László Földényi F.: In the Thick of Berlin
I have never heard a more precise and simple definition of political correctness than in László Földényi’s latest book of essays: “the denial of human fallibility.”
In Hungary, the first context in which we came to talk about PC was that of the horror stories we heard from abroad, like the case of a Hungarian university student who got a grant to the States and was excluded by her fellow students after they found her eating some good old socialist lozenges which run under the name “Negro”, after their colour. We kept telling these stories to each other until eventually, without noticing, we, too, started being terribly politically correct. In our own way. Using double and multiple standards, depending on what each of us was reminded of at any time by whatever we were talking about. In all probability, PC will go out of fashion in this country before it ever comes in properly, so we will probably get away without it, not that such a course of events is likely to benefit us.
In Germany, it is totally different. There we find a process or a concept at work which is a linguistic monstrosity even for Földényi with his near-native German: Vergängenheitsbewaltigung. The phrase actually means tackling the past; it denotes the effort, the struggle of overcoming it as well as the process of coming to terms with it. The Germans were as radical in making a break with their Nazi past as they were about taking what German culture meant to them way beyond absurdity.
László Földényi F. is committed, and even devoted, to real German culture. What he appreciates the most about it is the conviction that “there exists some comprehensive, universally valid truth. I think this is the conviction that drew the outlines of Germany on the intellectual map of Europe, and this is what distinguished it from the spheres of other languages and cultures.” This conviction also contributed to Nazism cropping up in Germany, of all places (and to it cropping up at all). On the other hand, many of us have the ineradicable conviction that without this trait man could not be called man: without the capacity to conceive ideas.
Földényi quotes strange examples of idea formation from the Germany of the recent period. When he first lived in West Berlin, he found it hard to get used to the cycle paths and the cyclists who kept hooting at him. Never had he received so much scolding in his entire life as he did just then. The people manifested such a sudden lack of a sense of humour that he began to suspect “if I do happen to get run over, I shall be the victim not of a bicycle, but of the ideology of cycling.”
On one occasion he went to the Berlin film archive and asked for Leni Riefenstahl’s film from 1934, The Triumph of the Will, which depicts the 1933 National Socialist rally of Nuremberg, and which, Földényi notes, won a gold medal at the Paris World Exhibition of 1937. The official at the archives looked incredulous, baffled, and Földényi found that he was trying to excuse himself. He was explaining himself as though he had said something deeply obscene. “As if I was making love simply to write an essay about orgasm… it was the facial expression of my German acquaintances that repeatedly got me entangled into situations of this kind.” Many people were shocked when he talked to them about this film. "Some people thought I was indiscrete, others, a pervert, and yet others a Fascist sympathiser. Let me add: most of them had never seen the film." In Germany, words like homeland, country, land, myth, nature (unless used in the narrow ecological sense) are taboo. It is not polite to use them.
This is the type of phenomena that characterise the era of Vergängenheitsbewaltigung: repression and nervousness on a small, a great and an even greater scale. Földényi is anxious about German culture. He devotes a whole string of essays to criticising the German art and literature of the past 20-30 years.
As I read on, I was expecting that the concluding essay would soften the critical tone and draw an (essentially positive) balance. But this is not what happens. He gently but distinctly confirms what had gone before. That in Germany, where literature is held in the highest esteem even today, there is clearly something wrong with literature. That it has hardly anything to do with the works themselves. Even though in fact there is a vast literary machinery at work in the country, with audiences paying close attention, publishers publishing, moderators and commentators keenly going about their business, "authors are dragged from stall to stall like freshly killed game." All of this is perfectly beautiful and rather incredible for a Hungarian writer and clearly invites gratitude. And yet from all of this there emerges a discrete but strict system of expectations which the emerging works do their best to satisfy in their size, tone and subject matter. Anything (and anyone) who does not want to comply with the tacit standards drops out of the machinery. It has become a basic criterion for works of art to be “streamlined.” They must not be overly sensitive, but they must not offend sensitivity, either. Concepts such as the "greatness" of these works or, God forbid, a sensibility for transcendence are non-existent: the system offers them no houseroom. The outcome of all this is "fatal mediocrity." This is how László Földényi F. sees contemporary German literature. This also indicates that such a state of affairs is somehow characteristic of the whole of contemporary culture: as though "art had been chased by someone with a whip" over the last thirty years; but, for Földényi, this appears more painful in Germany than elsewhere.
The essays of In the Thick of Berlin make frequent allusions to the so-called ’68 generation. In Germany this means a huge stratum of the population who became conscious thinkers around the mid-60’s, and from the very first turned radically against the generation of their parents and grandparents. This alone does not make them unique; the 1960’s were about nothing else all over the world, including Hungary: down with traditions, march on ahead in the name of young people. But in West Germany, when they said "tradition", they meant, over and above everything else, the Nazi past. The German ‘68 generation reached complete victory twenty years ago. They had vanquished their parents, their grandparents, their Nazi past, but they vanquished much else besides. In art, for example, they had overcome transcendence and grandeur. The result today is "firmly entrenched positions of power, flying the standards of a 1968 ideology." Members of the ‘68 generation now comfortably seated in the centres of power without positive ideals, without parents or grandparents, and totally bereft of any solidarity for the future of their own country. They are hollow inside. And "it is hard to live in denial of your country," as László Földényi F. poignantly comments.
What I expected of this book was that it would give me a picture of Berlin. That would have been doing a lot. I had been fascinated by Berlin ever since I was eight years old and read Emil and the Detectives. It is a magical place. One of the great myths of the 20th century: the "Reichstag is like the tower of Babel" (Földényi). Péter Nádas’s new long novel also starts out in Berlin, not far from the wall. In actual fact, what Földényi speaks out against is the sterility which is threatening Europe and even the West in the wider sense. To be more precise, he does not "speak out against." He just talks in a quiet and serene voice. "If we want freedom in the existential as well as the political sense, one important criterion is that we must extract from these taboos the good which is indubitably there in the depth of them and not allow evil to encompass them; to accept that our roots can feed the good as well as the bad."
Exegetes of the Scriptures argued through millennia about what Cain’s stigma looked like: did he have a horn in the middle of his forehead? Or a mark on his arm? The debate was never decided. But there is one Cain’s mark we all know: the swastika. And the bearer of this stamp is the German people. They stand no chance of ever getting rid of this stigma. As long as the world stands, the word German will remind people of one thing. Just as the name of Cain makes people think of a murderer. In other words: not human. In other words: not I (not us). Them, instead. It is only human to try to avert responsibility. But it is not fair. We, too, have plenty to account for in our past.
To me, the most important lesson to be learnt from In the Thick of Berlin is partly that we are all human. And that I, too, am prone to forget this any time. The other important consideration is that we ought to help the Germans in some way with this desperate struggle, their Vergängenheitsbewartigung. Whichever way we can. By being responsible, being easy-going, being affectionate. And we must make sure we do not try to evade our own Vergängenheitsbewartigung. For without genuine German culture no one has a future in Europe.
Földényi F. László: Berlin sűrűjében
Bratislava: Kalligram, 2006
Tags: László Földényi F