On László Krasznahorkai’s “Seiobo There Below”

by Andrea Scrima

The stories in Seiobo There Below, if they can be called stories, begin with a bird, a snow-white heron that stands motionless in the shallow waters of the Kamo River in Kyoto with the world whirling noisily around it. Like the center of a vortex, the eye in a storm of unceasing, clamorous activity, it holds its curved neck still, impervious to the cars and buses and bicycles rushing past on the surrounding banks, an embodiment of grace and fortitude of concentration as it spies the water below and waits for its prey. We’ve only just begun reading this collection, and already László Krasznahorkai’s haunting prose has submerged us in the great panta rhei of life—Heraclitus’s aphorism that everything flows in a state of continuous change.

But the chapters of Seiobo There Below are not really independent stories; rather, they form a precisely composed sequence of illuminated moments that are interconnected in many complex ways. Of these, “Kamo-Hunter” is the only one that does not describe a process of artistic creation, but a bird’s (and by implication the narrator’s) power of focus, the heightened state of awareness necessary to stem itself against the wind and resist the pull of the current to remain perfectly still until the moment arrives to snatch up its prey. And suddenly it’s less a matter of the ceaseless movement of all things, but of absolute composure, a deepest possible being in the present tense, a kind of timelessness in which the moment and eternity conjoin to create a brief flash of transcendence. It is about “one time, immeasurable in its passing, and yet beyond all doubt extant, one time proceeding neither forward nor backwards, but just swirling and moving nowhere.” This, in short, is the nature of the concentration required to create art—and what makes “Kamo-Hunter” such a cogent opening to this novel.

After the publication in English translation of Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War and War—which together with Seiobo There Below constitute an important cross-section of Krasznahorkai’s prodigious literary output—his bleak outlook on a human history bent on calamity has become legendary. In an interview published in 2012, he expresses doubt that the human race will survive another 200 years. Regarding our collective ability to alter this course, his prognosis is less than optimistic as he calls the authority of literature itself into question: “This kind of communication is really over and done with. Its disappearance is a rather obvious process; it is happening faster at some points of the world than at others. I’m afraid this kind of literature is not sustainable.” To compound the matter, as the incessant onslaught of information fragments our attention on a daily basis, it has to be said that reading Krasznahorkai is not particularly easy, even given the seductive nature of his prose. Moreover, with Seiobo There Below, he has set himself the task of writing about something that is essentially impossible to formulate in language. We are no longer accustomed to using words like “illumination,” “transcendence,” or “epiphany”; indeed, in our secularized Western world they can sound embarrassing and even ridiculous. Yet his is a language that flows in liquid state, eddying around obstructions to form vortices of swelling thought in which the consistency can suddenly gel, become viscous—and all at once, the writing embodies precisely what it describes as these endless, spell-binding sentences gradually alter our perception and prepare us for a brief glimmer of something outside ourselves, something that can perhaps explain us to ourselves.

Seiobo There Below is a novel comprised of seventeen chapters numbered according to the Fibonacci series, by which each consecutive number is the sum of the two preceding it. And indeed, in a larger sense, each section seems to be part of a hidden pattern that expands in an unexpected manner. The series, which describes the progression of the spiral, the unfurling of a fern, the arrangement of leaves on a stem, and countless other natural sequences, quickly accretes from 1 to 2,584, the number given to the book’s seventeenth chapter. There is, however, a small but significant difference here: perhaps in light of the ontological quandary the leap between nothingness and one implies, Krasznahorkai has not begun his collection with zero.

The subject matter expounded upon in this book ranges from Eastern aesthetic and religious traditions such as Japanese Noh theater and the Shinto rituals governing the rebuilding of the Ise Shrine every twenty years to Byzantine icon paintings; Baroque music; works of the Italian Renaissance; and the mathematical mysteries of the Alhambra and their links to crystal formations, “forbidden symmetry,” and the tessellations of Penrose tiling. There is nothing postmodern about this; Seiobo There Below is anything but an accrual of arcane information or a piling up of cultural artifacts. As Krasznahorkai patiently enumerates the many consecutive steps of a process of artistic creation in lengthy excursions on handicraft and religious ritual, we are called upon to negotiate the distance between the wealth of historical material and the deluge of foreign terms this book supplies and the Zen-like focus required to comprehend the transcendent states the rarefied aesthetic and religious traditions he describes invoke. There are numerous parallels in motif throughout the book’s individual chapters, among them the nature of authorship and the original, the complicated ramifications of restoration, and the history of a work’s reception, to name but a few; more than anything, however, this is a book about the sacred—and its embodiment in some of the most compelling works of art human civilization has produced in recorded history.

As the mystic Simone Weil observed in her meditations on faith, “If sometimes a work of art seems almost as beautiful as the sea, the mountains, or flowers, it is because the light of God has filled the artist. In order to find things beautiful which are manufactured by men uninspired by God, it would be necessary for us to have understood with our whole soul that these men themselves are only matter, capable of obedience without knowledge.” In other words, the beauty of the divine can pass through them and manifest itself even when they are “sleeping.” Seiobo There Below describes methods of artistic handicraft so rich in tradition and so highly ritualized that the full conscious participation of the acting agency, that is, the person or persons physically doing the work, is not entirely necessary. It’s not a matter of personal creative expression or vision, but the sense of the artist as conduit, a vessel through which a meaning far larger than the artist’s individual understanding passes from a higher source. Painstaking descriptions of elaborate preparatory rituals abound; the vessel must be purified, the caldron must be turned upside down and emptied of its contents before it is worthy of holding the sacred meal. Approaching this process from a far less mystical perspective, the phenomenologist Mikel Dufrenne wrote that “even if meaning is not constituted by man, it passes through him. (. . .) But it may not be enough to say that nature is expressed by the artist. Perhaps we should rather say that it is by means of the artist that nature seeks to express itself.” Creative activity, then, requires a removal of the self, a minimizing of interference on the part of the ego to maximize human receptivity to a natural or divine truth that is then expressed in an aesthetic form accessible to human perception.

Needless to say, Seiobo There Below is a work of metaphysical content. Just as the first chapter is the only one not to be told from the point of view of a maker or viewer of a work of art, “The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki” is the only one narrated, in part at least, from the perspective of a deity. During a performance of traditional Japanese Noh theater, the goddess Seiobo leaves her heavenly realm to descend to Earth and inhabit the actor on stage:

you have to know that your own experience in this is crucial . . . for everything occurs in one single time and one single place, and the path to the comprehension of this leads through the correct understanding of the present, one’s own experience is necessary, and then you will understand, and every person will understand that something cannot be separated from something else, there is no god in some faraway dominion, there is no earth far from him here below, and there is no transcendental realm somewhere else apart from where you are now, all that you call transcendental or earthly is one and the same, together with you in one single time and one single space . . .

As the mind ceases to search for something outside itself, time stands still: it is this moment of comprehension, this encounter with immanence that Krasznahorkai approaches again and again throughout the novel.

And again and again, the world foils this endeavor. The distance between everyday life and the sacred is vast. Many of the profoundest masterworks of the past required prayer and ritual to prepare for their creation; these did not merely fulfill a symbolic function, but laid the ground for the divine to enter physical matter in a very real, theophanic sense. Belief is the essential prerequisite, and when the self is deemed not worthy enough to act as a channel for manifestation, the failure can spell disaster. In “A Murderer is Born,” Dionisy, the Byzantine master commissioned to paint a copy of Andrzej Rublev’s famous Troika—not, that is, a copy as we understand it today, but an identical work consecrated upon its completion by a bishop and thereby acknowledged as genuine—has fallen prey to self-doubt,

for surely Dionisy knew better than anyone else that if the soul did not feel what Rublev did in that time, then he himself would certainly end up in Hell, and the copy would come to nothing, because it would be just a lie, a deceit, a mystification, just an ineffectual and worthless piece of trash, which would then be placed in vain in the Sovereign Tier of the church’s iconostasis, in vain would it be placed there and worshipped, it would not help anyone and would only lull them into the delirium that they were being led somewhere.

Conversely, as painstakingly described in “The Preservation of a Buddha,” a lengthy and intricate ceremony must be performed to divert the divine light from the eyes of the Amida Buddha statue of the Zengen-ji Monastery to permit its being transported for restoration. The day the Hakken Kuyo ritual is to commence, the abbot gives the order for the monastery gates to be closed; there are countless prayers to be chanted, the musicians must perform at exactly the right moment, there is the Incense-Lighting Hymn, the Invocation, the Triple Vow, the greeting of the Zengen-ji Bodhisattva, the Prayer of the Sangharama. The temporary removal of the gaze from the Buddha’s eyes constitutes the deepest meaning of a secret ceremony many of the participating monks are not even privy to. When the Buddha arrives at the National Treasure Institute for the Restoration of Wooden Statues in Kyoto, the master informs his workers that they are holding this divine gaze within their souls as they individually labor over the conservation of the dismembered statue. One year later, upon the Amida Buddha’s return to the monastery, the ritual for restoring the divine light to the statue is even more elaborate than the first; it signifies nothing less than a renewal of faith, a prayer that “this treasure-laden throne shall be resplendent until the end of time, when the body itself shall vanish, and that the light between the Buddha’s eyebrows may once again issue forth, and that one ray of this light may spread across the entire Realm of Dharma.”

Each part of Seiobo There Below revolves around an encounter between the sacred and the profane. Often, the character whose lot it is to experience a manifestation of the immaterial has not only not been seeking it, but is horrified by the experience, forced to flee from it. In “A Murderer is Born,” the Hungarian drifter stranded in Barcelona who has wandered by chance into an exhibition of Russian icon paintings reluctantly stops before Dionisy’s Troika, as though summoned by its three winged figures. He is afraid to look at them, and when he does, he suddenly understands, dumbstruck, that they are real. Yet they do not bring him salvation or grace, but delirium; they are the annunciation of his demise.

This is one of many parallels Krasznahorkai constructs throughout the novel. Although the drifter is in need of a miracle to save him from his hopeless situation, he is persecuted by the vision he has. The fatal dissonance that marred the creation of the work of art meets with a corresponding dissonance in its reception. It is as though Dionisy’s crisis of faith had imbedded itself into the painting centuries before and remained there, waiting for the drifter, as though the two were indissolubly bound together. Furthermore, Casa Milà, the opulent building housing the exhibition, is an apt setting for the encounter: Gaudí, a devout Catholic, had considered abandoning the project when he was prevented from adding the statuary he’d planned to integrate into the structure, which included Our Lady of the Rosary and two archangels; against the convictions of his faith, he was nonetheless persuaded by a priest to carry the work to conclusion. Krasznahorkai proposes the notion of art and the artwork as the dispatcher of a curse, whereby wavering belief and the mishandling of aesthetic power necessarily lead to destruction and ruin.

Although not always on this order of magnitude, the relationship between the creation and reception of a work of art in Seiobo There Below is invariably tense and mysterious. In the best sense, we are pilgrims; in the worst, tourists. The visitor to Venice in “Christo Morto” finds himself in an embarrassing position: to allow the soles of his black leather oxfords to last longer, he has fitted them with metal taps that cause his footsteps to resound deafeningly in the afternoon siesta silence of Venice’s narrow alleyways. He has come to revisit a single building, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, and his purpose prompts him to set himself apart from the ordinary tourist: “He was not one of those who kept coming back here again and again, in pursuit of so-called illusory pleasures, giving himself over to the blank drift of superficial and frankly idiotic raptures—he was not in any way like one of them!?” Eventually, his conspicuousness gives way to paranoia: he imagines he is being followed by a stranger with an odd, S-shaped body, a kind of serpent that symbolizes the city itself:

he did not love Venice, he was instead afraid of it, the way he would be of a murderously cunning individual who ensnares his victims, dazing them, and finally sucking all the strength from them, taking everything away from them that they ever had, then tossing them away on the banks of a canal somewhere, like a rag. . .

The traveler’s journey to see a particular painting, one that holds deep personal meaning for him, becomes a kind of perilous odyssey he barely survives. Similarly, in “Up on the Acropolis,” a visitor to Athens makes his way through the scorching heat and maddening traffic of midday Athens, all the way from Syntagma Square through the Plaka, on foot, to see, in person, what he has dreamed of seeing for his entire life: the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Temple of Nike, the Erechtheion. He has forgotten to bring water with him; more importantly, he has forgotten sunglasses. Still optimistic before ascending the hill, he eventually succumbs to despair when the blisters on his feet and the inability of his eyes to adjust to the dazzling sunlight glaring off the white limestone ground render him unable to see anything at all: “. . . like a blind man, he felt the path before him with his foot, as it was utterly impossible to look up by now, just as it was even to glance upwards, tears rolled down from both of his eyes . . .  he then understood that what he had come here for would remain forever unseen by him . . .” The implication is that it’s not merely his actual eyesight that is failing him, but his innate ability to absorb a cultural and religious truth that has already receded beyond the point of intelligibility.

Throughout this novel, the sacred has either grown indecipherable, has turned into something too powerful for the modern world, or has vanished altogether, having understood that it is obsolete and unwanted. When the man in “Christo Morto” revisits a painting of Christ he has seen only once before, he undergoes a profoundly disturbing experience. Throughout the entire day he has been haunted by an article he read that morning in La Corriere discussing the papal position on heaven, hell, and purgatory; he has learned that Benedict XVI, in contrast to John Paul II, regards hell not as a symbol or metaphor, but as something physically real. The newspaper headline—“HELL REALLY EXISTS”—hounds him. And staring now at this painting of Christ, whose eyes begin to open in profound, boundless sorrow, he understands that the true meaning of Hell is not the mere damnation of the individual soul, but an actual withdrawal of God from the world.

Ottilie Mulzet, who has translated Seiobo There Below expertly into English, has observed: “part of the power of these narratives is that they explore the sacred—or rather the complete and total lack of the sacred in the present time through the lens of all these different cultures. And the answer is always the same: we have lost touch with it, we don’t want it, we have become too weak to bear it, or that the sacred itself, abandoned for all time, just wants to disappear.” If Krasznahorkai is saying that the relationship to the divine through art is on the brink of extinction, this book would essentially be a modern tragedy about the failure of civilization to redeem humankind and hence both an affirmation of the sacred and the simultaneous announcement of its demise. And because this is Krasznahorkai, there is the undeniable, brooding sense that the world is coming to a shabby and unspectacular end that makes for a rather pitiful apocalypse of the blind, amnesiac, numb, and brutal.

But there is also a bleak humor running throughout the book, and the impossible figure of a hobby lecturer on baroque music in a village library can be seen as a parodic self-portrayal as well as a tribute to the elderly apodictic protagonist of Thomas Bernhard’s novel Old Masters. But while Krasznahorkai’s prose recalls Bernhard in certain obvious ways, and the two have been frequently compared due to their exasperatingly long sentences, or their spiraling syntax, this is where the comparison ends. Bernhard’s vehicles are rant and invective; Krasznahorkai’s is compassion, the actual identification with the suffering of another. His characters are invariably outcasts, untouchables society has expelled—and for good reason. His compulsion is to plumb the soul of the pariah to tap into the inscrutable darkness at the heart of the universal human condition.

Seiobo There Below is a profoundly European book. In a certain sense, it is a farewell to the Occidental world as it has endured in a cultural counterbalance with the Orient. It is also a last look at the West in the eyes of an Eastern European who has witnessed the rapid spread of capitalism at close hand, the irony with which it has left us with one vast “West.” Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Krasznahorkai embarked on protracted travels throughout Asia. He has engaged in a profound intellectual involvement with the cultures of the East, particularly Japan and China. His book Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens documents the disappearance of the last traces of ancient Chinese culture on the very brink of the economic boom. Anglophone readers of Krasznahorkai will be familiar with the trope of the individual from a former dictatorship who is too scarred to bear the sight of beauty; the systematic humiliation and deprivation he has been subjected to have brought about a coarseness and vulgarity, a loss of dignity and self-respect that renders the search for truth meaningless and even dangerous. Here, however, it is more a matter of indifference towards a four-thousand-year-old history that is increasingly being forgotten.

In his essay “About Gods Bereft of their World,” Sándor Radnóti asks if Seiobo There Below is a “new version of art as religion” or “a kind of exclusive personal and artistic travelogue” describing a collection of “specimens of the total (high) culture which functions as the foundation stone of a syncretic religion, whose inspired prophet is the author himself.” Of the recurrent figures in Krasznahorkai’s writing, i.e. the Prophet, the Archivist, the Observer, or the Seeker, it is the false prophet whom Radnóti interrogates—and his skepticism reveals the degree to which he takes the author at his word. This and other essays comprise the wealth of critical analysis and material hitherto unpublished in English translation contained in Issue Two of the arts magazine Music & Literature. Devoted to Krasznahorkai, director Béla Tarr, and German visual artist Max Neumann, the issue is an essential and comprehensive resource that brings together numerous in-depth investigations into Krasznahorkai’s overall literary project that illuminate his development throughout the past thirty years. In the interview quoted above, Ottilie Mulzet, who has tackled the problem of transferring a literary form encased in a “fragile, faraway language” such as Hungarian (not to mention a Central European culture largely unknown beyond its borders), of capturing the “multidirectional quality” of his syntax and translating it into a world language such as English, offers intimate insight into Krasznahorkai’s language and oeuvre. Also among the essays in this issue is an astonishing text by David Auerbach titled “The Pythagorean Comma and the Howl of the Wolf” that examines the “Werckmeister Harmonies,” the central section of The Melancholy of Resistance (and of the film it gave rise to), specifically the keyboard tuning that serves as the essential metaphor for the entire book. At stake is a minimal departure from the absolute purity of musical pitch—and whether “what is clearly a spiritual experience . . . has any real connection to the cosmos and the world.”

It is generally considered plausible today that human aesthetic activity can be traced back to the visionary. Scientific evidence suggests that human consciousness underwent a profound change around 40,000 years ago, when our Paleolithic ancestors first began painting in caves. The images they produced, among them spirals and geometric shapes, bear resemblance to entoptic phenomena, images the human mind perceives under the influence of hallucinogenic substances. This suggests an early relationship between the making of objects/images defined as “art” and altered states of consciousness—whether attained through psychoactive substances or through prayer, meditation, or ritualized dance—that has existed since human beings first began engaging in what we call aesthetic activity. The birth of art, then, may have derived from a need to portray not the animals of the hunt or other everyday occurrences, but the luminous and powerful images perceived within the human mind; in all likelihood, it is inseparable from the birth of mystical experience. But this is not merely an obscure phenomenon of the distant past. As mathematicians and physicists seek to locate human consciousness in the interface between quantum physics and molecular biology, science is at the vanguard of a discourse that has traditionally been art’s domain. In analyzing the fundamental historical differences between Eastern and Western conceptions of the sacred, Krasznahorkai reminds us that much of what we call art today has left the realm of communal experience and has ceased to be the vehicle or language humans use to communicate essential, ineluctable truths. As he explores under what conditions the sacred might still be perceived in art, he also, by implication, examines the possibility of meaningful aesthetic activity in contemporary times.

The project to reclaim art’s essential role in formulating the basic questions framing our existence is more modern than ever, perhaps even radically so. Seiobo There Below does not propose a new kind of pseudo-religion or the apotheosis of the artist as divine genius. Nor does it announce the death of art. There is too much crystalline joy in the writing, too much devotion in the excursions on artistic method and technique, too much humble exactitude in the portrayals of religious ceremonies. In “The Preservation of a Buddha,” as the elaborate ceremony to restore the divine light to the eyes of the Amida Buddha is nearing its final moments, “there is something now in the Hall which is difficult to put into words, but everyone present can sense it, a sweet weight in the soul, a sublime devotion in the air, as if someone were here, and it is most evident on the faces of the non-believers, the merely curious, the tourists, in a word the faces of those who are indifferent, it can be seen that they are genuinely surprised, because it can be felt that something is happening, or has happened, or is going to happen, the expectation is nearly tangible (. . .).” The question as to whether or not Krasznahorkai believes in or shares the metaphysical and religious experiences he describes is largely irrelevant in light of the fact that, for the attentive reader, the accumulative force of his words bring about the selfsame effect he takes such pains to describe. At its core, Krasznahorkai’s writing is always, deeply, ambiguous.