An interview with Szilárd Borbély

László Bedecs

Photograph by Zoltán Bakos

In 2009, the Budapest-based literary journal Parnasszus dedicated an issue to the poetry of Szilárd Borbély (1963-2014). The issue featured an interview, presented here in edited form, in which the author talked openly about the biographical and philosophical foundations of his poetry, and his doubts about the nature of artistic creation. Borbély, who was forty-five at the time of the interview, took his own life in early 2014. He is considered one of the most important figures in contemporary Hungarian literature, having had an immense impact on the transformation of Hungarian poetry in the last decade, strongly influencing the conceptualization of poetry's social role and linguistic-thematic possibilities. He received a range of literary honors, and his profound theological inquiry, which fully embraced the peculiar condition of post-late-Modernity, fixes Borbély's legacy alongside other great central European thinkers such as János Pilinszky and Vladimír Holan.

At the turn of the last century light, ironic, and playful poetic modes of expression in Hungarian poetry had somewhat marginalized poetic languages that aimed to address existential questions in serious terms. It seemed that a self-reflexive style of poetry emphasizing language, rhyme, rhythm, and intertextual games would dominate the literary field. Within this atmosphere Borbély published his seventh book of poetry, The Splendours of Death, which tackled questions of sorrow, God, and the nature of evil. A scholar of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature, he creatively adapted the forms and metaphors of Baroque liturgical poetry, using them to create poems that gave voices to the pain of the physically and spiritually weak.

Borbély's poetry, prose, and essays try to bring the readers closer to the lives of those who cannot speak of their trauma or suffering. They can be uneducated and poor villagers, survivors of the Holocaust, women grieving after a miscarriage, or victims of terrible aggression. Through Borbély's texts we readers become increasingly less cruel-hearted, and the following discussion of the genesis and context of his poetry illuminates many aspects of his truly significant and undoubtedly necessary artistic endeavor.

—László Bedecs

The real breakthrough for you came with the publication of The Splendours of Death, which reaches back to the literary forms of the Baroque in Central Europe. This book commemorates an unspeakable act: a brutal robbery on Christmas Eve, in 2000, in which your mother was murdered and your father left unconscious. Where does the poetic language of this volume, which has been rightly valued and celebrated, originate?

Well, I am not sure that it makes much sense to tackle the question in this way, since it would give the impression that there is an inherent causality to be discovered. When in fact there is none. This perspective would bring logic into something that lacks even the trace of it. Of course, I did have ideas about what I would like to do as writers in general do. Around the fall of 2000 I finished the manuscript of Berlin–Hamlet, which then took three years to be published. Naturally, I did make some plans about what would come next, but then they were all shattered, obscured, and mostly erased by the shock that came a few months later, on the second day of Christmas. It is difficult to remember now since a great many things just vanished from my memory due to the dreadfulness of the following six years.

The writing of The Splendours of Death was not a planned event in my life, and in this sense it was not the result of my so-called development as a writer. On that day, a wild sense of horror and uncertainty invaded my life, a disturbingly new dimension of the unpredictable. Nonetheless, I gradually experienced how my initial internal resistance—which compelled me to obsessively hide this event in my life from the intrusive attention that comes with being a writer, and to preserve the story of this humiliation, caused by the death and suffering of my parents, within the bounds of my own personal intimacy—was eventually broken.

So if the tragedy of your parents changed your view of the world and your poetic language in such a fundamental way, then, I suppose, you could not always fully control or manage this transformation.

During the process I continuously felt that I was not writing, but that a greater force was carrying me, and I was just taking down notes from time to time. The ability to write is essentially a gift, just like all talents are. We see these cases where people become enslaved by their own talents, because talent is selfish and cruel. It is the manifestation of that greater force which moves your hand, and moves people in general. This is how I ended up, against my will, presenting the bloody tragedy of my parents to the world, and ostensibly slipping into the position of one who pleads for commiseration. By nature, I do not like to make a show of my wounds. And the only way to effectively avoid revealing your real wounds is by following the example of beggars, and display painted bleeding to passers-by.

But returning to your previous question: I think that in writing The Splendours of Death I relied on the lyrical tools and language which I discovered and developed at an earlier stage. But the book was not created only from these.

The Splendours of Death also has a clear commemorative function and its realism is reinforced by the inclusion in the appendix of the news articles covering the attack, the trials, and the subsequent acquittal of the accused. Literary criticism in the last twenty years strongly insisted on separating the biography of the author from the work itself, yet in the case of your book it seems particularly difficult to do so. Were you struggling with the relationship of reality to poetry while writing the book?

You see, for more than a year after the event I resisted with all my strength against writing about this experience. It is difficult to describe with precision the state I was in. Back then I felt that everything that happened—from the police investigation to the painful yet understandable public attention and curiosity surrounding the event—was foul, dreadful, impure, and deeply humiliating.

Meanwhile, I was working at the university, and I was writing essays, reviews, articles, songs for operettas, librettos for children's musicals, journalism, whatever came up. I was working a lot mostly because I couldn't sleep, and my fear of becoming depressed compelled me to take on a great workload. Yet at the same time I had to be careful not to overwork myself, since that can throw one back into the nightmares of depression as well.

Furthermore, the awful state my father was in, his major depression and his circumstances which I was not able to improve, put an additional strain on our life. Fear, distress, and the bitter futility of all those sacrifices were poisoning our everyday existence. Those were truly tough years, but then our little daughters were born, so the grimness was mixed with the wondrous. And then, when the internal barrier which I had set against myself finally broke down, I found a language which made self-expression possible, and which enabled me to voice subjectivity in a different manner than what readers of poetry would expect.

As a result, to use an allusion, the book is not about the subjective, but about the sacred. The traditional flow of communal chanting sequences is disrupted by unfitting elements which sometimes touch on the personal, but on the whole they amount to a fictional construction. In other words, some elements do refer to reality but I cannot verify their truthfulness anymore.

Seven years after its first publication the book was released again, completed or perhaps finalized with The Hasidic Sequences. And I read somewhere that you are planning a new version. What is the reason behind this? Did you feel that the project was unfinished?

The manuscript is finished and closed; there is place for only one more poem, the closing piece, which would be the 120th poem. Back in 2006, when I submitted the manuscript, my father was still alive. He died on the day the book was sent to press, so we could not change the text anymore. The Splendours of Death is closely connected with my other book, While the Holy Infant is Sleeping in our Hearts. I planned to write a counter-play to this in 2005, so perhaps that is what I mentioned. I wanted it to be a Purimspiel, yet I had neither the strength nor the time to complete it. Nonetheless, I didn't give up. I still want to finish writing it.

By calling it "unfinished" I meant that your subsequent writings, your nativity play, your essays, and your prose all continue to examine the philosophical-theological questions presented in The Splendours of Death. How would you explain the essential idea behind this problem?

Since I do not see it as being simply one problem, I cannot give an explanation. It is rather an experience: flash-like revelations, intuitive discoveries, a maelstrom that carries you away. The Splendours of Death was born out of some kind of inspiration. And I don't mean inspiration in a religious way. What I experienced in the process of writing is that there are some greater forces at play here, which surpass us humans. This, of course, did not come as a total surprise to me since I am a believer, and as such, I do have some basic, vague experiences of God like any religious person.

But at that time, when I was writing most of the texts in the book, I truly felt that I was not alone. Naturally, I had no idea whose presence I was feeling. You know, in the months following the murder the radio in our room started to suddenly turn on in the early hours. I woke up and I turned it off. But then it happened again the next morning. This went on for a while. Then one night I unplugged it, and the radio stopped turning on in the morning. What I want to say with this is that the soul really exists. The world, I suspect, is not at all the way we have been imagining it ever since the Enlightenment. Yet the language by which we live is not aware of this entirely different kind of world.

For me, this is a fundamental experience or insight, but I cannot call it a problem since the very concept of a "problem" refers to a certain linguistic or logical operation performed within the framework of rationality. And there are things in this world which do not fit in such linguistic mechanisms that follow the mental patterns of Enlightenment-type logic. They cannot even be expressed as questions, or formulated as problems. Anyway, the insights I had while writing can certainly not be formulated. Nonetheless, the language of poetry is meant to deal precisely with a realm of knowledge that is not of this world—to place a gospel-like landmine into this sentence.

There is another important point here to make, one that I also understood in those days, namely that reality as such—this most significant idol which stands at the center of an undisputable cult in our Enlightened Europe—did not even exist two or three hundred years ago.

When I was referring to the philosophical aspect of your work I meant to ask, for example, if you thought that cruelty could be understood as a result of human actions. Can it be avoided? Or is it a misunderstanding to have such concrete expectations from poetry?

Not at all. What else can you expect of poetry? The real misunderstanding, a most harmful one, would be to expect nothing else from poetry but for it to be beautiful. If the poetic use of language has any use at all, then it is precisely to answer such questions.

However, I would like to rearticulate, if I may, the context in which you raised the question. Because the concept of "understanding," used in the sense you use it, places the problem of evil in the perspective of the Enlightenment idea of eternal progress, within the framework of anthropological optimism which on the one hand presupposes the a priori moral goodness of human beings from birth, and on the other, creates the optimistic fiction of equality, derived from the theory of law.

These assumptions are of course the necessary pillars of the secularized world, and one could hardly imagine the legal and ethical order of the secular state without them. Since, if we think about it, the human world is basically a strange web of customs, fears, desires, memories, and hopes. And as such it is essentially built on words, and by no means on so-called "reality"—a fiction in its own right. In Europe, for the last two hundred years, our world has been built on the words of the law.

So it was a major warning for humanity that at the time of the Holocaust all it took was the vote of a hundred men in the house of law for enlightened optimism to collapse. As easily as that, with the help of a few laws and decrees, the rational and efficient states of Europe, including Hungary, denied millions of citizens their fundamental rights. The very same rights for which the fathers and heroes of the bourgeois state had fought and died in the two previous centuries, and which were accepted as indisputable values by everyone. In other words, the existence of the modern, secular state and of its citizens rests on very thin ice.

I am trying to filter all of this through your poetry: I suppose you are saying that if the killer enters your living room with a steel rod in his hand then all the achievements of liberal democracy become ludicrous. But if this is so, what does it entail?

It is highly unlikely that I would have pondered such things if the attack had not taken place. If I had not experienced that our firmly upheld rights are simply illusions; that it is futile to trust the law or ethics, and to believe in the victory of good over evil. Because when the killer breaks into your living room, all of that means nothing. The killer can be a person, but it can also be an organization, or the executive organ of the state. And God remains silent. Since God can only speak through human words, and since only we can give Him a language and a voice. Without us humans, without our help, God is powerless and frail on Earth, just like his angels.

This is where we arrive at the theological questions.

Yes, because it is highly perplexing for me that all through the history of Christianity the Church eliminated the Gnostics, the Manicheans, and repeatedly used the tools of eradication instead of settling for a debate. In the name of absolute goodness, the Catholic Church committed terribly evil deeds. As a product of its guilty conscience, it created the idea of immaculate Goodness, which can give absolution from the burden of sin to anyone who committed such crimes in the name of their faith and for the protection of this absolute Good. The theological dogma which describes God as being omnipotent and infinitely good demonized evil. The mystics, on the other hand, stressed total self-devotion to, rather than service of, radical Goodness. This is why I speculated that the thinking of the Enlightenment originates in the mystics. Or, to put it differently, the radical Enlightenment belief in reason and the doctrinaire optimism that accompanied it, in fact has its roots in Christian theology.

The mystical experiences of Descartes, the theological speculations of Newton, Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, Hegel—they were all inspired by theology. If we accept that Enlightened Europe reframed the eschatological conclusions of the Church then we can see that the theological idea of the absolute Good lives on in the idea of rationalized science. In this sense, we imagine Evil to be the antithesis of this out-of-the-world Good. Yet that is not how things are. It's more like in the Szekler joke which says: "I only saw a giraffe once. But even that was something else."

This means that we have to change the way we think about these concepts. But how should we use them? Good and evil are abstract categories, they do not exist in this world in a pure form.

This is true, but it is not a great discovery in itself. Water is not inherently good, and a virus is not evil. The human world is neither good nor evil, but a combination of the two. Dante used theological textbooks to populate the world of his poetic fiction with tales of crime and punishment—but these are just that, poetic fiction. Whereas in fact the killer is also a victim in a sense, and usually it is not by pure chance that someone becomes a victim. Good and evil exist only in the abstract sphere of morality.

The link between crime and punishment is maintained only by the fiction of the law—it does not derive from the natural world where you can find no trace of such a relation. Society is constantly trying to uphold these fictions, although we know of many cases when mass murderers lived long and happy lives.

The core values of Christianity and the Enlightenment do not have an anthropological foundation. I am aware that this is an alarming and uncomfortable conclusion. There is, however, a more ancient concept that perhaps offers more wisdom: the concept of Fate that obviously goes against the fiction of morality and that of the law. Our fate is something given to each of us, so we are not born with equal chances, and one life is not comparable with the other. The power of reason and theological fiction breaks down at this point, and all that is left are allegories, with their mysterious and awe-inspiring silence.

Christ is a symbol of human consciousness that—just like the figures and cults of saints—reaches far back into pre-Christian times. The figure of Christ or that of the Messiah casts a long shadow over the history of our culture and its dark abyss—since that is where he comes to us from. But the birth of Jesus brought a change into the story. The experience of God as mediated through faith receives its shape by the intervention of man. God is not real, he does not exist independently of man, because the unfolding of human history is the journey of God through the world. And I say this not as an atheist, but as a believer. I accept this duality since accepting it is one of the greatest secrets of our human existence.

There has been a lot of critical discussion of the influences of medieval and Baroque literature, as well as religious songs, on your poetry. How can classical works become the intertextual background of modern poetry?

If we dismiss the modern obsession with the author from the reception of a poetic text, then it becomes clear that biography as such is nothing more than a powerful intertextual element which is meant to make the literary work more accessible. In previous ages it was not the individuals but the various communities—mostly organized according to religious denominations, like Catholics, Cathars, Hussites, Calvinists, Huguenots, Jews—that established relations with the society at large.

Modernity, on the other hand, aimed at the development of an atomized social space, and everything seemed to be serving this goal. The individual became a legal subject and a moral actor in his or her relation to the state—this worldly and transcendent entity which replaced the community. This was the age of the bourgeoisie. But the middle class household also contained the staff, the servants, the nanny, the cook, the coachman, the doorman of the casino, and the personnel of the brothel. That is, a sizeable group of people with practically very limited legal rights, who were outside of the dominant moral order; like prostitutes, for example, who were completely subjected to the will and whim of bourgeois men.

The fundamental concepts of poetry, together with the various rituals of interpretation and understanding—which, even today, determine the popular reception of literature—were created by the thinkers and writers of Romanticism, and were envisioned to serve the public of the bourgeois age. The image of poetry in Hungarian literature is still embedded in this way of thinking. Our most important poets of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century, [Mihály] Vörösmarty, [Sándor] Petőfi, [János] Arany, [Endre] Ady, [Dezső] Kosztolányi belonged to this middle-class, they relied on servants, they were surrounded by a household staff, they regularly frequented brothels, and the women in their lives were mostly irrelevant when it came to the important decisions relating to society and politics.

The patterns of this mentality are still present; the socialist regime does not seem to have democratized them. This is why I consciously emphasized the Baroque elements, since I feel that through such a link I can draw attention to a radically different world and way of thinking that reveals the difference between principles and practice. The Baroque came before modernity, and before the triumph of the bourgeois world. In the Baroque age poetry still acted as a channel for common human knowledge, and I was always drawn to this. The reference to the Baroque and to the Middle Ages is important because they functioned according to a pre-historical language and mentality, in a somewhat similar way to the postmodern, which is the manifestation of a post-historical culture—a culture in which the idea of progress, the grand narratives and grand allegories of the Enlightenment have lost their power to interpret the world.

But doesn't all this rather prove the distance between these two worlds?

I would say that these two worlds are quite close. The practice of radical intertextuality, which provoked so much excitement in the 1980s, was a basic element in Antiquity, all through the Middle Ages, and then in the Renaissance and the Baroque. As it happens so often, postmodern writers "discovered" something that was simply forgotten and sidetracked for many years. The bourgeois world, with its legal and moral fictions, collapsed in the Second World War, most definitely in the Nazi extermination camps. When, after two decades, the young generation revolted in 1968 against the duplicitous rule of a lifeless world, they turned for inspiration to symbols and allegories coming from a great tradition.

The significant novelty of your poetry is the lack of irony in treating the tragic. The Hungarian poetry of the 1990s, in an almost exclusive manner, celebrated play, laughter, lightness, re-writing, travesties, and the overwhelming dominance of irony. Your work proves that it is indeed possible to create a poetic language which can address the issues of pain, humiliation, and marginalization in a contemporary way. Being a reader and interpreter of contemporary literature yourself, do you agree with my assessment of your work?

The "regime change" that took place in Hungarian poetry in the 1990s, replacing the weighty and gloomy poetic tradition with a lighter tone, was just as liberating and necessary as the hope, trust, and intellectual awareness around the political regime change of 1989.

Yet the overall picture of Hungarian poetry was never quite homogeneous, and for many poets irony—often mistaken by superficial readers for witticism—did not mean lack of seriousness. But as the regime change eventually left a bitter taste in the mouths of each generation, the language of poetry also became quite somber. This is distressing because, at the same time, humiliated people, whose number is constantly increasing, are becoming ever more silent, and are losing their ability to articulate themselves.

I believe that the arts should actively and creatively address social problems; great art has always done so anyway. After the regime change, people tended to over-emphasize the injunction that the task of the writer and the poet is to write rather than make political statements. What was not emphasized, however, is that even if writers are simply doing their job, they are always "revolutionaries," even if they retreat into the ivory tower, like Esterházy or Flaubert.

translated from the Hungarian by Szabolcs László

Click here to read poems by Szilárd Borbély, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, also from this issue.