05. 19. 2010. 08:44

The yet unborn child

Szilárd Borbély: Legends of the transhuman

What would happen if, in our modern secularized society, our narratives of death and life regained the gravity of a previous age? Borbély draws upon an ever-present and yet undefined genre: that of the female conversational narrative as it has appeared for decades in the popular press and lately in Internet chatrooms. 

Scheduled to appear during Book Week (June 2010), the new cycle of poems from Szilárd Borbély displays further development of the moral and ethical dilemmas explored particularly in his previous volume, Halotti pompa [Death Magnificent]. Borbély’s new work at first seems a radical thematic as well as stylistic departure: the core of his new volume comprises a series of free-verse narratives, each of which relates a tale of birth (and often of death). These verses are themselves interspersed with another poetic thread, one that takes as its point of departure allegorical and philosophical reflections on the nature of God and suffering.
As in Halotti pompa, Borbély works with an admittedly “low” literary genre. If in the previous volume the point of reference was the religious folk ballads of the Hungarian Baroque, and the non-existent genre of the “sequence”, in this instance the author draws upon another ever-present and yet undefined genre: that of the female conversational narrative as it has appeared for decades in the popular press and continues to flourish in Internet chatrooms. In this particular instance, Borbély has drawn upon a sociological source-book containing many of these narratives. These life stories, in Borbély’s retelling always anonymous, begin and end nearly randomly, yet have one feature in common: they all relate the story surrounding a mother’s experience with pregnancy and birth.
In an essay recently published in the journal Jelenkor, Attila Jász described Borbély ’s poetic oeuvre from the 1990s as resembling minimalist or serial music. These poems as well are written in spare, conversational language, with certain key phrases returning again and again like musical leitmotifs. The conglomeration of these anonymous tales, however, creates an effect similar to that of medieval polyphony. Borbély’s current  work, therefore, shares with Halotti pompa an astonishing capacity to bring together two completely divergent epochs and mentalities. In an interview in Jelenkor, Borbély discussed the fascination for him that lies within this palimpsest of texts, and by extension phenomenologies of perception. For instance, in Halotti pompa the author asked himself what it would mean to retell the story of the Passion in today’s terms, with today’s language and world view. According to Borbély, such unexpected juxtapositions bring new, hitherto unglimpsed linguistic possibilities to life. Similarly, in his new work, he seems to be posing the reverse question: what would happen if, in our modern secularized, indeed thoroughly de-sacralized society, our narratives of death and life regained the gravity of a previous age. Many of the verses in his new collection almost seem to drown in the banality of their well-worn conversational phrases, and yet suddenly almost overwhelm the reader with the drama of the Biblical undertones beneath the everyday story. For example, in the poem “The Stone Tablet”, an anonymous female voice describes the dilemma of deciding whether or not to abort the child she does not feel ready to bear, and in the process contacts a doctor relative:
                                                                    … She just pointed
                at the stone tablet… I am an adult woman now, I have
                a child, tons of girlfriends.
The chatty flow of words suddenly turns deadly serious: “There is no greater sin / than the extinction of life.” The narrator concludes:
                                                                            Who today
                can be proud of motherhood, who looks around,
                examining the faces around one? Or
                one’s own, glancing into the mirror?

The honest admission of the narrator’s own sense of guilt over having had the abortion suddenly turns into an indictment of the society in which we live.
Of course, it is also possible to read these narratives in a religious sense: they deal with the theology of suffering on the most profound level. At the same time, just as Borbély himself acknowledged his portrayal of Christ’s martyrdom to border on the blasphemous, these new verse-narratives confront perhaps the strongest taboo in modern European or Western society: that of disease and death. Not only that, but many of these poems suggest that the sacred can be located today in precisely that which society holds to be most debased and worthless. A woman neglected by her father and abused as a teenager by her alcoholic mother relates :  
I could have been thirteen, when suddenly
                I grew ill. I lay unconscious
                in a high fever. And all at once
I saw something large, soft, like
an egg. I was inside of it then,
and I stayed there, contemplating. Then I was inundated
with peacefulness and tranquility. I was
embraced inside of it, and suddenly I understood everything
as if it were all timeless
This is an extraordinary poetic sequence, not only for its profound religious spirituality, but for the way in which the author so tellingly and convincingly describes the amorphous quality in which such a sense of spirituality can only manifest itself today.
In a sense, these stories continue with Borbély’s deeply radical examination of Christianity. They tell the story of the Passion from the mother’s – i.e. Mary's – point of view. Mary in these poems is not the exalted idealized cult-figure of the Western church, but an ordinary woman, both suffering and seeking joy, such as we see around us every day. Just as the “Sequences of Holy Week” in the previous volume engage the reader with a radically challenging view of Christ’s death, we are now asked to contemplate the real trials and suffering that accompany motherhood. Borbély has thus succeeded, by placing the figure of Mary, now nearly unrecognizable, into the bland settings of modern life, in creating another extraordinary palimpsest, the spiritual depth of which can be compared to the work of such a figure as János Pilinszky.
In his laudatory essay dedicated to Imre Kertész, Borbély writes about the enduring significance of the child for Judeo-Christian culture. 
[The Child] … is always the embodiment of the Redeemer. The question illuminates the lack of redemption of man, of his inability to be redeemed, in time as a drama repeating day by day. In the paradox-structure of the Kaddish, this is the hopelessness of hope which is contained in the allegory of the unborn child. The paradox draws its dramatic strength from the fact that Judeo-Christian culture turns towards the Child, i.e. the Future, with taut expectation. With excited and impatient expectation… hope, never slacking in its attention, turns towards every new arrival, whether it be a concept or a body to be born.
As Borbély points out, after the “Christian” event of the Holocaust, the status of the unborn child, as an embodiment of the hopes of the Judeo-Christian culture, remains in serious crisis. As he concludes, beyond every concept and every consciousness there is one single fragile weapon: love.
Ottilie Mulzet

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