Readers will remember that in nlr 24 we published translations of two poems by the Hungarian poet Attila József, and provided there a short account of his life. We now present another poem, ‘Consciousness’. It was first published in 1934, one year after József was expelled from the illegal Communist Party of Hungary for his opposition to the left-wing sectarianism of the Party’s policy in the year of the triumph of Nazism. By the time he came to write this poem he was unbearably isolated in a country which was politically more and more dominated by Fascism, and which was becoming intellectually more and more parochial. Three years later, in 1937, he committed suicide; but at the moment of writing ‘Consciousness’ he was making a tremendous effort to concentrate his emotional and intellectual powers on finding a modus vivendi in a situation that was to him completely absurd.
In ‘Consciousness’, as in many of his other poems, József is creating a unity of three spheres: of direct experience (his awakening), of personal autobiography: and of general ideas. In the context of his poetry even the most abstract ideas gain concrete life; even Marxist and Freudian technical terms become poetry. In this respect he is trying to do something extremely difficult. After all, the most usual ways of producing poetry in an unfavourable age have been either by self-limitation in a neo-conservative, neo-populist or neo-primitivist way, i.e. by artificially putting oneself into a kind of game-reserve; or, in the case of those reluctant to flee from the complex totality of our age, by versifying ideas in an abstract allegorical fashion. But when a situation is grasped in its movement and as a whole, solutions on different levels will grow out of it. For example for stanza vi of ‘Consciousness’, where the starting point is ‘See, here inside is the suffering,/out there, sure enough, is the explanation’ there is an earlier version, preserved from the ms, in which József goes on to say, ‘How will you read it in a manly way, while your limbs are trembling? This prison age can subdue you, but you will be free if internally you don’t build yourself the kind of house which a landlord settles in.’ That is to say, internal freedom can be preserved on the basis of a mere understanding of, and an
Stanza xi (titled ‘Happiness’ in the ms), with its ascetic attitude and rejection of personal happiness, may seem somewhat strange. But in the context of this poem it is surely understandable. The pig, as a symbol of happiness, also occurs in another József poem in which he says, ‘In this redeemed world, not one moment of mine has been noble, nor lukewarm, sweet and pleasant, as for a pig in a mud pond.’ The empty, philistine ideas of mere nobility and mere happiness are both rejected here as inhuman: both are below the level of consciousness. (Of being virtuous in the fashion of the philistines he says in one of his sonnets: ‘Virtuous is the one who is too clever to get disillusioned’.) Still, the poet was not really ascetic, and to renounce the enjoyment of living meant an extreme violation of his human and poetic nature, which was basically playful. In particular, in his last poems, a desperate nostalgia for love and happiness are central themes. In his ‘Ars Poetica’ he says, ‘The bargain’s off—let me be happy!/Or else all men will insult me;/growing spots of red will mark me out,/fever will suck my fluids dry.’
Michael Beevor’s translation of ‘Consciousness’ is a prose, line for line, equivalent of the original. However problematic such an endeavour may be, it manages to create a far more real picture of the original than have most previous more ambitious attempts at translating Hungarian poetry. The attempt is perhaps justified by the nature of the poem: for it is a poem of ideas, dominated by an intellectual theme, intensive and authentic. The form of the original is similar to that of Villon’s Grand Testament: its rhyme scheme is ababbaba; to give an idea of the form we give here the first stanza of the original. In Hungarian, it should be remarked, assonance rather than pure rhyme is employed.