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Saturday, 29. October 2011

Sándor Márai on various types of slaughter (from "Embers")



“According to current wisdom, being human began with the opposable thumb, which made it possible to pick up a weapon or a tool. But perhaps being human begins with the soul and not the thumb. I don’t know…. The Arab slaughtered the lamb, and as he did so, this old man in his white burnous, which remained unspotted by blood, was like an oriental high priest performing the sacrifice. His eyes gleamed, for a moment he was young again, and all around him there was absolute silence. They sat around the fire, they watched the act of killing, the flash of the knife, the twitching of the lamb, the jet of blood, and their eyes gleamed also. And then I realized that these people are still intimately familiar with the act of killing, blood is something they know well, and the flash of the knife is as natural to them as the smile of a woman, or the rain. We understood — and I think Krisztina did, too, because at that moment she was seized with emotion, she blushed, then went white, breathed with difficulty, and turned her head away, as if she were witness to some passionate encounter — we understood that people in the East still retain their knowledge of the sacred symbolism of killing and its inner spiritual meaning. These dark, noble faces were all smiling, they pursed their lips and grinned in a kind of ecstasy as they watched, as if the killing were a warm, happy event, like an embrace. Curious, that in Hungarian our words for killing and embracing (Oles and oleles) echo and heighten each other.

“Well, of course we are westerners,” he says in another voice, sounding suddenly professional. “Westerners, or at least immigrants who settled here. For us, killing is a question of law and morality, or medicine, at any rate a sanctioned or prohibited act that is very precisely delineated within our system of thought. We kill, too, but in a more complicated way; we kill according to the dictates and authorization of the law. We kill to protect high principles and important human values, we kill to preserve the social order. It cannot be any other way.

We are Christians, we have a sense of guilt, we are the product of Western civilization. Our history, right up to the present, is filled with mass murder, but whenever we speak of killing, it is with eyes lowered and in tones of pious horror; we cannot do otherwise, it is our prescribed role. There is only the hunt,” he says, suddenly sounding almost happy. “Even then, we observe rules that are both chivalrous and practical, we protect the game according to the demands of the situation in any particular area, but the hunt is still a sacrifice, a distorted residue of what can still be recognized as a ritual that once formed part of a most ancient religious act. It is not true that the huntsman kills for the prize.

Notes: I have just finished Márai's "Embers", a masterpiece, in a reading sprint - a less than common occurring these days staying up till 3 am last night, and then doing a final lap soon after waking around 10 am this morning. I had already committed a quickie with this novel - a sin of omission - reading the first forty pages after picking it up months ago, and then shelving it, like I am wont to do with most of my books, given a "compulsion" to buy more books vs. reading what I already have at hand.

So in penitence, I am going back to this wonderful novel (last novel that had this effect on me was Munoz Molina's "Sepharad" - something about empires/world in twilight), pen in hand, re-reading some wonderful passages like the one above - very apropos, I think, given the news of the day was all about drone stikes in Yemen - and sharing them here.




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