Perverse logics : ‘Parallel Stories’

February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

“If fate gives one enough time, one learns how to remember” (1098), said a sagacious man — this is because the notion of fate is quite simply the mirror reverse of memory. The illusion of fate is evoked by youthful projecting forward; the future is first acknowledged in expressions of desire or need. An idea of the past comes later. Memory, accordingly, is second to fatefulness. We can trace this in the politics of national narratives where it is the government’s agenda/ambitions that determine how and what of its history will be recounted. Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories is about the dependency between memory & conceptions of the future, fateful or hopeful. That is to say, the subject as it abrades against the object of Time.

In late 20th Century Europe, when the action of Parallel Stories takes place, the case of inheritances & continuities is rarely uncomplicated; rapid change turned the continent into a wasteland of semi-functioning ideologies, where — working systems of thought still being requisite for  cognitive security — people were left without choice but to rely on convictions. In the face of political, military, & philosophic failure, it became the common lot of all to accommodate for their incompleteness. To emptiness the array of characters respond in nearly as many ways: the will to die (Kristòf), insanity (Döhring), leaning on composure & manners (Lady Erna), a predisposition to danger (Àgost), distraction (Madzar), substituting success (Gyöngyver & Maria Szapáry), faith in scientific method (Schuer), psychoanalysis (Irma Szemzò), escape (Balter), displacing the mystery (Kienast), &c. “Common sense failed to stop the symptoms” (155).

Emptiness has the advantage of debunking the notions of eternal soul, solid identity, & the unchangeability of character. “An individual has permanent traits, yes, but the essence of humans is easily permeable, & the traits themselves are malleable; showing different faces in different situations, which means that they offer us different inclinations. What else would make people so accommodating” (641). This extract could as easily have been pulled from A la recherché; like Proust, Nádas often flirts with essayistic writing, though neither is prescriptive by virtue of remaining true to ambiguity. For them, truth is little more than the foundation on which reality/unchanging being can be put together; “this is what a solid Bourgeois upbringing is supposed to do, help one to gauge, understand, & accept every circumstance & situation & then, armed with this knowledge, to resist chaos” (847). More & more, all educated classes are being outfitted with such a Bourgeois education: a bad education for art. Uncharted depths of existence are the domain of artistic practice. Their reality, the persistence of inner chaos regardless of the rationing faculties, is a curious challenge to reason; it is not an attack. Only by challenging reason, can we broaden understanding.

The same premise is behind scientific method. The momentous enlightenment that rises to the surface from Parallel Stories is a notion we might call ‘perverse’ logics. [For the neutral use of “perversion” cf. an earlier post on Barthes.] Perverse logic is caused by historical mutations — distinct biographical points that defy the “Everyman” experience — after which, the everyday must continue nevertheless so that an alternative coping truth has to be inscribed in the individual. The new, peculiar system becomes a mark of distinction to its bearer & quite often the object of love [to love is to love the distinction, after all].

Possessing an alternative system also makes one privy to the falsity of ideal forms. Tolerance is subsequent. “God creates many deformities & bodily abnormalities, & we carefully collect them, categorise and label them. Of course, God did not specify the norms of perfection were and we have no way of knowing whether she deposited them somewhere” (693), says a scientist character. The categorisation is perfectly understandable, but by trusting in perfection [which wills it into existence] a perverse logic en masse was made possible. Otmar Baron von der Schuer, prolocutor of the above, elaborates: “The Führer is the first statesman in the history of the world who not only acknowledges & understands the achievements of research in racial purity & genetics, but has raised them to be the guiding principle in the administration of justice” (748). This is the risk of dictatorships, as the book indirectly shows: the state becomes reliant on the health of a single person, & if this ruler is intelligent enough or feared enough, madness can be turned into policy overnight.

In adversity there is no better resistance than adjustment, that infamous human adaptability. That is the sign & test of our freedom. Nádas represents freedom as the agency to hope for future pleasures. Just one setting is depicted as entirely hopeless, where “they reach the very end of the human world’s possibilities[…] there is no future tense & there never has been one” (607), & that is in Pfeilen Concentration Camp. Although only two pages later the void is partially retracted as two prisoners find arousal together: “It was as if they had washed the desire of pleasure into the sensation of danger & it was impossible to say which was greater” (609). The novel is full of such twists of adjustment, from Gyöngyver’s masochism to Kristóf’s release into love even while maintaining its impossibility. All of these perverse logics harmonise into a perspective on morality that quite simply admits any action that the conscience can live with.

Like much great literature, Parallel Stories focuses on understanding the evils of the world. But unlike most others, Nádas so nearly succeeds that he almost excuses the evils. Such is the strong humility of the book. His characters suffer from an excess of consciousness, like Dostoevsky’s, & their escape [their freedom] is neither in the future nor in the past. The present moment is captured in the novel by human defencelessness & involuntary actions of the body; war & death, doubt, renunciation, urination (or release), the dreaming, orgasm & general lust, seizure, repetition, involuntary memory, & epiphany all meet in their capacity to jolt into life. This jolt is as close a description of the moment as we could hope for, when we are unfastened from the linearity of time. The title of the last part of Parallel Stories equates freedom to a breath.

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