Marginalia on Casanova

From Miklos Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova, the first of ten volumes in his St. Orpheus Breviary . v. 2 is also available in English as Black Renaissance. The French have made it further and released up through v.4 (v.3 as Escorial and v.4 as Europa Minor). Since Szentkuthy likely needs a lead-in for English readers, here first is the somewhat puffed up introductory overview:

Basically, this opus can be read as a long mythos of the marginal. From his room-library with some twenty-five thousand volumes, Szentkuthy annotates and revisits history. Mixing with ease and joy hagiography, literary study, fiction, narrative, the lyric poem and the aphorism, this roman-cathedrale, whose denomination “breviary” must not mislead, with the humor of his antiphrasis, offers an unprecedented recrossing as unheard-of as much as it is ironical of all literary and artistic forms cultivated by the West, from early times to the twentieth century, with major milestones: Rome, Byzantium, Venice, the Italian Renaissance & the Spanish Baroque. As archivist buffoon, Szentkuthy feeds the extravagant theater with his rigorous bulimia of a thousand networks of burgeoning stories, palimpsests in abysses and apocryphal pitfalls. Appropriating countless masks, pacing the epochs, this emotional athlete has no other aim than to break time until it stills the whirlwind of history into one continuous present.

Lord of illusions or exhibitor of shadows, there is something of the devourer in this man, who cannot bear to live cramped in one body, one life, one language. He prefers to cultivate double replicas of being, invest all fates — saints, libertines, popes, musicians, emperors, writers, eunuchs, painters or biblical girls. “I always wanted to see everything,” he confessed, “read everything, think everything, dream everything, swallow everything.”

From whence the art and manner of travelling across languages and playing the Argonauts of Planetary Writing (is it a coincidence that Szentkuthy was the translator of both Ulysses and Gulliver?). In truth, this stubborn survivor of the Enlightenment seems motivated entirely by a furious encyclopedic desire. A simple glance at the table of contents of the Breviary suffices to show the profligacy of this inner odyssey, where a few characters who were never in search of an author marched pell-mell: Casanova, Mozart, Adonis, Toscanini, Turner, Rubens, Brunelleschi, Keats, Herodotus, El Greco, Pythagoras, Voltaire, Puccini, Ariosto, Tintoretto, Shelley, Abelard, Monteverdi, Tacitus, Messalina, Theodora, Akbar, Lao Tzu, Palladio, Mary Tudor, Donatello, Philip II, Buddha, etc.

As many roles as Szentkuthy assumes in the manner of a comedian or an absolute dreamer, writing thus a sumptuous catalogus amoris. Here truly resides the infinite song of an Orpheus with Apollonian harmonies, god of metamorphosis, “being whose role it is to celebrate,” in the words of Rilke.

In an age where anyone — even under the sign of the worst conformism — prides oneself on marginality, Szentkuthy appears, all in all, as the writer of the absolute margin. Throughout his life, he continued to write in the margins of his books, covering and recovering — maniacally, scrupulously — volumes, newspapers, journals, and other documents. An infinite mosaic of notes, footnotes, keywords and various doodles, continuous shuffling between reading and writing — one without the other is here inconceivable — interminable bubbling of the library-universe in the heart of the Opus Magnum. Borges reminds us: “Another superstition of those ages has come to us: that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf of some hexagon, we reasoned, there must exist a book which is the key and summary of all the others; there is a librarian who has read this book and who is like a god.”{2} If there is a writer who is a Man of the Book, according to the wish of the Argentinean master, it is Szentkuthy, in relentless pursuit of a magnum opus that would contain and even restore all creation.

Such was his passion, and his method as well. A process inaugurated in the first book of the Breviary, precisely titled Marginalia on Casanova. Strangely — but can we talk of strangeness when discussing a man who claimed to “work in co-production with chance”? — the structure of this founding volume owes much to theology. In 1938, Szentkuthy read the Römerbrief of the famous Protestant exegete Karl Barth, a commentary that is based on an analysis, phrase by phrase, even word by word, of the Epistle to the Romans. Literally enchanted by the effectiveness of this method — “where, in his words, every epithet puts imagination in motion” — he decided to apply it on the spot to Casanova, whose memoirs (a German edition in six large volumes) he had just annotated with gusto.

Simultaneity of all epochs, anachronistic audacity, chaos erected into a system (“the order of the random,” as defined by the same author) — was what this flamboyant opus quietly gave to read. The reception? Actually, there was none, since as soon as it was published — and even though Szentkuthy dutifully went to the church to “give thanks to all competent authorities of Catholic Heaven” to have authorized this iconoclast publication — the Royal Hungarian Court condemned Marginalia on Casanova for blasphemous profanity and assault on decency. Enjoying the protection of a prosecutor of the crown, the accused barely escaped trial — but all copies of the work were immediately confiscated. Thus was inaugurated the series of “Orpheuses”

And here are two relatively early chapters of the first volume (10 and 11). Halfway through the volume and I’m far from knowing what to do with it but these passages – the second especially – feel as good a representation of the author’s style as any.

“Ging ich in Maske aus” [I set out masked]— that is the logical culmination of civilization as an affirmation of self-contradictions. That culture: a mask culture, the reality of the 18th century, the reality of the mask. ‘Psychology’ here is a mistake arising from the mask, games of quid pro quo; sensuality only becomes truly great through the secret of the mask. Behind the mask lurks nihilism — a mask is almost as much a possibility of tragedy as Venice is simply by virtue of being Venice.

Neither Sophocles nor Shakespeare wrote a sentence as tragic as Casanova’s: “Ich ging in Maske aus.” A colored mask? A black one? With a long, corkscrew freak’s nose or just a simple covering for the forehead? Life is only tolerable in a mask — in this daring gesture civilization makes use of all game of games, a paradox from which it follows, but at the same time its nostalgia for non-civilization is quite tremendous.

A masked head is a death mask. In this disguise are preluded the two or three adventurous Venetian midnights which play a part in Casanova: when he has his revenge on an adversary; when a senator faints in a gondola; when marble tables are thrown together on resounding stone and he drunkenly tolls the bells with his musician companions.

As a small baby abate Casanova delivers a sermon in church. What is important above all else is that there is a world in which such a thing is possible, historically speaking. A world in which no one gives a damn about whether a person wearing a priest’s garb is a priest; a world in which a young boy can make a debut like a little ballerina. If that is the milieu then a thousand other things are self-evident. Yet Casanova’s entire intellectual mission (because he has none other in life) hangs on this: that a milieu can be one such or another, but there are only situations, the dramatis personae are not so much negligible as nothings.

Love is not a human death game or erotic game of patience, it is not a soul, not a body, not a marriage, not an adventure — love is: a ‘situation’; a constellation of objects, people, and times, one in which every object or time or even human component counts equally, irrespective of any ranking. Every Catholic child has been through that sweetly confusing age of twinges of conscience when budding sexual fantasies and equally budding religious notions chase each other around: we said our prayers with Greuze tears in our eyes and felt that God would excuse us for the female portrait, the one carried around in one’s pocketbook. Anyone who did not experience those partly uneasy, partly idyllic self-apologies knows little about love. Casanova’s sincere sermon and sincere adolescent boy’s eroticism fit alongside one another in his soul — that is what makes him childish. At this point moral insanity and Loyolan furor hover in balance — perhaps the finest sentimental and moral moment. One continually has the feeling that Casanova has a right to preach; something completely logical and completely free of hypocrisy is going on here. God wishes that the sermon should not be delivered by a bearded St. John in the wilderness but by a love-stricken Venetian young rascal in a periwig and without genuine faith: the whole religion is thereby cozier, more human, truer. After making his sermon, Casanova got a bagful of love-letters from female admirers; they straightaway smuggle into the sacristy.

Why should it be impossible and out of the question to label this as: frivolousness? How do we dare to say that the gondolaing settecento was religious, maybe because there is greater morality in this post-carnival ease? That it is all “I’ll go to confession and have done with it!” because everything is in Pauline contrition-versus-ecstasy? Because man is somehow so incestuously warm, somehow in an intimately fait accompli position with God: that God seeks to fall into the gossip net of human life, and this is where it happened. A Calvinist holding God at arm’s length and a baroque-Roman palling-up to God are probably equally bad extremes, but my theological heart mooches around the latter with unquenchable nostalgia.

The scene itself is unforgettable: a church next to the water like a swimming box of relics, the steps meeting the green paludial liquid like coins which have slipped just a nuance further out from an overturned stack of money; prows jammed together, gondolas lurch in one place around the gate like miff-necked black swans around an invisible morsel — the church is small, the whole thing no more than a boudoir, the women, in their balloon silks, thrown on each other — the lagoon’s marsh reek, an oily fish smell billowing out from the eating-houses, many perfumes and stifling hard fumes of incense concentrated into a single Catholic dogma: that’s Casanova’s world. This is the image added to which I always imagine Miracoli. When one first sees it: from behind. Thank goodness, we have such an entirely cost-free key to the reality-nature of reality: one must glimpse such magnificent edifices for the first time from the back, the ‘bad’ perspective. This is Santa Maria dei Miracoli: at one moment a powder-box at the edge of a green washbasin, the next moment (with its Byzantine artichoke cupolas) the new St. Mark’s church, a celestial Constantinople.

In cupolated buildings like this the high, smooth walls almost outgrow the height of the cupolas, with the green Orthodox cones falling between the shoulders. They are always falling; the five or six cupolas hurriedly shrink as if Orthodoxy were doubling the perspective, were hastening them to double. Casanova’s childhood sermon has grown together with this in my memory, and that too is symbolical: just like the miracle boudoir and Constantinople, so even Casanova’s young days of the intensification of sweetest intimacy with the world right up till the fateful journey (“ich muss… ich muss…”) to Byzantium.

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