07. 27. 2008. 17:41

Towards the One and Only Metaphor I.

"A Catalogus Rerum, an "Index of Phenomena" – I am unlikely to free myself of this, the most primitive of my desires. ... is that a sentimental fear of death guiding me, I wonder, a grandpawish fondness for knick-knacks, or some desire for universal knowledge, a Faustian gesture?"


IN STARTING this book, what else can I take as my introductory precept (or desire) than this: I have no other aim than wild, absolute imitation; around me suffocating, swooningly torrid air, in this steamy yet nevertheless certain gilded death the warbling darkness of a pair of sparrow throats and, above all, these million lines, the analytical richness, of foliage, grasses, and nameless meadow flowers. These lines, the fantastic richness of this prodigal punctiliousness — they are what intensifies my desire for imitation into a mania. A Catalogus Rerum, an ‘Index of Entities’ — I am unlikely to free myself of this, the most primeval of my desires.



THE ETERNAL GAME: to get to know the world — to preserve the world. When I am excited by imitation: is that a sentimental fear of death guiding me, I wonder, a grandpawish fondness for bibeloterie, or some desire for universal knowledge, a Faustian gesture? You, you little blade of grass, here beside my pen: are you the graceful seal of ephemerality of a selfish moment of mine, a small witness of my frivolity — or are you a secret of Nature that is to be discovered?



THE MOST mysterious, most powerful companion of my life (apart from a constant physical malaise and episodes of vertigo) is boredom. It is hardly possible, I think, for someone to become so utterly bored as I do. At such times I ask with crazed obstinacy, "What is the other person doing now?" Such a ridiculously tiny percentage of books excite me and inspire me that I can quite safely exclude reading as a pleasant experience from my life: I perennially prowl in front of the book stacks, but they only induce atrocious tedium. That is a fairly important matter and symptom: a writer for whom books cause the least pleasure. Why? I have already read the really good books; and I so much expect from new literature precisely what I would like to accomplish myself that, naturally, I am unable to find it in anyone else. And here before me stretch these long, oh so long afternoons. I cannot write just any time — what am I to do? Only people truly excite me: portraits of women. And architectural tricks, outrageous plans, though there again preferably things that I myself imagine. As to acquaintances, however, I have hardly any; I am not an engineer. How should I spend my time? In order to be able to see pretty portraits I ought to play sport, go to parties and dance, have money, but I have none of those. I am unutterably happy if I can find one teeny-weeny reason to go out at times like that: if I need to go to the barber’s to get my hair trimmed, or go to my school in order to check some footling notice, drop in to see my mother, go to some far-flung shop (one that has no telephone) in order to cancel an order — those are my salvational diversions.

From where, from where on earth, do I get this utterly suffocating potential for ennui? Have my nerves, my sensory organs, and my logics unduly identified life with ecstasy and mystic wonders, so that if there is no Bacchic upheaval I am already bored? It could be. Or did I as a young boy become fatefully accustomed to endless impatient companionship with little girls, accustomed to the poisonous equation of ‘pleasure = receiving gifts,’ and that is why I am now dozy and sour even among so-called ‘good’ books? Gift, relentless erotic need, relentless need for charity, ascetic-snobbish high-grade demands from art’s every moment, maybe even a mistaken career choice: literature instead of architecture — those kinds of things certainly may be the causes of my endless boredom. Not in any event, then, a book, but women: women as ‘inhumaine’ formulas, biological architectural schemata — and women as ‘guests who like to be with me.’

The ‘guest’ is one of the central problems of my life, closely connected with boredom. If someone (who is moreover a burden to me; indeed, whom I cordially detest) telephones to call off a visit or to announce that they can only come at a later time than we have agreed, my heart sinks and I become quite ill. If someone departs, I am barely able to disguise my abrupt desperation, for I know that afterwards comes the vacuum, the lethal gloom of tedium. These ‘afters’ are the most intolerable. What am I to do, for instance, ‘after’ an early-afternoon film showing? Going to the cinema is for me always a great pleasure, making me laugh and cry uninhibitedly at the most idiotic films. But then ‘after’!

I suppose a huge mass of petty-bourgeois primitiveness or vulgarity must have accumulated inside me, choked off and distorted by a smarminess with roots in worryingly tragic, religious, and self-tormenting toadying — for trash is what corresponds to my inclinations, mechanical debasement to my form of life, but I forcibly threw myself at ‘great’ works, which may have deflected me from potboilers but they leave me distressingly unmoved. Here I stand now between a parlor-maid’s romance and Heidegger’s philosophy, between the cinema and truth, with my one and only vocation: a tedium of mythical completeness.

Or do I, perhaps, have undue regard for the scale and complexity of the big ‘problems’ (pauvre mot) and simply dare not set about them when I am alone (= ‘when the guest has gone’), just mooch about? If boredom occupies my every minute and every hour (when does it not?) — the haphazard character of every biological performance stands totally naked before me — am I not one of the greatest vagaries and ‘nonsensicalities’ (if indeed those words have any meaning in biology)? Nothing but a wild penchant for the fashionable, yet at the same time a loathing of any fashionable person. Nothing but wild intellectual penchant, yet at the same time an eternal flight from books and intellectual society towards peasants, amiable oafs. The only good thing about it all is that if this is a neurosis, then it is in no way a neurosis like Kierkegaard’s, or the kind that a state-licensed psychoanalytical organ-grinder would crank out if I were to fall into his hands.

Although I am suffering and sense myself as being tragic, I do that more out of convention than true instinct. I am a ‘figuration,’ a biological sample, a flower, and as to whether that is a tragedy or success, a value or a lie, a pose or revelation, an illness or some absolute verity, I know not. ‘All sorts of things happen in life, and this too has happened’: I simply stick labels on such maxims for myself. It is never an aim in life that an individual should be happy. Neither blind ‘élan’ nor the God of the Catholics wishes that each and every person here on Earth should be happy. That is quite evident. I was not born an architect or a writer, a rampaging Don Juan or a philosopher, but what I am — an anonymous, indefinable variant. These are matters of atavistic propensity and life necessity, intrinsic talent and routine, which have developed by chance in life; the interconnection of these facts is very complex. Someone is born an architect and becomes a writer under the active pressure of circumstances, and hence on the basis of a bunch of ‘inhibitions’; but if circumstances could carry him that far, then in truth he was born a writer and not an architect. On the other hand, throughout life he carries architecture as an imagined salvation. Who, one may ask, decides whether this ‘architecture’ will be an eternal idée fixe or some quite different propensity in a randomly ad hoc mask of ‘architecture,’ or else the eternal wish of an atavistic ‘predestined’ talent to break free of enforced literature? It is true that it is very easy to imagine of life, insofar as we know it, that it brings architects into the world who become writers: it was never the goal of life that individual flair should realize its full potential. The hybrid: that is life’s prime métier.

Might a religious instinct be at the bottom of my boredom? Invariably my one and only question, whether consciously or with Freudian discretion: ‘how to be saved’? It could be that books bore me because they do not transport me into the kingdom of heaven.

What do people do to occupy — not so much their afternoons as those five- and ten-minute gaps? For instance, I return to the house, my wife is not at home, and I have to wait a quarter of an hour. What should I do in the meantime? “It’s not worth making a start on anything,” I tell myself hypocritically. Although if, just once a month, it should so happen by chance that I find something of interest (oh, adored mysterious, fugitive word!), then it does not bother me that I shall only be able to buckle to it for five minutes, I just buckle to it. I pace up and down, sit down, leap up again — is that what parlor-maids and private tutors call ‘nervousness’? These tormentingly unoccupied moments are the subtexture of my life, that is my body. How happy I am if some totally unproductive and irrational bit of business crops up: conversations or discussions with narrow-minded figures. These are occasions when heaps of my acquaintances whine, agonize, and complain that ‘their precious time is being stolen away from them,’ oh, how I would love to ask them — enviously! — what, exactly what, is it that they do with ‘their precious time’? The only option is to sleep through the spare time, but that gives one the most horrible giddiness, headaches, and nausea. One ought to chatter, chatter, chatter endlessly: women would come and women would go; their looks would be far more than a matter of indifference but much less than love.

Women: mobile architecture. Architecture: mathematized sexuality. What is my essence (which might also be a satisfactory explanation for my boredom)? My essence is a need for absolute and unbroken intensity (God, politics, a woman, perpetual chatter — it doesn‘t matter what) and a perpetual need for form, pure or concealed plasticity, biological or geometric design. That, too, just goes to show that behind great vitality is a big neurosis, and behind a big neurosis, a great primordial élan.

Extracts from:
Szentkuthy Miklós: Az egyetlen metafora felé
Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1935

Previously on HLO
Outprousting Proust: Szentkuthy, the Proteus of Hungarian literature

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Miklós Szentkuthy