Frigyes Karinthy

Ego and Little Ego

I do not know myself: the word “I” implies some sort of vague twilight, mysterious and tragic, punctuated by intermittent flames; dull pain or victorious joy. Other people’s ego stands before me—or behind me—sharply defined, clearly outlined, enlarged or reduced in size through the lens of my own ego. But the lens itself is of glass: invisible, vanishing from sight as it makes others visible.

I have often searched for myself and grappled with myself in the darkness—only to sense feelings of inexpressible anguish, acute pangs and apprehensive pleasure in response to my quest.

I do not know myself. But I do know somebody, someone who lives inside me—a person with whom I have never talked. It is a person who will often speak up, loudly and impertinently, ignoring my persistent refusal to answer him or my shame and embarrassment on his account, much as the well-mannered parent of some uncouth brat of a son may feel in company.

Now that I am talking about him I realize with astonishment that I haven’t even given him a name—so intense has been my resentment of him, so great has been my anxiety to delude myself that he doesn’t exist.

Yet he does exist. What shall I call him? I can’t possibly call him Ego; for, after all, he is not me: he is quite a puny creature. He is Little Ego—but I’d hate to have him identified with me.

Little Ego is a small mannikin, no bigger than my first finger. Yet he isn’t a small child; he’s a tiny man, nimble and quick, his clean-shaven cheeks wearing an arrogant, conceited smile, with a gleam of insolence in his eyes. Dressed in breeches and silk stockings, like some little marquis, he is a cocky, light-hearted and scornful little fellow, a cynic and a non-believer. His gestures are full and provocatively exaggerated. He is superciliously humble and suave, sometimes incredibly impudent. Such things as moments of solemnity or profound emotion he spurns; he hates silence; and he will break into uproarious laughter during embarrassing pauses. I’ve no idea where he lives. Sometimes he is in my head, he sits down on my brain, dangling his legs and whistling a tune. At other times he will get into my fingers, tugging away at them. I will be sitting face to face with some admirable and venerable gentleman, engaged in polite and serious conversation. But he is right there in my fingers, pulling at them, forcing on me a desire to nip that gentleman's ear quite unexpectedly, or to twist his nose, or flick it with my fingers.

Little Ego stays awake all the time, and will usually start talking at moments when he can cause the maximum embarrassment, when it’s most painful for me; at moments when I need silence, attention and devotion.

Little Ego will never speak to anyone but me—he has never addressed anyone else yet. He has chosen me as his companion, it seems, and decided that the sole object of his cheerful and purposeless existence is to irritate and embarrass me. There have been many occasions when I feel my heart melt within me; when I am filled with passionate affection and possessed by a painful longing to reveal myself to a friend or mistress: to surrender myself, without reserve, to arouse affection and sympathy—as if saying: “Look, this is me.” On such occasions, I would be moved, I am searching my soul, I am moved, I feel humble and purified. I am searching my soul—and find Little Ego. Then I start pulling and prodding him, urging him, “Go on, speak up. Take a bow and introduce yourself—you’re part of me anyway.” And he keeps an obstinate silence, with an impudent smile on

his lips. Or if he speaks, he speaks to me alone. “Oh, come off it,” he says, in a cheeky, superior way. “Can’t you see that you’re making a fool of yourself? Can’t you see you’re trying to put it across them? But you can’t put it across me, daddy-o. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, trying to pull a fast one on me! Why, man, I know you. What d’you mean, cooking up all that sentimental drivel? But of course if that’s the sort of thing you like doing, go ahead.”

I shall have to shut up; I have no weapons against him. I have a liking for fine, polished and expressive words, for verbs of profound meaning, for a well-turned phrase. I have a liking for tragic words, for I believe they best describe life. But his vocabulary is cynical and gross, brazen and vulgar. He takes a perverse pleasure in collecting low expressions, pithy and flippant idioms, racy adjectives. He will pick up the slang of tramps and ruffians, or gutter language, or peasants’ and soldiers’, and makes no bones about using it. He picks his friends among unbelievers—the common rabble of the slums; his companions are the corrupted newsboy, the cynical city Jew, the dissolute waiter, and the café-crawler salesman—his vocabulary comes from this type of persons. It is by using these words that Little Ego dismays me and drives me to despair and makes me blush at the very moment I am racking my brains for the most musical, profound crystal-fine of phrases.

It has ruined my moments of deepest meditation—moments I was getting near to the meaning of Life: suffering. (It is true that by doing so it has often saved my sheer pagan animal existence.) When I was a young man I wrote a diary about myself for myself: I meant it to be read by no one else. But just as I was about to put down the final truth about myself, Little Ego piped up. “Come on, old man,” he said. “You don’t want to write that down. What’ll the person you want to make read it think of it? Why, he might be so disillusioned that he might stop believing you are the kind of person you wish to appear.” “But that’s exactly what I want,” I insisted despairingly. “All right, all right, old chap,” he said, and I gave in, anxious to avoid argument.

It is he who has ruined my poems: between two rhymes he would speak up loudly, facetiously. “‘Sorrow’‑that’s good,” he would say. “It makes a good rhyme. It’s not what you were going to say, of course, is it, but that’s not important. What matters is that it should make an impression of immediacy, as if it had sprung from the deepest recesses of your soul. Nor that it could possibly spring from the deepest recesses of your soul for the simple reason, if nothing else, that I am sitting there: I am sitting there, smoking a cigarette and dangling my legs. And that’s that.”

He is the one who gets stuck in my throat whenever I present my condolences to the bereaved. That’s the time he makes jokes. “Look at the sort of nose that person has,” he says. “Like a cucumber. Ought to make a fine promenade for some wasp. Then he’d have to flick it. Fun, eh?”

I wonder if actors are acquainted with Little Ego. If I were an actor I should find it impossible to endure him. I have occasionally spoken in public, making speeches or reciting poems. Those were just the moments he behaved most outrageously: not a second did he stop clacking. I would be speaking, declaiming, raising my voice, working myself up, moving both myself and other people. There would even perhaps be moisture in my eyes. And all the time he would rattle on and on, saying whatever came into his mind, never stopping a moment, going on in that cynical, brazen sort of voice of his. He was not in the least discomposed by whatever I was speaking about. On one occasion I was greatly alarmed to hear him sing a music-hall song when I, inspired and giving tongue in a ringing voice, was holding forth on the mission of mankind, the tragic destiny of some hero or other.

That he does not care a damn for what I was about, and amuses himself with cheap songs or street music is however a lesser evil. What is even worse is when he listens to me absent-mindedly, watching what I’m saying, criticizing me. I may be addressing an audience, and there he is, going on ceaselessly talking to me. “Quite all right,” he says to me, “that bit was quite good enough. But you’d better be careful when you come to the next bit. You know, the point you’re going to make now. You must raise your voice when you come to that one, and mind you make your voice quaver a little. Now try to look as if you were moved; give the impression you’re on the verge of tears. Now you’ve done it wrong; you’ll have to make up for it when you get to the point, you know, about what d’you-call-it—that getting-worked-up stuff or something—well, that drivel. Better keep an eye on that bloke; in the front row there—he isn’t paying attention, so you’ll have to shout at him. What sort of a chap is he, I wonder. Queer chap. Suppose you suddenly broke into song—‘Sally, my dah-ah-arling—You are my sunshah-ah-ine—tra‑la‑la!’ what about ‘Oh, granddaddy—Diddle-diddle—doodle grandaddy. . .’ The sort of stuff they sing at the cabaret—suppose you did that—what about it?”

I wonder if other people are familiar with a Little Ego as well. But I do know people who, I am quite sure, have no Little Ego living inside them. They are the hot-tempered ones, those easily provoked to anger, the openly-cowardly people who are guided by their instincts. People whose blood suddenly rushes to their head; who will snatch up knives and attack—people who will scream and fall on their knees. Those people have no Little Ego in them; for if I were to draw a knife and croak in a hoarse voice, “I am going to kill you, unfaithful woman!” Little Ego would stay my hand and say calmly, “I imagine you’ll have another thought about this killing business, old man.” If I were begging for my life, he would howl with laughter within me, and scoff at the person threatening to kill me.

For he doesn’t give a hoot about my life. He doesn’t feel sorry for me. He sings songs or hums tunes when pain brings tears to my eyes. Then he says, “Good. Now raise your hand, put it to your eyes... Now bow your head—like this... Speak louder now, because you’re being listened to... I say, you do have a funny way of weeping... Rub-a-dub-dub... What a comic creature you are. Cry your eyes out... if you want to... you can go and jump in the lake for all I care. I don’t want to see you any more, I’m sick and tired of you. By the way, how are you?”

He is the one who’ll keep up a simultaneous flow of talk to people to whom I happen to be speaking—but while I am doing it civilly, politely, he’s making incredibly rude remarks in the most off-handed way. He’s the one who will be calling the Prime Minister by his first name while I’m saying things like “Perhaps Your Excellency would deem it possible...” He'll say to him, “Now look here, old boy. We’d better get a move on. After all, you haven’t any time to spare, and I haven’t either, so why bore each other to tears?”

I believe he is going to spoil the last moments of my life, robbing them of all their grandeur. While I, gasping, am getting ready for the Great Journey, perky Little Ego will be sitting on my nose, above my sunken cheeks, issuing his commands. “Well, old man,” he’ll say to me; “go on, give us some clever bon mot before you kick the bucket. Something for the little romantics to remember—and the stuffed shirts who never knew you... and who have never known me either.”

And it is he who, now that I want to talk about him, strikes the pen from my hand. “I’m good subject-matter, aren’t I,” he says, casually. “Although not many understand me. On the other hand, not many will notice that you’ve only used me because you happen to have nothing else to write about.”

Wicked brat. What am I to reply? Might only make him still more cocky. Shall I tell him he’s lying? That it’s not true that he’s just a topic for an article for me? That I’ve been intending to draw a picture of him, describe him, confess that he lives within me? He is smirking brashly, conceitedly. “Is that so?” he says. “All right. Then why don’t you let me speak up out of my own mouth? Surely you’d be able to give a more direct, a more effective presentation of myself like that? Why should you describe me and draw my picture? Let me speak for myself: I’ll introduce myself to ’em, have no fear!”

No... Oh, no, you mustn’t . . . You can’t do that in a serious, respectable book or newspaper... Be quiet, you wicked little creature.

SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “Ego and Little Ego” (Én és énke), translated by István Farkas, in Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work, selected by István Kerékgyárto, afterword by Károly Szalay, binding and jacket by István Bányai, 2nd ed., (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1973), pp. 61-67.

Frigyes Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker” by Miklós Vajda

Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English

Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
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