Entering the World Stage: Miklós Szentkuthy's Ars Poetica

In 1827, long before globalization and the institutionalization of multiculturalism, Goethe forecast the disintegration of national literature and the burgeoning of world literature, whose epoch he saw near at hand and sought to hasten. To achieve that, he accentuated the necessity not only of reading works in their original languages but also of studying their times and customs in order to best understand them; this was not to offer world literature as a mere cultural product but had the more elevated aim of fostering the "true progress of mankind," which Goethe thought could be achieved through the concerted efforts of all cultures. The bane of progress aside, that was the grand project. Too, despite its shortcomings, he recognized the fundamental role translation would play in acquainting people with world literature, and the eventuality of it supplanting national literature was inevitable to Goethe, who anticipated its swift realization due to the "ever-increasing rapidity of human interaction," "vastly facilitated communications," and the "constantly spreading activities of trade and commerce." What he envisioned, at least superficially, we have in part witnessed, and many would optimistically affirm that we live in a compact global community where literature and the arts are less and less dominated by a central canon; whether that's true, such utopic pronouncements and empty optimism necessitate scrutiny. In the late twentieth century, Gadamer and other critics questioned the validity of Goethe's concept as Eurocentric, potentially homogenizing, and possibly normative while Erich Auerbach made the incisive observation that, "in a uniformly organized world, only one single literary culture—indeed, in a relatively short time, only a few literary languages, soon perhaps only one—will remain alive. And with this, the idea of world literature would be at once realized and destroyed." If the once largely Eurocentric canon shunted other cultures to the margins, at least there were margins in which to exist—Auerbach's analysis of Weltliteratur is that of a tenebrous, near-apocalyptic dialectic where nothing remains.

Whether these critiques of Goethe's more nuanced concept are entirely accurate is open to question, as is exactly what world literature is or can be, if something of the kind is even possible; however, such appraisals warrant reflection and, in our epoch, where the speed of human interaction is Zeus-like, world cultures make contact with a rapidity in excess of our ability to digest them, even moderately. If there is a more global consciousness and culture, its sheer abundance often leads to its near figurative obliteration, certainly to obscuring what is there, waiting to be discovered, with even the most noteworthy achievements often being left unrecognized. To focus on one culture long marginalized by the world stage, consider Hungary. Although Hungarian composers such as Kodály, Bartók, and Ligeti are commonly known throughout the world, and were known during their own lifetimes, that has not been the case with many if not most Hungarian writers. If music is more readily accessible, writers such as Sándor Petőfi, Imre Madách, and Miklós Radnóti should, certainly at this date in history, not just be better known, but read. In the last two decades, a considerable shift toward expanding the impact of Hungarian culture has occurred; as its literature gains more and more worldwide prominence, contemporary writers such as Nádas, Esterházy, and Krasznahorkai are becoming nearly as familiar to readers of world literature as Saramago, Banville, and Bolaño. Yet, whereas the Nobel laureate Imre Kertész is widely known, another Hungarian writer, Miklós Szentkuthy, who has at different times been compared to the holy trinity of Proust, Joyce, and Musil, still remains something of an obscurity even though his work predates the former trio, who represent the new, late Cold War generation, all of whom didn't begin publishing until the end of the 1970s and early '80s, long after Szentkuthy had produced all of his major works and established himself as Hungary's foremost modernist. In some ways, though, Szentkuthy is not really a "Hungarian" writer, not in any folkloric or nationalistic sense, for his work doesn't deal with Hungarian reality or culture, except perhaps in extremely covert ways. "Homelessness," said László Németh, "is one of his main distinguishing marks, as compared with kindred Western writers." Elaborating further, Németh suggested "homelessness to be a higher form of protection of the mind." Since the first volume of Szenkuthy's St. Orpheus Breviary was censored and he was forced to vet each of his publications with the state and eventually interrupt the writing and publication of the Breviary—only to return to it thirty years later—to write biographical "fantasies," essentially for hire, on the likes of Dürer, Goethe, Mozart, and others, the fortification of that homelessness was clearly vital. If Szentkuthy was not persona non grata under the Communist regime of his time, he was in part forced to become a kind of internal émigré.

When Prae, Szentkuthy's first novel, appeared in 1934, the book was so startling that András Hevesi deemed him a "monster" and, despite his own misgivings about the term, Szentkuthy essentially inaugurated the Hungarian avant-garde. He would see such "experiments" within a vaster historical continuum, "amply demonstrating" that what were "imagined" as "revolutionary innovations" by surrealists and others "had also played a part, to a greater or lesser extent (better too), in the history of the arts." To Szentkuthy, the style of the ultra-modernists was outdated. In Towards the One and Only Metaphor, he outlines what he sees as the two principal forms of experimentation: "one is strictly rational, self-analytical, and overscrupulous, simply a pathology of consciousness," and the other is "the perennial experimentation of nature," such as biological forms of development, where there are no distinctions between "final results" and "undecided, exploratory trials." "If Prae and other works I have planned are 'experimental,' " he counters, "then they are so in a specific biological sense: not an apprehensive, exaggerated self-conscience, but experiments of primal vitality, which are in a special biological relationship with form (cf. the 'forms' of protozoa: experiment and totality of life being absolutely identical, they coincide)." Denounced as non-Magyar, the mercurial Prae was considered "an eerie attack on the Hungarian realist novel," a curse then against nationalism and folk-culture, with Szentkuthy suffering from the reprehensible malady of cosmopolitanism. This raises a thorny political question to which there is perhaps no definitive answer: what does it mean to be Magyar, Asian, or, for that matter, Sicilian? If modern physics has sundered the very solidity of matter, how can any form of identity be sustained as solid and absolute, let alone infinitely sustainable? And what happened to the sea change from national to world literature that Goethe envisioned? The Magyar of 1848 is no more, nor the American of 1950. To Nietzsche, "what is normal is crossed races," and they "always mean at the same time crossed cultures, crossed moralities...Purity," he continues, upending any nationalistic conception of the term, "is the final result of countless adaptations." Our artists and philosophers, the visionary ones, are often far in advance of our politicians...Each case is distinctive and particular, and no parallels are exact, hence such is not meant, but more than fifty years after Szentkuthy was denounced for being non-Magyar, Kertész would suffer similar attacks after winning the Nobel for a body of writings that do not glorify Hungary, prompting many people to question whether or not he was "a real Hungarian writer." The intractability of that question aside, as Szentkuthy himself knew all too well, cultural diversity has its perils. Although the monstrum had its champions, aside from an excerpt translated into French in 1974, Prae has never been published outside of Hungary, severely circumscribing its legitimate place in literary history. Despite the fact that it foregrounds and presages many of the innovations of later literary movements, Prae currently remains lost to the world, despite the initial intrepid efforts of the French. If, as József J. Fekete observed, "linearity of time, coherent characterization, and plotline disappeared from his work and were replaced by something alien, a mysterious secret: authorial method," Szentkuthy is then a true innovator whose work will force us to reconsider not only the genealogy of the nouveau roman, but also perhaps other genealogies, too. Countering the parallels often made between Szentkuthy and Proust or Joyce, parallels that even Szentkuthy rejected as misconceptions "on the part of people who have never read either Joyce or myself," Németh perceives a more accurate corollary in Kant:

What is important here is not the sensual material but the introspection of the artistic spirit that goes with it. If we wish to compare him with one of the big monsters, then Kant is much nearer the mark than either Proust or Joyce. The Critique of Pure Reason in point of fact is an introspection of the emptied mind. The mind jettisons the world from itself and strives to grasp what is left. As an experiment, it then again repeatedly gobbles one thing or other from the world and watches how space, time, and the categories chew it. It is not the item of food that is important, but the chewing itself; the food is only placed in the mouth so that there should be some chewing to investigate. It is like that with Szentkuthy as well, with the difference being that it is not the scholar's brain that is observing its own mechanism of chewing, but the on-looking and shaping artist. He is the sort of poet who, before throwing himself into his poetic work, carries out extraordinarily extensive prosodic studies, though not in the way that scholars of prosody usually do, but as only a scholar-poet would do it, who, struggling to reach for a novel system of poetry completely suited to his temperament, practices the ideas he has for substitute meters and contents on a hundred different examples. Any of those examples might be a masterpiece in regard to its meaning and content, but the true goal is a prosodic foundation carried to an unheard-of scale.
Although this risks hyperbole, to convey the genuine significance of Prae, that it is a rosetta stone of Hungary's instrumental role in the development of world literature: imagine Joyce's Ulysses, or Einstein's theory of relativity still being unknown, and the shock—and knowledge—our encounter with them would now bring. But that is the mantle of the posthumous; the works of those who are Unzeitgemässe are always in advance of their time. Thus began Szentkuthy's strange fate, with him struggling in the shadows during the Communist era, yet all the while writing original tome after tome, producing a prodigious body of essays, novels, and those aforementioned biographical 'fantasies,' to translations of Gulliver's Travels, Joyce's Ulysses, as well as a host of other works, including a diary of more than 100,000 pages spanning nearly sixty years, which the author declared three years before his death contains his "real" writing. The first part, which dates from 1930 to 1947, an undeniably fertile and significant historical period, will be opened on the anniversary of his death in July of 2013. Revelations surely await, especially since Szentkuthy probably appears in the diary as unmasked, for it may have been the one place where he could stand naked, as naked that is as anyone can be, free of fortifications, at total ease in the safety of—a home. Through the mask of St. Orpheus, he did avow that, through the perspective of his own life, he could "provide (the malicious of course will say 'to mask') a rationale for the diary style of my entire oeuvre, my utter homesickness for an endlessly complete diary," for it is the diary that is his "ultimate ideal in place of the honest superstition of the old-fashioned 'objective opus.' " Like all the great confessional artists, Szentkuthy is laying his heart bare, with even his biographical fantasies being masks in part of himself; more even than Nietzsche, he is every name in history, and he is as much of a jester, too. If in his pursuit of fulfilling the Delphic injunction he betrays what he himself called a "mystic penchant for self-torment," that is oft if not consistently tempered by humor, a genuinely comic—not bilious—irony, and in Szentkuthy we have one of our great clowns.

While Szentkuthy would experience a renaissance of his work within Hungary during his own lifetime, following his death in 1988, his works were translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Slovakian, leading to some recognition for him outside of his native country, though not in the Anglophone world. His lack of such a reception here is in part ironic considering he began as an Anglicist, penned a dissertation on Ben Jonson, and would later translate into Hungarian not only Poe, Twain, and Dickens, but Donne, Milton, and even Sir Thomas Browne, who figures—along with Mauriac—at the end of Towards the One and Only Metaphor as a key typus for Szentkuthy's conception of writing. More, that he still remains almost entirely obscure to the readers of world literature despite his existing in translation since 1991 lends heft to Auerbach's foreboding dialectic, confirming that it is only with his translation into English that Szentkuthy will enter the world stage. And this is doubly peculiar since, as is well known, the number of translations published in English every year is scant, but that is the magic of hegemony. With the publication of Marginalia on Casanova, volume I of Szentkuthy's St. Orpheus Breviary and the first of his works to be translated into English, Contra Mundum Press (CMP) is seeking to make his name more familiar. In selecting him as their featured author, CMP will publish further translations—all to be rendered by Tim Wilkinson—of his work over the coming decade, including Prae, at last exporting that infamous text in its entirety. This summer, Towards the One and Only Metaphor will see the light of day, making for the second English translation of Szentkuthy's work to date. For those who have yet to encounter him, it is this book that Asymptote is now introducing.

As a text that defies classification into any particular genre, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is perhaps most accurately thought of as literature—in Blanchot's expansive sense of the term, literature is that which "ruins" distinctions and limits in its creation of a unique and amorphous hybrid beyond the distinctions of a particular genre. Originally published in 1935 and republished in 1985, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is, as Dezső Baróti elucidated, comprised of "unconventional journal-like passages expanded into short essays, plans for novels, poetic meditations that have the effect of free verse, and paradoxical aphorisms," all of which reveal a moral philosophy, a politics, an erotics. "Its predominant motifs (insofar as one can succinctly describe it in a few words) are most especially nature, love, eroticism, sex. All that, however, is constantly painted over by the vibration of the unconcealed presence of a writer constantly in search of himself, and rife with beguiling, stimulating, and ever-renewed surprises." In this sense, it is an essayistic and confessional work à la Montaigne, or like the ruminative waste books of Lichtenberg, or Joubert's keen-eyed observations. Yet, if as fragmentary as those texts, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is at the same time ordered, like a group of disparate stars that, when viewed from afar, reveal or can be perceived to form a constellation—they are sculpted by a geometry of thought, for, as András Keszthelyi observed, the text is essentially something of a manifesto, "an explicit formulation of the author's intentions, his scale of values, or, if you wish: his ars poetica." And when reviewing the book upon its original publication, Németh elucidated its geometrical and biological dimensions, noting how, through dehumanization, Szentkuthy returns us to the embryo and the ornament; however, such is done to bring us in closer alignment with his gestures and words, to take us into the very particles of existence, and the word is germane:

There is no form and content in humanity; our protoplasm is more geometrical and our form more formless than the geometry and biology bubbling up in Szentkuthy's U-tube. His method is dehumanizing; he dehumanizes man by mutilating him in the direction of the embryo and the ornament. The dehumanization, at root, is irony, and the type of writer who simply wishes to keep on smiling during the puppet show and gut-wrenching may well feel just fine. But Szentkuthy is not that type; indeed, he is greatly preoccupied with humanity, and in his ecstasy as lyrical agitator-cum-preacher would far sooner push our eyes, ears, and heads under his gestures and words.
In Marginalia on Casanova, through the figure of its narrator, St. Orpheus, Szentkuthy offers a key to his very art when speaking of what he described as "the most savage battle of his life": "the battle of the 'descriptive' versus the 'anecdoticizing,' the Romantically luxuriant in statics versus the French moralizing style of a La Bruyère or La Rochefoucauld." While both figure prominently throughout his oeuvre, description is undoubtedly victorious, and in it he finds "many more novelties, variations, elements, and shades than in any kind of so-called rational thinking. The most complex thoughts, poetic sensibilities, or philosophical sophistications are all stupefying platitudes, oafish homogenizing beside the infinity of nuancing an object. Thinking, however, imposes a demand for nuance, a microscopic madness; it goes where it can best satisfy that insatiability for atoms." And so he brings us into the very particles of existence. It is not only objects that Szentkuthy nuances, though, but concepts, historical phenomena, consciousness, and a host of other things, including language itself, which he turns into a living creature, animating it with endless undulations, making it vibrate, turning it into number, endowing it with color, sound, and sensuality, and it is scintillating, for to him words are "chance reflex crystals" that he plays with like a great chemist. And through this play, in every book, whether masked or unmasked, his ars poetica always includes a philosophy of love, and Eros is put through a thousand and one permutations, all of which we witness dancing in his texts, animated like the thousand and one figures of the Kharjuravāhaka monuments.

As one encounters more and more of his work, it is evident that the twenty-first century will be the one in which Szentkuthy at last has his renaissance, surely confirming what Nicholas Birns avowed when reviewing Marginalia on Casanova: "Szentkuthy will unquestionably enter and alter the canon of twentieth-century literature as we know it."

Click here to read an excerpt of Miklós Szentkuthy's Towards the One and Only Metaphor, translated by Tim Wilkinson.