06. 08. 2007. 09:05

On the border of language

Body and pleasure in contemporary Hungarian literature

Sensuality as a subject is becoming ever more impossible to bypass in Hungarian literature. More and more often one finds the body in the centre of literary representation and authors have no choice but to look for a language with which to describe erotic experiences which are, incidentally, known to resist classification.

Compared to the literature of other nations, works by Hungarian authors evince an unusual reticence concerning the sensual aspects of the human body. Many critics contend that Hungarian literary consciousness is characterised by a disturbing prudery as opposed, say, to the French readership, which is known, on occasion, to take very close looks at the powerful and often disturbing workings of sexuality and the human body.
An aversion to literary representations of the body is bound to be closely tied in with the language and usage that any particular literature develops over time for the description of sensual experiences. These in turn shape the reading habits and expectations of the audience. The literary language of eroticism being clearly underdeveloped, Hungarian literature has been known to struggle with rhetorical difficulties each time a work has tried to allow the body to speak. This state of affairs came about precisely because the canon of practically any period rejected literary efforts of this kind and was usually reinforced by the strictures of those who held positions as censors. Thus the body came to drift into the force field of either child-speak babble or vulgar obscenity or even, on occasion, some quasi-medical sterility – losing its provocative, sensual charge in every case.
At present, however, one has the impression that sensuality as a subject is becoming ever more impossible to bypass in Hungarian literature. More and more often one finds the body in the centre of literary representation and authors have no choice but to look for a language with which to describe erotic experiences which are, incidentally, known to resist classification. This kind of experiment is particularly exciting in the case of contemporary female writers who are in a quest, as feminist criticism points out, to (re)discover the long suppressed voice/language of women and explore any possible openings for literary manifestations of the (female) body by transgressing phallogocentric norms. I would like to discuss a few contemporary texts in the light of the above considerations – texts which in some way or other give voice to the sensual radicalism of the body.
The short story which lends its title to Lajos Parti Nagy’s recently published book Fagyott kutya lába (The Leg of a Frozen Dog – see our review) relates the difficulties suffered by a tailor of military uniforms as he explains to a male junior psychologist how his sexual fantasies are coming to override his sense of reality. The short story, one of those that inspired György Pálfi’s film Taxidermia (see our review), places the body in the conflict zone of medical language and vulgar-sensual lyricism. After all, as the psychologist – the narrator of the story – says, “what else should make this 'account' interesting but the noise and the few litres of filthy male army smell that resonate in the body’s mute and vulgar underworld, the fact that it turns the hot glove inside out, instead of using it to fan its face in a delicate and lady-like fashion as is proper.” The anthropological attitude that we may decipher from texts by Parti Nagy or László Darvasi creates a new stylistic quality that positions man on the boundary between angelic and animal existence and makes the body the manifestation of this double determinism.
András Pályi’s writings give voice to the body through a radicalism that is different and yet similar in many ways – reclaiming the right to pleasure and re-introducing it into literary thinking. Here I would like in particular to draw attention to those texts in which the male author is trying to find language to express the sensual pleasure of a female character. The novella Éltem (I Have Lived) describes the sexual pleasure and fear of death of a woman who is struggling with old age, using an irresistible, pulsing stream, or rather flood, of consciousness. In this book the desire for pleasure and satisfaction constitutes the desire for life, while proofs of a past personal existence such as dreams and memories as well as sensual experiences are continually merging with one another. At the end of the novel the old woman acquires indisputable proof of her existence – sensual pleasure that is at last fulfilled, though it remains unclear whether this is reality or mere fantasy. Written in 1979, Pályi’s novel was predictably rejected by the censors of the time, as the struggle of the aging female body for pleasure was incompatible with the communist bio-politics of the body.
The provocative prose language of Pályi’s short story A világ dicsosége (The Glory of the World), a rewriting of the story of Christ’s resurrection from the point of view of “the whore of Magdala,” shows no mercy for the canonised Christian narrative of salvation. The text sees the holy resurrection as a consequence of the mystical but extremely sensual union between Mary Magdalene and the dead Christ, while Christ’s self-sacrifice is seen as a paragon of male pride and arrogance. Salvation is actually brought along by the passionate, self-effacing love of “Miriam of Magdala” when she throws herself on the body of Christ anointed with scented oils and, with her pleasure, awakens the saviour to the glory of the most sensual ecstasy, thus making him understand “the language of desire”. (See our review of Pályi's Out of Oneself, his only book translated into English to date.)
The body becomes signifier in a slightly different fashion in Virág Erdos’s biblical paraphrase Menyasszony (The Bride), which parodies the love of King Solomon, supposed author of the Song of Songs, which is to say it tosses the story, along with the cultural historical tradition that came in his wake, in the rubbish bin. Virág Erdos’s morbid tales are generally known to erode accepted social ideologies and literary toposes, while in terms of overall tone they show an affinity with parable. In this horror story of intellectual history, King Solomon finds his bride in the garbage as he is going through the litter bins. She turns out to be made of plastic and incapable of sexual pleasure, which rather displeases the King. The bride, shown as a black plastic doll, becomes the allegory of woman objectified and extracted from society. In the concluding lines of the text even the Lord himself appears for a moment in the form of a merciless lorry driver who “drove over the tiny, black, mutilated parts”. The plastic woman, who submits herself to the man’s sexual desire and is ripped to pieces by King Solomon, is the reified female of knightly love, who does not in any way relate to the confessions that men stammer out to her but rather is made senseless and rigid.
Orshi Drozdik’s feminist multi-media art, as part of her contribution to the feminist effort to draw attention to the ways in which gender is constructed, uses the most varied media to examine the place and identity that the reified female body assumes in the patriarchal order. An important element of her installation Manufacturing the I: medical erotics (1994,  Anderson Gallery, Richmond, Virginia) is a set of Love letters or twelve silver plates, which constitutes a valuable literary text in its own right. In these love letters Drozdik tests the boundaries of love-speech after it has been expropriated as a privilege of men in the Western European tradition, and experiments with the possibility of narrating the way in which the body of a woman in love opens up to passion. Talking of one’s own body becomes closely tied in with the theoretical possibility of female language when the male language sounds to the woman in love like a “sharpened knife”. By engraving all of this into silver plates, Drozdik dishes up the woman, suffocating in male language, to the audience, which consumes all this in recognition of the fact that the communicational difficulties between the two sexes arise from the arrogance of the male language forced upon women.
Naturally, the most I could do in this limited space was to refer to those exciting contemporary experiments in literature and the fine arts that aim to give voice to the body, which is always subjected to social norms and which always subverts those norms. It is impossible to summarise in a few lines the provocative sensuality of Péter Nádas’s long novel Párhuzamos történetek (Parallel Stories, 2005 – see our review) or the increasingly courageous representations of the body offered by contemporary Hungarian gay literature (Ádám Nádasdy, András Gerevich, Mark Martin, Agáta Gordon etc. - see Á. Nádasdy's and A. Gerevich's poems on HLO). Even these brief allusions may suffice, however, to show once more that whenever the body begins speaking, we come up against the boundaries of prohibition and language.
Eniko Darabos
(The illustration for this article is from Orshi Drozdik's Individual mythologies series)

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