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Book Review

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated from Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (New Directions, 2013)
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue, translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Riverhead Books, 2016)
A Story of America Goes Walking by Saara Myrene Raappana and Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton (Shechem Press, 2016)
Peter Hujar: Lost Downtown by Vince Aletti and Stephen Koch (Steidl/Pace MacGill, 2016)

PERHAPS LIKE MANY people of faith, I first encountered the tenet of omnipresence in the form of the hopeful, if somewhat theoretical, understanding that I am encompassed by great mercy and love. And then I turned a corner in the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art and saw Eitaro Ishigaki’s Undefeated Arm, a strong masculine arm with no hint of violence, and the world around me fell away.

I don’t know why some art claims us, why a certain piece of writing or a painting can feel like a discomfiting presence I never want to shake. In reading the four books described here, I felt steeped in religious practice. In very different ways, they each revealed glimpses of God in the faces of strangers, in shattered sidewalk ice, in the shadow of a stone angel. And while thinking about how the books were connected, I woke early one morning with the thought that, if you really believe in God, if you truly accept God’s existence and omnipresence, then God is the most terrifying idea imaginable.

God represents terror without an object, without threat or danger; God is instead a force that overwhelms mind and the body, a being we will never comprehend, that touches all aspects of the universe. G-d is the name we’re not allowed to say, the omitted vowel, the face we can’t see, and the sublime terror that stands comfortingly between us and all the horrors and evils of this world, commanding our attention. Or perhaps, like art, God is terrifying because he exists apart from how we define him for ourselves.

In each of these books, we find ourselves frightened at the God who moves beneath all art. We make more art to argue for the God-bearing preciousness of bodies and cultures in all our murderous, colonial ages. We hold our stories and our art to the light, horrified at the harms sprung from their mythos. We make more art and write more prayers, claiming our places as beloved of that great, dreadful God always moving there below.

§

To call László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below a series of seventeen vignettes would be to ignore the physiology of the book, the way the novel’s voices heap and tumble and gain velocity with an almost unbearable mass. Regarding punctuation, Krasznahorkai has said that the full stop belongs not to humans but to God, and this is evident in both the book’s near absence of periods and in the growing terror, hyperventilation, and horrible ecstasy this absence creates—horrible because it’s desired and despised at once. My breathing changed while reading it. My heart arrhythmia grew defiant, and I’m convinced Krasznahorkai’s voice changed my electrophysiology for a while. A glimpse of infinity is never pleasant.

Seiobo There Below is about what moves under the surface during the creation and reception of art. In the novel, what moves is the Japanese goddess Seiobo, though Krasznahorkai melds archetypes, drawing on a deep understanding of Shinto, Buddhist, and Catholic traditions. A tourist visits a painting of a trapped Christ. Noh dancers and mask-makers rend the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds, manifesting demons and goddesses through their art. A traveler wonders at the ghosts held within the Alhambra’s architectural puzzles. An engraver’s apprentice loses sleep over the centuries-old blue used to depict the Virgin Mary’s skirts.

Yet the god(dess) in Seiobo There Below is not a transcendent force for helping people along in the ecstasy of their art interpretation. This is a lost god or a trapped god, a god whose utter loneliness, evoked by art, creates an overwhelming sense of horror in the artist and viewer. In the section called “Where You’ll Be Looking,” Chaivagne, a Louvre curator, watches the Venus de Milo and thinks: “Her beauty emanates, it emanates into nothingness, and no one understands, and no one feels what a grievous sight this is, a god that has lost its world.”

I first encountered Krasznahorkai through his novel Satantango, which tells the story of a small-town bureaucrat who is also the devil. It made the hoof prints, sulfur, and excess saliva of traditional possession stories look a little unrealistic. But in his new book, Krasznahorkai gives us something even more terrifying, more incomprehensible and disturbing: a God who actually moves in and under the world, a god who forces those who catch glimpses of it to ask: What have we done with you? What are you, truly, beneath all of our guesswork? Seiobo There Below shows us the myriad ways we crave and can’t handle the answers.

The chapter “Cristo Morto” has followed me to nearly every museum I’ve visited since first reading it three years ago. An eastern European tourist visits the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice to re-experience an event that changed his life eleven years before. During his first visit, he happened upon Cristo morto nel sepolcro, a small painting depicting a half-naked Christ. After gazing at it for several minutes, he imagines he sees the eyelids flicker:

is this possible?—it is not possible, inside there is a picture, a body of Christ, with the head bent to one side, a gentle abandoned Christ; someone painted him, someone turned him into an idea, and someone is looking at him, in this case myself…. he knew without a doubt that the eyes of this Christ were trembling, and that they would tremble again, because this Christ WANTED TO OPEN HIS EYES….

Eleven years later, he finds the painting once again, watches the Christ’s eyes open into suffering and obscurity, and “he was ashamed that it had occurred like this, that here was Christ in the fullest and most horrible sense of the word—an orphan—and here is Christ REALLY AND TRULY, but no one needed him—time had passed him by, passed him by, and now He was saying farewell, for He was leaving this earth….” The lack of periods and paragraphs traps the reader along with the Christ in a turbulent river hurtling toward the awfulness of eternity. Omnipresence becomes unbearable.

The novel might well be considered an exploration of Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic phenomenon in which one is made briefly ill after experiencing great beauty. But this is no treatise. Krasznahorkai’s sentences, one of which may continue for pages, pour fuel on the flame of beauty, manifesting its power to overwhelm and frighten. He makes perceptible the dread carried by the divine, in the reader’s quickened breath, in a sudden repulsion at God’s fullness in the world, a fullness that exists wholly outside of belief and expectation.

A statue of Amida Buddha visits the Bijutsu-in shrine in “The Preservation of a Buddha,” and a monk is overwhelmed as the Buddha’s “own gaze of unutterable strength, broadly scourging, sweeps across the entire staff of the Bijutsu-in, as if they had been struck by a windstorm, and even Fujimori Seiichi feels it, for the first time now he bends his head before the statue, lowering his eyes, for a time unable to withstand that tranquility—immense, ponderous, terrifying, and enigmatic….” The compassion Amida Buddha represents is countered by the statue’s presence, which inspires sublime terror instead of peace. A god is not the belief in it or what it represents, and it isn’t the words used to describe it; that is the terror brought forth by art.

Krasznahorkai’s god doesn’t hover or weave; it rumbles underneath all created things. It ripples in unsettling tides. I’d heard Seiobo There Below described as a meditation on the meaning of art under God’s absence or abandonment, but I don’t think that’s entirely right. Most of the vignettes find the artist or viewer of art in a moment perhaps just before God’s absence, which is to say, in a moment filled to bursting with the terror of God’s presence. Krasznahorkai’s god is love in the way that Mount Rainier is a mountain. Yes, and….

The last vignette of the novel, “Screaming Beneath the Earth,” gives voice to the layers of broken art and culture that lie forgotten under centuries of soil, empire, and waste. There below lie the Christs straining to open their eyes, the Buddhas’ buried compassion, the ultramarines mixed with care, and “it is enough to see these artifacts, just one time, for that inhuman voice to be lodged forever in the brain, so that one begins to wander: the knowledge that they are there is insufferable, insupportable, just as is that desire to see their dreadful beauty at least once….”

Krasznahorkai’s god is the god in art and of art, a god both buried and moving. Krasznahorkai’s world is formed by art and formed by God, where our willingness to make or view beauty is willingness to hear a message from a God who may become overwhelmingly present, a message that might sound like a scream beneath the earth.

§

Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death follows the game of tennis across continents, atrocities, and the lives of brawling artists. It leaps from a tennis duel between Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas, fought on the long eve of the Counter Reformation (using a ball made from the hair of Anne Boleyn), to Hernán Cortés’s encounters with the Mexica, to Pope Pius IV and Cardinal Montalto discussing New World art on a Vatican rooftop.

The narrator Enrigue makes himself apparent with commentary on art and sport throughout the novel. It’s a tactic that in other settings might be distracting, but here lends an undercurrent of dread. Enrigue might speak about the construction of the tennis ball, about Caravaggio’s affairs and patrons (a bit of a Venn diagram, that), but the effect of his omnipresence is: We know what happened. We know the Mexica (often referred to as the Aztecs) were annihilated. We know the futures are brimming with torture, with the blood of scapegoats symbolizing the promise of revolution and empire’s fall.

Yet Natasha Wimmer’s translation is playful. As in her masterful translation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, she allows some words and phrases to go untranslated. Together with Enrigue’s habit of leaping between geographies, her style of translation works to build many worlds that spin around the reader, even as the narrative returns again and again to the duel between Caravaggio and de Quevedo. The tennis battle is amusing for the fact that both artists are too hungover to recall the slight that inspired it. This sense of absurdity threads its way through the novel: don’t we all occasionally have trouble recalling our motivations for ideological battles? Watching from the sidelines is Mary Magdalene, a prostitute who models for Caravaggio, much as the courtesan Fillide Melandroni embodied his Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Judith sawing off the head of Holofernes.

Though Enrigue gives great weight to the annihilation of the Mexica and the cruelties of late-sixteenth-century Europe, his best writing follows libertine Caravaggio as the painter struggles to express his ideas of the divine in a world seemingly gone headlong. Enrigue speculates, “Maybe all books are written simply because in every game the bad guys always have the advantage and that’s too much to bear.”

The narrator says his purpose is “to name what is lost, to replace the void with an imaginary archive.” A headpiece made by Mexica feather workers makes the rounds in Italy, and Caravaggio stands transfixed by the colors, the illusion of metal changing shape, and the way that feather structure seems to mimic pigment. We are so easily enraptured by beauty that you might begin to think that rapture is at the heart of something important.

While both Caravaggio and de Quevedo would soon have to operate under new repressions and rules for making art, Caravaggio built his own theology through art that shocked viewers with what a saint or a god could be. His paintings of whores as saints and beggars as apostles and Christs are not simply homilies of the last being first or the need for kindness to the poor. They are, as in Seiobo There Below, moments of terror and confusion at the unexpected fullness of God’s presence.

Caravaggio sits in his studio late at night. He’s just finished running for his life after sleeping with his former patron’s wife, and he has a new patron and new demands. “An affluent saint in a landscape stands for a world touched by God. A saint in a room stands for humanity in the dark: a humanity distinguished by its ability to continue to believe, in a world in which faith is already impossible….”

And in Rome, Pope Pius IV muses over the future, knowing the pain caused by the clash of ideologies about to befall Europe and already scourging the Americas. He’s powerless to stop it, almost as if the wave of terror is an entity unto itself—as if there could only be those who watch the wave mount and those who slaver for it. “Watching the whole world go up in flames, Pius wouldn’t sing of the sack of Troy, as Nero did. He would be silent, listening with eyes shut to a snatch of music—the last bit of melody from a time before the universal conflagration that today we casually call ‘the Baroque….’”

Krasznahorkai’s protagonists are totally alone with their god. They are travelers, artists in their studios at night, silent curators and monks tending their respective shrines. The fates of Enrigue’s characters are wound up in each other: artist and poet, traitor and annihilator, cardinal and pope. Caravaggio argues that his saints and his Christs will stand as fully human. They will represent both God’s presence and God’s abandonment in a world resplendent with suffering.

What is buried in Enrigue’s tumultuous world are not shards of statues or the arms of a Roman goddess. There below are real bodies, real cultures, real and eternal disappearances. In the face of a world that might end at any moment, Caravaggio vows that his art will represent “a material humanity smelling of blood and saliva; a humanity that no longer watches from the sidelines, that does things.”

§

A Story of America Goes Walking, a collaboration between poet Saara Myrene Raappana and artist Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton, overturns and rewrites the dark mythologies that form our perception of American lives and wilderness. Throughout the book, the human heart recurs in poem and image: as an internal home after all our journeying, as what’s left of an English king, as a precious thing in others at risk of obliteration by the stories we tell ourselves.

In the poem called “Heart of Light,” Raappana writes of Richard I, the Lionheart: “When today’s archaeologists sieve the dust of Richard’s heart, they find daisies, mercury, / and Frankincense. Plus creosote and lime (perhaps). CBS.com / calls it unsightly: something that’s impossible to see.”

Though Shechem Press has referred to A Story of America Goes Walking as a chapbook, it is really more of an art book, in which Raappana’s poems and Wilkins-Pepiton’s images are layered over each other. It’s a fairly large, yet slim, hardback with a vellum jacket through which one of Wilkins-Pepiton’s hearts is visible as if through a thick fog. I hesitate to the call the contents illustrated poems, because the compositions lend themselves to the uncanny. Taken together, each page is an artifact, a bit of heart sieved for the stories that warm or darken it.

Wilkins-Pepiton’s art conducts its own archaeology, with mixed-media pieces that depict animals, plants, and human hearts as archetypes, separated from their natural contexts and made powerful. Her images exist in the integrity of their own structure, suggesting bones or roads. Brushstrokes evoke the tenuousness of animal and plant bodies, of each soft heart, behind which hover the ghosts of our relationships with creatures, with anything our myths allow us to easily destroy. Each image feels trapped in circumstance despite the story of freedom we say is the story of nature. Each image is fraught with both the risk of intrusion and the threat of solitude.

The standout poem in the collection is “No Blood Hasn’t Been Through the Heart.” No matter how it’s read, it sounds like an invocation. It seems to call up from the earth some grief we’ve either never seen before or see all the time.

The blood in the brain that stroked
the brain. The blood in the nose
that choked it. The blood
of the scream. The scream
of the song and the song of the blood.

The ribs that bowed to the knee,
the knee. Blood-bone of the knee
that cracked them. The badge of the hilt.
The guild of the badge
in the blood of the hand. The hold
of the vote that forged it.
The bone
of the brain, deaf bone of the brain
that burst into storm and then opened:
The hymn of the son, swelling and split,
and the hand of the home that
moaned him.

It sounds like the heart, and also like an ancient prayer that only our heartbeats know, the prayer of repetition and rhythm and a beat that won’t be silenced, a beat strong as a clenched fist and fragile as membrane.

A sense of dread builds through the collection, fanned by Wilkins-Pepiton’s art. Her images, placed alongside or under text, contribute to a sense of uncanniness. We expect that an accompanying image will explain or nail down a text, and when it refuses to do so, the viewer is left with mounting questions and the deep unsettledness of a settler.

“Let me relive an argument: I called laowai an ugly word, and Eric said the virtue of a noun is / truth, the virtue of truth neutrality. / Let dust motes, like stars or stones, rise toward the sky impartially,” Raappana writes in “In the Women’s Hospital.”

What you first see and read in the book presents itself as tender, but the more the story goes walking, the more a strange unearthing takes place. Raappana’s words and Wilkins-Pepiton’s images together excavate the stories we tell ourselves about art, about nation, about God, and the way those stories may be complicit in great harm. The art creates tension with the poems in the form of a myth that is rewriting itself as we read and look. Myriad counter-myths form beneath the surface of the art and poetry, exposing the layers of striking beauty alongside the obscene and reminding us of the great need to see the preciousness of life, especially in its obliteration.

“Let me remember arriving in Chengdu, traffic zinging like neutrons with no nucleus, asking / Xiaoping if China had traffic cops, and Just because you haven’t seen the iridescent center of a thing doesn’t mean it has no heart is what he said, but the words he used were Look, there’s one.

§

There are nightmares you live, and then there are nightmares you wear through inheritance, legacy, the hell of your face and body. I work in public health, and every day I see the photo of David Wojnarowicz taken by Bill Dobbs at a 1988 Act Up aids demonstration. In the photo, Wojnarowicz, seen from behind, wears a leather jacket printed with a pink triangle and the words “If I die of aids—forget burial—just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.”

All this to say, I have never managed to view the work of photographer Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s best friend, without crying, and I wasn’t able to make it through Peter Hujar: Lost Downtown unscathed either. The book collects fifteen portraits of Hujar’s friends that were exhibited at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York in early 2016. Nearly all were taken in Hujar’s Bowery loft between 1972 and 1985, a time when gentrification, fear of aids, and city campaigns against lives viewed as seedy gutted neighborhoods and scattered communities.

To be part of anything, I think, is to accept its legacy and the responsibility that legacy engenders. In my work in infectious diseases, I hold Wojnarowicz and Hujar close, aware that I’ve chosen to work in a field that has knowingly both killed and saved, a field in which it is so easy to degrade, to reduce to pathogen, to think in terms of filth and contamination. Their work is a reminder that I want to support the desires of all humans to live long and well.

A book of portraits, as opposed to an exhibition, is almost unbearably intimate and generous. You can explore it alone, in private, and thus, freed from the gallery’s constraints and false modesty where you pretend to be interested in Art-with-a-capital-A and not the strange and wonderful shapes of bodies, you can let your gaze rest wherever it wants. You can really look.

Hujar was by many accounts irascible, prone to rage and isolation, though Wojnarowicz wrote in his diaries that he didn’t see him that way. Under his photos are movement. Not the kind of movement that directs the gaze, but movement that signifies presence, as if he’s captured some transient immortal being. Though these are portraits, and several of the subjects are still living, each photo is pervaded by an enormous sense of loss: loss of home, loss of a world, loss of a government that doesn’t bestow death, loss of the love and art and touch and beauty the subjects have been told over and over again are filth.

It’s simplistic to say that Hujar captured a world on the verge of disappearing. His photos of artists neither fight nor remain passive before a city that, through regulation and moral righteousness, would in various ways disappear them. The photos are far too enamored of the individual, of the integrity involved in making an image of a being beloved of God.

But what god is this behind the eyes of a dying drag queen, in the foundation-caked rings of Venus on a ballet dancer’s neck, in the soft flesh under Wojnarowicz’s collarbone? Hujar refuses to reclaim humanity, to restore or make beautiful what has been crushed by the city’s firm heel. No flowers grow in the cracks, no quartz under dull stone, no resurrections. Hujar sees without explaining; he offers neither grief nor hope.

In his introduction to the collection, Vince Aletti (whose portrait is included) writes that Hujar “saw them, got them, with an understanding that was beyond words. Peter loved a fabulous façade, but he was only happy when he could get past it, dig deeper, and connect.” And whatever else might be true of the enigmatic and often solitary photographer, his recognition of the extraordinary nature of humanity (how easy to forget or distill) is certainly evident.

What do we do with someone who makes art, even the familiar and relatable art of portrait photography, without engaging in reclamation, without a perceptible statement? Or with no statement aside from the one that presses down on your heart as you turn the pages: This is a being as entirely real as you are.

The book is nightmarish in a sense. Like Enrigue trailing the Mexica, the cardinals, the painters, and the wives of Henry VIII, we know what happened to some of these beings. Yet without the mournfulness we expect in the images of worlds lost, we’re left with the terror of humanity in its fullness, humanity on whom Hujar refuses to turn an eye of pity or blame.

We’re left with the insufficiency of words to describe our connection with art and with people. Instead we cultivate the unsettling belief that we need art, the nightmare god always moving underneath, to remind us that people are real and beloved and easily lost. While Seiobo There Below finds sublime terror in the many ways eternity reveals itself through art, Sudden Death reminds us that what we obliterate in our ideologies or vast carelessness is lost forever. A Story of America Goes Walking reveals to us our hearts filled with tales, encouraging us to seek the “iridescent center of a thing” right before our eyes before it’s gone. Hujar’s photos position us all as beloved, and we know somehow in viewing them that God is close by. Whether contemplating the terror of an omnipresent God or the careless horror our own hearts can engender, we’re left with art’s great and brutal gift: the reminder of a salvation only we can bestow.


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