Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juli 2006

9.5. Recycling Culture. Ancient and Sacral Texts in (Post)Modern Literature and Art
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Gabriella Hima (Budapest)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Márai’s Novels and Plato’s Dialogues

Tünde Szabó (Budapest)


While Post-Modern texts characteristically make explicit use of their pre-texts, Modern works create seemingly closed forms, and their connections with ancient sacral and literary textual traditions are not always obvious at first sight. This causes interpretations of Modern texts not to focus on their intertextual connections and their incorporation into literary tradition, but on ideological or referential issues.

It is the same in Sándor Márai's case. Both among the general public and among scholars Márai's novels have generated decidedly ideological interpretations (which has both historical and biographical causes). In connection with his works the issue of intertextuality only arises inasmuch as to what effect the German literature of his age had on his works. However, a deeper poetic analysis shows that Márai's novels have numerous intertextual connections and they use texts which show a great variety in age, language and genre.

I propose to make a short presentation of a fundamental intertextual connection of Márai's The Sister. The principal pretext of the novel is one of Plato's most significant dialogues called Symposium. This is one of Plato’s fundamental works expounding his doctrine on love, at the centre of which is the definition of the Greek god, Eros. Let me quickly sum up the dialogue; the dramatist Agathon gives a dinner party to celebrate his victory at a drama contest. During the dinner, which is also attended by Socrates, it is decided that everyone shall deliver a panegyric to Eros. Six speeches are given, each concentrating on a different aspect. Some dwell on the god’s descent, his personality, others make a distinction between the two Eroses, one being transcendental and the other earthly love. Aristophanes relates his famous Androgynous myth. The doctor Eruximakhos attributes different Eroses to the healthy and the sick body. He draws a parallel between medicine and the art of music, claiming that the former studies the distribution of the Eroses of the body, while the latter is concerned with the distribution of sounds. Another speaker designates the human soul as the dwelling place of Eros, adding that his chief benefit is making people perform good deeds. The last orator is Socrates, who in his speech downscales the characteristics formerly attributed to Eros, defining him as a demon, a mediator between the divine and the human spheres through whom the human’s wish for immortality is manifested.

At first sight the connection between this Platonic dialogue and Márai’s novel may not be self-evident. However, a thorough poetic analysis will show that the novel is clearly linked to Symposium in its narrative structure as well as its theme. Furthermore, there are certain features of genre which can also be traced back to the Platonic dialogue.

Although the two works were created in different genres, their narrative structures are identical in several points. Both have a framed structure(1), and the frame in both cases puts an emphasis on textual origins; in Plato’s case the oral source, while in Márai’s the manuscript. The basic texts are created by the participants of the events described: the first text by Aristodemos, a disciple of Socrates’, who is present at the party where the speeches are delivered, while the second is by Z, who has gone through the illness himself, and the text is passed on by narrators, who are relatively distant acquaintances of them. Both the original text and the narrative are related in the first person singular in both works, and the narrator makes no or very few comments concerning the original. The narrative structures of the two works differ in that the thematic parallels are assigned to different points in time. In the Platonic dialogue the speeches on Eros are delivered at the same time by a number of different characters, thus a complex text is created with interruptions of short conversations, changes in the order of the speeches, the recollection of earlier speeches, etc., and the narrator, who relates the story, does not add anything to the text. In Márai’s novel the story of the original event, the illness, is related by Z alone, while the writer-narrator leaves the original text unchanged adding to it another story which has several parallels with Z’s text, and in which Z himself is either a participant or an observer. Thus, while in Plato’s dialogue the thematically linked speeches which belong to a number of different subjects are delivered at the same time, in the novel two different subjects dwell upon the same theme at different points in time.

The thematic link between the two parts of Márai’s novel, and also between the novel and the dialogue, is Eros. In Plato’s dialogue the praise of Eros is the designated subject and common theme of all the speeches. In Márai’s novel the person, the influence and the functioning of Eros are all central issues in both stories related by two different subjects. In the second part of the novel Z’s doctors say, "Naturally, when I say Eros, I do not mean the passion, which is commonly called eroticism or sensuality. Sensuality is only one of the manifestations of Eros. Creation, art, and human coexistence are all filled with Eros..." (364)(2), while in the first part the writer-narrator formulates the question: "What do we know about this power which moves our world and which people call love...?" (264)

The main thematic elements attributed to Eros in the Platonic dialogue, the two types of love, illness and its cure, and music, are all present in both parts of Márai’s novel too. The love theme, which has the closest link with Eros, plays an important role in both parts too. The two sentimental relationships, one of which leads to suicide, while the other leads to illness and then to the cure, show significant differences. The relationship between Z and E is characterised by a distinct lack of sensuality and eroticism. E has a sensual figure, but "does not respond to the call of Z", so their love is realised through music at a purely emotional level. The dominant element of the other couple is their oddity. The drama of their love is a grotesque story, which lacks all spirituality. The distinction made between the two types of love is one of the most typical thematic elements, which originates in Plato’s Symposium.

In the novel neither of the two sentimental relationships are traditional love stories in that they do not follow the awakening of passion, the fulfilment or its obstacles(3). In fact, they are about the extreme consequences of what people believe to be love: death and illness. Before anything else is known about the couple who commit suicide, the writer-narrator attributes the idea of illness to them: he believes them to be an elderly bourgeois pair, who go to the mountain because the woman is sick. Later on, he identifies the illness of the wife, who was "obviously a lunatic", as the cause of the suicide. The other two female characters who play an important role in Z’s life are also ill. E is identified by a single piece of information: she suffers from "corporal deafness". The nurse, Charissima, is terminally ill; she has leukaemia. The principal attribute of the characters in "sentimental" relationships is illness. The close juxtaposition of the themes of illness and that of love is the next point where the novel is linked to Symposium.

As I have mentioned earlier, in Symposium the doctor Eryximakhos draws a parallel between medicine and the art of music. This parallel is also present in Márai’s work: the musician Z reacts upon discovering the suicide "like a doctor who has infallibly verified a diagnosis" (257). However, in his memoirs he says that a good doctor "listens with the ears of a fine musician" (310) to decide how serious his patients’ problems are. Both of the physicians who treat Z enjoy listening to music, and they are both artists in their own field. The patient lies like "a new work of art" between their hands which the doctor "must complete to perfection" (338). Thus, the person of Z connects the three thematic elements which establish the parallel between the two parts of the novel and which all have to do with Eros: love, illness and cure, and music.

Apart from the thematic elements connected to Eros, there is also a functional element in Márai’s novel which has its origins in the Platonic dialogue. As I have already mentioned, in Symposium Socrates defines Eros as a great demon, who plays the part of the mediator between the human and the divine spheres. The connection between the transcendental and the human is a central question in Márai’s novel as well. In the first part of the novel Z shows up the problematic relationship between man and God in his dialogue with the author: "... people no longer know God... [...] People want sacrifice, through which they might hope to meet God again..." (270) Z blames the break between man and God on deafness, on losing the ability to hear the warning words of God. Thus, he makes the supposition that there exists an original connection, which can be maintained or re-established, one only needs to "listen to the voice."

The text designates "the voice" as the mediator between the transcendental and man. The mediating function of the voice also refers us back to Socrates. As it is widely known, Socrates claimed that he kept hearing a voice, in other words that he had a connection with a demon, which, as he said in his Apology, always warned him about how he should act(4). There is a nearly literal reference to this in The Sister. Talking to the writer-narrator Z poses the following question: "Who said that he had kept hearing a voice which warned him about what he should not do - but there was no voice to whisper to him what he should do?... Can you remember? Well, neither can I." (272) The reference always remains beyond the hero’s competence, but the voice has a mediating function at several levels of the novel.

The most important realisation of the mediating function of the voice is music. There are two types of music in the novel: the inferior is the light music from the radio in the mountain resort, while the superior is the classical European tradition. The former is an example of the noises of the world which render people deaf to the essential, the genuine warning voice. As opposed to this, the superior type of music is one of the most significant means of communication between man and God in the novel. In this relationship Z also acts as a mediator through his ability to breathe life into the sound which "reached the level of music in the souls" of the greatest. He is a mediator in the profane, everyday sense of the word since he is a "diplomat" who in the very same concert hall plays the "noblest notes" of the nations fighting the World War II; the music of Chopin, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He is also a mediator in a more mystic sense as he makes God comprehensible to others. In this sense Z’s mediating role is that of the priest. The description of his last concert evokes the mystic connection established by the priest who is performing Holy Communion on behalf of the congregation: "Now there is no other power in this hall but the power of music which both enthrals the audience waiting to hear it and me, as I play it. Just like the priests and the faithful at the moment of communion - we are all bewitched by the same transcendental power." (312)

There is also a parallel between the priest’s function as a mediator between man and God and the medical profession. This theme appears in the character of the assistant doctor, who mentions the great antique cultures (including that of the Greeks (!)) where only the priests were allowed to practise medicine. The text, just as in the case of music, makes a distinction between an inferior and a superior type of medicine: treatment and cure. As the assistant doctor says "the person who does not know the way to God cannot cure. Only treat - and that he can do to perfection." (331) However, the doctor who is capable of curing, is no less than a shaman who leads the patient back to God. This is what the doctor from Prague who the assistant tells Z about did, and he himself used to have this ability while "he could still hear the voice."

Those who "can hear the voice" have a connection with God; in the words of Socrates they are demonic. Z boasted of excellent hearing, so he could hear the noises of death coming from the room next door. However, by the time of his trip to Florence he could not hear the mediating voice; he had lost his connection with God. As he was striving to perfect the details and his professional knowledge, he lost the "divine essence, the experience of music." (306) He realises this during the journey, and the story of his illness and its cure is nothing but the restoration of the broken connection, Z’s partial return to God.

The turning point in Z’s life, the beginning of his return to God, coincides with the appearance of a voice which he had neither heard before, nor later. In the text the voice is personified and created as a speaking subject, which converses with the hero. Z cannot define it; on the one hand, he sees it as a real voice which can be noted down like music, while on the other, he denies the possibility of it being the voice of his own conscience or the voice of God. "Perhaps it is an angel," he says designating the voice as that of a creature which mediates between man and God. At the moment the voice speaks Z himself is midway between two cities and two conditions, health and illness, and this is intensified by the symbolism of the topography: the train is just passing over a bridge or viaduct. As Z is taking notes, he interprets the event as a transition from life to death: "in a way, I died to life and was born to death." (296)

From the condition of death, which almost leads to his physical destruction, Z is summoned back by a voice, the voice of a "strict, midnight angel." It is not only the metaphor of the angel which refers back to the voice he had heard on the train, but the text almost makes the character behind the voice disappear. It is designated as the "figure" or "person", which Z cannot see, and just as at the beginning of his journey he converses with a voice. After the turning point he attempts to use the voice to identify the source of the power which has brought him back to life, and the voice of the nurse will take him to the ultimate recognition.

The voice has a multiple mediating role in Z’s story. First, as the main attribute of the hero, through the theme of music, both in the profane and the spiritual sense. Secondly, in the plot it defines the turning points, the transition between life and death, and just like the demon of Socrates, it marks the connection between the hero and the transcendental. Thirdly, it also has a role as an attribute of the text which is created by the hero. The text recorded by Z is a "melodious text" which communicates meanings that words cannot convey to the reader "on the other side." Thus, the mediating function is realised both at the level of the text, and then at the level of the work of art.

To sum up, Márai’s novel links the mediating function between the human world and the transcendental, which is attributed to the demon by Socrates in Plato’s work, both to thematic coincidences and to the voice motif at various functional levels.

The direct connection between The Sister and the Platonic dialogue is also reinforced by other texts which have been built into the novel. In their own way, these texts evoke and utilise the Platonic dialogue and Plato’s doctrine of love as well, thus reinforcing direct quotes and enlarging the scope for interpretation. I would like to mention two of these texts without giving a detailed analysis of their place in the structure of the novel.

One of these texts is the Divine Comedy by Dante. The transcendental appears in a decidedly Christian context in Márai’s novel, and it was Dante’s work which succeeded in creating perfect harmony between Plato’s doctrine on love and the tenets of Christianity at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance period. There are several direct or indirect references to Dante in The Sister. The influence of the Comedy is present at two different levels in the novel. First, the journey made by Z is in parallel with the journey of the subject of the Comedy through Hell towards Paradise, and secondly, the relationship between the two parts of the novel can be best described with theological allegory, which is one of the characteristic figures of the Comedy.

The other work, which also contains references to the Platonic dialogues, is Nietzsche’s The Birth of the Tragedy. The origin of all the dichotomies, which appear at every level of the novel, is the duality of the creative subject, the writer-narrator and Z. The relationship between the two artists and a system of opposing parallels represent the conflict between Nietzsche’s Apollonic and the Dionysian doctrine of art. The concept of the "musical" or "melodic" text, which is the principal characteristic of Z’s text in Márai’s novel, also has its origins in Nietzsche’s work. Finally, in The Birth of the Tragedy Nietzsche addresses the issue of the disintegration of the tragedy. He identifies its cause as the dialectics of Socrates, and considers the genre of the dialogue to be the precursor of the novel.

At this point I would like to mention some formal characteristics of Márai’s novel. It may be worth considering that certain characteristics of the novel, which critics have identified as weaknesses and foreign to the genre of the novel in general, indicate the presence ofthe code of another genre. These features include the limited nature of space, time and plot, practically the antique dramatic unity; the small number of characters who usually meet in conversation; the retrospective presentation of the sequence of events preceding the situation; the theme of "destiny". All this is closer to the genre of the antique tragedy than that of the novel, and in The Sister this is reinforced by the allusions to Greek culture and the dichotomy in the structure of the work. However, the structure of the narrative, the palpable presence of the philosophical tradition, and the quasi-dialogue character of the conversations, which is practically the linking force between the different characters’ monologues delivered on the same subject, are all references to the Platonic dialogue, which also incorporated the genre of the tragedy.

On the basis of the above, Márai’s novel is best defined as a "dialogue-novel" both in form and in content. On the one hand, the word dialogue refers to the thematic source of the novel, the Platonic dialogues, and the philosophical nature of the work. On the other hand, it also refers to the typical form of the Platonic dialogue-situation, the exposition in a monologue which is embedded in a dialogue. Finally, this term also hints at the continual dialogue between the dichotomies in the novel, the two stories with an allegoric connection between them, the two ways of seeing reality, and the artistic and creative attitudes.

(Translated by Kristóf Hegedűs)

© Tünde Szabó (Budapest)


(1) In his monograph on Plato A. E. Taylor calls the Symposium "the masterpiece of Plato’s dramatic genius," which "was written in the form of a drama embedded in a story frame". A. E. Taylor, Platón, Osiris, Budapest, 1997, p. 295.

(2) The source of the quotations is Márai Sándor, Bébi. A nővér, Helikon, Budapest, 2002. The number in brackets after each quotation is the page number in this edition.

(3) László Passuth has pointed out the fact that Márai’s novels are characterised by a retrospective presentation: "Márai’s loves are retrospective almost without an example. He avoids being an accomplice or a witness to the actions of his characters, he refuses to allow the beginning, the encounter to take place in the present. He avoids everything that may allude to the passionate presentness of two individuals, the kisses, the conversations, the smallest of movements, which could lend the light of the present to his sentences." Passuth Laszló: Márai Sándor: A nővér Magyarok, 1947/1. 67.

(4) "... I can hear a divine and demonic voice [...] I have been hearing it since I was a child, and each time it speaks it always dissuades me from doing what I intend to do, but never encourages me to do it." Plato: The Apology of Socrates. Symposium, Európa, Budapest, 1998, 35.

9.5. Recycling Culture. Ancient and Sacral Texts in (Post)Modern Literature and Art

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For quotation purposes:
Tünde Szabó (Budapest): Márai’s Novels and Plato’s Dialogues. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/09_5/szabo16.htm

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