Review Of Agota Kristof’s “La Trilogie Des Jumeaux”
We Are Not Amused
There is a kind of book that is probably best described as a “Euro Novel.” As a genre, Euro Novels are characterized by grievous violence, sexual situations designed to disgust rather than titlate and a distinctive moralism disguised as nihilism. The primary social engine to write Euro Novels was the ending to WWII, where the Nazis lost but no one ideology distinctly won.
CVAR Editor Alex Williams tells me that it seems like Americans have started writing this kind of book lately. One might think this is odd given the lack of a similar social context, but then one would have to follow the current literary scene.
Agota Kristof’s breakthrough work, La Trilogie Des Jumeaux, is a Euro Novel. This particular Euro Novel concerns ‘The War’ abstractly, but is so clearly a Hungarian experience of WWII that the attentive reader can figure out where the book is set long before it is revealed. I have little respect for Euro Novels, so I read these books in translation.
Conceptually, the biggest influence on La Trilogie Des Jumeaux is clearly Die Blechtrommel, Günter Grass’s spiritual history of the German generation forced to be Hitler youths (the so-called 45ers). At the level of craft, the book centers strongly on language in a way which probably could not have happened before Bataille and Oulipo.
The specific power of language Kristof investigates can be illustrated by an example which recurs through Le Grand Cahier, the first book of the trilogy. Take Chapter 31 (the chapters are very short) as an example. A normal person seeing two semi-abandoned boys lying still for hours might think they are lost, starving, abandoned. But “actually” they are doing “immobility exercises”. This is a very convincing story from the boys. Now let us look at the narration more carefully. “We are lying on our backs”, okay. But later “We ask:…”, “We answer:...”.
Can two people ask one question? Did they speak together like a bad sitcom? Is it not more likely that “We” here is being used magically?
We see this kind of magical thinking all around us. We saw it during the COVID19 pandemic, where the response from the right wing was to try to change the label to “the China virus,” which would “punish China”. Why a Chinese national would care what word they use in English is unimportant. What is important is that the lack of an organized response led the US to lead the world in COVID19 deaths.
I could give a smaller and more appropriately European example of this kind of magic of language. A woman once pointed at a young Andre Weil and said “There is the genius!” then to his sister, Simone Weil, “And there is the beauty!”. Simone was shocked by these definite descriptions, which seemed to create a wall between the siblings.
The kind of magical thinking that created that wall is pervasive in this trilogy. The basic question posed by Kristof is: can the word “We” cure loneliness and can the word “Choose” cure powerlessness?
Batman Vs The Tyranny Of Structurelessness
Can we create some power or control by claiming to have chosen, no matter how implausible the story of our choice? To see if we can, we must look at least a bit at one of the great old questions: “What is moral agency?”.
Huge volumes of day to day life draw their color from different answers to this question. Complex theories of moral agency, like Kant’s, may seem complete because of how complicated they sound, yet are almost axiomatic when we get down to brass tacks. The basic idea can be built up in one step: knowing begets agency. In American Kantian Wilfrid Sellars’ phrasing, ‘knowing’ something is the ability to put it “in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says”. Agency, then, is when one ‘knows’ the rule which dictates one’s pursuits. When this one step is cut bloodily from the body of the dialectic in Kant, it is difficult to see the value of such a definition of agency. I doubt that anyone goes about their life thinking this way, and I doubt even I will use agency in precisely this way in 15 minutes, let alone the rest of this piece.
Perhaps “agency” is a bit like “polytope” in mathematics. Just as ‘agency’ is a kind of psychological ability in some general possible form, a ‘polytope’ is a kind of shape of some general possible form. ‘Agency’ may axiomatically be knowledge of the rule which dictates one's pursuits. But no one is particularly geometrically edified simply by knowing that polytopes in general are some superset of convex polytopes (if you must know, convex polytopes are convex hulls of finite point sets) perhaps allowing “finite gluings” or somesuch. Yet if the idea of a polytope as a whole went missing, it would be difficult to figure out what any particular geometric argument was “about”. Each idea is foundational to massive research areas yet axiomatic definitions of these foundations play little role in actual day-to-day research.
Instead of an axiomatic construction, consider two examples of how “agency” is more commonly used. The first is from the LDS Church: in their account, “agency” is a process, and specifically a process that depends on a simpler process called “making choices”. Batman, the superhero of agency, is a good second example. Batman, like Nathan Fielder, is the hero who can defeat any villain as long as he is allowed to perform a process involving making unboundedly many choices - i.e. “with prep time”.
Do these examples seem silly? I don’t think they are. Zizek’s review of Le Grand Cahier resembles nothing more than a fanboy gushing over Batman. Similarly, but at a much higher intellectual level, Shigesato Itoi compared Le Grand Cahier to an RPG, presumably because each chapter has a concrete goal which the twins succeed at.
Coming back to the substructure of agency, what does it mean to “make a choice”? Like the gluing step in polytopes, this definition is where the rattlesnake juice leaks in. I personally like Daniel Dennett’s approach, starting with Elbow Room: The Varieties Of Free Will Worth Wanting.
Dennett’s first point is that we want and even have a variety of free wills. Our motor-locomotion freedom on the order of two seconds does not need to resemble, even on a physical level, our freedom to plan over where we want to be and live over the course of years. Basic biological and physical considerations should make this obvious.
Dennett’s second point is that, just as there are ways of gluing polytopes that can result in degenerate cases that don’t actually form shapes, there are ways of conceiving of choice which do not result in activities that human beings can actually do. These are the “varieties of free will not worth wanting” (though of course many do desire them despite wisdom).
Dennett contrasts these with the “varieties of free will that are worth wanting”. For instance, as agents, we might want to have enough feedback loops running from our world-predictors to motors that control our locomotion. Without that, it would be pretty hard to get anywhere, physically. As Dennett insists, his theory has nothing to do with metaphysical determinism, though obviously various determinisms may arise from relevant physical principles. The relevant laws of physics can be completely deterministic independently of our ability to control our limbs.
Agency, Memory And Administrative Capacity
In the spirit of Dennett’s account, I want to ask what actual psychological ability it is that we have that corresponds to the so-called “agency” which the twins have. There is only one answer: ‘memory’.
Agency, as imagined by Kristof in the way that so impressed Zizek, is a mnemonic - a key to remembering the past. One simply imagines that what occurred was what you wanted, then you have to only remember what you wanted. Two birds with one stone.
Can we check this against other theories of memory? William James’ theory of memory, to take one theory I am familiar with, is marred for our purposes by two problems. First, as an empirical psychologist, James is primarily interested in the accuracy of memory. While this is the easiest part to test, it is not so relevant here. Second, James seems uninterested in memories that take the form of language, preferring a vision of memory as a particular form of re-presentation of direct sense impression.
Despite these two boundaries, James does say two things which are extremely relevant to Kristof’s approach:
“The memories of childhood which persist in old age can hardly be compared with the events of the day or hour which are forgotten, for these latter are trivial once-repeated things, whilst the childish reminiscences have been wrought into us during the retrospective hours of our entire intervening life.”
“When memory begins to decay, proper names are what go first, and at all times proper names are harder to recollect than those of general properties and classes of things.”
We see here why Le Grand Cahier lacks names entirely and is written in the style of a child’s writing. The book is not an imitation of a child’s writing. Rather, it is the work of someone for whom the experience of writing as a child has remained with them, becoming denser and more real with repetition throughout their entire lives. As with Kant, this book is the work of someone who is trying to place their experiences in the space of reasons.
There is an interesting philosophical problem here. If agency is a form of memory, then it has nothing to do with what I call “administrative capacity”: the ability of an agent to absorb and control variety. The term “administrative capacity” arose from a social science literature that emerged from the mid-80s attempts to analyze the successes and failures of the 20th century modernizations in East Asia. To quote a very well written review article:
“Unlike earlier Marxist, functionalist and liberal theories of the state, these accounts are grounded in the premise that ‘the state (its structure, capacity, and strength vis-à-vis civil society) cannot be reduced to a reflection of class forces’. The state is considered able to act autonomously in line with its own interests, and its autonomy is thought to derive principally from its capacity.”
The United States Of America and the PRC, for instance, might prefer to serve their capitalist class perfectly, but are limited by the fact that every action must be undertaken by a force which it itself controls. If, for instance, there was a ludicrously infectious virus threatening the lives of American and Chinese citizens, they might try to act to minimize the loss to their capitalist class. Presumably, the capitalists of both countries would want a weak economic response and strong health response, to ensure that accumulation continues with minimal interruption. However, both states are constrained in what they can do by the specific capabilities they actually have, and so their reactions may be very different despite similar class structures. In the USA at least, the constraint was so strong that the exact opposite of the capitalist desire happened: a weak health response alongside a strong economic response.
All this is to say, the administrative capacity literature sees the short-run actions of the state as being chiefly constrained by capability the state in fact has. While it can make choices as an agent, any state that is less than all-powerful faces a kind of constrained agency in which it must make bank shots. Nowhere in the economic response to the pandemic was this fact funnier than in the $600 unemployment bonus handed out because the Unemployment Insurance systems tended to be implemented in a form of COBOL that made multiplication difficult.
In essence, I propose - to revert to Dennettian terminology - that administrative capacity is a “variety of free will worth wanting”. Further it is worth wanting in a stronger sense than agency, if agency is a form of memory. If agency is a mnemonic, it has at best internal implications, while administrative capacity is control (in the technical sense) over the external world. Perhaps one might even go so far to say “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it.”.
Kristof’s despair that “agency” is not “administrative capacity” is a typical Euro ennui of the mid to late 80s. Were agency to entail – or even produce – administrative capacity, we likely would have been spared a number of lines of European thinking that have proven worse than fruitless in thinking about how we can build structures that relate to our history. If all it took to do this was proper memories – and thus proper instruction – Germany might not be so dependent on Russian gas, and American departments of Comparative Literature might look a touch different.
The horror of Lu Xun is not the shocking 「喫人」(“EAT PEOPLE!”). Rather it is the earlier 「這歷史沒有年代，歪歪斜斜的每葉上都寫着「仁義道德」」(Xianyi and Gladys Yang translate this “my history [book] has no chronology, and scrawled all over each page are the words: "Virtue and Morality."”). That Chinese history has no chronology or objectivity is the spiritual disease of China, in Lu Xun’s diagnosis.
Lu Xun’s horror comes from a strongly Hegelian point of view, which can be simplified for this purpose into two points:
Objectivity is founded on the subjective validity of intersubjectively communicable points.
Objective truth - which is to say, the truth as ordinarily understood - is the summit to which societies aspire.
Put flatly, we must create individuals who can do science in order to have the science that creates such individuals.
The vision of these two points has been strongly criticized by writers like Richard Rorty. Rorty proposes in Contingency, Irony And Solidarity what he hopes to be a way of capturing Lu Xun’s moral vision without the unnecessary weight of capital T Truth. He spells this out fairly precisely in the chapter on Orwell, so I won’t go into details here. I mention Rorty not only because it is an example of the famous “evasion of philosophy” which characterizes American philosophers. I mention Rorty because, foolishly, Kristof’s book does not evade philosophy. La Trilogie Des Jumeaux is in the end a very typical 80s plea for subjectivity as an escape from the harsh objectivity of this world.
This is best illustrated by the last chapter of the second book. Despite the bluntness and precision of the prose so far, it truly is shocking to read the redacted government report which simply places the characters in their real names and objective locations. It is worst illustrated by the third book generally and the very predictably suicidal ending of the series.
I can’t easily recommend a book this dark, with the rampant sexual and physical abuse of children. I’m not Slavoj Zizek. Despite this, I do believe Kristof has an extremely deep psychological insight in her analysis of agency and an extremely powerful writing style especially in the first book. I simply regret that that insight was used to write an 80s Euro Novel.
An Editorial Response (From Alex)