Pillars: #1. Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.


 

Most likely the contemporary author who has had the greatest influence on me has been László Krasznahorkai. His books feel more visionary to me than any other working author I’m familiar with, his style more original, his project more unified—yet also profoundly expansive, complex, and elemental. So I could very easily be writing about the influence that all of Krasznahorkai’s books have had on me (his project is very unified, and he has many important works), but I am going to pick Seiobo There Below to write about as the major pillar.

The general consensus of most people who know Krasznahorkai’s work inside and out—as well as my own opinion, based on reading six of his works—is that Seiobo There Below is his masterpiece to date. This is a book that I could imagine us still learning from 100 years from now, a book that will come to seem more and more emblematic of its times and predictive of the future yet to come. It reminds me most of Kafka, in the sense that Kafka was able to divine the irresolvable elements at the heart of modernism, yet was also able to foresee the horrors that would come with the Second World War and the logic that would take hold of Western civilization thereafter. I think Seiobo There Below carries that kind of visionary power, both to comprehend what is at the center of our own era and to create a structure nimble enough to continue to feel profound and precognitive in the decades to come. Although Krasznahorkai’s early books were very powerful, they also came out of the specifically Hungarian, Communist world that he was born in. Seiobo There Below partakes in his travels and growth as an individual, to encompass not just the communist Eastern Europe, nor just that + Western Europe, but those things in addition to the East and Krasznahorkai’s experiences around the world. It feels global in reach, and this is why I would pick it to last longer than many of his other books, powerful as they may be.

So what is this book about? Well, it does not function in the way that we’re accustomed to thinking most novels function. There’s no first-person narrator whom we follow for these 400-some pages, there are no consistent characters, no central incidents, or even locales. In fact, the book is so wide-ranging and diffuse that you could almost call Seiobo There Below a series of short stories, except for the fact that this book is so profoundly unified under thematic lines—as well as by its central conceit (more on that in a moment)—that it simply cannot be looked at as a collection. Reading it, each successive chapter seems to emanate out of everything that has come before, like the movements of a symphony, even though to superficial eyes there will be little to connect them together.

An attempt at plainly stating what Seiobo There Below is about might go something like this: the book uses various individuals and situations to make you feel all of the chaos and anarchy that necessarily exists in the human world, but it also shows how something we might call either art or spirituality has for eons given humans a way to escape the anxiety and loneliness that necessarily come with a world fundamentally beyond our control and understanding.

That summary is the best way I can concisely state what this book does, but it necessarily shortchanges it (as would any concise description of Seiobo There Below), so here is a list to give a sense of the range and newness of this title:

  • the book ranges in era from pre-history (or maybe post/a-history) up through the Middle Ages right to the present, and it also ranges through the continents, always managing to give us an immediately compelling, believable, and forceful portrait of whatever way of life it chooses to convey
  • the book is truly encyclopedia, as it encompasses various disciplines from Noh mask-making through Renaissance art to ancient architecture to mud-sculpting, again always giving us an expert-level account of these disciplines while integrating each item into the book’s core themes at the deepest level
  • the book is stylistically advanced, being composed mostly of pages-long sentences and single-paragraph chapters, a style that references and converses with Krasznahorkai’s previous ways of composing his novels but that also feels new, a style that he has not previously tried before and that feels like an evolution of his art
  • the book seems to be in conversation with some of the most exciting, new, and original ideas of our times (more on that in a sec)

I should now say a few words about the book’s central conceit. First off, the chapters of this book are numbered according to the progression of the Fibonacci sequence, a numerical sequence that is simply generated by adding up its last two numbers: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 (Seiobo There Below ends after 17 chapters, on the number 2584). There is much beauty in the Fibonacci sequence: when graphed, this sequence makes a beautiful, gracefully expanding spiral, and the it has been mathematically linked to the so-called golden ratio, which is found all throughout nature and has been studied by philosophers/scientists and drawn on by artists for virtually all of recorded history.

I think that there are many, many, many ways to read what Krasznahorkai has done by invoking these concepts in the architecture of his book, but surely one idea they raise that is close to the heart of this project is that of some kind of natural order underlying the chaos of the world. This order is a thing that we humans can at times glimpse when we have our most profound moments of what we might call art or spirituality. This idea also syncs up with the book’s title: Seiobo is a minor Chinese goddess associated with the West and prosperity who is known for cultivating a garden of peaches that confers immortality. Placing Seiobo “there below” obviously implies certain ideas about the transcendent touching the earthy plain; I also think it is significant that she is an Eastern goddess of “the west,” given how Krasznahorkai has grown increasingly interested on finding literary ways of combining the realms.

I’d just like to conclude by mentioning one last way Seiobo There Below feels so new to me. I do believe that the book (whether consciously or not) invokes the idea of the “rhizome,” which Deleuze and Guattari attempt to philosophically describe in their masterpiece, A Thousand Plateaus. Wikipedia explains a rhizome as describing “theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.” In other words, it subverts our traditional, inherited ways or ordering the world in favor of something new, something that is fundamentally non-hierarchical. To quote from rhiomes.net:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the originary source of “things” and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those “things.” “A rhizome, on the other hand, “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (D&G 7). Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (D&G 25). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

To me, this is precisely what Seiobo There Below is about: to resist the simple idea of “beginning, middle, end,” to contradict the claim that civilization is “progressing” toward some culmination. Instead, the book attempts to find new narratives and new organizational principles for explaining the human propensity to seek transcendence over our brutal, chaotic, fundamentally uncertain world. Of course, many writers have written on this subject, but few have attempted to find a rhozomic way of linking it all together. Deleuze and Guattari first published A Thousand Plateaus in 1980 (and the book first appeared in English in 1987), meaning that their ideas are extraordinarily young and are still being assimilated and interpreted. In my opinion, the are among the forefront of the philosophical ideas of our era—they are concepts that are far, far ahead of their time, and we are just beginning to see them comprehend and adopted in the mass culture. The fact that Krasznahorkai, whether purposely or by intuition alone, seems to be conversing with them at the deepest levels (and in the form of fiction) is just one more proof of how new and canonical Seiobo There Below really is.

Thanks to some good luck, as well as the determined efforts of many individuals who believe in the importance of Krasznahorkai’s literary project, Seiobo There Below has developed the beginnings of a sizable and passionate readership. I expect that this will continue, in the mold of many great works before it that started out with a small but devoted readership and slowly grew and grew to become central pieces. Like those other titles (and, indeed, like A Thousand Plateaus) Seiobo There Below is a book that at times demands to be read slowly, a book in which not everything will be comprehended at first glance. Nonetheless, it is a book that, to me, more than anything else feels vital and alive and powerful. I think that any reader who gives it a honest chance will not be failed to be moved—again and again and again—by what Krasznahorkai has achieved.



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I salute your bravery in reviewing this book. I would have liked to but I simply didn’t know where to start.
The idea of “conversing” at a deep level with fundamental concepts of time and the human lifespan
goes some way towards capturing its dynamic. And it is so utterly absorbing about the process of making art. As you say, a book to come back to again and again. I was pleased to see it win Best Translated Book 2014.

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