09. 15. 2009. 08:20

Displaced divinities

László Krasznahorkai: Seiobo Has Been Here Below

As well as addressing the most frequently discussed questions of the present age (physical mobility, the radical expansion of information), Seiobo also brings up a question once heavily debated but now conspicuous for its relative absence: what does it mean to be "cultured"?

László Krasznahorkai’s latest work can, in a sense, be seen as a continuation of his previous book, Destruction and Sorrow Under the Heavens, a narrative of his travels across China in search of the last traces of classical Chinese civilization. As he found, they were few and far between, at least in terms of the experience of a genuine living heritage and not the many sterile museum-artifacts left in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and the headlong modernization of the past two decades. A work expressing profound disappointment, Krasznahorkai’s book met with a very mixed reaction from Hungarian critics, somewhat unusually for an author of his stature.
 
Seiobo Has Been Here Below also treats the question of artistic and cultural heritage in a world of ever-increasing cyber-connectivity, the idea of a legacy of canonical master-works confronted with what Slavoj Žižek has termed “the plague of fantasies”. It is constructed as a series of purportedly fictional stories, almost as if it put forward an antidote, through the medium of artwork itself, to what Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély termed “the sordidity of modern civilization”. And yet to define it as an attempt at didacticism or resistance, an act of “enlightening” the contemporary reading public, would be far worse than over-simplification.
 
Each story (there are seventeen in total, though they are numbered not according to their order but assigned a numerical ranking in the Fibonacci series) tells the tale of the creation of an artistic work. These artworks originate in two primary cultural spheres: the Mediterranean world in its widest possible sense (i.e. the Greco-Roman heritage stretched into the Latinate regions of Renaissance Italy, early-modern France or even post-Ceausescu Romania, as well as the Byzantine legacy extended into medieval Russia), and Japan, here regarded as the clear inheritor of China’s culture, predominantly through Zen Buddhism, though there are sections that touch upon the Noh drama as well. Through the employment of the Fibonacci series – “concatenation” in the mathematical sense – the reader is drawn into a sense of ever-increasing culmination, with the images of Bach, Andrei Rublev, the Noh mask, Giovanni Bellini and the Moorish architecture of Spain piling up in rapid succession. And yet, the conclusion is not a wildly teeming storehouse of culture-info, but instead, in the final story, a darkly fascinating poetic evocation of the Shang Dynasty (16th–11th centuries BCE), about which little is directly known, yet is regarded as the era in which the Chinese ideogram emerged out of the mystical art of reading prophecies from cracks in bones and turtle-shells. Where we might have expected an unbounded cacophony, the senseless image-dump feared or embraced by the (now-historic) sensibility of post-modernity, we encounter something more like a scream that cannot even come about – a scream fashioned, of course, out of Krasznahorkai’s beautifully crafted Hungarian prose. No small challenge to their potential translators, Krasznahorkai’s seemingly endless sentences evoke quite a similar sense of infinitude within Hungarian grammar as the decorations he describes in the Alhambra do within visual space.
 
As well as addressing the most frequently discussed questions of the present age (physical mobility, the radical expansion of information), Seiobo also brings up a question once heavily debated but now conspicuous for its relative absence: what does it mean to be "cultured"? Clearly Krasznahorkai as the empirical author fits most of the common definitions of this word: the depth of erudition displayed in Seiobo is awe-inspiring, evidently the result of profound personal involvement with the particular artifacts under observation, and one can only marvel at the intensity of researching and interviewing that must have preceded the writing of the text.
 
What, though, of the reader? Krasznahorkai is, of course, a sovereign artist in full command of his materials: he is as far from the aesthetic of the early Modernists (Ezra Pound’s Cantos spring to mind) “sunk beneath the cargo of their own erudition”, as Edmund Wilson put it, as he is from the cyber-age undergraduate term paper spatchcocked together out of Wikipedia downloads. And yet artistry, aesthetic mastery, authorial power is not the final arbiter in the situation that he presents to the unknown individual who happens to open this volume. For after all, the sense of an “ideal reader” that would be able to understand all of the cultural ramifications of the artworks discussed in Seiobo to the same extent is highly unlikely to exist in reality: indeed, it is possible that the only such ideal reader is the author himself. Most of us who are likely to encounter Seiobo in the first place will nod knowledgeably to certain names (“Ah yes, Bellini…”), start to wonder a bit about others (“is there really an Ion Grigorescu?”), and in certain instances stop dead in our tracks in puzzlement (“so who was this Ze’ami?”). 
 
And so, not being “ideal readers” (leaving aside the question of whether this very idea is even relevant for Krasznahorkai’s purposes), what can we do but turn to cyberspace? After all – and now we begin to see how radical an examination of the process and phenomenology of reading is taking place – the fact of having this printed volume in our hands also involves another pre-supposition: of relatively easy access to the necessary hardware, software and bandwidth to find answers to our questions. Yes, gentle reader, help is only a few clicks away. Do you really want to know who Ze’ami was and why he was driven into exile? Wikipedia rushes at once to your aid: the founder of the Noh drama (along with his father), exiled to a “distant Japanese island” when he opposed the shogun’s choice for the head of the Kanze school of Noh theatre (he had been the previous shogun’s lover)… Once our most burning questions are satisfied, it remains tempting to keep googling away at the rest – and now yet another dimension of the text becomes clear: how so much of it is real. Not only are the artworks themselves empirically extant, but so are many of the scholars who study them (some of them with their own Facebook pages), the art-historical disputes waged by these scholars, even the corporate entities that sponsor their work (even if occasionally altered in the text to avoid trademark disputes). We learn, for instance, not only that Ion Grigorescu (see excerpt on HLO) really exists, but can find photographs of him, a description of his recent retrospective at the Warsaw Institute of Contemporary Art, and videos of his quasi-secret performances in the Ceausescu years.
 
Of course, it is always possible to adopt a different strategy of reading that avoids this issue altogether: simply to read the stories “as stories” and not to bother with any additional references. However, doing so is more difficult than it might seem at first, particularly with Krasznahorkai’s frequent interpolations of untranslated professional “shop-talk”, sometimes explained but more often not. Even leaving aside the employment of foreign words devoid of explication, the sheer amount of unknown information (or information of unknown status) does create an effect of disorientation. Certainly this effet de brouillard (to use Umberto Eco’s phrase) is not a negative experience in any sense, but – intriguingly – one that increasingly appears unusual to the mode of consciousness that immediate information-access is creating within us. These fragments of unknown speech function nearly as mantras, attempting to conjure up a “presence”, themselves highly subject to displacement, as the Buddhist prayer transcribed in the story “The Preservation of a Buddha” , described by the narrator as “broken Sanskrit” but most likely a Sanskrit sutra refracted through phonetic transcription into Chinese. Beyond the questioning of the erudite artist and the cultured reader, Seiobo invokes the omnipresence of cyberspace perhaps more than any other literary text without ever mentioning it directly: including it within the reading process as a prosthetic brain always available for the reader. In a previous (and indeed not too distant) era, a similar work would likely have been awash with footnotes. Seiobo’s single footnote is the internet itself, the disembodied incarnation of Borges’s imagined library, the endless interconnection of references to all of the symbolic world.
 
Still, Seiobo remains a text, a printed volume, and indeed a planned work. For all the radical questioning that it implies, the series of stories is based upon something of a stock cast of characters, almost with the interchangeability and the allegorical force of a medieval passion play. First of all there is the Pilgrim: the post-sacral pilgrim, that is; the tourist or museum-goer in an unceasing quest for the higher experience of the aesthetic. These figures are the bearers of much of the art-historical background interwoven into each tale, whether presented as the character’s actual thoughts or (more frequently) through a bodiless impersonal voice reminding us strongly of the droning headset-commentary that can be borrowed for our edification in any major museum. Then there are the Guardians – those whose vocation it is to keep watch over the artworks, who have to soak their feet at night after spending the entire day in the presence of the Venus de Milo. And then there are the Patrons (ancient and immediately contemporary), the Master Artisans and Assistants, the Subjects (e.g. “The Exiled Queen”, with its continual recollection of the story of Ester and Vashti) – and the Artists themselves. As for Seiobo herself, she too makes an appearance as she literally descends to earth to “possess” or enter the spirit of a Noh performer: 
I put down my crown, and in earthly form – yet not concealing the contours of my face – I descend among them, to seek out the prince of Chu, King Mu, for I was constrained to leave the infinite planes of Heaven, the Empire of Radiant Light; compelled to leave that realm, where form shines, abundant and emanating, and thus all is replenished with nothingness, I had to make my descent below yet and yet again, for I had to flee the purity of Heaven, I must step across into a moment, for nothing ever lasts longer….
Tellingly, Seiobo’s testament is the only instance of first-person narration in the novel, although the concept of Seiobo functions as a metaphor throughout for what Mircea Eliade termed “hierophany”, the manifestation of the sacred. In the universe of Seiobo, this divine figure functions as the bearer of the sacred. As such, she assumes many different forms (the angels in a Byzantine icon, the eyes of Christ in a Renaissance painting completed by three different artists), or emerges as the inverse double of the sacred: the demonic (the mask-maker in “He Rises at Dawn”). Krasznahorkai’s stance is somewhat reminiscent of the perception of the phenomenon of Kami in early Shinto religion (before the synthesis into Zen Buddhism): infinite in number, Kami are conduits of a ‘divine force’ that come to be manifest through any natural phenomenon. In other words: although each of the separate tales concerns physical artifacts suspended within webs of cultural significance as aesthetic-artistic objects, the ultimate goal of each story is not simply to reconstruct the birth of each work, to delineate its history across the centuries, or to evoke the scholarly controversies (real or simulated) around its origins. Instead of the world of the aesthetic as replacement for a (long-since archaic) sacred, these aesthetic items are direct manifestations of the divine, yet only seen as a category reachable through the experience, recollected at an almost unbridgeable historical distance, of those who did believe. One Hungarian critic, István Margócsy, notes that “the beholder and the work of art never come into contact”, the desired moment of transcendence never comes about. Yet perhaps the observation could equally be confirmed in reverse: the contact – the experience of the hierophantic – does exist, as an evidenced presence within the (fictional) world of the individual story, but either evades or directly harms the observer: the Pilgrim, the museum-visitor, the culture-seeker of the immediate present.
It is only to the most severely displaced figures that a true experience of the hierophantic force beyond the aesthetic is given – and this experience is most often traumatic, unwished. The genuine experience of transcendence can be crushing, as for the nameless protagonist of “A Murderer Is Born”, an anomic drifter aimlessly wandering to Barcelona and homeless destitution; the perfect template of the mid-century existentialist antihero, yet entirely devoid of whatever dark glamour (likewise of mid-century vintage) could accrue around Camus’ Meursault.  
Sunday was like a monstrous creature that alighted upon him and wouldn’t let go, simply chewing and digesting and biting and clawing, because Sunday just wouldn’t start, wouldn’t go on, and wouldn’t even end; it had always been that way with him, he detested Sundays…
Displaced of his own accord from his own country, consigned to the furthest margins of Barcelona’s social-service shelters (and, with only three words of Spanish, entirely unemployable), he accidentally blunders into the unlikely – yet actual – setting of an exhibit of Russian icons, situated in one of Antoni Gaudi’s fantastic apartment-blocks, guarded by an elderly Russian man speaking at great length about a certain Vasilka, who is neglecting his task of guarding Andrei Rublev’s famed Troika, as well as other matters. Attempting to escape the endless monologue, he is overwhelmed by the sight of one icon (the one Vasilka was supposed to be guarding), as it turns out, itself a copy of Rublev’s Troika
…he immediately realized, as he looked at them, that these angels were real.
The intervention of the genuinely sacred into the fractured, displaced universe of the homeless drifter (and the icon is itself displaced) proves calamitous. In the meantime, the reader is treated to an informative and fascinating summary of the synods of the early Church, in which the exact nature of the Holy Trinity was left undefined, followed by a description of the copying of icons: the creation of an exact copy of a particular icon produces not a “copy” but, after its sanctification, a second original with all of the sacred charge and importance of the first.
 
In the course of this unlikely collision the angels of Rublev’s Troika are themselves displaced into the fantasy-life of the homeless man, into his endless, monotonous hell of the anti-sacred: 
so he stayed on his bed, just like the others, there was a TV, built into the wall at a height as well, but it didn’t work, there was nothing to do but wait, wait for the time of that particular hour to pass, he watched the clock’s hands for a while, then turned onto his left side, closed his eyes and tried to sleep a little, but he couldn’t because as soon as he closed his eyes, the three enormous angels immediately appeared, he didn’t want to see them ever again but unluckily for him, they kept coming back, at times because he’d closed his eyes as before, at other times, like now, because he’d opened them…
The inherent displacements of the hierophantic noted by Eliade are well in evidence here, if pushed into yet another dimension. Interestingly, one school of icon-painting, known as “open heaven” is believed to have strongly apocalyptic intentions; at the very least, the ending of “A Murderer Is Born” is apocalyptic, yet perhaps the even greater cataclysm is the emergence of the real Heaven, surrounded by gold leaf, into the infinite hellish internal space of the Hungarian drifter.
 
Quite literally, the Hungarian title of the book can be translated as “Seiobo has been down there” – with the spatial implication, in the word “odalent”, that the speaker is referring to a space where he is not. However, at the same time, the speaker would seem to be placed at a higher point and, taking into consideration the tripartite world view of the Zen-Buddhist cosmos, is implicitly a denizen of the same – heavenly – space as the goddess Seiobo herself. The enunciation comes from Seiobo’s own realm, yet she is referred to in the third person. Spatially, the ambiguity inherent in the wording of the title could be seen as pointing towards the hierophantic displacement, the extreme disorientation that the genuinely sacred can create in the Middle Realm, as we know it today, even upon its language.

Krasznahorkai László: Seiobo járt odalent
Budapest: Magvető, 2008

Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: László Krasznahorkai