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Objective chorus – shadowplay

Objective chorus – shadowplay

(Milán Füst: Foam beneath the mist)

 Gergely Angyalosi


Objective Chorus is the title of one of the cycles in Milán Füst’s first volume, You cannot change, published in 1914. To this cycle Milán Füst added a footnote - an unusual, but typically Füst-like gesture – in which he explains the meaning of the expression: “By chorus  in this instance I mean a type of dramatic poem which the master of this imagined choir would recite to the accompaniment of his fellow musicians, in the name of a large crowd, thus objectively.”  The peculiar “objectivity” of Füst’s poetry was noticed immediately by his keen-eyed contemporaries (Karinthy, Kosztolányi), who sought to interpret it. It appears that in the second decade of the 20th century, noting the objectivity of a lyricist was, if not an everyday occurrence, then not a particularly surprising one either. Füst’s explanatory footnote rather reduces the interpretative scope of the word “objectivity”, as he identifies it with the voice of an imaginary community. He is thinking of the choruses of Greek tragedies, where the community does not only know more than the individual, but also represents a higher degree of wisdom: it is in direct contact with Fate.

     Füst’s objectivity, pursuant to his intention, does not make the individual disappear, but appoints him choirmaster. A choirmaster who declares himself and at the same time  pronounces doxa, the wisdom represented by the community. In the forthcoming, it is this problem that I wish to explore, through the interpretation of one of the most enigmatic Füst poems, Foam beneath the mist.


     The poem was written in 1927, its first version can be found in Füst’s Diary. It is justifiable to speak of a version since Füst, as was his custom, made significant changes in the text on almost every occasion of its publication. I shall touch upon these versions at the appropriate points of my interpretation. In my view, the final version of this poem is the one that appears in the Complete Poems published by Magvető, which essentially corresponds to the version found in the volume entitled Street of Ghosts published in 1948. The most significant changes can be noted between the first publication in Nyugat on November 16, 1927, the version appearing in the Selected Poems volume published in 1935, and the final version. The fact that the poet rewrote this poem more often and to a greater degree than customary attests that he himself must have perceived in it a certain aesthetic insolvability. We shall see, however, that this insolvability or insolvabilities only make the text more exciting for today’s reader with regard to the aforementioned problem of the individual.

     The narrator of the Füst poems can be placed somewhere in the sphere between I and We. In his most significant poems he can control this interim situation with great poetic force, in such a way that he maintains a nebulous vibration between the two poles of I and We. In an earlier essay1 I have ventured to state that in the poems where the poet has left this interim sphere and allowed the consolidation of the narrator’s position – well, suffice it to say that in such cases the works created are aesthetically more problematical. Though today I would formulate this notion in the form of a question rather than as a statement, it does seem obvious to me that the examination of Milán Füst’s objectivity must begin with the examination of the changing positions of the narrator within a poem. It might then become clear that this objectivity encompasses a wider meaning than that suggested by the quoted footnote (which the author left out in later publications). In what manner Füst retains these positions in his diminishing lyrical pieces, and how this characteristic Self-construction becomes modified by the end of the twenties is an exciting question.


     The title of the poem is unchanged in all the versions, probably because it fulfils the function which can be expected of any good title with rare force. It summarizes, intensifies and enriches the signification of the piece with new shades of meaning. It is important to note that the poet achieves all this not with condensation but with pleonasm, verbosity. At first sight the title simply lays before us the image predominating the entire poem: the river, shrouded in mist. From this viewpoint the word “foam” would simply be the metonymical substitute of “river”, in conformity with the cliché of an obsolescent linguistic tradition. But if we take into consideration the metaphorical meanings of the words “foam” and “mist”, we get a much more complex structure of meaning. “Foam” alludes to the surface of things, intimates the visible world of phenomena and epiphenomena, which, though it is connected to the essence, the deep-running current of the river, at the same time obscures, covers up that essence in the Heideggerian sense. The poet’s intention builds a second layer of concealment over the first: the mist conceals, covers up this covering-concealing world of phenomena, conquers and subdues it. The supposed essence of things becomes even more distant from the person surveying the image.    

     The poem begins with a peculiar jolt, as if continuing the dilemma posed by the title. After the word “river”, which is the first word of the poem, come three full stops to indicate stopping short, coming to a sudden standstill. These three full stops may intimate several things. Firstly, they may call into question the very existence of the river, withdrawing the authenticity we automatically grant to all output in conformity with the rules of verbal communication. What kind of river, what is it called, where is it be found? - the questions edge into the crack created by the three full stops. And following the questions comes  uncertainty: who can be “simply” talking about the river in this way? It presently becomes clear that the feeling of uncertainty was not unjustified: it turns out that the narrator is not stating things in his own name, but quoting the statement of certain “witnesses”. The adverbial modifiers of place and time all serve to intensify this uncertainty. The ships sank “this week”, we are not told the place, reason and manner of their sinking, nor who was towing the barges. The line “No one knows” of the first version was changed to “impossible to know” in the 1935 volume, then the original line was restored in the final version - in my opinion because the final version is much more indicative of a fictive dialogue. “Impossible to know” is less of an answer to the question “who towed them”, and besides, it is linguistically less precise, does not fit as well into the linguistic situation of the poem, which is determined by two types of discourse: the relation between the speech of the witnesses and the speech of the individual evoking them.

     The elements of the image: the river, the ships emerging mysteriously out of the mist and disappearing back into it without a trace, the event itself  all evoke a scene played out in a dream. To go further: they evoke not an event from a dream, but its linguistic projection, its text-shadow. But this linguistic shadow, indicative of uncertainty, does carry a strong emotional weight, as the exclamation mark at the end of the third line attests. This exclamation mark may refer to the event itself - after all, we are talking about a catastrophe here - and at the end of the third line we cannot yet tell to what degree the narrator has distanced himself from what he is narrating. But it may refer to something else, which we will come to understand by the end of the third unit: that the narrator is questioning the truth of the witness statements, and the exclamation mark bears emotional emphasis, signals his indignation.

     (In parentheses: contemporaries may have noticed that the epic core of the poem is very like a newspaper article. This is attested by the fact that Frigyes Karinthy responded to Füst’s poem with a poem of his own, published in the first 1928 issue of Nyugat. What moved him to do this was the fact that a few days after the publication of Foam beneath the mist, a submarine went down somewhere off the Florida coast, and international press virtually gave a running commentary on the death-struggles of the fifty people trapped inside. Karinthy’s poem however – to all intents and purposes a Milán Füst pastiche – is built on quite a different conflict of values. For Karinthy, human suffering and death is reality: and it is this reality that is transformed into running foam by the international press, rotten to the core, or is chiselled-polished into some kind of fake art-replica by the “smiths”, the favoured intellectuals and artists of power. In Füst’s case, as we have seen, we cannot even be sure that the event happened at all.)

     The condensed uncertainty, the dreamlike superficiality of the beginning of the poem is contrasted with the concrete details that the narrator cites from the witness statements. It is the technique of creating a sense of authenticity that is put into parentheses here, due to the bizarre eventuality of the depicted facts, a technique we are familiar with from the language of the press, but not only from there. From time immemorial, narration has used the device of  amassing seemingly dysfunctional details to augment the verisimilitude of the description of a barely credible event. Details which cannot on any logical basis be said to serve as proof of the authenticity of related events, but which nevertheless did serve to do this indirectly. The gospel can be cited as an instance here, as it often makes use of this narrative solution, but we know that the accumulation of details also carries weight in legal terminology. From this point of view the image of the captain eating breakfast is just as important as that of the seaman drawing water from the river, the clatter of the chain as important as the clanking of the bucket. (It is no accident that the poet rewrote these lines several times). The image of the river “lurking yellow”, “skulking”, “perfidiously luminous” beneath the dense fog fits into the sequence of seemingly empirical, tangible facts with conscious logic. The “good witnesses” therefore make statements qualified as acceptable by the everyday experience of simple visual observation  in one and the same breath with classifications which turn visual experience into a fictive event. The river lay in wait for the ghost ships under the cover of the mist like a wild animal lurking in a bush, lying in wait for its prey. At least, that is what they, the witnesses attest.

     The emphasis is on the entrance of  “They”, the third person plural into the accustomed Milán Füst structure. They, the witnesses are the ones who believe that “the denseness of these trifling details” held out for the rest and “intimated the whys and wherefores”. It is at this point that the “I” (the Self) turns against them, whose speech situation perfectly meets the requirements of our previously cited footnote. The witnesses “ lie” he says, then adds: they are half-asleep, their “dream-state playing with their senses” (which is not quite the same thing). The choirmaster-self  contrasts the world of these witnesses, living in a dream-state, with the world of “Us”, to which he attaches the seal of reality and truth. “And they would smuggle in among us, who are real-true people,/ And have flesh which can be torn with nails,/These bloodless daydreams”. Here we can see some similarity with the Karinthy poem: the criteria for reality, for the flesh and blood human world is the capacity to suffer. He who suffers is real, exists.

     But the poem is not directed towards this problem: if it were, it would not be worth the trouble to speak so much about it. It would not be more than a rhetorical, poem-like presentation, an interpretation resembling a poem, of a state of mind with a specific meaning. It would be content with the emphatic accentuation of the value of human life, taking a humanistic stand against human suffering like the Karinthy text . In Füst’s case the stake is different, and the eerie unreality and grotesqueness of the poem’s linguistic situation expresses this more precisely than the individual conceptual elements. This is primarily due to the fact that the behaviour of the “good witnesses” is unmotivated, in fact impossible to find motivation for. What possible interest can they have in trying to make us believe their daydreams? That they wish to smuggle them in among flesh-and-blood people? What kind of creatures are they?

     The poet obeys the rules of rhetoric: he answers the silent reader’s question concerning his motivation. But with this answer we are no closer to the solution: the linguistic situation is even more bizarre, more unreal. The centre of unreality is transferred from the described, alleged event to the identity of the creatures – a type of person, a group of persons? - labelled as “them”. “These scoundrels would have / our little lives slip away, running like foam, leaving no trace/between half-sleep and this yellow glimmering/ beneath the mist, beneath the wreathing, never to be retraced…” Precisely whom we are talking about here remains a mystery: who are these persons trying to establish some kind of reality-replacement perceived in a half-awake state instead of a strong connection with existence illuminated by the light of consciousness? The addition of the attribute “little” beside “our lives” in the newer version is worthy of note. Those who “bear false witness”  and by doing so try to induce their fellow-men to renounce the total reality of existence are in fact robbing them of the little that is due to every man by right of birth: the theoretical possibility of a complete life, a life spent in the proximity of existence. They smuggle in some kind of  “dubious glimmering” (according to the first version, a half-life) to take the place of reality.

     In the following we do finally learn something about these people. Füst carries through the staging of the poem (made unreal from the beginning) in a consistent way. The people who are watching the river “standing in their pointed little boats” are fishermen: thus substantiating the observation2 of István Vas, made in 1934, according to which “There is some specific epic content in Füst’s poetry. Though he rarely narrates a story, yet almost all of his poems are full of seemingly unpredictable, but in truth (…) remarkably consequential events.” However, he adds that “the exactitude of the details only serves to enhance the unreality of the whole atmosphere”. And in fact the same could be said of this poem. Let us note here that the epistemological-ethical problem that appears in Foam beneath the mist  is, according to István Vas (and most of the other reviewers) somehow an essential component of Füst’s poetic world, of his poetical mode of construction. It is understandable therefore that his vision of the mysterious fisherman - “for whom existence is a gamble, nonchalantly gambled away” in the first version, changed to “owes everything he has to gambling” in the final version – well, this vision, despite further concretization, retains its mysteriousness. Totally unexpectedly, he compares the fishermen sitting on the stone bollards on the quay, ridiculing the old woman selling pies, to bloodthirsty, miserly kings. In some respects the comparison is a continuation of the idea that contenting oneself with crumbs instead of living a complete life constitutes a criminal act against life itself, but this lofty sequence of thought is built up of such unexpected imagery, such grotesque phraseology, that it leaves the reader perplexed. “They do not care a fig about existence!!!” he writes in the first version published in Nyugat. The final version intensifies the grotesque incongruousness: “And despise existence, as if it were worth less than a fig.” At this point the reader begins to feel ill at ease, a sensation not caused by the strange unreality of the vision. The latter was later characterized by Kassák thus: “as if we were wandering in the gardens of submerged regions: there is nothing tangible around us, and yet everything is exaggeratedly realistic.”3

     The word Füst uses – “fityfiring” (a contamination probably created by Füst himself,4 a blending of “fityfiritty,” meaning  “little devil, imp” and “fitying,” meaning “penny, small button” to denote something worthless, not worth a fig) - derails the poem’s unbroken “sequence of emotion”, (that is to say,  uninterruptedly full of pathos), in such a way that it suddenly corrodes the homogeneity of the choirmaster-self’s mode of speech. The possibility of self-irony arises here, which is always present in the case of Milán Füst’s grotesques. In this poet’s work, priest-like, prophetical gestures are depicted with considerable power and theatricality, but most often to make use of a quirk, a twist to render palpable the void behind them.

     In this instance also, he sounds like the “old priest” in one of his earlier poems, “who, buttoned up to his collar, with all solemnity/ Roars, shaking his fist, so the neighbourhood  resounds, and gesticulating strangely, raging with anger, lies”. There is only a hint of self-irony, for even the priest cannot be absolved from his duty to preach by the recognition of the futility of his preaching. The grotesque irony is aimed at the tragic-comicality of the futility of moral courage, of vainly maintaining one’s integrity within forms emptied of content. All this appears in this poem not on the level of staging, but on the level of the poet’s treatment of language.

    In the course of the examination of the text variants, the retraction of  elements expressing excessive pathos, prophetic directness can be observed. Thus: “What is truth to him?” the poet asks in the first variant, “What is truth worth to him?” we read in the 1935 volume, and the final version reads: “What can the existing world be worth to him now?” The exchange of the word “truth” to “existing world” makes the line much more deliberate, less prophetic or preacher-like in spirit and verve. The modification of the exclamation “Let us not be like them!” to a declarative sentence: “Oh no, we shall never be like them” has a similar effect. (This line, together with the previous one, can be read with an ironic interpretation.) Two sentences, previously imperative, are also modified to become declarative: “Let us beware of madness…” and “Let us keep the doors locked” now read: “As we must beware of madness./ And we had better keep the doors locked.” The world of the creatures we have until now called “fishermen” is the world of madness. Semi-reality, pseudo-existence is akin to madness, which we must not allow to enter the empire of steadfast rationality. Instead of the forceful warning of “Do not cry for things that do not exist!” the final version contains this emphatic commendation: “And do not cry constantly for things that do not exist, or are nothing but nightmares…” The modifying element (constantly) and the addition  (nightmares) also reduce exclusiveness. As if he wanted to say: though yearning for non-existent things,  chasing phantasms, is inseparable from human existence, these desires can and should be kept within bounds. The same pathos-reducing relativistic tendency can be observed in the supplanting of “earthly course” - standing for the human walk of life - by “earthly plain” in the second version, and - more than two decades after the first publication! – the poet changes this to “dubious plain” in the Street of Ghosts. This modifies the possibilities of interpretation very strongly, because through this change, dubiousness, relativity becomes one of the common attributes of earthly existence. It disturbs the dichotomy of  “total existence-rationality” contra “dubious glimmering, half-life, madness.”

     Using an exclamation mark instead of the three full stops in the last line seems all the more strained, somehow forced, artificial in its effect, as is the change of “Gentlemen” to “ Good Sirs”. The question here is, who is speaking? The most likely answer is of course that it must be the Self hitherto characterized as choirmaster, who may have stepped back into the choir. But taking into consideration all the elements that serve to undermine our certainty, we can suppose that the Self is speaking in his own name, trying to convince himself. The uncertainty of the reader is justified to a great extent by the observation that we have no images of the total truth, of reality, true existence, not even the kind of images with which the poem portrays the dubious glimmering of the fishermen’s world. What we are given are mostly negatives: true existence is not an illusion, not an empty hope, not the possible winnings of gambling. He who is standing on the firm ground of complete existence is not collecting crumbs, what is more (a grotesquely cheap turn) the old woman selling pies reminds him of  his own mother; patient, peaceful, praising the grain (with biblical sublimity).

     What we see here is the clashing of two shadow-conceptions, or as I put it at the beginning of my paper, the battle of “linguistic shadows”. The I, We, Them,  and the stylistic and atmospheric characteristics  associated  with their message exist in a purely linguistic sphere. In final analysis the Milán Füst poem is also a pastiche, or at least the imitation of a nonexistent model poem, which is the glorification - biblical in its pathos - of the truth, the reality of existence, the ideal of rationality, and at the same time the condemnation of everything that cannot be made to meet this ideal. The “objectivity” mentioned by the critics can be caught in the act here: the poem professes something with total empathy and vehemence, something that is slowly and indirectly revealed to be devoid of content. Human voices, or as we say nowadays, discourses battle here in “cold space”, in “cosmic cold”. These expressions appear in Füst’s Diary a few months after he wrote the poem. Also in the Diary are entries attesting that the poet was investigating the possibility of the playful treatment of existence. In a merciless universe which takes no notice of the fact that man is a sensitive being, he believes there are two possible types of behaviour. On the one hand there is the surrender of the self, when we huddle, waiting for the blow to fall, waiting for inescapable annihilation – on the other, the joyful frivolity of despair. Such a person “abandons himself to grimness with a cold heart /…/ courts danger cool-headedly, - looks on, laughing, as he loses something that was once dear to him – even his sight –  and holds out, laughing, until he can, and departs laughing, when he must.”5 It is no accident that the narrator of the poem does not represent this point of view. Poetry functions as a kind of superior self, a defence against relativism and madness.

     What appears in the diary as a possibility worthy of consideration becomes in the poem a danger to be condemned, repudiated, repressed. He is in a similar quandary about his friend Kosztolányi. In one of the diary entries dating from 1928, he says, using eerily similar words: “To be enamoured of the superficial, as there is no means of knowing the essence. And that is nihilism itself  - he abandoned the attempt to get to the bottom, to get to know the essence of things early on. He would rather beat up a froth, beat it harder…dazzled by its outward forms.” (My italics G.A) And later: “…he plays with fever and is so accustomed to it that he does not wish to recover from it at all. What seriousness he has retained never turns towards God, nor does it ever evoke the spirit of Order…”6

     Füst struggled with Kosztolányi’s “impressionist relativism” and nihilism throughout his life; he saw it as a  major component of his own image of the world, which has many arguments in its favour, but which must be transcended at all costs. Or at least one should make every effort to extricate oneself from it: this is the moral command of human existence. At the same time he had to accept – a forceful and painful experience - that those “great commands” exist only as empty forms, and that man, like the offended servant of one of his poems, searches in vain for the judge who will listen to his complaint. Let us mention here that Foam beneath the mist appeared in the same volume of Nyugat as Kosztolányi’s short story, Jackals, side by side in fact, perhaps not by accident. To wit, the short story is centred around madness. What would happen if someone whose senses were sound was to be convinced  of something ”that would burst asunder the boundaries of the intellect, which is madness itself.” “The world would suddenly become warped before your eyes”, says one of Kosztolányi’s characters. The Self of the Füst poem wants no part of the distorted world, apparently rejects the playful corrosion of the boundaries of the intellect. But behind the theatrically grave attitude there hides doubt and anxiety. The abstract indefinability of the I, We, They, the uncertainty on the boundary of the soliloquia on the one hand, the voice of the chorus and the intermittent dialogue on the other – all attest to this. Let us not forget: that old priest lied “raging with anger” as he preached the truth, empty of content, but needing to be preached nevertheless. “The moment the idea that I might have gone mad enters your head, you would be the mad one”, reads the Kosztolányi short story7. The dominating narrative voice of Foam beneath the mist  dreads this very thing: madness, which endangers him, even in his position. That is why he must eliminate pathos, rhetoric exaggeration from the poem.

     Füst’s poem proves that the speech position of the “objective chorus” can serve as a basis for significant lyrical works even one and a half decades later. “He is not a neoclassical poet,” wrote Lajos Kassák in the essay we have quoted previously. We must agree. The objectivity of the speech position is only loosely connected to the classicizing endeavours of Hungarian literature from the twenties. At the same time this distant connection has undoubtedly provided a basis for a new kind of reception – new in type and intensity - of Milán Füst’s work, at least in literary circles. This does not mean wide-spread recognition, but the attention of a number of talented young poets has undoubtedly turned towards Füst. Of the aforementioned objectivity we can however state that, compared to the earlier poem model, it has become modified, taken new shape.

     The inner uncertainty we have shown to exist in Foam beneath the mist, the doubt underlying the prophetic passion gains expression through the tension between the voices heard in the poem, intermittently at variance with the poet’s custom as it were. All this does have an effect on the aesthetic quality of the work. This poem is not one of the pared-down masterpieces. The dissonant, seemingly coherent unity of the image of the world and the treatment of language, the staging and the creation of style, in fact almost bursting with inner tension, make it one of the most exciting Milán Füst pieces to be written in the period of his poetical career that falls between the two world wars.  




  1. Gergely Angyalosi: The possibilities of the soul (A lélek lehetőségei) Akadémiai, 1986
  2. István Vas: Upon reading Milán Füst (Füst Milán Olvasásakor) in: The Unknown God (Az ismeretlen Isten), Szépirodalmi, 1974
  3. Lajos Kasák: Milán Füst. in: Vagabonds, artists (Csavargók, alkotók), Magvető, 1975, pp.243
  4. observation of Péter Dávidházi
  5. Milán Füst: Diary (Napló), Vol.2, pp.176, Magvető, 1977
  6. i.m. 195
  7. Dezső Kosztolányi: Jackals (Sakálok), Nyugat, Nov. 16, 1927, pp.664