The Melancholy of Resistance as Left Melancholy


The Greek translation of the novel The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) by the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai (1954) appears at a most appropriate time, since the “Poetry of the Left Melancholy” of the Greek Generation of the 2000s, together with various public discussions of “Left Melancholy” among Greek politicians and intellectuals, has cultivated an audience highly sensitive to ideas of revolutionary defeat. In fact, this “novel of ideas” may be read as an elaborate allegory of the Greek history 2010s so far.

The story takes place in a nameless small  provincial town during a very cold November. A traveling circus arrives, bringing as its main attraction the world’s biggest dead giant Whale (which recalls the sea monster Leviathan in the Hebrew Bible) as well as the Prince, a mysterious (and never seen in Béla Tarr’s’ Werckmeister Harmonies, the 2000 film adaptation) prophet of doom, a demagogue whose doctrine of vengeful nihilism foments riots in the towns they visit. His new unruly followers in this hopeless town attempt to destroy the infected bourgeoisie whose sordid world is disintegrating toward inevitable catastrophe. They seek to purify the town but ruin it as correction generates rubble. Their revolt leads to breakdown of civic order, violence, and eventual defeat in the hands of the police who restore order and impose martial law as the circus leaves town. Might the Whale stand for the Revolutionary Left in 1989 Hungary or 2016 Greece?

Two of the novel’s protagonists distance themselves from this decomposing world. They are two friends who have withdrawn from its disharmony to hark to the music of the spheres. In their different ways they yearn for cosmic attunement, searching for the ideal tuning system. The older, Mr. Eszter, is a retired faculty and musicologist who has retreated from social cacophony into pondering the prevalence of the equal-tempered scale. He believes that music as representation of cosmic harmony redeems the misery of the world yet its perfection is an illusion and its tuning mere clamor because it is man-made, and therefore artificial. In the end, when he discovers that, in comparison to the arbitrary temperament used by Bach in The Well-Tempered Clavier, natural tuning sounds awful, he gives up his search and retunes his piano back to equal temperament, the one invented by the 17th-century German theorist Andreas Werckmeister who believed that heavenly constellations convey God-made harmonies to humans. His friend Valuska is the town postman, a holy fool like Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin or Wagner’s Parsifal, a dreamer who is always thinking of the heavens and looking at the stars. In the end, the town violence crushes his enchantment and destroys his idealism.   I must ask Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” whether he recognizes parts of ourselves in these two cosmically attuned close friends.

This typically Central European novel, which works as a Kafkian parable or a Benjaminian allegory of disintegration, constitutes a virtuosic exercise in the melancholy of resistance following the bitter realization that the Revolution is doomed because its faithful have been following false messiahs, like the Prince of the traveling circus.*  At the same time, it represents a modernist Biblical lament for the loss of the Edenic “unity of things” (the identity of music and nature) following the sin of the arbitrary tuning and the Fall into music making.

Yet the very structure of the novel, composed with a tremendous musical atmosphere, undermines its dark, anti-mimetic prophecy: This is a critique of form written (and later filmed with the author’s collaboration) in dazzling form, an exorcism of false gods performed as a veneration of idols, a mockery of disharmony composed in a most harmonious style. Scandalously, in the fallen world of this polyphonic book everything orbits in radiant, sumptuous spheres – themes, characters, events, and above all its gyrating sentences. Its idololatric cosmos sings and dances!   It brings to mind another famously self-annulling Biblical critique of music: When Arnold Schönberg wanted to show how Moses, inhibited by his faith, was unable to sing, he had to write an opera about it, or what Herbert Lindenberger called “a kind of anti-opera, one that utilizes ‘operatic’elements precisely in order to undercut them” (Modern Judaism 9:1, 1989, p. 65).

In The Melancholy of Resistance, the music that friends make together, a model of the artistic order humans create, endures.

*  In “Leviathan and Behemoth” (2001), his interpretation of the engraving in the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), Agamben remarks that “civil war remains always possible within the State.”  He adds:  “Civil war and Common-wealth, Behemoth and Leviathan coexist — just as the dissolved multitude coexists with the sovereign” (Stasis, 2015, 40-1). His essay concludes:  “This is why Behemoth is inseparable from Leviathan and why, according to the Talmudic tradition that [Carl] Schmitt evokes, at the end of time ‘Behemoth will, with its horns, pull Leviathan down and rend it, and Leviathan will, with its fins, pull Behemoth down and pierce it through’.  Only at this point may the righteous be seated at their messianic banquet, freed forever from the bonds of the law” (53).  Until that time, following false messiahs can only lead to more civil wars and renewed melancholy of failed resistance.

October 10, 2016

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