Imre Madách was an Hungarian romantic poet and playwright of the 19th century. He wrote one major work, and some lesser works which are now only of interest because of it. His magnum opus is The Tragedy of Man (Az ember tragédiája) – a play which ranks as one of the most important works of Hungarian literature, and can best be described as “Paradise Lost with time travel.”
The story of the Tragedy treads familiar ground for the first two acts: God creates the world; Lucifer rebels and obtains permission to test the newly-made Man and Woman; Man and Woman fail the test, and are cast out of Eden (still in the company of their tempter). Then Madách gets original – Adam complains that Satan's not keeping up his end of the bargain:
You speak in riddles. You promised wisdom -
I put aside instinctive joys,
Prepared to struggle, to be great. What for?
Lucifer's response is to discourse upon the elemental forces of the Earth, but Adam wants more – he wants to peer into the future. Lucifer assents.
So let it be. I’ll cast a spell on you
And you will see unto the end of time
As in a dream, in fleeting images...
And to maintain your courage in the battle –
A tiny ray of light there in the sky,
That you might think the whole dream was a mirage.
That tiny ray of light will be called Hope.
This sets the stage for a very strange pas de trois between Adam, Eve and Lucifer. The play becomes a breakneck tour of human history, with (almost) every scene being set in a new time period, whose basic ideals are enacted and then discussed. Adam, as the embodiment of Man, serves as protagonist, unable to rest without striving and believing in something, driving the play forward by his chronic idealism. Lucifer is the deuteragonist, a snarky sidekick who spends his time poking holes in whatever Adam holds sacred at any given time. Eve, as tritagonist, serves as Adam's companion, love-interest, inspiration, and – at the end – rescuer.
Each scene (though this pattern varies near the end) sees Adam pursuing some vision or embodying some concept – which, however, soon presents problems, and must be discarded and replaced. This is the tragedy of the title: he cannot live without ideals, but they all turn out to be flawed. The first of these scenes sees him, as patriarch of all humanity, in the authoritarian role of Egyptian Pharaoh, watching as millions of slaves labour on his pyramids; but after falling in love with Eve (as the widow of a dead slave) he begins to hear the cry of the common people. He abandons absolute power and enthuses about democracy, and in the next scene becomes Miltiades in ancient Athens, defending a city which turns on him at the urging of the demagogues. Disillusioned with that, he opts for hedonism, which he pursues in ancient Rome, and then proceeds to work through Christianity, apathetic stasis, catastrophic revolution, capitalism, science, and abandonment of the body to become a pure spirit. None of this ends well.
In all of this, Adam is accompanied by Lucifer, who seldom refrains from pointing out the flaws in Adam's thinking. The traditional Christian picture of the Devil is an angel who has rebelled through pride, in contrast to the obedient humility of the angels and saints. Madách's Devil is no less proud, but manifests his pride not in armed rebellion but in cynicism, in contrast to Adam the Romantic. Milton's Devil turns into Ha-Satan, “The Adversary”, because he wants something and must rebel to get it; Madách's Devil is Ha-Satan as a primary character trait: he contradicts people as a knee-jerk reflex, starting with God and working his way through human ideals as an afterthought. The first scene even sees Lucifer declaring his contrarian nature to be coëternal with God, defining himself as that void in Your conceptions, that barrier to every mode of being whose very presence compelled You to create – an astonishing level of chutzpah, which doesn't let up when he's banished:
No, not so fast – I won’t go just like that,
You can’t discard me like a broken tool.
We are both creative spirits – I demand
THE LORD [scornfully]
Just as you wish. Look down to earth:
In the heart of Eden stand two slender trees.
I curse the pair of them: now they are yours.
The result of all this is that Lucifer is a weirdly contradictory character. His opening scene shows him so defined by negation that he picks a fight with Infinite Goodness, so he's naturally untouched by the various ideals Adam keeps chasing. But it's impossible to poke holes in someone's ideals without affirming something else, directly or indirectly; and while Lucifer usually praises sin, depravity, pride, or lowbrow taste, occasionally he makes references to what is actually good and true and proper – although of course he won't ever act on this. For instance, Adam's Christian-and-chivalrous phase comes crashing down when, as a crusading knight, he meets and falls in love with Eve – but her father's given her over to a convent and she doesn't want to disobey him or God by leaving. Comparing this with Adam's previous hedonist phase, Lucifer comments:
You see the foolishness of all your kind
Who regard a woman merely as an object
Of passion, and brush the bloom of poetry
From her brow with horny hands, and rob yourself
Of love’s most tender and enchanting blossom;
Then raise her, like a goddess, on an altar
And bleed for her and struggle pointlessly
While her kisses languish in sterility. -
Why not respect and honour her as a woman
Within the appointed sphere of womanhood?
That's a very good question. Of course, applying this to himself is another matter – in the same scene, Eve's maidservant (also in the nunnery, though less scrupulous) shows an interest in him, which he finds fearful.
Helena’s on her way, what should I do?
Should the devil go canoodling with a wench
He’d never live it down as long as he lived...
It’s strange how men with passion in their hearts
Will long and languish constantly for love
And reap mere pain. The devil’s heart of ice
Escapes it only in the nick of time.
The surface appeal of the play is in the breadth of subjects discussed, and the humorous nature of the banter – Lucifer's gleeful puncturing of Adam's high-minded rhetoric can be very funny. (I myself have definite tendencies towards flippancy and cynicism, which puts me on Lucifer's wavelength here.) This makes it very easy reading. But although it addresses a wide range of subjects, it necessarily does so in a hit-and-run manner more conducive to one-liners than to any real depth (one scene to analyse democracy, another to analyse capitalism, etc.) Its main power is in what it doesn't quite spell out regarding idealism and cynicism. Lucifer initially seems amusing, witty, insightful – when he and Adam see a murderer taken to be hanged, see the victim's father being driven to madness by grief, and then learn that the murderer had very serious extenuating circumstances, they comment:
I thank my lucky stars that I’m no judge.
It’s easy to write laws in easy chairs –
It’s easy to pass judgment from on high,
But how much harder to explore the heart
Or fairly analyse its dark procedures.
Such principles would make for endless trials.
No one does wrong simply because it’s wrong,
Even the devil has his alibi,
And each man thinks his own the most important.
He comes across as so genial, and often so accurate, in his cynicism (the scene where Adam and Lucifer tour the scientific phalanstery is hilarious) that his contradictory statements and attempts to destroy Adam seem out of place – as if Madách felt the character of Lucifer were threatening to run away with him, and he had to keep giving him evil deeds to stop him from leaving the “bad guy” pigeonhole. But then, most human cynicism is limited, and tends to have standards of goodness it tacitly leaves uncriticised; or it melts when presented with simple, uncomplicated goodness. Madách's Lucifer is a cynic thoroughgoing enough to be leery of any and all standards, and icy enough to be unimpressed even by the Beatific Vision; he can have no standards of goodness himself, so for all his geniality he is necessarily untrustworthy, inconsistent, and dishonest, even to himself.
Adam, meanwhile, spends all his time between the Fall and the end of the play estranged from God: he goes through a sequence of ideals in a state of unresolved rebellion, seeking and striving for glory and greatness – My God is me, whatever I regain is mine by right. This is the source of all my strength and pride. In his own way, he's as obdurately self-willed as Lucifer, but in a manner that at least seeks to create instead of tearing down. (Both are condemned to continuous frustration, as well, Lucifer by the verdict of God while Adam's frustrations form the bulk of the plot. Lucifer, for all his wit, doesn't possess enough irony to notice the symmetry.) But by the end of the play he has been humbled and some measure of reconciliation effected, and the coming of Christ is looked forward to as a source of hope – despite the fact that one of Adam's abortive and disastrous phases was pursuing Christianity! At this, what initially looked like Romanticism in overdrive with religious trappings and incoherent motions of reverence to the Deity becomes a study in how the age's Romantic obsessions – passion, love, ideals – lead to futility if pursued apart from God's grace – even when those ideals include pursuing God. (Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa I. 63: “But he would sin were he to desire to be like unto God even in the right way, as of his own, and not of God's power... if he desired as his last end that likeness of God which is bestowed by grace, he sought to have it by the power of his own nature; and not from Divine assistance according to God's ordering.”) The paradox may be explicable to anyone who's decided to obey God or pursue some ideal and later realised they were at least partially doing so as a lifestyle accoutrement, or for the satisfaction of doing God a favour, or in some other way proceeding from their own self-will. As a chorus of angels puts it,
...Do not be dazzled by the thought
That God is honoured by your efforts,
His Glory with your prowess bought,
Or that in some way He depended
On you to carry through His scheme:
Think rather that He does you honour
Allowing you to act for Him.
The play concludes with the verdict of God: Man, I have spoken: strive on, trust, have faith! At which Humanity becomes Balaam writ large: chastised, humbled, reconciled, and ready to remount its donkey and carry on.
—Godescalc is the pseudonym of James Asher, who works as an English teacher and theoretical chemist in Bratislava, Slovakia. He also dabbles in songwriting and art, the results of which can be seen at his blog, Inadaptation.