Glowing lines, extremely strong formulations, frightfully precise poetic sentences—this is what Pilinszky has left behind. And a few themes, some strange phrases that he kept repeating passionately. Anxious, suppressed debates, clouded in cigarette smoke, pompous intellectuals: the curious, stuffy world of the 50s, 60s and 70s looms behind his texts. In the background, the rakish moustache of chief ideologist György Aczél peeps in, a scornful, canny smile in the corner of his mouth. A dilettante of virtually unlimited power playing with brilliant artists as if they were mere marionettes. Socialist culture was the culture of snobbery. Without this demonic figure of the era Pilinszky’s glow would not have been as angelic as it was. During the socialist era even Christians became socialists; the successive congresses of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, denoted by Roman numerals in ascending order, were engaged in drafting a Gospel without a Saviour and a Father in increasingly muddled, tired and confused sentences. Clerks wearing badly tailored jackets, dreaming an unimaginative future in an unimaginative way. Pilinszky’s mission was for this hell.
Yet it seems as if he didn’t notice what was happening around him in the 30s, 40s and 50s. In his confessions there is no trace of him having sensed any events that were happening in real time. The disenfranchisement of people or war hysteria were outside the limits of the world that reached him. People were carried off, cities burned to ashes, businesses closed down, people torn away from their properties, their professions, their chosen national or religious communities. Yet only the Apocalypse was burned into him, all he saw was images of destruction, all he searched for was the metaphysical meaning of the world that was collapsing. A frozen moment. In Christ’s Passion, he noticed only tetanus. As if he did not see the way leading up to it. As if he turned his head away, like a sad angel, from the brutality of events, a brutality that he found unbearable. As if he turned towards the wall and saw merely the shadows, cast on the wall, of the horrors happening behind his back. The black and white image of the shadow of Evil, grown terribly huge, but not its bloody face, with its teeth bared.
Pilinszky’s words called forth meanings that are quite impossible to understand without the extraordinary experience of a generation that lived through war in their youth. And their depth will remain impossible to share. During the four decades of socialism the shock and the worldlessness of the Hungarian Christian (Catholic) middle class was staggering: they couldn’t find words to describe the war and the dictatorship that followed in its wake. Pilinszky experienced the war as the collapse of a language, a culture, a spirituality and a system of values. A dictatorship of the Bolshevik type meant something completely different from the perspective of the Gospel and the Church than from the point of view of philosophy of history. Darkness may dim the sight of humans on earth, but angels speak the language of eternity. Pilinszky kept using paradoxes like gospel aesthetics, immobile theatre, the universe of KZ lagers, holy thief of the left, metaphysical scandal. He did not mention the Holocaust, the stigmatization of Jews, anti-Semitism, dictatorship, the practice of anti-humanism, the painful lack of freedom, the forceful breach of Hungarian traditions. Nothing concrete. Pilinszky wanted to be a saint and that is how his drama became the drama of an angel who sacrificed himself in order to triumph over sin. His poetry is the confession of language fallen from grace. Troubled, glowing, helpless and unredeemable.
Pilinszky lived in a dream—the dream of love and of a gospel future. In other words, in the dream of faith from which he was awakened by the sight of Germany as a scene from the Apocalypse, destroyed after the war. The horror of the KZ camps. The collapse of the Christian dream. He saw all this with horror and could not understand how the dream of faith engendered the hell of existence. For Pilinszky’s masters were those who had set down a great religious poetic language and form. By the 1930s, Catholic literature was vigorous in Hungary, the Actio Catholica had brought liveliness and regeneration to the country. The sluggish Hungarian Catholic Church, traditionally of a feudal mentality, boldly opened up towards workers’ missions and the progress of the struggling countryside, the agriculture and the proletariat living in the outskirts of cities. In the 30s and 40s the helplessness of the poor and those living on the periphery of society made it possible to relive the notion of poverty as it is written in the Gospel. On the other hand, ideological battles waged in the domain of political ideas were becoming ever sharper. At the time the Hungarian Catholic Church owned huge estates and valuable properties and had an extensive network of institutions. Its high priests were sitting in the Upper House of Parliament. Yet the Church, rich in spirituality and powerful even in secular terms, was unable to save its members like poet Miklós Radnóti or writer and literary historian Antal Szerb, to mention only the best known.
The Christian values of charity, clemency and forgiving grace were gravely compromised. Sin, betrayal, cowardice and Christian self-incrimination were invested with a metaphysical meaning again. Theology proved incapable of answers, the Church impotent; millions of Christians experienced the drama of Peter who, on the night preceding the tribulations of Christ, sneaked in to where the soldiers and the Church servants were warming themselves by the fireside, and denied his Master three times on the dawn after the night of Holy Thursday, at the deepest point of the metaphysical drama that lies at the foundation of Christianity. The shrill screech of the rooster warned him that the lights of the most frightful and shameful day, Great Friday, were approaching. The light of this day made human weakness and helplessness visible. The disciples ran away, denying their Master.
Pilinszky’s Catholicism was the confession of universal human dreams for which he was trying to find a new language. The Catholic poetry that Pilinszky’s language drew on spoke the tongue of fellow poets László Mécs and Sándor Sík, among others. Throughout his life Pilinszky was trying to learn a language that makes it possible to narrate and confess sin— Dostoevsky’s language; from Simone Weil’s writing he tried to learn the stutter of misery; and he listened to music, the speech of angels, from morning to night, dulling his pain with cigarette smoke, alcohol and pills. A pain that was the pain of the soul. Yet it was in a humiliated, bombed and destroyed Germany that the dark night of grace found him. Those were the same apocalyptic sets that woke up Imre Kertész and Miklós Mészöly in the same months from their nightmare. They all saw the same landscape, yet they experienced the weight of their presence in a radically different way. Kertész was awoken from the dream of assimilation, Mészöly from the dream of the homeland, Pilinszky from the dream of faith. He attempted to speak the tongue of angels in a fallen century. He became the self-tormenting conscience of the Hungarian spirit. In one of the greatest poetic oeuvres of our loveless 20th century he articulated the absence that Saint Paul spoke of: If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don't have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.
Tags: János Pilinszky