|1. Kassák and His Circle||CONTENTS||CHAPTER XXI Traditions, Traumas, and Quacks|
Attila József, the foremost Hungarian socialist poet, like Petőfi and Ady is usually ranked by critics and scholars alike as one of the greatest poets Hungary ever produced; and one is struck immediately by the maturity and completeness of József’s poetry. Although he died at the age of thirty-two, one can speak of his late poetry; the last poem he wrote is a final poetic statement. It is also true that like Petőfi and Ady, who lived and wrote before events which have radically altered the course of history and which neither lived to see, József, living and writing in darkening Easten Europe, is a symbol of the consciousness that was waging a losing battle against Fascism before World War II. Hungarian history was shaped by these developments in the mid-century, since conservative Hungary’s lurch to the right, which took place after the Bethlen* era had ended, led ultimately to a reign of terror when Hitler put Hungarian Fascists in power in 1944. Then the pendulum swung violently to the left, culminating in a Stalinist terror with the dictatorship of Rákosi, which came to an end only with the revolution in 1956. In the mid-century in Hungary, from Bethlen to Kádár the gravest crimes were committed against human rights in the names of opposing totalitarian regimes.
József’s greatness lies partly in his perception of the early signs of this human inferno; as a result of social background and childhood deprivations, he was predisposed to be an impulsive rebel, but he soon became a spokesman for human rights and universal values, his poetic message losing none of its timeliness even after his death; the invincible humanity radiating from his poetry was still relevant during the revolution of 1956, when he was already a classic. For he not only symbolized, by his personal fate, some of the most essential phenomena of his epoch, but gave expression to them on a high poetic level, with an authentic note of sincerity that could only have been attained by a brilliant intellect combined with poetic genius.
Attila József was born on 11 April 1905 in a Budapest slum. His father was an itinerant Romanian worker in a soap factory who disappeared when Attila was still a toddler; when the poet was on the verge of puberty his mother, who came from Cumania,* died of terminal cancer; she had been a victim of overwork and privation. She had earned her living as a washer-woman, and had to bring up her three children in a small damp room; this meant that Attila was often in children’s homes or with foster-parents during his most tender years. An almost farcical element was introduced into Attila’s life by the very name given to him, which sounded as bizarre and alien to Hungarian working-class ears as it would in English-speaking countries. The over-imaginative father had had a dream during his wife’s pregnancy that their son was to conquer the world, and so insisted on calling the baby after the world-conquering King of the Huns, Attila.* József vividly recalls, in an autobiographical notice, the calamity his only paternal bequest brought about:
In the third-grade reader, however, I found some interesting stories about King Attila and so I threw myself into reading. These stories about the King of the Huns interested me not only because my name was Attila but also because my foster-parents at Öcsöd used to call me Steve. After consulting the neighbours, they came to the conclusion, in front of me, that there was no such name as Attila. This astounded me; I felt my very existence was being called in question. I believed the discovery of the tales about Attila had a decisive influence on all my ambitions from then on; in the last analysis it was perhaps this that led me to literature. This was the experience that turned me into a person who thinks, one who listens to the opinions of others, but examines them critically in his own mind; someone who resigns himself to being called Steve until it is proved that his name is Attila, as he himself had thought all along.*
József’s whole life was spent in proving his existence against all the odds with a child-like stubbornness, supported only by his clear-cut reasoning, which did not desert him even when he was already fighting the final battle against mental collapse. In fact, the key to an understanding of his personality and poetry is his sense of alienation, of not belonging anywhere or to anybody. When he eventually lost his grip on the world, he reached a state in which he could say: ‘What I hold no longer holds me’ (‘Light Memories’, 1937). The next logical step was suicide. He threw himself in front of a freight train near Balatonszárszó on 3 December 1937. He had always seen his own condition quite clearly; no remedy could be found.
József was still a high-school student when his first volume of poetry appeared (A Beggar of Beauty, Szeged, 1922), which displayed his unusual skill in versification and showed that he had already absorbed what the Nyugat poets, particularly Ady, his first-poetic model, could offer. His main themes were a pathetic longing for love, and a profound compassion for the poor. The volume also revealed his essentially sweet and tender nature. Even his yearnings for love were different from those that could be expected of a boy barely over the romantic age of puberty. Being an orphan, the lack of family ties made him painfully aware of the parental love he had missed, and of his need for warmth as compensation for his initial handicap. Moreover he saw his circumstances in social terms: he did not belong, he was not loved, since sympathies owe much to class-loyalties.
Recognition of his outcast position in society helped him to find his own voice, a voice which expressed a flippant stubbornness with either humorous or ironic undertones, but always with complete emotional honesty. The result was an utter disregard for conventional values and authority, yet the poet was only preparing a catalogue of his major deprivations without soliciting either pity or mercy.
I have no father, no mother, no God, no country, no cradle, no shroud, no kisses, no love. For three days I have not eaten, neither much nor little. My twenty years are a power, my twenty years are for sale. If nobody wants them, the devil will buy them. I will break in with a pure heart: if need be, I will kill someone. I shall be seized and hanged and buried in hallowed ground, and grass that brings death will grow over my wondrously fair heart.
Written in cheerful Hungarian couplets of ősi nyolcas type, the poem, when published, earned József instant dismissal from the University of Szeged at the recommendation of the professor of Hungarian philology. It also established József’s reputation with Nyugat and its leading critic, Ignotus, as the most original voice to have emerged in post-war Hungary.
He left Szeged for Vienna, where he subsisted on occasional jobs while experimenting with expressionism and surrealism (e.g. ‘A Transparent Lion’, 1926) under the influence of Kassák and his circle, whose avant-garde defiance of political and artistic conventions strongly appealed to him; but he found, paradoxically, that he could express himself more freely within the limits of traditional forms, since whatever he tried to write became verse. This preoccupation with traditional forms (e.g. his remarkable tour de force of sonetti a corona, at the age of eighteen, ‘The Song of the Cosmos’, 1923) was not only because they suited him best-it already epitomized his constant obsession with order,* one of the leitmotifs of his later poetry.
From Vienna József went to Paris, where he eagerly studied French, and discovered Villon, the archetype of all modern poet-outcasts. Moreover, it was here that his studies in Marxism led him to espouse the cause of socialism. It was not a matter of infatuation; consequently his acceptance of communist ideals was neither unconditional nor uncritical. What was always unconditional was his loyalty to the working class. Having returned to Budapest, it was a logical step for him to join the underground Communist Party, which he served with a ‘pure heart’, conducting seminars or writing poetry for propaganda purposes, poetry that was always unblushingly ideological in content with denunciations of capitalism, and often full of slogans of the political graffiti type (Words like ‘agitator’, ‘capital’, ‘exploitation’, ‘class-struggle’, ‘profit’ now abounded in his vocabulary). Nevertheless, considering the international output of this kind of poetry, József’s are exceptional in that they provide a lucid analysis of the prevailing social conditions, and explain why they must be improved (e.g. ‘Mass’, 1930; ‘Socialists’, 1931; ‘Workers’, 1931; ‘About the Profit of the Capitalists’, 1933).
The significance of József’s joining the Communist Party cannot be overstressed, either in relation to the development of his poetry or to his personal tragedy; it marks a clear-cut dividing line in his poetry. In addition he found warmth in the closely-knit community of the illegal Party; he was accepted, and this secured him the much-needed sense of belonging, as well as an opportunity to participate in politics. Alas, József’s honeymoon with the movement was a short-lived affair, because he soon fell out with his Moscow-controlled comrades. It is still argued whether he was formally expelled; his comrades all of a sudden severed their connection with him, and vanished without trace. The final steps taken by József on the road leading to self-destruction were a consequence of his being left completely alone, a prey to his neurotic sense of isolation which overpowered him.
The main reason why he was treated so strangely was his comrades’ suspicion of his independent intellect, constantly searching for universal truths. One of his ‘deviations’ was to supplement his reading of Marx with Hegel and particularly with Freud. Psychoanalysis has always been frowned upon by the Moscow theoreticians, so József’s heresy of fusing Freudianism with Marxism was more than a political sin, it was a grave error. József developed his concept, finally formulated in his fragmentary essay Hegel, Marx, Freud (1934), according to which, while Marx discovered those unconscious forces in society which were ultimately responsible for the means of production, Freud did just the same by discovering the unconscious in the individual, and while Marx showed the way forward to the ‘liberation’ of society, Freud showed the way to liberation of the self. Therefore Marx has to be corrected with Freud. József’s insight into the relationship of psychology and mass-movements induced him to declare that psychoanalytical methods ought to be applied to the political behaviour of the masses an idea definitely ahead of his time: Freudian Marxists (Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm) worked along similar lines. József also argued that Marxism without Freudianism, could provide only a partially satisfactory answer to the most relevant problem of his time the emergence of the totalitarian state since the emergence of Fascism could only be understood in the context of that psychological conditioning and mental deformation of the masses which gained momentum in Germany after the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and which was later described by T. Adorno as the ‘authoritarian character’.
The immediate reason for his being anathematized was, however, not theoretical heresy, but his proposal for party strategy. His advocacy of a united front (On the United Front, 1933) with the social democrats against Nazism was unacceptable to the narrow-minded Muscovite party leaders, since they had not yet realized that denouncing social democrats as ‘traitors’ to the working class movement played into the hands of the Fascists. It is not without irony, however, that not long after József’s plea for a united front was denounced, the demand for the Popular Front, initiated by the Bulgarian Communist leader Dimitrov for virtually identical reasons, became the correct party line at the Communist International in 1935, and the cry went out for the unification of all forces against right-wing authoritarian dictatorship.
József seemingly drew only rational conclusions from the affair: that no dictatorship can be reconciled to socialism and that the infallibility of the party was derived from an inherent disease of dogmatism. And yet he had received a mortal blow, for one can detect in his poetry a desperation, undoubtedly the result of the sorry end of the affair. ‘My heart is perched on nothing’s branch’ he wrote in ‘Without Hope’ (1933), as if to illustrate Pascal’s aphorism about the reasons of the heart of which the mind knows nothing. Moreover, there is a bitter reference in his last poem ‘I Finally Found My Home’ (1937): ‘They made me play the fool’ which shows the unhealed wound caused by those ‘among whom I would have lived gladly’.
While the responsibility for rejecting the most genuine socialist poet rests with the Communist Party, the rejection being a decisive factor as an external cause of József’s death, it is only fair to point out that the internal cause for his self-destruction was the collapse of his personality. He himself recognized the signs of his mental illness at an early stage, and had willingly submitted to psychoanalytic treatment, yet the last stages of his illness revealed depths from which nothing could save him. The riddle remains whether it was deprivation, both material and emotional, which unhinged such a lucid mind as his, or whether his genius was from the first infected with madness, which would make his case a textbook illustration to Lombroso’s teachings about the symbiosis of genius and madness.
What is certain, however, is that his poetry never displayed incoherence or logical inconsistencies, whether he was speaking about the world in general or about the state of his own mind in particular. His early poetry already showed signs of far more seriousness of mind that could be expected from the conventional defiance of an ‘angry young man’. He incessantly searched for ‘order’ in a seemingly chaotic universe, with a determination to accept the truth, whatever result his relentless probing of the world might bring. For him order was beauty and truth helped him to discover order. Moreover, he had a morbid obsession with minute details, for he believed the same universal truth to be manifest in the laws pertaining to the tiniest detail to the same extent as in the laws governing the order of the macrocosmos. ‘Be the tiny blade on a leaf of grass / and you will be bigger than the axis of the world’ he claims in ‘It’s Not I Who Shouts’, the title-poem of his second volume (Szeged, 1925), József trained himself to receive simultaneously the sights and sounds of a swirling world, a world for which he is ready to provide order by setting it in a frame (‘A Fine Summer Evening’, 1924); yet the bewildering choice of action weighs on his mind at all times in his early poems (‘To Sit, To Stand, To Kill, To Die’, 1926).
While József was undoubtedly a committed poet, he never became a ‘national poet’ in the sense that Petőfi or Ady was, for his commitment tied him first of all to the ‘have-nots’ (cf. his numerous early ‘poor man’ poems), and secondly to the working-class movement, irrespective of national considerations (cf. his volumes I Have Neither Father, Nor Mother, 1929; Fell the Tree-Trunks!,* 1931, and Night in the Slums, 1932); but he always had an awareness of universal significance, and linked whatever he wrote to his personal experiences or rather he saw his personal experiences always in a universal context. It was due perhaps to his gift of identification with the social aims of the lower classes that his own despair never became exaggerated, but ran parallel to his collective social protest. True, he was maladjusted all the time, and he followed an inner urge to project his maladjustment on to the outside world, but his personal failure did not discredit for him the idea of structured order in the universe, and he did not try to alleviate his own plight by believing that there was no hope for mankind.
Quite early in his poetic development József became fascinated by the technique of free association, which remained a distinct feature of his poetry until the end* and which assisted him in expressing hitherto unexplored states of mind. The best examples are his ‘Medallions’ (1928), twelve eight-line couplets (except for the last piece), a grotesque poetic assessment of totality, resembling the whirling visions induced by the use of psychoactive drugs, yet with a curious sense of order and inevitability in the sequence of the bizarre associations, in spite of the seemingly abrupt ending.
The longer pieces, however, written in the early 1930s, are a series of large-scale tableaux, describing a desolate world of factories, dark warehouses, slums, empty lots, and heavy freight-trains, always permeated by a dull sadness. ‘Night in the Slums’ (1932), an ode with impressionistic images, is the first of the sombre and depressing ‘maps of poverty’, in which the only redeeming quality, József’s revolutionary optimism, is kept effectively in the background till the end. ‘On the Outskirts of the City’ (1933), another great fresco, is more personal and, at the same time, more imbued with political jargon; in it, however, József actually managed to paraphrase ideological concepts of Marxism poetically. ‘Elegy’ (1933) witnesses the poet’s identification with slumland; and ‘Winter Night’ (1933) offers a more universal view of the human environment the mood is defined by words suggesting cold, clear, firm images (e.g. ‘blue, iron night’, ‘the molecules shiver’, ‘silence cools off’). His preoccupation with hard objects (diamond, steel, crystal, or glass) is a striking feature, and recurs in many of his poems: József s world is often relentlessly rigid and yet fragile.
József best explained his ideas concerning the complex totality of his age in ‘Consciousness’ (1934), a poem of twelve stanzas (with the simple rhyme scheme ABABBABA) written in the ballad form employed by Villon in his ‘Grand Testament’. In this work he created a unity of three spheres: of direct experience, of autobiographic inspiration, and of abstract notions of the world. While claiming that the ultimate cause of suffering is of an objective nature, he is able to confront the hostile external reality by grasping it in its movement and as a whole, thereby preserving internal freedom:
|See, here inside is the suffering,|
|out there, sure enough, is the explanation.|
|Your wound is the world it burns and rages|
|and you feel your soul, the fever.|
|You are a slave so long as your heart rebels |
|you can become free if you don’t indulge in|
|building yourself the kind of house|
|which a landlord settles in.*|
In other words, the ultimate source of enslavement is a subjective vis inertiae a lack of consciousness. Stanza XI shows an ascetic attitude in rejecting personal happiness, which may seem somewhat strange from a poet whose personality and poetic attitude were basically tender and playful. Yet ‘mere happiness’ is rejected here as inhuman, since it is below the level of consciousness.
In his later ‘Ars Poetica’ (1937), József has became aware, at the price of much suffering, that human existence is guarded by the watchful eye of its parents, spirit and love; but while his intellect would explain and understand personal and social conditions and problems, the feeling that nobody could help him, because he was unloved, overwhelmed him; the heart again produced its reasons with which the mind could not cope: ‘The bargain’s off let me be happy / Or else anybody will insult me; / growing spots of red will mark me out, / fever will suck my fluids dry.’
His increased sense of being unloved created a nostalgia for the primeval motherly love, as witnessed by the numerous poems written about and to his mother. Her portrait in ‘My Mother’ (1931) is idyllic and serene, and she represents ‘Mother Nature’ in ‘Mama’ (1934) a poem which moved Benedetto Croce to hail József as possibly one of the greatest poets of the poor and of all humanity, and which clearly shows a growing obsession with his sense of irreparable loss. In ‘Belated Lament’, written in 1935 (a singularly unproductive year), accusations, already present in ‘Mama’, are aggravated by curses, but end on a note of final resignation: ‘My mind is enlightened, the myths are dispersed: the child clinging to his mother’s love realizes how stupid he has been. Every mother’s son is let down in the end, either deceived or else trying to deceive. You die either of trying to fight or of resignation.’
His love affairs were unhappy; either the class-barrier, or wrong choice (e.g. he became infatuated with his psychoanalyst), prevented his finding emotional security in women. In his mature love poetry, however, he created an entirely new imagery for describing the most ancient of poetic subjects. In ‘Ode’ (1933), for example, metaphors conjure up the internal world of the body with its ‘rosebushes of the bloodvessels’, ‘the soil of the stomach’, ‘the foliage of the lungs’, or the ‘tunnels of the bowels’, where ‘timeless matter moves serenely’. The biological details of the internal organs, far from being revolting, create a unique landscape, not unlike those photos of human tissues magnified a thousand times, of which modern electronic photography is justly proud. Moreover, there is a unity of the perceptible world and the microcosmos achieved by the all-pervading love-declarations. Of the poems written to Flóra in 1937, ‘Flóra’ stands out on two counts; by the sudden thawing of József’s wintry imagery in Part One (‘Hexameters’), and by the introduction of social references in Part Three (‘Already Two Thousand Millions’): ‘I need you Flóra as villages / need electric light, stone-houses, schools, wells’, which is rather uncommon in love-lyrics.
In his last two years, József wrote more poems than in any other period since 1928. The power, penetration, and shrewd simplicity of the last poems make it hard to believe that they were written by a mentally sick person, especially as there is not a single line that shows the loss of his consciousness as an artist. Yet he was in the final stage; his last volume, The Pain Is Great (1936), the only one to appear after his selected poems (Bear’s Dance, 1934), is a final attempt to grasp totality. The title poem talks about the ‘loss of the last refuge’, it says that ‘there is no place for me here, among the living’, and connects the stanzas with the outburst: ‘The pain is great!’ But social awareness never left the poet; he reacted sharply to the signs of hostile external reality. He came to see as many other renegades were to see a generation later that for all their noble ideals, the Communists’ methods were hardly distinguishable from those of the Fascists they were so valiantly combating, for they believed that ‘the world needs order, and order exists … to ban what is good’. This ironic ‘new tale of fascist-communism’ became the reality of the Stalinist era (‘Enlighten Your Child’, 1936).
When József assumed the authority of a spokesman of the people his vision became a complete fusion of personal experience and history seen simultaneously. ‘By the Danube’ (1936) is an expression of this totality, inspired by watching the river flow by while reflecting on the complex co-relationships of personal and collective existence. This most impressive statement of existential and social relevance is the realization that in his person both oppressor and oppressed, victor and the vanquished are embodied within the larger context of mankind, making nonsense of the conflict between self and society. ‘A Breath of Air!’ (1936) is an eloquent protest against all forms of dictatorship, a protest which has not ceased to be relevant in Eastern Europe: ‘They can tap all my telephone calls / (when, why, to whom.) / They have a file on my dreams and plans / and on those who read them. / And who knows when they’ll find / sufficient reason to dig up the files / that violate my rights.’*
Children figure often in his similes, as in ‘Welcome to Thomas Mann’ (1937) written when the novelist, a fugitive from the Fascism that also threatened Hungary, came to lecture in Budapest; here the audience is compared to a child pleading to be told another story. The touching simplicity of the child-like plea for beautiful tales as humanity is devoured by ‘monster-states’, is effectively counterbalanced by the cultivated dignity maintained throughout the poem.
Until the end of his life József continued to plead for ‘fine words’,* as if he sought to counteract the grim reality of the times, and to make good the arrears of happiness outstanding to him from his childhood (as in ‘Lullaby’, 1936, a beautiful poem written for little Balázs, the son of a composer friend).
Another feature of his work which remained till the end was the flippant humour with which, for example, he summarized his abortive career in ‘For My Birthday’ (1937), as ‘a present to give myself a surprise in the corner of the coffee-house’. Describing the clash with Professor Horger, who sent him down from Szeged University, thus ending his hopes of becoming a teacher, he concludes the poem on a note of sublime defiance: ‘I will teach all my people, not at high-school level’ The rhyme structure of the poem is a tour de force; the last two lines of each stanza consist of only two syllables. They are effortless pure rhymes which lend the poem its irreverent tone, and the climax coincides with a climax of virtuosity, the dividing of the infinitive of the verb tanítani (to teach), with its rhyming halves forming the last two lines of the stanza.
His dream of a world where order is maintained by human reason and conscience, had been eroded in the confrontation with reality. Nothing much remained to sustain his life, except to record his last states of mind: ‘Why should I be honest? I shall be laid out in any case! / Why should not I be honest? / I shall be laid out then too!’ he argues in ‘Two Hexameters’ (1936). ‘In the guise of Knaves, Kings and Queens / we await silently what fate is in store for us’ (‘After the Cards are Dealt’, 1936) he reports in a sonnet, and then admits defeat: ‘I am Crushed’ (1937). Once more he summarizes his ars poetica: ‘Eat, drink, hug, sleep! / Measure yourself with the universe!’ but there is now only one possibility left: death. His mood is summed up very soberly in the last stanza of his last poem, written probably on his last day:
|Spring is fine, and so is summer,|
|but autumn’s better, and winter is best|
|for one who finally leaves his hopes|
|for a family and a home to others.*|
His death was a symbolic sacrifice; at least that was how the next generation understood it, and it was also symbolic within the context of his poetry. Trains were of paramount importance in his imagery; he had already ‘put his hat on the rails’ in 1926, and in the background of countless poems goods trains shunt, locomotives whistle, as they did on the outskirts of Budapest where he had grown up. The last freight train was due with its rigid iron wheels on a cold day in December.
József’s poetic legacy consists of about 600 poems which he wrote in fifteen years. During his lifetime he achieved little recognition, he was known only to a handful of friends and intellectuals; his influence, however, became significant for the generation which attained consciousness in the 1950s, that is, for those intellectuals who were born in the 1930s. It is somewhat ironic that he became the master of those whom he should have taught at ‘high-school level’ had he been allowed to graduate; it is still a greater irony that his poetry, which became widely available in school-books, also became an intellectual weapon against the regime which proclaimed him its ‘official poet’. It can mean only that his ideas put into effective verse form a legacy pointing far beyond the manipulations of any regimes, to ‘where freedom is order’, and as a result, he is still an active force in Hungarian literature.
Apart from Kassák and Attila József, no other major socialist writers came forward in Hungary; there were, however, many young authors in revolt, attracted to leftist ideals for shorter or longer periods in their life. One such writer is Zsigmond Remenyik (1902-62), who sympathized with both Kassák’s circle (his first poems were printed in Today) and Fine Word. Remenyik spent nearly ten years in South America (he wrote also in Spanish). His novels, called by their author Apocalypsis Humana, are not a genuine cycle of novels; nevertheless they display the richness of their author’s experiences. Remenyik’s heroes are often social outcasts, always gifted with keen intellectual curiosity; sitting in the seedy bars of both hemispheres, they incessantly argue about philosophy, moral issues, or the plays of G. B. Shaw. Young Remenyik’s characters, not unlike Tersánszky’s heroes, hated the middle class with its intellectual and social pretensions, accusing them of being pillars of ‘law-abiding corruptness’ in society. He was attracted to expressionism for a time, and also utilized some of those devices in fiction which brought new features to the contemporary American novel (e.g. particularly Dos Passos). In Remenyik’s interpretation both world and man are impenetrable enigmas, and the significance of fiction is exhausted by its associative possibilities. His first novel Flea-Circus (1932) is marked by a mood of anarchistic revolt. Also worthy of note in the Apocalypsis Humana are The Living and the Dead (1948), in which the hero keeps four wives in four different ports and acts out different sides of his personality with each wife; the autobiographical Guilt (1937), and Ancestors and Descendants (1957). As Remenyik has received little critical treatment until very recently, his work is far from being satisfactorily assessed.
|1. Kassák and His Circle||CONTENTS||CHAPTER XXI Traditions, Traumas, and Quacks|