a thought about 'sanctification' on reading
Kaddish for an Unborn Child
by Imre Kertész
This essay is in revision. The subject is the ineffable nature of meaning. How do we know what we mean when we say we do? Who says?! Do we construct meaning or is it given? Let us pause and consider.
The character of the ‘writer’ in Imre Kertesz’ big little book is looking through jottings and notes he made long ago, as was his habit, and connecting them with his present state of mind. ‘Why must we live with our face perpetually turned towards some scene of shame. I noted down at the time [... ] all I read on the slips are my own observations [...] “That (in my childhood and hence ever since) everything that signified myself was always a sin whereas it was always a virtue if I acted in such a way as to deny and kill myself...”’ (Kertesz, I., 2010 p. 94f).
Does it make sense?
This makes sense.
In one sense it doesn’t.
What sense does it make?
The word used is ‘signified’— (‘everything that signified myself’). That means it did make sense.
But is it a truth?
How do you mean: is it a truth? If you mean the truth then for him, yes of course. But if you mean did it give him a good feeling no.
Well we can take his word for it. This is his uneasy sense of reality. But is it reality?
You have to make a distinction here and say there is external reality and psychic reality. As for external reality it is precarious to claim it to be the truth; you can do so only for psychic reality. A good way of saying the latter would be to say: everything that signified myself is an expression of truth.
Can you indeed? You could say that he is deluded.
But that does not change the truth of the statement with regard to the speaker’s (writer’s) internal reality. It does not affect the status of the observation as truth if it should not make sense to someone else.
You could still say that he might be pretending, striking an attitude, lying.
So then, yes, it would not be the truth; the truth would lie at a deeper level for example in the statement, ‘I tell a lie when I say that everything that signified myself was always a sin’. Put it another way: everything I sensed to be true for me was attended by another sense that I was sinful, or, even that it was sinful of me to accept the truth.
If I am pretending it does not make sense to me; I would be lying? However, If it does make sense to me can I say what sense it makes? And if I can’t does it make sense to say it makes sense to me? If it does make sense to me whether or not I can say what sense—am I any the better? What sense does it make if I can’t think it?
Perhaps what underlies the interest I have in selecting this statement from all the others in this revelatory little novel is this: When does making sense without finding the words for it becomes something that gives me the basis to say it signifies myself? And when does my sense of self become grounded in the truth.
- This book that I am taken by is his Kaddish for an Unborn Child. His own inner child resonates with perceptions which I the reader recognize, without having been able to give sufficient credence to for myself, as would enable a child like I was to form a concept, or have the least inkling of something that could conceivably have words for it, but was just in the air I breathed, noticed or at the back of my mind, but with no need for words, in other words(!)at variance with the limits of the language imputations of my family culture. Thus ‘What a misery childhood was and how impatient I was to grow up’ (nothing so special in that observation, but he continues): ‘because I believed that grown-ups had a secret alliance and lived in perfect safety in their sadism-girt world’. (ibid.) Above all in reading this writer’s words (whether fact or fiction) I am confronted by a miraculous mind that can move so seamlessly in such an impelling way not only among his own associations but also mine.
The Kaddish is one of the three central prayers of the Jewish ritual. It means sanctification, but the term Kaddish is often used to refer specifically to The Mourners' Kaddish, said as part of the mourning rituals in Judaism in all prayer services as well as at funerals and memorials. When mention is made of saying Kaddish, this unambiguously denotes the rituals of mourning.
- So although Kertesz writes ‘in my childhood and hence ever since [my emphasis] everything that signified myself was always a sin,' the ‘unborn child’ is not himself but refers to the refusal (No!) to bring a child into the world, to grow up with his father's sense of a self perverted--a ‘No!’ that led to the break-up of his marriage to his wife (‘even now I sometimes think ”What a lovely Jewish girl!”’) (ibid. p. 19). The grief is real and the mourning pure and does not, we must believe, end in the self-wounding bitterness for the grievous loss of his fatherhood. But neither is his life presented as some great victory. ‘Once when he was waiting in the usual coffee house hoping for more prescriptions his ex wife came in leading in two small children by the hand. One was a dark-eyed little girl with pale spots of freckles scattered around her tiny nose, one was a headstrong boy with eyes bright and hard as greyish-blue pebbles. ”Say hello to the gentleman,” she told them.
'That sobered me up completely once and for all. Sometimes I still scurry through the city like a bedraggled weasel. [...] Here and there, by a house or street corner I stop in terror. [...] I want to flee but something holds me back. Beneath my feet the sewers bubble as if the polluted flood of my memories were seeking to burst out of its hidden channel and sweep me away. Let it; I am ready for it. In one last big effort to regain my composure I have produced my still fallible , stubborn life—I have produced it so that I may set off with the bundle that is this life in my two upraised arms and, for all I care, in the swirling black waters of some dark river...’ op. cit. p. 120). ‘Everything that signified myself was always a sin...’ Mourning, I said in the previous paragraph. Or does this childless survivor of Auschitz and the demise of a loving marriage (fact or fiction) already exist in a clear-eyed truthful after-life or is it his melancholia in his wish to die?
Let me submerge
for ever and ever,
Robert Graves, in Broken Images
This essay is in revision. It is about the ineffable. How do we know what we mean? What is it to mean something. Who says?! Is meaning constructed or received. It is time to pause and consider.