György Szegõ: Contribution to oneself – Thoughts on the salon




Paraphrasing the poet Mihály Vörösmarthy’s words “Is the world no better for any book?” one might ask, is the world no better for any picture? Jan Assmann, researcher of collective memory rendered visible, of signs and symbols, was true to his Egyptologist self when he published his seminal work, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis (Cultural Memory). He takes on E. A. Havelock and Western philologists in general, arguing that they underes¬timated the ability of hieroglyphic script to communicate, assuming it was merely able to convey known things. Assmann asserted that “‘scribal culture,’ on the other hand, covers the institutions and traditions of writing, how one approaches texts, and the position of writing and of written texts in society.”1 At the same time, written culture and literacy assumed a subordinate role in Greek culture. “Aristotle’s view: he thought that spoken language reproduced tà en psychê (that which is in the soul), while writing reproduced tà en phonê (that which is in the voice). […] The extreme opposite of all this was Egyptian hieroglyphics. With their realistic pictoriality, these referred directly to the world […]. Therefore they reproduced not only ‘what is in the voice’ but also ‘what is in the psyche’ and, furthermore, ‘what is in the world.’”2 To the Egyptian mind, acquiring and shaping the pictorial world coincided and, according Assmann, this was the most sacrosanct form available to reason.

Twentieth¬century Jungian psychoanalysis affords a curious parallel with the above, in which symbols play a crucial role. György Péter Hárs has found that the psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, who maintained a cor¬respondence with Jung, had one possible source: the poet Mihály Babits. “Babits had published his essays on the poet Vörösmarty in Nyugat in 1911. On 2 January 1912 Ignotus [the chief editor of Nyugat] wrote to Babits, ‘The observation or tenet in your essay on Vörösmarty that the symbolic nature of symbols comes first, and meaning merely limps behind is truly ingenious and corresponds to the main law of psychology. I brought this to the attention of our clever Doctor Ferenczi.’ […]. The passage he was referring to, in its context, was as follows. ‘Whatever the poet imagined in the language of images can be translated in to the language of concepts. […] One would be mistaken to believe that a symbol is merely an expression of a thought; on the contrary, a symbol is the principal happening of the psyche, and thoughts are deficient expressions of symbols.’”3 György Péter Hárs provides a brief analysis of Babits’s poem Psychoanalysis Christiana (1927). “Babits’s poem is about statues that might be described with the term ‘carve’. Half¬finished stone sculptures awaiting continuous carving. Paradoxically, carve, which can refer to making a sculpture, is used in this instance in the sense of the word that describes the result, a state of being: the cleft or split. A split within the Ego, a split between the Ego and the community, a split between the Ego and transcendence. […] And since these sculptures are us; the strikes of the hammer are at the same time lashes of the whip, and in this sense the ‘psychoanalysis Christiana’ is for Babits flagellation and self¬flagellation. ‘We were made for suffering.’ The question is, of course, who is doing the carving; whether it is occurring in and through the poem? […] there are three creative roles: God and man; the objectification of artist and his ego, that is, the work of art; and the analyst and the analysed. Where the creator and the analysed coincide, we speak of self¬analysis, the sympathetic reconstruction and construction of ourselves. […] Where God is the creator, then too […] suffering can be a reason to create: ‘the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon’ he [Nietsche] writes in The Birth of Tragedy. The idea of identifying with the suffering God does come up in Babits. ‘Who would better understand the religious mystery than the artist and writer, since art is in fact ousted religion.’”4 Why did I bring all this up? Jan Assmann himself gives the answer when introducing a new form of inter¬textual connection: “It is no longer the speaker responding to the speaker, but one text to the other [image to image – Gy. Sz.]. The written text [or image – Gy. Sz.] does not simply inform, command and secure social, economic and political interaction that falls outside the sphere of writing [images – Gy. Sz.], but auto¬referen¬tially comes into contact with other written texts within the framework of the current discourse. Thus a new form of cultural coherence and continuity emerges: reference to the texts of the past in the form of controlled variation. Let us call this variation ‘hypolepsis’. […]

What we have termed ‘hypolepsis’ is closest related to the Aristotelian concept of epidosis eis auto (contri¬bution to oneself). Aristotle used the latter to distinguish between man and the world of plants and animals […] arguing that he [man, that is – J. A.] ‘may partake in the eternal and divine’ (De anima II.4.2). […] The continuity of nature is repetition. […] The continuity of culture, on the other hand, is the continuity of progres¬sive variation.”5 Assmann discusses the “rules of taking up the thread”; that is, the way the Greeks institution¬alised dialogue with texts. Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Peripatetic School were a case in point of institutions that shaped the “hypoleptic horizon” of the West. “When referring to Plato and Aristotle as ‘classics,’ we emphasise their inimitability and role as models. Their writings set the standards of philosophy, as Homer had done the same in epic poetry. When classifying their writings as ‘canonical texts’, we high¬light their unconditional authority.”6 Jan Assmann believes truth to be the third reference factor which he interprets as information or objective content: “For the significance of an objective content or theme to survive beyond that situation and make itself accessible for future reference, it needs to take the form of a ‘problem’. Problems are the forms of hypoleptic discourse organisation. […] Our everyday lives are considerably richer in contradiction than our theoretical conscience could ever imagine. […] Lévi¬Strauss coined the term pensée sauvage (literally, ‘wild thought’, ‘the savage mind’) for this phenomenon. The process of bricolage is a manner of handling tradition that is diametrically opposed to hypoleptic discipline. Bricolage means tinkering around with recycled materials that are absorbed through their change of function.”7 This brings us closest to the presence. If we accept the fact that the crisis of scribal culture can restorebuoyancy to picture¬writing, then what emerges in the context of canons and bricolage8 is not a tragedy, but rather, the characteristics of a re-alistic modern¬day Axial Age (Achsenzeit; Karl Jaspers, 1955).“Wearenotdealinghere with evolutionary achievements that can never be reversed – as Jaspers puts it […]: ‘it is done and cannot be undone.’9 It is possible for the institutions of interpretation to disappear, for foundational texts [images – Gy. Sz.] to become incomprehensible or to lose their authority, for cultural mnemotechnics to vanish […].” Assmann’s remedy against this is the practice of hypolepsis. And I believe this to be true not only for writing, but also pictorial traditions and techniques. If a story cannot be told in words, then one can do more than remain silent (Ludwig Wittgenstein) and seek to relate the events in pictures. And the culture of images10 must include the Renaissance, Classicism, Sezessionstil and the living traditions of the Avant¬Garde, as well as the elements of the cultural process of the Aristotelian “contribution to oneself”. Also, the pictures of the Salons – the accepted and the refused. Tradition must be (re)interpreted over and over again. The Academic, the Avant¬Garde and the Neo-Avant¬Garde. Our ability to withstand contradiction is of vital importance.


1 Jan Assmann: Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 240

2 Assmann: op. cit, p. 240

3 György Péter Hárs: “Babits – pszichoanalízis és christiana” (Babits –psychoanalysis and Christiana) in Élet és Irodalom, 27 March 2015, p. 13.

4 György Péter Hárs: op. cit.

5 Assmann: op. cit., pp. 256–257.

6 Assmann: op. cit., p. 261.

7 Assmann: op. cit., p. 263.

8             Art historiography has yet failed to develop adequate means to deal with this object and material fetishism. This brings to mind material (“Werkstoff”) that is omnipresent in mediaeval art and art outside of Europe. In comparison with the analysis of form, the analysis of mate¬rial has remained the stepchild of science and scholarship. Consequently, it is not surpris¬ing then that art criticism was at a loss to deal with the Bern exhibition which featured some unusual materials. Contempt for matter, however, does not only affect materials used in contemporary art, which are new and usually taken from everyday use, but also traditional artistic materials, such as paint, stone or bronze. The materials used in the fine arts were for a long time regarded as a medium of form. Established by philosophy and aesthetics (and by the way, one of the above¬quoted critics of the Bern exhibition is a philosopher), the hierarchy of art forms has since the Antiquity rested on the conquest of material that was, depending on the context, variously seen as raw, ugly, natural or feminine, but in any case inferior. To this day, the “annihilation” (Schiller), “termination” (Hegel) or “immaterialisation” (Lyotard) of material by means of form remains the measure of what generally counts for art. Monika Wagner, Das Material der Kunst. Sonderausgabe, Beck C. H., 2002, p. 13–14.

9 Assmann: op. cit., p. 266.

10 Images […] represent the world to man but simultaneously interpose themselves between man and the world (“vorstellen”). As far as they represent the world, they are like maps; instruments for orientation in the world. As far as they interpose themselves between man and the world, they are like screens, like coverings of the world. Writing was invented when the concealing and alienating function of images threatened to overshadow the

orienting function. Or when images threatened to transform men into its instruments instead of serving as instruments for men. The first scribes were iconoclasts. They sought to break and pierce the images that had become opaque, in order to turn them once again transparent for the world. So that the images could once again serve as maps, instead of being “worshipped.” The scribes’ revolutionary engagement is clearly seen in Plato and the prophets: they demythologized images. Vilém Flusser, “Our images” in Post¬History, Flusser Archive Collection, ed. Siegfried Zielinski, Univocal Publishing, Minneapolis, 2013, p. 97.