ON COMPANION ANIMALS IN KRASZNAHORKAI

I.

László Krasznahorkai has one main method in his fiction: he reduces the scene to the bleakest of places and seasons, and then sub-divides the plot into thousands of tiny events that he describes in page-long sentences and chapter-long paragraphs. There is hypertrophy of description and near-elimination of dialogue. Often there are lots of well-defined, quirky agents in a barely coherent rural community, but his human characters are severely limited in social scope, intelligence, emotional range, or else they are smart murderers or con men. In the kind of place Marx would have described as showing village idiocy, there plays out a packed density of micro-event, micro-feeling. Theologically speaking, all is horizontal horizon with diminished human travellers and no vertical reach to divinity, no break in the autumnal gloom or incessant wind, nothing more than a glimpse of meaning, much less of joy. Affect, aspect, perspective: flattened. In his films of several novels, Hungarian director Béla Tarr has chosen well when he makes a big square frame for wide landscapes or in-your-face close-ups, on black and white stock.

There are animals in Krasznahorkai, companions with us in the same regime of wretched weather and the starvation of meaning: cows, spiders, little Esti’s cat Micur in Satantango, along with the horses that break out of the slaughterhouse; a beast of burden in The Turin Horse; the dog who is literally pictured in, and who literally speaks the fourteen malevolent paragraphs of Animalinside. In an era when DNA tests help us to specify the physiological continuities between human and animal, we are still searching for the emotional and moral lines of linkage, and also the gaps. Krasznahorkai’s world is our world with massive revelatory subtractions. In the hope that a new relationship is in prospect, I want to argue that Krasznahorkai, as an extremist of reduction, can help us to say what may rightly, for us now, belong to the human and to the animal. In his stories, how are humans moved in the direction of animals, but animals not moved in the direction of humans? We may have to rest in this How of method, because Krasznahorkai’s plots – in their tendency to circle back to the opening phrases and themes, their reluctance to progress anywhere in knowledge or morality – discourage the reader from the Why of generalising one (much less any) meaning out of a series of incidents.

II.

With the right relation of humans and animals as our topic, we need to speak of anthropocentrism and its alternatives. The reigning discourse on animals is one where the question of continuities and boundaries is never broached. This is the discourse of domination dating from the contradictions written into Genesis, where humans are both (in different passages) the absolute overlords and the benevolent stewards of lesser animal beings. This, and theologies of animal sacrifice in Christian and Judaic religion, is energised by the thought of Descartes on animals as machines, and given new authority by Heidegger in his thesis about animals as poor-in-world. With respect to the lives and deaths of animals, Christianity in particular has much to answer for.

Greek thought in Aristotle and others, before the common era, is far more accepting of a continuity of animal–human, and that goes for Roman thought too in Epicurus and his disciple Lucretius. To defeat anthropocentrism, we are counter-posing a prior, and continuing, materialist frame of thought against a Christian hierarchical frame. There is a more recent animal-rights component of the alternative discourse, a crucial adjunct but not our central concern here: ethical commitments place our affiliates against factory farming of animals, against meat-eating, against zoos, against mistreatment of animals in circuses, against most experimentation with animals. Our literary-philosophical concern is best argued by Jacques Derrida, whose personal admission in a 1990s lecture, published as The animal that therefore I am, also inadvertently happens to summarise the position of Krasznahorkai behind the novels: Derrida said that he has always had “a particularly animalist perception”, and that this is “a vision of what I do, think, write, live, but, in fact, of everything, of the whole of history, culture, and so-called human society, at every level, macro- or microscopic”. If you have this kind of perception, it must mean a criticism of reigning discourses that concern the human, must mean a deconstruction (as we literary people still would say) of the opposition animal – human. It must mean a different interpretation of being-in-the-world, and indeed of world.

Derrida in the book mentioned and in two volumes of late lectures before his death in 2004, published as Beast and Sovereign, has some literary examples. However, he is centrally and philosophically concerned to argue, what animalist perception might mean to those of us who need to turn around the Western tradition of thinking about animals. By citation, argument, mockery he exposes our impulses to domination, our forgetfulness about systematic cruelty to animals, our language with its minimising of our own animal physiology, our euphemisms and trivialisings when animals are the topic.

Now, ten years after Derrida’s death, the task of indicating what animalist perception might be in literary works is still to be completed. This is the development into literary writings, by which I mean scholarship, nonfictional nature writing, and poetry and fiction, of ideas now current in the emergent field of Animal Studies. In this field the animal–human boundary is recognised, and the emphasis is on searching for continuities and for specific identifiable distinctions.

Literary writing in Wordsworth’s poems and the novels of Melville and Lawrence, in nonfictional prose in writers like John Muir, in argumentative and enactive science fiction in K. S. Robinson, has long had a role in presenting animals as co- evolving species with humans. These writers show motions and emotions, through descriptive codes that use the same terms for humans and animals. To start a list of the kinds of things they notice: there is head aim in mammals; the upright body putting face and eyes in front; the fantastic difference in olfactory powers between animals and humans; tails and vestigial tails; clothing/no clothing; hand/ paw; ingenuity of song; sense of self and of individual force, in animals of all sorts; companion species, working together; bodies organised to kill other bodies; suffering and what it means to the individual animal. If we wish to speak for a more exact specifying of the proper roles of the human and of the animal, such topics are the performative edge of a political argument: placing equal emphasis on both sides of the boundary line is in itself a world-historical shift in values. In fact the writers have been performing this long before the philosophers of the last generation began defining it as a topic and a cause.

When perception is transformed into any kind of writing, it is already eloigned, translated, re-enacted in another medium, as the writer has used language to show what the perception felt like, and what might be the relation of perception to cognition. That is why we get a salutary shock when Gary Snyder calls attention to the code: “There is a mountain lion in this sentence.” That is why companion animals are not allegories or species-representatives in Krasznahorkai; rather characters, dialogic in the particular ways they can communicate.

III.

Here is Satantango, title of a novel by Krasznahorkai and a film by Béla Tarr (novel published in 1985 under communism, translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions, 2012): it is late October on the great plain, a sound of bells coming unplaceable from great distance, pelting rain, cows in mud, paint-peeling buildings of a failed agricultural collective, a drunk and addicted doctor writing up spy-notes on his fellow-villagers, Mrs Schmidt washing her bottom in a pot after morning adultery with the lodger, adult villagers in the local bar drunk on cheap communist-era pálinka and dancing at night to the accordion, Irimiás the sexiest-smartest of the lot preparing to extort money from the locals.

In the local public house and outbuildings, spiders are extending webs over all objects, working day and night; trapping flies, the webs are literal, everywhere, yet begin to seem an image of confinement, stasis, even takeover by lower forms of life. Everything happens excruciatingly slowly. In novel and film, the extended scenes are so leisurely, so many-times subdivided into small ugly events, so lacking in shift of focus, that we are stupefied and resist adjusting to the delayed pace.

Esti, our chosen character, is seven or eight, called a retard by her older brother Sanyi, with her father dead and her mother inattentive. Sanyi tricks her into thinking money planted in the ground will multiply, then he digs it up for himself; he rouses her interest and then abandons her. Sanyi is her only interpreter of how the world works and he fails miserably. Though Esti has reached the traditional age of reason, nothing makes sense. She does not change her clothes for a week, runs from grubby kitchen across the mud to the barn open to the weather, can hardly be called living in a place because she cannot connect her emotions with what she sees. She knows it all physically but, living in terror and fantasy, grabbing at scraps of words from Sanyi, she is overwhelmed by events. We cannot say she is living like an animal, however we may define animal: for she mistakes winning and pride as supreme values, as no animal would. But those gods in her confined world, who are responsible for fostering in her the joys and sorrows and knowledge of a human person, have absconded.

Micur the black cat is the one being to whom Esti is mistress and god. The ten pages of the novel which show her luring, chasing, grabbing, rolling over upon the cat, cursing it for defecating, killing it are among the most terrible in literature. There is a tango of Satanic forgetfulness, later in the novel when the adults are dancing to the accordion at the saloon, surrounded by night and rain, abandoned to rhythm in a swirl of desire; but the sub-plot tango of Esti and Micur prepares for that with a different kind of evil.

Esti, you are not evil. You absorbed the ethos of winning from Sanyi: “she herself was moved by the hope of winning, and while she felt that there could be no winners at the end if only because nothing ever ended, the words Sanyi had spoken yesterday… had rendered all objections ridiculous; each failure was an act of heroism”. In your inner speech you used human words but you were unaware of what is proper for a human being. You used your clever knowledge of Micur’s habits to trap him, you submitted to his claws, you exerted your human power over his life, but you did not know the difference between life and death. You carried the dead cat to the sad saloon where the adults inside were dancing, watched them through the window, but you were scared off by the drunk doctor outside the door, and you walked and walked and lay down in the driving October rain with Micur, and you yourself died of exposure with him in your arms. Micur was innocent and did not deserve to die. You were innocent and did not deserve to die.

The evil is in the indifference of the adults, for whom Esti is their Micur. But unlike Esti they are conscious causes of a death, as Irimiás said in his brilliant eulogy over the girl’s corpse in her coffin, speaking to the whole community in combined tones of horror–condemnation–flattery: “I know I should pull myself together, but I am sure you will understand if just at this moment I am incapable of saying or doing anything except share, deeply share, the agony of an unfortunate mother, a mother’s constant, never-to-be-alleviated grief… because I don’t think I need to tell you twice that the grief of losing – just like that, from one minute to the next – those dearest to our hearts is, my friends, quite beyond measure. I doubt if anyone now gathered here could fail to understand any part of this. The tragedy involves each and every one of us, because, as we know full well, we are responsible for what has happened.” Satan in this scheme is what’s left when religion and a larger community have mostly disappeared, and an isolated group of people in late communism have given themselves to subsistence against the cold, to furtive shallow pleasures, and to fantasies of escape.

IV.

Krasznahorkai wrote the original story and also the script for The Turin Horse, Tarr’s film of a few years ago. The back-story, left unmentioned but influencing everything we see and hear, refers to Friedrich Nietzsche’s mental collapse when he saw a horse being beaten by its owner in a street in Turin. The film opens with the farmer lashing the horse, careening on the road back from the city to his barren farm. Here provincial Italy in 1888 will stand for deep Hungary. The Krasznahorkai/Tarr film, black and white in the usual square frame, with two-or-three minute uninterrupted takes, will require all the viewer’s moral and physical stamina, simply to remain in place to see the repetitive joyless days of this devoted daughter and her unspeaking father with his paralysed arm, the horse they cannot feed who is dying in the stall, so starved it has no dung to fork away, their own diet of a boiled potato each morning and night, within wood walls where they eat and sleep, barely insulated against the incessant wind. The wind-roar does not let up for the five agonisingly similar days the film tracks through, and the incursions of two separate unbidden guests make for brief changes in the oppressive psychic insulation we suffer from the restricted setting, the sound environment, and the lack of counter-speech between father and daughter. It is this dead zone from which the farmer came who grew frustrated with his horse in Turin and drove Nietzsche to a breakdown. Nietzsche was pushed over the edge by fellow-feeling for the horse, since he couldn’t know the reason for the farmer’s anger, and if he did, maybe he would still, and rightly on this evidence, go mad. Nietzsche is the horse? Author and director and actors and viewers are the humans – or the horse? The story-lines of the world, in all their multiplicity and thing-ness and emotional richness are reduced to this? Béla Tarr has said the film is his last; how, he obliquely asked in the Berlin Festival interviews added to the DVD, go anywhere else in his work, further than the negatives about human and animal life that are set into action here? Unrelentingly bleak, placing humans and animals on the level, offering no rescue, enigmatic because lacking in language, offering actions but not explaining them, insisting on the obscure Hungarianness of the rural interior, pushing into the foreground the facts of poverty and hunger, stripping out nearly all the rags of culture: what do these decisions mean for the year the film was made, beyond the obvious conclusion that author and director are working in contempt for the whole of the international film industry, for all of conventional story-telling?

V.

As fiction, Animalinside is one side of a dialogue, the side never before heard, or if heard never before this driven by rage. Who could have known these violent fantasies of annihilation could come from such a muzzle? This is as if the terror of fear vs. flight could speak and condemn us for oppression stretching from the beginning of life on earth. This is the inside of the animal but also the inside of us which is the animal. If Micur the black cat were re-animated, if he were a rampant black dog-shape with no front paws, who could talk and howl, he could be the irascible consciousness inside Animalinside (translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Muilzet, Sylph Editions, Cahiers Series, Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris, 2010).

This is a series of fourteen long paragraphs that derive from, and are published with, collage-paintings produced by the artist Max Neumann. Here the animal is I and the humans are they and you, so at last in the history of the world the companion animal has his say and it is the condensed and accumulated, hyperbolical, breathlessly spewed poison bile of the ages. In outer appearance this seems to be a forty-page collection of prose poems with some relation to facing images of dog shapes (though four times there are shapes of humans with the dog), so the shock comes from the brutality of the attack inside a thin, expensive chapbook. The assault produces a cognitive search in the reader, who must submit (since we are the you) to being hit by fourteen waves of hatred directed at our species-selves. The need to assess how writing has collaborated with painting, the generic uncertainty when there is nothing like this in the history of the short-short story or the prose poem, the intensity of anger in the speech: these unsettle. Usually each of the texts is a single sentence lacking coordination of elements: many times rescued from chaos by loose syntax, when elaborating and repeating segments are added after commas.

We find this Krasznahorkai difficult to quote, because there must be an arbitrary cut into and away from the isolated units that make up the utterance. From the first text: “… the problem is the space, he has nothing in common with this space, in the entire God-given world he has nothing in common with this structure, with these perspectives, these perspectives are not made for him to exist in them, so that he doesn’t exist, he only howls, and this howling is despair, the unspeakable horror of that instance of awakening when the condemned comes to realise that he has been excluded from existence, and there is no way back, if there ever even was a way here, he has been caught in a trap, there is no escape, and everything hurts, that one thing still belonging to him hurts, the fact that he has ended up here, in this space ill-matched to his proportions, and he howls, I want to break out…”. Here the mid-text, minor-seeming shift from he to I sets up the rest of the series. From now on the animal inside is speaking urgently and crudely, though with the same style as the (presumably human) speaker of the set-up lines, but now this is a howl and a howl need not show subtlety of syntax or ingenuity of word-choice, or description, or characterisation, or sequence of plot.

There is, though, a steady build-up of verbal violence, as Dog elaborates his threats. Text II is about the uncertainty of power-relations between dog and master: “I don’t fit into your brains… I am not an animal, I am not a spectre, and not a shadow, and not a wolf… you don’t even know if you should be afraid now or not…”; III is about the threat of hugeness and strength: “so so sooo big that I extend across two galaxies… I break a sword in two with my teeth… I break the floor of every ocean in two”; others are about the threat to break out of confinement and “rip everything apart” (VIII), the hatred of infinity and all that is (IX), the pack-hunt’s ability to “rip someone in shreds” (X), how “you have become unworthy of the earth belonging to you” (XI).

The main shift occurs at VII, at the middle of the series, when the image of the dog faces a larger black cut-out of a human figure in Neumann’s collage and when Dog in Krasznahorkai’s ventriloquism says: “there isn’t any distance at all, because I’m not out there but I’m in here, because I was always inside you, at first just as a kind of cell, or rather something like a mistake in a cell, but then suddenly I grew and now I exist within you with all my force, you carry me everywhere within yourself, your bearing is nice…”. So Dog in his rant delivers the meaning of the author’s chapbook-title, but also helps the reader understand the complexity, the propriety, of a human, Krasznahorkai, speaking as Dog.

The end is stasis, a state of affairs. XII begins by addressing “My little master” and inquiring where is “my little food-dish”, and is soon anticipating the time when “your little food-dish won’t be needed any more, because then I will rip away your ears, because then I will tear off your nose…” XIV ends the series: “we want not even a single trace of you to remain…” This cannot, but presumably will, go on forever. Human and animal are bound together by rage.

VI.

Recently Krasznahorkai published outside Hungary a personal essay on Anxiety in The New York Times (13 January 2013), and two stories: an account of the painting of “Queen Vashti Leaves the Royal Palace” by Renaissance artist Filippino Lippi (Harper’s Magazine, August 2013), and “There Goes Valzer”, spoken by an impossible narrator who has gone for a walk on the Day of the Dead in his La Sportiva boots, and died (London Review of Books, 20 March 2014). All these have last-paragraph revelations of crucial relationships that have been until then suppressed: the anxious victim turns out to be his own pursuer; Lippi’s art in Vashti knows but hides the breaking of her “milk-white delicate neck”; the speaker becomes his own corpse. The first of these ends in the terror which is a step away from everyday anxiety, and the other two end on heavily-described frozen images of death, so the keynote of these as of all the animal-texts we’ve seen above, is negation of value, denial of any exit in redemption.

In Krasznahorkai animalist perception is not a blessing, as in D. H. Lawrence or Gary Snyder or Louise Erdrich, but rather a curse. Few writers, perhaps only Melville and his whale and Nietzsche and his Turin horse, have registered animalist perception more despairingly than Krasznahorkai. In him we have found anxiety, cruelty, negation, reduction, and refusal to make excuses for the near-nothing that exists. However, trust in and protection of the curse of animalist perception is not mistaken, if it helps to rectify the reigning discourses of religion and philosophy: to expose the disgrace that nearly our whole lexical system, as it relates to nonhuman animals, is human-centred and denies otherness. There is no Yes beyond the last No in this writer. There is, though, the clear-eyed, honourable resolve that comes of realising we no longer need to be complicit with the disgrace. For if we register our own animalist perception intensely enough, we achieve not liberation but a new assignment: alertness to keep the boundary permeable both ways to the human animal inside, and the companion animal outside; charity linguistic and moral to the companion animal; no speech acts that permit the evasion of suffering; constant redefinition of how we specify what it is to be human.

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