Fotó: Lugosi Lugo László

Existence is absurd and paradoxical

Interview with poet József Tornai, winner of MMA's Grand Award

Last year the 87-year-old poet and writer József Tornai became one of the Artists of the Nation, thus receiving the highest artistic award in Hungary, after being given the Kossuth State Award the previous year for his outstanding literary career.
At the general assembly of MMA on 28 May he was also bestowed MMA's Grand Award for his poetic accomplishments in the last couple of years and for literary career in the past five decades. On this occasion we asked him about his latest volumes of poetry and among them the newest one published by Gondolat Publishing House in June 2015 with the title, Rumble of Waterfalls.
- One of the peculiarities of your long literary career is that you closed your oeuvre with the four life-work volumes of your poetry entitled My Star Mother and Star Father, but since then you have had four volumes of newly-published poetry.
- The Rumble of Waterfalls is my third book of poetry since my illness started, and the fourth one since the publication of the last volume of my oeuvre series. When I was 85 years old I went through a grievous illness, and fortunately I recovered, but not completely. Thanks to my partial recovery I kept on writing poems regularly, but I don't write prose any more. I regard my four subsequent books entitled Against Nothingness, Midnight, Proclaiming Law and Rumble of Waterfalls a surplus.
- What are the deeper meanings of the titles? What were your reasons for choosing them?
- Against Nothingness is in a way connected with my latest volume of essays entitled The Aesthetical Nihilism published in 2013. At the end of the 19th century Nietzsche predicted the age of nihilism and the two world wars together with the other historical horrors justified his prediction. Consequently, Western civilisation lost its morality.
In the place of morality money, power stepped in together with the manufacture of arms to such an extent that was previously unknown in history. In my book entitled Against Nothingness I attempt to fight against this nihilism, I depict its manifestations. However, in my next book entitled Midnight I depict the positive values of human existence. And one of the greatest values is art. I also agree with Nietzsche when he said that we need art because with art we can bear the terrible truth of existence.
- What exactly does Midnight refer to in your book?
- In Midnight I attempt to show the paradoxical nature of existence. Previously I saw existence as absurd, but for a couple of years I have regarded existence more and more as paradoxical as well. This kind of paradoxical character is manifested in almost everything, but particularly in human nature. Besides, midnight for me is a metaphor for contemplation. Contemplation is a possible means to emerge from the hopeless vortex of the world. And also from the destructive processes that can be observed in practically almost all the areas of human life from economics and politics to art. In this chaotic situation one of the main conditions of firmness is contemplation, the other one is free thinking. To contemplate and to think freely are difficult of course. The everyday events can easily upset and distract you. Contemplation and thinking can never be perfectly quiet, because we should take notice of the historical events, horrors and wars that break out again and again on this platen. Not even with the deepest contemplation can one get to a restful point knowing that people kill each other all over the world. In my book entitled Proclaiming Law I stress the recognition that since morality has weakened and everything has become relative, we should stand up for certain values and laws. Sadly enough, history show the exact opposite: historical crimes and massacres are committed with lofty explanations. As Arthur Koestler pointed out: the most brutal crimes in history are carried out in the name of the most majestic truth.
- In your poem, Midnight you say that the night holds more meanings than the day. Why do you think so?
- Amid the flood of news, information and noisy events it is only at night that you can have the opportunity to calm down, to think clearly and to strive for high values.
- The thickest one from the four volumes is Rumble of Waterfalls with more than eighty poems. In this case what is your intention with the title?
- In the title poem of the book while remembering one of my late friends, an outstanding painter, Pál Veress, I take historical horrors into account, among them a new and extremely terrible development, terrorism. However, in this book not only history, but a lot of cherished memories of my long life are depicted: friendships, travels, loves, my parents, my family. Remembering expands to various directions finally giving place to important summaries.
- The first poem stands alone at the very beginning of the book showing a clear, but tragic picture of man.
- This poem is about the recognition that man is an absurd as well as a paradoxical being. We multiply more and more and we destroy nature more and more, and as we want to live more and more, we are preparing a global suicide. We cannot know what the 21st century holds for us, but we do know what the 20th century has brought. We have destroyed our moral tradition. We can see this whole process as the fight between good and evil, and this fight lasts forever, as Manicheanism taught. According to Christianity in the end good is going to be triumphant. But nobody knows for sure. However, in my book entitled Proclaiming Law I express - as I did many times previously - two other great values, freedom and scientific cognition. The great minds of the 17th century made man striving for freedom and cognition the ideal, which is and will be absolutely valid for ever. Freedom, of course, is also paradoxical. And this can be observed in the brutal history of the French Revolution, which gave birth to and then bloodily suppressed liberty. And to this process contributed a brilliant criminal, called Napoleon. He said that the battlefield is splendid. This statement is the most extreme way of negating morality. And after him came the other monsters of history. The destruction of nature is also one of the consequences of the absence of real morality.
- In light of these ideas how did you receive MMA's Grand Award?
- I was surprised, because poetry has dramatically diminished, even more, I think, than the other branches of art. Nihilism pushed art into the background. Mankind turned outward, that's why people can hardly understand this intimate and exquisite form of expression, poetry. Poems are to lose and another main reason for this is that language has lost its authenticity. And in the languages of today that have lost their authenticity the only authentic form of expression, poetry cannot be talked about.
June 17, 2015