April 2013

Jessica Michalofsky


Dancing for the Apocalypse

1. Tango

"If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise." -- William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell

It's a sunny Sunday morning. I should be doing something productive. But instead, I'm standing in the kitchen folding dishcloths and watching the queen of expressionist dance and founder of Tanztheater ("dance theatre"), Pina Bausch, on YouTube. It's a completely pointless activity -- folding dishcloths that is -- since in a matter of days, the cloths will be rendered putrid and again need washing. But Bausch's absurdist performances could look pointless too: a man repeatedly places a woman in another man's arms, who repeatedly drops her. A woman in a long sinuous gown revealing an extraordinarily muscular back wanders through a forest in which the trees are numbered, apparently looking for something. A woman with an anguished look on her face, in high heels, a bustier, and Playboy-bunny ears, stumbles round and round in a muddy field.

Bausch's performances are mostly comprised of seemingly unrelated pastiche and challenge what we think of as dance. But if you start to break down what the dancers are doing with their bodies -- repetitively circling, searching, falling, failing -- it's clear that Bausch wishes to explore the notion that if the reiteration of an activity -- even a useless activity -- is repeated often enough, it can lead to enlightenment.

I've also just come off a Hungarian bender: I've just finished reading László Krasznahorkai's novel Sátántangó, luminously translated by George Szirtes, and last week, across several evenings, I watched Béla Tarr's seven-hour film adaptation of the novel. I watched the movie before I read the book, but that didn't change my view of either. Both Krasznahorkai and Tarr are masters of their crafts, each dealing in the kind of transcendental existentialism that makes you happy, or at least okay, to be as fucked up as you are. Where the movie mimics the awkward monotony of being alive through incredibly long scenes, the novel creates the impression of life's absurd and relentless trajectory through uninterrupted narrative -- that is, there are no paragraph breaks -- sentences are connected by subordination, ellipses, parentheses, asides, and the long rambling thread of characters' thoughts.

The story takes place in Hungary in a small rain-soaked village on the eve of Perestroika. The "estate," as the villagers call it, seems to be a failed cooperative farming project, reduced to little more than dashed hopes and a sodden accumulation of hovels, disintegrating outbuildings, and the exoskeleton of a church bombed in the Second World War (Krasznahorkai wrote the novel just before the fall of communism in Hungary). Several narratives operate at the same time, but all are joined by the return of Irimiás, a smooth-talking swindler who could be a prophet or the devil, and whom the villagers think is dead. The news of Irimiás and his sidekick Petrina's reincarnation rekindles the villagers' separate hopes for the good life, but also sets them plotting with and against each other. Hitherto, the villagers have been spent their short and brutish lives swilling plum brandy, neglecting their children, hopping in and out of each other's beds, prostituting their young women, spying on each other, and ripping each other off. Krasznahorkai's satire is brutal yet compassionate -- we are both repulsed by and love the villagers. They remind of us of ourselves.

Krasznahorkai uses the structure of the tango to tell the story. There are twelve chapters in the novel (twelve scenes in the movie) that correspond to the twelve steps of the tango: six forward, six back.

Chapter six, in which the villagers convene at the bar to await Irimiás's return is the moment of no-time -- of neither stepping backward or forward -- and the action in this pivotal chapter (the remaining chapters count backward) connects all the scenes in the novel. In the movie, this moment is presented as an absurdly long and grotesquely inebriated tango (eleven minutes). Truly, it tests the limits of watchability, yet everything depends on this precisely beguiling moment, ending where it began, writing itself in an eternal loop, the infernal dance.

2. Satan

"Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven." -- John Milton, Paradise Lost

While all the villagers are dancing, Esti, a little village girl, is wandering in the rain with her dead cat that she has poisoned. She peers in the window of the bar and sees the villagers' contortions. She has been abandoned by the whole world. She makes her way to a ruined castle, where she lies down with her cat, swallows the rest of the poison, and prepares to meet death. "Whatever happens is good," she thinks.

If the death of God is the product of nihilism, then the product of postmodernity is the birth of the apocalypse.

A helpful analogy: When Blake wrote about "what the religious call Good & Evil," he explained good and evil in terms of energy: "Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy." From Shakespeare's Hamlet: 

What is a man,

If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused 

For Krasznahorkai's villagers, the action of evil offers the possibility of salvation. Irimiás repeatedly refers to the villagers as slaves to their flimsy religiosity and hopes of a better life: "We think we're breaking free, but all we're doing is readjusting the locks." And much like the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" ("She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life"), Irimiás threatens to improve the villagers' lots by ruining them.

Esti's death is a metaphysical death (since she's already in hell), and we have the impression that she is surely going to a better place than "the estate." When the villagers learn of her death, they quickly cover their shame with their eagerness to move on, to leave their past behind them.

3. Satan's Tango

"Say at Last -- who are thou?"
"That Power I serve
Which wills forever evil
Yet does forever good." -- Goethe, Faust

In Pina Bausch's Café Müller, after dozens of repetitions of the man repeatedly placing the woman in the other man's arms, and him repeatedly dropping her, the woman eventually begins throwing herself on the floor. Learning can occur -- even when we're practicing to obliterate ourselves. The body learns by repetition, filling in what our conscious brains know or think. The coarse cloth folded precisely in half, and in half again. When we turn, for example, the non-supporting foot can skim the floor, but all the weight remains on the supporting (pivoting) foot. It is precisely when we dance that we make ourselves most vulnerable to stumbles, to falls, to disgrace.

One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki awoke to hear bells.

This is the opening and closing passage in the novel. Futaki, one of the villagers, rises from his neighbor's wife's bed, and stares out the window at the world.

Unbeknownst to Futaki, across the village, the doctor, an alcoholic shut-in, is watching Futaki and is transcribing the villagers' every move, translating the "irreconcilable anxiety petrified in the dense darkness of reduced inconsolable existence." In his desk in front of his window in his rotting hovel, he keeps separately labeled files for each of the village occupants. He is a master of his trade, tirelessly noting his fellow neighbors' every obscure movement and each secret fart. For years he has labored at his art, an obsessive devotee of a routine that requires a blanket be placed just so around his fat shoulders and a maven's knowledge of the optimum portioning of cigarettes and plum brandy.

In a flash of either artistic vision or alcohol-induced psychosis, he makes the following discovery:

He realized that all those years of arduous, painstaking work had finally borne fruit: he had finally become the master of a singular art that enabled him not only to describe a world whose eternal unremitting progress in one direction required such mastery but also -- to a certain extent -- he could even intervene in the mechanism behind an apparently chaotic swirl of events!

And so we return to the point of departure, the beginning of the novel -- the writer, a madman, writing the work that we are reading, the world falling to pieces around him, his door nailed shut from the inside. We are folding dishcloths and we are dancing.

Ever since I was a teenager, I've looked forward to the apocalypse. Ever since I read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, A Clockwork Orange, and Brave New World, I've kept a little bag packed. I've been listening for bells. I've been waiting for the future.