03. 12. 2010. 10:11

"A single whispered evocation"

The "Hassidic Sequences" of Szilárd Borbély

Borbély's The Splendours of Death examines the author's personal tragedy through three of the most deeply ingrained narratives of the separation of the soul from the body in the European mind: the Christian tale of the martyrdom of Jesus, the Hellenic legend of Amor and Psyche, and Hassidic parables and Jewish prayers.

The most recent volume of poetry that Szilárd Borbély has published is an expanded re-edition of his highly praised 2004 volume The Splendours of Death (Halotti pompa). As noted in the previous essay, this volume represents, quite directly, a memorial to a personal tragedy in the author’s life – the murder of his mother during a savage attempt at burglary in the early hours of Christmas Eve in 2000. The source of its tremendous artistic and moral strength can be said to lie in how this horrifying event was examined through two of the most deeply ingrained narratives of the separation of the soul from the body in the European mind: the Christian tale of the martyrdom of Jesus, and the Hellenic legend of Amor and Psyche. In its first edition, The Splendours of Death placed two radically different atmospheres in clear apposition: the Christian devotional poetry of the Hungarian vernacular literary Baroque, with its focus on Christ’s torment often beyond any possibility of release, and a purportedly classical paganism discomfortingly close to the modern secular world, not only in the “pagan” poems’ frequent invocations of the present age (science, forensic pathology, computers et al.) but more strikingly in the almost total absence of individual human agency and the arbitrary brutalities of power.
 
In 2006, however, Borbély re-issued the volume, with the same publisher (Kalligram) and retaining the same typography and format, yet containing a third distinct section, this one bearing the title "Hassidic Sequences". In one sense, the second volume becomes a coherent intellectual whole, adding the Jewish tradition to its rightful place among the strands of European thought. More profoundly, however, it leaves still more questions unanswered, inviting the reader (as Rilke advised) to ‘live the questions’. With the third section in the book, the earlier Christian-Hellenic symmetry is, in a sense, disturbed; now, each part stands in examination of the other, perhaps even asking us what indeed truly is pagan, Christian or Jewish within each. At this juncture, we cannot but notice the deep challenge that Borbély’s poetic-ethical project poses, even as the literary genre of the sequence (a form only vaguely defined) places them in a kind of aesthetic equality. Each tradition is laid bare, placed alongside the next; proximity is created where usually none is ever found.
Of course, there is one overarching subject that binds all three sections: Death, the ultimate separation of the soul from the body. In the case of the "Hassidic Sequences", it is not the death of Christian martyrdom or Classical myth: it is the murder of Hungary’s once-vibrant rural Hassidic communities from the remote northeastern Szatmár region during the Holocaust. Borbély – himself a native of this region, whose own extended family background includes some who were not untouched by the events of World War Two – here finds the form of Jewish religious texts as inspiring as the Christian ones of the "Sequences of Holy Week": quasi-Talmudic reinterpretations of Hassidic parables and reformulations of longstanding Jewish prayers.
 
Perhaps at this juncture, it might be best to devote a few words to a description of the Hassidic tradition in Hungary. Generally, it is considered to date from the very start of the 19th century, with the emergence of two major theological figures, Moshe Teitelbaum (1759–1841) in Sátoraljaújhely, and Isaac Taub (1751–1851) in Nagykálló. A third major lineage in Szatmár Hassidism was founded by Zvi Hirsch Friedman (1808–1874) in Olaszliszka. These wonder-rabbis (Tzaddikim) were viewed not simply as spiritual authorities, but as physical embodiments of holiness, capable of healing and other miracles, as living incarnations of the Holy Word. A famous Tzaddik once said: “I did not go to the Maggid of Meseritch (Rabbi Dov Baer) to study the Torah, but to see how he ties his shoes”.
 
In particular, Reb Taub is renowned for his own poetic creations – Jewish religious texts set to Hungarian folk melodies of the immediate region, which he often considered to have originated in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. To cite his most famous example, Reb Taub once heard a shepherd boy in a meadow singing; having recognized the tune as an ancient Jewish melody from the Temple, he paid him two gold pieces for his song. The rabbi instantly learned the melody while the boy forgot it. The song itself, in Hungarian “Szól a kakas már“ (The Rooster is Crowing), remains famous to this day, repeatedly performed and recorded.
 
Borbély recalls the song of Reb Taub and the story behind it in the poem “The Sequence of Isaac Taub”, yet in his version, the final stanzas offer a far more ambiguous message than the hope of divine providence eventually bringing the shattered unity back to completion:

Then the Saint of Kálló,
     the miracle-rabbi stood still.
With coins he bought from David
     that of which the melody sings.
 
If the rabbi would not sing,
    the bird sunk into gloom.
His leg yellow, his wing now green.
     He stopped, wept. And was mute.
 
“When will it be? When will it be?”
     Somewhere the rooster cries
Never shall that bird ascend,
     only he who of it sings.
 
In a sense, a large number of the poems included in “Hassidic Sequences” resemble the Jewish prayer known as the Zemer (pl. Zemirot), the genre to which “Szól a kakas már” belongs. Traditionally sung on Friday to welcome the Sabbath, the canon of the Zemirot can be said to form a body of vernacular texts not dissimilar from the Christian vernacular forms of the sequence, as evoked by Borbély in the first section of the volume. And it is certainly worth mentioning that – due to the iconoclasm of Ashkenazi Judaism – the Sabbath being welcomed is pictured in only the most highly abstract of terms. For example, in the prayer “Lekhah Dodi”, a Zemir composed in the 16th century (but often in practice set to a far older melody of Moorish origin), the opening verses read, “Let us go, my friend, towards the bride, and receive the presence of Shabbat” [emphasis by author]. The insistence on the abstractness of the presence of the Shabbat Bride may – disconcertingly – remind us of the formlessness of Amor, the unseen nocturnal presence in the second volume: a comparison which, shocking as it may seem, is yet another example of the kind of moral challenge that Borbély refuses to avoid, much like his near-blasphemous insistence (in the first section) on the suffering of Christ without any trace of the mercy of the Christian God.
 
There may be a sense in which the narrative power of the Hassidic section supersedes the other two, in terms of its ability to cast the reader back into pre-mythical time, cancelling out secular, profane time. If, in the Christian section, the reader notes an almost obsessive repetition of a single narrative moment – the one incidence of the martyrdom of Christ – we recall Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of Baroque elasticity as being primarily that of the movement of the fold, something continually turned back upon itself. The Hassidic poems, though, suggest a circular approach to time, a doubling back of a sequential narrative in telling and re-telling, in which the Present is thoroughly de-valorised. And, indeed, what could be more alien to our mentality today? One looks back to the words and deeds of YHWH, the one whose name may not even be uttered, subjecting them to continually expanding outward spirals of interpretation and re-interpretation, or to the future and the awaited coming of the Messiah. Borbély has written eloquently and extensively on Western culture’s preoccupation with the future, the new, the not-yet-invented, and all of this in a sense as a symptom of our infinite and unquenched longing for the “Unborn Child”; at the same time, however, reading the parable-like “Hassidic Sequences”, one is struck by the seemingly endless referentialities leading back to that originary Time, even before the creation of the universe.
 
Perhaps this is why so many of the rabbinical debates (here clearly reflected in the dialogues of the Hungarian wonder-rabbis or Tzaddikim) are so concerned with the very first words of the Book of Genesis. The question of the Creation, metaphysically and logistically, clearly occupied these scholars intensely. According to Isaac Luria, one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the 16th century in the Galilean town of Safed (a primary location for Kabbalistic thought in the centuries after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain), the concept of tzimtzum (contraction, withdrawal), in Kabbalistic interpretation was of ultimate importance in interpreting Creation. Luria’s ideas, handed down in notes from his disciples, stress that the Creation could only come into being by the Creator’s action of pulling back to make room for the other beings. “Can the world exist, if God is everywhere? How can he create the world ex nihilo if even the void does not exist?”

As Borbély writes,

When God began the creation of the
world, into his own final breath he
returned, and his own self he erased.
 
The first action of the infinite being, therefore, was not directed outward, but inward. As the twentieth-century Jewish theologian Gershon Scholem notes, we can regard it as God’s exile into Himself. Luria even considered that a remnant of God’s light remained and remains in the ancient sphere created by this movement of self-withdrawal. Similarly, he also believed in the transmigration of souls (gilgul), which was to become an important part of the folk religion (and, incidentally, also a belief held by Moshe Teitelbaum). Scholem defines Lurian Kabalism as “the last religious movement the effect of which became dominant in every Jewish community,  and every country where a Jewish diaspora existed.”
 
Without doubt, the theological disputations of Reb Taub, Reb Teitelbaum and the Hassidim of Szatmár bear a strong influence of Luria’s views, and particularly as they emerge in Borbély’s poetic re-interpretations. Fascinatingly, the third volume thus becomes, by inference, the only section of the book to provide anything resembling a theological explanation for suffering. Here, we can turn to philosopher Ágnes Heller’s discussion of the interpretation of Luria’s theology presented by the German-Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas:
 
“… In order to create space for the world to exist, the En Sof of the beginning (the Infinite, God) drew back, becoming narrower and denser within himself, so that the emptiness, the void, could come into being outside of him; a space in which the world could be created. Without this contraction of God, nothing outside of God could ever exist. God allowed the world to exist. He cannot give anything more than that. Now it is upon man to give something back to God.”
 
Or, as we find in the “Hassidic Sequences”,
 
Reb Taub, the Saint of Kálló,
taught that the Sabbath
existed even before Creation.
Then the Almighty’s name
 
was still the Lord of Nothingness. Who
saw, one Sabbath day, two angels
approaching: one was the Angel
of Being, the other the Angel of Not…
 
The “Hassidic Sequences” can then be seen (only partially, however, as the potential interpretations must remain as variegated as those of the Tzaddikim themselves) as something like an infinitely and subtly evoked theological response to volume one and its agonizing, seemingly unanswerable scenes of martyrdom without deliverance. As such, the book starts to resemble a medieval polyphony of voices, perhaps revealing these three vanished worlds to have had more in common than one might expect. And one begins to understand the truly hard questions that the intertwining of the seemingly disparate narratives puts to us. For Borbély does pose questions likely to be disturbing to both Christian and Jewish readers. What if Christ, for instance, had been born female?

God’s own Daughter could not die
As his Son was crucified,
For she is the course of life,
The fount of all Eternity.
 
In strife between Father and Son
She would be the House of Calm
And from her heart’s most sacred love
The Child would be born.
 
Or – what if the Christian Church had responded to the disaster of World War Two with more than silence, evasion and belated apologies; notwithstanding the incredible heroism of a courageous few? These, and other poems such as the “Sequence of the Messiah”, seem to ask what might have been different if the Jewish and Christian faiths had not remained indifferent to each other’s narratives.

At midnight, a Jewish child
Was brought forth into this world.
Kisses sweet his mother bestows
The sleeping babe to her breast she holds
 
All gossiping tongues the word now spread
How he is seeking out his Death.
His mother gently tends his wounds,
as her dying Son she mourns.
 
Though it is undoubtedly an extremely difficult subject to bring up, Borbély’s formulation and placement of these sequences within the individual volumes even questions the issue of Jewish liturgy and its own response to the genocides of the twentieth century, to the tragedies of its own people. This is particularly true in the poem entitled “Zemirot”, based on the long series of texts addressed to the Sabbath in the form of the welcoming of the Sabbath Bride (although the traditional Hebrew term lekha dodi (“come, my beloved”) can refer to a mysterious “beloved”, God, the community of one’s friends, or the metaphorical Sabbath Queen herself).

There, where the sun does rest,
while our bodies lie prostrate
as we await the train of Death
and we look upon the West.
          Come, good friend, let us receive
          The radiant bride, the Sabbath Queen.
…..
She too arrives. The lamplight’s gleam
trembles on the oven’s rim,
air drawn through the chimney:
there where God has ceased to be.
        Come, good friend, let her proceed,
       The radiant bride, the Sabbath Queen.
 
The challenge that Borbély has issued remains open; it is not the purpose of this essay to draw any single ethical conclusion, or conversely to continue with a debate of theological traditions. More to the point, it is simply to outline the radical questions that this poet and thinker brings up, and has brought up yet again with the two-part publication of The Splendours of Death. At a historical moment when parochialism is on the rise, when claims of an irrevocable clash of civilizations are heard repeatedly, we would all do well to heed “the single whispered invocation” of this ground-breaking poetic achievement.
 
Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: The "Hassidic Sequences" of Szilárd Borbély, Szilárd Borbély