By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

About twenty-five hundred years ago, the philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” He certainly said more to expound upon the subject, but,
Jay Fox
unfortunately, we have no idea what. Heraclitus’ book has been lost to time. The above passage, meanwhile, has only been passed down as a fragment because it was frequently quoted by other authors. (Though the accuracy of it is questionable since the ancients were less strict with the rules of quoting than we are and tracking how one such quote evolves as the centuries pile on is a lot like watching a game of telephone unfold.)

Regardless, the meaning of the aphorism remains the same: The world and the people who inhabit it are always in a state of flux. Even if we continue to call rivers by the same names, even if we continue to call people by the same names, they are always different because the components that make them up are always changing.

It is with Heraclitus’ aphorism in mind that one should approach László Krasznahorkai's The World Goes On 

While much has been said of Krasznahorkai's gift for writing sentences that are probably longer in words than most rivers are in meters, far less has been said about how he managed to tie the aphorism into the 20 intersecting stories that make up The World Goes On. This is because it is easy to complain about how challenging it is to read sentences of this length and far more difficult to try to grasp the substance of the book. One of the stories, “A Drop of Water,” is comprised of one panicky sentence that meanders through 29 pages. “Not on the Heraclitean Path,” meanwhile, is a two-sentence, one-page philosophical rumination that strongly evokes Heraclitus—as well as Berkeley, Sartre, and Daniel Dennett—and reads about as easily as the frenzied ramblings of an attorney jacked up on a fist full of Adderall. 

Suffice to say, even when he is being (relatively) terse, Krasznahorkai is difficult to fully understand. Some might even contend that he can be so cerebral and long-winded that it’s next to impossible to parse any meaning from his writing.

However, I don’t believe that this is so. One can begin to parse out meaning within the book as one recognizes that there are numerous references to Heraclitus and that water, waterfalls, streams, roads, traveling, or the notion of change play a dominant role in each of the stories. (It is possible that this idea of flux (or charge) is one of the primary philosophical underpinnings of Krasznahorkai's corpus, but I wouldn't know; this is so far the only book of his that I've read.) There is also an underlying tension that courses throughout the stories and it seems to tie the various characters (none reoccurring, I think) together.

With varying degrees of urgency, each narrator is struggling with a desire for movement, typically in the context of an escape. In some instances, it is nothing more than the casting off a certain kind of complacency. In others, such as “Bankers,” it is the discomfort of seeing an old friend only to realize that one of you has changed and that you are no longer really friends, which here reveals a desire to return to the past. In others still, there is a grave sense of anxiety shadowing the narration that is reminiscent of one of the twentieth century's most profoundly harrowing novels, Samuel Beckett's Malloy. There are even stories (“On Velocity,” “That Gagarin,”) that express an aching need to escape the Earth or life itself (“That Gagarin” again, “I Don’t Need Anything from Here”).

One of the more distressing stories in The World Goes On is the first, “Wandering-Standing.” While other stories deal with narrators who are hoping to escape a situation, the narrator of “Wandering-Standing” describes the sense of being paralyzed by anxiety, as well as a concomitant sense of futility and hopelessness.

Because the rather banal phrase of “paralyzed by anxiety” is used so often, most English speakers glance over it without seriously reflecting about what it actually means. However, it is an extremely disturbing sensation. It is very similar to another collocation: Paralyzed by fear. In both cases, there is a desire to be literally anywhere except for where one is at that moment—to flee in all directions at once without one specific destination in mind, just so long as one does not remain stationary. However, Newtonian physics says that there's a bleakly poetic and ironic consequence to this: If there are forces acting upon a single object/subject with the same ferocity, but in opposite directions, then that object/subject remains motionless.

In my view, this is a brilliant way to open a book that is a meditation on change and movement. It also shows a writer capable of expressing how this anxiety can make you increasingly panicked as you become more anguished, and that it can leave you feeling foolish and despondent. It shows a writer who does not examine human frailty from a distance, but someone who is willing to share an experience that is anything but cerebral. He simply has a manner of expressing this type of experience with more words than are necessary.

While Krasznahorhai’s work is most certainly difficult, I would contend that it is equally rewarding. Few writers, with the possible exception of Jose Saramago or William Faulkner, have possessed the ability to write cascading sentences so full of meaning and a uniquely dark sense of humor.

Jay Fox   


Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.