:: Article

Sweet Emptiness

By David Winters.

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Andrzej Stasiuk, Dukla, trans. Bill Johnston, Dalkey Archive, 2011.

I won’t say anything about Andrzej Stasiuk, and I’ll try not to say much about myself. About Poland, nothing. The text doesn’t need to be contextualised. Equally though, Dukla shouldn’t be subjected to a ‘close’ reading. Words on the page aren’t worth as much as we think. What matters is the way that a work presents itself. The experience it evokes; the constellation of images it conveys.

This is not simply something linguistic. Literary language is not what makes literature literature. I could subtract all literary devices from Dukla, or paraphrase it in purely prosaic terms, and it would still be Dukla.  Books aren’t what we as readers believe them to be. There’s something beneath the words that we read. With Dukla, one way of saying this is that language is ‘backlit.’ The book is lit up by something shining behind it.

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Dukla should not be read critically, only impressionistically. It should be read while in bed, the book becoming a bridge between being awake and asleep. It shouldn’t be concentrated on, still less interpreted. It’s a book to be read with the eyes while the mind is kept empty.

Dukla is a small town close to the Carpathian Mountains. Dukla is a discontinuous set of descriptions of Dukla. Because the book bears the name of the place, the two seem to stand in some sort of relation. Perhaps the relation of Dukla to Dukla approaches the ‘pure’ form of what links a work to its object. But if so it’s a doubled relation, since reality is already relational. After all, Stasiuk’s subject is not so much Dukla as what Dukla reflects or refracts: what its reality relates to him. He doesn’t just look at a landscape; in so doing he looks through a lens at what makes a landscape possible. The aim is to train the eye on the root of every relation: light.

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So this is a book that wants to look at the sun, although it can’t do so directly. As Stasiuk says, ‘light can’t be described, all that can be done is to keep imagining it afresh.’ Light may be made obliquely available to literature, but only through multiple layers of mediation. Dukla’s formula for filtering light is to focus it through a memory of a perception of a place. Literature as viewing apparatus; language as camera eye. At one point, Stasiuk reflects on his reason for writing this way:

‘I always wanted to write a book about light. I never could find anything else more reminiscent of eternity. I never was able to imagine things that don’t exist. That always seemed a waste of time to me. Events and objects either come to an end, or perish, or collapse under their own weight, and if I observe them and describe them it’s only because they refract the brightness, shape it, and give it a form that we’re capable of comprehending.’

Is light then the same thing as God? No. It’s merely ‘reminiscent’ of eternity, homologous with it, or situated in a similar structural position. Nothing would exist without light, because nothing would appear. Elsewhere Stasiuk implies that light is causa sui and will outlive the cosmos. But unlike God, it isn’t transcendent. Dukla takes pains to deflate false claims to transcendence, theological or otherwise. Its mysticism is more akin to that of Wittgenstein, who once wrote: ‘everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen.’

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There’s a scene, therefore, where Stasiuk berates his grandfather’s Catholic faith; his devotion to the ‘utterly nonexistent.’ Later we learn that ‘the soul is a fiction of the mind,’ a weak counterweight to the world of phenomena. Wherever we turn, the book seeks to stop ‘transcendence getting in the way of immanence.’ But this doesn’t mean that Dukla isn’t religious. It is richly religious, yet its entire religion is contained in two phrases: ‘that was how it looked,’ and ‘that was how it was.’ This concretisation also yields an ethics, where what is good is what ‘has no desire to be more than it actually is.’

Light illuminates everything real. At the same time, it annihilates anything not. When a novel channels light like a prism, whatever isn’t essentially novelistic is stripped from it. This could easily encompass everything we think we know about novels. Such knowledge should be suspended when we read Dukla.

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The first thing to be purged from the book is its plot. ‘There’ll be no plot,’ says Stasiuk, because plot ‘melts away in the rising light of day.’ Instead there’ll be ‘nothing but events,’ arranged on a flat field where nothing takes narrative precedence: ‘nothing of any importance is going to happen, nothing.’ Dukla’s beauty is essential precisely because it’s all surface, all the way down. No subtext, just text. No depth, no metaphysics. Instead, scenes from a life are simply shown. In the end there is no novel, and all that’s left is what is sensed and felt.

Writers often ask how a work made of words might acquire the force of an image. For my part, preferring grace over gravity, I wonder how a book could live up to the depthlessness of a dream, or the weightlessness of the cinema. I feel that if heaven exists it will be empty, sun-bleached, blissfully superficial. Stasiuk’s art is one of, in his words, ‘tranquil annihilation.’ In Dukla a series of scenes simply appears, while never being ‘set.’ In this way, words should accomplish no more than a ‘pointing towards,’ a deixis. A book should just take the shape of what happens.

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For these reasons, to read Dukla is to be denied the humanist delusion that the novel you’re reading is ‘about’ you; that it speaks to your experience. But beneath this it captures some other, more common commonality; maybe what Ashbery calls ‘the experience of experience.’ The most common ground is one that’s completely depopulated; emptied of every contingency. In Heidegger’s sense, a space has to be ‘cleared.’ As Stasiuk puts it:

‘This must have been what the world looked like just before it was set in motion: everything was ready, objects poised on the threshold of their destinies… the landscape, unpeopled to its furthest limits, looked like a stage set on which something was going to take place only later, or else already had.’

Light will also wipe out any ‘narrative voice,’ that illusory presence that novelists posit, always perched on the verge of vanishing. ‘One day I cut my finger,’ Stasiuk recalls, ‘and what came out was transparent like the sap of a plant.’ In Dukla the very consciousness of the novel is returned to this state of transparency; we see through the novel’s narrator, as we see through an optical element. ‘It’s exactly as if I were an extraneous addition to the world… all that comes into my mind are events, nothing more.’

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To me it seems like dreams are driven by a similar logic. In a dream I encounter myself, not as myself, but as an unfilled function of what happens. In dreams I feel as others see me; an object without an interior. I exist for as long as some ‘story’ is told. I exist because it is told, and for no other reason. My dreams are as close as I come to being fictional. The art historian Joseph Koerner, standing in front of one of Caspar David Friedrich’s rückenfiguren, remarks that

‘I do not stand at the threshold where the scene opens up, but at the point of exclusion, where the world stands complete without me.’

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In Dukla the world, as well, is no more than a momentary ‘obstacle to the passage of light.’ Indeed, every entity, every person or object (the book doesn’t distinguish between the two) is ‘made of the same thing as everything else,’ and will one day, soon, revert to a single substance. Thus, a ruined building on the road to Kežmarok ‘slowly turns into something mineral,’ just as every other physical thing erodes and grows ‘indistinct, imprecise.’ Entropy will level life out into a serenely ‘indifferent’ monism, in the same way that Dukla restores literature to an indifferent innocence.

For all that, Dukla is not, after Flaubert, a ‘book about nothing.’ Such modernist moves belonged to the last days of literature, whereas Dukla reunites literature with its prehistory. It is not that nothing happens in the world, but that the novel must eradicate itself if it is to capture what happens. Fiction is threaded over the real ‘the way cotton candy is wound around a wooden stick,’ but once it’s finished ‘there’s only a sweet emptiness.’ What is a novel worth, anyway? Next to a film, a photograph?  Precious little, unless it’s no longer a novel, more a ‘magic lantern, a camera obscura, a crystal ball in which snow gently falls.’ At the very moment that Dukla destroys the novel, it comes close to uncovering its condition. What is erased is retrieved as unwritten.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Winters writes fiction and literary criticism. He has written for The MillionsBookslutOpen Letters MonthlyReadySteadyBookThe Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and others. He is a contributing editor at 3:AM. His blog is called Why Not Burn Books?

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 4th, 2011.