02. 13. 2008. 08:57

Wasteland

György Petri’s poetry

You only have to speak the name Petri and you find yourself in the middle of a subculture – the period of Kádárist consolidation, which followed in the wake of the 1956 revolution. His poetry was a type of civil political poetry in an age in which readers looked for covert messages of resistance and freedom in every line of poetry.

It is quite common with prominent figures of Hungarian poetry that the contours and limitations of their art prove hard to perceive clearly unless one gains a clear notion of the structures and restrictions within which they lived and worked. This is eminently true of György Petri (1943–2000) – in every line of his work, life and literature and politics meet for a slightly outrageous flirtation. You only have to speak the name Petri and you find yourself in the middle of a subculture – the period of Kádárist consolidation, which followed in the wake of the 1956 revolution – an era of petit bourgeois appeasement offering a taste of the delights of consumerism and a relative protection of private life. This kind of politics was intended to bribe people into co-operation by enlivening an exchange of (cautiously censored) values between East and West, granting the occasional permission to travel, recognising literary groups which had previously been marginalized, and from time to time releasing some of the political prisoners. The Hungary of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s can quite adequately be captured within the field of forces outlined above.
At the same time, this was also the period when a certain thin tradition of conscious political resistance gradually developed in this country. This tradition arose from the philosophical school centred around György Lukács, himself an active participant in the revolution. In other words, it started as left-wing opposition, a theoretical critique which became radicalised in the 1970’s and eventually received its final, politically relevant articulation in what was called the Democratic Opposition. (This group later developed into the Free Democrats’ Association – SZDSZ). In this ‘association’ or underground movement, careful to distance itself from the controlled zones of the public arena, Petri was a cultic figure. Indeed, he had opted out of the social contract after the release of his first two volumes, put out by official publishing houses. By saying this, we also stress that his poetry was, apart from all its other merits, a type of civil political poetry in an age in which readers looked for covert messages of resistance and freedom in practically every line of poetry, the title of every novel and the closure of any short story.
For me, being impersonal is not a programme, but a problem. You need distance and irony if you want to maintain an analytic view of the life material that goes into these poems, but without the palpable presence of the personality, the poetic elements become scattered fragments without a centre.
Petri wrote this in his very first published self-interpretation. At least as far as his intentions are concerned, he “goes beyond the personal in order to save it,” poet Szabolcs Várady, a friend of Petri’s, wrote in his comment on the above lines, expressing the paradox of the lyrical turn Petri had ‘proclaimed’. The above quotation contains the essence of the spiritual and poetic attitude which, in the context of Hungarian poetry, implies distancing oneself from the tradition ultimately associated with the name Attila József. This tradition, according to which the poet is a prophet and/or a victim, Petri deemed impossible to renew or to continue. Using this as a point of departure and relying to a great extent on Eliot, his poetry aims to create a balance between subjectivity and reflection. He puts his strength into fulfilling the poetical programme he had set himself – one whereby he aims to speak objectively about persons and personally about objects.
So I just simply depict the life problems of an individual who is forced into solitude, and forced back into the personal things of everyday life. And because my entire ‘philosophy’ and my most spontaneous selfishness convince me that life is distorted, hollow and miserable, I depict a distorted, hollow, miserable person. His only surviving capability, his last weapon is that he is consciously aware of this situation. This is why disgust and self-loathing become central in the poems of the last period. This is why my poems are constituted of the motifs of the disintegrating life of an intellectual – because this is the only kind of life with which I can be and am in touch [Petri’s emphases].
These sentences, which Petri wrote in 1973-74, show one of the leitmotifs of his poetry – the poet’s ambition to maintain the disposition of personal impersonality even in terms of his own poems. Beyond all of this is a search for orientation that is fundamentally philosophical in nature – the aim to shed light on various planes of identity, various types of affiliation and dependency. The language is rendered authentic in experiments of recording ‘the place where I am’, in the attempts to clarify and analytically survey the existing opportunities and limitations. It is in this sense that Petri represents a breaking point in the history of Hungarian lyric poetry.
Petri’s oeuvre is permeated by a critical approach toward the tradition that was founded during the Marxist period and survived as an attitude even after its ideological base had atrophied. Petri sees the individual’s possibilities of self-definition in a complex theoretical frame of reference. One element of this unique composite is existentialism with a special emphasis on the sense of homelessness, which is Sartre’s trademark. A further ingredient is the dialectically impersonal attitude of Marxist conceptualism. This is mixed with the demand for objectivity springing from Anglo-Saxon analytic thought based upon Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. The last important influence is the normative bent of the liberal political and philosophical follow-up on Protestant ethics.
In one of the 1995 issues of Beszélo (a periodical which Petri founded with his friends in 1981, which was published in samizdat for eight years, and became a legitimate liberal weekly after the political transition), Petri wrote:
I do not wish to deny that my position is one of extreme individualism and pure liberalism, in so far as I am stating that my identity is of no concern to anyone other than myself, as are my private affairs, my religious feelings or my sexual attractions. (…) Accepting my identity amounts to no more than the fact that when I wake up and stand in front of the open window, my first thought is not to jump out, but to close it because even fresh air can be too much of a good thing.
Against the historical and theoretical background described above, we see the poetic portrait of an unhappy consciousness – a study piece for dreariness and the kind of self-hate that borders on loss of self. This is a dry monodrama of an individual constituted of essentially existentialist type choices; in other words, a poeticised philosophical educational novel. There is no doubt, however, that while in his personal, private relationship issues Petri always came out the loser, when he articulates the poetic experience of these losses, he refrains from sounding the sentimental registers of self-pity. Instead, he shapes them into the mythology surrounding the role of the poète maudit.
Petri was a key figure within a subculture that permeated an entire age, and he bore all of its attributes. Yet, he did not find it easy to accept this. In fact, he should have known from his beloved Wittgenstein that language games and forms of life are interdependent, and also that authorial intention and its realisation (the vision and the interpretation) are often quite far removed.
Petri’s poetry contains the history of one of the most important trends within the intellectual climate of the Kádár years. Opting out of the Lukács school, he detached himself from its foundations and created his own view of the world. He never entirely broke loose from its conceptual roots and mental gestures, but remained embedded in certain strata of the tradition. At the same time, he ended up alone, primarily vis à vis himself – a sarcastic and yet poignant, loveable and yet horrifying self-portrait.
Lajos Jánossy

Tags: György Petri