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Stagnation

in Ark Review/Essays by

Pornografia is the story of a manic obsession that overtakes the protagonists, Mr Witold and Mr Fryderyk, upon their encounter with a young couple, Henia and Karol. It takes place in occupied Poland, in 1943, but the grave setting and circumstances are of relatively little importance for the story itself: the true drama, the substance of the book, happens strictly in-between the characters. They seem to be strangely independent of the world, not its products, but its creators. One feels, that this story could have happened anywhere, as everything is nothing more than the protagonists’ own projection. The world is never out there for them, but they construct every detail of it. The effect of this detachment is, somehow strangely, the story’s universal appeal.

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One foggy day, on the invitation of their friend,  Mr Witold and Mr Fryderyk are taken from their home, at the time ‘ex-Warsaw’, by train, to the village estate somewhere in Poland. There, two youngsters live and though they remain completely oblivious to this fact, they are made for each other. What remains unknown to them, is obvious for Mr Witold and Mr Fryderyk, who are struck by the simple idea: Henia should be with Karol. Suddenly this thought becomes the only thing that matters to them, ‘HEŃKA WITH KAROL’ becomes the idee fixe which two friends find impossible to resist. And which they willingly pursue.

A strange, concealed play commences with the protagonists’ direction, soon enough spiralling into obsession, culminating in a bloody finale. They plot to arrange ambivalent situations aiming to realise their perverted goal and, to keep their actions secret, they communicate through letters, which are to be burned later. Although at some point they begin to doubt their own sanity, they are too dependent on the perverted game they play. The young pair excites them because it has something the two old man desperately miss.

One of the paradoxes of growth is that it is something of which one seems to have no direct experience. We know we grow, animals that we are, but staring into the mirror fails to reveal any signs of this process. Neither do the photos of my younger self, the indifferent images saying no more than: once, you were different, not: you are growing.

Before the main drama of the Pornografia unfolds, as we are introduced to the world of Mr Witold and Mr Fryderyk, it is almost painful to read the description of the rooms stiff with cigarette smoke in occupied Warsaw. Those who gather participate in a ritual of discussing grand ideas, but the ideas’ meaning, and hence the sense of the ritual itself, have evaporated, leaving the participants in limbo. Something vital is missing. Therefore, although in many ways Pornografia is a bacchic, frantic book, the paroxysm it narrates comes to be only because of the oppressing of stagnation, which the pair finds so unbearable.

It is impossible not to notice that the void in which they find themselves is more than simply an external matter. It is not the war, which suspends everything, the stagnation penetrates deeper, into their very being. To be precise, the (un)movement of stagnation seems to completely oppose being, with this (un)movement emanating from the characters into the world, not the vice-versa. A projection: the world is not stagnant, but only appears to be so. Hence their escape to the countryside makes little difference in this respect, as long as they are still themselves. Wherever they go, everything seems ‘the same as usual, known in advance… And yet, not the same! Not the same, precisely because the same. And unknown, and ununderstandable, alas, impenetrable, impossible to grasp.’ It is against this background that they desperately wish to rebel, and in a counterpoint to this stasis that their obsession is born. What is it about their encounter with Henia and Karol that makes a difference? It seems that in the young couple, they suddenly discover a possibility. This glimmer is enough. And it does not matter, that they are unable to find the possibility in themselves, that it is not their own possibility.

One way to think of stagnation is as of a direct presence of the lack of possibilities to change, to realise. Inanimate matter is never in danger of stagnation but is always, rather, static. This is because it does not have any possibilities to realise at its disposal. It exhausts itself in its being. It is only humans, who are made of possibilities, that experience the absence of possibility as oppressive. The lack of open vistas of change becomes overwhelming because it is so radically opposed to our nature. This strange absence is not a vague intuition, but, instead, is paradoxically immediately present.

Thus Pornografia tells a story of a complicated matrix of inter-human tensions, but also of a stubborn stasis underneath. The need to alter the unbearable reality is so strong because the stagnation Mr Witold and Mr Fryderyk are immersed in is so oppressive that it has become visceral. It is now impossible to deny or overlook and, unbearable to the point where no price seems too high to escape it. And as such, stagnation appears phenomenally to be the complete reverse of growth. Because growth is largely invisible.

Stagnation may be unbearable, but there is a promise it has to offer: in the midst of its presence as a total absence of possibilities, we can realise that they are in fact what enables growth. Because we are our possibilities, if we remain statically the same as usual, known in advance, we are precisely not the same as we are. Not the same, precisely because the same.

One of the paradoxes of growth is that it is something of which one seems to have no direct experience. We know we grow, animals that we are, but staring into the mirror fails to reveal any signs of this process. Neither do the photos of my younger self, the indifferent images saying no more than: once, you were different, not: you are growing. The remote traces of growth are perhaps evident, but never growth itself. The trees in a forest: I know they grow, though they appear positively static and inanimate. Economic growth? Looking for it, what one seems to discover time and again are only diverse numbers, percentages and ratios. I.e. tokens, indicators, like grey hair in a mirror. Again: no growth in propria persona, always only still frames taken out of the process, ersatz after ersatz. Growth’s tacit presence is known as an abstract notion rather than experienced in daily life. No such distance, however, in stagnation: it is pure directness. 

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Heidegger observed that we learn most about things in those instances when they are broken into pieces or go missing. Perhaps then, the best way to grasp growth would be precisely through the moments of its absence. If so, then let us abandon the idea of seeking growth where we expect to find it and turn our gaze towards the moments of what may be labelled non-growth. Not to the simple reversal of growth, however, as in these moments of decrease or fall, as our experience of them is equally indirect and mediated as the experience of the growth itself.

The non-growth we need cannot happen within the framework of growth/decay, it has to be the total negation of this framework itself. So the simple logical opposite of growth is of no avail here. We need the very absence of the growth paradigm. And Pornografia is situated firmly within it, through the stagnation with all its consequences it depicts. Growing, we realise our possibilities decreasing. But as long as we remain locked in the framework of this dichotomy, the growth itself always seems to escape us. Stagnation may be unbearable, but there is a promise it has to offer: in the midst of its presence as a total absence of possibilities, we can realise that they are in fact what enables growth. Because we are our possibilities, if we remain statically the same as usual, known in advance, we are precisely not the same as we are. Not the same, precisely because the same.

***

Artwork: Tate

Photos: B. Buniecka

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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