SEIOBO THERE BELOW
Laszlo Krasznahorkai, trans. Ottilie Mulzet
New Directions 2013
I almost had a serious problem. The first chapter of Krasznahorkai’s new book appeared in THE WHITE REVIEW . I was entranced just by the first sentence, 800 words, describing a white crane wading in Kamo river in Japan, doing absolutely nothing except waiting for the moment to strike its prey. Indeed, I didn’t want to get on with the chapter, I only wanted to read that sentence again, and again…
Then by December of last year I got my own copy (signed by the author himself in New York). Again, I only wanted to look at that curtain opener. It wasn’t until the end of June that I finally started reading the rest.
SEIBO is a cycle of short stories concerned usually with art from the old world, but pretty much always with aesthetic questions — it’s an encyclopedic novel full of holy Shinto and Buddhist sites and statuary, Russian iconography, antique literature, Renaissance panels, ancient Greek architecture…I’m still only 2/3 of the way through it.
Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades; now and then the silken breeze sways, the mountains quiver in the scourging heat, but this heat itself also moves, trembles and vibrates in the land, as do the tall scattered grass-islands, the grass, blade by blade, in the riverbed; each individual shallow wave, as it falls, tumbles over the low weirs, and then, every inconceivable fleeting element, this surface suddenly emerging and just as quickly collapsing, with its drops of light dying down… (3)
It was hard to stop typing up the sentence: these are really just going to be arbitrary cut-offs. The message of Heraclitus: the only constant is change. Compared to the extreme stillness of the crane, the whole universe is quivering with movement. The text thrives on difference. There are actually an unusual amount of adjectives in this sequence: most of the time, Krasznahorkai’s eye is so close on the chapter’s given object (a crane, the restoration of a wooden Buddha statue, a painting of angels) that there’s no room for rhetorical ornaments. And yet the long sentences give a sense of expansiveness. Yeah, many of them are technically run ons, but it’s obvious that he’s doing something different here, more paratactic.
The sentence develops as the narrator describes how, eventually, this crane will kill “a fish, a frog, a beetle, a tiny reptile” in a rapid, precise movement.
and there it stands, in one time, immeasurable in its passing, and yet beyond all doubt extant, one time proceeding neither forward nor backward, but just swirling and moving nowhere, like an inconceivably complex net, cast out into time; and this motionlessness, despite all its strength, must be born and sustained, and it would only be fitting to grasp this simultaneously, but it is precisely that, this simultaneous grasping, that cannot be realized, so it remains unsaid, and even the entirety of the words that want to describe it do not appear, not even the separate words; (4)
Animals are great at existing in the eternal present moment. When a puppy dog waits in barely contained anticipation for a piece of jerky, is he conceivably in some “cast out moment” of anticipation that could go on forever if he had to wait that long?
Just when the crane seems to be about to be cast into something (I hesitate to say symbol), we get some shorter sentences (each one is separated by a space break) about the eternal starvation of the animal world, and the surrounding city of Kyoto. Nearby is the famous Higashi-Honganji temple. A tourist in from the Shinkansen station could look on this temple, but
the Higashi-Honganji today does not exist; as the eye looks upon it, the Higashi-Honganji never had a past, or a yesterday or a day before yesterday, there are only thousands and thousands of Allusions to the obscure pasts of the Higashi-Honganji, so that the most impossible situation is created, that there is, so to speak, no Higashi-Honganji of today, just as there never was a Higashi-Honganji at one time, only an Allusion, commanding respect, there is one, there was one, and this Allusion floats across the entire city, as one enters into it, as one tramps across this prodigious empire of wonders, from the To-ji temple to the Enryaku-ji
It comes to represent “the ungraspable, the inconceivable — as it is unreal — in other words: unbearable beauty” (9-10).
Only humans (the embodiment of sloth and evil) need time, before and after. It is the imposition of time that allows us to ruin the sublime indeterminacy of these beautiful objects. They exist out of time until we see and appreciate them and, as the event still transpires, puts it in the past tense: I experienced this, I learned that about the world and that about myself.
So that crane, with no indication of when it will strike, with no visual transition between its stillness and the moment of the strike, which is never narrated, becomes our first encounter with the unnamable realm of beauty and truth; the realm of Seiobo, where we desire to penetrate yet also need to keep unsullied by the world. Modern storytelling takes us to the terrain of what is necessarily inexpressible, and we can see how language gets all messed up as we approach it, like the gravitational lensing around a black hole.
So it’s actually a really scary thought, that Seiobo is, was, and will be, there below. We have to think about how and why these problems of aesthetics haunt us precisely when the aesthetic has devolved into a commodity object and cut itself off from the divine. We walk a line between the holy pilgrimage and the crass consumerism of the tourist.
And not all unbearable beauty inspires love. One story I want to look at closely in a future post shows how the sublime can punish the body without mercy.
One last bit: there’s a little digression in this first chapter, “Kamo Hunter”, about the building of the great water infrastructures in ancient China and other East Asian empires. This was a watershed (sorry) advancement for the development of these civilizations.There’s a role, not explained with the same lucidity as Krasznahorkai brings to other topics, for the ideological and its use of art for the interests of the ruling class, and the assault on the environment these uses entail.