Fight or Flight

It was supposed to be boring – the end of history, that is. In Francis Fukuyama’s famous characterization, human society had reached its final resting place chiefly through the exhaustion of alternatives. Far from triumphal, The End of History and the Last Man (1992) ended on a melancholy note:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands…In the post-historical period, there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.

Fukuyama has maintained his position, arguing that the persistence of division and conflict – most recently in Ukraine – has done nothing to disprove this essential claim. But what if the end of history isn’t like that at all? What if the last man is not a gloomy docent dusting off the artifacts of humanity’s great epochs – what if, instead, he’s a maniac on the run, dashing wildly through time and space, babbling breathlessly as he tries to deliver some interminable monologue?

This is one way to describe the world of the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai. A cult figure in the anglosphere since around the turn of the millennium, Krasznahorkai is best known for major novels including Satantango (1985), The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), War & War (1999) and Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (2016). His ironic, philosophical body of work bears the unmistakeable influence of Kafka; it is dominated by a sense of universal ruin, and the belief that epic possibility has vanished from our world, if indeed it had ever been here in the first place. Perhaps surprisingly, this is an outlook that remained largely continuous across the historic caesura of 1989-1990. Krasznahorkai’s first novels, written after he completed his studies in law and literature, were set among the moral decay of the Hungarian Communist regime’s final years. But the replacement of this system with another inspired in him neither triumph nor relief, as he would later say in interview: ‘the world in Hungary was absolutely abnormal and unbearable, and after 1989 it was normal and unbearable.’ Party elites there proved particularly capable of maintaining their power and influence; economic hardship was wrought by rapid privatization and austerity; a combination of integrationist neoliberalism and reactionary nationalism took hold. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Krasznahorkai travelled widely – he has lived in Berlin, the US, Spain and Japan – and the locations of his fiction roamed accordingly. But his work has continued to be inflected by Central Europe’s past and present.

In recent years, Krasznahorkai has become increasingly drawn to a particular kind of narrative: the single-perspective story involving a hunt or chase. His characters are regularly harried and pursued, or perhaps they flee pre-emptively – their flight accompanied by rambling, vertiginous monologues rendered in Krasznahorkai’s trademark long, labyrinthine sentences. These flights are ultimately hopeless, and yet the nature of their failure is emblematic of how Krasznahorkai understands our ‘post-historical’ times. The novella Chasing Homer – his most recent book, which has been translated by John Bakti and published by New Directions – represents the purest articulation and refinement of this narrative strategy, which we might call the sentence-as-pursuit. Here an anonymous, disoriented, paranoid being dashes madly across Europe, determined to outrun or evade his pursuers for as long as they can. Nearly every chapter is a single sentence, a breathless – and sometimes interrupted – monologue by its narrator-on-the-run. Each is accompanied by a painting by the German painter Max Neumann and a QR code that, when scanned, plays compositions by Hungarian jazz drummer Szilveszter Miklós. Taken together, it is an unstable and exhilarating work.

Initially, Chasing Homer appears as a kind of escape narrative in the abstract. We learn nothing of the narrator, save that they are on the run; they confess to having no memories and no past, to being trapped in the perpetual here and now: ‘…such a focused state of being remains uninterrupted, nonstop, ongoing, it’s not even worth speaking of instants, especially not of two instants, moreover two successive instants, how ridiculous…’ Yet here and now is not clear either. ‘I’ve no idea what country this is, as far as I’m concerned it could be any country’. The pursuers, meanwhile, are unnamed and unseen: one begins to doubt they exist. The narrator’s decisions seem odd and arbitrary, too – their ‘survival strategies’ are nothing but ‘constant makeshifts’, since a move in any direction is just as likely to attract their pursuers. Their fear, throughout, is palpable, not only in the skidding, screeching monologue and the vivid depictions of anticipated violence, but in the lurching percussion of the musical accompaniment.

About halfway through, however, the setting suddenly resolves into a specific place: the Adriatic coast. The narrator runs from Pola to Fiume, considers Dubrovnik, then continues via boat to Mljet, allegedly the island where Odysseus was trapped by Calypso until Hermes arrived with the gods’ order to free him. Here a sense of fated possibility awakens:

I must plunge, from the edge of a moment right into its midst, and onward, from one wave to the next, just like some Moby-Dick, or a dying butterfly between two flower petals, I must keep fleeing, even if on top of everything, as I have already mentioned, there’s no such thing as two moments.

Mistakenly believing Mljet to be uninhabited, the narrator experiences a ‘tranquillity’ that they chalk up to either exhaustion or mental derangement. They suddenly have the sense that they are being driven by an unknown power, and so they continue past the sign that says ODYSSEUS’S CAVE, feeling lighter, freer, almost as if they’re flying – until they smash through the fence and tumble off a cliff, falling deep into a chasm. Down below, and here the novella shifts to italics, a group of scuba divers emerges from an underwater passage. One of them notices something on the beach, and investigates: ‘…approaching it cautiously, for that thing might have been anything, and after reaching it, and giving it a kick or two, he waves to the others, calling: “It’s all right, just a dead rat, nothing to worry about.”’ A final chapter, entitled ‘No’, contains only the words: ‘No, I was never giving up’, accompanied by a minute-and-a-half long drum track.

It is certainly one of Krasznahorkai’s stranger chase sequences. As in Kafka, the sudden change of perspective is not just darkly funny, but also world-turning. One man’s transcendence is another man’s gobbledygook: one person’s hero is another’s trash. If this is an Odyssey, it is a distinctly postmodern one. Our protagonist faces an obstacle-strewn Mediterranean journey, but this is an Odysseus without an Ithaca – his journey is all from and no to, all chase and no telos. The closest thing to a destination is the cave of Calypso, a mythic place of isolation and purgatory, yet any final resolution is foreclosed by the perspective of people to whom the quest means nothing.

Novalis described philosophy as a homesickness, an urge to find a resting place. The Krasznahorkian chase might be said to be a frantic enactment of this desire. It seeks the home – which can be found in anything – as a site of refuge from the threat that’s present in everything. The chase is thus an existential condition, or at least a response to one: ‘my fate is to be on the roads’, says the narrator, who is ‘forced to sojourn in precisely the very world from – and because of – which I’m fleeing’. Krasznahorkai’s narrators are, or believe they are, hunted and pursued across a world that’s continually falling apart. They are always in a hurry, always afraid. And, as they run, they talk – they blabber and they hector, they lose their train of thought, they imagine the attention of the audience waning and demand you hear them out.

But what exactly are these characters fleeing? When they run, they do so in fear – and defiance – of what Krasznahorkai often calls ‘war’. This should not be mistaken for literal fighting. Krasznahorkian ‘war’ is rather a kind of brutality that sniffs out anything different or weak, unrationalised and unassimilated. It is personified by characters such as the scheming Mrs. Eszter in The Melancholy of Resistance or the militaristic Mastemann of War & War. In the fictional lecture series at the heart of The World Goes On (2013), Krasznahorkai has an imprisoned thinker discuss why ‘war’ is so hard to escape: 

This most maleficent demon is not the same as the angel of death, for it is not the spirit of peace but the demon of war, of delight that everything in existence can be ruined…nothing and no one is exempt from its sway.

Krasznahorkai’s work is gripped by this insatiable logic of ruination, as well as the lure and danger of ‘security’ – security of the body and security of knowledge. The lecturer accuses his wardens of being ‘most concerned with the predictability of the world, in other words, your own security’ – faced with the ‘collapse of the imagination’, he suggests, the ‘only possibility was to retreat’. Throughout this work, it is violence carried out in the name of security that proves most destructive. Like the paranoid beast in Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’, the more you build up your defences, the more you lose your sense of what’s inside and what’s outside. Krasznahorkai’s short prose work Animalinside (2010) is seemingly narrated by a black dog who, taunting the reader, boasts that attempts to defend oneself are all in vain because ‘one day I shall come’ – yet, as the title suggests, the animal may already be here, within us.

The fear of ‘war’ in Krasznahorkai’s novels is total because it is everywhere – in a world where power knows no boundaries, there is no shelter. War & War depicts four travellers seeking sanctuary who witness a series of pivotal moments in the history of globalization. In one case, they await news of Columbus’s return. If Gibraltar falls as the world’s known horizon, one traveller says, then ‘with Gibraltar the world, and with the world the notion of anything with limits, and with the end of limits the end of everything known, everything, but everything would come to a stop’. He laments the Age of Exploration ushering in the ‘intoxication of sobriety’, a condition no less fallible than what came before, but uniquely unable to recognise limits or mistakes. (Against such epistemological ruthlessness, Krasznahorkai offers a few moments of mercy, tenderly sheltering animals or weaklings; the lecturer ends his speech by refusing to reduce a reclusive bird to its evolutionary defence mechanisms.) As Krasznahorkai lamented in an interview, describing the market’s degradation of cultural value, ‘the victory is total…there’s space only for the barbarian, the brutal, and it possesses such an immense power, where everything is priced to the dollar and cent, no historical power has ever compared in the history of the globe. And there is a globe now, which there wasn’t before, in this sense of the word’.

Ever since Susan Sontag dubbed him the ‘Hungarian master of the apocalypse’, Krasznahorkai has often been read in eschatological terms. But his fictions do not offer the resolution or moral clarity of judgement day. Instead, they depict a ruling order that presents itself as the ‘end of history’ yet refuses to concede its contingencies and limitations. Krasznahorkai does not attribute this condition to the loss of left alternatives as much as the unstoppable spread of commercialism, cynicism about human nature and self-fulfilling nihilism. As his lecturer argues: ‘We are in the midst of a cynical self-reckoning as the not-too-illustrious children of a not-too-illustrious epoch that will consider itself truly fulfilled only when every individual writhing in it – after languishing in one of the deepest shadows of human history – will finally attain the sad and temporarily self-evident goal: oblivion’.

The Krasznahorkaian narrator is propelled by fear – ‘it is enough’, the narrator of Chasing Homer says, ‘that I’m afraid’. Yet fear, in his world, brings no shame. Of the two archetypal responses to fear, fight and flight, Krasznahorkai champions the latter. Better, it seems, to be a holy fool than a policeman, a fugitive than a border guard. The act of fleeing here takes on a curious kind of heroism. It might be futile, but there is something in having tried. A monologue, however strange, implies the hope of someone listening. And those who choose to run reveal, in their disobedience, just how many places and ideas are rendered off-limits. What Krasznahorkai’s maladjusted, fearful, logorrheic heroes offer is an alternative to contemporary disillusionment: not solipsistic defensiveness or brutal realpolitik, but the hope that somewhere out there, across an unbreachable border, lies something better. When Kafka said that there was infinite hope, just not for us, he meant it. The same goes for Krasznahorkai. Against the failure of imagination that characterises our age, he offers imaginary failures. You can’t have hope, but you can’t give up on it either.

Read on: Ryan Ruby, ‘Privatised Grand Narratives’, NLR 131.