06. 09. 2009. 10:06

The metaphysical servant

Dezső Kosztolányi: Anna Édes

Out of all the stellar authors whose works arose during the first decades of the 20th century, Dezső Kosztolányi (1885–1936) alone succeeded in capturing the hearts of colleague and reader alike. Surprisingly enough, this rare sense of loving devotion is still typical of the way readers continue to regard him today.

The secret to Kosztolányi’s continued popularity can definitely be found in his oft-quoted, famous declaration dating from 1933:

    Since the dawn of time, two kinds of men have existed in eternal conflict with one another. The first kind is Homo moralis, the man who emphasizes morality, while the second one is Homo aestheticus, the man who emphasizes beauty. The stern Homo moralis delivers harsh judgements concerning not only his own actions, but also the actions of everyone else. In the name of morality, Homo moralis narrow-mindedly demands that we hand over our coats to those more in need. Then, once again in the name of morality, he persuades us to pull the coat off the back of everyone else.The direct opposite of Homo moralis is Homo aestheticus, the man who contemplates for the sake of contemplation, who recognizes neither good, nor evil, but only that which is either beautiful or ugly. Good and evil are categories that even the greatest of minds cannot define; Homo aestheticus, however, possesses the innately individual ability to recognize beauty. He is the kind of man who values taste more than any other sort of highly debatable truth, for taste can be depended upon to be the more compassionate of guides. Homo aestheticus stands neither on the right, amongst the flock of bleating, white lambs, nor on the left, amongst the howling pack of black wolves. He stands alone, far away from both the flock and the pack. Always alone, he either understands, or is indifferent to everyone, a natural friend or a natural enemy to all: someone everyone can either love, or hate as best deserved. Homo aestheticus always decides his actions based on the issue at hand, and condemns violence not because it is good or bad, but for its foul face. Homo aestheticus never tolerates the kind of tastelessness it takes to strike an old woman. At the same time, he never asks if the woman in question is a Red washerwoman, or a White baroness. He may never become the ally of any political party, and remains the kind of characterless man who lives his entire life holding on to his lack of character with a character of steel. He accepts his magnificent and glorious spinelessness with a perfectly erect spine, thereby guaranteeing his freedom and independence….

With the passage of time Kosztolányi’s confession grew to be seen in an increasingly favourable light in Hungary, a country in which politics hold sway over everything. This was especially true in the aftermath of the fall of communism, at a time when the majority of writers viewed (and continue to view) politics as something filthy. The general opinion is that no genuine intellectual can participate in politics without finding himself or herself stuck in a mire of filth. It is therefore no coincidence that Péter Esterházy, perhaps one of the most popular authors today, utilizes the symbol of the ivory tower—a gesture naturally redolent with irony—in the title of one of his volumes of essays, Notes from the Ivory Tower. A famous symbol of the French intellectual, the ivory tower also plays a role in another of Kosztolányi’s autobiographical confessions: “The ivory tower is still a far more humane and pure place than the party headquarters.”  
 
Of course, the fact that Dezső Kosztolányi was among the first to surrender his principle of impassibilité is another question entirely. Written in 1925, his novel Anna Édes can in fact be interpreted as a declaration of the author’s change of heart. The author himself held this work to be his most open statement of his political principles, a fact that is obvious even to the modern reader. In any event, Kosztolányi’s stance on the political issues of his day turned out to be just as passionate as his views on art were. By 1925 it was almost urgently necessary for Kosztolányi to make some kind of clear declaration concerning his political stance: after initially supporting Hungary’s “Red” revolution in 1918, the author was later an active participant in a radical right-wing movement. Kosztolányi must have felt the need to clear the cloud of suspicion that had become attached to his name due to his changing political views. Perhaps this also explains how a work initially intended as no more than a short story grew and grew. By the time Kosztolányi finished, Anna Édes was a sharply critical portrayal of middle-class Hungarian society, as shown through a deeply insightful depiction of the psychological struggles experienced by a simple, young housemaid.
 
It is worthwhile to recollect how Dezső Kosztolányi happened to arrive at the basic idea for his novel. In her memoirs, his wife noted the following conversation:

    “‘Listen, I just thought of a wonderful idea for a short story—a girl who is the perfect housemaid, and in the end kills both her master and mistress.’
    ‘Excellent,’ Dide [Kosztolányi’s nickname] immediately replied. ‘What an excellent idea for a short story! I’ll jot it down right away.’
    He started working on it the very next day, and the short story just grew and grew….”  

Other than the reasons mentioned above, it can never be known with any certainty what exactly attracted Kosztolányi to a subject that does not offer much in the way of literary material. A line from one of his poems may perhaps offer a better explanation: “May the bright light of compassion glitter in your eye.” In fact, this line summarizes the basis of Kosztolányi’s personal brand of morality, a philosophy best reflected in the character of Dr. Moviszter, who often serves as the author’s mouthpiece in Anna Édes. Later, when testifying at Anna’s trial, Dr. Moviszter cannot provide any solid evidence that would explain her actions, yet he still insists that Mr. and Mrs. Vizy “treated her without humanity. They were beastly to her.” (p. 211) While this cannot be legally proven, the reader still feels that Dr. Moviszter is right.
 
From the point of view of an everyday person, the fact that Anna eventually commits a double murder seems impossible to accept or understand. (Let’s not forget that Anna does say during the trial that she never meant to murder Mr. Vizy, a statement that nobody believes.) After all, Mr. and Mrs. Vizy were never guilty of any direct mistreatment of their maid. She was never humiliated openly; it can even be argued that Mr. and Mrs. Vizy treated Anna with as much love and understanding as their stuffy, bourgeoisie sensibilities could allow. In fact, Anna Édes was driven to committing murder by the total lack of compassion and human mercy that characterized her surroundings. Neither Mr. or Mrs. Vizy was capable of offering the kind of basic empathy that connects one human being to the other according to the creed of both Dr. Moviszter and Dezso Kosztolányi.
 
In Dr. Moviszter’s opinion, no other feeling can be more important than this gesture of humanity; anything else is a falsehood, an example of the hypocritical hand-wringing of Homo moralis. While Dr. Moviszter may appear to be a nihilist, he actually opposes anything smacking of this kind of hypocrisy. The best example of this can be found in Chapter 9, when Dr. Moviszter vehemently replies to the question of whether or not he likes humanity:

    "I don't like humanity, because I have never seen it, because I don't know it. The concept of humanity is perfectly hollow. And take note, councillor: every confidence-trickster is a humanitarian. Those who are greedy, those who would not spare a crust for their own brothers, those who are the worst of scoundrels, they all have a humanitarian ideal. They hang people and murder them, still they are humanitarians. They desecrate their homes, they kick their wives out, they neglect their parents and their children, and what are they? Humanitarians. There's no more comfortable position. It obliges you to nothing. No individual has yet come to me announcing, I am humanity. Humanity requires no food, no clothes, it maintains a decent distance somwhere in the background with a halo round its brow. There is Peter and there is Paul. They are only people. Humanity does not exist." (pp. 84-85)

Later, when asked what could be the solution to all of society’s problems, Dr. Moviszter simply replies that there is no solution: mercy alone is required.
 
This basic sense of compassion is exactly what is missing in Anna’s environment. At the same time, other than all the moral, political and societal questions Kosztolányi raised in this novel, the idea of “the perfect maid” obviously proved to be an attractive one. The concept of perfection is once again addressed by Dr. Moviszter, who answers Mrs. Vizy’s complaints about her maid’s “ingratitude” (she has given notice because she intend to get married) by saying that, “Believe me it is not good for a servant to be too good. Let her be like the rest, both good and bad.” (p. 156) The problem is that Anna does not behave like the average maid, just like she is not an average person. There is something frightening in her perfection. Both the narrator and the other characters in the novel frequently describe Anna’s manner, her behaviour and the way she works as being almost mechanic in nature, like a perfectly programmed robot. While this is an important element in understanding Anna, there is much more at stake here. The essential meaning to Anna’s tragedy is best expressed in the following poem by János Pilinszky.
 
                       It Can Happen
               
                 A servant is what I wanted to be. It can happen.
                 To lay and also to clear the table.
                 As the condemned takes the platform step by step,
                 and the executioner descends.
               
                 Now through the gaps of the wooden stand
                 the sun blazes. The self-same sun
                 as though none had been carted up there
                 who did not return. Silence I wanted to be
                 and the platform. A world constrained by stairs.
                
                 No one and nothing. A hoped-for weekend.
 
                           (Translated by George and Mari Gömöri)

Pilinszky’s poem immortalizes the figure of the metaphysical servant, the one who eternally serves in the name of compassion. Indeed, Anna’s character is an exact representation of the two values—compassion and mercy—Dr. Moviszter discusses in a beautiful, albeit abstract way. In the immeasurably narrow-minded and totally banal world contained within the Vizy household, Anna’s heavenly mission is to represent what nobody and nothing else is willing to: the need for “a hoped-for weekend.”
 
Naturally, nobody understands Anna. Those who can only imagine themselves as the very centre of life on earth are incapable of understanding someone like her. Anna is humiliated so that she might be elevated. Yet even in the midst of her wordless suffering, she still maintains her dignity, for Anna is also the avenging angel who serves final judgement on the Vizy family. Her judgement is metaphysical in nature—that is why her surrounding world is incapable of understanding what drove her to committing a double murder. How could they understand, when Anna does not understand it herself?
 
Perhaps even the author of Anna Édes did not understand. In an attempt to write a political, psychological and sociological commentary while simultaneously clearing his name in the mind of his audience, Kosztolányi ended up creating a work both universal and metaphysical in meaning. It is therefore no coincidence that the final “comment” is left up to the author’s dog, Swan. In the final chapter two men stand in front of Kosztolányi’s house, where they discuss “that journalist” Dezső Kosztolányi, who, in their opinion, switches allegiances in an entirely insincere and cynical way. Their opinion of him is crushing:

    "'I don't understand,' the first friend shook his head. 'What does he want in any case? Which side is he on?'
    'That's simple,' Druma resolved the debate. 'He's for everybody and nobody. He minds which way the wind blows. First he was in the pay of Jews and took their side, and now he is hired by the Christians. He's a wise man,' he winked. 'He knows which side his bread is buttered.'" (p. 220)

Through the mouths of others, Kosztolányi therefore delivers an ironic characterization of himself. The fact that Kosztolányi did not care in the least about what others think is left to Swan to demonstrate: “Swan, the white sheepdog, heard their voices and, aware of his responsibilities as keeper of the domestic peace, ran to the corner of the garden and set up a fierce din, so that their words were entirely lost in the sound of barking.” As Nietzsche wrote, “thus exists an animal, without past, without memories.” In Dezso Kosztolányi’s Anna Édes, Anna and Swan symbolize two differing levels of this kind of unconscious existence. They hover above the everyday, looking down from a distance that renders everything into specks of dust—mere meaningless noise easily overcome by the bark of a dog.


Dezső Kosztolányi: Anna Édes
Translated and with an introduction by George Szirtes

Zoltán András Bán

Translated by: Maya LoBello

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