08. 12. 2008. 08:52

Towards the One and Only Metaphor II.

"Frederick the Great and Bach in church at night... They drink, they become delirious, they chatter: Bach is a perverted lecher, a Don Juan, an atheistic libertine; Frederick is a regicidal nihilist, a revolutionary, a traitor. By the morning both have grown quiet; Bach prays with his family, Frederick rides on horseback in front of his soldiers."

(38)

 

TWO things excite my interest: the most subjective epic details and ephemeral trivialities of my most subjective life, in their own factual, unstylized individuality — and the world’s big facts, in all their allegorical Standbild-like greatness: death, summer, sea, love, gods, flowers. One of the causes of my stylistic confusion is that the subject of my sentence is usually some analytical nicety, a finesse, a pictorial or conceptual paradox — and I pump into the description of the details of those details, in the form of subordinate clauses, compound words and rhythm-killing litanies of epithets, the mythical grand backdrops (sea, summer, death, et cetera). I may write down, for example, the particular shape of a woman’s lips, and the even more particular lipstick taste on them, and I load the apparatus necessary for that description with the big, more generally interesting facts and problems of life and death, organs and blood pressure, love and artifice. That too is a phobia: I dare not start off with the ‘big,’ hence the grotesque sentences: the leaden weight of eternity bound up in the hairs of ephemerality. Rather than ten characters in a novel, I describe a single person, and while analyzing that (cravenly!) narrate ten novels in parentheses. My sentences are: masks; tumors lying immediately (pressed right up against the surface) subcutaneously. All that is important is that a tiny mask, the skin, should be there at the start, at the head: if I see that I wish to speak about death, but the beginning of the sentence is talking about the slow dribbling of soap lather (in other words, a bit of epidermis is in place): then I am perfectly reassured, let the one and only important subject of death come in its own expanding ramifications (stretching mask and skin endlessly) like simile, like a playful decoration, grammatically and in terms of sentence-structure subordinating it to the subject of soap lather: a square inch of ‘soap lather’ (the epidermis), twenty square inches of ‘death’ (the tumor beneath it).

 

(77)

 

THE WEALTHY businessman’s daughter teaches piano for money; the son of an impoverished gentry family will not take on work cramming pupils ­— purely out of ‘pride.’ How wonderful (sic loquitur) that the filthy-rich girl does not wish to live idly: she may go around in a limousine, but she works. What virtue! Yet how empty and immoral the pride in which the starving son of the gentry exists to consider work as humiliating. — What naivety and confusion of ideas there is in this idealization of ‘work’ — which is not a matter of morals, simply the knee-jerk reflex of a merchant’s neurosis; just as gentry ‘pride’ is not pride, but a cult, a rational acceptance, of the divine value of a personality, of outer and inner loneliness, of independence. The ‘work’ ethic as such is replete with cheap false logic, hypocrisy, old wives’ romanticism and neurosis; it is the world’s most stupefying humbug. Had it not been for this ‘work’ hysteria, there would be no unemployment today. What does a businessman’s ‘work’ consist of: whatever will allow him to make money hand over fist, possibly at the expense of the life and health of thousands and tens of thousands, in such a way that the whole job, besides being inestimably useful — should appear ethical as well! The ‘work’ ethic is the root cause of the totally unfettered unethicalness that characterizes today’s social set-up.

As far as I am concerned there is just one fundamental ethical concept: the medieval idea of asceticism, the way the Catholics did it. The moment that the place of asceticism is taken by ‘sacred work’ (quelle farce!), the moment that a so-called sterile, insane, sickly, comic, antirational Byzantine stylite gets down from his column in order to locate his morality in ‘work,’ that is when you will also find Shylock. Choose: Byzantine madman or bloodsucking usurer, self-flagellating hysteric or a murdering Harpagon lyricized as a ‘managing director’?

How many primitive ‘thoughts’ teem in the masses around the concept of ‘activity’: one should do this and that from dawn to dusk, women should also go to work, be productive, telephones should ring, book-keepers’ ledgers should swell — but why? To keep active just for the sake of keeping active? Even a blind man can see that humanity derives no benefit nowadays from never-ending production and enterprise. Work is not an ethic; moving just to keep moving makes no sense: the whole thing is in the realms of the sheer romantics of American films.

It is interesting that businessmen are the most sentimental, most puerile-spirited people in the world: ten-year-old girls display more cynicism or realism than these ‘leaders’ cranking out their unchanging “Chop-chop! On the double!” Ever since work was first falsified as a value and morality by those who derive pecuniary gain from it — an unsuspected rule of fiction has got under way in the world. Businessmen have eradicated all sense of realism, prudence, and common sense: the other day I went into a bank and marveled that the officials were not roaring with laughter in one another’s face at the sight of the precious chinoiserie of unreality that cocoons such an establishment. The underlying fiction, the first dogma of the imposers of the myth, of course, is that ‘reality = money’ (or ‘reality = office work,’ ‘reality = sheep-farming,’ et cetera, et cetera). Money! That is the blood capillary of everything: bills of exchange, contracts, currency speculation, commercial dodges, the thousand and one ethical masks of fraud. And is a fully-grown man in full possession of his senses supposed to believe this is reality? It is my impression that anyone who maintains that is just joking or dissembling; a person can only say that sort of thing out of self-interest — for money.

And love, death, nature, God: those are ‘fictions’: in their opinion. The sea, glaciers, flowers, music: they are just holiday fillers, recreations — the complaint of which Bach almost died, a little preprandial entertainment.Charmant. With generally educated people speaking about a ‘Flucht in die Neurose,’ it would be far more to the point to speak about a ‘Flucht in die Fiktion’ in regard to businessmen. A very high proportion of people, indeed the great majority, feel well solely in a fiction, in the abstract: they sense reality within an invented form of contract (the most ephemeral of ephemera) and sense only decoration, the games and metaphors of weaklings, in a material sea, material woman, and material death that have been held before our eyes from time immemorial. Those ‘schwächlinge’ come in very handy all the same: they goggle at an anemone instead of a bill of exchange and leave others to get on with his work, whereas the fledgling businesswoman, ethicized to death by the work ethic, goes off in her Rolls-Royce limo to give a piano lesson, and meanwhile the poor piano teacher starves to death.

 

(80)

 

THE opposition between ‘WORLDLY’ and ‘unworldly.’ And is this ‘worldly’ not precisely the ‘unworldly’ and the ‘unworldly,’ the ‘worldly’? Frederick the Great and Bach in church at night, up in the organ loft, both in shirtsleeves, with a big jug of wine, their wigs dangling beside them from the seats: the organ resounds and roars. Behind Bach, his numberless brood, his ‘worldliness’; behind Frederick the Great is the army, the state administration, his ‘worldliness.’ But at night, in shirtsleeves, bald, and in an emerging toccata they forget about all else. They drink, become delirious, chatter: Bach is a perverted lecher, a Don Juan, an atheistic libertine; Frederick is a regicidal nihilist, a revolutionary, a traitor. By the morning everything has grown quiet: Bach prays with his family, Frederick rides on horseback in front of his soldiers. The only thing preserving the memory of all that is an organ toccata. (In olden days the genres were so ‘romantic’ that it would have made no sense to liveromantically in addition: all the ‘anarchy’ went into the work instead of life. That was hygiene!)

 

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