All That Exists Is the Only True Luxury: Miklós Szentkuthy’s "Marginalia on Casanova"

MARGINALIA ON CASANOVA is the first English translation of Hungarian novelist Miklós Szentkuthy’s commentary on the German edition of a French memoir written by a Venetian librarian, Giacomo Casanova, in the 1790s. Casanova’s original memoir, Histoire de ma vie jusqu’à l’an 1797, is housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and signed “Jacques Casanova de Seingalt” (since Casanova came to prefer the French “Jacques” to “Giacomo,” and simply liked the sound of “de Seingalt”). The Histoire was unpublished in its author’s lifetime, and the manuscript was partially destroyed when Casanova died — “nobly enough,” according to his friend the Prince de Ligne — in 1798. It first went to press in the 1820s as Aus den Memoiren des Venetianers Jacob Casanova de Seingalt, a German translation totaling over 6,000 pages in 12 volumes.

There was no complete French edition of the Histoire until the 1960s, and it was the German text that Szentkuthy relied on, in 1938, when he decided to write the singular commentary that he published in Budapest the following year. Szentkuthy’s “commentary” is possibly better classified as a novel; he himself considered it the first volume of his recherché, pan-European opus, the 10-volume Szent Orpheus breviáriuma (St. Orpheus Breviary). Marginalia on Casanova is a dazzling English rendering by Tim Wilkinson, of Szentkuthy’s 1939 book, and also Szentkuthy’s English debut. (The other volumes of the Breviary — with titles like Black Renaissance, Europa Minor and In the Footsteps of Eurydice — will, I hope, be forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press soon.)

Miklós Szentkuthy — born Miklós Pfisterer, in 1908 — introduced himself to Budapest’s literary circles in 1934 with a self-published novel, Prae, and he remained a provocative figure until his death in 1988. Szentkuthy is still referred to as the “sacred monster” of Hungarian letters, and the expression is apt. His huge output — foremost, the “Romanesque cathedral” that is the Breviary — is at once speculative and manneristic, hyper-erotic and hyper-religious, bleary eyed and clear-sighted.         

Szentkuthy’s ambition was medieval: to produce a catalogus rerum, “an index of all entities.” His method is “Hellenistic-rococo”: he writes spirited variations on the letter of the canon. His syntax and affect are irreverently modernist, yet there is nothing programmatic about his avant-gardism, and what he wrote of Casanova holds true of him as well: “the muck of literary program is not allowed to dirty his white cuffs.” In the Marginalia, “metaphysical facts,” “factual truths,” and deliriums are calculated to transect “with the epic grace of an apoplectic fit.” It is not accidental, then, that he was thrilled by the expression of the15th-century polymath, Nicolas of Cusa — echoed by Romantics like Novalis and Coleridge — that the essence of all things is a coincidentia oppositorum: a “coincidence of opposites.” Szentkuthy is, himself, such a coincidence.


The idea of a commentary on Casanova was suggested to Szentkuthy by Protestant theologian Karl Barth’s commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans. This fact is arresting, if not bizarre, not least because Szentkuthy was a loyal Roman Catholic. In the Marginalia, he insists that “Protestantism […] does not recognize Casanova,” a statement that results in this inoffensive corollary: “a Protestant cannot be in love.” (The “whole mental possibility” of Casanova, for Szentkuthy, lies within the “loose, finely decayed Catholic milieu” of the Venetian’s 18th century.) No genre is more conservative than the commentary, and Barth’s Protestant Römerbrief was the last scriptural commentary to become a European phenomenon precisely because it was more conservative than its historical-critical predecessors. Reacting to 19th-century historicism, Barth sought “the Eternal Spirit” in the apostolic letter, i.e., its “Inspiration” by what Szentkuthy would call “the Holy Ghost-Muse.” Formally speaking, however, Barth’s commentary is neither more nor less conservative than Augustine’s Unfinished Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (written in 395), or, for that matter, Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains (2000). All these texts are structured by sentences extracted from Paul’s Romans, which are then explicated, line-by-line. Szentkuthy styles himself, impishly, “a conscientious commentator,” and stresses the “melancholy difference” between Casanova and himself: Casanova “found love in the labyrinthine alleys of the Villa Aldobrandini.” Full stop. Where Casanova’s Holy Ghost-Muse is love — “a bare fact, a factum nudissimum” — Szentkuthy’s is a Leipzig edition of Casanova’s text: Casanova refracted through Luther’s and Hölderlin’s German.

Szentkuthy, of course, has an incomparably freer hand than Barth, since a seriatim gloss on the 12 volumes of Aus den Memoiren… could only end in 36 volumes. Still, Szentkuthy’s Casanova commentary is recognizably true to the genre. It consists in over 100 numbered sections that are headed by, or revolve around, a word or line or episode in Casanova’s memoirs, in roughly consecutive order, from birth to death. The sections vary in length, from three lines to 53 pages — the latter amounting to a two-part, “anti-Casanova” excursus on the love affair of Abélard and Héloise — but Szentkuthy’s decision to mimic Barth’s treatment of holy writ is a genuine, and consequential, decision. In Romans 7:11, Paul laments how “sin, taking occasion by the commandment, seduced me,” and it is seduction by commandment that Szentkuthy detects in the word “law” when “understood in a Casanovan sense, and therefore never to be obeyed.” For Szentkuthy, Casanova is a perpetually absolved and self-absolved transgressor, yet it is essential for him to be a transgressor. Casanova’s Histoire, in Szentkuthy’s eyes, is “an absolute law-book,” and whether the law in question is the pre-established harmony of a quadrille or the incest taboo Casanova flouts with a trio of sisters, it is the perfection of 18th-century form that makes the perfection of Casanova’s libertinage possible.

Yet there is one commandment that is — perhaps — never to be transgressed:

When the girl [in a hotel] asks [Casonova] how a man becomes a philosopher he says with Elizabethan curtness: “one thinks.” Right through life, what is more, and one never finishes. In other words, the distinction between thought and life is lost: a life that is worth calling a life is thought […] [So] what might the last commandment be for the missy before being bedded in the hotel? “Denken sie” — think. Casanova is not a connoisseur for nothing.

The life Szentkuthy retraces in the Marginalia is foremost “a triumph of mathesis, a triumph of form, rigor, discipline.” Thus: “Casanova is the Brunelleschi of love, not its Rubens”; “Casanova is a furioso of raison, the Orlando of logical loves”; and “[l]ove was never so depraved, so golden-aged, so libertine, as here — never so elegant, so neatly turned and masked, as here.”

For Szentkuthy, Giacomo Casanova exemplifies “a crystal-clear, pellucid, vernal Satanism,” to be sure, but this is because his type could blithely reconcile “Pauline contrition-versus-ecstasy.” Marginalia opens with a diptych of Casanova’s seduction of a girl-child, Bettina, and his debut in the pulpit:

As a small baby abate [i.e., cleric] Casanova delivers a sermon in a church. What is important above all else is that there is a world in which such a thing is possible, historically speaking. A world in which no one gives a damn whether a person wearing a priest’s garb is a priest; a world in which a young boy can make a debut like a little ballerina. If that is the milieu then a thousand other things are self-evident. Yet Casanova’s entire intellectual mission (because he has none other in life) hangs on this […] One continually has the feeling that Casanova has a right to preach; something completely logical and completely free of hypocrisy is going on here. God wishes that the sermon should not be delivered by a bearded St. John in the wilderness but by a love-stricken Venetian young rascal in a periwig.

This first sermon was also Casanova’s last, but Szentkuthy notes that he then “became a doctor of law at Padua.” That Casanova read civil law is undoubtedly why Szentkuthy prefaces the Marginalia — and the Breviary — with a brief vita of Casanova’s contemporary, St. Alfonso Maria di Liguori. This prolific 18th-century saint delved into the foundations of law in his youth, and died an embattled master of canon law and theologia moralis (that “long-forgotten term,” according to Szentkuthy, “by which ‘Freudianism’ was known in 18th-century rococo jargon”). Szentkuthy’s surreal vita of Alfonso is not scurrilous, though the Marginalia had to beat blasphemy charges when it first appeared. He wants this saint to be remembered, but as an anti-type to the Catholic immoralist, Jacques Casanova.

“Let me contradict myself” is how Szentkuthy opens one of his sections, and in fact he could use this to open most of them, since the Marginalia provides him ample occasion for self-contradiction. What is crucial, however, is that Szentkuthy’s absurdism is only occasionally a sign of indolence. He praises Casanova for his clarity and specificity, and while his own lyricism is undeniable, Szentkuthy insists that “anyone not in possession of the totality of prosaic facts” is a time-waster. The “mammoth beds” in 18th-century inns are, for him, a “fundamental metaphysical fact” without which Casanova could never have appeared. Szentkuthy’s facts and allusions multiply, while the basso of self-contradiction runs beneath them, deriving — perversely — from his devotion to clarity and specificity. Already, in section two, he announces “a duality of life, of humanity, that can never be elucidated: the clarity of meaning and … of meaninglessness.” In section 73, he suggests that “a name ‘does not signify much,’ simply everything.” Szentkuthy’s “Casanova” is a signifying name in exactly that sense, and for him, the famous lothario’s memoir is nothing but a testament to this “clarity of meaning and … meaninglessness.”

This blinding, infuriating clarity is endlessly re-circled, re-illustrated, and rephrased in Szentkuthy’s increasingly “pessimistic margins.” A single illustration will have to suffice, taken from one of Casanova’s countless lovers — in this case, a young countess. Section 117 is Szentkuthy’s gloss on a sentence from the Aus den Memoiren in which the countess, after she and Casanova have “tasted everything until exhaustion,” kisses her “slippers” (ihre Pantoffeln küßte) before leaving the boudoir, saying that only “death” (nur im Tode) could ever separate her from them. Szentkuthy is in rapture: “I cannot go on without pausing on a sentence in which the two words ‘Pantoffel’ & ‘Tod’ feature so closely together. This is a symbol of the 18th century.” But the countess’ expression is also more than that, with “slippers” and “death” symbolizing a flippant and obscene contiguity that Szentkuthy detects in every episode of Casanova’s life. By way of a sort of ars combinatoria, “slippers” and “death,” in their shocking proximity, can be made to signify love and truth, lies and objects, flesh and spirit, present and past, fortuity and fate, or simply — as for the countess — life and death. To live is to have the “slippers.” And similarly, love in the Marginalia “always faces some immeasurable ephemerality, some absolutely momentary fortuity and not God, a woman, or nature.”

Toward the end of the Marginalia, Casanova wakes and notices, at once, a woman’s “reddish hair caught on his nail” and “the pale lilac shade of crocus in his nail varnish.” This is a Proustian petite madeleine, it seems, but Szentkuthy invests it with anti-Proustian metaphysical ultimacy:

The desperate silk that a […] woman’s skin signified for half a second when Giacomo was able to reach under her skirt — not in search of piquancy (even in his dreams Casanova would not know what that is) but the untheorizable, godless secret of beauty & death; the primitive movement with which the woman uses her hand to shield her neck from the May sleet when she turns down her collar […] that momentary tone of lamentation with which Giacomo seeks to seduce her back into his own little orphan-velvet and orphan-volatile idyll; the sweet pain with which he thinks of the woman’s torments […] pain for the woman and pain for Giacomo, so that the lilac of the “lilac” should be evident — all that together, the objects and the miniscule cultivars of soul shards: that is reality, that is what one lives for: these are not Proustian delicacies […] precisely these are the raw materials of life, crude, bell-like masses [that] have nothing to do with the cheap mist of “mood.”

Szentkuthy loathes his “bell-like masses” even as he loves them, however, and as he progressively indulges in “the oily melodies of [personal] confessions,” in the last pages of the Marginalia, he divulges that the “sole natural thirst” in life — echoing the first lines of Augustine’s Confessions — is “the thirst for God.” But the “gods will never fit in our mouth however much we may gape,” and in the end there is simply no fount for Szentkuthy to drink from. Hence, the Marginalia’s last word is the Leipzig Casanova’s ominous “Vernichtete”: “annihilated, destroyed.” It finally becomes clear that the “demonic and rococo puritanism” in the Marginalia’s Casanova is also his commentator’s. It is Szentkuthy who leaves us to the vengeance of a god he cannot believe in.

“Casanova is a Catholic,” says Szentkuthy in section 74, “otherwise there would be no Europe.” This is obviously some sort of logical fallacy, but if Szentkuthy were not European there would certainly be no Marginalia. This is nowhere clearer than in the preceding section (73), which Szentkuthy calls a “garden-Loyolite meditation.” The garden in question is that of the Villa Aldobrandini, near Frascati, Italy, and Szentkuthy begins by stressing the fact that:

[l]ife is so grandiosely useless that only irresponsible bestiality deserves the name of “style.” A garden labyrinth: the only real complication, the snake of objects, not of souls or thoughts … It is of vital importance with respect to Casanova’s love that: there is no question of art in the construction of the villas, no question of nature in the gardens, “beauty” and “nature” are unknown, all that exists is the only true luxury.

The last phrase here is Szentkuthy’s most primitive intuition, and it functions here as something like a fundamental, if impossible, dogma: “all that exists is the only true luxury.” The description of the villa’s microcosmic garden that follows is superb:

[G]igantic wells with three or four levels of basins, unexpectedly densely leaved, cubist walls of evergreens, eerily clipped to angles, arches of triumph, entire peristyles cut out with shears, lakes phrased in similar fashion as if they were fretsawn glass fragments, a single fern species allowed to run freely for miles […] monumental impudence, which is more than the truth.

He then transitions from the single instance of a hedged-in garden lake to “the inner experience of the ellipse” — its form, its idea — which could “make for a separate chapter”:

The oval: half of the rococo depends on this, this circle is, after all, not a circle in its light intoxication of self-contradiction […] [it is] at once Greek trigonometry and ecstatic fault […] This ellipse is worthy of Casanova: simultaneously a closed circle and a parabola slipping off into unreality.

Needless to say, it is precisely in this “slipping off into unreality” that the oval adumbrates “all that exists,” and it is because of its “ecstatic fault” that:

One senses that [the] oval [is] the natural form of stillness: if silence is left to itself in an airless space, it will crystallize elliptically like that. Just like time is the redolence and vapour of objects, so silence is a chemical phenomenon identical with certain objects and forms — well, here we have located the scholastically eternal form: the lake-ellipse with a frame of clipped black foliage […] The lake, which is a mirror, dark green, mute, shiny, heavy, marshy, autumnal and millennial. (Above all it casts these attributes from itself like dead fish.) […] In the final analysis is this area open or closed? Have we ended up in the inmost part of life or shall we fly out of it straight into the heavens?

It is this last question, more than the black and limiting “Vernichtete,” that sums up Szentkuthy’s Marginalia and conveys the uncertainty that pervades the work. The only true luxury is that it cannot be answered.

The Marginalia, it must be said, is uneven, and sections 38 to 57 are comparatively weak. But these 19 sections only make up a matter of 20 pages (which, nonetheless, include gorgeous lines like: “every stealthy agitation of the age is there in Casanova’s nights”), while section 73 alone is a 19-page triumph. Wilkinson’s prose, on the whole, is shapely, tangy and precise; the line “Love […] ferments in the closed tumblers of numbered nights” will not be bettered.

Finally, and most disturbingly, there is a streak of sadism in Casanova’s memoir that the commentator refuses to skirt or condemn. “Even in his rationalism-sadism,” Szentkuthy finds, Casanova remains “charming as a spoilt child.” But when it is children that admire Casanova’s charms and provide his pleasures, the scene becomes vile. Szentkuthy reminds us that in Casanova’s century (as in ours, for that matter) “slavery still existed, and in the Levant one could still obtain a woman or child for money.” This fact, coupled with Szentkuthy’s suspicion that one’s lover is insurmountably a love-object, results in some damnable passages:

Is it not marvellous that slave-girls still existed in the 18th century? If a maid is heaven, then a slave-girl must be seventh heaven […] What is truly great, exciting, and divine can only be an object; a human is so much an eternal singularity that beside one human another is a logical and physiological impossibility; there can always only be one of a human being […] That is why the final goal is a slave-girl, who can be placed any which way like an object.

This is a Sadean inversion of Kant’s “kingdom of ends,” heaven as harem; in the end, however, it is not Szentkuthy’s, or even Casanova’s (who “when he feels great love […] is sickened by courtesans”). Thus, Szentkuthy mirrors his early, brutish paean to the girl-child as object with his later, first-person meditation on Héloise, a “subject” par excellence. She is admittedly forlorn, this Héloise, like a “rosette of bones” and “a young branch in the wind,” but she has eyes that “neither thought nor non-thought” can sound. She stands as a refutation of Casanova’s happy slavelets.

“A hetaera does not curse empty-pocketed lovers as I do the mind,” fumes Szentkuthy, who later describes reason and passion alike as “neurotic galley slaves ripe for elimination.” Be that as it may, Szentkuthy’s galley slaves are strong at their oars. His ideal is always “nonchalance & yet ontological weight,” and the effects are impressive. An assiduous translator from English with faultless taste in English stylists — Milton, Sterne, Gibbon, Poe are all cited in the Marginalia — Szentkuthy deserves a serious Anglophone reception. He is a writer of high stature, though just what kind of writer he is remains obscure, perhaps even to himself. “I wonder if, before I die, the question will be resolved as to whether I have been, at root, frivolous and unfaithful or tragically faithful in nature?” he asks in the Marginalia. This is another question that cannot be answered, and Szentkuthy is not selling false luxuries. He lets his questions hang.



David van Dusen‘s first book, The Space of Time, is forthcoming from Brill.