Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hamvas & Humbug

The Toldi Cinema has seen better days. Once a meeting place for the thoughtful and independent of Budapest, now remodeled in the style of a modern office building lobby, it is nearly empty at all hours. At night however many of the original staff can still be found there. Last year, the evening before I returned to L.A., I'd asked about the internet and was taken back into their office and placed before their computer, and was told in the process that I was known there. First came fifteen years ago, right? I thought a moment. Right, that was 1996.

I used to take the night train from Zurich, with at least one watch for business on my wrist and one light bag on my shoulder, and arrive just after noon in Budapest. I'd come to the Toldi, drink a cup of coffee and see one or more of the movies playing that day. I rarely talked with anyone, because when I tried I was gently made aware that this place I was a guest at was a place of friendships, but of longstanding, tried and tested friendship. You weren't sure you had a friend until ten or more years had elapsed. I could expect politeness and no more. It took some getting used to.

I remember one time in particular I approached a young girl reading a Hungarian paperback of Salinger's Seymour, An Introduction and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. Her English was poor, and my attempt to converse about this book, one of my favorites, was not received with any enthusiasm.

Last week, some four or five years later, I think I see there the same girl with the same book. I say Hello. Her English hasn't improved. Hasn't she read the book before, I ask her. She tells me she has read the book uncounted times. And I back off. This is the Toldi, after all, I know the rules.

As things work out, when you are a traveler and when you stick to the same way of life there are many coincidences. My new Hungarian friend the translator I mentioned in The Politics Of Home has a best friend who's written a novel set at the same Toldi Cinema in those days a decade ago, with characters based on many of the regulars. Though we'd probably never spoken together, I guess this friend would recognize me.

Karma, and similar Eastern ideas, the looking for hidden meanings and order, play a large part in the Toldi girl's book. It presents a philosophic argument. It talks to me, even if the cinema patrons don't. I go over it once more. Seymour and his family the Glasses are performers who practice the art of life. They suffer from the bad art practiced by most of the people around them. Seymour's brother, the supposed author of the story we are reading, quotes Kierkegaard and Kafka on the subject of deliberately allowing mistakes to stand as an implicit defense against the claim of art to be the truth about life. Buddy seems to be ecstatically happy over his discovery that his brother killed himself as an act of bad art in defense of the truth in life lived as art.

Though the family members are said to be always performing, they perform out of love for each other. Performance is saved from self destructiveness if and only if it is done for the sake of love. Seymour says he would have liked to please the public librarian who set books before him when he was a child. Following Buddhist principles, practicing the art of Buddhism, he tries and mostly fails to love his new wife, with whom he has nothing important in common. ("Marriage partners are to serve each other. Elevate, help, teach, strengthen each other, but above all, serve.") Yet his brothers and sisters, because they can love each other, do not kill themselves. They do not kill themselves because they can talk to each other seriously, take each other seriously, at least at times of crisis.

I had an interesting experience at another Budapest cafe earlier this week, The California Coffee Company, familiar to some of my readers. I asked the man in the chair next to mine what he was working on. Business. And I? What did I do? Standard answer: I write things no one reads. No one reads anything. His woman friend tells me I said that to the wrong person: her friend reads, reads all the time. Philosophy? Yes, that too. The man asks if I know the famous Hungarian philosopher Bela Hamvas. I don't but immediately look to see what is by him on the internet. I say that while I read Bela Hamvas the reading man can read some of what I write, it's also on the internet. Proving his friend correct, he immediately goes to the site address I write down for him, asks me what essay I suggest to read, and he starts reading it right there and then!

So he reads me while I read Hamvas. As far as I know, not one single person has read those thirty pages of mine from beginning to end.

Hamvas is very poetic. I read one essay after another. After a half hour, the man sitting across from me tells me he is done. Read it all? Yes. What did he think? Liked it, especially some parts, liked the style. But it didn't all seem to fit together. Did I agree?

- Yes, I agree. I left it that way, knowing it wasn't really one picture. I wanted the disorder to reflect the disorder of life as it is lived, as opposed to the order art puts life into. I thought I might be permitted to do this since the main idea of the essay was that there were two fundamental ways life was lived, natural and supernatural. The writing of the essay would include examples of both. I realized at the time this was probably a mistake on my part. But as I said, I just left it. I didn't try it again in later writing. Do you understand?
- I think so. What did you think of Hamvas?
- Not a philosopher. His use of terms like "existential corruption", his invention of psychological categories such as "Siren" and "Titan" is poetic, not philosophical. They are the practice of art, not philosophy.
- What is the practice of philosophy?
- When you say something that is testable. Art, myth, poetry help you remember and classify your experiences, but not in a way that can be confirmed by others' experiences. They are only performances. Show-maker and audience remain separate. Philosophy says something to another person that person can test against his experience and then respond that it is right or not right. When I wrote in the essay you read about the supernatural, I didn't simply create or refer to existing categories. I gave the categories an exact description using examples from Shakespeare, which description other people can look to their personal experience to confirm or refute. It is the difference between saying what a philosopher does, and actually doing it. A philosopher doesn't just create categories, he passes the product over to someone he loves, or intends to do this in the future if no one is at hand. The philosopher doesn't worry too much about the beauty of his words, the form of his thoughts, because all he cares about is passing words and thoughts on to his friends and lovers for their improvement, response, adaptation, understanding. His words are always a work in progress.

His life is with other people. The form of his life expressed in his words is not his true subject. His true subject is his life with others, for the love of whom he speaks. That life includes the response to his words that is not there and he is willing to wait for.

The Glass family members can and do speak to each other and test each other's ideas. With one exception, Seymour the suicide, the brother credited with being a saint, a kind of life artist, they safely pass through the danger of their seeing their lives as bad art and deliberately sabotaging them.

Buddy says at the end of the story he is giving Seymour away. He makes a gift of him to his readers. The Seymour of the story who lived a life of art accusing itself of infidelity is only a myth. And the readers, Buddy's friends and confidants, don't deserve more. They're also imaginary.