09. 18. 2008. 09:09

A breath of fresh air

László F. Földényi

Distant from Asia, yet not in Europe. Moving away from the East towards the West, wary of the former, hopeful in the latter. (...) To the foreigner, Hungary appears a land of contradictions, a terra incognita with much that is recognizably European, but even more that remains beyond comprehension, just as an operetta bears some resemblance to real life, yet is light years distant from it.

Distant from Asia, yet not in Europe. Moving away from the East towards the West, wary of the former, hopeful in the latter. On this middle ground we find a fairy tale land, surrounded on all sides by fears (think of Herder’s 18th century prediction of the Hungarians’ imminent extinction), hopes, beliefs and defeats (think of the 3-2 loss to the Germans in the 1954 football world championships). To those who live here, nothing could be more natural. To the foreigner, however, Hungary appears a land of contradictions, a terra incognita with much that is recognizably European, but even more that remains beyond comprehension, just as an operetta bears some resemblance to real life, yet is light years distant from it.

It would be easy to hold the Iron Curtain, which lasted for forty years, responsible for the fact that even today, save for a small handful of exceptions, Hungary and Hungarian culture remain unknown abroad. Many Hungarians are still inclined to lay the blame for this at the foot of the Curtain. Since 1989, the majority of Hungarian adults have pointed an accusatory finger at Communism when misfortune befalls them – even in their dreams. The specter of Communism may no longer haunt Europe, but it certainly makes itself at home in Hungary. This lingering ghost has never been mentioned more than nowadays, years after its supposed disappearance.

There is also a deeper reason for the world’s lack of knowledge about Hungary. Already in the early years of the 20th century, the poet Endre Ady used the metaphor of the ferryboat to describe the nation, with the citizens acting as both crew and permanent passengers, regardless of which shore they might wish to live on. In 1905, Ady wrote, “Idealists and evildoers joined forces and constructed imaginary castles out of the air of false pretenses and proclaimed to all the world the newly-constructed Europe in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains.” In doing so, we Hungarians delimited Europe to the borders of our “ferry nation,” and already in the early years of the 20th century were inclined to call ourselves the most European of the Europeans, who have every reason to view with suspicion the rest – those who also considered themselves Europeans. The "Hungary" article in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, reflecting on this distrust when discussing Hungarian literature, says that a people with a national identity as strong as the Hungarians will not be inclined to long admire imported literary styles.

We Hungarians have barricaded ourselves behind an iron curtain of mistrust and suspicion for decades. Of course, there were good reasons for this: over the course of history Hungary has been invaded and occupied so many times, both from the East and the West, that in the end the only alternative left was to stubbornly cling to our national identity. We closed ourselves off from Europe, but simultaneously complained that Europe failed to take due notice of us. These dangers no longer exist. But tearing down the iron curtains is not easy. They still stand, covered in rust, though long ago obsolete.

Others among us hold our exotic language responsible for the lack of knowledge about our country in the wider world. Truly, wedged between the Slavic and Germanic language territories, Hungarian sounds otherworldly. Still, it is noteworthy that recently Hungarian literature has succeeded in breaking out of its isolation and achieving widespread recognition, and precisely in the German-speaking countries. Our visual artists, on the other hand, remain unknown in Europe, despite their art not requiring them to bear the burden of our Finno-Ugric tongue. Clearly, the language can only be held partially responsible for our current dilemmas. Who today in Europe can name the major periods in Hungarian art? Who knows, for example, of the relationship between the Hungarian and Western European avantgarde movements? Or that Hungary even had an avantgarde? Who is aware of the perseverance of the best Hungarian artists during socialism, who continued to work despite being almost completely deprived of support? Or of how the Hungarian art world grappled with the unexpected burdens of new freedoms in the early 1970s, when the government began to lift censorship?

So many questions, but no answers. This is why Hungary remains a terra incognita. Nevertheless, we attempt to smuggle our largely unknown art and culture into the European Union. We talk about Communism, the Iron Curtain and our exotic language – and at the same time jealously view our neighbors, wondering why they have succeeded where we fail. Why is it that what is self-evident in Poland or the Czech Republic is not in our case? Why do we still need to explain our credentials, to try to persuade the world that we are Europeans not only geographically but also culturally? Why do we need to convince the world that we, too, have our share of important artists, and that for years, even decades, of the 20th century we were fully in step with the latest developments in Western art? But here I should be careful! Even now, I feel tempted to fall into exaggeration, to play the part of a typical Hungarian intellectual, faithful to the old traditions. For instead of examining the fragility and weaknesses of Hungarian art and intellectual life, it is much more comfortable to adopt a defensive posture and to repeat over and over, “It’s a pity they don’t know us abroad. They could learn so much from us!” Hungarians, in their relations with foreigners, often act like the stepchild denied his inheritance. He feels that he is more worthy than his newly acquired siblings, but is unable to substantiate his claims. Publicly, then, he maintains a stony silence, while fuming within himself over the injustice of it all, searching for explanations and disguising feelings of inadequacy with delusions of grandeur. In the early 19th century, the poet Mihály Vörösmarty wrote, “Around the graves where we shall die / a weeping world will come / and millions will in pity gaze / upon the martyrs' tomb.” (trans. Watson Kirkconnell) We Hungarians never miss an opportunity to recite this verse; each of us knows it by heart. Self-pity has become a mode of complacency, a game that we play in the parlor of our ferryboat.

But the rest of the world is not interested in self-pity. Not only do they fail to shed tears on our behalf; for the most part, they take no notice. Witness, for example, foreign ignorance of Hungarian artists. Unlike many of my countrymen, I do not attribute this unfortunate phenomenon to a lack of interest from abroad. I view it rather as a symptom of a larger problem, namely that we, the Hungarians, have only rarely been able to formulate the question of our destiny such that it pertains not only to ourselves, but to all of Europe. We have long considered ours to be a unique fate, and have been unwilling to recognize the universal, even cosmic aspects of the challenges we face. Of course, there have been exceptions: in literature Sándor Petofi, Endre Ady, Attila József, János Pilinszky, Péter Nádas. In music, Béla Bartók and György Kurtág, in the visual arts László Mednyánszky and Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka. However, because these artists disturbed the nation’s favorite pastime, isolation, they were unable to put down roots in their own homeland.

How, in practical terms, does this isolation occur? A single example will suffice. When Hungary’s most progressive literary journal of the 20th century, the Nyugat [West] was founded in Budapest in 1908, the editors were as interested in joining ranks with greater European culture as their counterparts in Hungarian intellectual circles today. Even so, when Martinetti wrote a letter to the journal proposing that they cooperate to achieve shared aims, the Hungarian editors lost no time in rejecting his offer. They believed that the Nyugat had already realized those goals for which the Futurists were working. In other words, they honestly believed their disadvantage, their isolation from Europe, was in fact working in their favor.

The story of the Nyugat is but one among many. Just as the journal editorship turned down Martinetti, many in Hungary rejected Bartók on his own soil, and the painter Csontváry in the early 20th century. In the case of Csontváry, it was those very individuals whom he should have been able to depend on for understanding who ridiculed him, not the kitschy, commercial artists. Still, let us not forget that the Nagybánya School of painting, officially considered the most progressive in Hungary in the first decades of the 20th century, took as their model not Cubism, Cézanne, the young Duchamp or Picabia, but the Barbizon school, which was already several decades old at the time. Furthermore, although there were great Hungarian painters at the turn of the century whose talent was comparable to that of any of the illustrious Europeans, Hungarian tradition leeched them of their talent like a parasite. This was the fate of Pál Szinyei Merse, whom Böcklin considered his equal when the young Hungarian painter was living in Munich. In the same way, when József Rippl-Rónai resided in Paris, his young French contemporaries quite naturally considered him one of their own. What might have happened, we wonder, if these artists, returning home to Hungary, had been able to continue their work, retaining their previous freshness and vitality, to create new art in response to the pressing questions of the age, and on top of all that, to elevate and champion the work of the solitary Csontváry? In that case – and here let us boldly veer into exaggeration! – Csontváry would today be mentioned in the same breath as Henri Rousseau, as his equal, if not his better. 

In order for a nation’s artists to achieve international recognition, it is not enough that they be great. A supportive social structure is also necessary, one that provides the fertile soil in which the artists’ talents can grow and flourish. When a well-organized institutional system ensures security, then artists will naturally emerge and develop. It was precisely this support structure that Hungary has lacked in the past. There was no cultural environment linked with the greater European tradition. I write all of this in the past tense. An account written in the present would depict the situation in a much more hopeful light. Not only because our “ferry-nation” is now finally docking in port – on the Western shore – but also because Hungary has begun to recognize itself precisely as a nation that links East and West, and this is what truly makes its status unique in Europe. By embracing this self-image, we become more European than if we had either joined fully with the rest of Europe or continued to isolate ourselves and our national identity. For me, nothing expresses this more than the successes of Hungarian literature abroad in the last ten years – although our language remains as strange and difficult as ever to foreign ears. I do not doubt that if the numerous and ever-increasing art galleries in Budapest connect themselves into the circulatory system of the European art market, then we will soon be able to say that in the realm of visual art, also, Hungarian culture is able to breathe more freely. Only this freedom can inspire confidence in others. It represents the only chance that the rest of Europe will view Hungary not as a terra incognita, but find in the products of our culture a mirror in which they may see themselves in a new light. 

This is an excerpt from László F. Földényi's collection of essays, Az ész álma. 33 esszé (2000–2007). Kalligram, 2008.

Translated by: Julianna Horváth Chen

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