Imre Madách

A pessimistic philosophy of history was not exclusive to Kemény – most of his contemporaries who survived the War of Independence were infected to various extents by a pessimistic view of the world – it was only Jókai, with his child-like optimism and his natural instinct for escapism, who successfully avoided it. Imre Madách, whose pessimism was not as morbid as Kemény’s, was able to create a single masterpiece out of pessimism. While Kemény’s pessimism subsisted exclusively on past and present conditions in Hungary, and was therefore limited in its appeal and message, Madách’s vision had wider implications, though both his personal problems and the aftermath of the War of Independence also shaped his views. The decisive factor, nonetheless, in the formation of Madách’s ideas was the collapse of the traditional, idealistic, and religious concept of the world in consequence of the rapid advance of the natural sciences that took place in the nineteenth century – questions about the origin of the universe and the evolution of mankind re-emerged dramatically as a result of the scientific breakthrough.

Imre Madách was born on 21 January 1823 at Alsósztregova into a well-to-do and distinguished noble family, and apart from a short spell at the University of Pest he spent most of his life in a remote part of Upper Hungary. He held various posts in the administration of his native county of Nógrád; at the end of his life he became a Member of Parliament. His private life was dominated by women – an all-possessive mother and an easy – going wife, whom Madách later divorced. The failure of his marriage left him with a permanent scar and few illusions about women. His interest in literature dated from childhood; he turned early to drama – the classical tragedy, Shakespeare, Schiller, and Victor Hugo. He started writing plays and also poetry when very young: most of these experiments were strongly contemplative in character and can be viewed today only as the product of his youthful enthusiasm. Although Madách was born with a natural tendency to melancholy, it was largely his personal experiences and readings which led him to the gloomy concept of mankind which permeated all his works.

Among his early dramas, none of which was performed or printed in his lifetime, the best is probably The Civiliser, written in 1859. It is an Aristophanic comedy mocking the Bach-regime, probably as a rejoinder to the Rückblick of Bach, the Austrian Minister of the Interior who imposed a dictatorial centralized bureaucracy on Hungary in the 1850s. In its central character Madách has drawn a memorable portrait of an arrogant administrator who genuinely believes in his mission, but whose underlying motive is a lust for absolute power and whose brutality and lechery stand out clearly. The comedy marks an advance on Madách’s earlier works.

It is not, however, a direct antecedent of his masterpiece, The Tragedy of Man, which is, in fact, without antecedents in Hungarian literature. This dramatic poem, divided into fifteen scenes and written in regular iambic pentameters with short-lined rhyming stanzas interpolated where warranted by the subject, was completed early in 1860. The manuscript was submitted to János Arany, who at first saw only a ‘Faust-imitation’ in it, but eventually recognized its merits. He suggested some minor corrections and arranged for its publication by the Kisfaludy Society. Madách’s dramatic poem was published in 1861, and with corrections in 1863. Madách wrote another drama (Moses, 1861), stimulated by the encouragement he had received from the foremost poet of the country, but could not repeat his unique feat. He died at the age of forty-one at his native Alsosztregova on 5 October 1864, hardly aware of fame or glory.

The Tragedy of Man belongs to that peculiar nineteenth-century genre, the Poéme d’Humanité, the outstanding examples of which are Byron’s Cain, Goethe’s Faust, and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Unlike Byron and Goethe, Madách had already been infected by the scepticism which became apparent only in the second half of the century, largely as a result of the advances made in the natural sciences, although his devotion to ‘the new religion’ was somewhat more moderate than that of his contemporary Russian intellectuals, the nihilists. Notwithstanding the profound impact of Hegel’s philosophy of history on his thinking, mankind in Madách’s world does not make a linear progress, but rather moves in cycles, which is what Spengler was to propose in the twentieth century. Additional features of Madách’s frame of reference are derived from his sense of gradual alienation and from man’s inherent metaphysical insecurity, leading to a self-torturing interest in the questions relating to the future of mankind which face both society and the individual.

The basic idea of The Tragedy of Man is derived from the story of the Creation as narrated in the Bible. After the Creation Lucifer, the spirit of negation, deserts God and demands his own share, but God assigns him only two trees in the Garden of Eden. Lucifer tempts Adam and Eve; they fall, and are expelled from Paradise. Adam, driven by curiosity, wants to know what the future is in store for him and for his descendants, and whether it is worthwhile to live on and struggle. Since Luficer’s aim is to overthrow God’s rule or at least to thwart His intentions by destroying His creatures, he finds a natural ally in Adam’s curiosity: if man catches a glimpse of the future he might lose interest in life itself ... (Scenes i-iii). Thus Lucifer casts a spell over Adam, and in a sequence of dreams he shows characteristic moments in the history of mankind, or rather scenes selected by Madách to illustrate the development of the concept of freedom, in a somewhat Hegelian sense, yet with a considerable difference, because antithesis is not followed by synthesis, but by heterothesis. In terms of Hegelian optimism, progress is taking mankind towards absolute freedom, which will be achieved in a definite historical situation and by definite institutions, but the world as represented by Madách’s Lucifer provides no hope for such optimism.

In Scenes iv-xiv Adam experiences history: he takes an active part in shaping events as a great Pharaoh of Egypt, as a patriotic hero, Miltiades, in Athens, as a hedonist in Rome, as the knight Tancred at the time of the Crusades. In addition he is Kepler in Prague, Danton in Paris, an anonymous rebel in the London of classical capitalism and in the socialist state of the future. He also experiences spaceflight (Scene xiii) and returns to be finally disgusted by the degenerate inhabitants of a new ice-age on Earth. This last scene leaves no room for optimism: civilization and human survival are coming to a definite end.

Adam ages gradually in the course of history, but preserves the continuity of his consciousness which is the basis needed for his consistent search for the ‘meaning’ of the human struggle. Eve appears in each scene as a different being; it is only Adam who recognizes the changing face of the ‘Eternal Woman’ in her. She is a slave, a harlot, a loyal companion, or an unfaithful wife in turn, and she does not remember her past. Adam’s guide and commentator is Lucifer, who tries every trick to confuse him: the personal glory of the pyramid-building Pharaoh, the noble ideals of Hellenic democracy, the pleasures of Roman life, the uplifting experience of religious devotion, the service of science, the ideas of the French Revolution, the advantages of free enterprise in a capitalist society and the ‘brave new world’ of socialism, the conquest of space, and old people’s nostalgia for the past. Adam’s initial enthusiasm is always followed by disappointment and subsequent despair. In Egypt he realizes that the glory of the Pharaoh rests on the merciless oppression of millions; in Athens he finds that the loftiest democratic ideals are spoiled by the baseness of human nature; and pursuing pleasures in Rome is not enough for a meaningful life. While the crusaders nobly sacrifice their lives, theologians argue about irrelevant details of dogma; as the scientist Kepler, Adam is forced to sell his knowledge to provide for an extravagant wife; the faceless London crowd, in an alienated society, shows him ‘the ugly face’ of capitalism, and in the Phalanstery he finds socialism to be a huge system of bureaucracy which cares little for the needs of the individual. On his journey into space he realizes that as a human being he is earthbound, and when he returns he is shocked by the ecological problems presented by the cooling sun. Eskimo-type people toil for a wretched existence; civilization has collapsed, and life is a continuous struggle for physical survival. Adam comes to the conclusion that progress is not feasible, the achievements of one age are renounced for new values in the next stage of ‘progress’. It all leads to an ultimate collapse of civilization, determined and caused by forces beyond the power of mankind.

So what reason can man find to struggle on? When Adam wakes from his dream, Lucifer has apparently achieved his aim: he is ready to commit suicide. It is only the words of Eve that prevent his doing so; she is expecting his child. Adam realizes that he cannot stop history by killing himself, because it has already started and new generations will be born. He also realizes that Providence has deprived him of the last act of defiance, or the only act which can show his free will (in Hegelian terms he is without any freedom of choice) – self-destruction. In his distress his only chance is to beg for God’s mercy. Yet doubts as to whether he has interpreted his dream correctly are raised in Adam’s tormented mind, and he is put at ease only by a transcendental note of faith; God addresses him and gives him a vague encouragement in the last line of the poem, ‘Man, I have spoken: struggle and have faith.’ The enigmatic encouragement given by God may or may not have relieved Adam’s anxiety about the future of mankind; it did not, however, satisfy Madách’s critics. They argued that a blind hope supported only by a faltering faith in God’s word is not reason enough to continue the business of living, blaming Madách for not providing a better answer to the ‘final why’. The validity of Madách’s answer may be doubted, and it is easy to understand why critics felt uneasy about it in the progress-minded nineteenth century, when European civilization was not only proud of its achievements but was somewhat overconfident of its future.

The vision of Madách is unusual, if not unique. It unites such contradictory sources of human thought as the Bible and the latest achievements of contemporary science. Madách interprets the problems of mankind in terms of an irreconcilable antagonism between the interests of society and of the individual. The scenes are presented in such a sequence that they provide alternately a solution for the needs of the individual and of society, culminating in the London scene where the individual is attacked by the self-destructive disease of complete alienation and the scene ends in an allegorical dans macabre. The collectivist tradition of the French Revolution, fighting for the happiness of the majority, is destroyed by the anti-utopian Phalanstery scene of socialism, which in a sense is the literary antecedent of Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984. Thus Madách perceived the basic problem of organized human society which was to become the headache of twentieth-century sociologists, while the ambition of nineteenth-century liberalism, the achievement of full liberty for the individual, was effectively shattered, if not destroyed.

What is there left worth the struggle? The conquest of outer space? Man is confined to Earth, or rather to terrestrial civilization, whatever that word means, and there is no way then to avoid the fundamental conflict of human existence: man versus society. In a subtle way Madách denies the existence of any ‘higher aim’ for mankind, an answer in which twentieth-century French existentialist thinkers might have taken great pleasure.

It is in mid-flight in Space that Adam realizes:

I am not lured on by such a foolish fancy.
I know, a hundred times, I shan’t attain the end.
It is no matter. For what is the goal?
‘Twill mark the end of a most glorious fight.
The goal is death, life is struggle
And man’s goal is struggle itself.*Translated by C. P. Sanger. There is a curious parallel in one of C. S. Lewis’s books: ‘I thought we went along paths – but it seems there are no paths. The going itself is the path’ (Perelandra, 1943) – an idea which is one of the cardinal tenets of Zen-Buddhism. It is unlikely, however, that Madách was acquainted with oriental philosophical thought.

(Scene xiii)

The diction of the drama is elevated and pure. It is impossible to speak of characterization in the ordinary, dramatic sense of the word since Madách’s three protagonists, Adam, Eve, and Lucifer, are not real persons but symbolic embodiments of ideas: Adam is the struggling man anxious to improve his lot, Eve is his permanent companion assisting or hindering him in turn, while Lucifer is a mere abstraction; representing the dark side of man’s intelligence, with the help of whom man’s existential insecurity is expressed. The work can be regarded as a synthesis of poetry, philosophy, and history, and the conclusion at which Madách arrives, purposely or unwillingly, is not a comforting thought.

Madách’s work stands out unrelated to traditions in Hungarian literature; it has in fact very little relationship with his other, largely unsuccessful, experiments in literature. Scholarship has always been busy in searching for parallels and/or antecedents for Madách’s visionary poem: Goethe’s Faust has been regarded as an obvious candidate for comparison. Yet there is little resemblance between Mephisto and Lucifer; the latter is not a miracle-making devil who uses his supernatural power to engineer spectacular feats, nor is he the devil who takes a hand in the petty affairs of men, he is rather the spirit of dissatisfaction latent in man himself. On the other hand, Marxist critics have always been moderate in praise of Madách, mainly on account of his criticism of socialism in which mothers are dehumanized ‘child-bearing units’. Marxist critics have taken great pains to explain away Madách’s pessimistic vision of socialism by referring to his sources; he was only familiar with the theoretical writings of the French utopian socialists.

The variety of the scenes presented serious technical problems for a long time in staging The Tragedy, as it was not made for the stage, and it was only in 1883 that these seemingly insurmountable difficulties were overcome, and Madách’s work was successfully staged for the first time in Budapest. Since then it has been performed in various productions both in Hungary and abroad, particularly in German-speaking countries. Yet it seems to have made little impact on other European literatures, and it was only recently that Madách’s influence, on Joyce’s works for example, was suggested and proved by scholarship.

While The Tragedy of Man is universal in its appeal, it is also a product of the post-revolutionary mood in Hungary, and has no roots in the literary pessimism of the Romantics. Most of the pessimistic tendencies in contemporary writers passed as conditions improved in the Hungary of the 1860s. These tendencies were overwhelming only in Kemény’s novels, with morbid results. In Madách, pessimism left the narrow confines of national affairs and attained universal dimensions.