04. 13. 2014. 22:25

Atheistic, scandalous and forlorn saints

An interview with Szilárd Borbély

"I toyed with an idea that I – as a decent Christian – never entertained before: what if the central signifier of all the metaphors and concepts of Christianity was not a beautiful, young, healthy but tortured male body... but a female body." - An interview from 2011 with the recently deceased poet, Szilárd Borbély.

Despite the clear differences in the poetic forms, readers will most certainly feel a strong a link between your previous volume, The Splendours of Death, and To the Body. Odes and Legends, because of the similarity of the central themes. To what extent do the two books “read each other” in your view? Is this the continuation or re-articulation of the previous volume, or should we treat them separately?

Naturally, they are connected, although initially I wanted to keep them separate. But that was simply not possible. The Splendours of Death still left many questions open for me, and so this volume is my attempt at a “continuation” and “re-articulation” of certain topics. And also – at least that is my intention – at a certain closure. You know, after writing The Splendours of Death, and Long Day Away, the most important task for me was “poetic survival”. What I mean is that these texts came from such an unexpected direction and constrained my creative freedom in such a forceful way that they may eventually consume all future possibilities of poetic articulation. Since they received their form from the powerful presence of a tradition, and not from me, their obsessive repetition on my part would be both futile and impossible. I would doom myself to inevitable failure; eliminate my creative freedom. As a consequence, I needed to sever all ties to the previous project, and disavow The Splendours of Death in order to effectively deconstruct, or to be more precise, to wreck the world it represented. So this was my aim for the new volume, and it was quite difficult. I was constantly sliding back. And I was also working with the fear that I might be risking too much, since these new texts go against the poetic tradition of Hungarian literature. Those who expected a straightforward continuation of The Splendours of Death will probably be disappointed, the same way a lot of people who like my first volume turned away from the second. It is not an easy situation, indeed.

Moving away from Biblical narratives, the new volume explores the “documented”, actual and everyday tragic stories of women through a series of “legends” which – by thematizing, for example, abortion, miscarriage or the Holocaust – reflect on the vulnerability of both body and soul. In addressing such a varied and broad topic, that is related to most of the humanities, what are, in your view, the specific questions that only poetry can attempt to answer? In what way can poetry be more precise or more adequate in dealing with these questions, compared to biology, anthropology, philosophy or the books you are referring to in this volume? Why do you think that the portrayal of physical suffering can be a primary basis for knowledge about the body? Why does the female body have such a special role in this context?

Even when I was writing my previous books, I toyed with an idea that I – as a decent Christian – never entertained before: what if the central signifier of all the metaphors and concepts of Christianity was not a beautiful, young, healthy but tortured male body (whose genitals are carefully covered in all paintings), but a female body. Why can’t we imagine a culture in which the Savior sent by God into the world, the incarnation of divinity was female rather than male? Our culture and our concepts are paradigmatically determined by the fact that both in the Jewish narrative of Genesis and in the Christian narrative of salvation the male body is given a central role, whereas the female body remains hidden. It is striking that the female body does not appear in the theological view on the sacredness of the human body. The cult of the Virgin Mary is a fairly recent addition to the Christian tradition, and fairly short-lived at that, since it was erased from the tenets of Protestantism; and even in Catholicism, Mariology was given no theological role in the foundations of the belief.

It is interesting to contemplate a Europe in which it was not the Son, but the Daughter who represented the “exalted” and divine body. I wonder if it is possible to change this conventional European imagery. What is this different experience, conveyed by the female body, which is excluded and is thus completely outside of Christian thinking? It is also remarkable that the narratives of survivors of the Holocaust – which signifies the most extreme experience of our recent history and also a highly important question for theological thought – are mostly constructed by men, who narrated the sufferings of the male body. Our whole knowledge of the past two thousand years rests on the articulated experiences of male bodies, since the experiences of the female body were never expressed in narrative or lyrical forms. They simply did not become essential parts of the web of signs and meanings in our culture.

In this sense history, as the grand construction of our Christian tradition, or whatever we understand by it, can be nothing more than a strongly distorted reflection of reality, since it is based on the exclusive knowledge drawn from the description of male experiences. It is very interesting to follow how this established system of metaphors is radically restructured by the emergence of a new artistic language, a new network of signifiers, the perspective of genetics, human ethology, parapsychology or other disciplinary approaches. Our conventional language makes use of a metaphor system that imagines and constructs the human world around the central position of the male body. Yet these newly emerging perspectives, starting from experiences within or beyond the body, propose a very radical transformation of our linguistic conventions in the future: for example, the paradigm of genetics does not favor the absolute centrality of the male perspective, or the definition of the female presence as the binary opposition to the male figure, because categories of gender – just like in the case of the embryo – simply do not have a significant function. Thus, by portraying and expressing the female experience, the grammar of poetic language can hope to provide information on and access to such new perspectives, even if it does not manage to become a comprehensive form of knowledge.

One of the most interesting features of the volume is the contrast between the return to supposedly archaic genres of the poetic tradition (odes and legends) and the quite different content and register of the texts themselves. Especially in the case of the “legends”, we see a highly creative tension between the expectations related to the genres and the various recurring, vivid stories, told in a grammatically incorrect, broken language. As a counterpoint, the rhetorical construction of the “odes” aims to highlight the hidden or obvious connections between concepts related to the body. Was this structure and the uncommon linguistic composition of the volume designed to cause a sense of disruption, or to create a particular, harmonious whole from the opposing elements? What is the function of the consciously constructed monotonous forms, be it the “jarring” mistakes in the poetic prose or the monotonous rhymes and extended, recurring sentences of the “odes”? How were these formal features received and understood by the readers of the book in your view?

My intention was that these two well-known literary forms should explore new paths of poetic language through the potential “infrastructures”, and not the archaic nature, of the given genres. The concept of sainthood has gone through a lot of changes in the tradition of Christianity. The “sainthood” of Padre Pio and Mother Teresa in the 20th century is significantly different from the views of classical sainthood in the cases of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Barbara, Saint Nicholas or other saints canonized by the Legenda Aurea. I think that the female stories presented in the book can be compared to our contemporary understanding of sainthood. These women are atheistic, scandalous and forlorn saints, exiled from the grace of God, and their suffering is not of the body, but it is expressed through their bodies. And this shows the way women are able to communicate with the world through their bodies. Our DNA is basically information, and as we now know our physical and biological bodies are not clearly defined objects determined by space and time, but simply waves.

I have no doubts that the age-old sainthood of male bodies will be gradually replaced by the differently conceived sainthood of female bodies. All of the stories concerning abortions are about the redeemer: the absence of the word made flesh. The most important aspect of the legends is the fragmentation and splintering of the narratives: instead of linearity it is the visible brokenness, fallibility, and rhetorical artificiality of the language that is emphasized. The stories are not about the body, but rather about the soul which is the true cage of the body. Female narratives are always about birth, since female destinies and bodies work according to a different program than male bodies. While the female body does not function as a theologically relevant signifier, it is unquestionably the bearer of the only teleological narrative.

As I see, the initial aversion of the critics concerning this volume is turning into a deliberation that goes beyond the usual poetic reflexes, and that has a chance of preparing a patient and open understanding of the book. Of course, the book will remain definitely divisive, and, admittedly, it is very difficult to love – I don’t love it myself – but it poses the essential question of why we should engage in poetic expression, and what the true tasks of poetry are.

This interview was originally published in Hungarian at KULTer.hu. See excerpts from Szilárd Borbély's To the Body at hlo.hu here and here, in Ottilie Mulzet's translation. The artwork featured on the cover is by Joel Peter Witkin: "Woman Once a Bird".

Ákos Herczeg

Translated by: Szabolcs László

Tags: Szilárd Borbély