It was evening—“no-heat,” as they called it in Moleland—and the side-shutters had been pulled down at the café. The electric harp signals started sounding in the smartly equipped establishment, furnished with tables whose tops provided a whole range of tactile sensations ranging from smooth to rough, and they hummed endlessly, in alternating notes in G and D major, inviting clients.
The café regulars were sitting round the table at the centre of the room—what was called the “abrasive” table; they were musicians, writers, scientists—celebrities of the smart set. The conversation had flagged, most of them were not even talking; they were listlessly running their fingers over the tickling arabesques on the chair backs. Fallals, the author—a perfumed young man with a spongy skin and deep voice—had just arrived. He politely stroked the faces of those present and smelt his fingers, then nonchalantly sat down.
“Waiter,” Sym-Phoney, the fashionable composer, called out in his distinctive B-flat minor. “Bring me a glass of thinnish one and one medium-small poppy-seed cake. I want a nice smooth one.” He turned towards Fallals and felt the fellow’s face. “Have you read it?” he asked, a tone of mild irony in his voice.
“Just what do you mean?” Fallals asked.
“Why, that half-witted Genius’s contribution in today’s Daily Touch. I say, waiter, please bring us the Daily Touch.”
The short, smooth-faced boy hurriedly sniffed in the direction of the table and placed the thin, fragrant Daily Touch upon it. Fallals, somewhat listlessly, ran his fingers over the first few lines, then tossed the whole of it back on to the table.
“I’ve read it,” he said uninterestedly. “I formed my opinion of Genius long ago. Affects originality. Plays the eccentric. That’s what he does. Besides, he’s dying to get here, to this table. He’s straining every nerve to think of something new, something he can sock you between the eyes with. Damn snob.”
“So that’s the way you look at it,” one of the company said meditatively.
“Absolutely. You don’t want to take phenomena like that seriously.”
“Just what does he say anyway?” the very young, thin voice asked, lightly sniffing around the company.
“I wish I knew that myself,” Fallals continued. “It gives you a headache, reading it. Frankly, I believe he’s gone off his head.”
All those who had read the article were now ready to agree that Genius had obviously gone off his head. They couldn’t find a more exciting topic, and someone volunteered to summarize this newspaper article.
“You see, the very beginning of the article is rather peculiar. Genius starts off by adopting a naively solemn tone, and saying that he proposes to discuss extraordinary matters; that he has made striking advances in his philosophy and he proposes to write a book about it if this article has an appropriate impact. He uses some strange words to describe this discovery he’s made.”
“Discovery! But what is it?”
“Well, it isn’t something you can explain in two words. To begin with, he starts off with a muddle-headed sort of discourse on physiological matters. He expatiates on the subjectivity of sense organs, on cognition, absolute and relative. Then he says he’s been experiencing various strange sensations for some time. He has realized, he says, that our instruments of cognizance and perception are rather limited and subjective. He says that existence undoubtedly possesses some undefinable characteristics, characteristics of immense significance of which we have had no idea.”
“Rubbish! It’s an old game!”
“Abstract speculation, that’s what it is,” a university lecturer said disdainfully. “The fellow must have had an overdose of abstraction.”
“That’s not all. Genius then comes out with a string of sentences, even more colourful and rhapsodic, to say how an amazing and incomprehensible change has taken place in his perception, the like of which he feels sure no one in Moleland has ever experienced. He claims he has become sensible of new, hitherto unknown phenomena of the essence of Nature.”
“For Heaven’s sake! What’s that?”
“"You fellows just listen to this—I’m going to quote the very words he has written. ‘At first I was rather sceptical myself,’ he says. ‘But now I know this for a fact; and the knowledge of it fills my heart with a heavenly, superhuman joy such as no citizen of Moleland has ever felt before. The thing started physically—yes, physically. For some time now I have been aware of a peculiar sort of stinging sensation and continuous irritation in the upper part of my face, in those two flat protuberances above my nose—protuberances whose function our scientists are still at a loss to explain adequately. Towards dawn, as I turned in the direction of Heat-Rise, the irritation was so keen as to cause me pain. I realized that this irritation was caused by things, things I never smelt or felt. I do not know how to explain that to you, people of Moleland: I am afraid you will not understand what I am telling you’.”
“Heavens! Doesn’t he sound solemn!” someone interjected.
“Talks like a suburban parish priest,” another person remarked. “But then he never had any style.”
The reader ran his fingers along the newsplate.
“Listen to this,” he said. “Pop Genius goes on like this.”
“Thus objects, I am now positive, have another property besides body, sound and smell. This additional, wonderful, property I am unable to put into words. It is a more universal, more significant property than the others. I am at a loss for words to describe the multitude of thoughts and feelings that fill my mind. I wish I could pour out my soul to you to be able to describe the ecstasy I feel about having come into possession of this new, absolute Truth, which stupefies me and sets my mind reeling. A new world has been opened up before me. This world has no limits and boundaries: it is a higher realm of the Spirit. My enraptured brain is teeming with hundreds of thousands of impressions; my imagination quailed and plummeted back into the emptiness through whose narrow mouth I had risen into the open. I want you to understand this: I know everything, even things that do not fall within the scope of my senses. When I turn my face upwards my mind is filled with boundless, gently undulating notions because I sense some infinite and soft expanse in the limitless distance. When I bow my head I am assailed by a hundred impressions without even stretching forth my hand. When I come closer to you, a strange sort of shudder suddenly passes over my body: I have felt you without ever using my senses. You people are longish, viscous and fluttering things; you writhe and wriggle, and separate: I am afraid of you. I am ecstatic and dazed. The chaotic impact of multitudinous notions and impressions is proving too much for my brain—I feel like shouting and stretching out my arms. I seem to have entered a higher and more expansive stratum of existence: closer to the seat of the infinite Idea. New vistas are opening before me, and a new vocation in life... We have come to the parting of ways. O Brother Moles, I feel sorry for you and I pity you. My mind casts about for a new word, a word never heard before, one that is as yet uncoined, unknown—a last word that would convey the pity and the happiness I feel before I leave you in spirit. I shall go running into open spaces... I open my arms—and exultantly, and screaming with delight, the unknown cry of an unknown tongue is bursting from my heart: Light!... Light! ... Light!...’”
The reader finished reading and laid down the plates of the Daily Touch at the centre of the abrasive table.
Silence fell: not a sound was heard around the abrasive table; only the harp signals continued to emit their rustling, booming sound, not unlike the round shells that got caught in the moccasins of the Moleland inhabitants along the salty seashore.
“Light…” said a dour and timid voice at the table, like some reluctant, bad-tempered echo.
That word brought all of them round with a start from the curious, strange feeling that the extraordinary, little newsplate article had produced. They stirred. Sym-Phoney made a quick and deprecatory gesture of irritation. The university lecturer burst into a laugh that jarred on the ear.
“It’s just decadence,” one aesthete declared. “Our young writers are decadent.”
The writer worked himself into a rage.
“Decadence! Rubbish! A damn snob‑that’s what he is. An eager-beaver. Straining every blasted muscle in an effort to—to get himself admitted to this table... into this circle. . .”
The last few words had issued from his throat with a rattle as he choked with anger. There was a painful pause.
“Well, of course, physically speaking. . .” one journalist ventured to say.
“Come now, it’s sheer illusion...”
“It’s metaphysics,” said the university lecturer, winding up the discussion. “Metaphysics is worthless speculation. An idle exercise of the brains. It’s more contemptible even than the occult sciences. Introduces irrationality and creates confusion in method and system—that’s all. It’s metaphysics.”
Here he put a period very markedly, as if to convey that he considered the case settled.
This left little room for further argument.
“It’s metaphysics,” nodded the aesthete, conclusively.
“It’s metaphysics,” the journalist echoed ruefully.
“It’s metaphysics,” the critic heaved a sigh of relief, seeing that the problem could be solved as easily as all that.
“It’s metaphysics, of course,” finally whispered the musician. He found he liked the word.
Having spoken, they sniffed and felt one another affectionately. No one spoke again. Only the writer thought of Genius, concluding that when all was said and done the fellow was a troublesome fool. The musician mused on his forthcoming appearance. The journalist pondered how all this could be turned to account. The others tried to think the thoughts the university lecturer might be thinking and were, therefore, smiling contemptuously. The university lecturer was very pleased with himself, and thought of nothing at all.
Seated in an armchair at the head of a table, motionless and still, was Genius. With his head resting in his cupped hands, a faint smile upon his slightly parted lips, he was looking at the people of Moleland, regarding their receding, smooth brows turned emptily towards the fire of the lucerne that burnt at the centre of the table.
SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. Genius (Géniusz), 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. 116-121.
“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
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide
Frigyes Karinthy @ Ĝirafo
Frigyes Karinthy @ 50 watts
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