10. 15. 2013. 16:21

Phantom pains

Péter György: A Zoo in Kolozsvár. Imagined Transylvania

Through the interpretation of various texts, Péter György takes the reader on a scholarly guided tour of Hungarian national ideology from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy right up to the transformation in nationalist politics brought about by the 2010 elections.

Similarly to other iconic geographical areas―like the Orient, the Levant or the Balkans―the region of Transylvania is mostly known to the world through highly fictionalized representations which created and re-strengthened the image of an exotic and mysterious land in the heart of Europe. For popular culture and the general mindset Transylvania is almost exclusively determined by the stereotypical constructions of novelists like Bram Stoker and J.K. Rowling, or travel-writers like Patrick Leigh Fermor, Robert Kaplan, or more recently, William Blacker. A lesser known, yet much more important aspect of the region is that along the centuries Transylvania has been a highly significant and prosperous home for Hungarian, Romanian and German culture. Furthermore, as a result of this entangled and often troubled history, in the past hundred and fifty years multiethnic Transylvania became, and still is, a strongly contested symbolic territory for competing Hungarian and Romanian nationalisms.

Almost paradoxically, after the whole region was annexed to Romania due to the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, the political meaning of an idealized and abstracted image of Transylvania started to play an ever increasing role for processes of nation-building and identity construction in 20th-century Hungary. Even after ninety years of consolidated borders between the two countries, the inscribed and perpetuated idea of a 'Hungarian' Transylvania still influences the way Hungarians―of different social backgrounds and worldviews―imagine their ethnocultural and political community.

Péter György’s recent book, entitled A Zoo in KolozsvárImagined Transylvania, is a powerful attempt to give an experimental and interdisciplinary analysis of how the discursive construction of this symbolic territory was used and abused by the Hungarian political and cultural elites, with a special emphasis on the period after 1989. Much in the same way as Edward Said’s Orientalism and Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans were investigating the anatomy of geopolitical ideology, this book is not about the 'real' Transylvania, but rather examines how a mythical and ahistorical idea of a supposedly ethnically homogeneous 'ancestral' land is used by contemporary politics of memory in Hungary. As the author writes: "The myth of this imagined Transylvania got detached from historical time and became the metaphor of Hungarian suffering and pain, while the Szeklerland(1) within it appeared as the promised land of national redemption where a fictional past is promoted as the future and moral ideal for the birth of a new country." (p. 22)

Through the interpretation and contextualization of not only literary and historical texts, but also of legal documents, monuments, museums and urban architecture, the author takes the reader on a scholarly guided tour of Hungarian national ideology from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, through the interwar years of the Horthy regime, the socialist eras of Kádár and Ceaușescu, right up to the paradigmatic transformation in nationalist politics brought about by the 2010 elections. Péter György gives well-articulated warnings about the development of radical right-wing, xenophobic revisionism and neo-traditionalism in Hungarian public discourse.

The deconstruction of such a simplified, narrow-minded and homogeneous image of Transylvania is provided in the book by articulating various alternative approaches to the highly complex cultural space of the region. Mixing detached critical theory with an inspiringly subjective and creative relation to these alternative perspectives, Péter György re-discovers and brings to light Transylvanian authors and texts, thinkers and poets who were marginalized (and eventually forgotten) by the canonization process within mainstream Hungarian culture. As he shows, these authors were and are still neglected by the national and cultural memory (due to their aesthetic and political worldviews) since they did not fit into the ideological construction of an ethnically pure, ahistorical and mythical Transylvania. Through the masterful presentation of the poet and professor László Szabédi, the exceptionally talented poet Domokos Szilágyi, and the refined philosopher György Bretter, the author is trying to re-evaluate and re-position these controversial yet tragic figures and their works in the context of international modernity: saving them from the amnesia of neo-traditionalism for the benefit of contemporary culture in Hungary.

As Péter György rightly points out, the greatest threat to the construction of a modern, open and tolerant political community in Hungary is the strong process of isolation and navel-gazing caused by revisionist ethno-political agendas. The obsessions of Hungarian historical memory and national identity, centered on the 'phantom pains' of losing Transylvania, and the unresolved, unsettled 'national' trauma of Trianon, make it highly difficult to integrate into the international and European paradigm of reconciliation and cosmopolitanism. The author stresses that for the development of a modern political community it is necessary to normalize the memory and commemoration of the violent and traumatic past through local and international dialogue.

Although Péter György’s Imagined Transylvania is certainly not the first book about the connection between Hungarian nationalist tendencies and Transylvania, or the first study on the literary culture of the region, it is nonetheless a pioneering work. It combines up-to-date scholarly insights with a deep commitment and personal, essayistic writing style, and thus manages to break out from the confines of any single discipline. Accordingly, it enjoyed a very enthusiastic and positive reception, with multiple popular book launches and round-table discussions in Budapest and Kolozsvár/Cluj sparking fresh and relevant dialogues about Transylvania. Critic István Margócsy called the book one of the most important and exciting works to appear in the last ten years, and challenged the Hungarian intellectual establishment to explore the new perspectives opened up by Péter György’s analysis(2). One can only hope that more and more writers will take up his challenge.

About the author: Péter György is a scholar, writer and professor at ELTE University of Budapest since 1980, and director of the Film, Media and Cultural Studies Graduate Program here. He has published over a dozen books on various subjects, his main field being the aesthetics, politics and geography of memory. His biographical book of essays about his father, entitled Instead of My Father, was shortlisted for the European Book Prize in 2011.


(1) Szeklerland [Székelyföld] is a historic and ethnographic area in the Eastern Part of Transylvania having a predominantly (95%) Hungarian population and with a developing political movement requesting autonomy for the region.

(2) István Margócsy: Erdélyrőlmásképpen [About Transylvania―in a different manner]. Élet és Irodalom, 2013/09/06.

Szabolcs László

Tags: Péter György