A Whale of a Time

The Melancholy of ResistanceCover of The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

László Krasznahorkai
1998 in translation by George Szirtes

Procrustes welcomed footsore travellers on the road to Athens with the promise of a sound night’s sleep in one of his iron guest beds. He was unusually obsessed with ensuring that the bed was just the right size. So if the bed was too long, he would tie the guest down and hammer and stretch out their body until the bed’s length fit theirs exactly. If the bed was too short, he would chop off excess guest to achieve the same result. Then, because as an unfortunate side-effect of his mania for neatness the guest generally died, he took charge of their belongings. Eventually the hero Theseus happened along and, not being one to take that sort of thing lying down, put the thieving Procrustes to bed instead.

To return to Procrustes, we must detour through a music lesson. If you pluck a fixed string, the frequency at which it vibrates creates a sound. The vibrations run along the string in a wave and are reflected back and forth from the fixed ends. The back and forth waves interfere with each other, causing the string to reverberate at higher frequencies at points along its length. These higher frequencies are whole number ratios of the fundamental frequency and are called harmonics – they harmonise with the fundamental.

A purely tuned musical scale is made up of notes that reproduce the frequencies of the natural harmonics of the fundamental, or key note. The last note (which is also the first note of the next scale, an interval called an octave) vibrates with twice the frequency of the first. In traditional Western music that gives us a major scale looking like this:

 Note A B C D E F G A
 Frequency Ratio 1/1 9/8 5/4 4/3 3/2 5/3 15/8 2/1
 Frequency in Hertz 440 495 550 586.66 660 733.33 825 880

Using this scale we can play lots of sets of notes – chords – that harmonise beautifully with our A notes. But what if we want to play nice B or C chords? We would need to make B or C our key and work out the harmonics, as follows:

 Note A B C D E F G A B C
 Key of A 440 495 550 586.66 660 733.33 825 880 990 1100
 Key of B   1/1 9/8 5/4 4/3 3/2 5/3 15/8 2/1  
440 495 556.88 618.75 660 742.5 825 928.13 990 1113.75
 Key of C     1/1 9/8 5/4 4/3 3/2 5/3 15/8 2/1
440 495 556.88 626.48 696.09 742.5 835.31 928.13 1044.14 1113.75

You can see that the frequencies of each progression of notes are similar, but diverge. If we work out the harmonics that are in tune with the fundamental A, they will be out of tune with the harmonics of the fundamental B, and so on: different keys are out of tune with each other. Those who have tried to work out tuning systems to make all keys harmonise have discovered disconcerting phenomena such as the Procrustean fifth.

On an instrument with fixed tuning, such as a piano, it is mathematically impossible to get all notes of different keys in perfect tune, and over a few scales the difference can be such that the wavelengths of pairs of notes create an interference pattern, alternately cancelling out and amplifying each other. The ‘wobbling’ sound that results is the Procrustean, or wolf fifth. Something similar, a wolf tone, is produced when a note matches the resonant frequency of the body of the instrument it’s played on.

Andreas Werckmeister was one of the many people who have put their mind to the problem of harmonising across a range of scales. Like Pythagoras, who also developed a tuning system, he knew that mathematics described both music and the movement of the stars and planets in the sky. Just as mathematical relationships produce harmony in music, so, it was thought, must they produce the Harmony of the Spheres, a visible order corresponding to the audible order.

The Werckmeister Temperament imposed intervals of frequency between notes in the scale that were not quite true to natural harmonics, but allowed notes in different keys to, more or less, harmonise: no more howling-wolf chords. Bach’s revered set of pieces known as the Well-Tempered Clavier was among the earliest to take advantage of Werckmeister’s tuning.

In his final, posthumous work, Werckmeister argued for equal temperament, in which the notes of the scale are divided by equal intervals of frequency, so that each key progresses in exactly the same steps. Western music now predominantly uses equal temperament, conforming music to a regular mathematical order to create the widest range of harmonic possibility. In order that no notes sound horribly out of tune we make every single note, besides our octaves, just slightly out of tune.

It so happens that the middle section of The Melancholy of Resistance is titled ‘The Werckmeister Harmonies’.¹ Mr Eszter, ex-director of the town’s academy of music, remembers the crushing realisation, on overhearing his piano tuner discover and ‘correct’ a purely tuned note, that the great works of Classical genius – Mozart, Beethoven, Bach – which had seemed to him intimations of a heavenly realm beyond, are a lie based on the great Procrustean bed of equal-tempered tuning, which stretches and mutilates pure tone to fit its abstract scheme.

Disillusioned, Mr Eszter shuts himself off, shunning the outside world, with which, as a pure tone of being, he can only produce dischord. His only friend is Valuska, a Candide-esque figure who drifts about the town lost in happy visions of an eternal, cosmic order, dismissed by the townspeople as an idiot. Mr Eszter engages with this angelic simpleton only because he sees that his own point of view has no impact: ‘his painfully constructed and precise sentences bounced off the shield of Valuska’s faith’. The utter difference of their uncompromising world-views produces a harmony: they proceed through the world ‘in curious unitary fashion’.

The slippage between the order we claim to discern in the world around us and the utter excess of each phenomenal quantum of reality is one of the strings to this book’s bow, resonating with others taut between, for instance, utopia and dystopia, faith and despair. The catalyst for change in the protagonists, and in the literally and metaphorically frozen town in which the action takes place, is an enormous whale carcass driven in on the back of a lorry as the centrepiece of an idiosyncratic ‘circus’.

The size of the beast is ‘incomprehensible’, it is ‘impossible’ to comprehend the visible parts as an ‘integral whole’. It has something of the effect of the biblical leviathan, which God presents to the complaining Job as an example of creative power surpassing human comprehension. Job abandons the contractual argument that God owes him for his righteousness and repents of his folly in pretending to understand ‘things too wonderful for me.’²

The advent of the whale similarly brings the town something outside its frame of reference, something baffling to its inhabitants – and to the reader. With it come consternation, public disorder, violence: in a word chaos. But no clear resolution. Those with faith lose it – those without gain it. The complacent bourgeois government of the town is swept away – and a new order rises.

Krasznahorkai’s characters are brought up against objects, circumstances – a world – that outstrips their ability to know it. And such is the experience of reading his books. There is not enough – or perhaps too much – there for us to know, in the end, whether this is a melancholy acknowledgement of the meaninglessness and futility of existence, or a call to transcend the spiritual desert of modern life, or a slyly ironic commentary on the melodramatic insistence that those two viewpoints be in conflict; and the elusive meaning of the work is emphasised by his famous sentences, which follow the winding course of his characters’ thoughts – their speculations, evasions and qualifications – spiralling towards revelation, stalling and falling away, swinging out in one direction only to find that they double-back on themselves; a labyrinth of clauses unimpeded by paragraph breaks and in no hurry to reach a full stop.

This is a narrative of the failure of our understanding. Our application of rational schemes to an infinite universe, our approximations of perfection, are bound to be unfaithful to the unfathomable nature of reality. But what else do we have? Krasznahorkai does not say; yet he does not say we have nothing. There is very little we can truly say, perhaps only as much as the book’s epigraph: ‘It passes, but it does not pass away’.


¹ Werckmeister Harmonies is also the title of the film based on the book, ‘a film which seems to bear an absolutely marginal relation to the way that cinema is usually conducted … a breathtaking example of cinema’s enduring ability to sound the murkier abysses of the human condition … an out-and-out masterpiece.’ https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/werckmeister-harmonies-116075.html

² Job 42:3

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