Permanent Liminality and Modernity

HomeReviewsCulture (Reviews)Permanent Liminality and Modernity

Permanent Liminality and Modernity: Analysing the Sacrificial Carnival through Novels. Arpad Szakolczai. Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2017.


As in the previous review, I’ll just select some of the novelists studied in Permanent Liminality and Modernity: Analysing the Sacrificial Carnival through Novels (hereafter PL), hoping thereby to convey at least an important thread underlying his investigation—this reviewer has to confess that my own myopia regarding René Girard and my difficulty in grasping the significance of the sacrificial and carnival factors emphasized by Szakolczai means I’ll have to leave it to the reader to explore these issues more fully in the text. He characterizes “the era starting with the twentieth century and immediately marked by the most devastating wars and totalitarian regimes ever inflicted on mankind’ as ‘the age of hypermodernity” (PL, 1).

In this three-part study, Part I is titled “Before World War I: waiting for the storm,” where in three chapters Szakolczai discusses fin-de-siècle Vienna, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and thirdly, Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte and Hofmannsthall’s Andreas. Part II is devoted to Kafka as “Suspended in the In-Between,” and has chapters on his sources, his novels, and the Zürau Notebooks. Part III, “After World War I: hypermodernity as sacrificial carnival,” dedicates a chapter each to the writings of Thomas Mann, Karen Blixen, Hermann Broch, Mikhail Bulgakov, Heimito von Doderer and Béla Hamvas.

Fin-de-siècle Vienna

Szakolczai begins by noting how Robert Musil and Joseph Roth both emphasized that the Habsburg Empire “had no accepted name!”:

“Thus, far from being an independent centre of cultural flourishing, Vienna was rather the ‘seismograph’ or ‘weather station’ of Europe which ‘registered inexorably the signs, even the most imperceptible ones, of the catastrophe’ (according to Karl Kraus…), the ‘crucible’ of modernity; using the remarkable expression of Hermann Broch, it was ‘the centre of the European void of values [Wert-Vakuum]” (PL, 6).


The Hofmannsthal chapter brings out this value-vacuum quite well. Hofmannsthal impressed figures like Hermann Bahr, “leader of coffee-house literati,” and Arthur Schnitzler, as a precocious genius. However, Szakolczai sees Hoffmannsthal’s formation as blocking him, in his Chandos Letter, from “the two central modalities of traditional European culture: any concerns with the divine (to me the mysteries of faith have been condensed into a lofty allegory) and with Plato (Plato I avoided, for I dreaded the perilousness of his imagination)” (PL, 26–27):

“The utmost truth and confessional terminology of the letter reveals the entrapment of an entire culture: one of the greatest geniuses . . . became entrapped through the best education possible, by the end of the nineteenth century, and thus became a mere tool to diagnose the state in which this culture arrived in fin-de-siècle Vienna” (PL, 27).

Unfinished Hypermodern Novels

Towards the end of his next chapter, on the only novels Rilke and Hofmannsthal wrote, Szakolczai spells out what’s in common to the four (non-) novels of 1910–12: Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Hofmannsthal’s Andreas, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and Franz Kafka’s ‘The Verdict”:

“The single most evident common characteristic of the founding classics of the hypermodern novel is that there were mostly unfinished, as evidently interminable. A novel is fundamentally a story, a story is supposed to have an end and most of the major classic figures of the modern novel have no problems in finishing their work…With hypermodern novels, the situation radically changes. Kafka wrote three novels, widely considered as the most important novels of the twentieth century, yet they all remained abandoned and unfinished. Hofmannsthal . . . only wrote one, not only left unfinished, but in fragments. Rilke finished his novel, in the sense of completing it for publication, but it does not have an ending . . . only Thomas Mann finished his Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain—the only ‘conventional’ novelist of the four” (PL, 57).

For Szakolczai this is “a clear sign of a move towards the paradoxical condition of permanent liminality, or the taking shape of hypermodernity” (PL, 57). Not only are the unfinished novels lost, ‘but the same applies to their heroes’ (PL, 57). Thus, not only the heroes, but the narrative itself disappears, “generating an impossible novel without narrative” so that the novel cancels itself out of existence (PL, 57). Which reminds me of Beckett’s L’Innommable where both character and narrative fade away into nothingness.

Thirdly, the heroes lose their way not by chance but are “misdirected by strange figures that recall the trickster of comparative anthropology, once their will power was undermined, thus effectively rendered them sleepwalkers” (PL, 58). And, fourthly, this loss of direction and will power by the heroes is autobiographical—but not only for the novels’ authors. Rather, they catch a situation where everyone is being ‘lulled to sleepwalk in a state of permanent liminality’ (PL, 58). Fifthly, not only the heroes, but “the authors themselves became lost, in their real lives and for long years” (PL, 59).

For Voegelin readers, I’d suggest rereading especially the second, later section of his essay on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw where he suggests the reader isn’t just afflicted with these characters lost indeed in permanent liminality, but—in terms of James’ whole oeuvre, with the author who is himself lost in that closure to transcendence. Sixthly, and interestingly for Irish readers, is Szakolczai’s connecting these Central European authors of hypermodern culture, seeing Joyce’s Ulysses  as parallel to Mann’s Magic Mountain, W. B. Yeats as close to Rilke, with both employing “the spiral metaphor of the falcons gyring in their most emblematic poems, ‘I Live My Life in Expanding Rings,’ and ‘The Second Coming.’” And he finds an undeniable kinship between Kafka and a generation later, Beckett (see PL, 59).

Kafka Suspended in the In-Between

Moving on to Part II, on Kafka, “Suspended in the In-Between” (where his reading is enormously informed by two Italian critics, Roberto Calasso and Pietro Citati) Szakolczai writes that:

“Kafka’s work not only remained radically incomplete, but also fails to offer cathartic and redeeming features, remaining tied to the nihilism of modernity . . . with the exception of the Zürau notebooks . . . The specific focus of this book will be to bring out the manner in which through valorizing and problematizing his own extremely liminal condition Kafka managed to gain unparalleled insights into the permanent liminality of modernity” (PL, 63).

Kafka’s liminality can be seen in his living through the collapse of three cultures, “the European old world, the Habsburg Empire and assimilated Jewishness,” transforming this liminal experience through writing that clearly grasped “central features of the modern world” (PL, 64). Szakolczai notes that Kafka “was intensely interested in two philosophers, Plato and Nietzsche” (PL, 65).This may help to explain Kafka’s anti-theological theology (PL, 92), since Voegelin’s reading of Plato’s experience of the ineffable Agathon and David Walsh’s reading of Nietzsche’s own struggle with expressing transcendence in his Modern Philosophical Revolution show similar moves by those two philosophers.

From its first sentence, The Castle makes it evident it stands on the borderline, tackling liminality directly: an absolute novelty, as nobody so far “risked writing a novel on the limit” (Calasso). Such features render Kafka’s God fully transcendent. According to Citati, “perhaps none, not even the great Dionysian theologians or Islamic mystics affirmed the absolute transcendence of God with such a desperate and penetrating faith as Kafka in the ultimate decade of his life” (PL, 87).

Kafka’s theology can be characterized both by what it contains and what is absent from it. Kafka’s life-work and world-vision are torn between zero and infinity, failing to contain the one of Plato or Heraclitus. Kafka’s vision of the world is not a realm of intactness and beauty; it does not contain grace—this is why it cannot be easily recognized as a theology (PL, 89). Yet, his two visionary novels’The Process and The Castle convey a world ‘dominated by mechanical processes, suggesting that God itself is a machine, close to the mechanical world-view (and indeed theology) propagated by Descartes and Newton’ (PL, 90).

And—recalling again Voegelin’s criticism of Henry James—Szakolczai asks:

“does Kafka himself escape the kind of world he is depicting? Is his work merely mirroring the permanent liminality of modernity? Even if his anti-theology theology cannot offer any hope, does it at least offer a conclusive analysis of this perpetualized threadwheel” (PL, 91)?

He concludes his chapter on Kafka’s novels by saying that “[m]erely reflecting chaos is the biggest reproach that can be formulated against the art of a decadent period . . .This is by no means what Kafka did—and yet he found no way out of permanent liminality” (PL, 100). Which perhaps recalls Euripides’ Bacchae, with its diagnosis of the impasse between a played out traditional religiosity and the new sophistic rationality—an impasse only a cultural figure as massive as Plato could go beyond.  Still, carefully written on 103 pages in autumn 1917, during what he regarded as the best time of his life, his Zürau Notebooks may be seen ‘as a last word’ of Kafka (PL, 103), containing perhaps some glimmerings of a Platonic distantiation from the decadent modernity around him.

Szakolczai’s final Kafka chapter, ‘The Zürau Notebooks: The indestructible and the way’ sees them, in a term borrowed from Voegelin, as some kind of ‘anamnetic exercises” (PL, 104). Heading the chapter is one of the aphorisms from Zürau: ‘To believe is: to liberate the indestructible in us; or better: to liberate ourselves; or better: to be indestructible; or better: to be.” Szakolczai sees the aphorisms’ “central themes as the question of Paradise, its presence and accessibility; the indestructible in us—the single most striking expression of these aphorisms, and the qualities and character of a poetic work that can help give us access . . . to the Golden Age” (PL, 104).

Aphorism 50 runs: ‘Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible within himself, though both that indestructible something and his own trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him. One of the possibilities of expression for such continual concealment is faith in a personal God.” (I’m quoting it from Roberto Calasso’s edition, Aforismi di Zürau, Milan: Adelphi: 2004, p. 65). In his edition, asterisked sentences are those crossed out in pencil by Kafka. Commenting on this aphorism, Szakolczai writes:

“. . . the term indestructible appears, carrying a very emphatic meaning: it is simply impossible to live without a confidence that within us there is something that is indestructible, even if both (the indestructible and belief in its existence) can be hidden from us. One modality of such belief is the belief in a personal god” (PL, 108).

And Szakolczai quotes the very Heraclitean aphorism 70/71: “The indestructible is one; it is every single human being and at the same time it is common to all, thus the connection between human beings is indissoluble like nothing else.” Szakolczai notes how this aphorism brings together the two key terms of the aphorisms, the Paradise and the Indestructible, disclosing “the heart of Kafka’s philosophico-theology by defining, in terms clearly recalling Plato’s Philebus, thus the heart of Plato’s philosophy, the indestructible as being what makes us human and social . . . ” (PL, 108).

And Dora Diamant, known as Kafka’s “last love,” and in whose arms he died, has remarked that “[h]is search for what he called ‘the indestructible’ was at the core of his being” (PL, 121n5). So perhaps Kafka had the inner resources to make an exodus from the culture he diagnosed, and at times horrifically prophesied—just how close that lethal evil was to him can be seen in that all three of his surviving siblings were murdered in the Holocaust.

Moving on to Part III, ‘After World War I: Hypermodernity as sacrificial carnival,’ I’ll have to select three of the six novelists Szakolczai covers there.

Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain

He begins with Thomas Mann, writing that The Magic Mountain, together with Ulysses and Castle, its exact contemporaries, is one of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century novel, having a status comparable to Faust or Demons (PL, 125). He gives a basic reason behind Mann’s success that:

“Mann managed to exteriorise, as the theme of the novel [Death in Venice] the pervasive condition of internal split and inertia that prevented the completion of the novels by Hofmannsthal and Kafka as an existential pathology dominating modern Western civilization . . . melancholy will be identified as the par excellence existential feeling corresponding to permanent liminality . . . Melancholy proliferates in moments of transition; it is a disease of transitions, including transitions to modernity, especially the transitionality of modernity” (PL, 126, 127, 128).

Szakolczai agrees that “melancholy is the central concern of the Magic Mountain.” Not only Hans Castorp, but so is everyone else in the sanatorium, so he quotes Crescenzi’s comment that the “magic mountain’ is ‘a mountain of melancholy’” (PL, 130). While Castorp’s would-be educators are “not only weightless intellectuals, but to his great surprise they cannot even resist the stream, rather become adrift in it” (PL, 149). But, as Szakolczai remarks:

“Educating Hans Castorp . . .means to overcome the disease of melancholy by recognising this link [between a reality-destroying reductive technology and the remaining fragments served up to the public by a utilitarian ‘art’] going jointly beyond the fixity of death and the flux of becoming—only another form of death—and realise, by learning how to see, that ‘it is life, and not death, which is the true mystery of existence,’ thus restoring life from death to its more authentic condition, its true metaphysical form, evoking the Resurrection. This is also where the erotic story in the novel would play its role, confirmed in the message of its last word, love” (PL, 131).

Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita

Szakolczai considers Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita “a key novel not just of the Russian and East European Communist experience, but the modern world” (PL, 180). He outlines the novel’s three story lines: 1) the Devil and assistants arrive in Moscow “to create havoc in the everyday boredom and hypocrisy of Communist Russia”; 2) the Master (Bulgakov) and the love of his life, Margarita; 3) the Master’s “play-within-the-play,” the story of the Crucifixion, “with the action running parallel in Moscow (real time) and Jerusalem (the Biblical time of the Crucifixion).” In the Moscow story, Satan is shown in a positive light, compared to Moscow’s inhabitants, particularly the Communist bureaucracy, and Margarita becomes the witch-queen at the party thrown by the Devil (PL, 184).

For Szakolczai, Bulgakov resolves the novel’s various paradoxes through a visionary imagination he shares with key figures in the European tradition, “like Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Dickens, Dostoevsky or Thomas Mann.” Through his receiving a highly Orthodox education and “far from orthodox war-time experience,” Bulgakov acquired a position from which he gained direct access to the heart of the modern condition’ (PL, 184–85).

Woland (Satan) “asks from his assistants . . . whether the inhabitants of Moscow have genuinely changed, as the Communist propaganda wants to have it: not just externally, but internally” (PL, 186). Which recalls Nadezhda Mandelstam’s remark on the social climbers of the Soviet 1920s who “were going through the classical metamorphosis—a process of turning into wood—that comes over those who lose their sense of values” (in her memoir, Hope Against Hope, New York: Atheneum, 1970, p. 179). The novel sees 1930s Moscow officials as weighed in the balance and found wanting, themselves possessed both of terrible power and by terrible fear (PL, 187). The Master yields “to the most common and most infectious illness of life under Communist Russia, fear,” leading him to lose Margarita, by escaping to a mental hospital, where she can’t find him (PL, 191). Woland gives the reason for this fear: he was too romantic. So he “did not merit the light, only merited peace” (PL, 192).

The true hero of the novel:

“in the classic, ritual sense of contest and victory, is not the Master, but Margarita. She is the one who has the force to pass all the tests, meriting the reunion with the Master and gaining for him the place of rest. Margarita is a figure of practically unlimited love and grace . . . She even passed the most difficult test of all: once having fulfilled her task, she was ready to leave, without asking anything in recompense . . . She therefore fully merited her reward, the only reward that interested her: she got back the Master, and the two could depart towards their eternal repose” (PL, 192).

Béla Hamvas’ Karnevál

Szakolczai’s final chapter reflects on Karnevál (Carnival)—only published in 1985, he died in 1968—”a novel written by the Hungarian philosopher, essayist and historian of religions Béla Hamvas. Written between 1948 and 1951, when its author was thrown out of his library job—courtesy of Georg Lukács” (PL, 209). For most of his later life, from 1951–1964 he was virtually interned, working at forced labor in various power plants in Hungary. ‘Though 1184 pages long in two volumes, the novel was sold out within days . . . hailed as the key novel of its time and place” (PL, 209). It covers three generations, beginning in 1884 and ending in 1950, though neither a historical novel nor a family saga. Szakolczai quotes Hamvas’ own characterisation, that it is a “comedy of fates” (PL, 210).

It’s not possible here to go into what is an incredibly complex book—here’s a flavour of Hamvas, so like Socrates battling the public opinion of him in the Apology, or in the Republic, where, as Voegelin notes, the accent of reality shifts, and the lie becomes truth, or like Kierkegaard’s media-created public:

“They desperately try to guess each other’s thoughts, as they know that the danger lies not in what is said but what is unsaid. The real danger is what is assumed. Against this it is not possible to defend oneself. The winner is the one who guessed the thoughts of the other. This is the back-stairs drama. This is called psychology. This is cowardice. Living in backdoor thoughts. Counting upon what the other does not say. But of course it is not our fault that things are like that. This is the immanent (or transcendent) unreality of things, that it is like that, and yet it isn’t” (PL, 224).

Hamvas diagnoses what he sees as the “carnival society” in terms of its leaders (using words like circus master, animal trainer, dancing master), the manipulators, and the population at large, the “aborigines” (meaning those totally colonized by their masters). Commenting, with language recalling Plato’s understanding of the Doxa of society’s unreal reality, Szakolczai writes that “[t]he normal state of an aborigine, meaning all of us, is sleepwalking” (PL, 225). For Szakolczai, the core concept of Hamvas’s novel, his political anthropology of the modern world is “the idea that its inhabitants are first of all masks . . . The central feature of a person transformed into a mask is to lose all contact with reality” (PL, 227, 228). Again, Hamvas: “the man who lives in such a dream-world begins to lose his genuine being, and very slowly starts to become a mirage himself, and is not a man anymore but a phantom or monster or mask or mirage, but in no way a human being” (PL, 230).

Since he’s writing of the same period covered by Hamvas, fellow Hungarian writer Sándor Márai’s remarks, referring to the atmosphere conjured by Hamvas’ (Communist) circus masters are eerily similar:

“An acquaintance passing by on the street might speak to me, but while we exchanged words, I would suspect that he wasn’t saying anything he wanted to but reeling off something warily and then looking around because, for all we knew, what he was saying confidentially could be overheard. I could go right or left in a city whose inner and outer map I knew tolerably well, but now a shadow enveloped everything familiar to me in the city.”

“. . . I began to suspect that what surrounded me was something worse than the brute force present . . . not just organized terror but an enemy more dangerous than anything else, an enemy against which there is no defense: stupidity . . . I walked along the sun-drenched street in Pest, and following me came the suspicion that no matter which direction I took, the shadow of a great danger crept after me. Stupidity was the danger that cast a shadow on every step I took” (Memoir of Hungary 1944–1948, Budapest: Corvina, 1996, pp. 386–8).

But there’s a third type of human being, neither circus master nor aborigine—the holy fool who takes his stand on what Hamvas calls humour-mysticism: “humour-mystical laughter is the real and genuine laughter . . . due to the maddening recognition of the madness of living a life without love, which is the basic stand of real comedy” (PL, 231). Such a human being, “apparent product of a complicated modern mental game, is identical to the man of the Gospels” (PL, 231). It’s people like this that for Hamvas represent the threshold towards the Vita Nova. Szakolczai comments, following Hamvas closely:

“This is [a] Dantesque term, only too appropriate for an ‘initiatory novel,’ with a visionary trip at its centre. About this, Hamvas only gives glimpses…: this is love, rooted in the heart, the central value, in contrast to goodness or justice, which are based in the mind. This is based not on self-love, self-knowledge and the pursuit of self-realisation—all this only results in closing the human being into a preoccupation with oneself—rather knowledge of the other, and not any such ‘knowledge,’ but the recognition of the other in its essential humanness, which is not simply a Christian value but—in contrast to the will to domination—is the original basic stand of mankind…which can only be based on the readiness to serve, or intactness….a form of existence which is no longer purely human, as it belongs to the realm of the Holy Spirit, beyond good and evil; this is ‘the Pneuma [of the Gospel according to John], which thunders but also rustles among the leaves of the trees. This is the passion of madness, and the humility of meekness” (PL, 231–32).


In his Conclusion, Szakolczai points out how the project of secular humanism “distinguished itself from about the fifteenth century onwards by waging a systematic warfare against three targets: Nature, God and Tradition . . . Such destructivity received a boost by a particular socio-historical condition for which the anthropologically developed term ‘liminality’ can be applied” (PL, 235). Each transition or crisis accompanying the emergence of the modern world implied a temporary lifting of limit. And such crisis situations can be ‘artificially provoked’ by playing about with boundaries, or proclaiming that all boundaries are an artificial constraint on infinite human freedom (PL, 236).

He notes that Rilke, Hofmannsthal and Kafka all came onto the indestructible as what alone can prevent modernity’s destructiveness, but were unable adequately to exploit their discovery. Plato had long before hit on the indestructible (adiaphthoros), as the unchangeable inner essence of the human being, with its equivalent in the indestructible (aksara) of the Vedas. However, both the only modern myth, Faust and ‘much of contemporary “avant-garde” thinking is nothing else but an invitation “to sell our soul to the devil’ (PL, 236, 237). Szakolczai sees that “Rilke’s dictum about conversion . . . requires something beyond the concrete person, an act of grace” (PL, 237). And Szakolczai continues:

“In order to resist, or literally persist, not by doing a heroic act, rather by standing up to the storm and staying what one is, one needs inner guidance that is strong enough not to be liquefied and liquidated by the chemical dissolvent of permanent liminality. Such guidance, as Pascal and Kierkegaard advise us, cannot be offered by reason, which is weak, being easily exposed to fantasy, imagination and whimsical feelings, rather by the heart” (PL, 237).

While modernity offers not a Golden Age, but a second Fall, Europe from which the modern world came, “is still colored and moderated by the rock-solid values of our culture, of culture . . . the indestructible is indestructible, unless we resign or give up.” Thus Szakolczai concludes the volume: “So not only is there no reason for giving up, neither is [there] for doubting the coming of a new ‘Golden Age,’ though nobody is privy to the times” (Mk 13:32; Mt 24:36).

In this review I’ve tried to let Szakolczai speak for himself as much as possible. For Voegelin readers these volumes are indispensable complements to his own explorations in History of Political Ideas and various essays. They’re profoundly insightful readings of a modernity that not only is in the air we breathe, in academe, and a media infestation that’s almost inescapable. What’s particularly cheering throughout the two studies is his consistent ability to see the light shining, at times where it is least expected, reminding us of the Martyr St Laurence the Deacon’s saying that nox mea obscurum non habet, my night has no darkness, since even in what St John Paul II called “the dark night of culture,” there is the certainty of Resurrection.

Brendan Purcell

Written by

Brendan Purcell is a Board Member of VoegelinView and an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University in Sydney. He is author of several books, including From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (New City, 2012).