
The title of the chapter in which these reflections occur – “Jao, why are you lying?” – summarises the narrator’s frustration at his repeated attempts to induce a Chinese intellectual to admit to the damage. The young, well-dressed university teacher tells Krasznahorkai that, in his view, “there has been absolutely no change in the relationship of the Chinese intelligentsia towards its own heritage.”  To which Krasznahorkai replies: “I tell him that in one meeting after another, my unequivocal impression is that Chinese intellectuals do not have any genuine relation with the basis of their traditional culture, they merely react to it on the level of empty pronouncements.”
The hostility of what is still a Communist regime towards religion and spirituality should come as no surprise, and the supposed renovation of monasteries that turns them into flashy tourist traps – such as the many instances in Tibet – seems a particular specialty of the Chinese state. Still, it is interesting to note that Krasznahorkai does not see the physical destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution as the chief culprit – viewing Mao as only one in a series of despots – but rather the era of Deng Xiaoping, which destroyed, in place of the physical monuments, China’s relationship to its own past. A prime example of this may be the “Executive Chief” of the Shanghai museum, where in the “artificial paradise” of that institution’s Underground Park – “and if we look up, we see the bluest of skies, and absolutely pure heaven, but to our consternation realize it is all formed out of man-made materials” – regales the author with a flood of banalities “so crushing” that after the interview all he can recall is her nervous (and apparently comforting) little tic of sucking on the ends of one of her “wonderfully glittering” locks, all the while mechanically “reciting her lesson.”
And yet, there are those instances where the author does strike a more fruitful vein: towards the end of a conversation with Fang Peihe, the director of the Zhuozheng Yuan garden (to Krasznahorkai’s mind, one of the few places where something has been preserved). In response to a question as to the nature and significance of the Chinese garden, Fang answers: “And does this garden, our garden, express the universe? No, it doesn’t express it. The Zhuozheng Yuan is itself the universe: this is my belief.” Krasznahorkai then asks if there are times “when you stay alone in the garden, after closing hours, completely alone? Are there places in the garden where you go to sit down, and lingering there for a moment, listen to the trickling of the brook, the whisperings of the breeze, or the rustling of the foliage?… He masters the embarrassment I have caused him with a good deal of grace, and I can see that he has already forgiven me for breaching the protocols of courtesy yet again. And then he answers my question. What he has to say is spoken in soft tones, as he leans across the table to me: Fang: There are such times. And there is a place like that in Zhuozheng. And in those moments, I truly feel what really connects me with the ancients… And what do you do then, I ask, smiling at him in a friendly manner. Fang: Oh, nothing. I just am. Or so I think.”
“During the eighth century, Wu Tao-tzu (d. 792) completed his last masterpiece for the royal court. It was a landscape painted on the wall of the court. Wu Tao-tzu worked patiently on it in solitude, and kept the work draped until it was completed and the Emperor arrived for its unveiling. Wu Tao-tzu drew aside the coverings and the Emperor gazed at the vast and awesome scene, and its magnificent detail: woods, mountains, limitless expanses of sky, speckled with clouds and birds, and even men in the hills. ‘Look,’ said the artist, pointing, ‘here dwells a spirit in a mountain cave.’ He clapped his hands and the gate of the cave immediately flew open. The artist stepped in, turned, and said ‘The inside is even more beautiful. It is beyond words. Let me lead the way!’  But before the emperor could follow or even bring himself to speak, the gate, the artist, the painting had all faded away. Before him remained only the blank wall with no trace of any brush-marks.” (Chang Chung-yuan, Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art and Poetry)
“… so that perhaps I have nearly invented the whole notion that it still exists somewhere, and I began to search, and I found nothing, just a few sad people and a few sad places, and already this stream of words is beginning to gush forth; Xiaodu listens, he nods silently, and when I say that I was here in 1998, when I came in search of the entirety of classical China, and I kept telling people that my quest was for the spirit of Li Tai-Po, of course then the idea of Chinese classical culture was in my head, and you know, I tell him, even though I really didn’t find anything, my journey was still a happy one; because at the end there was something that occurred to me: that the sky that clouded above me was the very same sky that clouded above Li Tai-Po and all of Chinese classical poetry, and all the wealth of Chinese tradition. And it filled me with so much happiness, to know that it was the same sky, only now I feel so uncertain, my dear friend, I turn to him, tell me, are the heavens here above us really still the same? 
Tang Xiaodu remains silent for a long time.
No, it is not the same any more, he answers very softly, not looking at me. Here on the earth below, everything has changed. There is no more Buddhism, no more Taoism, there are no monasteries, no painting and no music, no poetry and no tradition – everything here below has changed, so how then could the heavens above us be the same?
He rises, takes a few steps back and forth, then circles the entire courtyard, stopping here and there, where there are still patches of sunlight; he stands, warming himself in the sun’s rays, and I watch him, and I feel that in a moment I will fall asleep in this peaceful silence, here in the innermost courtyard of the Guangji Si monastery.
But I don’t.
I wake up.
And there is no one beside me.
The sun has already set.
The air is chilly now.
The courtyard is completely empty.”
(Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens)
Krasznahorkai’s volume, while exploring the paradoxes of presence and absence (“the essence of Chinese culture is not graspable in terms of material form”, he is told by one informant), is in fact the history of a disappearance. Rather than encountering the final fragments of that “glorious ancient empire”, Krasznahorkai in fact takes us on a tour of the void: of the empty blank spaces where they once existed. In doing so, he has rendered a service. For those who believe that nothing should ever be able to disappear without any trace at all.
Krasznahorkai László: Rombolás és bánat az ég alatt
Budapest: Magvető, 2004

Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: László Krasznahorkai