In Journey by Moonlight, the author, Szerb, draws the reader in with philosophical and dark subject matter to discuss his main argument: civilization has made the past and death taboo subjects as opposed to humans viewing these concepts as the natural parts of life they once were. Through disturbed and insightful protagonist, Mihaly, Szerb poses, loss and death are now encountered with grief, melancholy and eventually forgetfulness. Mihaly’s character, his interactions with equally morose friends, and the messages about life and death the reader receives through them, result in a new awareness, or way of viewing the world, for the reader. We ask, what happens when we distance ourselves from and avoid death?
The reader learns about loss and a longing for the past through the lens of Mihaly’s thoughts and actions. Mihaly longs for what is lost and experiences the sadness that goes along with lost moments and people from his past-they will never return. With each loss, as Mihaly’s sense of foreboding and closeness with death grows stronger, the reader considers whether this notion might be true of all people. Do we sense death closing in as time passes? Is this the reason why letting go of the past is so hard?
Szerb makes the case that a deep gloom draws Mihaly to journey alone, perhaps in search of what is lost, deep into the alleys of Italy by moonlight. It is the disconnect between past and present that causes a sadness to persist, following him where he travels. The reader makes connections among the author’s strategically placed themes regarding Goethe’s Werther and Italian Journey: the texts relate not only to the protagonist, but to the human life cycle. Szerb analytically points out, “So when we die we are born again…do you follow? (p. 215) Thus, the reader understands that Mihaly is in search of death, which leads him back to birth, suffering, and experiences of loss. As readers we come to understand that we fail to notice the disconnect between Mihaly’s and our own strong desires toward darkness. Society’s current messages, which tell us to escape death at all costs, stand in opposition to our instincts.
Mihaly’s struggles to accept the path his life follows are a familiar experience. As humans, we fight to stay young and remember or hold on to memories in attempts to keep the past alive. There is little in the world we fear more than aging, loss of love and life, and finally death. It is fitting that Szerb discusses loss and death, taboo subjects, by pointing out just how off limits they have become in everyday life. What better way to alter how we think and act about these concepts than to acclimate them as cultural norms through literature?
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars