Review – 21st March, 2014

The gallery of inner life

Miklós Szentkuthy: Towards the One and Only Metaphor

Review–21st March, 2014


Miklós Szentkuthy: Towards the One and Only Metaphor

The intellectual and the sensual, the bare and the abundant, are contained together in Szentkuthy’s words in a single modality of meditative attentiveness; a readiness to absorb, observe, but never to taxonomize.

“Those simple formulas: on reading my own writings: those over-intellectualized, over-sensualized sentences, I get a feeling of Christian, ascetic happiness: even in the poor quality of the style there is something massively absolute, fatefully and unbrokenly homogeneous” — this is how Szentkuthy contemplates his own way of wording the world. Indeed, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is a book in which fragments aggregate in a remarkable unity, much like raindrops or pictures in a kaleidoscope eventually form a homogeneous whole in our experience regardless of the initial fragmentariness of perception.

Written in 1936, the book occupies a distinct and solitary place in Hungarian literary history, being experimental not only in its language but its belonging as well. The initial reception was rather poor, the literary world was not ready to step away from realist prose; it was only decades later that an almost cult-like appreciation emerged for Szentkuthy’s work, which slowly rippled to some continental European countries. Stepping on the stage of the English-speaking world almost 80 years after it was first published, Towards the One and Only Metaphor brings with it an allure of peculiarity. The book is a sequence of 112 sections, compact brief anecdotes, contemplations, sketches and, according to Szentkuthy himself, is an experiment of ‘primal vitality’, an experiment that does not aim to answer or explain anything, but which rather lets meaning and form simply emerge organically, leaving the 19th-century dream of self-consciousness and total representation behind.

This radical modernism is unique not only because of its distinctive conception of form and language, the lack of final solutions, but also because of the archaic material of which it is made. A collection of references, a book on books, this text is set apart from oft-mentioned contemporaries like Joyce and Proust by its alliance with the classical, be it Hellenic or Shakespearean, Goethe’s German or Racine’s French. It is ultimately a list of intellectual companionship in its struggle to grasp the fragile experience of the inner journey — an epic attempt of a deeply poetic task.

With such content, such deep embeddedness in the entire canon of European cultural history, Szentkuthy’s modernist, experimental aim gains an almost medieval aspect. It becomes an ordering of the known, a reiteration of its peculiarities in order to place the world in a new perspective. Thus ‘primal vitality’ is reached not only by the unfolding sequence of the sections, but by a certain atmosphere of timelessness too. A timelessness of hovering over history, over so much time that precise moments cease to matter.

The intellectual and the sensual, the bare and the abundant, are contained together in Szentkuthy’s words in a single modality of meditative attentiveness; a readiness to absorb, observe, but never to taxonomize. The aesthetic and the intellectual do not exist separately; they do not even seem meaningful and distinct categories in Szentkuthy’s world, which becomes almost Platonic in its deep assumption of the equity of the beautiful and the meaningful.

If his monumental work, Prae, is supposed to be a mock-encyclopedia, a catalogus rerum compiling all things in heaven and earth dreamt of in our philosophy, Towards the One and Only Metaphor is a similar attempt to record the minutiae of the inner life in all of its possible colors. The external world is replaced by the imprint it leaves on the mind, nevertheless presented in the same neat, delicate manner. Women appear in slow erotic yet innocent motion, feeding babies, lying almost naked in the sun; there are portraits of Saint Augustine and Caracalla, Freudian inspections on destiny, mother and father, or associations to a Beethoven sonata.

The book could almost fool the reader in its posing as a diary, but there is a well hidden, perceptible pattern in the order of the sections. Not so much an analytic awareness, not an attempt to construct a coherent typology, but rather a self-conscious awareness of free association is what links these bits of text together, whereas one can have a sense of what could possibly come next, no certainty or predictability is involved at all. It is somewhat like the undisturbed line of thought in an infinitely long, sunny afternoon.

The twofold character of the text allows two utterly different ways of reading. We can either slow down and let every single microcosm unfold and reveal all the richness of its details at its own pace, or hover over them in search of links and connecting sequences of thought. Either way, the sentences are not self-contained; the more they absorb the reader, inviting her to get lost in the delicate details of the language, the more they also push her away, back to the enormous globe of European culture Szentkuthy so freely moves in, connects to and assumes as a lingua franca.

Szentkuthy is the exact opposite of an audience-seeking author. He requires the reader to adapt to the pace of his gaze as it slowly gauges the world, to maintain the laborious engagement of noticing and recognizing the profusion of knowledge he compressed in each small section. Writer-essayist Zoltán Onagy once jokingly suggested that the Ministry of Culture advises that one not read Szentkuthy if under the age 30, thereby ensuring the erudition needed for appreciating him. And it is rewarding to wait, to slow down, to enter into every intricate detail, because the resulting experience is singular in Hungarian literary history. And it is something even more out of the ordinary in the Anglo-Saxon cultural sphere.

Following Szentkuthy through this labyrinth of repetition and novelty, through motifs repeatedly woven into each other in different combinations, always reveals new perspectives. It leads one into the world of ritual, a fusion of utmost intimacy and abstraction, archaism and actuality. The final section deliberately leaves the search open, towards and not to the one and only metaphor; and away from them all. The overwhelming abundance of experience ultimately silences language, shunting the attention back to the source of all the perception: the self. Instead of the uplift of a literary climax we are left with the sense of a vulnerable and finite personhood.

This finale is what makes the book so deeply contemporary, so postmodern in a sense. The acceptance of the human condition per se being incapable of measuring the world, being left in the modality of towards instead of to, silence instead of well-formed sentences, is a statement that speaks to us here and now. Again it shows how, in a way, Szentkuthy has much more in common with Feyerabend’s The Conquest of Abundance than with either Proust or Joyce. Feyerabend claims that a superconscious mind, capable of grasping the world in its totality, would be paralyzed; that the motion of understanding is made possible only by processing the world, reducing, explaining away complexity. Szentkuthy’s journey towards the one and only metaphor does precisely this: noticing, assessing sensory and intellectual abundance, conquering time by dwelling in the moment, conquering totality by finding it in allegories of details. With this he surely achieves the ‘primal vitality’ he aspired to; his volatile yet delicate line of thought expresses yet does not explain away the rich inner ornaments of the thinking self. A conquest — and according to the current zeitgeist, the only possible one.

Miklós Szentkuthy: Towards the One and Only Metaphor
New York: Contra Mundum, 2013

Diána Vonnák

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