Watch Out For – (Wenckheim VIII)

It’s not that I don’t understand why a person has to die, but rather, I don’t understand why a person has to live, Baron Béla Wenckheim pondered,…

So begins this short chapter in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. It is a chapter about disruptions.

First, there is the disruption of space by time:

…where the train station used to be, there still stood a train station; […] — it’s just that these were not the same train stations, main roads, hospitals, castles, or chateaus, they just happened to stand in exactly the same spot where the old ones used to be; they weren’t the old ones, they were new, they were different, they were strange, and they — now that the scales had fallen from his eyes — they left him completely cold,…

How one experiences the return to one’s birth place after years of exile can vary. I have felt Wenckheim’s coldness, but also the opposite, and yet another, rather strange sensation of duplicity in which the exile becomes a second layer over the older home, so that one has the feeling to be at two different places at the same time.

So Wenckheim plots his own death, insists to be taken to the forest, follows the rails to the train station from where he wants to return by train, has carefully memorized the train schedule, and looks for a suitable curve that would make it impossible for the train to stop in time.

While waling between he tracks and waiting and pondering his question from the beginning, Wenckheim is disrupted by a flock of deer – their unquestioned existence proves his own question meaningless. But maybe too late.

Infinite Difficulties (Wenckheim VII)

The Professor, international expert on mosses, is back at Thornbush, and busy with thought-immunization exercises.

… not a single moment can be left to the brain to find some pretext in order to escape from the questioning gaze, namely, the brain is looking at itself, and this looking must be comprised of sheer mistrust …

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Facing deathly revenge from the bikers, he acquires an insane amount of gasoline and stages his own death in the flames, re-creating a Burning Thornbush. We are led to expect that he will escape.

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While busy with preparations, the Professor ponders the meaning of life and death in a long monologue (speaking to his dog Little Mutt), beginning with questioning the infinite, and accusing the mathematician Georg Cantor for thinking the infinite is real, which the professor refutes, based on the lack of empirical evidence:

…namely, no one has ever wished genuinely to confront the deeply problematic nature of empirical verification as such, because whoever did this went mad…

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The denial of the infinite leads the Professor further — thinking itself becomes suspect:

…the mere appearance of a thought hauntingly reminds us that the way a person thinks is but one concept of infinity,…

Existence beyond being extant in time and space is questioned:

…there’s only that which takes place…

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The denial of the infinite and with it anything transcendent however causes a problem: our universal fear of being finite, that is, our fear of death: 

… what we must deal with here is, namely, Cantor and his god — because if we’re dealing with this, then at least we’re dealing with something, namely we’re dealing with fear, and we have to deal with that if Cantor and his god are interesting — and they are interesting — and that’s why, at this point, we must refocus our attention on this, as fear is what defines human existence, …

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The Professor’s monologue culminates in what I would call his theology of fear:

… fear, if we regard it as a creationary force, a general power center, from where the gods evaporate, and finally God emerges, and yes, the God of Cantor too, because the fear of the cessation of existence is a force field which we can’t even measure, … 

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Strikingly, the Professor comes to the realization that fearing death and loving to live are identical:

 

… the fear that is within us and the joy of life that is within us, well, these two things are one and the same, two sides of one fact, because we are a web of events that seeks to sustain one thing and one thing only, namely continuity, … 

So he can, simultaneously, affirm life as a process that aims to constitute infinity, and deny the existence of anything infinite, including God.

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The simplest infinite set in mathematics, the set of natural numbers, is postulated to have the property that for every number there is a successor. Within mathematics, it is not stated what it means that such a set exists — but most of mathematics is based on the firm belief that there always is a number that’s by one bigger than the previous one, that there always is one more step, just as in life. 

 

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Has the poor Professor not understood yet that if you have lived you don’t fear death?

He Will Arrive, Because He Said So (Wenckheim VI)

What could possibly go wrong? Baron Wenckheim has returned, and his main desire is to meet the love of his youth, who is eagerly expecting him.

In Photography, we typically expect what’s important to be in focus.

Krasznahorkai’s prose, however, has a shallow depth of field, and often the blurry part is where we should look.

Right at his arrival at the train station, Baron Wenckheim walks right beside her, himself a victim of this looking elsewhere: … he just went beside her like a sleepwalker,…

When Wenckheim finally meets Marika (or Marietta, as he remembers her name), the misfocus becomes extreme: He doesn’t grasp that she has aged, too, and takes her for her mother or aunt: …yes, he thought there is a resemblance there, he wouldn’t say that Marietta had completely inherited the traits of this lady, still, though, there were in her face and in her bearing a few minor characteristics that connected them,

Dialogue between the two becomes impossible, but Wenckheim’s more and more devastating monologue is not without effect: …and she wasn’t trembling, although she knew that soon she would be, but for the time being she was still in that state in which a person simultaneously grasps and refutes what has just happened,…

In photography, the object in front of the lens can be so much out of focus that it becomes part of the optical system through which everything else is perceived. Focus becomes secondary.

Upset about Marika’s absence, Wenckheim talks to her about his deep love to her, and she listens with growing desperation. — he saw no other way than to speak to her, in the most sincere way possible, of his most sacred feelings;… 

… and he reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and pulled out the photograph from an envelope, he handed it to her saying, please have a look, Madame, and see how beautiful she is, and Marika bowed her head and she looked at the photograph, she looked and she looked, then she couldn’t bear to look anymore, …

Rácsos Linzer (Wenckheim V)

…because this Linzer torte was always his favorite,
and that’s why she was taking it to him,
three baking pans’ worth…

 

Rácsos Linzer is Hungarian for Linzer Tart, which used to be my least favorite cake. I remember it came with a chewy jam underneath a deliberate looking crisscross pattern of dough.

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My sequential reading diary of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming requires an intercession to discuss the significance of this tart in the book. It is all over.

…she could make such a Linzer torte that no one else ever could, certainly not me, to be sure, but it was grand, they ate it up, …

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Of course I had to make my own.The recipes ask for hazelnuts or almonds. I am a subversive person. So I went  for black walnuts. Most highly recommended. In the meantime, Krasznahorkai uses that little tart for metaphysical speculations:

— it all depends on whose intuition we’re talking about, are we talking about the intuition of Auntie Ibolyka or the intuition of the Buddha, because it’s not the same, not at all — if, on the one hand we feel like having a piece of Linzer torte, or, on the other, we want to step off the edge of the precipice straight into a freefall —

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The recipes suggest red currant or raspberry jam. I didn’t have access to the former, but spiced up the latter with a few jalapeño peppers. Don’t the Hungarians like it spicy? I also quarantined a quarter and spread plum mus on it instead (spiced up with cardamom, in addition to cloves and cinnamon).

…the big problem is with this attack, presumably with this attack there’s the possibility, namely the high probability that in our great hurry we’ll end up burning that Linzer torte, …

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No, I set a timer. Thank you very much.

As you can see, I replaced the crisscross pattern by something else which was meant to look like a tessellation of the hyperbolic plane. János Bolyai would have been confused. Computer graphics is easier.

In the appendix, Krasznahorkai lists under UTILIZED MATERIALS — DESTROYED: Auntie Ibolyka’s Linzer torte with two baking dishes …

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So be it.

 

He Wrote To Me (Wenckheim IV)

Old Baron Wenckheim is returning. Hidden behind the noisy preparations of his home town to welcome him and his expected fortune, the third chapter of Krasznahorkai’s novel includes a more delicate dialogue in form of a letter Wenckheim wrote to Marika, the love of his youth, and her brief but intense reply.

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… she was an old lady, there was no embellishing that, so that what could they expect, she just sat there bent over the postcard, she looked at the three words, and tears came to her eyes, and somehow her back became even more hunched, her two shoulders fell forward,…

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How do we communicate across time? How do we talk to someone whom we have long forgotten, or maybe even never met? I keep quoting Paul Celan, who compared poems to messages in a bottle, sent off with the hope that they will eventually be washed ashore at heartland.

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Marika’s emotional breakdown while responding to Wenckheim is contrasted with the nervous breakdown of the entire city that is afraid of making costly mistakes:

…because that moment, everywhere in the town, had somehow shattered apart, everything came to a halt, from fear, to a dead stop because of the fear which had swept across the city,…

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The dialogue between a town and its visitors is not necessarily doomed. New Harmony manages to talk to the visitors to various works of public art, some immensely popular like its labyrinths or the Roofless Church, others well hidden like the installation of 20 tableaus of writing from the Kcymaerxthaere project, which are slowly eroding away.

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But it’s not enough that words are being written, they also need to be read.

Pale, Much too Pale (Wenckheim III – Quarries II)

…it was only the sky that surprised him, because a few strips of this enormous, dark, heavy, and interconnected mass had broken open, so that the light broke through here and there across a few narrow bands, and the rays of light reached down from the heavens to the earth, innumerable thick shimmering rays of light gently spreading out — like an intricate aureole…

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The second chapter in László Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming fulfills the title’s promise: Baron Wenckheim returns, by train, through the gloomy Hungarian plains.

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It is not particularly difficult to substitute the (for me currently inaccessible) Hungarian gloominess with what I have at hand, and I chose to seek out an elusive quarry, the Empire Quarry, to obtain appropriate illustration.

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The darkness of this second chapter is broken with the occasional appearance of light, as in the introductory quote, leading eventually to recognition:

…and he just watched as the streaks of light played across the landscape, he just watched, and he couldn’t get enough of this sight, he was happy that he could see what he had never dared hope to see again, he was happy that he could be happy again, he stared and he wondered, his eyes filled with tears, and he thought that indeed now he had come home.

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Then, near the end of the chapter, light takes the center stage with a photographer seeking out the perfect conditions for a photo shoot at the Kelety railway station in Budapest where Wenckheim is about to arrive.

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So there is, like here, a convergence of lines, railway lines, light rays, paths, a promise of more to come…

Dream

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Our imposed order of things gives time a direction, and all else seems to follow. But sometimes, this direction is lost, and certainty fails.

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Uncertainty means chance. Do we belong here?

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 It seems there is another inward structure, more punctual, more concentrated, like a poem, that manifests itself when the flow of time is obstructed.

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What Paul Celan wrote in his Meridian Speech  — the poem claims itself at its own limits, it calls and retrieves itself from Not-anymore to Still-there to persist without pause — becomes visible in extreme natural environments. In both there is seeking beyond these limits, words there, branches here.

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Is it possible to teach time to walk, to slide sideways?

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Poems, like dreams, are landmarks that help us to cross what we perceive as darkness of the mind. What seems wild and empty becomes possibility.

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Or do we prefer to sleep in our dreams?

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Thorn Bush (Wenckheim II)

… and then the thorn and the acacia bushes and a thousand kinds of weeds grew over them, and the Thorn Bush came into being — that’s what the residents of the city called it — as if it were some kind of proper neighborhood or something, …

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The first chapter of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Wenckheim takes place in Thorn Bush, a derelict district, where the Professor has taken residence, amidst huge piles of styrofoam panels, … that if anyone should come along and pester him, let all and sundry be warned that whomever dared to approach his hut in the Thorn Bush would be shot immediately and without warning.

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This chapter is about rejection — the city rejects one of its districts, the Professor reality, his daughter him as her father.

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… but even then its reputation was enhanced not by the spice of juicy murders or sexual violence, but rather by being a no-man’s-land in the city, completely left to its own fate, an ownerless piece of land, needed by no one, and about which no one even debated who might need it and how it might be used; it was, accordingly, completely left to itself, …

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Places like this give an opportunity for isolation, but the Professors needs go further:

…the basic problem with a window wasn’t a question of this or that practical advantage or disadvantage, but it was the principle of the window that troubled him greatly, and namely not because a window could be gazed into, but because that window could always be gazed out of — …

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In the book, this leads to violent escalation, maybe because nobody truly can lock oneself in.

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Has every city its own Thorn Bush, has everybody a place of self-abandonment?

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The pictures here are from my city, taken 10 years ago, near a defunct railroad line that had been converted into a trail. Since then this area has changed, but this is another story.

 

 

Warning (Wenckheim I)

because there could be no mistakes…

 

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When almost four years ago I congratulated You-Know-Who to his inauguration, I used pictures from the spectacular Tulip Trestle near Solesbury as an illustration. These days I have revisited this place, and it is as imposing as four years ago.

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In the last two years, I have found in László Krasznahorkai’s books consolation for the state of the world and the human soul, and with the imminent beginning of winter, I decided to read his latest (and maybe last) novel Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming.

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I also decided to do this as an excruciatingly slow read, and I will occasionally accompany my postings here with quotes from this book.

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It begins with a brief chapter titled Warning, where an orchestra conductor imposes himself on his orchestra:

… because there’s only one method of performance here which can be executed in only one way, and the harmonization of those two elements will be decided by me …

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But there is not just pure control, there also is purpose…

… because in reality what awaited them now was suffering, bitter, exhausting, and torturous work, when shortly (as the one single accomplishment of their cooperation, albeit an involuntary one), they would insert into Creation that for which they had been summoned; …

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This brief chapter sums up  how a human being usurps what is not his to claim.

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… because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.

Fall Colors

I thought all paintings had colours, actually, he says

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In Jon Fosse’s Septology V, Asle delivers a painting in black and white, in dismay to the friend who commissioned it.

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The lack of color is a misunderstanding, like the lack of harmony in contemporary music. It is not the celebration of an absence, but its recognition.

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We only seem to appreciate this when the absence is more intense than the presence.

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But it has its dark side, too, showing us that there are places that have never seen color, that are sheer absence.

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The consolation? There are still both darkness and light. It could well be all dark.