János Pilinszky (Photo: Eifert János/Wikimedia)

Pilinsky: An invitation to decipher destiny

The pulse of life, the sounding board of existence. Or rather, vocation. This is what poetry is for the Hungarian János Pilinszky. A hundred years after his birth, a brief excursus through his life and poems.
Antonio Molteni

This year marks the centenary of the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky, who was born in Budapest on November 17, 1921 to a German mother and Polish father.
He lived his private life with discretion, under the totalitarian and atheistic communist regime, where professing one's faith or having it "ooze" from poetry meant, on the one hand, censorship and isolation, but, on the other, was an intense and disruptive testimony that extended beyond the Iron Curtain.
He attended the Scolopi school, where he completed his studies, and later the Faculty of Philosophy at the Pazmany Peter University, where he studied art history and Hungarian literature; he abandoned his studies in 1944 due to the war.
Since his childhood, he was interested in the works of Endre Ady, Babits and Kosztolànyi, among the greatest poets of the early twentieth century in Hungary. In his later years, he was accompanied by three other poets of the second generation: Jòzsef, Illyès and Weoeres. He was influenced by the writings of Simone Weil, a French writer born in Paris in 1909, who converted to Christianity in 1938.
Pilinszky died in the Hungarian capital in 1981.

For Pilinszky, poetry is vocation, that is, a response to a call, which questions the reader on the fundamental questions of life and the destiny of every individual who is searching for the meaning of their existence and of the world.
For him, poetry is the pulse of life, the sounding board of his existence.

Measure time,
but not our time,
the motionless present of the splinters,
the steps of the drawbridge,
the snow of the winter scaffold,
the silence of paths and glades,
in the setting of the fragment
the promise of God the Father.

In 1970, he published the book Nagyvarosi Ikonok [Metropolis Icons], which was the first time he emerged in the public eye. This volume brings together all his previous poems to the public eye: 1945 Trapéz és Korlat (Trapeze and Parallel Bars); 1959 Harmadnapon (On The Third Day). This is his first poetic period, the words of which are a denunciation of the human condition, of the anguish that grips the heart when faced with life's questions, of the pain caused by the proximity of others. The message of the poem Agonia cristiana is valid for the past, the present and the future, as a summary of his early literary period.

Life is birth and death, but the interval consists of the process of interior fulfilment, full of drama, of man’s destiny that awaits its final fulfilment, eternal happiness; it is a perpetual agony.

Agonia Christiana
How far still the dawn,
with its streams and cool breath!
I put on my shirt and coat.
I button up my death.

Pilinszky experienced war and concentration camps, and his sensitivity recorded the unbelievable sequence of events of that time, in which he played a leading role as a Hungarian solider guarding the Nazi extermination camps. The poet's intention was not primarily to denounce Nazism, but to read the eternal destiny of the person that at that particular juncture in history was expressed in a humiliation of mankind, in a historical sin, for which there were sufferers and tormentors. The poem Harbach 1944 is a filmic image of a group of prisoners pulling a wagon, which depicts the stark reality of suffering and contradiction, but there is never any despair or rebellion. Not even the image of death in the last stanza is tragic, but suggests the pacifying and concrete fact of “the sniffling manger of heaven” where the prisoners will finally be able to feed themselves, nourished by love and justice.

Harbach 1944. To Gábor Thurzó
At all times I see them.
The moon brilliant. A black shaft looms up.
Beneath it, harnessed men
haul a huge cart.
Dragging that giant wagon
which grows bigger as the night grows
their bodies are divided among
the dust, their hunger and their trembling.
They are carrying the road, they are carrying the land,
the bleak potato fields,
and all they know is the weight of everything,
the burden of the skylines
and the falling bodies of their companions
which almost grow into their own
as they lurch, living layers,
treading each other's footsteps.
The villages stay clear of them,
the gateways withdraw.
The distance, that has come to meet them,
reels away back.
Staggering, they wade knee deep
in the low, darkly-muffled clatter
of their wooden clogs
as through invisible leaf litter.
Already their bodies belong to silence.
And they thrust their faces towards the height
as if they strained for a scent
of the far-off celestial troughs
because, prepared for their coming
like an opened stock-yard,
its gates flung savagely back,
eath gapes to its hinges.

For Pilinszky, the past is not a memory, it is always a presence that 'clamors for his heart': this summarises the beautiful poem French Prisoner. Here, too, we seem to be witnessing a live scene: this prisoner drags himself into a corner and, after checking that no one is around, starts to eat a stolen turnip. The encounter between the pleasure of eating and the disgust of the senses is visible, now unaccustomed to food: a tremendous bodily conflict, the symbol of the spiritual conflict that grips the poet himself.

The French Prisoner
If only I could forget that Frenchman.
I saw him, just before dawn, creeping past our quarters
into the dense growth of the back garden
so that he almost merged into the ground.
As I watched he looked back, he peered all round –
At last he had found a safe hideout.
Now his plunder can be all his!
He'll go no further, whatever happens.

Already he is eating, biting into the turnip
which he must have smuggled out under his rags.
He was gulping raw cattle-turnip! Yet he had
hardly swallowed one mouthful before it flooded back up.
Then the sweet pulp in his mouth mingled
with delight and disgust the same
as the unhappy and happy come together
in their bodies' voracious ecstasy.

Only to forget that body, those quaking
shoulder blades, the hands shrunk to bone,
the bare palm that crammed at his mouth,
and clung there so that it ate, too.
And the same, desperate and enraged
of the organs embittered against each other
forced to tear from each other
their last bonds of kinship.

The way his clumsy feet had been left out
of the gibbering bestial joy and splayed there,
crushed beneath the rapture and torture of his body.
And his glance – if only I could forget that!
Though he was choking, he kept on
forcing more down his gullet–no matter what –
only to eat – anything – this – that – even himself!

Why go on? Guards came for him.
He had escaped from the nearby prison camp.
And just as I did then, in that garden,
I am strolling here, among garden shadows, at home.
I look into my notes and quote:
'If only I could forget that Frenchman...'
And from my ears, my eyes, my mouth
the scalding memory shouts at me:

'I am hungry!' And suddenly I feel
the eternal hunger
which that poor creature has long ago forgotten
and which no earthly nourishment can lessen.
He lives on me. And more and more hungrily!
And I am less and less sufficient for him.
And now he, who would have eaten anything,
is clamoring for my heart.

The whole historical scandal of the experience of war makes man retrace the Stations of the Cross. It is innocent humanity that bears the cross, but this is the compulsory path that must tread to reach resurrection.

On The Third Day
And the ashen grey skies start blustering,
the trees of Ravensbrück towards dawn.
And the roots start to feel the light.
And wind rises. And the world resounds.
Because perfidious mercenaries may have killed him,
and his heart may have stopped beating, -
on the third day he triumphed over death.
Et resurrexit tertia die.

In his essay The Fate of Creative Imagination in Our Time, Pilinszky states: "Our faith can in no way remain alienated from that mortal weakness for which only the God of defeat can offer a remedy, that human, public defeat, where almost originally the divine counterpart of resurrection was understood with an incomparable intimacy." Peace is essentially the touching of "the equivalent of resurrection"; it is feeling like a winner when we seem to be defeated in the eyes of all.

In another important essay entitled In place of Ars poetica, Pilinszky writes: "The exiled God behind events, from time to time, drenches the fabric of history with blood. The stain he leaves there is infinitely insignificant and it is a problematic if we cannot discover him. If it is possible to make a distinction, the silence that has come between us does not concern poetry, but engages the poet himself, demanding the totality of his life, and it is not possible not to respond to this invitation even at the cost of a definitive and complete silence.”
His later poems - Szalkak (Splinters) in 1972, Végkifejelt (Final Result) in 1974, Tér és kapcsolat (Space and Contact) in 1975, and Krater (Crater) in 1976 - are the expression of a further period which, within the same structure of thought and vision of the world, approaches, one might say, peace. The poems become simpler and more global. The language, too, becomes simpler because it has to report on common suffering.

Man Here
Man here is too little for love.
Enough if grateful within
for this and that, in short for everything.

In fact I only know two words,
the two words of sin and prayer.
One is part of myself.
The other can’t be located.

The consciousness of man's moral fall (sin belongs to man) is always present, which makes man incapable of living with truth. It is enough that man is grateful for what he lives, even trivial facts that only acquire importance if they are lived in prayer: the incessant demand that every gesture, every action be brought back to the unity between men and between man and God. Prayer is not an invention, a discovery, or the result of human behaviour, but is brought into the world by God's initiative. We no longer find the vehemence or raw objectivity of before, but it is as if the poet were reviewing the history he has lived and expressing judgements in other words and with greater serenity.

He confirms that his deep and true interest in the destiny of people and the world is always the same; he is always intent on seeing "the stains" left by God on the fabric of life.
But he is well aware that everything that man lives obediently is heading towards the final outcome, something that can now be savoured in anticipation, "the divine equivalent of resurrection".

Notch by notch
As the nothingness flattens out
the furrows of agony,
as the landscape after the snowdrift
calms down, finds its home,
so forms and shapes somehow
notch by notch, man and God’s
devastation and birthing dialog

János Pilinszky finds the fulfilment of this deposit, or at least begins to experience it, recognising himself as belonging to a Destiny greater than himself, that of God's Love for every man.

Of future I don’t know much,
but I can see last judgement before me.
That day, that hour will be the apotheosis
of our nakedness.

In the throng nobody’s searching for others.
The Father takes back the cross as if
it was a thorn, and angels, the animals of
heavens open up the world’s last page.

Then we say, I love you. We say,
I love you so much. And in the sudden
scramble our crying will once again set
the sea free, before we sit to the table.