The W. Chapter (Péter Nádas) and the W. Project (Péter Forgács)
Wittgenstein’s well-known article of linguistic philosophical faith that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” when looked at from the viewpoint of cultural history is nothing but one of the chief sources of cultural neurosis. If we think, or rather if a culture thinks, that “thereof one must be silent,” then that implies that we are remaining silent about something of which we know exactly whereof we are not speaking; what it is whereof we are being silent. We may suppress that knowledge—naturally if circumstances so conspire—consciously or unconsciously, but we cannot prevent it from rising to the surface, every now and again, at the most unexpected moments. It may well be that these neuralgic points vary from culture to culture, but what they nevertheless have in common is that it is no use seeking to bottle up these touchy contents, they constantly, uncannily keep coming back and stubbornly pushing to the surface again and again.
Péter Nádas’s huge, 2,000-page novel Parallel Stories (2005) strives, with implacable persistence and exertion, to bring to the surface and show the contents that are thereby kept silent and suppressed in Hungarian and European culture. In parallel, the entire life work of Péter Forgács, and specifically the work he calls the W. Project, aims with similar implacability, by visual means, to make these suppressed and silenced subjects a part of the collective memory. Those parallel oeuvres are implacable parts of the Hungarian and European remembered culture. In the construction of Nádas’s novel the principal parallelism stages the fact of that repeated breaking to the surface in the most diverse narrative times and spaces. The repetition always also has an uncanny effect, insofar as it crops up in ever-different forms and yet familiar motifs and characters haunt not only the reader but the world that is presented in the novel. That uncanniness is perhaps nothing more than the spirit of history which is adumbrated in a given culture and does not leave in peace those who figure in it until they have recognised it for what it is: an essential, implacable constituent of their culture.
In his 1919 essay “The Uncanny”, which arose out of the trauma of the First World War, Sigmund Freud wrote: “Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and yet has come into the open.”1 People have endeavoured to render the bewildering multiplicity of shades of meaning of the original German expression, ‘das Unheimliche’, in many different languages (e.g. it has thrown up ‘uncanny’ in English and ‘inquiétante étrangerie’ in French, whereas in Arabic and Hebrew the words are those also used for ‘demonic’ and ‘eerie’), although none has been able to convey the truly unique etymological ambiguity that resides in the original, namely, that it is about an unsettling mixture of the recognisable, the familiar and the cosy yet strange. The equivalent Hungarian word (‘kísérteties’, or roughly—‘ghostly’) is at least able to suggest the implication of a revenant, haunting (‘kísértő’) quality, something that does not let a person rest, does not let go, however much one might wish. To capture the subject of the essay, Freud analyses an “uncanny” (ghostly) tale, E.T.A Hoffmann’s short story The Sandman, which the latter originally published in 1816 in volume 1 of his Nachtstücke (‘Night Pieces’). Freud suggested that Hoffmann was “the unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature.”2
This extraordinarily compact tale by Hoffmann, which throws light on giddying psychological depths, among other things is about a student by the name of Nathaniel, who falls in love with Olimpia, the beautiful daughter of his teacher, Professor Spalanzani; she, it turns out as the story unfolds, is just a doll, a clockwork automaton. Hoffmann is able to elicit an eerie sensation in pursuing people, things or situations, and Freud refers to a 1906 essay on ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny” in which Ernst Jentsch singles out “doubt as to whether an apparently animate object really is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be perhaps animate.” Freud goes on a bit later to comment: “I must say, however… that the motif of the seemingly animate doll Olympia is by no means the only one responsible for the incomparably uncanny effect of the story, or even the one to which it is principally due… Rather, it is another motif that is central to the tale, the one that gives it its name and is repeatedly emphasized at crucial points—the motif of the Sand-Man, who tears out children’s eyes.”3 Hoffmann opens the tale by evoking Nathaniel’s childhood memories. The student is unable, writes Freud, “for all his present happiness, to banish certain memories connected with the mysterious and terrifying death of his much-loved father. On certain evenings his mother would send the children to bed early with the warning ‘The Sandman is coming.’ And sure enough, on each such occasion the boy would hear the heavy tread of a visitor, with whom his father would then spend the whole evening. It is true that, when asked about the Sandman, the boy’s mother would deny any such person existed, except as a figure of speech, but a nursemaid was able to give him more tangible information: ‘He is a bad man who comes to children when they won’t go to bed and throws a handful of sand in their eyes, so that their eyes jump out of their heads, all bleeding. Then he throws the eyes in his bag and takes them off to the half-moon as food for his children. These children sit up there in their nest; they have hooked beaks like owls, and use them to peck up the eyes of the naughty little boys and girls.”4
In The Sandman, which got its title from one of the widely known characters of German nursery folklore, a prominent role is played by sight, or specifically eyesight, and devices that assist the eyes (spectacles and a spyglass, for example). The main protagonist, Nathaniel, connects his father’s death with the sinister lawyer Coppelius (it is his footsteps that Nathaniel hears when his mother sends him off to bed) and on account of the temporal coincidence he associates the lawyer with the Sandman. When he grows up he buys a pocket spyglass from a barometer seller called Coppola (‘coppola’ means ‘eye-socket’ in Italian) with which he can spy through the window of the house opposite on the mysterious Olimpia, with whom he falls in love. Naturally, he cannot help but associate Coppola with Coppelius (his father’s mysterious visitor), or in other words with the Sandman because since childhood he has been unable to come to terms with the shock of his father dying. A fresh trauma befalls Nathaniel when it turns out that his beloved Olimpia is nothing more than a lifeless doll—a recognition that pushes the young man into madness and, eventually, death. It turns out that the technology of sight, or to be more precise: his own gaze, leads him astray: what he thought was real (because that is how he wanted to see it) is just an empty fiction, and knowing that is unbearable. After all, if we can no longer believe our own eyes, everything becomes uncertain. As Freud too declares: “the uncanny in essence would be something in which we no longer recognise ourselves,” and in what else would that something be than life itself. From another angle, however, Freud goes beyond the obvious identification of the uncanny with the strange, the unknown, and he associates it with the sense of familiarity. For Nathaniel that motif means precisely the recognisable sensations and memories that he had suppressed within him due to the trauma he had suffered, which suddenly rise to the surface. The unbridgeable chasm between insight and external vision ultimately pushes him into a genuine chasm.
(reflex mirror, chisel, microscope)
Passing in Hoffmann’s footsteps, almost two centuries later, Péter Nádas has produced a newer uncanny masterpiece of European literature, or rather a narrative staging tailored into an uncanny newer masterwork, in the shape of Parallel Stories. For in point of fact Nádas’s book—and virtually the entire life’s work of Péter Forgács—fulfils the Freudian criteria of the Unheimlich in more than one respect. One could say that Parallel Stories is a work that is laden with the notion of the uncanny. In this, but also in the novel A Book of Memories published two decades earlier (1986), it has undoubtedly been one of the author’s chief aims to explore, or to be more precise: powerfully show, make visible, how the literature (art) of a nation is able to throw off a terror that it has endured, how it can be capable of not occupying itself with its decisive historical traumas; or in other words, how it is capable of erasing them from the collective memory. To put it yet another way, how, after the Second World War, a culture—in this case, Hungarian culture in particular—is capable of not making the most decisive events of Hungarian (European) history in the twentieth century a subject of its art.
Parallel Stories is ruthlessly undeviating in the manner in which it uncovers what it is that is not present in Hungarian literature: what it keeps silent about; what it regularly and consistently, with a few rare exceptions, turns away from; what it chooses to cover up or to leave uncovered, and does so in such a radically fragmented manner that it only displays the fact of uncovering, the locus of the absence. Among these missing elements are the Horthy era in Hungary, from 1920 to the mid-autumn of 1944, the country’s entry into World War II in December 1941, and its deep involvement in the Holocaust—and those subjects are equally present in Forgács’s oeuvre, in some of the pieces that make up Private Hungary, such as the films Vortex, The Vortex Oratorio, The Maelstrom and Danubian Exodus, and also some of the parts of Pető Family Saga—the body (see the film that Forgács composed on Nádas’s book One’s Own Death), sexuality and its idiom, eugenics, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Hungary’s relationship to German culture and history, the history of Hungary’s German-speaking, Roma (Gypsy) and Jewish ethnic minorities, and so on. In Parallel Stories, then, Nádas rips aside the salutary hangings that cover the secrets, and what comes to light is no less than one of the above-cited Freudian definitions of the uncanny. In that sense Parallel Stories is an initiation of Hungarian literature and Hungarian readers; in other words, it is a declaration of reaching adulthood, full legal status. It opens up, if only indirectly, images after the inspecting (reading) of which it will no longer be possible to claim that “I didn’t know” or “I forgot.” In Nádas’s world we are remorselessly made aware, remorselessly see things that were already previously open to full view—and that, to be sure, is unbearable. That sense of the unbearable is only intensified by the fact that Nádas only shows things fragmentarily, throwing light on the giddying depths of the deficiency.
In another of the definitions that Freud gives in his essay on the notion of the uncanny, he asserts: “The factor of the repetition of the same thing will perhaps not be acknowledged by everyone as a source of the sense of the uncanny. According to my own observations it undoubtedly evokes such a feeling under particular conditions, and in combination with particular circumstances—a feeling, moreover, that recalls the helplessness we experience in certain dream-states.”5 The notion of parallelism that features in the title of Nádas’s novel is accomplished through the repetitions of identical, or just conspicuously similar situations, things, events and figures in different places and in different eras. The parallelism comes into being not just in time and place (inasmuch as just about every protagonist or major event has its reflected—and in practice infinitely reflexible—counterpart in time and space) but also in the very fact of repetition. If it were a matter of pure recurrence, of course, then one ought to speak of identity rather than parallelism. In Nádas’s novel, however, the same is never the selfsame but the same as an occurrence in another series—and that is what creates the sense of parallelism, of familiarity and, at the same time, difference.6 At the same time this is what gives Nádas’s novel a similarity, at the structural level, to the structure of language, of the body and of history insofar as at the narrative level it points to the significance of contextuality, to the functional mechanism of construction or, if you prefer, of fiction. In Forgács’s The W. Project (and also in some of the individual pieces that make up Private Hungary) the role of serialism or parallelism is of no lesser importance inasmuch as he relocates documentary material that was produced in one specific (political and ideological) context into another—in this case political and artistic—context whereby the documentary material (the original material—biographical data, measurements of growth and build, hair samples, plaster cast masks, photographs—collected as early as September 1939 from 440 Jewish detainees in Buchenwald concentration camp by Dr Josef Wastl, head of the Department of Anthropology in the University of Vienna, for an project that was intended to provide proof of the "racial" differentness of Jews) is transferred into another series which discloses and reinterprets the original intention. That setting of the documentary material into another series (context) at the same time also fictionalises the material insofar as out of mere documents it brings into being an artistic creation that carries independent meaning and a critical interpretation. The other obvious way in which serialism makes an appearance in The W. Project is that every single item in the series of portraits in Forgács’s project—triumphantly thwarting the photographers’ original intentions (which was to attest the various types and races of mankind)—turns into a memorial of the human individual, of individuality and humanity.
Nádas stages the idea of parallelism in various spheres in his novel, that is to say, he demonstrates and proves its operation in a variety of ways. One sphere is that of geology, which makes its present felt throughout the book, a counterpart of the real world, the Earth, and in order for us to gain access to its different strata, to the treasures that lie within, archaeological and mining activities are required, which in this case means nothing else than the literary and artistic activity itself. The motif of geology is a giant metaphor in the novel, and it also operates as one of the similarly giant metaphors in the chapter ‘Hans von Wolkenstein’ in the third of the three volumes of Parallel Stories, which is the one on which we intend to concentrate more fully, as a pair (parallel) to Péter Forgács’s The W. Project.7
“In Annaberg, the church hill itself was nothing but a massive, extensive block of this rock formation, barely covered with a surface of soil. Gneiss supported the entire little town on its back. A few steps from the church and built of the same stone stood Kirchber 1, the Wolkensteins’ otherwise very modest town house where, to the great delight of the grownups, Hans always played with the housekeeper’s little niece Ingke more peacefully than with anyone else. The adults could safely leave the children to themselves for long periods. Not to mention that through this rock formation the silver mines’ narrow, ever-dripping shafts lowered themselves to the bowels of the earth to an endless labyrinth of narrow horizontal passageways from where, through other darkly gaping shafts, one could reach still lower galleries. Ingke’s father was a mineworker who had been fired several times; he was always organizing his mates, although his grandfather and even his great-grandfather had also been miners, as was almost every man in the family.
This schistose-textured, metamorphic, structurally composite and crystalline stone, whose ingredients include quartz, feldspar, and mica, does not differ from granite in its texture, but deviates from it greatly with its fascinating colors. Its dominant hue stems from orthoclase, a felspar that is white, red, and gray, while the quartz forms limpid gray specks in it.
All this, however, can be seen only from close up, preferably under a magnifying glass or microscope.
This very prevalent stone, though it is not always easy to notice close to the earth’s surface, can thank its mining and architectural career to the parallels dominating its structure, because it can be split easily along its layers. Several varieties of its texture are known; in veined gneiss, the micas are arranged in ribbons, in layered gneiss the ingredients change with each layer, while in barred gneiss they line up in vertical rows, in slabs.
Whatever the texture, the stone can be split along the parallel lines.
Humans do the least of the splitting. It is mainly wind, frost, and water that do it; one might say that the miners merely follow the natural cracks when with their chisels they continue to split the rocks to get to the silver in the veining.” (Péter Nádas, Párhuzamos történetek [hereafter: Parallel Stories], Pécs: Jelenkor Kiadó, 2005, vol. 3, pp. 257-259.)
In Nádas’s literary blazon two devices might well feature most prominently, besides a twin-lens reflex camera: the microscope and chisel. His method is comparable to the way a microscope is used in that, at least relative to ordinary, natural (i.e. culturally natural) vision, it enlarges things unnaturally and thereby offers uncustomary perspectives that force one into new modes of seeing and thinking. He does not allow aloofness (although he himself is very much inclined to stand aloof), blinking and turning away; he all but keeps his readers’ eyes propped open (much like Alex during the retraining program in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange), forcing them to see, to look—and, what is more, to acknowledge. He takes them close enough to see the constituents of the rock, which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Meanwhile he does nothing other than apply the chisel to the natural, parallel fissures to pry the rock further apart in order that he—and we—should reach the mother lode.
History, just like science, can sometimes make progress through the grasping of an image or metaphor.8 A perceptible recurrent phenomenon is that what earlier was just a figure of speech, turn of phrase or metaphor later on is often translated into real life (cf. the “man-in-the-moon” imagery which preceded the reality of Man being on the Moon). The primarily chronological way of moving ahead, however, does not always coincide with the positive humanist idea of progression, as what comes true in reality, not infrequently, serves the darkest possible thoughts, principles and goals, even if the intentions of the participants were not necessarily anything of the kind. The resolution of something, for instance, may in itself conceal a positive content, except when the handling of the task to be solved is faulty, even criminal in principle (see for example the historical implementation of the expression “Final Solution”). As far as its literary implementation is concerned, this metamorphic process, whereby a figure of speech becomes extensive, results in a work or works in which it is not the language that is figurative, but the deep structure, the totality.9 It is precisely this that is a general feature of these epic novels: what are taken by the reader as being on the surface analogic threads that are arranged in parallel (i.e. as a metaphor) turn out in reality to deliver in their totality a homogeneous order and structure which is no less than the “world” order, its secret structure. Naturally, the idea of this finished picture or formula is merely fiction, a hypermetaphor, as the world is not in itself mappable, and it is precisely from this that early- and late-modernist epic novels derive their incompleteness and openness (this was well before the systematisation of the model in postmodernism). Examples would be Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World... (Gulliver's Travels) and, in the twentieth century, In Search of Lost Time or Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Nádas’s book is incomplete in exactly the same sense.
In order to be able to bring such a formula (i.e. deep structure) into being it is necessary to find the common denominator, and the body almost blatantly offers itself as an anthropological, philosophical and theological least-common denominator, which in the end shapes the novel’s “anthropo-theo-logy.”10 In this light, one might say that in the novel Péter Nádas makes the reader see Hungarian (and European) history primarily through the narrative achievement or subversive performance, literally the representation of the narrative of (to use a turn of phrase) “the body politic” or figure.11 In the essay ‘Coming Home’, in which he set out his ars poetica in 1985 (i.e. a year before A Book of Memories was published),12 Nádas writes the following: “I was in no position, and did not intend, to set myself apart from either history or politics; indeed, I wanted to bind myself more profoundly to them. By burrowing down, in a somehow obscene manner, to the coarsest, most mortal strata of my self.” What else could that “coarsest, most mortal” stratum be other than the body itself; the body’s presence and functions? What better way of making clear the way history, culture, politics and memory have infiltrated beneath our skin, getting into our bloodstream, from they which cannot be eliminated? The fact that we preserve them all in our cells, even if we are unaware of them; that we are continuously in touch with people, places, times and forces of which we may have no direct knowledge, though we are still affected by them. Nádas brings the textuality of the body into connection with the body itself by drawing on the most diverse fields of culture (for instance, medical science, psychology, architecture, gastronomy, sexuality, fashion, forensic science and politics), thereby striving in this way, too, for a kind of totality. He performs and proves the writing of culture into and onto the body by the very act of writing—thereby drawing in a further metafield, that of literature (art). Equally, the radical uncovering of the body and the body’s functions in Parallel Stories is, in truth, a cover operation. The body in this book is an emblem (figure) of everything that is really and truly inexpressible, undisclosable, indeed incomprehensible: all the things that could be done with people, all the things that can still be done in the most varied forms with people. Making that clear in literature is only possible in a total novel like Nádas’s, whereas in the visual arts a sort of total installation like Péter Forgács’s Col tempo (also known as The W. Project) is appropriate, in which the artist presents the cultural constructedness of seeing and watching, and also—implicitly—its consequences. Péter Forgács’s installation puts viewers in situations where they can see and watch their own seeing and watching. He sets this on a stage, shows us inescapably the undeniable cultural-socio-ideological constructedness of our way of looking even though we are continuously inclined to deny it, to fail to take notice of it, and indeed present it as natural. Like Nádas’s novel, The W. Project seeks to put an end to that untenable state.
In Parallel Stories the chapter ‘Hans von Wolkenstein’ reflects a chapter in the history of Europe, including the West (a further narrativised figure), that may have attained its dénouement in the Second World War but whose antecedents were already present in the First World War and the history of colonialism. That was the aspiration to be able, by setting up a classification system of various human species, to define genetically (eugenically) the different species of the Other—conclusions that bore serious political consequences, such as the idea of equating race and nation, with all the historical repercussions that has had.13 If we could disregard these political-historical repercussions, we might even declare that this taxonomic aspiration is nothing other than the aspiration that may be experienced (not so much in this as) in genuine science to systematise our knowledge with the aim of getting to know ourselves better in it and in the world. Indeed, to cite Freud again, with the aim of reducing the amount of the uncanny that exists in the world: “One would suppose, then, that the uncanny would always be an area in which a person was unsure of his way around: the better oriented he was in the world around him, the less likely he would be to find the objects and occurrences in it uncanny.”14 We cannot and do not disregard the consequences, however (another figure, the sense of which is that we don’t lower our eyes, do not avert our gaze—we look). Both W. projects—Nádas’s book, and the Wolkenstein chapter within it, and Forgács’s W. Project—are about this emphatic looking and acknowledging: the acknowledgement of the gaze.
The ‘Hans von Wolkenstein’ chapter is set in a boarding school for boys (we can infer from certain information and facts that are dropped that it is during the Second World War) in which the boys are subjected to a whole gamut of anthropometric, psychological and other examinations and, whether from a standpoint of racial purity or health, are considered “defective” on the basis of the eugenic racial laws of the Nazi regime. They are continuously being measured, investigated and poked about; there is no hour in the day when they are not being subjected to tests; their whole life in its totality is the subject of examination, with no activity or manifestation which is not documented and instantly processed. The director of this institution, Freiherr von der Stuer, is a scientist, a medical biologist who is a champion of racial hygiene and eugenics and who directs this ‘renowned’ institution with Himmler’s permission and authority. The institution is obviously designed to serve the racist policies of the Third Reich, its goal being to identify with the Reich and to render non-reproductive (e.g. through sterilisation), to exclude (e.g. via eviction and deportation) from opportunities to work and make a livelihood and to annihilate, undesirable elements. The aim was therefore a portrayal of the enemy on the basis of difference, of Otherness. The barely disguised model for von der Stuer was Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer (1896-1969), a German human biologist who was an acknowledged expert in human genetics.15 Between 1927 and 1935 he was a departmental head and later, from 1943-45, the overall director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity & Eugenics and also the Institute for Genetic Biology & Racial Hygiene, both in Berlin-Dahlem, and subsequently.16 In the institution in the novel, the data from the measurements are sent to none other than the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology and Racial Hygiene, and it is clear that they are being taken under its direction and supervision. Von Verschuer was primarily concerned with "racial hygiene" and twin research, with Josef Mengele of Auschwitz notoriety—the “Angel of Death” who disappeared from a British internment hospital after the war and (probably by the same route as Adolf Eichmann) eventually moved to Paraguay—probably the best-known of the others associated with this work. After von Verschuer reported that the war conditions had made it difficult to obtain “twin materials” for study his former assistant Mengele, by now Waffen-SS Untersturmführer and chief doctor at the Auschwitz extermination camp, helped with procuring these “materials”.17
The mountaintop castle where the institute is located in Nádas’s novel is the property of a Baron Wolkenstein and his family, whose illegitimate son Hans—his biological father is a Hungarian (alias János Kovách)—is himself one of the mixed-race “bastards” at the institute and in fact works alongside von der Stuer. The boys, who are all from very diverse backgrounds, are in the institute for various reasons. Some tolerate being closed in and humiliated better than others, and from time to time one or the other cannot stand it any longer and takes his own life.
A certain stillness, an unnamed shame filled their lack. Among the boys who missed their self-destructive mates, anyway. Being silent made forgetting harder. One of the priests of the Saint Anna cathedral should have commemorated the unusual events--at least from the pulpit in Annaberg, when on Sunday morning the counselors accompanied the boys who showed up for early services. Every Sunday, those counselors turned the simple act of preparing to go to church into an elaborate procedure, using it to see who were the believers, who the dissemblers, and who might go just for the fun of it and then during the services end up scandalizing the entire town with their giggling. Hans also showed up for services but not because in his faith he wanted to follow his mother’s example. Yet the priests, whose relationship with the demonstrably pagan counselors was obviously strained, did not mention the events in any sermon. It was impossible that they did not know of them, but one couldn’t tell this by looking at them. Hans had the impression that the communal silence resembled the behavior of a free valence in a world of chemical compounds, forever dangling in the empty universe in hope of combining with something.
After all, the flawed specimens were the ones who had perished—this must not be forgotten for even a second. A pagan thought, and Hans did not understand how the priests could have approved it.
He imagined that their departed mates had the free arms of the living boys in their grip.
And when it happened again, the next day the physics teacher, Gruber, would take them to the viaduct to explain again the laws of free fall, sometimes several times over. He did this each time a suicide occurred, using the very same expressions on each occasion, yet the boys never tired of his lectures. Whether the act had been successful or not, the poor fool had come to grief forever, Gruber explained, as if for the first time. One group of boys was made to remain at the bottom of the viaduct while the other group, led by the good-looking young teacher, clambered up to the railway embankment among the pine trees, and from there to the viaduct’s central pillar; after they had performed the experiment the groups changed places. The teacher’s opinion was that the boys could understand the dazzling regularity of the uniformly accelerating motion and the strictly physical character of human life only if they measured and experienced them from both perspectives. All they needed for the experiment was an authenticated means of measurement, an authenticated lead weight, and two authenticated stopwatches. The measure of uniformly accelerating motion differs only slightly at every geographical location; up to this point, it is easy to understand the premise. At the select location where we live, for example, the contiguous crust of gneiss strongly but uniformly modifies the motion. It is a general rule that the speed of a given body, while falling, changes equally in equal intervals. According to Gruber’s authenticated measurements, in the Wiesenbad gorge it was 980,839 centimeters per second. If, therefore, at the dropping of the accurate lead weight, the speed is zero, then in the second second of the fall it will be 980,839 centimeters per second, in the next second 2 x 980,839 centimeters per second, and so on; after t seconds it is t x 980,839 centimeters per second. From here on, only a few could follow the good-looking young teacher’s explanation, according to which, in plain words, speed is proportionate to time and it is therefore easy to figure what sort of resistance the body, falling at the given speed in the given time, would encounter when hitting the ground. (Parallel Stories, vol. 3, pp. 222-224.)
The boys are also continuously checking up and spying on each other and thus there are things that they know about the others (for instance, the epilepsy suffered by a boy called Kienast, who crops up again later in the novel as an adult, and for which he would officially have been sterilised18), but of which von der Stuer’s team must know nothing. That keeping of secrets is intended as a form of internal resistance, rebellion and solidarity to each other, but at the same time a sort of competitiveness also develops among them as to who is the oddest and weakest. Often they themselves secretly make inquiries in textbooks and encyclopaedias about genetics and the symptoms of genetic diseases that they themselves might have—the genetics of Gregor Mendel and Darwin’s theory of evolution have, ever since, engrossed all physical anthropologists, racial biologists and eugenicists who, for various reasons, were preoccupied with the taxonomy of variance.
For some unfathomable reason, up here in the mountains, botany had become the most widespread passion among the boys. Spores, pistils, pollination, cross-fertilization, and the rarely used terms themselves made a strong impression on them, along with dissemination, grafting, rooting, cutting and grafting of buds, the hotbed in the educational orchards, the sowing, dibbling, planting and transplanting in the cold-bed, the phrase cold-bed itself, tree nursery, the winter and spring cuttings, care of the saplings’ nursery, preparation of flowerbeds, planting on ridges and on hillsides. All these activities were attractive, extremely simple, and time-consuming, occasionally demanding protracted physical effort, at times deep absorption and concentration. The activities deepened the boys’ patience and confidence regarding nature’s great processes, somehow supplanting religion, because it was from these activities that they had to project their vision not only to the following week but also to the following year or even to the lives of succeeding generations. (Parallel Stories, vol. 3, p. 231.)
The problematics of, and coming to grips with, the individual versus the general were already fundamental questions in the very early days of anthropometry. This was a branch of knowledge that was brought into existence specifically with the aim of understanding and systematizing the variations that are manifested in the human physique. It was Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), who in 1883 published a classificatory system that he had invented, the Bertillon System, based on measurements of a few parameters of the individual human body (these included the length and breadth of head, the length of middle finger, left foot, and forearm from elbow to tip of middle finger, the height, and the eye colour) that he found to be practically unchanging after full growth, which the police in particular found to be invaluable in laying the foundations of criminology. It was later supplanted by the use of finger-prints, developed by the Englishmen Sir William Herschel (1833-1917), Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), and especially Sir Edward Henry (1859-1931), as the accepted system for identifying criminals, being officially adopted by the London Metropolitan police’s criminal-investigation service (Scotland Yard) in 1901. Galton devoted his life to the study of heredity, and in the annus mirabilis of 1883, in his work Human Faculty, coined the concept of eugenics (from eu ‘good’ and genes ‘birth), basing his theory on the principle of natural selection expounded by his first cousin Charles Darwin, in the epoch-making On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Section, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). As Galton saw it, modern human society operated against the principle of natural selection in that it protected the weak and defenceless, and social policies of that kind needed to be curbed lest society go into decline. He himself defined eugenics as the science which aimed at studying what led to “impairment” of the human gene pool and, therefore, how a highly-bred human race could be developed in which “the racial qualities of future generations might be improved.” Although Galton himself did not advocate any method of selection, trusting that people, on being instructed via the dissemination of the relevant information, would realize its importance of their own accord, eugenics subsequently grew into an international (primarily American and European) “scientific”, political, and often implicitly or explicitly racist movement, which reached a tragic ‘zenith’ in the Holocaust with “selection” by artificial means, and usually with a lethal outcome.19 To define and classify the general racial types, Nazi eugenics introduced methods of measurement that were uniformly employed in Germany and Austria and other Axis countries, and that included Hungary, which had entertained the idea of “racial hygiene” from as far back as the second decade of the twentieth century.20 The programme that was led by Dr Wastl, the material from which Péter Forgács’s the W. Project installation draws, was just one of many projects applying the same standardised methods that had already been employed in the First World War in various POW camps and were carried on during the Second World War. In 1905, the highly regarded Austrian anthropologist Rudolph Pöch (1870-19211)—along with five assistants, anthropometric apparatus and the equipment needed to make plaster casts and take photographs—visited a POW camp that had been set up near the city of Eger in north-eastern Hungary. He aimed to carry out so-called anthropological studies and had financial support to do so from the Austrian Society of Anthropology as well as the Imperial and Royal Scientific Academy of Sciences of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. A prime goal was to define racial types with the aid of photographs (full-frontal and side views were taken of every subject). That led to a widespread project among German anthropologists that was based on photographs (and later films) that had been taken in POW camps (supplemented with others taken of the local Austrian population). In a war context, however, that ostensibly “scientific” enterprise obviously gained huge political overtones. Besides contributing to the effort to build up a “portrait” of the enemy, it also helped in constructing a common identity among the Axis powers.21
In Nádas’s novel the problematics of the individual versus the general is a central idea that happens to attain its quintessential outward form and model in the Wolkenstein chapter. This problem is of concern not just to the boys but also, on occasion, to the teachers who oversee and investigate them, and this comes out most clearly of all in the description of the science teacher Schultze and his connection with “a specialist famed in distant lands for his racial-biological measurements and metrological techniques.”22 For Schultze the dilemma is that, sooner or later, it will undermine his belief and confidence in his own activity.
If there is equality, then let there be equality.
Yet there was a higher viewpoint, regarding the chosen persons or the limbs or other body parts chosen to be measured, that could be neither followed nor understood. The larger and more detailed the database, the more clearly Schultze saw not only that strength, or energy, or the principle of love or that of equality did not function in organic nature but that, with regards to judging single individuals, the uniformly applied and authenticated units of measurements were misleading him. Only the exceptional exists; the individual has its laws, very intimate and from the outside impenetrable laws; but the individual is not linked to the group through its exceptional characteristics.
Strength, energy, love, equality: each is, ultimately, a kind of political fiction based on the statistical fiction of the average, and has nothing to do with physics or biology.
As if he were saying to himself that these sciences should first be cleansed of political fictions, or that he should first occupy himself with metaphysical questions and only then might be able to do something with the results of the mechanical measurements.
Maybe not even then. (Parallel Stories, vol. 3, pp. 238-239.)
The boys supplement the exact measurements with the confidential information that they have obtained on each other and keep a closely guarded secret from their teachers, and that multiplies the knowledge—at least as compared with their supervisors—that they have about each other. It is just that they do not possess precisely the knowledge that they most need: what will be, or might be, as far as they are concerned, the consequence of anything.
However, they enjoyed the subtle knowledge they gained by studying the individual.
Involuntarily, they became attuned to the scientific presuppositions Schultze had studied so diligently, but since they did not have to strive for scientific results they were free to associate their observations with feelings and emotions. This was not without danger, because they could not discover the consequences of their individuality, their being exceptional or problematic, although that would have been the fount of their knowledge. That everything will have grave and dire consequences--of that they could have no doubt. Nor could they discover whether there were prescribed units of measurements by which to gauge their being problematical. Hendrik and Hans found no papers relating to this question when on two consecutive nights they broke into Schultze’s office. Sometimes it seemed that the committee found the exceptional to be the norm, at other times the norm seemed to mean average or desirable, which again should have been designated by a number or series of numbers, which the boys could not find anywhere. (Parallel Stories, vol. 3, p. 240.)
One can speak of an exceptionally accomplished combination of figure and model in a passage in the Wolkenstein chapter that relates to one of Schultze’s activities, which is his investigations of the typology of the eye—the body part that is traditionally referred to as the “mirror of the soul” and is thus a signifier of individuality. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, too, occupied himself with extensive studies of eyes in the course of his “twin research,” getting the “material” (i.e. the eyes) primarily from Mengele at Auschwitz.23 The (Lego) building-block is real enough; it merely had to be fitted into the model that is Nádas’s novel. The extension of the figure can be caught in flagrante delicto where history put it into practice; that is to say, where it gave reality to the story of the Sandman of Hoffmann’s tale, who tears children’s eyes out and throws them in his bag and takes them off to feed his own offspring.
Two life-size drawings of the human skeleton hung on the wall. The measuring points of the body were marked with numbers. One drawing, of the body in profile, had twenty-seven points; the other, a frontal view, showed twenty-eight points, all according to Braus. This mysterious name, in beautiful Gothic letters, was written above both drawings, but Braus could not be found in any of the encyclopedias.
Schultze looked at the boys’ eyes while he took out the large leather case in which he kept the instruments for determining eye color. But the leather case so alarmed most of the boys—the imminent danger making their eyes ache in their sockets—that they immediately closed their eyes or quickly buried their faces in their hands.
In their black velvet-lined cannon-like cases, glass eyes looked up at the ceiling. They were arranged on trays, in five rows, eight to a row, and one could lift all the trays out of the cabinet. There were 160 differently colored and differently patterned glass eyeballs, then; under each eyeball, on a tiny copper plate sunk into the black velvet, the eye-color’s number and letter designation was indicated. Schultze unpacked all this, bringing out all the velvet-framed cases and laying them side by side, the better to see his entire holding. At the bottom of the cabinet, on the last removable tray, there lay on the velvet bed a frightening instrument made of silver and resembling candy tongs, and a strong-smelling, hair-thin sandalwood fan.
Schultze made his first determination with the help of the fan. Individual segments of the fan could be cleverly separated from the others and, along with small enamel panels that showed hand-painted images of the many different eyes, be held up to a living eye in order to identify its color correctly. Although he worked with a steady hand, in his professional excitement Schultze sometimes touched a real eyeball with these small panels lifted to the boys’ temples.
Which of course was enough to make the boys wince.
But Schultze would go on singing, don’t be so sensitive you little fool.
After this crude definition, he would reach for his ominous silver tongs, with which he could not only lift the valuable glass eyeball adroitly from its velvet bed but hold it with total confidence right next to the real eye. Throughout this activity he shone strong lights into the boys’ eyes from the front and sides. And he preceded everything by dripping something into their eyes to keep them from blinking. If they resisted or involuntarily blinked, Schultze sang that intrigue and scheming will not destroy the divine design, the gods cannot be tripped up, and they would get more drops in their eyes.
For hours after the examination, the boys would wander about with numb eyelids and enormously enlarged pupils or just sit motionless on a bench, their heads buried in their hands.
The light hurt. (Parallel Stories, vol. 3, pp. 233-234.)
The motif of the eyes is a—if not the—central motif, in a physical and a figurative sense alike, of Forgács’s installation. Along with the hair samples, it remorselessly displays the samples of eyeballs stored in boxes lined with black velvet. In the context of the installation, though, above and beyond the dreadful historical reality of the act, it draws attention to a much more widely generalisable cultural act: to the act of seeing, the gaze, that is beyond sight. To the circumstance that our seeing functions through a continuously present cultural-political filter, and that is how pure vision become a gaze. Or to put it another way, there is no innocent eye, no innocent seeing; in the relationship to the Other there is always a Third lurking there, which has that certain filter as its emblem.24 In Forgács’s installation several types of agents play the role of this Third. While in the photographs and film materials themselves it is Nazi gazes, under the direction of Nazi ideology, that signify the Third, outside the photographs and film materials (i.e. in the domain of the present time of the installation), the Third is the viewers themselves, who are not only the victims (i.e. the subjects of the photographs) but the takers of the photographs, and they “look” at themselves, at their own gaze. Given that, of course, The W. Project calls the visitors’ attention to the hidden dangers, and also the responsibility, that are implicit in this position. And in this case also to the fact that the greatest of these dangers might perhaps be that of not even noticing the existence of this (our) position. Péter Nádas’s novel likewise signals the presence of this Third by a variety of narrative devices, such as in the marathon lovemaking session of Ágoston and Gyöngyvér, in the course of which Ágoston at one point becomes conscious, all of a sudden, that they are being watched from the door—here appearing as an allegorical figure—by Mrs Szemző (literally, ‘eyeing’, ‘eye-shade’, ‘blinkers’ etc.; szem = ‘eye’).25 That scene is also orchestrated into the Wolkenstein chapter, inasmuch as the interactions between the boys are constantly kept under the eye, the gaze, of the ideologically impregnated, tracking eye of the scientist-instructors; indeed, they themselves, thoroughly imbued by this ideology, track each other. Their bodies, their physical existences, are therefore incapable of vouching for their individuality as they are by now only capable of thinking about themselves in accordance with the prescribed taxonomy; they too look at their own selves with the gaze of the Third (in this instance the Third Reich). Precisely because they are strangers to themselves too, they remain unreachable, incapable of wrestling with the foreignness of the others, unable to break through the foreignness of the others, and for that reason they can only co-exist as parallels. They have no gaze of their own; all there is, is the gaze of the Third, whether it is a matter of themselves or others. Instead of direct looking or seeing, only the pictorial imprint created by the Third existed. They did not see the plain face in its own individuality, its own singularity, but only a lifeless mask that had been peeled off it. Forgács’s The W. Project, ultimately, declares the frustration of that original goal, or state insofar as the portraits that were taken for the original anthropological-eugenic project are, for all that, able to convey staggering individuality and humanity. One could say that The W. Project sets the triumph of human individuality on a stage.
It was an integral part of the anthropometric investigations carried out in the POW camps to make plaster casts of a certain number of faces, the end-products of which would be an actual mask. The collection of the remains of the plaster casts that were made as part of Dr Wastl’s project and other anthropological investigations of a similar nature during World War II is kept today by the Museum of Natural History in Vienna. In Western culture a plaster cast of the face is normally only ever made of the face of a dead person (a death mask), so that the masks of prisoners can be interpreted, at one and the same time, as a symbolic act: in this case as signifying a foreshadowing of eradication. In most cases this was a self-fulfilling prophecy but there were a fortunate few for whom this did not become true. One example of a person who survived it all is the Austrian Jew Gershon Evan, who is also brought into Forgács’s installation in the form of a snippet from a filmed interview in which Evan relates his particular case. That aside, an integral part of Forgács’s work are also the miniature masks produced by the sculptress Louise McCagg, with the aim of serving as mementos of her own friends and acquaintances, and also a plaster cast that has been made of Forgács’s own face, which thereby places the artist himself in this history of the gaze. Indeed, this too acquires a double role: that of the subject from whom the plaster cast was taken, and who is therefore being looked at, and also the role of the person who is observing the whole story and us playing our own roles in it.
In Nádas’s novel, the Wolkenstein chapter also evokes the same simultaneously real and symbolic act, only he intensifies the symbol still further inasmuch as the plaster casts taken from the boys at the institution are not of their face but their penis.
This was not the first time it happened to him—something the boys feared so much that even later they would not talk about it, not even among themselves.
It was not by chance that Hans and Hendrik wanted to find Schultze’s secret notes. They knew what they were looking for and what data they wanted to destroy at all costs.
It was a brand-new method and therefore they could not have known what in fact it was, or what occurred during the specific examination clearly focused on specific results. To make plaster casts of certain sensitive parts of their bodies, Schultze had to put them in a state of hibernation. The casts, in strictly sealed little boxes, were sent by registered mail to the Anthropological and Racial Biological Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute on Ihne Street, in Berlin. These samples came under the charge not of Baroness Thum zu Wolkenstein but, in a separate unit of the great collection, of Freiherr von der Schuer. Together with directors of other institutes he prepared the plan of the examination. The director of the Psychological Institute was of the opinion that any other, more legal form of sample-taking would have an unpredictable effect on the pupils’ mental development that might seriously jeopardize the examination itself. (Parallel Stories, vol. 3, pp. 255-256.)
What is happening here is no less than a “rape” of the phallus, because the plaster casts (masks) that are made of the boys’ penises also signify a position of total defencelessness and their being stripped of any sort of power (their phalluses). The samples are taken whilst they are asleep so that the results of the examination should not be threatened by any alarm or disturbance the boys might feel. As a result, the boys have only vague, fragmentary memories; they have no knowledge of what was done to them, just strange suspicions, uncanny misgivings. That physical and mental trauma in Nádas’s novel in point of fact perfectly reproduces the relationship of our (Hungarian) culture to historical traumas, only in this case we put ourselves to sleep. All that is left is a permanent blinking. We have no wish to open out eyes. The light hurts.
Forgács’s The W. Project, though, compels us to open our eyes. To bear the pain.