“This is my recommendation: we must live more attentively.”
– László Krasznahorkai
Seiobo There Below
Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Muzlet
448 Pages, Paperback, $16.95
There was a time when, as a Romanian poet once put it, every rotten tree trunk held a god. In Seiobo There Below (Seiobo járt odalent, 2008), László Krasznahorkai reminds us repeatedly that this time is long past. Not only is the sacred in retreat from the world, but we have forgotten how to perceive it (two sides of the same coin, some might say). And yet the fifty-nine-year-old Hungarian author persists in speaking of transcendence. For Krasznahorkai, the spirits that once conveyed mystery and authority have not completely withdrawn; traces of the divine may still be discerned in the making and receiving of tradition-bound forms of art. Seiobo There Below represents seventeen remarkably diverse and ambitious forays into aesthetic grace.
Seiobo is the fifth of Krasznahorkai’s sixteen books to appear in English. The fact that his other major novels in English translation – The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War, and Satantango – have primarily been set in Eastern Europe makes this latest effort seem like more of a departure than it actually is. A large part of the North American perception of Krasznahorkhai as “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse” (as Susan Sontag famously labeled him), has to do with the epic film adaptations of Krasznahorkai’s work that he and his friend director Béla Tarr have collaborated on (Damnation, Sátántangó, Werckmeister Harmonies), as well as the order in which the author’s books have appeared on these shores (his first novel, Satantango took 27 years to make it into English). As Seiobo’s translator Ottilie Muzlet has pointed out, Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian readership would be aware of the fact that the years 1999-2008 marked a transitional period in his work, which saw him turning increasingly to the Far East for inspiration.
Fittingly then, the original Seiobo is a work of fifteenth century Japanese Noh theatre, in which the titular goddess comes down from heaven to the earth below, bearing immortality. While the character Seiobo appears in one chapter of Krasznahorkai’s latest work, and Noh theatre pops up in a handful of others, the title Seiobo There Below describes more generally an arc that recurs in a variety of locations and tonal registers throughout the book’s seventeen sections. Each chapter presents an intersection (or failed intersection) between the sacred and the human, the immortal and the perishable, via aesthetic production and/or reception. Krasznahorkai alternates between Europe and Asia, ranging across 3000 years of cultural history, featuring familiar works such as the Alhambra, the Acropolis, and the Venus de Milo, but also a 500 year-old copy of Andrei Rublev’s Trinity Icon, the restoration of a Buddha sculpture, and the rebuilding of Japan’s Ise shrine.
In the book’s first section, entitled “Kamo-Hunter,” the object of aesthetic contemplation is a white bird standing in the middle of Kyoto’s Kamogawa river:
A bird fishing in the water: to an indifferent bystander, if he were to notice, perhaps that is all he would see—he would, however, not just have to notice but would have to know in the widening comprehension of the first glance, at least to know and to see just how much this motionless bird, fishing there in between the grassy islets of the shallow water, how much this bird was accursedly superfluous; indeed he would have to be conscious, immediately conscious, of how much this enormous snow-white dignified creature is defenseless—because it was superfluous and defenseless, yes, and as so often, the one satisfactorily accounted for the other, namely, its superfluity made it defenseless and its defenselessness made it superfluous: a defenseless and superfluous sublimity; this, then, is the Ooshirosagi in the shallow waters of the Kamogawa, but of course the indifferent bystander never turns up; over there on the embankment people are walking, bicycles are rolling by, buses are running, but the Ooshirosagi just stands there imperturbably, its gaze cast beneath the surface of the foaming water, and the enduring value of its own incessant observation never changes, as the act of observation of this defenseless and superfluous artist leaves no doubt that its observation is truly unceasing…
Vision is crucial in Krasznahorkai’s work. Even in the sad and hilarious thirteenth section, the sole chapter of Seiobo There Below to focus on sound, the visual trumps the aural when a failed architect delivers a hysterical lecture on Baroque music to a group of elderly villagers who cannot take in the man’s words, because “it was really his gut that captured the attention of the locals, because this gut with its three colossal folds unequivocally sent a message to everyone that this was a person with many problems….” In the Kamo-Hunter chapter, however, the white bird serves a dual function. If it were enough just to see this bird in the river, then the initial clause, “A bird fishing in the water,” would suffice. The bird is a living work of art, but Krasznahorkai also grants the creature “the artist’s powers of observation,” so that it possesses the very powers of aesthetic perception that the prose displays. From the outset, Krasznahorkai suggests that perceiving the sublime is going to take more than simply looking as we are accustomed to doing (though the indifferent bystander is incapable even of this).
In The Senses of Modernism, Sara Danius reminds us that, “The etymological meaning of ‘aesthetics’ springs out of a cluster of Greek words which designate activities of sensory perception in both a strictly physiological sense, as in ‘sensation,’ and a mental sense, as in ‘apprehension.’” The indifferent bystander never turns up, but there is at least one person who perceives the Kamo-Hunter with an etymologically faithful aestheticism bordering on obsession: our narrator. In this opening chapter, Krasznahorkai caresses his white bird in mesmerizing, exhaustive prose, returning to it again and again as he weaves his way through modern day Kyoto, the “City of Infinite Demeanor.” The above sentence continues for another half-page and is by no means one of the lengthier ones in the book (in defense Krasznahorkai’s long sentences, the man knows how to wield a semicolon). It is as if the author is attempting a feat of linguistic perception to rival the bird’s “truly unceasing” gaze of “enduring value.” This heroic effort ensures that, in a delicious paradox, even those chapters that present failed intersections between the sublime and the human enact a level of writerly attentiveness that approaches transcendence.
Let us note one further thing about this opening chapter: an adjective attached to the word beauty. “The bird is granted the artist’s powers of observation,” we are told, so that it may represent “unbearable beauty.” For Krasznahorkai, immanence is a terrifying proposition. Few of the encounters with the aesthetic sublime in this book lead to healing, redemption, or acceptance. In a later chapter, a migrant Hungarian labourer’s unintentional encounter with a Russian icon painting leads him to purchase a large, sharp knife. Given the volatile power of art, why would anyone desire to commune with it as intensely as Krasznahorkai and some of his characters do?
Desire itself is commonly held to be the engine of the novel. It is important to remember that Seiobo is a novel, albeit one that at first glance appears to unfurl beneath an entirely different logic. For starters, the chapters are structured according to the famous Fibonacci sequence, and vary in length from eight to forty-eight pages. In the absence of a single main character, one way to connect Seiobo’s episodes to a central longing is to consider what Krazsnahorkai has said previously about his writing, that the sentences “are really not mine but are uttered by those in whom some wild desire is working.” In this sense, the most obvious desire at work would be the Bernhardian compulsion to continue speaking, narrating breathlessly before that final end stop, death, is imposed.
Yet there is another, more commanding form of desire in Seiobo There Below. In a recent essay, Scott Esposito identifies in Krasznahorkai’s writing the aspiration to an “authority beyond the physical confines of our universe as we know it.” Is there another living novelist of whom this could be as convincingly said? Krasznahorkai’s search for this level of authority allies him with the high modernism of Joyce and Rilke (think Stephen Dedalus’s artist-God merging with the terrible angels of the Duino Elegies), and it may also be the driving force behind his search for transcendence in the process of making and receiving of art. There is a fine line between wanting to know God and wanting to be God, a fact which Krasznahorkai is well aware of, and exploits to his advantage. Esposito: “Modernism attempts to conflate the aesthetic with the religious.” Indeed.
The modernists’ desire for mastery has often been linked to the waning of traditional sacred structures in the West. In Seiobo, the European forms have long since been displaced, and it is only in Asia that we find contemporary cultures still connected to living traditions. Fredric Jameson has written that “Modern art drew its power and possibilities from being a backwater and an archaic holdover within a modernizing economy: it glorified, celebrated, and dramatized older forms of individual production which the new mode of production was elsewhere on the point of displacing and blotting out.” Certainly, on one level, this is precisely what Krasznahorkai is engaged in. But notice Jameson’s tense: Modern art drew. This quotation comes from Jameson’s Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, published in book form in 1991, when Modernism and its concerns were considered passé. What then is Krasznahorkai up to? Is he merely inhabiting an unproductive nostalgia for the past? Why can’t we shake our desire for wholeness? Perhaps, as Gabriel Josipovici has argued persuasively, Modernism’s concerns need to be understood not as belonging only to a particular era, but “as the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us.”
This is ultimately the reason why a book that examines the notion that the divine inhabits certain aesthetic objects can feel both epically, off-the-radar strange, and at the same time perfectly relevant. That Krasznahorkai successfully traces this inexplicable presence through a sixty-four clue Italian language crossword puzzle, the making of a Noh mask, and across a twenty-three page single sentence essay on the mysteries of the Alhambra is evidence of an astounding ambition and mastery. Here we are solidly in the realm of what Steven Moore would call “the novel as a kind of delivery system for aesthetic bliss.”
But Krasznahorkai doesn’t just dazzle, he terrifies. By the final chapter, Seiobo There Below has accumulated a horrifically beautiful, almost unbearable force.
Writing about William Golding’s Pincher Martin, Josipovici notes that the traditional purpose of fiction is to protect us from the reality of our deaths. Krasznahorkai strips this protection away. The reality of death is often close at hand in Seiobo; many of the encounters with art bring a sharp awareness of mortality. For Krasznahorkai, the mystery of art is the closest thing to truth that we can glimpse, aside from death. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that these days we have less and less attention to give to either). At the end of the Kamo-Hunter chapter, our narrator advises his bird on the wisest course of action:
It would be better for you to turn around and go into the thick grasses, there where one of those strange grassy islets in the riverbed will completely cover you, it would be better if you do this for once and for all, because if you come back tomorrow, or after tomorrow, there will be no one at all to understand, no one to look, not even a single one among all your natural enemies that will be able to see who you really are; it would be better for you to go away this very evening when twilight begins to fall, it would be better for you to retreat with the others, if night begins to descend, and you should not come back if tomorrow or after tomorrow, dawn breaks, because for you it will be much better for there to be no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow; so hide away now in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close, and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear, die at midnight in the grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that—breathe your last.
It is possible, of course, that art will one day no longer be with us, but it is more probable that we will no longer be with art. When there is no one left who knows how to perceive a work, then it may well as crawl off and die, like the white bird that opens Krasznahorkai’s book. But we have not reached this point yet. Against the odds, making and perceiving continue.
Eric Foley holds an Honours BA in English and Literary Studies from the University of Toronto and an MFA from Guelph University. He has been a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award, the Hart House Literary Contest, and the winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. His writing can be found online at Numéro Cinq and Influencysalon.ca. He lives in Toronto and divides his time between his writing and teaching at Humber College.
- For a brief account of modernity and the loss of immanence, see Douglas Glover’s essay “Mappa Mundi, The Structure of Western Thought.“↵
- For more on Krasznahorkai see the excellent Spring 2013 issue of Music and Literature, to which this review is greatly indebted.↵
- “Literature is a rhetorical performance, a show put on by someone who possesses greater abilities with language than most people. This is reading for the same reason we might go to the opera or the ballet: to be dazzled by a performance.” – Steve Moore, The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600↵
This is a great review, Eric; it’s wide-ranging yet specific. The last few sentences are richly earned:
“When there is no one left who knows how to perceive a work, then it may well as crawl off and die, like the white bird that opens Krasznahorkai’s book. But we have not reached this point yet. Against the odds, making and perceiving continue.”