06. 29. 2006. 12:23

Gospel Aesthetics

János Pilinszky died 25 years ago

All poets are lonely. This commonplace holds true despite the fact that poets are constantly being labeled and categorized. Thus, while Pilinszky's loneliness is not unparalleled; his, however, lies in its absolute uniqueness.

Not that he has no predecessors – after all, everybody comes from somewhere, and nobody can create out of nothing. Still, he has very few predecessors and no real followers.

In its last generation, the Nyugat (West) periodical's poetical idea was characterized by the central importance of high ideals and the classic, Parnassian place and role of poetry. Their works bear evidence of the humanist ethos of European culture. They were the repositories of a tradition (or the tradition, if you like), and at the same time they were also witnesses to the tragic end of this narrative in the cataclysms of World War II. It is this aggregate of experiences that essentially distinguishes them from earlier generations.
Not so long ago we spoke here about the Újhold (New Moon) generation. Now we must refer to them again, as it was them and only them who would not turn the traumas of the war into political poetry. Instead, they, hoping against hope, would preserve that voice which seemed to be dying away – the voice of the abovementioned tradition. This is the reason why they were forced out of the politically militarized public arena – i.e., from everywhere. János Pilinszky was also devoured by the dark night of the 1950s. Apart from a few friends, he had no one to speak to; but before he fell silent – or was silenced –his volume entitled Trapeze and Rail was published in 1946, undoubtedly presenting the work of an already mature poet.
Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Pilinszky's contemporary, writes of him, “Objects are no more than ungenerously allotted signs, with the light of passion refracted or reflected on their roughly outlined forms. It is only too natural that an emotional force so self-centered, though never complacent and stern even in zest, should constantly seek the ultimate object as a worthy form of manifestation.” The emphasis here is on the word ultimate – the metaphysical intent only emphasizes the artist's lack of devices and the limitations of poetic speech every poet must face. As Adorno put it in his famous statement, “After Auschwitz, it is impossible to write poetry.” Although not a resident of one of the death camps himself, Pilinszky elevates this never-healing wound into the fiery focus of his poetry.

Just as the camp experience becomes the basic metaphor for Imre Kertész, this diabolical form of judgement passed by man over man is to become the focal point of Pilinszky’s poetry. With his 1957 volume Harmadnapon (On the Third Day), he presents a panorama of his now fully matured poetry that could serve as a summary of his whole oeuvre. The critic Sándor Radnóti writes, “This visionary poetry applies a very small number of constantly recurring images... These recurrences, as well as the images that grow deeper as they are used for different purposes, have a significant on the context of his poems.  Namely, the poet relies upon readers not just of his individual poems, but of his poetry as a whole... readers for whom a Pilinszky poem is in itself an autonomous context, readers whose points of reference are other poems by the same poet and with whom the dialogue can be continued.”
To penetrate the ultimate reality of this oeuvre is a privilege of personal reading alone. What makes Pilinszky one of the greatest figures of European poetry and essay is that the thematic restriction of his poetry has severe, paradoxical existential-ontological consequences – to wit, it presents the unconventional drama of the human narrative through the sacred space, symbolism and rituals of Christian mysticism. In Pilinszky's poems understanding is not arrived at through reflection, as we are used to in post-enlightenment times, but rather from the desire for the creature (the human being) and the Creator to be united. The confessional religiosity of Pilinszky constantly imitates, and initiates us into, the passion play of “man crucified on the cross of time and space.” It is no coincidence that he names Dostoevsky, Simone Weil, and Gabriel Marcel as his personal spiritual landmarks.
If we want to locate the poet's position with the help of further names, we could mention Ingmar Bergman, in whose films the problem and the metaphor of a hidden God is just as powerfully present as in the works of Pilinszky. However, while according to Bergman “the heavens are empty,” the Hungarian poet is not ready to renounce the existence of a higher power and its sole, authentic form of manifestation – that is to say, Jesus Christ and love.
It is no coincidence that he recurrently speaks of “the aesthetics of the gospel” in his essays:

This impact made by Jesus on European art is a kind of loving-passionate search for truth which is ready to sacrifice even the “beauty” of the work of art. It wishes to be alone with a heart –  that of Ivan Karamazov or Anna Karenina – as if nothing else existed in the world. Before this “Jesus gaze”, all external obligations cease to exist; the only thing left is the pounding heart, waiting to be examined. If the “classical line” delights us through the proportionate dimensions of literature, the “Jesus line” does so through its directness. The Christian artist does not wish to present a masterly depiction of his hero, but rather wants to be his brother and fellow, hoping to get closer to him not in the hour of fortune, but in that of defeat. The classical artist wears a mask; the Christian artist is naked. The classic artist is a master; the Christian, a Samaritan.

In his final period, it is this impoverished preservation of the world, bereft to the point of stuttering, that appears in both his poetry and his plays.
Lajos Jánossy

Previously on HLO
Poems by János Pilinszky

Tags: János Pilinszky (1921-1981)