Revisiting the Sacred: Seiobo There Below
My essay on László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, published in The Quarterly Conversation.
Republished in Three Quarks Daily, September 28, 2020.
“The subject matter expounded upon in this book ranges from Eastern aesthetic and religious traditions such as Japanese Noh theater and the Shinto rituals governing the rebuilding of the Ise Shrine every twenty years to Byzantine icon paintings; Baroque music; works of the Italian Renaissance; and the mathematical mysteries of the Alhambra and their links to crystal formations, “forbidden symmetry,” and the tessellations of Penrose tiling. There is nothing postmodern about this whatsoever; Seiobo There Below is anything but an accrual of arcane information or a piling up of cultural artifacts. As Krasznahorkai patiently enumerates the many consecutive steps of a process of artistic creation in lengthy excursions on handicraft and religious ritual, we are called upon to negotiate the distance between the wealth of historical material and the deluge of foreign terms this book supplies, and the Zen-like focus required to comprehend the transcendent states the rarefied aesthetic and religious traditions he describes invoke. There are numerous parallels in motif throughout the book’s individual chapters, among them the nature of authorship and the original, the complicated ramifications of restoration, and the history of a work’s reception, to name but a few; more than anything, however, this is a book about the sacred—and its embodiment in some of the most compelling works of art human civilization has produced in recorded history. … The project to reclaim art’s essential role in formulating the basic questions framing our existence is more modern than ever, perhaps even radically so. Seiobo There Below does not propose a new kind of pseudo-religion or the apotheosis of the artist as divine genius. Nor does it announce the death of art. There is too much crystalline joy in the writing, too much devotion in the excursions on artistic method and technique, too much humble exactitude in the portrayals of religious ceremonies. … The question as to whether or not Krasznahorkai believes in or shares the metaphysical and religious experiences he describes is largely irrelevant in light of the fact that, for the attentive reader, the accumulative force of his words bring about the selfsame effect he takes such pains to describe. At its core, Krasznahorkai’s writing is always, deeply, ambiguous.
Excerpt from Seiobo There Below:
… he stood on his tiptoes, the better to see, very cautiously, what was up inside there, but up inside, in that raised room, only a dim obscurity appeared to him, from which further dimly obscure rooms opened up, and in the rooms there was not, as far as he could judge from here by the entrance in front of the eight steps, a single living soul; on the walls in these rooms were a kind of old-fashioned religious pictures, old-fashioned and beautiful and not right for this place, they all shone with gold, oh no, he thought, now he really had to leave, and he turned around uncertainly, like someone wishing to return to the main corridor and from here down the stairs and out into the street … he looked at the eight upward steps that led into the first room and looked again into that first room; suddenly these gilded pictures had begun to attract him; he didn’t want to steal them, no such thought arose in him—more precisely it did arise but he immediately chased it away—he wanted to see how they shone, really just to look a little bit more, at least until they threw him out, since he didn’t have anything to do anyway … it was dark, moreover there were only lights above the individual pictures; he didn’t stop right away but went in further to create the impression that he was already inside … so that it was not the first picture, not the second, and he didn’t even know how many pictures it was, and suddenly Jesus Christ was looking at him, sitting on a kind of throne in the middle of a triptych, in one hand he held a book, namely the Scripture, which was open, and in the other he was ominously signaling something to him who was looking, signaling outwards from the picture, and really, everything around him shone, they made it with gold leaf; … he looked at Christ, but strongly avoided looking into his eyes even once, for this Christ, although he knew it was only a painting, stared at him so sternly that the gaze could hardly be borne — it was, moreover, beautiful—that was the only word for it, beautiful—… they didn’t come to usher him out, moreover, one of the people dispersed in the farther rooms came here, into the room where he was, and took no notice of him, then he thought, he’s just a visitor, just like me, and he began to feel more self-confident, and he looked at the Christ some more, but he didn’t see anything, he was not observing the picture but what the person next to him was doing; but he wasn’t doing anything, only going from one picture to the next, he’s really not a guard, he thought, finally relaxing, and he looked again at the Christ … then he took one step farther to the next picture; the background of that one was also completely gold, and it could have been made a very long time ago, because the wood on which it had been painted was already thoroughly chewed up by woodworms and the paints were peeling off to a considerable degree, but what he saw was very beautiful again, the Virgin Mother sat there in a picture in the picture, the Infant on her arm; the Infant particularly pleased him, as he pressed his little face as close as he could to the Virgin Mary’s, who however was not looking at the Infant but somehow in front of herself, outside of the picture, at him, who was looking at it, and her gaze was very sad, as if she knew about what would happen later to her little son, such that he stopped looking at her and stared at the gold background until it dazzled him, and the third picture and the fourth picture and the fifth picture were all very similar, they were all painted onto wood, they all had gold backgrounds, in all of them the Virgin or Christ, or some Saint … and if the strained readiness to jump out of there at the first ominous sign had not ceased in him, he now lingered in front of each picture in a more orderly way, because not including the Christ here at the end of the room, whose stern gaze he had encountered at the very beginning, the rest of the Saints, the Infants, and the Kings looked at him with complete tenderness, so that he really did calm down a little, and still no one came to put him in his place or to ask for an entrance ticket … he walked up and down with complete self-confidence now, given his circumstances, he went from one room to the next, he looked at the Saints and the Kings and the other Beatified Ones, and instead of feeling gratitude to the heavens for being able to be here undisturbed, he was overcome—exactly in that place where the eternal hatred was—by a kind of sadness, and he felt alone — ever since he had arrived here, he hadn’t felt anything like that; he stared at the illumination, he stared at the gold leaf, and something began to hurt violently within him, and he didn’t know what it was: if it was really being alone that hurt so much, the pain coming upon him suddenly; or that he had wandered into this happenstance so dispossessed, while everyone outside was wandering around so happily; or if it was that immeasurable distance that hurt so much, making him realize how unbearably far away were these Saints, these Kings, these Beatified Ones, Marys and Christs — and that illumination.