SEIOBO THERE BELOW
Laszlo Krasznahorkai trs. Ottilie Mulzet
New Directions, 2013
In chapter 13, “He Rises at Dawn,” me meet a master carver of Noh masks. This story is a single sentence that contemplates the flow of his work routine. LK’s characters in SATANTANGO were vivid and grotesque. Here, it’s like his prose aesthetic has been taken so far that characterization as we think of it is not quite possible. The novel is pretty conservative about characters in the Aristotle sense: characters as vessels of action, which comes in the form of massive chains of words so intensely focalized on various aesthetic objects.
But with the various classical artists like this mask carver, we can glean all kinds of artistic values.
…if there ever even was, his master taught him in his youth — or rather fulfilling the prophecy of his master, his own experience taught him that if there is within him the desire to create an exquisite mask, then he will unavoidably and unconditionally create the ugliest mask possible, this is always, and it is unconditionally always so, hence for a long time now that desire has not been within him, to put it precisely, there is nothing at all within him, the thoughts don’t whirl around, his head is empty as if he had been stunned by something; only his hand knows, the chisel knows why this must happen… (153)
Humble and modest is the artist who empties their heart of desire. The mind is empty too but not inactive. It’s just that only the present moment matters; you need to stay in the moment in general, but also when reading Krasznahorkai lest you get lost in the current sentence.
In Chapter 3, “The Preservation of a Buddha,” a monk says that his temple’s sacred Buddha statue “is knowledge given form, but not knowledge itself” (85). I suspect that’s why the master carver is impatient with “Western curiosity-seekers” who want easy answers from him about the “essence” of Noh theatre.
There’s a high-modernist tendency in the book to look wistfully at the art of the past: it seems so perfect and unified, pure, uncommodified. Fundamentally bound with religion, they constitute a force of their own that devastates the very bodies of the spectators each story. There is a notion in Marxist criticism (but from who? Lukacs?) that it was the very material underdevelopment of the pre-modern societies that made such a unified art possible.
But then there’s chapter 34, “The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki,” about a Noh performer. It’s opening sentence is narrated by Seiobo herself; maybe master Kazuyuki is so good at Noh drama that she was intrigued enough to come down. Then she returns “back to the purity of the Heavens, to the sphere inconceivable — which in its own form, resplendent, streaming forth, swelling, is nothing else than a return back to that place where nothing is,” which means she doesn’t exist in her home either (214). This infinite place beyond…we have to narrate our way to it. But its nature of being infinite means narrative is impossible — nothing can happen.
There is no improvisation to Kazuyuki’s work, not even in his work schedule or other prosaic matters.
…even if it seems that way, he never improvises, what happens is not improvisation, absolutely not in the everyday sense of the word, of that they are sure, since the sensei knows everything in advance, and knows it with dead certainty, and this is the general conviction, that’s why only to them does it seem like improvisation, because while it is true that he has a prescribed schedule for every given month, the sensei is eternally open, like a book, which means that in this direct contact with the Heavens, and for that reason he may suddenly be a bit unpredictable…(219)
He has stock narratives he tells the media. He has stories passed to him from his sensei, and “not even one single word may ever be altered, not even a single expression, no one may add anything to it, and no one may take anything away” (226). This is an aesthetics connected to the divine, conserving the absolute. Innovation is degenerate market modernism.
But what about Amoru-san, who describes her upbringing under this sensei:
I only love sensei because sensei is everything, and my father was a very hard man, he beat me every day, every single day, once I knocked over a porcelain vase, then he shoved my head into the iron stove, and he slammed the stove door against my head until I lost consciousness; in a word every single day was painful for me, every blessed day hurt, and I wanted to die, for a long time it wasn’t possible, and then finally it was, and I was already an adult when I first saw sensei, and I knew immediately that I loved him, but nothing was possible, so that is why I jumped in front of a car, and I lay in a coma for seven weeks, the blow had struck my brain, I was between life and death, the doctors said there was nothing they could do, but sensei knew, he knew that I loved only him, so as soon as he found out, he came to hospital and he called me back, I only now sensei and I only love sensei, don’t ask me about anything, so, well, sensei is my goal, before him there was nothing and after him there will be nothing, and I hope that he, too, will love me forever (241-42).
In all our desires for a lost whole, we shouldn’t forget: the anxieties of modernity is still preferable to absolute authority and the loss of the self, in my opinion.
But a lot of sacred art is unattributed, and a good thing too. Chapters 2 and 89 examine authorship, or rather its impossibility before modernity. (Foucault tells us the “author” is the function of a discourse based on private property.)
Because I’ve been hung up on the relation between fiction and nonfiction, I see another theme on this book’s back burner. There is a lot of factual stuff about the works of art and artists concerned, even citing modern scholarship and papers and whatnot. I hear LK is at work on a novel about Melville. This doesn’t shock me because I believe SEIOBO is encyclopedic in the way of MOBY-DICK.
Its’ been argued that the split between fact and fiction is recent and a-historical. The problem begins with Plato when he cast out the poets from his republic, thus turning philosophy into something that is not-literature. But Thucydides feels a lot more like creative nonfiction than traditional academic history. To borrow from Stephen Mulhall, philosophy and literature can be thought of as different kinds of “thoughtfulness” (more in a later post) but perhaps what I like about encyclopedic narratives is the “fusion” of these modes. My tastes go in this way.