09. 30. 2008. 10:12

Reality in the form of a ruin

Szilárd Borbély: The Splendours of Death

The rootedness of Borbély's poems in the literary forms of the Baroque and their religious orientation could work against their reception in the English-speaking literary world. Yet the theological stance always runs perilously close to the blasphemous, and the rigourous form is always at the point of decay.

“It is therefore my hope that it will not be held against me that, in this general theatre of death, I have not forborne to set forth my own paper graveyard” – Hallmann, the dramatist of the German Baroque, quoted by Walter Benjamin in his study The Origins of German Tragic Drama, could well be speaking for the purported narrator of The Splendours of Death by one of the most fascinating Hungarian authors of today, Szilárd Borbély.
 
Szilárd Borbély (b. 1964) is regarded by the Hungarian literary world as one of the leading figures in the first generation of authors to emerge following the end of Communist rule. Borbély has already established a definite poetic oeuvre – and perhaps more significantly, an even more definite aesthetic and moral stance – that appears certain to win him a place among the intellectual personalities formed by the experience of Central Europe.
 
There is no single term or phrase in English which directly captures the funereal, deathly magnificence of the volume’s title, except perhaps to resort to the French expression "pompes funèbres". Is it because the English language itself was never subjected to the sense of Baroque excess, the contortions of glory and agony to be glimpsed, say, in the basilica at Czestochowa or the writings of Gryphius and Calderón? The Oxford Companion to English Literature informs us that the term "baroque… is rarely used of English writers, with the exception of the Italianate Crashaw…"; in this regard, the English language is left as bare as a Puritan church service or a deserted theatre in the reign of Cromwell. Perhaps only with the spread of Anglophone literature far beyond Anglo-Saxon soil has the sensibility begun to appear: if we consider, following Margaret Drabble’s terminology, the Baroque as “loosely used to describe highly ornamented verse or prose abounding in extravagant conceits,” what better description could be applied to the writings of Salman Rushdie?
 
All questions of the translator’s craft aside, The Splendours of Death is deeply rooted in the literary forms, as much as the philosophic stances, of the Baroque in Central Europe. A slender volume almost resembling a 17th-century prayer-book in appearance, it is in fact a monument in three parts, a monument erected in words to commemorate the victims of “an unspeakable act”: the murder of the poet’s mother in the early hours of Christmas Eve, 2000, a horrifically brutal robbery during which his father was left unconscious. Due to irregularities in the legal process, the killers never faced justice.
 
True, a similar ethical purpose could also be found in Borbély’s previous volume, Berlin–Hamlet, a poetic work haunted by the figure of Benjamin and his own tragic fate (along with that of the Jews of Europe as a whole) – yet the differences in formal terms could hardly be more radical. In addition to a lengthy series of endnotes, interwoven and yet contradictory, The Splendours of Death is comprised of two books, “Sequences of Holy Week” and “Sequences of Amor and Psyche”, titles indicating two essential qualities of the work: its strong religious orientation and traditional form. The question of the third part, the “Hassidic Sequences” included in the revised 2006 edition, will be discussed in a separate essay.
 
Admittedly, this aspect of the volume could work against its reception in the English-speaking literary world, which has not produced much significant poetry of a religious bent since W. H. Auden. And yet – as only appropriate for the world view of the Baroque – the theological stance always runs perilously close to the blasphemous, and the rigourous form is always at the point of decay, the “reality in the form of a ruin” of Benjamin’s definition. In the “Sequences of Holy Week”, a cycle of verses based upon the martyrdom of Christ, the pattern of verses at times resembles a Romantic ballad, at times a medieval hymn – or, as many have noted, the demotic piety of the folk “sequences” recited among the half-literate Catholic peasantry. The writer László Márton, writing on The Splendours of Death, notes that the sequence is a highly nebulous genre, far less readily definable in terms of metre, rhyme structure, or even content than the ballad, the sonnet or the church hymn; moreover, Márton adds, the sequence itself largely disappeared from the genres of European literature towards the end of the Middle Ages.
 
Consequently, one aspect of the sequence as a literary genre particularly in evidence in Borbély’s treatment renders it particularly appropriate for bringing the mental world of the Baroque into the present post-post-modern moment. This is its hybridity, allowing for direct emotional effect – like the “unperformable” drama of the German Trauerspiel, the long-disregarded verses of the Czech-language pamphlets distributed to re-Catholicise Bohemia in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War. Moreover, the theological stance is far removed from the optimism of traditional Christian dogma, with its ever-present insistence on salvation. For instance, the following stanza from “The Star of the Sea of Tears”.
 
There is a star on every brow,
a star on every breast,
a star shines in heaven’s firmament,
the Law is in its place.
 
The Old and New Testaments, in a word, are inseparable, and the Christian narrative of redemption is forever bound to the European genocide of the twentieth century. The star of Bethlehem, leading the Three Kings to the infant Jesus, is equally the chilling signifier of the Law and its brutal, incomprehensible efficiency: at once the joy of the Nativity and the fear emanating from the draconian codes of Kafka.
 
And so the figure of Christ is (almost blasphemously) devoid of the promise of resurrection: the scarred and martyred Body on the verge of putrefaction:
 
We gaze aghast upon you, oh Terrible Day,
upon the Body to Maria born.
It does not move or speak, it forgives no one,
and from the ashes shall rise no more.
 
“Why, some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture!” – Prince Myshkin said upon viewing Hans Holbein’s depiction of the Dead Christ. It is no accident that Ákos Szilágyi, in his “laudatory essay” on The Splendours of Death, invokes Holbein’s painting even though the image chosen for the volume’s cover is the Dead Christ of Mantegna. As Julia Kristeva notes in her comparison of these two iconic depictions, Mantegna’s is not quite as agonizingly alone as that of Holbein. The trauma of martyrdom without the certainty of resurrection (Szilágyi speaks of “verse-wounds”) – perhaps even the knowledge that resurrection will never come – is not unknown to post-Enlightenment Hungarian poetry. As László Márton notes, the despair of Borbély’s “redemptionless subject” contrasts with the postwar existentialist view in the writings of János Pilinszky.
 
The second part of the volume, “The Sequences of Amor and Psyche” – 40 largely unrhymed sonnets – leaves the world of Baroque Christianity for the mythology of pagan antiquity, in striking juxtaposition with a wide array of allusions to science: cerebral neural research, forensic pathology, et al. In many ways, it directly reverses the thematic relations of the first section: while for the “Christian” poems the Soul remains intact as the repository for grief, the mourner for the defeated, mutilated Body, the narrative of Apuleius is used to depict the Body extracting its revenge upon the helpless Soul; lamentation is utterly absent. The idyllic qualities of the classical tale are brutally stripped away, like the “shreds of gauze” clinging to Amor’s black eyesockets to reveal “clotted blood”. No pastoral Cupid, this Amor belongs among the victimizers of “the death camps…. who, blindfolding their captives, come to / them regularly at night” even though, we read, “perhaps these ogres of malediction are merely yearning for incorporeal / love”. The violent separation of the Soul from the Body may form the central trauma of Book One, yet their reunion in Book Two – expressed through the firmly pagan allegory of Amor and Psyche – is equally as violent, and equally as damaging.
 
A parallel to the nocturnal assaults on Psyche is the occupation of the speaking subject by the Voice, as expressed in “The Emblem of Voices”:
 
...Not a single person owns
language, but in speaking, merely receives it as a
loan. In doing so, the body is first visited
and then seized by the Voice, that ruthless
God, just as Amor seized Psyche.
 
And beyond the seizure of the speaker’s body, we could even speak of the aesthetic trauma of the poem’s occupation of language by meaning. The intensely allegorical language, combining the microscopic concreteness of a police pathologist with the highest levels of philosophic abstraction, underscores the invasive violence of traditional poetic symbolism while leaving open the possibility of a final escape or liberation of meaning from the act of linguistic embodiment, perhaps the sole hope for the triumph of Psyche over her nightly visitor.
 
According to László Márton, there have been readers who found the third and final section to resemble a post-modern “game”: in place of further verses, it consists of two articles reprinted from the newspaper Kelet-Magyarország. The grimly factual “newspaper-speak” of the description of the crime, in essence, would thus appear yet another stylistic level to complement the Baroque re-writing of medieval liturgy or the scientistic formulation of Apuleius’ legend. Beyond all matters of factuality, beyond the clearly obvious link between the dates listed in the volume’s dedication and the newspaper evidence, the response directly speaks to a problem cited by the author himself on several occasions. As he noted during a public discussion at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Prague, there exists a gaping discrepancy between our post-modernist, post-Enlightenment, post-historical attitude towards death and the stance of the Baroque era. As much as The Splendours of Death is a lamentation, it equally forms a preparation, a profoundly spiritual one, as all of the world’s great metaphysical traditions have attempted to reconcile the wayward human creature with the inevitable. Beyond all its invocations of Christianity or antiquity, beyond its infusions of the legacy of the past with the immediately contemporary in one of the most truly radical “post-modern” works to appear in recent years, the volume stands out in its resolute determination not to invoke the violence of any breaks with its common tradition, not to allow the severing of any strand of the past.
 
To cite Walter Benjamin once more: like his vision of the Angel of History, the poems remain with their face turned towards the past, even as they are relentlessly propelled into our age of increasing dissociation, gazing backwards towards the time when lamentation was still possible.

Borbély Szilárd: Halotti pompa
 
Budapest: Kalligram, 2006

Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: Szilárd Borbély