Chasing Homer, by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, with art by Max Neumann and music by Szilveszter Miklósan, New Directions Books (2021).
To be at the end of history means the future feels foreclosed. The past leads inexorably to the present—it is mined, as it were, and regurgitated as unchanging present-content—while the future leads to that same present, or to a series of crises. But the crises, far from changing our political, economic, and cultural conditions, seem only to leave these deeper entrenched.
What kind of people are produced by an age like this? The subject at the end of history begins to resemble exactly the time in which they live, a time in which time itself has been flattened into a perpetual present with no history or future. They are turned from people into objects by a system of universal commodification, and their thinking changes accordingly. People have pasts and futures; objects merely have before and after. They’re isolated from one another and incapable of collective action. They no longer have a productive interplay between the external world and their subjectivity, perceiving what is outside of them as an unknown, unfamiliar, and undifferentiated mass—and what’s inside them soon succumbs to a similar undifferentiated state. When they rebel, they lash out at phantoms rather than their real enemies—a scene that perhaps plays out most potently in the totemic right-wing conspiracy theorist or fascist thug, violently suspicious of any Other. Paranoia becomes the order of the day—subjects no longer feel that they are acting, only that they are acted upon. Surely in a world like this, a paranoiac is hardly to be blamed. Their feeling is the result of the social system in which they find themselves. Unable to act, the subject is left only with the ability to interpret, and paranoia manifests as an interpretation mania—every stimulus must be interpreted and assimilated into the same system of domination—both a pathic projection of the paranoiac created by the social system and an insight into the system itself. Paranoia is also, as Adorno & Horkheimer once argued, the physical condition of fascism and anti-semitism—a persecution mania as well as an interpretation mania, in which persecution becomes the only purpose and hostility becomes the only mode of interaction because all acts are circumscribed by a perceived system of universal domination.
How can this subjectivity, alienated from itself and the outside world, be captured in literature?
But if the fascist thug is one avatar of the end of history, the other is the refugee: the victim of the persecution mania for whom persecution is not a subjective projection but an objective reality. Here, paranoia is again the order of the day—the refugee, thrust into unfamiliar territory, becomes alienated from their surroundings and self, undifferentiated repetitions of violence and flight mount, locking perpetrator and victim alike in the same system of domination. Acted upon, unable to act except in flight, the refugee’s paranoia fashions every ‘outside’ into a potential danger. This fear of ‘outside’ finds an opposite expression in the fascist, who is driven to deny the refugee any kind of ‘inside’—belonging and subjectivity—whatsoever. We can see this dynamic clearly in Frontex, the European border force, a manifestation of a European paranoia in which war-harried refugees are seen as the end of the continent and an incredible apparatus of violence and control has been assembled, unleashing a different and justified paranoia in the victims of these apparati. In both cases, the outside world is drained of its richness, of its potential for change. Aggressors and victims become locked into a system of interpretation predicated on the conditions of domination—and in this closing-off from the outside world, in the inability to perceive the outside separately from this lens, the self becomes closed too, ultimately finding itself as one among the objects of this same system.
How can this subjectivity, alienated from itself and the outside world, be captured in literature? How does a complete inwardness, and the paranoia, victimhood, and violence it breeds, find voice? We can find an answer, maybe the answer, in the work of László Krasznahorkai, particularly in his most recent book, Chasing Homer.1If you’re confused about how to pronounce his name, you’re not alone. Krasznahorkai himself is aware of the difficulty, seeing fit to include this winking pronunciation guide on his personal website.
Krasznahorkai was born in 1954 in Gyula, Hungary, a smallish town just next to the Romanian border into a middle-class and bureaucratic milieu (his mother was a social-security administrator, his father a lawyer). His work unfurls in long, seemingly endless sentences – the novella The Last Wolf, for instance, is written in one, 76-page long sentence – spinning forth from the hermetic psyches of either single narrators or, as in the case of the Baron Weinkheim’s Homecoming, the author’s magnum opus and purported final novel, from the psyches of an Ensor-esque host of characters.2As in James Ensor, the late 19th-mid 20th century Belgian painter and master of the grotesque and carnivalesque. Ensor’s mature paintings frequently depict skeletons, masks, and clownish figures to reflect the painter’s disgust with bourgeois society and the institution of the church with an impish gallows humor. A detail from Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888)—in which a parade of garishly made up bourgeoisie, skeletons, puppet-like military men, masked figures, and sinister background revelers accompany and mock Christ as he rides a donkey through the Brussels streets—was used as cover art for the English translation of Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, one of the author’s great ensemble dramas.
The newer focus on the individual subject has led not to a deepening of the exploration but a shift to a different terrain.
Krasznahorkai has described his own work as “reality examined to the point of madness,” which is an apt way of describing the work of his two closest forebears—Kafka and Beckett—as well. In these authors’ works, a routine function becomes an impossible puzzle, an internal monologue is no longer under one’s control but an unstoppable, careening, fruitless force, hermetically cut off from itself and the outside world by the very process of consciousness itself—visions of consciousness devouring itself. But while all three authors drive toward a similar understanding of the human condition—or rather, what such a condition prompts and may become—they do so by utilizing radically different forms. Kafka employs paradox, impenetrability, and parable. Beckett—repetition, subtraction, deformation. Krasznahorkai’s exercises a compulsive need to say everything in every way before moving on and looping back again. If we might draw an analogue to visual art, Krasznahorkai employs an almost cubist prose—we are somehow given the inside of a narrator’s mind from every angle at once.
Krasznahorkai’s style has remained consistent throughout his long career and his preoccupations have remained roughly the same as well: apocalypse as the revelation that we are already in hell, the death of change itself, the misery that the greedy, the envious, the shrewd, and the foolish can inflict upon themselves, particularly when working together. But where the “themes” have remained constant, the author’s work has evolved. The novellas and short stories that have made up the bulk of his English-translated output since 2008’s Seibo There Below have moved away from collective dramas towards a greater preoccupation on the individual (Baron Wenkheim’s Homecoming, notwithstanding). It is a move that neatly tracks the political and economic developments—the fall of the Soviet Union and the ascendancy of neoliberalism all over Central and Eastern Europe—that have taken place since Krasznahorkai’s 1985 debut. Still, Krasznahorkai is not a political novelist—though a number of critics have attempted to place him in the tradition of Eastern European dissident literature, this interpretation misses the forest for the trees. Krasznahorkai is less concerned with leveling political critiques than exploring the ways in which the political and social context of his characters deforms and warps their subjectivity.
The newer focus on the individual subject has led not to a deepening of the exploration but a shift to a different terrain – a change that’s made Krasznahorkai’s work more uncomfortable: at once too close and impossibly alien.
This brings us to Chasing Homer, Krasznahorkai’s most recent release (heroically translated into English by John Batki), one perfectly indicative of his late style. It is Krasznahorkai’s second collaboration with artist Max Neumann and his first with percussionist Szilveszter Miklósan. Each chapter is accompanied by a painting by Neumann and a QR code which leads to a short piece of music by Miklós intended to be listened to while reading the designated chapter. Over the course of the book’s 89 pages, an unnamed narrator is pursued by unnamed assassins for unnamed reasons. The pursuit—which is ceaseless—takes the narrator vaguely through Europe, finally ending—the book, not the chase—on an island off the Croatian coast. In Chasing Homer, the chase becomes less an event than a condition of existence, because the assassins never sleep, the narrator does not sleep; because the assassins are monomaniacal in their pursuit, the narrator is monomaniacal in his flight, there is nothing outside the chase, and thus, nothing outside the flight.
The text unfolds in Krasznahorkai’s signature logorrheic style, but as opposed to his earlier work, which contains some rich evocations of place and seamlessly inhabits the minds of multiple characters, Chasing Homer contains almost nothing outside the lone narrator’s internal monologue. There are few descriptions of setting, none of the narrator or his pursuers, and time is indeterminate throughout. In his ceaseless flight, the narrator’s entire life becomes flight, and the physical and temporal indeterminacy of the novel’s style stem from and create this condition. Constantly on the run, there is no way to establish rhythm (at one point, the narrator devises a method of rhythmless travel, of “opting for the wrong speed, making bad choices” to throw his pursuers off his tail); there is no way to establish familiarity with one’s surroundings, no way to break up the moments with rest. Mirroring the perpetual present of the end of history, the narrator states of his condition of flight:
I’m a prisoner of the instant…an instant that has no continuation…if I had the time to think about this between two instants—that I have no need for either past or future because neither one exists. But in fact, I have no time between two instants. Since there’s no such thing as two instants.
This indistinction spreads to his pursuers as well. When the narrator tries to picture them he sees only “a uselessly ordinary face without any character or distinguishing mark, only a neutral, average everyday face, a face that says nothing, that could be anyone.” Or elsewhere: “it’s impossible to guess their shape and form, their nature, the vulnerability or invulnerability.” The inability to see or even imagine his pursuers renders them not just anonymous, but omnipresent—they appear in crowds (but are they really there?), they shadow the narrator from a distance, always keeping him in sight even if they remain unseen (but are they really there?). It’s difficult not to see in the pursuers, who never materialize, a stand-in for the seeming omnipresence of the surveillance state, of the panoptic border regimes. It seems no accident that the narrator’s flight takes him south through tourist ferry routes, in a perverse reversal of the refugee flight north through deadly sea routes.
In both cases, the music and art’s opaque relation to the text heightens the text’s sense of paranoia.
Max Neumann’s artwork only heightens the paranoia, also employing themes of indistinctiveness. Black silhouettes, wielding clubs, standing in desolate landscapes shrouded by thinly drawn lines – sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. Faces with missing eyes and missing mouths. An image of an orange block over a face with the eyes and mouth covered by black bars suggests the orange jumpsuits and black hoods of Guantanamo. Images of devouring, of fish-like heads, mouths agape, poised to swallow black or blue shapes. It is the stuff of nightmares, but it is specifically the stuff of nightmares of powerlessness. Neumann’s work corresponds to the text only obliquely, but there is always the suggestion of a kind of sleep paralysis—an inability to scream, an inability to see more than the outlines of your pursuers, an inability to see at all.
Miklósan’s music is nightmarish as well, though less overtly so. Alternatively exploding in frenetic swells, pounding in staccato rhythm, or slowly unfurling in screeching cymbals, the music leaves little room for air. And like the narrator’s rhythmless walking, there is something slightly off kilter about even the most metronomic pieces, a small flam3A percussion term: a short grace note immediately followed by an accented note. here or there, a hit maybe just slightly behind or ahead of the beat, not enough to call attention to itself, but enough to make you uneasy.
In both cases, the music and art’s opaque relation to the text heightens the text’s sense of paranoia. Right from the first page, it puts the reader in a heightened interpretive stance, forcing the reader to wonder “what is the connection” – precisely the sort of manic paranoia I’ve argued is the book’s main subject-matter.
But in typical Krasznahorkian fashion, the target seems bigger than just a political reality, than just paranoia as such. In a telling passage, he states:
One must not seek out sheltered places, for precisely such sheltered places are the most dangerous, since—in addition to the fact that my pursuers will naturally look for me first and foremost in such places—sheltered spots tend to increase your fear, the fear of unknown perils outside, a fear that simply regenerates and reinforces itself until it becomes overwhelming, making you incapable of drawing conclusions, or rather making you draw mistaken conclusions about what’s really taking place outside…
And then, later in the same sentence,
and it’s absolutely vital to keep this in mind—remaining well aware that there’s no such thing as most suitable, no such thing as best, and above all there’s indeed no such thing as a way out, so that I, the fugitive, am forced to sojourn in precisely the very world from—and because of—which I’m fleeing.
This is, if there is one, the classic Krasznahorkian turn, the turn in which the contingent becomes the condition. At first, it is only the sheltered places which are a danger, it is the inside—an inside which should be read as both a physical place as well as interiority as such. It is the safe haven of the internal that, in its very interiority, distorts the outside world and renders it alien—the fascist paranoiac appears. An inside implies an outside, but then through the very process of consciousness unfolding, through the Krasznahorkian double-back in which sentences return again and again to the same subject only to negate and then affirm and then negate, we reach a different conclusion: there is “no such thing as a way out.” The fugitive condition of flight: the refugee appears. Without drawing an equivalence, and in the same sentence, Krasznahorkai both uneasily represents the psychological distortions of the end of history and concludes that the inside is all there is; the cage of consciousness is inescapable.
The distortions are physical and temporal as well: the world, which the narrator can traverse at incredible speeds and is apparently traversable at will, shrinks only the space in which he currently finds himself. There is no outside. Time, as we have seen, collapses into the present moment, there is no time for planning, for reflection. There is no outside. Subjectivity deforms: rendered incapable of reflecting by the ever-present, ever-here, the subject is robbed of the external world, condemned to register the external world as a series of pure stimuli or as indices of the chase, of the paranoiac system, a “focused state of being [which] remains uninterrupted, nonstop, ongoing.” There is no outside.
Living purely inside the moment, purely inside one’s mind, turns subjectivity, which is oriented towards objects, inward on itself, turning the subject itself into an object. Krasznahorkai’s narrator repeatedly comes to this conclusion, in one passage considering himself as the mere waste product of his pursuers, as the waste produced by the hunt, which is itself the real object of the pursuers’ desire; in another, questioning whether he is even a person at all (something that the end of the book also questions more literally) or rather just a “fabrication brought into existence by a totally different kind of insanity”; inward-oriented subjectivity turning against itself, objectifying itself, and realizing, paradoxically, that it is now a thing and so a subject no longer. The lack of interiority combined with its excess produces a subject divorced from reality even as it lives entirely in the real, entirely in the present moment devoid of any future or past, of any virtual characteristic. But there is also a sense in which the very form this realization takes, the form of Krasznahorkai’s writing, can be read as a rebellion against this realization. That is, the logorrhea of his prose can be seen as the death throes of human subjectivity—one which, in its almost formless spilling, relies on an excess of language to assert itself against its impending thingness.
As readers we are given a glimpse into the raw workings of subjectivity—it’s ugly, full of contradictions, of vitriol and beauty and aimlessness alike. And we see subjectivity devouring itself through its own processes, through the very thing that makes it subjectivity in the first place. And here we recognize, I think, the character of our own time. There is a recognition of this powerlessness, of this feeling of being acted upon. The fascist thug and the refugee are the avatars of our age, but only because the extremity of their situations makes them stand out; those of us fortunate enough not to be either are caught up in the end of history all the same. But history never truly ends, change never truly ceases—they may be forestalled, but fissures have begun to appear in the system, and some have even been filled with light. Fortunately for us, we have Krasznahorkai to reflect our own world back to us in the starkest possible terms, and in so doing, to warn us of what our future will be in the absence of change: this is all there will ever be; you are already a thing, already on the junkpile; there is no outside.