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Problematical values

Problematical values

Milán Füst: Chasm,

Jean-Paul Sartre: Nausea


Gergely Angyalosi


My original intention was to write about Milán Füst’s short novel Chasm; I wanted to understand this strange combination of scintillatingly beautiful sentences and clumsy, tortuous platitudes, the acoustics of the deep, calm breaths of greatness and the wheezing and puffing of dilettantism blending into each other. But as I got down to work it struck me that the “close reading” of this work written in 1928 might not prove enlightening enough in itself. For in Chasm (as in almost every prose piece written by Milán Füst, excepting The Story of my Wife) it is not greatness but dilettantism that prevails. We are speaking about an irreparably, irretrievably spoiled work, which the contemporaries were well aware of at the time. Its faults and more successful sections will be all the more worthy of our attention if we compare it to a novel written in the Western part of Europe round about the same time, with enough similar features for it to be worthwhile to conduct this study. I chose Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea for this purpose. Though it was written almost ten years after Füst’s novel, the life situation with which the novel begins, the infiltration of  philosophy (one may even say ideology) into the prose texture all present if not analogy as such, then (perhaps even more important) some homology. And who can say that it is always analogies that have to carry the day whenever comparisons are made?

     I must note here that my choice was also influenced by the fact that the problem of dilettantism arises in Sartre’s prose as well. Apart from his novellas, the two works often cited as unspoiled by didacticism and exaggerated deliberateness are Nausea and Words. Artistic success can be explained by different prose-poetic reasons in the case of both these writings, in other words there is a reason why directly manifest theorizing had no adverse effect on epics in this instance. So hopefully, in the course of this comparison, Füst’s work will shed light upon Sartre’s novels.

      What we have said about the homology of the life-situations with which the novels begin refers mainly to the fact that the protagonists of Chasm and Nausea both experience a decisive change. For both, this change is internal, causally unexplainable, and so mysterious that they almost begin to doubt their sanity. It is the mystery of this change that unfolds in the novels; it is the mystery that provides the tension which nourishes the writing. And accordingly, the ending is, in a certain sense, the unravelling and resolving of this mystery. To quote the first paragraph of Chasm: “If I look back today I have the feeling that that night I lost my mind in my sleep. True, I have since then become a normal, decent person again – quite normal and decent – even if I am not exactly the person I used to be. But let us begin at the beginning.” This opening raises a dozen questions in itself, foreshadows as it were a part of the aesthetic uncertainty of the piece. According to the Diary, Osvát qualified Chasm as “a story not worth telling”: “The one-time attempt at rebellion of a man incapable of liberation – which today, when he looks back upon it, must be degraded to a mere adventure – to be smiled at. Which he does. He looks back upon what happened to him with cultured cynicism. And yet he still relates what happened to him then as animatedly as if it were happening to him today, something which cannot still exist inside him with such incredible force – in other words, the narrator is fabricating, falsifying…and the resolution of this duality is psychological nonsense.” Füst then asked whether this objection and Osvát’s opinion concerning the faltering inner dynamics of the piece would still stand if he rewrote the whole thing in the third person? The answer was an unequivocal Yes, but the admired and feared master did not encourage him to undertake the work, as he was doubtful of the outcome. Upon which the author commented bitterly: “I have noticed that I speak more easily in the first person – so I allowed myself to speak! This is the curse of those doomed to be indirect.” The following remark also indicates a surprising ingenuousness in relation to language: “Incidentally, I never imagined that it could prove be so decisively important, to relate something in the first person or in the third – and though I have felt something of the sort, I never believed my instinct.” The failure – Kassák, Déry, Dr. Hollós, Illyés all pronounce similar opinions about this “accursed piece” – makes him seriously consider giving up writing – not for the first time. “I have spared no effort these past five years – and the result? – Problematical values.”

     Nausea solves the problems arising out of the position of the narrator with a simple, two-hundred-year-old device: the diary form. In the beginning of the novel he imitates the diary form so precisely that he inserts gaps, “faded details” into the text.” (Further on he forgets to continue this). This technique, despite its simplicity, is suitable for demonstrating the inner course of events, the amalgamation of synchronous and past occurrences, even if there are increasingly fewer exterior signs of the diary form as the novel progresses. And if Milán Füst’s friends reproach him for the “pretentiously arty” stiltedness of his writing, Sartre writes -  and it is no mere chance that makes him say: “One should beware of literature. One should write as one’s pen runs across the page; there is no need to search for the right words.” This self-reflective remark (made upon reading Roquentin’s entries of the previous day) calls attention to the common enemy of both the Hungarian and the French writer: pomposity and loftiness. Both authors tried to rid themselves of this monster which threatens “those doomed to indirectness”. Sartre attempts to do this by imitating a certain kind of living speech which later ( as Roland Barthes went on to say in Writing Degree Zero), led him back to “realistic illusion”. Füst on the other hand developed a characteristic diction, which was supposed to elevate his sentences to artistic heights and to endow them with the magic of naturalness. The result is, to put it mildly, doubtful. Whether it is a question of words put into the mouths of characters, or the reproduction of the inner monologue of the protagonist, at every turn the reader is made to feel that this inner tension puts a strain on the sentences. The writer desires, strives to be natural, spontaneous, direct to such an extent that it is precisely this striving that distances him from reality. The reader’s first impression is that no one uses sentences like these - and the experience immediately jolts him out of the continuity of the fiction. Sometimes this jolt is a fortunate one. Some of Füst’s sentences are concise, with a strict, set rhythm. But all too often, we could quote the author’s self-critical diary entry from 1931: “Well, I’ve had it. I’ve failed badly. I tried to write in a polished, finely chiselled style…and truth to tell I have weakened my work. I scanned it as if it were a poem as I wrote…I took care not to use the same word twice – and I ruined its freshness, its spontaneity –  all for polished, elegant phrases! – It has become an overworked, over-wrought Apollonian work…” In other words, the primary cause of the failure of Chasm is the inability of an artist with a fundamentally lyrical linguistic talent to create an autonomous prose language.

     Sartre’s language cannot be called overly original; beside the great French essayists, perhaps Céline and Gide influenced him the most. Yet it is exactly this coarseness or roughness (compared with contemporary French prose), this striving for simplicity that saves the work on those points where the novel switches over into a positively sentimental register, and becomes too full of pathos. The inner rhythm of the composition and construction of the work follows a clear and unambiguous line. From the first meeting with the secret (that is, from the moment he picks up a pebble and  experiences the eventuality and absurdity of existence, in other words, nausea) Roquentin falls headlong into this experience, like a stone dropped into a well. From the first manifestation of nausea he knows that there will only be transitory periods of rest, he cannot avoid the increasingly intensive experience of contingency. The inner rhythm of Nausea is determined by the manifestation and temporary easing of these fits, these convulsive moments. All the effort and energy of the author is directed at the definition of the magnitude and character of the changes he has undergone. The only way he can safeguard himself from madness is to attempt to distance his Self from these modifications which, as he says “affect objects only.” It is only towards the end of the novel that he comes to realize that the absurdity of existence rests upon the fact that it covers, comprises every thing; that the point of view of the subject (which in Being and nothingness  he will wish to discontinue-preserve for its own sake, or rather with the aid of the concepts of human reality) belongs in the world of explanations and reasons which “does not coincide with the world of Being”. The essence is therefore eventuality itself, the saturation of existence maddening for the human consciousness. This is what the famous sentence refers to: “Every existing being is born without  reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.”

     Perhaps it is unnecessary to provide examples to support the theory that in many respects, the recurring experience of existence in Milán Füst’s works shows an affinity with Sartre’s existentialism in its early stage. The Hungarian writer measures the failure of creation in terms of the alienation of the soul and existence. In a characteristic way Chasm puts the formulation of this idea into the mouth of a secondary character. (I quote this detail because it is a good example of a Milán Füst sentence made tortuous for the sake of intended spontaneity.) “The human condition is exactly like when you take that piglet into your hands. It doesn’t feel comfortable, it squeals because it is in a stranger’s hands. – Well, my dears, that is how I have felt since I was born.” The sudden rebellion of the outside world, of the material world of objects is not alien from the world of Chasm either. The protagonist (in his own words) is separated from chaos by a thin membrane only, and when this chaos (which in Füst’s case serves a similar function to that of existence in Sartre’s) pushes towards the soul – and this is exactly what happens in this piece of writing – it has its “material equivalents”. Such as the wreathing mist that shrouds the entire novella, and turns from grey to yellow as the protagonist’s inner confusion and tension increases; such as the unreality of the furnishings and fittings of the public house, which is the consequence of the absurdly sharp contours, the hostile evidence of the material world, and we could continue to list examples.

     But the inner course of events of Füst’s professor of law does not follow a clear direction like Roquentin’s. (To say nothing of the fact that the tension is significantly lessened by the previously quoted first sentence, which foreshadows the denouement, in other words lets us know in advance that after the attempt to break free following the crisis, the protagonist will return to the fold of normal civil life.) The figure is not simply inconsistent (which could still be a rather consequently drawn character trait) but breaks up into several characters differing quite significantly from each other. At times he is forceful, manly, a strong character, at other times weak and spineless, sometimes omnisciently cynical, at other times childishly naïve and sentimental. But these problems of character depiction, even if they have nothing to do with artistic merit, can be placed within the topos of the inner chaos of a human being, a literary theme characteristic of Milán Füst. The greater difficulty is caused by the question of whether the crisis of his protagonist is a source of happiness (the happiness of the sudden premonition of freedom), which is counterbalanced by the pangs of conscience accompanying the awareness of irresponsibility, or the oppressively slippery, amorphous -  to use a Sartre-like word, viscous -  experience of the quagmire-like quality of existence. In this respect, the memorable day differed from all the other days in that the lawyer “could not bear the morass in himself”, but keeps stirring it up inadvertently. Because of this, the objective world is also made to appear in an inconsistent way:  at times it radiates the easy rapture of regained freedom, at times bleak hopelessness. To recapture: in Nausea, the pale sunlight suddenly breaking through the clouds causes the protagonist almost unbearable physical pain; in Füst’s book, when the light is switched on at the moment of crisis, the “black sun” suffuses the objects with “pure music”: I am happy, the professor keeps repeating.

     The relation of these two figures to the middle-class world also indicates some important points of contact, without showing too much similarity; in this respect also, it is more a question of metonymy. We know that in Sartre’s case the conscientious bourgeois  is nothing but a “despicable scoundrel”, not so much for social reasons (not because he considers the misery of others as natural as his own prosperity), but rather on a metaphysical level – because he refuses to acknowledge the common misery of existence. The consciousness of the “despicable scoundrels” is a proprietary consciousness, that is why they have a past as well – for a past is “the extravagance of proprietors”. They are the leading personalities who never examine their conscience, who constantly lie to themselves so as not to see the indefensibleness of their existence. Well, Milán Füst’s protagonist starts off from this “despicable scoundrel” level, or more precisely from the level of a citizen who acknowledges social irregularities melancholically, who knows that the others who belong to his caste are, like him, no better than they should be, and that those who are at a lower social level can’t be helped. Previously the professor had reconciled himself to the fact that human existence is tantamount to having to endure –  in our own best interests – the stinking quagmire within us. And he has developed a technique to do this. For example, in the morning, under the shower, he spouts insults and abuse: “Stinking scoundrels! Blackguards, cads! - I shouted at the walls of the bathroom...” He knows when he is filled with the “ ignominious joy of the chosen”.

     For a literary sociologist, the way in which Sartre and Füst portray the middle classes  supplies a lot of interesting information. The promenade appears in both authors’ novels as the typical “breeding ground” of this type. In Füst’s case this image gains added colour in the scene where the professor has invited two of his students to dinner. The names of these students are suggestive in themselves: Weiss and Mátéffy. In Sartre’s France, there is only one kind of bourgeois; between the two world wars in Hungary, there were two: the Jew and the gentry-type. Both despise the other: one is scornful and obsequious, the other is supercilious, boorish. What they have in common is their conformism, their careerism and the knowledge that they want to be winners in life. Nothing could be further from them than Roquentin’s realization that man always loses, only the “despicable scoundrels” think they have won. The professor hovers above them as it were, playing  off one against the other, making ironic remarks: he is one of those who appears to have won, but deep within knows that they have in fact lost. And that from the point of view of inner freedom, they are on a lower level than the student who was capable of giving up his university career in order to occupy himself with something that truly interests him.

     The protagonist of Sartre’s novel makes a huge journey between two sentences. At the beginning of the novel, affected by the nausea that comes upon him, he feels he can never again be free. This same experience makes him say at the end of the novel (because he has understood, processed the experience in his own way): “I am free, I have no reason to continue living.” Nausea is also the novel of freedom, for Roquentin and his love, Anny both wish to win freedom against the contingency of existence – one in the form of adventure, the other in the form of perfect moments. Independently of each other, they simultaneously reach the conclusion that for someone who has understood what existence means, there is no longer adventure, or privileged situations, or perfect moments. Roquentin still manages to find a way of justifying his existence: with some aesthetic pretentiousness, we can say that the creation of works of art provides the means to do this; a work of art can form a connection between two “existing for themselves”, bridging any  temporal distance. And this does count for something: we do not have a right as such to existence (the question of right and existence cannot be put at the same level), but we can at a later date attempt to make our one-time existence legitimate:  through anything with which the Other can join in, anything that he can make a part of his own “human reality”. This is why the Jewish American composer’s song, sung  by a black singer many years before Roquentin comes across the old scratched LP in the country coffee-house, can become an example of self-legitimizing.

     It may be of some interest to note that jazz also gets a mention in Füst’s novella, but as an evocation of aimless, uninhibited sensuality, leading up to the rather clumsily described brothel scene. In Füst’s view the desire for freedom inevitably leads to irresponsibility and unnecessary destruction. Neither the darkness of futility nor strong, bright light are suited to human beings, these “transfigured beasts”, as they are inherently alien in the universe. “This tendency for independence…is foolish after a certain point.” If Sartre’s hero realizes that he must at all costs break away from his fellow humans (even if he sees that his reality, the verisimilitude without which it is impossible to live, will disappear together with the others), Füst’s professor knows that despite all his protests and resistance, his rebellion is nothing but a field trip into nothingness. The reason for this is not only that a Western European citizen can accept his alienation in a more radical way, that the middle-class consciousness has assimilated and allowed the  confession of one’s alienation as a permissible deviation for artists. In his own way, Roquentin is as much a sentimental soul as the protagonist of Chasm. For both of them, love is an  unquestioned value, what is more, both of them are in love in the literary sense of the word, and contrast this emotion with the sexual act. In Füst’s case the nostalgia for following Christ does undoubtedly appear, in the form of pure ideology, without the possibility of realising it. In Sartre’s case the church stands for no more than the promenade: it is the stage of middle-class life, the meeting-place of “despicable scoundrels”. He does not deem religion worthy of the sarcastic critique which is embodied in the figure of the Autodidact, and is directed at humanism, the religion empty of content of the atheist middle-classes. That Füst’s professor returns to the fold of middle-class existence is a matter of principle. He does not make a journey from freedom to freedom, but from a state of restriction accepted in bad faith to the experience of an unbridgeable gap – also an existential experience. “There is a chasm within us – I said to myself, - yes, a chasm. Between what we really are, and the life we live.” To use another Sartre category, he transcends bad faith by voluntarily accepting the boundaries it sets. Compassion also calls a halt (Sartre protects Roquentin from attacks of compassion, as he exempts him from almost all social relations and dependencies; the compassion he feels for Anny and the Autodidact helps him recognize the absurdity of helping others. Füst’s protagonist formulates what he considers the most important thing in the following way: “ There are borderlands where I cannot and do not wish to follow the human soul in its dubious wanderings.” Can we state with all responsibility that from this existential decision only an unsuccessfully constructed, unauthentic work could be born? Indeed we cannot. Though it is probable that the self-restriction formulated on an ideological level does have an effect on an aesthetic level as well, at the least  by restricting, keeping within bounds the freedom of experimentation. The problem, in this instance formulated on an ideological and not an aesthetic level, is that Füst’s protagonist  sets off in the wake of the human soul, follows it to a given point along its dubious wanderings, then stops short, not because the inner laws or principles of the figure dictate that he should, but at the author’s discretion. The tragedy of this stopping short is made manifest but at the same time erased by the last few sentences of the novel: “But there is nothing of interest in what happened after that. And I would not tell you about it, as it is more shameful for me than anything else. I have grown old.”

     This tragedy could only have been realized aesthetically against the aforementioned discretion– the famous Milán Füst sagacity. And in this sagacity it is impossible not to feel the differences of the position of an East Central European artist, the much narrower “playing field”, the immeasurably greater defencelessness and – like it or not – the subsequent conformism. And this remains a disadvantage even if Western development has since brought into being anti-conformist conformism, compared to which this does show certain advantages.