Portrait – 20th June, 2007

The stray rider

Géza Csáth and the age in which he lived

Portrait–20th June, 2007


The life and work of Géza Csáth, a talented and versatile child of the fin-de-siècle – writer, music theoretician, psychiatrist, drug addict, lucid portrayer of altered states of consciousness and a man who murdered his own wife – has been rediscovered in recent years.

Contrary to our usual practice, we begin our commemoration of Géza Csáth (1888–1919) with a brief biographical sketch. The age in which he lived was so dramatic and volatile, so rich and dynamic that it is impossible within the bounds of the present paper to give an adequately thorough overview of it. As for Csáth himself, he was a writer, critic, music theoretician and medical doctor. A competent violinist even as a child, he also drew and painted. He was barely fourteen years old when his first writings on music criticism were published. After grammar school he moved from his native Szabadka (Subotica) to Budapest in order to study medicine. While at college he wrote short sketches and reviews for newspapers and magazines. He was among the first to laud the work of Bartók and Kodály. After earning his degree as a medical doctor in 1910 he worked for a short time as a junior doctor at the Moravcsik Psychiatric Hospital. It was then that he became a morphine addict. By the time he returned from the First World War he was seriously ill and his addiction became had become a decisive problem in his life. In early 1919 he received treatment in a provincial hospital, but he fled and returned to his home. On July 22nd he shot and killed his wife with a revolver, poisoned himself and slit his arteries. He was rushed to hospital at Szabadka, but later managed to escape again. He wanted to go to the Moravcsik Psychiatric Hospital, but upon being stopped by Yugoslavian border guards he killed himself by taking poison.
This biography contains several hints, each like a fragment of glass from a kaleidoscope, that allow us to catch a glimpse into the depths of those aspects of Hungarian history of the 20th century that feed this author’s oeuvre. Without these traces it would be impossible to orient ourselves and make sense of Csáth’s world. Szabadka, the psychiatric hospital, morphine, the First World War, the events of 1919, Yugoslavia, fellow author Dezso Kosztolányi, Bartók, these are the milestones and turning points in Géza Csáth’s creative and ‘private’ life. A tegnap ködlovagjai [Fog Riders of Yesterday], the title of the 1943 anthology, speaks for itself. The volume contains the names of authors from the literature of the turn of the century who came to be seen as significant but were doomed to be forgotten and only later rediscovered. We are clearly talking about a lost wartime generation, figures whose lives were riddled with trauma, artists who lived through the First World War and the subsequent shock of the Treaty of Trianon, according to which Hungary ceded two-thirds of its territory to the surrounding states. They also lived through the commune of 1919 and were witnesses to the halted emergence of the Hungarian bourgeoisie. Suffering a belated process of modernisation, they lived to see a period of boom and promise and to watch it collapse. As creative artists, they were propelled by the dynamism of an effervescent, fermenting, urban fin-de-siècle, by the visionary individualism imported from Paris (then the scene of an accelerating succession of revolutions in the arts), and by the determination to make up for their perceived provincial backwardness. And soon they were defeated by history, weighed down by the fetters cast on Hungary both from the outside and the inside and by the apparent hopelessness of escaping the peripheries of Europe. They bled away on the unyielding realities of what great Hungarian historian István Bibó was later to call the ‘dead-end development of Hungarian history’ and ‘the misery of small nations.’
From the point of view of art history, Géza Csáth should be called a writer of the Art Nouveau movement. This fin-de-siècle style was “a style unique to an age, more so than any style has been since the Gothic. (…) This art absorbed and shaped after its own image the discoveries of the second half of the 19th century, thus actually creating an opportunity to escape from tradition. To be sure, later movements of the 20th century looked back on it with disdain as they surpassed it, but what in fact eradicated the movement was simply its own merciless pursuit of a path of its own” (András Székely). Csáth’s works seethe with an unquenchable curiosity for novelty and the passionate desire to break with the old. He pitches the passion of exploring the inner world of man, partly propelled by the growing popularity of psychoanalysis, against grand narratives and universalistic representations.
While for artists of Western European societies “bourgeois development is disintegration; art is unity” (László B. Nagy), artists this side of the Leithe cannot escape facing up to the paradoxical nature of their position. The process of bourgeois development and the attempts to modernise invariably seem to come to a halt. The ‘fallow lands of Hungary’ swallow up any attempt at cultivation with the gravity of a black hole, to use a mixed metaphor. In other words, these artists were forced both to represent and to negate a particular world at one and the same time – to represent and yet negate something that had not even properly come into existence, as against something that seemed to withstand almost any effort. The Art Nouveau is a collection of these ambitions concentrated within one particular age – it leads one to think of “the age as a work of art” (Perneczky) within which we can always discern innumerable diverse tendencies. In literature, for example, these range from a decadence that turns its back on the world to the kind of revolutionary spirit which is feverishly looking for the new world view.
Géza Csáth’s versatile creativity is analogous to the complex profile of the age in which he lived. Although he chose to practice a ‘lay’ profession, his literary career started early. The pieces of music criticism he wrote as a teenager attracted considerable attention. In addition to being one of the first to recognise the importance and originality of Bartók, he was also among the first to give attention to Puccini. He was still very young when his first short stories appeared. Encouraged by his cousin Dezso Kosztolányi, he did more and more writing while at the same time completing medical university and taking a job as a doctor. However, there came the fatal date of April 20th 1910, carefully recorded in his diaries, when he gave himself his first dose of morphine. This shot later turned out to be not a one-time experiment but a stage in a line of changes, a crucial event that was to determine the entire course of his life. Without wanting to ignore the famous tenet of viewing the author as separate from his work, we must point out that in the case of Csáth (and indeed many others) one witnesses a notion of literature that actually goes against this disintegration and in fact aspires to demonstrate, with a kind of pseudo-romantic accent, the unity of life and art. This attitude has well-known forerunners (cr. Rimbaud). “I want to be a poet and I am working on turning myself into a visionary…. What I want to do is to confuse all the senses and that way access the unknown. It is horrific torture but one must be strong…” – wrote the French poet. This is the ars poetica that Csáth adopts when he experiments with drugs. Naturally his writings are not direct representations of these notions, indeed over the course of his career as a drug abuser he came to be more and more distant from writing. Thus we cannot deny that new experience made the young writer face some hard decisions. But Csáth made a different choice or, to be more precise, by this time the choice had been made for him by the substances he was taking, and he himself could show but little resistance. Csáth very quickly developed a typical addict’s dependence. Practically after the first ecstatic moment it became his conviction that he was master of his ‘reserves’ and of his ‘notions’. He also believed that nothing could constitute a substitute for the realms he had come to discover. He captures this theme brilliantly in the short stories Opium and The Magician’s Garden. He shows a determination that goes beyond these texts to share the almost incommunicable experience whereby the division of time is both possible and indeed inevitable. Time as we perceive it passing, time partitioned by the clock, is light years away from the inner time zones to which we gain access. We can have but one kind of Hermes to bridge this distance: one or other of the wide family of narcotics. Actually, in addition to psychoanalysis, it was Bergson’s notion of time that provided the philosophical background for Csáth’s thinking. Bergson did not argue for drug use. He merely focussed attention on the difference between the flow of time and the duration of time. This theoretical ‘timing’ prepared the ground for what came to be called consciousness prose.
This then is the mythic frame in which Csáth’s life and textual world took place. He represents a typical early 20th century writer who, in front of a faded background of lost transcendence, investigates the atavistic layers of human consciousness in the cold light of an operating room in which the surgeon holds his sharp scalpel. It is with this scalpel that he performs his frightfully precise cuts ‘on the living flesh’ of the mind. Matricide, The Frog, The Surgeon or Schmidt the Gingerbread Man are excellent examples of explorations of the tensions between dreams, the life of instincts and rational reflection. Csáth’s oeuvre goes beyond his short stories, critical writing and stage plays. It also includes his diaries, among them a cluster of notes that was discovered in the 1980’s and became known as The Diary of  a Madwoman. In terms of genre, these texts straddle a boundary: they reflect the attention of the specialist and in this sense have, as far as their language is concerned, a scientific register. At the same time there is the voice of the author, the portrait, particularly in the diaries, of a man suffering. He draws up a tortuously thorough list of the types and causes of his suffering, records the daily list of doses of various opiate derivatives, describing the quantity and quality of the shots and the resulting alterations in his state of consciousness. Similarly, he makes a systematic record of his sexual relations, including the number and the objects (sic!), from the scullery maid to his own patients. Csáth ‘has no mercy’: he breaks his medical oath on a daily basis, snatching his victims from among his patients in order to sate his desires. But readers will be readers for time eternal, and no moral consideration will cause them to discard Csáth’s writing and stop reading these nightmarish monologues.
It was only over the past twenty years that the complete works of Géza Csáth emerged once and for all from the thick fog of oblivion. This statement, however, is only true of the wider audience. Chiefly inspired by Miklós Mészöly, authors of the ‘new Hungarian literature’, from Péter Hajnóczy to Péter Esterházy, paid homage to Csáth from the 1970’s and 80’s onwards. He also enjoys a considerable cult in his native Vojvodina (today a region in Serbia), as can be felt in allusions in texts by Ottó Tolnai and Danilo Kiš.
Today we can say with almost complete certainty that Csáth has become a permanent part of a literature that will always be read as if contemporary. This is shown clearly by the fact that over the last ten years János Szász devoted two films (The Witman Boys and Opium) to depictions of sections of Csáth’s prose world.
To borrow a phrase from Ady, he was a stray rider. He has finally come home.
Lajos Jánossy
See our review of Ildikó Lovas's The Spanish Bride (partly a fictitious narrative by Géza Csáth's wife, tracking the last stage of their hellish marriage)

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