05. 17. 2009. 10:38

Slipping out of the sackcloth

Imre Kertész: Europe’s Oppressive Legacy

Can someone define themselves freely? This is Kertész's great theme in this volume of essays. Collectivism, he states, far from being merely an aspect of totalitarian regimes, "is the most characteristic feature of the twentieth century… and it thoroughly sweeps away both the individual and individuality".

“Not long before the change – the change of regime – when the disintegration was already perceptible, I was seized by a desire to come to an understanding of where I was actually living, to discover the roots of my existence, which not only existentially but also historically was perceived and felt as utterly absurd.”
Kertész penned this statement to Francois Fejto in 1999, ten years after the regime had fallen. Europe’s Oppressive Legacy can be read as the imprint of this long-lasting course of enquiry.
During the past two decades, Kertész has proven to be no less precise a chronicler than he was earlier, during the sixties, seventies and eighties. His new volume of essays contains only “occasional” texts: lectures delivered at conferences, radio talks, contributions to various symposia, extracts from public talks, and inaugural addresses. Even the speech given at his acceptance of the Nobel Prize is itself, for the most part, an occasional text. All the same, when one reads them together, Kertész’s reasons for using every occasion at hand to speak about what most occupies his ideas do indeed emerge, at least to a certain degree. These occasional texts are all pillars supporting the overarching themes of his thoughts.
The volume begins with a diary – the text entitled “Budapest, Vienna, Budapest”, in which Kertész recounts his trip to Vienna in the fall of 1989 in the form of fifteen bagatelles. This trip is a tale of mortification. While “above, on the stage” the political system was halfway on its path towards transformation, behind the wings the diary-writer was continually exposed to insult and injury: as if, starting with the cashier at the Keleti train station through the Viennese change office to the train conductor, everyone was intent on mustering forth the remnants of their strength just one last time so they could humiliate someone. For the last time? At the end of the volume (2008), the answer emerges – absolutely not: the need to lash out in this geographical region is so old that it is nearly engrained atavistically, so much so that life here is completely unimaginable without it. In any event, at the beginning of the book it is still the autumn of 1989, when a purportedly better and more beautiful world was in preparation, and let the naysayers handle it themselves. Kertész, however, has his misgivings; and without devoting too much attention to the “public” events, he makes do with his registrations of tiny, hardly noticeable oscillations. For example, when an Austrian cashier “with a typical Hungarian cop-face” scrutinizes his passport, it does not escape his attention, and all the while as Kertész enviously remembers the smile that she flashed at the Swiss gentleman standing in the queue in front of him, he notes to himself: “The shadow of Hungary at all times and everywhere is cast upon me. And at such times – for this is a law of the psyche – I stubbornly wrap it around myself, like a length of sackcloth that I willingly put on.”
This sackcloth looms over the author at the beginning of the volume – for surely this is the same sackcloth that has accompanied him for his entire life till now. What exactly was this “sackcloth”? Here is an example. Kertész recounts how, sometime in the early Eighties, he took part in a rehearsal of a theatre production of one of Lyubimov’s plays as the interpreter of Tankred Dorst, where Dorst (with the aid of a Russian interpreter) offered his congratulations to the Soviet director. Sitting in the audience, Kertész temporarily stepped out of his role: “While I was translating, I was struck by the delusion that I too was present, so I added: Please tell Mr. Lyubimov that I would like to congratulate him as well! – At which point the woman cast a withering look of scorn – It is not for you to congratulate but to translate!” This withering look of scorn did not speak only to Kertész, but to the dispossessed citizen of eastern Europe, who tried for a moment to emerge from the sackcloth thrown onto him for decades – for centuries. He wanted to cast it off from himself for a moment, but he was not allowed to – so he quickly slipped back into it. This story, located at the beginning of the volume (in 1989) is emblematic. We are standing at the threshold of an era that – to quote an essay written in 2001 – promised “the freedom of self-determination to everyone.” And for what else, in the end, would one want to see an entire world order changed?
Reading the volume from this perspective, Europe’s Oppressive Legacy speaks of the successive transformation of a sentient and thoughtful person; of the double progression of an individual becoming ever more despondent and yet simultaneously ever more radical. And how a person – of whom it would never be suspected – tries to tear off the sackcloth from himself. The way in which Kertész’s voice, from one page to the next, becomes more and more daring, how he allows himself to be influenced by anyone else less and less, is captivating. It was not the Nobel Prize that made him a radical thinker; on the contrary, he received the Nobel Prize for this very radicalism.
In this volume, the freedom of self-determination is Kertész’s great theme: can someone define themselves freely, or must they be ground up by the millstones of collectivism and ideologies? Kertész does not identify collectivism exclusively with totalitarian systems, but instead perceives in it one of the most crushingly oppressive aspects of the twentieth century, one just as virulent in our days: “[it is] the most characteristic feature of the twentieth century… and we can state that it thoroughly sweeps away both the individual and individuality,” he writes in 1995 in the essay entitled “The Unfortunate Twentieth Century”. What he had earlier designated as “state mass-fate” in his Galley Diary, is not in his opinion the result of the dictatorships known as socialism or Nazism. Both of these phenomena instead brought to fruition that which is most indicative of the history of the modern age: the passion of the collective. Kertész tries to oppose this “passion” with yet another: the miracle of unique individuality of each person, which from time to time he is inclined to term a mystery. In February of 1990, he raises the following question: if there is no God, then “under whose gaze are we living, to whom do we owe the account of ourselves in the ethical – and please forgive me, but all the same: the transcendental sense of the word?” (from the essay “The Endurance of the Camps”). In the spring of 1993, with the recognition of his experience of three years of the new regime, he formulated his thoughts even more radically. “I arrived at the conclusion that there exists one single reality: myself, and it is from this one single reality that I must create my own individual world.” Let’s try to understand this precisely: Kertész is not referring here to his past experiences, he’s not giving voice to his impressions in the face of Nazism or socialism, but now speaks as the citizen of the unified Europe at the end of the millennium. This Europe does not fill him with much confidence: it has become the only possible reality: “economicism, capitalism, the pragmatic lack of ideals is victorious, which however has no alternative and in any event, is a world without transcendence.” This sentiment was penned as early as 1995 in “The Unfortunate Twentieth Century”.
Here the author’s standpoint becomes comprehensible: a standpoint difficult to accept yet equally difficult to deny. It has to do with Kertész’s oft-asserted view that if the allure of collectivism is unchanged up to today, and remains virulent, then we can infer that since Auschwitz, nothing has happened that would either rescind or negate it. To follow the logic of the essays in this volume, one must conclude that it was not anti-Semitism that Auschwitz brought to its ultimate extremes, but something else. The insane frenzy of collectivism reached its culmination in Auschwitz, which in the culture of contemporary Europe – as the spirit of the masses – has been lurking in the background for at least two decades now, simply waiting for the opportunity to burst out at any time, and in the most variegated disguises. As opposed to the thinking of Daniel Goldhagen or Jean Améry, Kertész does not seek the origin of Auschwitz in ancient Germanic anti-Semitism, but regards it as a very modern and very European phenomenon: as a response to the French Enlightenment (in “The Endurance of the Camps”). And while Auschwitz was liberated, the mania of collectivism was hardly affected by this event: today one encounters it everywhere, even if it does not assume such extreme forms as sixty years ago. To quote perhaps the most disillusioned sentence of Kertész’s entire life-work (from Someone Else): “Auschwitz was not liquidated because it was Auschwitz, but merely because the fortunes of war turned.”
I termed Kertész’s new volume an “essay-novel” or a diary. I could equally refer to it as a memoir. A remembering of the immediate past, a recollection of socialism, the twentieth century, and in ever-widening circles, of Europe itself. A recollection of that spiritual Europe that was marked by “the wonder at the continuous existence of the world”, “the veneration, rapture, joy and love of life”. Although this finally appears to be irretrievable, writes Kertész. His analyses of politics, the spirit of the age, intellectual history – which he always places before an existential line of perspective – are mordant. He casts his mind back upon Europe – and like every true act of remembering, he creates for himself the object of his attention. The vision of a potential Europe unfolds from the pages of Europe’s Oppressive Legacy.
László F. Földényi
Translated by Ottlie Mulzet
This article was originally published in Hungarian in the weekly Magyar Narancs (5 March, 2009).
Kertész Imre: Európa nyomasztó öröksége
E dited by Zoltán Hafner
Budapest: Magveto, 2008

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