on The Cloak of Dreams, fairy tales by Béla Balázs, translated by Jack Zipes (Princeton University Press)

In 1919, Béla Balázs escaped to Vienna from Budapest when the six-month old Hungarian Soviet Republic was crushed by Romanian and Czechoslovakian forces supported by the United States, France and England. Born Herbert Bauer in 1884 to Jewish parents who identified with German culture, Balázs was a leader of the Hungarian arts renaissance, producing plays, poems, stories, essays and reviews. He became famous for writing the libretto for Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle in 1911. He produced groundbreaking film criticism during that genre’s first bloom. Traveling through the country with Bartók to collect traditional songs and folklore, Balázs began to develop his ideas of the fairy tale as a modern genre.

BalazsWarriors.jpegIn Vienna, Genia Schwartzwald, a wealthy arts patron, provided financial assistance to Balázs and introduced him to the Danish writer Karin Michaelis with whom he co-wrote Beyond the Body: Diary of a Man and a Woman, published in 1920. He also became friends with Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler. But Schwartzwald had a second project in mind for him. In 1921, her friend Mariette Lydis painted twenty aquarelles depicting quasi-Chinese scenes in a style combining art nouveau and the dark distortions of German expressionism. She wished to hire someone to write sixteen stories based on the images. Balázs won the job – but was given just three weeks to complete the work due to a tight Christmas deadline. How did Balázs come up with such perfectly shaped, strange stories under such pressure?

BalazsCover.gifEuropean literary chinoiserie flourished through the decades of modernism – but Balázs was probably more influenced by the German Romantic fairy tales of Novalis, E.T.A. Hoffman and stories then being published by Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann. In his 62-page essay that opens The Cloak of Dreams,, Jack Zipes says Balázs’ fairy tale motifs center on “the wandering protagonist seeking the essence if life, mysterious woods and mountains, haunting music, pure friendship, passionate love, solitude, alienation, magical objects, and pantheistic ecstasy in a liminal state” – exactly the intensely felt elements of Balázs’ life, ready to be depicted in an unbroken flow during his twenty-one-day assignment. To Zipes’ list, I would add transformation and transcendence. Feeding his imagination and keeping him employed during long years of exile, friendships were vital to him. But his longest and closest friendship, with Georg Lukács, fractured under political differences.

The opening story, “The Cloak of Dreams,” begins like this:

“The emperor Ming-Huang, a descendant of the T’ang dynasty, had a wife named Nai-Fe, who was as beautiful as the moon in May. However, they were never seen conversing with one another, sitting together, or holding hands. His wife Nai-Fe only appeared when the emperor put on his marvelous embroidered cloak. Then she walked behind him, keeping a great distance between them, and the yearning of her soul rested on him with her gaze. Let me tell you how this came about.”

The forces at work in Nai-Fe’s psyche shape the story’s events and define the relationship between emperor and his wife. It is a story about the erotic tug and pull of irrepressible but ungraspable desire. Nai-Fe “had a dreaming soul because she had died too early in her previous life. This is why her gaze always roamed far away” beyond her husband. “Nai-Fe reproached herself bitterly, but she could do nothing about it.” In a dream she saw her husband wearing a cloak “on which all the images of her dreams had been embroidered.” On waking, she tells her husband he must wear this cloak, which she will embroider for him, in order to integrate her dreams with her husband’s presence. She embroiders the cloak for five years to blend the yearning of her soul with the yearning of her heart. But it doesn’t work out: Now visible to her, “The entire spacious dreamland lay between her and the emperor, and she couldn’t come to him.” The emperor has two choices: “If you take off the cloak, you can hold me in your arms, but my soul will be far away from you. If you wear the cloak, I won’t be able to approach you. But the longing of my soul will eternally cast its glances upon you.” The emperor chooses to wear the cloak.

BalazsTie.jpgIn his review of The Cloak of Dreams, Thomas Mann wrote, “In particular, what I admire, if one will allow me this choice of words, are the poetic dexterity, the successful inventiveness, and the metaphysical profundity with which the fantasies of the painter are expounded and wrapped … in the most ingenious, surprising, and pleasing way.” Eliot Weinberger points to “universal psychological states, the tropes of a collective unconscious” that typify Balázs’ tales, adding “Freud more often appears to be the resident sage.” In “The Ancestors,” a man is hounded by the skulls of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather who torment him with demands “to prove yourself and advance your career.” In “The Flea,” a man is reborn as a bug and must find a way to bring his reincarnated parents back together if he is to become a human in his new life. “The Robbers of Divine Power” may be read as a dark satire on Europe’s political turbulence in which “many people and animals perish.” Once the wild robber Dsang Dau-Ling grabs the scepter of divine power, his fellow-robbers follow him even though they are weary from the endless thieving and violence.

BalazsFilm.jpegBéla Balázs went on to become the one of the most influential film critics and theorists in Berlin. He wrote and directed plays for Marxist theater collectives, and wrote the screenplay for Brecht’s “The Three-penny Opera” and the film “Narkose,” based on a novella by Stefan Zweig. In 1930 he suffered a heart attack, but in 1931 he collaborated with Leni Riefenstahl as a writer for “The Blue Light.” That same year, he traveled to Russia, having been invited to write a screenplay about the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic – and stayed until 1945, surviving Stalin’s show trials (through which his fellow Hungarian communists were liquidated). He returned to Budapest after the war and died there in 1949. There is barely a memory of him in the West except among cinema students.

Hanno Loewy wrote of Balázs. “He clung to the romantic notion of pan-symbolism … that transformed humans and things into forms of relationships in which transcendence and immanence are not separated from one another.”

[Published August 23, 2010. 177 pages, $24.95 hardcover, $14.97 Kindle. Includes fifteen of Mariette Lydis’ original aquarelles.]

Fascinating post on Balázs.

Fascinating post on Balázs. I will seek out his work. Thanks.