Friday, February 7, 2014


Miklós Szentkuthy
In a note in May, David Auerbach recommended I read Miklós Szentkuthy's Marginalia on Casanova, written in the 1930's, but just published for the first time in English by Contra Mundum Press in 2012 in a translation by Tim Wilkinson. David wrote, "More than any other book I've read, I think it reaches for a kind of non-rational (but not irrational) other condition of the sort Musil was aiming for". I got myself the book right away, tried to read it, didn't understand what it was at first, and let it fall behind a pile of other books and whatnot for a while, so that now it looks like I have owned it for about ten years and carried it with me in a war.  It is part of a ten volume work (ranging from the 30's to the 1970's I think) called St. Orpheus's Breviary, each volume of which begins with a portrait of a saint and then turns into a collection of non-linear marginalia on another book, usually an autobiography (other subjects besides Casanova include St. Augustine and Elizabeth Tudor as a girl), which functions as an oblique sort of self-portrait of the author, a search for the self through history, culture, philosophy, and the other.

 Szentkuthy, in a prospectus for the work, writes: "...the work seeks to portray both European history and the vegetative world of nature from an essentially religious, supernatural viewpoint. Although both the lives of the saints, as well as the other figures, famous books, and cultural manifestations of history are, in point of fact, nothing more than different features of  a lyrical self-portrait, the various roles and masks of the author as it were, the work is in essence 'religious', because from love to politics the emphasis throughout is on the battle of the body-politic of God and the body-politic of the world" (293, from the afterword by Maria Tompa). Szentkuthy writes further: "The aim of Orpheus is to find the human ideal and an acceptable lifestyle that a thinking cerebrum and a sentiment in search of happiness can wish for after the broadest possible circle of historical, the most universal religious, and the most profound natural historical experiences. The aim is thus an unmistakable humanist one; it seeks to find the man beyond every variant of cultures, all promise and failure of sciences and mythologies, the most distant periods and far-flung regions, the vast yet nevertheless finite shades of psychology. What remains of the masses of experience left behind? What can be utilized in the future? What is the play of time and what is the indispensable essence and possibly a permanent positive?"(294-5).

What Szentkuthyy does not prepare us for here is his use of language, his imagery, his style. It would be just as much a mistake to reduce him to a social commentator as it would to make Musil one. While Marginalia on Casanova is not a "novel" in any traditional sense, it is definitely a work of poetic force. He does say that in "its goal and method [the project] belongs to the old genre of the Bildungsroman, a novel of a person's formative years, uniting the leading genres of the present day, the essay, and the autobiography in a common big framework" (295), but that again neglects to mention the language itself, and even undercuts the experimental boldness of the non-linear and fragmentary structure of the massive work, which itself instantiates a powerful aesthetic experience . Here are a few of my favorite passages so far:

"19. Love is concealing oneself, secrets, lies, deception in civilization. From it a poet and moralist is able to coin for himself 'tragedy', which is Greek for dotage. For Casanova, however, it is the animating force, the very lifeblood.
    At night, when one's fate hangs on whether or not someone left the key in the lock or hung it up on a nail; when three candles are burning or just one on a balcony; when one has to flatten against the wall in the stairwell and leave the stolen cloak of a stranger on the coat hook; when one has to creep from one room to another along deserted soul passages; well, that is the world where there are two dominants—the lie and the object. Never did lamp, handkerchief, key, candlestick, stocking, sword, hat, seat or plate hold so splendid a triumph as in this trick of atmosphere..."(60).

"One is well connected with Europe's frolicking twins, one of whom is customarily nicknamed 'this world,' the other as 'otherworld'. By 'this world' is understood Nature, stars, & flowers, the big furor of 'elan vital' and the black tic of enthusiastic death, Paracelsian grand demonism of existence— and by 'otherworld' religion, the great mythological review of the gods and their moral shades, the despairing heavenly masks of eternity.

    As one looks at the definition of 'worldly', one knows that — Casanova cannot be familiar with such things, either separately in & of themselves and even less set in antithesis.
    To him 'this world' was not an animated grand nature, but  a street two canals from the Chiesa di SanMoisé, three camellias on the table instead of a lamp, exactly eleven thousand liras and exactly ten minutes to 11; not, not, not 'existence', nor 'time', nor 'freedom'. In just the same way, 'otherworldly' was not an intolerable cargo of myths but at most a temporary shudder, a canalized Masonic hocus-pocus, a wee brooding horror, and that's all — after all, he had the fiery & transparent key of metaphysics in his hands: happiness. Happiness, which never knew, and never will know, the 'worldly' and 'otherworldly', Nature and God, laicism and theology — since only unhappiness makes distinctions, only a cripple 'specifies': joy is unitary, and he found everything within himself. That is why he wrote such symbolically succulent sentences 'Diese metaphysische Kurve erschien mir widernatürlich zu sein....'[This metaphysical curve seemed to me to be against nature; the quotes from Casanova are given in German since Szentkuthy read the Memoirs in a German edition] (61-62).

"When as a prelude to love he gets ready wine from Cyprus and Italian cheese, he has not the slightest intention of flaunting some theatrical, anti-spiritualist gesture— as Toscanini (an undying association in connection with Casanova from the viewpoint of self-torturing rigidity)said, just play exactly what is written in the score, or in other words he is not troubled by any myth of intellectual 'form', so too Casanova only does exactly what is written in the notes of body and nature, neither more, nor less. That mathematical 'point', that algebraically split-off 'just', is the sublime, the Italian, the classical in him : the Florence!
   Eating soaked with good wine is a precondition for success in love, so let's eat and drink if we embark on physical capers; the body has to be brought into good shape, that's all. Here the Cyprus wine is also symbolic: Cyprus is crammed with Venus-underworld tree and boudoir-island associations; how fitting that there it is not a legend, or poetry, but a drink. 'Ciprus':  for that word to have some point it has to hit the stomach. Casanova is able to place myth, thought, and poetry in the composition-steeled orchestra of his world:  there can be only association, only aroma — a thought is a volatile oil, a spice, the hint of a taste, whether a tang of lemon or marjoram: who would be so crazy as to eat a stew of cloves?" (63-64).

It is always a thrill to discover an author whose works had been lost on the other side of  a language border. To think that Musil and Szentkuthy were both once citizens of that same empire of Austro-Hungary, and that they were, at the same time, searching for answers to those perennial questions which, in their time seemed to be quickening to an urgent boil, is at once comforting and disquieting. It makes me wonder how many other voices have been lost altogether and also makes me aware of how much force, genius, energy has ever been directed at these unanswerable urgent questions...and to such tenuous, but nevertheless potently significant avail (like the potency of the above-mentioned cloves,  a spice of thought to season our sensual animal existence).  Musil and Szenthuky are distinguished by their rejection of dualist thinking, and their attempt to find some other reality beyond the 'worldly' and 'otherworldly', beyond empiricism and intuition, beyond the 'ratioid' and 'non-ratioid' (to use Musil's awkward pair). They both were grasping with wide arms and encyclopedic, all-encompassing reach to some explanation and some guiding pattern for how to live in the modern world, balanced as we are like tight-rope walkers upon an impossibly disappearing line of dualism between mysticism and logic, science and aesthetic experience, precision and soul, essence and creative existentialism — a  line that may well turn out to be totally illusory, leaving us walking on air.