Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance lives in that grotesque realm between the real and the fantastic, its humor is only offset by its profound despair and deeply unsettling disturbance of our place not only in society but in the universe itself. In the first section of the novel we meet Mrs Plauf, an older woman who has been visiting friends and loved ones but is now on a return train trip to her own home town. Most of the action is from her pov, and we listen to her as she lives through a particularly trying voyage. Her sense of reality takes a sharp turn into the sinister when she discovers a man who is staring at here perversely. A young man, but also one who is filthy and seems ludicrously interested in her as a sexual object. As the trip goes on we find out about her life back home, about her fears, her prejudices, the little seemingly bland make up of her boring bourgeois life in the small town she comes from. She is traveling among peasants, earthy people who pay her no mind, who almost seem oblivious of her. They all seem at home in the universe, unpacking meats, fruit, games of cards, laughing, talking, and generally having an enjoyable time of it as they journey on to their own destinations. Only Mrs Plauf seems off-put, distant, unsociable, and afraid of everything around her, especially of the man who want leave her alone. The unbroken, stream-of-consciousness method brings with it a sense of chaos and formlessness, a sense of tittering on the edge of the impossible. This is a mind in ruins, riddled with the clichés of her culture, a mere puppet figure on the strings of her own fears and appetites. There comes a point as she is sitting there that she leans down to fix her shoes and her brassier snaps loose. Already self-conscious of her appearance she is now filled with dread that the man has seen her and even more excited at her ill-luck. As with anything she has a deep need to relieve herself, as well as fix this issue with her bra, and decides to make the journey through the cars to the bathroom at the other end of the train. Once inside she feels safe for a moment enclosed in the little room, private and away from the others; and, especially away from the perverse man who has been eyeing her the entire trip. The situation is both comical and grotesque, she’s broken her bra strap, she’s feeling unkempt; traveling among people who carry chickens, dogs, children, produce, livestock, etc. She’s crawled through a carnival of humans to get to this spot of safety, or so she thinks. That is until she hears a knock on the door, an incessant knock… (here I quote the full passage, classic and worth quoting):
Her hands trembling with nervous haste, she brought her bra round and, seeing (‘Thank heaven!’) that the clip was not broken, sighed in relief; she had just begun clumsily to dress when she heard behind her the tentative but clearly audible sound of someone outside knocking at the door. There was about this knocking some peculiar quality of intimacy which, naturally enough in the light of all that had happened so far, succeeded in scaring her, but then, on reflecting that the fear was probably no more than a monstrous product of her own imagination, she grew indignant at being hurried like this; and so she continued her half-finished movement, taking a perfunctory glance in the mirror, and was just about to reach for the handle when there came another burst of impatient knocking, quickly succeeded by a voice announcing: ‘It’s me.’ She drew her hand back aghast, and by the time she had formed an idea of who it was, she was overtaken less by a sense of entrapment than by desperate incomprehension as to why this croaky strangled male voice should bear no trace of aggression or low threat but sound vaguely bored and anxious that she, Mrs Plauf, should at last open the door. For a few moments neither stirred a muscle, each waiting for some word of explanation from the other, and Mrs Plauf only grasped the monstrous misunderstanding of which she had become the victim when her pursuer lost patience and tugged furiously at the handle, bellowing at her, ‘Well! What is it to be?! All tease, no nookie?!’ She stared at the door, terrified. Not wanting to believe it, she bitterly shook her head and felt a constriction at her throat, startled, like all those attacked from an unexpected quarter, to find that she had ‘fallen into some infernal snare’. Reeling at the thought of the sheer unfairness, the naked obscenity of her situation, it took her some time to comprehend that—however incredible, since as a matter of fact she had always resisted the idea—the unshaven man had from the very start believed that it was she who was propositioning him, and it became clear to her how, step by step, the ‘degenerate monster’ had interpreted her every action—her taking off her fur … the unfortunate accident … and her enquiring after the washroom—as an invitation, as solid proof of her compliance, in a word as the cheap blush-worthy stages of a low transaction, to the extent that she now had to cope with not only a disgraceful attack on her virtue and respectability but the fact that this filthy repulsive man, stinking of brandy, should address her as if she were some ‘woman of the streets’. The wounded fury which seized her proved even more painful to her than her sense of defencelessness, and—since, apart from anything else, she could no longer bear the entrapment—driven by desperation, in a voice choking with tension, she shouted to him: ‘Go away! Or I shall cry for help!’ On hearing this, after a short silence, the man struck the door with his fist and, in a voice so cold with contempt that shivers ran down Mrs Plauf’s back, he hissed at her: ‘Go screw yourself, you old whore. You’re not worth breaking down the door for. I wouldn’t even bother to drown you in the slop-pail.’ The lights of the county town pulsed through the window of the cabin, the train was clattering over points, and she had to stop herself falling over by grasping at the handrail. She heard the departing footsteps, the sharp slamming of the door from corridor to compartment, and, because she understood by this that the man had finally released her with the same colossal impudence as he had accosted her, her whole body trembled with emotion and she collapsed in tears. And while it was really only a matter of moments, it seemed to last an eternity, that in her hysterical sobbing and sense of desolation she saw, in a brief blinding instant, from a height, in the enormous dense darkness of night, through the lit window of the stalled train, as if in a matchbox, a little face, her face, lost, distorted, out of luck, looking out. For though she was sure that she had nothing more to fear from those dirty, ugly, bitter words, that she would be subject to no new insults, the thought of her escape filled her with as much anxiety as the thought of assault, since she had absolutely no idea—the effect of each of her actions so far being precisely the reverse of that calculated—what it was she owed her unexpected freedom to. She couldn’t bring herself to believe it was her choking desperate cry that frightened him off, since having felt a miserable victim of the man’s merciless desires throughout, she, by the same token, considered herself an innocent and unsuspecting victim of the entire hostile universe, against whose absolute chill—the thought flashed across her mind—there is no valid defence. It was as if the unshaven man had actually raped her. She swayed in the airless, urine-smelling booth, broken, tortured by the suspicion that she knew all there was to know, and under the spell of the formless, inconceivable, ever-shifting terror of having to seek some protection against this universal threat, she was aware only of an emerging sense of agonizing bitterness: for while she felt it was deeply unfair that she should be cast as an innocent victim rather than an untroubled survivor, she who ‘all her life had longed for peace, and never harmed a soul’, she was forced to concede that this was of little consequence: there was no authority to which she could appeal, no one to whom she might protest, and she could hardly hope that the forces of anarchy having once been loosed could afterwards be restrained. After so much gossip, so much terrifying rumour-mongering, she could now see for herself that ‘it was all going down the drain’, for she understood that while her own particular immediate danger was over, in ‘a world where such things happen’ the collapse into anarchy would inevitably follow.1
It’s in the two main passages in this entry I am concerned with: the first comes just after the man has left her to her own devices,
And while it was really only a matter of moments, it seemed to last an eternity, that in her hysterical sobbing and sense of desolation she saw, in a brief blinding instant, from a height, in the enormous dense darkness of night, through the lit window of the stalled train, as if in a matchbox, a little face, her face, lost, distorted, out of luck, looking out.
That one word “distorted” – the sense of deformation, isolation, loss, estrangement at her own insignificance in a universe hostile and indifferent to her prayers and appeals as to her defiance and chagrin. This sudden “blinding instant” – a revelation or revealing, an apocalypse awakens her to the exact situation of the human condition. The second passage which puts her in the place of uncertainty, wavering between reality and the fantastic is the one in which her beliefs in the decency of life and its values comes unhinged and “she had absolutely no idea—the effect of each of her actions so far being precisely the reverse of that calculated—what it was she owed her unexpected freedom to”. She questions the rational and irrational elements that led to this moment and concludes that she herself is “an innocent and unsuspecting victim of the entire hostile universe, against whose absolute chill—the thought flashed across her mind—there is no valid defence”. This stripping of the delusions and illusions that bind us to others, our beliefs, our little lies we tell ourselves, our gods or God, our families, our work, our friends, all the things that tie us to life; all of these provide us nothing, no succor against the truth that there is ultimately no “defense” against the “absolute chill” of the “hostile universe”. A universe without reason or foundation, contingent and mindless, a churning appetitive cannibalistic system whose only truth is its slow entropic burn down and decline into absolute zero. Till then it will cannibalize every resource within its power till the last sun goes dark, and the dust of a trillion-trillion dead stars disperses into the cosmic wastelands and graveyard of eternal night.
On fully realizing this truth she thinks,
She swayed in the airless, urine-smelling booth, broken, tortured by the suspicion that she knew all there was to know, and under the spell of the formless, inconceivable, ever-shifting terror of having to seek some protection against this universal threat, she was aware only of an emerging sense of agonizing bitterness…
It’s this namelessness, the “formless,” and “inconceivable,” and “shifting terror” of this “universal threat” that brings with it a bitter and agonizing sense of the futility of life and existence, and of her powerlessness in the face of this unknown and absolute power of the universe. And, she is afraid… We’ve all heard it at one time or another, but still bares repeating, – a classic passage from H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”2 Julia Kristeva argues, that the macabre and grotesque brings horror into view in carnivalesque fashion, and reveals the repressed faces of humanity. Horror and fascination are entwined, and the rugged violent beauty of horrified, destructive laughter is fascinating and mysterious in that it is ‘liberating by means of laughter without complacency yet complicitous’ (Kristeva, 1982: 133). This is unpacked in her reading of the text, which in true grotesque fashion brings together horror, mockery, satire and laughter:
[The Grotesque author] believes that death and horror are what being is. But suddenly, and without warning, the open sore of a protagonist’s very suffering, through the contrivance of a word, becomes haloed, as she puts it, with ‘a ridiculous little infinite’ as tender and packed full of love and cheerful laughter as it is with bitterness, relentless mockery, and a sense of the morrow’s impossibility.3
We get that sense of black humor and the dark horror intermixed in this passage of Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece:
After so much gossip, so much terrifying rumour-mongering, she could now see for herself that ‘it was all going down the drain’, for she understood that while her own particular immediate danger was over, in ‘a world where such things happen’ the collapse into anarchy would inevitably follow.
The sense that in a world where reason no longer holds sway, where anything can happen because everything is contingent and without sufficient reason to ground it, then we are truly in a universe where Reason has become the last folly of mankind – a last bastion against the madness and insanity of the universe that has been stripped from our dysphoric deliriums. The sense that the whole progressive mythos – the notion of Science, Reason, and Knowledge progressing, mastering the universe and our place in it, giving us a foundation and a bastion against the monstrousness of an indifferent universe; that this, too is an illusion, and a delusion that is no longer valid. Mrs Plauf is left without inner or outer support, with nothing and no one to hold onto; no ethical stance, no religious appeal, no philosophical principle, no friends or group to turn too; in the end she is alone – as we all are, facing the implacable truth of a hostile universe totally indifferent to her prayers or her curses. She has become a Zero. Null. Invalid. This grotesque little lady on a train to nowhere has become a distorted mirror of our fears, our angers, our hatreds, our insanity – Mrs Plauf is “out of luck,” and so are we all.
- Laszlo Krasznahorkai, László. The Melancholy of Resistance (Kindle Locations 139-179). Norton. Kindle Edition.
- Lovecraft, H. P.. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged (Kindle Location 327). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
- Edwards, Justin; Graulund, Rune. Grotesque (The New Critical Idiom) (p. 35). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.