“. . . the human subject was merely an acquiescent servant to external anxiety . . . ”
The sense of The Melancholy of Resistance, Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s inexorable and massive story of the destruction of a suburban Hungarian town, is probably similar to that of being immobilized in the path of an oncoming steamroller. A sensual and surreal revelation of the apocalyptic forces existing within the human mind, the story swings around the riddle of “resistance” and the pliancy of human consciousness.
Resistance is, on one level, the conscious revolt against those qualities of life which it finds distasteful. In this way, resistance is represented by efforts in charity, ethics, art, intellectualism, renovation, idealism, etc.
But as events continue and become more dire, that layer of meaning is burnt away by external forces too monumental for the conscious mind or the body to command. These seemingly worthwhile exertions become empty, and in their place, “resistance” becomes the revolt of the unconscious mind’s against reality, the avoidance of the truth that it has no control, and that it cannot stop itself, much less an entire town, from burning. “Resistance” is not only reactive and evasive, it is futile.
It’s dramatic irony encased within a single brain. The conscious believes that it is seeking truth by resisting “evil” but is only fighting its own shadow, the inability of the subconscious to deny anything, the truth, its own death.
The story strips the characters of all of their illusions, even the one that there could be a life without illusion. One of my short plays touches on some of these themes so I decided to rewrite it, but with the above quote in mind. What a disturbing idea: that without ever realizing it, our minds give themselves over to outside forces. Not radical except in how far Krasznahorkai takes the concept.
A Sane Man Can Take You As Easily As a Crazy One
We are, successively, in the ribs of a halved whale; in a cluttered office; and on the roof of a house sinking under water.
The ribs of a halved whale. In the back of the ribs is a window. Outside of that window we see only sky. X, a doctor of philosophy (he wears a medical doctor’s white) looks out of the window. He is a calm man in increasingly anxious circumstances. Downstage is Y, a corpse. X turns and addresses the audience.
X: We are the victims of external anxieties. Anxieties we will never fathom. Is the air anxious? Is the sea? Is it simply me? It makes no sense for me to be anxious. Anxiety only makes you struggle and sink – I would only be anxious if there was something anxious outside of me actually channelling its anxiety into me. Something with much more at stake than a single life.
Outside the window the water level rises dramatically.
X: Look at that anxiety level rise! Above, the moon directs it.
He approaches us.
X: This is a man who has died.
He indicates a corpse, Y.
X: This is the message that I am bringing to you, from here, the belly of a whale.
We notice now, as the lights rise to reveal his face better, and in fact become too bright, that he is a very serious-looking man, and has had altogether too little sleep.
X: I apologize only for the conditions. It’s beginning to smell. I burnt some oils to neutralize the odor, but there’s only so much one can do. I appreciate your kindness in coming. I am X, a doctor of Philosophy. I have dissected this man and what I have discovered is extraordinary.
He raps the body with a stick, like it is a board with a lecture on it.
X: Death—is contained here. Previous theories have put death
He indicates some things which are not Y – let’s call them Z.
X: out here. But this man—and many others before him—in fact all others before him—died from the inside out. Disease obviously is the first, most easily accepted example of this. Disease causes the failure of various organs, anywhere from the liver to the brain to the heart, to even the skin, to the point where death is forced out of its hiding place and into the open. The shock of death dying is so great that it kills the body. In every instance.
He indicates the whale.
X: The other extreme is death by murder. In this case, death came from a spear, hurled from without, didn’t it? The spear penetrated the body. The blood, then—in this case, as no major organs were ruptured, save the skin—poured out. The emptiness of the body encouraged the core to thrust death out of its hiding place, resulting in the death of the body. This always happens, when death is forced out. When a man drowns, water rushes in, forces death out. Near as we can tell, death is the victim of our bodies—a victim of external anxieties. It rushes out and immediately ceases to exist, and we cease with it. Thus why the soul cannot be found; no matter how hard a doctor might look for it, all he ever finds—is death.
Lights out. Briefly. Up. We are now in the study. The only things which remain the same as before from the whale are the window with the water halfway up it, X, and Y. The study, unlike the whale’s stomach, is cluttered, cozy, warm. Rather than addressing an audience, now, it feels like he is addressing an intimate.
X: What I have been studying these last fifteen years is obsessive compulsion. It is almost universally a disorder that sets in early and increases with time. In most cases, those suffering from extreme obsessive compulsion, to the point where they cannot operate, can recall a time in their past when they first began to desire increased control over the world around them, or to experience decreased ability to focus on a task. Then, after that, unusual distractibility and irritability when their environment was altered or uncontrollable. Eventually “unusual” irritability became extreme, and after that, insufferable. And either they began to behave irregularly and were referred to psychological treatment, or came to find help on their own.
He indicates the window behind him with the water rising.
X: What this suggests is a case of decay over time. But what is decaying? Cases of obsessive compulsion have risen dramatically in the last twenty, thirty, forty years. So have cases of insomnia, distraction, antipathy, sexual disorders, hyperactive disorders, sociopathy and psychopathy, and in American cities in particular, violent crime, among a host of other mental and emotional disorders. And all of these disorders can be linked to strained, or reduced, frontal lobe capacity, either in a cause or effect relationship. Over the last forty years we have really become aware of an increase in these nervous disorders. I was born forty-one years ago today. What I have deduced—the only logical answer to the problem—is that I myself am a focal point for all human obsessive compulsion. You understand, from me radiates a beacon which causes deterioration in the frontal lobe.
He indicates the corpse.
X: This man died of cancer, which I argue came from stress. According to him, his stress radiated from events which caused the collapse of his finances, and eventually his marriage. But these events in turn followed the slow growth of a variety of mental inconsistencies originating in an inability to focus or to control his various appetites. This is consistent with my theory. Something is irradiating the brains of people in cities all over the globe, you understand, and I am at the center of it all. Therefore, I must be the cause of it. You understand? We all radiate signals out of our brains. Our brains are actually constantly emitting radiation. People who believe in telepathy are not far off from the truth. And other brains react to this radiation, in the same way that ants’ brains react to the pheromones let out by other ants, which can direct them in every action of their day-to-day life, from the grand down to the minute. But ants don’t realize they are being controlled—they don’t even pause to consider it—they only do what, to them, makes sense. The fact that you, and I, and he, and Dr Foster, and every one of you and us can make arguments or even write papers which indicate that the world is one way, that you control your actions, that your daily activities are not the result of radiation emitting from my brain eroding your frontal lobe does not mean that it is not absolutely true.
The water level rises.
X: I considered giving myself up for dissection to prove my point, but I want only to continue to live. When these water levels rise
Blackout. For a moment. Then, lights back, and we are now on the roof.
X: I want to swell upwards on top of them. I want to float. My own anxieties have, all my life, buoyed me into and beyond my various struggles—given me a force on which to soar upward—the waters will answer that force with one of their own.
He paces his little roof.
X: We are constantly under the influence of external anxieties which we are not allowed to fathom. Even death is just another being under the influence of external anxieties. The human mind is as feeble and delicate as an anthill. Consider an anthill. Elaborately constructed with various rooms and caverns performing various tasks. This is not curious at all. Imagine that anthill could think. That anthill does not exercise any control over the ants; they control it. Do you think that that anthill, were it human, would accept that it was under the control of the ants? Not at all. It would interpret every possible bit of stimulus to indicate that the ants were under its own control, or, more likely, it would not recognize the existence of the ants at all. It would see the world around it, the world which the ants alter, and it would see those alterations as coming from itself, and all other events going on within its scope of awareness, and like a human being it might write dissertations on the behavior of the universe, and perhaps even, like a human being, it might begin to fathom the behavior of its own mind. But anything that it said about itself would be false, unless it could actually see those ants. And even if it saw the ants, would it see so clearly the molecules and moistures which make up its own, let’s say genetic, materials? By this I mean the dirt and the sand. I mean the roots which reach into its mud. I mean the atmospheric qualities which cause it to expand and retract. I mean the child with the hose which will inevitably drown it, causing death to sneak out of its hiding place from within and eliminate it.
The house drowns. The man sinks. Only his face is left with only his face above water. The body of Y floats.
X: How ironic! A corpse floats! Why does a corpse need to float? I fight that idea. Give powers of flotation—
His rage is interrupted by sinking under water. He bobs back up
X: —to the living!
He sinks. Death leaps out of him, looks panicked and confused, and dies.