This review was originally published at ReadySteadyBook.com
Fans of Bela Tarr’s wonderful film adaptation Werckmeister Harmonies will be familiar with the basic outline of this dense metaphysical parable: a circus turns up to a remote Hungarian town boasting the world’s largest whale, and provokes a mysterious outpouring of carnivalesque violence. However, what Tarr viewers may be unprepared for is its thematic and philosophical richness. In many ways The Melancholy of Resistance is an old-school European ‘novel of ideas’ in the dialogic tradition of Dostoevsky through Conrad and Mann, yet it is also back-lit with a Kafkaesque disquiet. Tarr’s film is still probably better known than its source text among an English-speaking audience, and Werckmeister Harmonies is characteristically austere and inscrutable; it relies on surface and silence, and makes a virtue of its own cryptic lack of explanation. While these elements are present to some degree in Krasznahorkai’s novel, it is considerably more discursive, more tonally varied in its surrealism and dark humour, and more stylistically baroque than one might expect given the rigorous minimalism of Tarr’s treatment.
Whatever avant-gardeist reputation Krasznahorkai may have amassed thanks to his long sentences and Bernhardian distaste for paragraph breaks, his material is some of the oldest in literature: in fact, the symbolic devices read at times like a post-Nietzschean take on Elizabethan tragedy. There are two major interconnected metaphorical codes running through the novel. On one hand, the giant dead whale is a symbolically loaded literary signifier, somewhere between leviathan, Moby Dick, a mysterious memento mori and a Trojan horse that smuggles into the town the seeds of its destruction; yet on the other it maintains the stubborn silence of materiality and non-being, a monument to the indifference of the phenomenal world. Meanwhile the thematic opposition of order and disorder – a throwback to the central mechanism of Shakespearian tragedy – is animated through the prism of the philosophical worldviews of four main characters: Mrs Plauf, Mrs Eszter, Valushka, and Mr Eszter.
The book highlights the schism between their various belief systems and its violent events. We begin the novel through the eyes of Mrs Plauf, an uptight petit bourgeois, as she journeys back by train across the frozen plains of central Hungary in an unseasonably Baltic November. Written in free indirect style, the journey is unsettling: a disheveled drunk apparently misinterprets her innocent adjustment of her bra, and attempts to follow her into a toilet. On her return to the town she witnesses a rabble of strange men, a random outbreak of violence, a power cut – the stuff of pathetic fallacy. Though her insular frame of reference is gently mocked, it nonetheless foreshadows in its own naive vocabulary the eventual outbreak of violence. The latter is unleashed on the town in unreasoning ferocity by a strange mob led by the Prince, a mysterious Zarathustran prophet of doom recalling Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden.
The violence is juxtaposed with various illusions of order. Mr Eszter provides the major articulation of the order/disorder theme in the form of the despair to which he has been driven by his research into musical tonality. Eszter’s pessimism recalls that of a Bernhardian narrator, right down to his study of musicology, hermeticism, obsessive negativity and tragic-comic literal-mindedness. Bernhard’s most pessimistic novel Correction concerns the logico-philosophical death-spiral of a character, loosely based on early Wittgenstein, who effectively manages to reason himself into non-existence. Driven to despair by the impossibility of aligning thought and experience, he obsessively ‘corrects’ the imperfections of an autobiographical text until he is driven to destroy both it and himself in the ultimate act of self-correction. This deadly rupture between representation and fact – the remainder that leaks through the illusions of order we cognitively impose on the flux of the phenomenal world – is represented through Eszter’s studies in musical tonality.
In a lengthy interior monologue Eszter outlines his erstwhile conception of music as the representation of cosmological harmony that redeems the Schopenhauerean misery of the world:
“Ever since he was young he had lived with the unshakeable conviction that music, which for him 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”
Yet Ezster’s obsessive, tonal-mathematical studies into the inner workings of harmonics have led him to a devastating discovery: the seven-tone European scale operates at a departure from absolute purity of pitch. The works of Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart do not adumbrate some transcendent cosmological harmony, but are in fact, mathematically speaking, aberrations. In ‘natural’ (ie tonally equidistant) tuning the works of Bach are nothing but a horrible clamour; harmony is in fact an illusion concealing, in Bruchner’s famous words “that screaming that men call silence”. The masterworks that Eszter had regarded as evidence of the redeeming possibility of the unity of object and idea are in fact merely “evidences of human failings”, and this for Eszter has the profoundest of philosophical implications:
“music was not the articulation of some better part of ourselves, or a reference to some notion of a better world, but a disguising of the fact of our irredeemable selves and the sorry state of the world, but no, not merely a disguising but a complete, twisted denial of such facts: it was a cure that did not work, a barbiturate that functioned as an opiate”
Whereas Ezsther’s despair is purely conceptual (he has retreated from the world, we are told, “to recline on his bed and banish boredom by composing, day and night, sentences like variations ‘on the same bitter theme’”), his unlettered companion Valushka undergoes before our eyes his own Weberian ‘disenchantment of the world’, played out in the pre-conceptual domain of the aesthetic.
Whereas Eszter attempts to rationalize the world through the metaphor of harmonic correspondences, the unlettered Valushka aestheticizes it through a rhapsodic intuition of totality. Regarded as a village idiot, Valushka delivers letters, entertains the punters at pub closing time with his rapt demonstrations of the movements of the planets, and performs nightly circuits of the city, watching over it like a guardian angel. Valushka is enchanted by a dimly comprehended image of ‘the regal calm of the universe’, a platonic realm to which the phenomenal world is a mere shadow dance. His initial reaction to the appearance of the great whale is “to cry aloud that people should forget the whale and gaze, each and every one of them, at the sky”; yet even its dumb mass is soon subsumed into his belief system as a sign that points to ‘the apparently lost unity of things’.
Whereas Eszter reasons himself into his fallen state, Valushka’s disenchantment is a consequence of the senseless violence that the strange circus unleashes on the town, brutally exposing the illusory nature of his idealism: “he no longer believed the world was ‘an enchanted place’ for the only power that really existed was ‘that declared by force of arms’”. In Krasznahorkai’s world of will and representation, the latter is doomed to failure; the ascendancy of predation is personified in the eventual rise to power of Mrs Eszter, a corpulent macchiavel. She takes advantage of the violence to seize control of the town council, monopolizing the use of legitimate violence through her affairs first with the chief of police, then with the army colonel brought in to quell the rioting.
It is not merely systems of belief that crumble in the face of the brute facts of appetite, predation and decay, but even the normalizing network of everyday language. As one captured rioter rants at his moralistic interrogator:
“Because you don’t talk, you “whisper” or “expostulate”; you don’t walk down the street but “proceed feverishly”; you don’t enter a place but “cross its threshold”, you don’t feel cold or hot, but `’find yourselves shivering”, or “feel the sweat pouring down you”! I haven’t heard a straight word for hours, you can only mew and caterwaul; if a hooligan throws a brick through your window you invoke the last judgment, and because your brains are addled and filled up with steam, because if someone sticks your nose in shit all you do is sniff, stare and cry “sorcery!”
The Prince’s followers seem to be in some sense attempting to purify the town by correcting it into rubble, pure matter cleansed of the aberrance of form. Yet if the quaint language of the townspeople is absurd, groundless and irrelevant – codifying the sustaining illusions of their insularity – so too are the enchanted metaphysical ravings of Valushka, and Eszter’s mannered expressions of despair. Ultimately, for any metaphorical foreshadowing contained in Eszter’s learned analysis of the tonal system, or the townspeople’s quaint intimations of the apocalypse, neither has any effect on the outcome. The destruction that is wrought on the town is ultimately impervious to metaphor, a manifestation of the sheer indifference of the material world. In the Nietzschean terms of the Prince the destruction of the town is a kind of fatalistic correction, an Etch A Sketch end of the world:
“A town based on lies will continue to be a town based on lies… What they do and what they will do are both based on lies and false pride. What they think and what they will think are equally ridiculous. They think because they are frightened. Fear is ignorance. He says he likes it when things fall to pieces. Ruin comprises every form of making: lies and false pride are like oxygen in the ice. Making is half: ruin is everything”
As if to vindicate its own anti-metaphysics the novel ends with a scientifically detailed five-page account of Mrs Plauf’s bodily decomposition, as Mrs Eszter – a personification of the will to power – looks on at her graveside. In a cruel twist of structural inevitability, she has been raped and murdered – an ironic vindication of her slightly laughable paranoia at the start of the book. In a novel that evokes the utter, crushing indifference of the phenomenal objects that we invest with meaning and significance, it is fitting that the very eyes through which the narrative begins are ultimately ground down into dust, in the rigorously dispassionate language of biological description. The man who sinisterly tries to follow Mrs Plauf into the toilet on the train may indeed have had the last word, a perversely ironic fate that screams utter indifference even as it apes the nightmare visions of her own petit-bourgeois paranoia. Either way, her beliefs have no effect on her fate.
Nor is the novel itself exempt from this bleak vision. It too will succumb to the indifferent corrective force of material fate. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, that hopeless idealist, ends his confession with an elegant appeal to the “the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita”. But for Krasznahorkai, even ink has its shelf life:
“It ground the empire into carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur, it took its delicate fibers and unstitched them till they dispersed and had ceased to exist, because they had been consumed by the force of some incomprehensible distant edict, which must also consume this book, here, now, at the full stop, after the last word.”