A spectre is haunting the universal map of humanity: the spectre of minorities. The map is overwhelmingly complex and these travellers are small and vulnerable. A distant viewer would not even discover this chaotic and anarchic stream of people aimlessly yet stout-heartedly drifting on pathless ways, far away from the main roads. Here everything is uncertain. Viewed from above it might appear as a stream, but a closer look reveals the fragmented world of isolated groups and lonesome travellers.
All the main roads are taken up by the onward march of great national columns. These roads are straight and orderly, all comforts provided for, all needs attended to. On the map of humanity everything that has symbolic importance for human values is piled up along these roads. The great columns proudly march by the amassed values, casting only the occasional glance; understandably so, since these modern museums were created to serve them. Naturally, there are many kinds of roads, they can be wider or narrower, longer or shorter, well-kept or neglected, running into more or less dangerous crossroads. On the side of the widest roads there are huge pantheons shining haughtily. There are, of course, smaller roads and more modest pantheons too. Yet the members of each marching column are primarily proud of the values heaped next to their own road.
Life is different on the various bypaths. Here there are no carefully exhibited and protected relics, one has to suffer bitterly for every image, every word and every spectacle. A sign is created and then is reduced to nothing. An unknown man is sitting before the ruins and weeps. Another man walks past him indifferently. He doesn’t hear the weeping since on these forgotten paths no one understands the other, the travellers are convinced they are passing through a deep and gloomy silence. No one listens to the noise of the faraway world. They are all longing for something else.
Everyone is yearning to get out of here, but this aspiration often fades away because it is an absurd one. For the members of minorities the feeling of nostalgia can take the form of bodily pain. The more they suffer the more they are nostalgic. If nostalgia can be seen as a sort of religious feeling, then members of minorities are the last mystics of this feeling. The forgotten bypaths are full of such rambling mystics. People on the main roads sometimes give astonished looks towards these dim figures in the distance; they see such mystics as somewhat recognisable, but essentially unknown creatures. As new and strange centaurs.
You contemplate your path, you try to conceal your centaur-like nature,and to discipline your mystical feelings. For you, the experience of being a minority means constantly transcending yourself; partially you are something you do not wish to be yet being a centaur allows you to discover your true affinity to what is universally human. This state of being is a gift and punishment at the same time: your many roots can also mean that you belong nowhere. Your centaur-like nature makes you suffer like facing up to a deep secret in your dreams. In your dreams or in your innermost feelings, harboured within the fragmented core of your personality. Where the pain is the strongest.
While you are awake you confront your centaur fate, that is, you interpret the world intellectually. You find an acceptable explanation for everything and you feel emancipated by the tricks of your mind. Your imagination transforms the narrow path into a wide road. Your intellect draws a pentagram against all irrational temptations. If there is no other way, you hide behind metaphors. You turn back but you cannot see the beginning of the path, only the hornbeam hedge; your past is murky so you become enthusiastic about the future. And when no one believes in the future anymore, you defiantly still remain faithful to it – as retribution for your dimmed past. It seems so easy to turn away from the future for those who think they have a past. Like a captured fish you shake and quiver in the net of history, and yet you also cling to this net, since it is the only fixed point in your life. This is how you anticipate the future. What might be nonsensical for others is the final stand for you.
But in your dreams you soar across the sky like the nameless birds of the Western horizons. While dreaming, you see the entirety of the map. The sky is your future and your gift, even though it is pitch black. You easily find your way in the matters of humanity and get accustomed to the imaginary landscape; you are content because you feel at home amidst the gruesome visions. You do not want to run from anything and you do not dare run towards anything. The higher you rise the bigger the shadows grow around you. Instinctively, you wish to plunge into the deep, awakening familiar pains in your body. The bleak and empty skies are more familiar to you than the everyday life, into which – you feel – you have been dragged by an overwhelming storm.
You console yourself. What seems to be an esoteric feeling, a rare privilege, or almost a reward for others is a malignant natural power for you. You envy the monolingual writers who yearn for the poisons of a complex and transposable world because you dread having this privilege; these poisons are destroying your body. You are trying to escape from the very thing they are chasing: what they see as a reward is a punishment for you. On the street, in the squares, in the trains, in the public buildings you open your eyes without the sense of a true awakening, and then you continue like nothing happened. They detach themselves from reality through their imagination while your imagination is craving after reality. Since your reality is constantly on the verge of disappearance.
All that vanishes in this way is not much different from your recurring dreams. On occasion you even comically confuse the two. The enthralling horizon melts away from the background, and you are left with the streets and squares and the people around you. That is the only difference your awakening brings. So you remind yourself: for minorities, the realm of reality contains many more fantastic elements as compared to the safe and sober life of the majority.
Every day you recreate your reality. What you created yesterday gets demolished by tomorrow. Tradition is irreversible. Concepts are drawing you into their treacherous game. You are carefully discovering the world around you, but everything is fluid, and slips away from your enthused attempt of cognition. You embark upon an adventure which then turns into your destiny. Why do you question the usual link between objects and words? Why do you need to close your eyes to better perceive the mountain creeks and the flight of birds? Perhaps because everything in the sphere of your senses has multiple names, and so everything can be said and formed differently. The existence of parallel worlds has divided you too. The words of an Austrian thinker come to mind: “thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking, and which it would be possible to detach from speaking”.(1) The phenomenon is familiar since it prescribes your everyday life right down to the molecular level. There are two bodies living within you. When you shift from one language to the other all shapes, colours and flavours change too. The word bujadika can never be as noble-sounding as alpesi hölgypáfrány,(2) and only in the dictionary could zimomorod be equal with körömvirág.(3) For you they are different: one flower grows on the banks of mountain creeks with ice-cold water, and the other hides under the shade of majestic forest trees. The josje is small and breezy while égerfaliget(4) is distant and enigmatic. You struggle with the words, you search for their realm of meanings, and all the while you are inescapably determined by them.
You waver from the path of one language to the path of the other. You carry upon yourself the stigma of both. You are never able to shake off the distrust that meets you from either direction. Your mother tongue is like a subterranean stream surfacing in the most unexpected places. You befriend it after breakfast, while going to work or saying goodbye to your children. Then it disappears, but in the afternoon in a random shop you overhear the quarrel between a man and a woman, you watch them with curiosity, and observe absently the wrinkled shirt on the man and the colourful headscarf on the woman: suddenly, you encounter again the language you put aside in the morning. In the meanwhile, you were hiding in the other language which also became a home for you. This other language is also shaping and forming your inner self. It is impatient and egoistic. It wants to create within you something different than what you think you are. You cannot tell anymore which one is your wife and which one is your mistress. Your world is a strange mixture, with your life as a token. You know all the secret passageways of the other language and you see well in advance how it deceives all the clueless foreigners, whereas you are pleased to discover: you are not an alien. You can find shelter within the language like a native, and you can give shape to your thoughts through it, although still with an awkward and clumsy uncertainty. You can never really express what you truly think, you are a tightrope walker on standby, sometimes even the simplest step seems highly hazardous so you patiently cultivate a sense of caution, and repeatedly escape onto the neutral ground of meditation. You attempt to hide your uncertainty and bury the remains of your self-identification with clever rhetorical ellipses, yet in the meanwhile silence becomes your faithful companion. You carry it around although your life would be easier without it. For long years now you have come to love such superfluous burdens, just like the various bypaths and detours.
The other language spins a tulle veil between you and the world: so you do not address it directly and you do not expect any unfiltered answers because you are simply unable to safely and unproblematically name the things in the world. Every single word has a hidden dimension which leaves you baffled, and so you try to conquer the impossibility of naming parts of reality through complicated linguistic twists and turns. This is how you became the martyr of indirectness and self-reflection. You see the trees, the crying children, the waves on the sea, the sad eyes, yet you are distrustful of sensuous perception, you dissect all of your memories to verify their very existence. It is not sufficient to preserve them, you need to know the reason behind their persistence. Your melancholic identity crisis originates from this linguistic oscillation but you do not complain: some people find happiness in stability, you escape into uncertainty. Your fate unravels under the sign of the sphinx. The more they examine and supervise you the more mysterious you become, only from afar can they make a clear judgement. You protect yourself through the projection of your inner contradictions.
This is no mere self-defence. The two languages – against your will – have divided you, and this influences the way you use your mother tongue. The marvellous tulle veil hangs before your eyes even when the words would not require it. There comes a slight ripple in the veil and already there are hazy images floating in front of you. The uncertainty of the shifting world puzzles you. You are struggling with an animated painting. A distant observer finds your movements ridiculous. Why do you raise your hand in defence when in fact nothing is moving? Why do you shout if there is silence? Why are you speechless when there is confusion? Seeing the baffled looks in everyone’s eyes, you start to suspect more and more that you failed at making yourself understood. Even though you speak the same language: the words are common yet your world of images is different.
Do not despair! You were not meant to live in a naïve and natural linguistic cosmos, you were not given the possibility – and grace – of straightforwardly discovering and naming the world. […] Most of your peers are joyously indulging in this gift, in spite of the fact that they are in the same situation as you are, yet they are not aware of it. Enchanted by the harmony of their mother tongue, they ceaselessly praise the smooth bridge between their lives and their language. They delude themselves since they are too comfortable and content to face the uneasy drama of a divided life and language.
You should not delude yourself or others, no matter how favourable you would look in the eyes of single-language intellectuals. If life and language for you do not coincide then you should be inspired by the tension born between them. Let your language introduce you to your own drama. You follow the unfolding of your strange life in parallel worlds. The police ask for your documents in a different language and you answer in the same way. You are not surprised: it is a normal part of your everyday life. Summoned into official buildings, you are searching for the right answers to their disinterested questions. As always, they face difficulties in remembering your name, the sounds get entangled in the pronunciation, but you do not mind, because you draw strength from your protean inspiration. With your head raised high you are immune to all confusion of names: the centaur is unnameable. While sitting with friends in the garden of a restaurant a group of kids walks past your table and they notice the unfamiliar language. As part of their play, they start to repeat loudly and mockingly a distorted version of the last sentence you uttered. Your throat goes numb when you look into the eyes of these five and six year olds, and you are rendered powerless by the knowledge that this is how children are: ungrateful, mean and innocent. You understand, because it is absurd. The peculiar does not stir you, the normal does not calm you: you struggle for every word. You are faced with a multitude of social traumas, your existence is linked to another linguistic world which can provide the dismissing or uplifting judgement. With a clear head, you analyse yourself: in the net of the other language you are transformed. This is your fate: the palimpsest-life; looking for secret connections within the net and interpreting their meaning with the mind of an accomplice: your fervour in dealing with the other language is beyond the grasp of any foreigner. This is how your drama is born, since you were never a foreigner in the first place. You conduct all of your public actions and live your political passions through this other language, it informs you about the world and its events, bringing the best and the worst news. There is no time to translate the sentences, experience teaches you that all great moments are ultimately untranslatable. Your mother tongue receives you later, comforting you with the aid of inner meditation, and yet with a sense of sorrow at not being able to share in the joy or help you in a time of need.
Your life is played out in front of two very different imaginary mirrors. Two mirrors which reflect each other – and you – in their own way. This is how languages mirror each other, and this is how they mirror you: the one who is speaking. The mirror images become more complex and wonderful. Watching your reflection you notice that no matter how unwavering your expression is you perceive yourself to be in constant change – always doubled, in novel shapes and forms. You are fascinated by the richness revealed. The scenery seems like a passageway to some dreamlike realm, to your imaginary self. The mirrors interpret and transform, locking you inside their dimension.
An urge tells you to smash the mirror world because you feel it is endangering your independence. You feel that a life without the multiplying mirror images would bring you solitude and unlock the centre of your indivisible self. If such a thing is still possible, that is. You want to escape from the vernacular, and to search a way to confront your mother tongue as if you were arguing with God. You want to free yourself of the layers of public life. You ask yourself whether there is an inner pocket of your existence filled solely by your mother tongue. Like a refugee you desperately seek a safe ground, you run from one place to another, but there is no empty space left behind you, no one notices your absence. Being part of a minority makes you into a wandering mystic, no one needs you, and no one is bothered by your obscure journey. You want to crawl back to your deepest inner world, but you quickly realise that the grace of splendid isolation is not accessible for you. The essential ambiguity of this inner realm deprived you of this option. Because the centre of your self resembles your whole life: in spite of hopes for coherence, you find only a puzzle falling to pieces, you struggle with particles that refuse to melt into one. The centre is not lost, it simply got adjusted to your life.
What is most intimate and personal – all of it is transformed as well.
You walk on the streets and stop in the main square of Novi Sad. Pigeons fly from one arcade to another. Watching the crowd you catch the smile of a familiar woman, but you gently slide your gaze away: with the passing of years you have become increasingly shy, and you hide all past desires. In the bright sunlight a girl throws her head back, arranges her hair, and continues to talk about love with her friend. The sunrays, reflecting from the concrete buildings, form a golden wreatharoundherhair.Youpasscloselybyandthenstopforamoment:not only did you overhear her secret, but you had a glance behind the veil of the other language. Memories of women glide in front of your eyes, and you bitterly admit: they are similar to the trickling of time. The shreds of your memories are following you everywhere, billowing like poisonous smoke. The faces seen in the present remind you of all your lovers from the past. Remembering them feels like contemplating the watermarks of your life. Once again you taste the words which you repeated passionately in that other language; the words reveal your innermost feelings, bringing up the emotions like from under a volcano, and punishing you for locking them away. Once again, these words warn you that they live deep within you, they know your secrets, and they share those very privileges intended for your mother tongue. Your self does not have a door through which they could pass freely; rather they swarm around you, never letting you forget. You taste the other language like the bodies of all those women you got to know through its help. With these words a whole array of new sensations conquered you, bringing the tidings of a familiar yet still different world. Although the women loved you, upon discovering the ambiguity of your centaur-like nature their embraces became uncertain, and their puzzled looks had the same unspoken question: who are you and where do you come from? The strange tone of your sentences raised suspicion in them, opening a dark gap between their language and yours. Viciously it warned you that the laws of language are harder to break down that the resistance of bodies. Failing to understand your language, they undeniably perceived you as a stranger, while you understood theirs and did your best to completely and unconditionally identify with them. Yet in spite of this, you could not feel whole and could not share all you wished to share. Against your will you were harbouring secrets; your love constantly morphed into a farewell, made all the more painful by the recognition that all your desires were geared towards the unattainable. So you took a piece of white paper and scribbled on it whatever came into your mind: everything that you could not say since they would not have understood you. This is how you made your peace and tamed your urge to speak.
You could not always express what you felt. Your feelings were determined by the same contradictions which ruled your mind and your language. Even though your eyes met, you were unable to find common words for all the fine nuances of emotions and the lightest stirs of your bodies. The faces of all these women, carved into your memory, are the metaphors of your place in the world. The sweet taste of their bodies was engulfing you one day, and it was gone the other. Yet you continued your siege on this unknown world, fully aware that it cannot be conquered. With all of your past loves you wanted to eliminate this unbearable state of levitation, since each and every female body promised the transgression of your linguistic borders. But instead, all this just made you feel the drifting even stronger. This wish was the source of constant anxiety, but you returned to it obsessively because it offered the prospect of a perfect and painless transformation. Or, rather the illusion of a transformation. Yet in the end, no matter how hard you kept chasing this illusion, it became obvious that you lacked the endurance and were reluctant to renounce your ambiguous and multilayered nature. And while you were running foolishly, you did not even notice that your feet got wounded by the sharp obstacles on the way, and had no time to turn and see the bloodstains you left behind.
It feels as if you were fated to stagger from here to there, without finding a final and fixed position, so that in the end your failures would consume you whole. You wanted desperately to open yourself up as much as possible but you slowly disintegrated thanks to the pulling force of the two worlds. Uttering intimate words and sentences felt like slashing at your own skin.
The physical and emotional experiences of your personal life exhausted you. Nowadays, you are content with only the illusions. It is nothing more than tribute to your memories now to sit on a fine terrace and talk with a woman one spring evening. She studies you with the same curiosity as your old lovers did, while you are savouring her language and repeating the old familiar words. Your hands twiddling aimlessly on the table, no sign of any thirst for the old sensory adventures, you feel your past erotic experiences withering away. Your desires dissolve into the last and final dimension of reality. Your melancholy and wisdom prevents you from sharing this with anyone. It seems slightly illusory to be sitting on a dimly lit terrace reiterating old words, while from within the invisible mirror of your past a whole array of images make their appearance: you do not have the right to step out of their frame. You stare into the mirror, imagining the movement of your lips and the wrinkles around your eyes. The woman is explaining something to you, but falls silent every other minute, she notices that your attention is wavering and cannot figure out the reason for your absentmindedness. You know she will never understand what your eyes are looking for and why you are searching for an unknown, yet captivating vista.
The mirror shows you another image: you are wandering on forgotten bypaths and you see the woman who was just talking to you, the wind lifts her skirt and there’s a glimpse of her slim legs, she points into an undefined direction, and steps out of the frame of the mirror.
Afterwards, you see yourself in the mirror, how you stand up from beside the table and, with an arched back, walk away among the nameless objects and unfamiliar people, so that you can elegiacly disappear into the vastness of the unknown world.
In reality, the woman did not leave the table and is still talking to you. If someone passing by would see the both of you, they would think that an attractive woman is chatting with her thoughtful lover. How could they possibly guess that you see yourself stumbling down a narrow bypath, wondering how a conversation would be with a young woman on a terrace?
(Originally published in Hungarian under the title “Kisebbségi elégia”, in Hontalan esszék, Jelenkor, 2003.)
Translation by Szabolcs László
1 Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1958.
2 The Hungarian and Serbian for lady fern.
3 The marigold flower.
4 The birch grove.