A Few Thoughts about János Pilinszky’s “Straight Labyrinth” (“Egyenes labirintus”)

I am not going to say much here about “Egyenes labirintus,” because we will be discussing it at the Pilinszky event in March. These are just a few preliminary thougths, along with a translation. The poem is a brief masterpiece; to see why, it is necessary to pay attention to every word and the relationships between them.

First of all, what is a straight labyrinth? The title confronts us with an ancient paradox. Directness may inhere in the labyrinth. Many of us know the experience of pondering a math problem, for instance, looking at it from every possible angle, trying this, trying that, and suddenly having the solution flash in our heads, a solution which, once it arrives, seems both obvious and elegant. But when it comes to life itself, such an insight is cataclysmic, or can be. I think of Oedipus realizing that he is the source of the plague. I think of Rilke’s “You must change your life.” I think of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light.  What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.”

Pilinszky creates a labyrinth in the poem itself.

Milyen lesz az a visszaröpülés,
amiről csak hasonlatok beszélnek,

he begins, which I have translated, “What will it be like, that return flight / that only similes speak of?” Here the puzzling element is the “visszaröpülés,” the “return flight” or “flying back,” which one would take to be a metaphor, except that Pilinszky treats it as the reality, in that “only similes” can speak of it. If there is a “visszaröpülés,” what is the original flight, the “röpülés”?

The next four lines bring up the similes that might describe the flying back; then comes a renewed question, “what will it be like at last, what will it be like,” and then a return to the image of flight, with new intensity:

olyanfélék, hogy oltár, szentély,
kézfogás, visszatérés, ölelés,
fűben, fák alatt megterített asztal,
hol nincs első és nincs utolsó vendég,
végül is milyen lesz, milyen lesz
e nyitott szárnyú emelkedő zuhanás,
visszahullás a fókusz lángoló
közös fészkébe?

In my translation: “Words like altar, sanctuary, / handshake, homecoming, embrace, / a spread table in the grass, under the trees, / where there is no first and no last guest, / what will it be like at last, what will it be like, / this wide-open-winged ascending dive, / this falling back into the focus, the flaming common nest?”

The similes seem like isolated attempts, distinct from each other (though pointing to the same thing); then the poem picks up tempo, asks the question again, and swoops back into flight, a falling and soaring at once. Then comes a turning point, something like a sonnet’s volta, though this is no sonnet: “—Nem tudom,” “—I do not know,” and then a shift of focus to the “röpülés” itself, which was hiding here all along:

és mégis, hogyha valamit tudok,
hát ezt tudom, e forró folyosót,
e nyílegyenes labirintust, melyben
mind tömöttebb és mind tömöttebb
és egyre szabadabb a tény, hogy röpülünk.

(“and yet, if there is something that I know, / well, this is it: this burning corridor, / this labyrinth straight as an arrow, where / thicker and thicker, freer and freer / falls the fact that we are flying.”)

The word “tény” is the key to the whole poem: “the fact that we are flying” means that this is no metaphor, but reality—which, like the flying back, may be untouchable by language. Perhaps the ways we describe our lives, the things we take for reality, are in fact approximations and similes—that is, the “röpülés,” like the “visszarópülés” is something “amiről csak hasonlatok beszélnek.” So that when we start to recognize that we are in flight (towards death? towards the point of turning around?), when it becomes thicker and thicker, it also becomes freer; we no longer have to take it for anything else.

In my translation I especially wanted to draw attention to the relation between the flying back and the flying, the beginning and end of the poem. Here it is in full below; you can also read the translations of N. Ullrich Katalin, Géza Simon, Ted Hughes, and Virág Natália Szűcs. Each translation brings out something different. I think that of the three, mine is closest to Hughes’s, but I am also haunted by Simon’s (and by the way that each translation can “speak of” the original only in approximations).

What will it be like, that return flight
that only similes speak of?
Words like altar, sanctuary,
handshake, homecoming, embrace,
a spread table in the grass, under the trees,
where there is no first and no last guest,
what will it be like at last, what will it be like,
this wide-open-winged ascending dive,
this falling back into the focus, the flaming
common nest? I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something that I know,
well, this is it: this burning corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow, where
thicker and thicker, freer and freer
falls the fact that we are flying.

When Pilinszky reads this poem aloud on a recording, the intensity comes to a breaking point with the very word “tény” near the end. It tells a lot about the poem.

This was the first Pilinszky poem that I fell in love with. The first one I ever read and memorized, on a student’s recommendation, was “Egy szenvedély margójára”; it was important to me at the time, but I didn’t go on to read more Pilinszky, partly because I was still more or less a beginner in Hungarian and read very slowly. But when I came upon “Egyenes labirintus” through Cz.K. Sebő’s 2014 rendition, I kept coming back to it, then to “Egy szép napon,” then to more and more. I started hearing Pilinszky allusions in Platon Karataev’s songs, and hints of Pilinszky’s influence in Csenger Kertai’s poems. I started reading Pilinszky collections cover to cover, memorizing more poems, reciting them when alone, and attending Pilinszky events. The idea for the event—now less than six weeks away—started taking shape. And all of this is still a beginning.

I made a few small edits to this piece after posting it.

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