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The lack of liberty
The absence of liberty
The goal of this lecture is to show the lack of liberty as a philosophic and stylistic problem in
Hungarian literature of the 1970’s and ‘80’s. Respected writers like Peter Esterházy, Imre
Kertész, and György Petri have found a new solution to show the problematic relationship
between the lack of political liberty during the decades of Hungarian Communism and the
language's shortcomings as a medium for expressing this lack in an authentic way.
Hungarian Modernism, unlike its English counterpart, frankly admits its roots in
The ancient narration of freedom and captivity that had been the root of 19th century
Romanticism was focused on the responsible individual's ethical choice, but this paradigm
became inadequate under 20th Century dictatorships. Linguistic transformations were needed
in order to find a way to express the existential problem of freedom and simultaneously
confront the literary problem of the discourse about freedom.
During the final third of twentieth century the Hungarian Literature was in an
interesting situation. It had to react to the permeation of so called postmodern that occurred in
the 1970’s and ‘80’s. These two decades saw “Goulash Communism” rise to its peak, and
then fall from its heights. This coincidence gave a double experience.
The first part of the “double experience” is the paradoxical figure of János Kádár,
Hungary’s leader throughout the post-1956 period. Implicated by his cooperation with the
Soviet Union and a direct beneficiary of the removal of Imre Nagy in 1956; he used his credit
with the Soviet Union to introduce a measure of liberal reform. This became known as
Goulash Communism, a system based on half–truths, nods and winks. In the opinion of
György Petri, an important Hungarian poet I will mention often today, the Hungarian
dictatorship was more sophisticated and clever than the other Communist governments. The
moral state of the people became dangerously corrupt. And this corrupted moral state
cancelled the possibility of the Romantic parlance
: the way of speaking of a real community.
The second part of the “double experience” is that language fails as a medium of
expression. Just to cite a poem of Gyula Illyés:
1 See Elaine Feinstein, Foreword of Eternal Monday, Bloodaxe Books, 1999, p.9
Let me allude to the Nobel prize-winning Hungarian novel’s author, Imre Kertész. In his
Consider what happened to language in the twentieth century, what became of words. I daresay that the
first and most shocking discovery made by writers in our time was that language, in the form it came
down to us, a legacy of some primordial culture, had simply become unsuitable to convey concepts and
processes that had once been unambiguous and real. Think of Kafka, think of Orwell, in whose hands
the old language simply disintegrated. It was as if they were turning it round and round in an open fire,
only to display its ashes afterward, in which new and previously unknown patterns emerged.
Hungarian writers under Communism had to face that the real problem was not censorship or
prohibition of the free publication, but the shortcomings of the language of literature and the
alteration of the deep structure of literature: the loss of connection between poet and reader.
The poet no more represented the public’s common values and the public did not hear the
Hungarian Modernism, unlike its English counterpart, frankly admits its roots in
Romanticism. That is why the Hungarian common reader did not follow well –known reading
strategies, such as allegories, pathos, or clear-lined narration. While a big part of the
Hungarian society betrayed the 1956 revolution, they maintained a solid nostalgia for a
literature which would not force this betrayal to become a problem.
Hungarian literary reception strategy is based on referential reading, and this kind of reading
supposes the ancient ethos of literature: it assumes an autonomic personality with choice and
Let me quote soma parts of a short story titled Petition
by Mihály Kornis:
2 Gyula, Illyés, A sentence about tyranny, translated by George Szirtes
3 Imre Kertész, Nobel Lecture, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:rUeZKIajo2YJ:nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2002/kertesz-lecture-
4 Kornis, Mihály, Petition, Transleted by Ivan Sanders,
With the reference to your much-valued query concerning final judgment on requests respectfully submitted by
the undersigned claimant (Reference No: 1909-1970, Mrs Szalkay, clerk in charge), I hereby return the Claims
Form together with a Supplementary Statement
(issued in compliance with Official Decree No. 40, 1957 B. C.)
I should like to be born on December 9, 1909, in Budapest.
I should like my mother to be Regina Fekete (housewife) and my father to be Miksa Tábori
(travelling salesman).( In the event that you are unable to grant my request regarding the above-
mentioned persons, I am open to other suggestions so long as honoured parents will be recognizable
I further request that my wife be Edit Kovács (payroll clerk) and my son, Pál Tábori (student). (See
addendum to Item I (b); here the words „my wife” and „my son” are to be substituted for „Mama”
In view of my desired date of death (see Item II), I renounce forever the joy grandparenthood.
Moreover, personal life is becoming a part of the Modern Hungarian history:
In full knowledge of my legal and civic responsibilities, I the undersigned hereby solemnly declare that it is as
retail merchant, truck driver, assistant buyer and buyer that I would like to serve the Kingdom of Hungary, the
Hungarian Republic of Councils, Truncated Hungary, Greater Hungary, the Apostolic Regency, and the
I will honour and respect the governments of Francis Joseph I, Count Mihály Károlyi, Béla Kun, Miklós Horthy,
Mátyás Rákosi, János Kádár, etc., and will obey their laws.
When hearing the Austrian, German, Soviet, Hungarian national anthems (as well as the “Gotterhalte”, the
“Giovinezza”, the “Internationale”), I will stand at attention.
I will give due respect to the Austrian, German, Soviet national colours, and to the Red Flag, as well as to my
nation’s arms (Dual Cross, Crown of St. Stephen, hammer and sickle, wheat-sheaf, etc.).
Both of them can be interpreted as the end of the human individuality. Man cannot manage
his life anymore; he can only passively accept and endure all the given circumstances of his
life. From this point of view, all Hungarian history is similar to that of the twentieth century.
I request 61 years 6 months 3 days 2 minutes and 17 seconds.
(Note: I have submitted similar requests to the proper authorities on a number of previous occasions― e. g. in
80 B. C., and more recently in 1241, 1514, 1526, 1711, 1849― but on each occasion, due to lack of space, my
request was turned down. This is my seventh request. 61 years is not a long time; were I to succeed in gaining
your favour, sirs, in this matter, I would certainly try and make the best of my brief sojourn.)
The dates indicate major disasters in Hungarian history. Throughout Hungarian
history – just as in the past and present of other nations – dark years give way to periods of
prosperity. But Kornis' list shows a particular approach to our nation's history. History does
not help us recognize our freedom, but rather shows us our true state: the state of being
And this freedom is not the same as the one Tolstoy is writing about in the last paragraph of
In the first case it was necessary to renounce the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space and to recognize a motion we did not feel; in the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious
In Tolstoy’s world there is a higher will than the human one, and the human ability is to
realize that order in the world he cannot see at the first sight. Modern literature is not so kind.
The passive personal attitude is very well known in modern European literature.
Thinking of protagonists of Kafka, Joyce, maybe Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp, this passivity
belongs to the existential situation of modern man. At the same time, because of the Eastern
European circumstances, Hungarian Literature had to maintain the Nineteenth century’s
image. It was at the same time before and after late Modernism. Before because of the social
and national role and responsibility, and after because of the ironic point of view from where
The essence of the totalitarian states’ citizenship is anxiety. People are to be substitute
and this lack of stability provokes a certain anxiety. And this ambiguity is the root of a very
strong anxiety: Anxiety takes away from Dasein
the possibility of understanding itself, as it
falls, in terms of the ‘world’ and the way things have been publicly interpreted. Anxiety
5 Tolstoy, War and Peace, p.2485 http://books.google.hu/books
back upon that which it is anxious about – its authentic potentiality-for-Being -
in-the-World. Anxiety individualizes Dasein
for its ownmost Being - in-the-World
The different colored dictatorships are similar. Kertész drew a link between the Nazi
I once said that so-called Socialism for me was the petite Madeleine cake that, dipped into Proust's tea,
evoked in him the flavor of bygone years. For reasons having to do with the language I spoke, I decided, after
the suppression of the 1956 revolt, to remain in Hungary. Thus I was able to observe, not as a child this time but
as an adult, how a dictatorship functions. I saw how an entire nation could be made to deny its ideals, and
watched the early, cautious moves toward accommodation. I understood that hope is an instrument of evil, and
the Kantian categorical imperative - ethics in general - is but the pliable handmaiden of self-preservation.
Dictatorship can become familiar. Let me refer to two famous and unexpected phrases from
From Kertész : I would like to live a little longer in this nice concentration camp
And from Petri, on a bender somewhere in the outskirts of Moscow:
I take a big gulp. Everyone round me is pissed like a cunt, all of
They slap me on the back and embrace me. VENGRYA KHOROSHO!
They pay, I pay. I am waltzing with Mother Moscow. My head is on her
Her sweetish smell of Krasnaya Moscwa eau de cologne gets into
6 Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, § 187 7 Kertész, Nobel Lecture 8 Kertész, Imre, Fatelessness, Transleted by Tim Wilkinson Vintage International, New York, 2004, p. 189 9 Petri, György, From the Great Journey, The Arrival, Translated by G, Szirtes, in Eternal Monday, Bloodaxe books, 1989
In the classic period of literature, captivity is an abnormal status of being. But this is not so
evident, moreover has no validity, neither for the modern novel nor for modern poetry.
Both cited texts show the familiarity of the dictatorship. But here are two different ways to
illustrate it. One belongs to novel the other to the poet.
Indeed, the novel is the product and illustration of the eighteenth-century change of attitude
The problem of the reconciliation of man and God, with whose solution the great scholastic systems and all
medieval mysticism had wrestled, appeared now in a new light. This reconciliation was no longer looked for
exclusively in an act of divine grace; it was supposed to take place amid the activity of the human spirit and its
It is the novel, more than any form of Discourse, which depicts and celebrates this activity of the human
spirit as self-development and which, at the same time, constitutes a mirror in which human beings can see
themselves reflected as self-identical and whole.
Starting in the nineteenth century, the novel has to describe the everyday life. And if the
everyday life is situated in totalitarianism, the novel has to show it as normal situation.
So captivity, the lack of freedom, becomes the first base of human existence. The epic of the
twentieth century takes the state of captivity as a basic state not only in the physical meaning,
but also in an ethical meaning. The lack of choice is not a consequence but a point of
departure. Not a situation but a position. The referential lack of choice and the existential lack
The hero thrown in a world deprived of freedom is going to loose not only the
possibility but the capacity of choice. And the genre of novel is going to reflect on it not just
the thematic but on the stylistic level, too.
In Kertész’s novel, the restricted situation is represented in its linguistic way: the
closed world of the 40’s Budapest, the well guarded universe of the Auschwitz concentration
camp and language’ clichés and banalities of the secondary school assume each other. The
ready made language and the closed existential situation represent a definitive parallelism.
10 Van Bohemmen, Christina, The Novel as Family Romance, Cornell University Press, p. 6o.
The age and the status of the novels’ protagonist make clear that Fateless
perverted structure of a Bildungsroman. The book gives a different perspective of the horror,
because it is written from the first person “I” perspective.
George Köves is coming along a learning process: from the Budapest grammar school
to concentration camp and back to civil life. That is why the solipsistic allusion is so strong to
a school composition. The excerpt quoted below sounds like it could be from a field trip
I had arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp.
Buchenwald lies on the crest of one of the elevations in a region of hills and dales. Its air is clear, the
countryside varied, with woods all around and the red-tiled roofs of the village houses in the valleys
down below delightful to the eye.
The language of the novel is led not only by the clichés but also the doubtfulness. We can find
many expressions of it, like “I do not know” and “I do not remember”. And its contrast:
expressions like “naturally” “probably natural” and so on:
It also happened once or twice when I found myself in a ring of shocked, incredulous faces staring at
one another repeating: “What do you say to that? What do you say to that?” And the answer in these
situations was either nothing or always the same: “Terrible.” But that is not the word that is not exactly
the term I would use to characterize Auschwitz, speaking entirely for myself, naturally.
The doubtfulness, the suddenness and the false use of “naturally” excludes the traditional
binary opposition based narration of captivity. The fact of survivorship does not mean any joy
of deliberating but a hard duty: to be a witness in an adequate way.
Borowski and Kertész systematically demythologize the Holocaust, describing it as a
natural consequence of the modern world. (Borowski extended the concept of Holocaust –
though he did not use this highly inaccurate and unfortunately widely-used word – to the
entire system of slavery.) In the view of Kertész - just like that of Borowski - , there is no
difference between the death camp and the peaceful hinterland
. Neither author is moved when
they look at the victims: they depict the majority of them as participants and more or less
active collaborators. In their eyes, the killers are normal people who participate in well-
11 Fatelessness, p 123 12 see Ménard, Pierre, Témoignage en résistence, ed. Stock, 2007, p. 243. 13Fateless
(translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson), 92, p.85-86)
organized acts that society supports fully. Crime is anthropologically bound to mankind,
which is not to say that it should not still be considered crime, even if – and this is the basis of
the paradoxical optimism of their works – there is no stable point from which to view it.
Let me cite the most well known central – European writer, the Czech Kundera. His
famous novel, the Life is elsewhere
reflects with a strong intensity on the problem of lyric
poetry. After Kundera lyric poetry means the victory of illusions; and the lyricist yields the
The modern experience of being is contradictory to the illusions mentioned by
Kundera. There is a discrepancy between the possibilities of the lyricist’s monologue and the
world that can be understood only by a sharp analysis and not the enthusiasm characteristic of
After the thoughts of the Czech writer I am citing a Hungarian poem:
I no longer believe What I believed once But the fact that I have believed – That I compel myself Day by day to recall And I do not forgive anyone. Our terrible loneliness Crackles and flakes Like the rust on iron rails in the heat of the sun.
I am going to continue my lecture by speaking about a Hungarian poet, György Petri.
The title of the poem is By an unknown poet from Eastern Europe, 1955
. The year is
not chosen by mistake. We are a year before the ‘56 revolution in which the poet’s role was
considerable. The disillusioned poet who once believed
The unknown poet is like the Unknown Soldier. In the preface of an English edition of
The life is elsewhere
Kundera says that history has devilishly changed the Romantic poet’s
status: the real revolution has become dictatorship and the poet has become the assistant of the
executioner. There is a natural affinity, it seems, between revolution and lyric poetry:
Lyricism is intoxication, and man drinks in order to merge more easily with the world. 14 Spiró, György, Imre Kertész and his time, http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2005-07-20-spiro-en.html 15 Petri, György, By an unknown poet from Eastern Europe, 1955,
translated by G. Szirtes in Eternal Monday, Bloodaxe books, 1989
Revolution has no desire to be examined or analyzed, it only desires that the people merge
with it; in this sense it is lyrical and in need of lyricism” The narrator explains that it is
possible to write beautiful poetry on behalf of tyranny because in poetry intensity of feeling,
not truth, is the essential criterion: “in the magical territory of verse all assertions become true
as long as they are backed by the power of experienced emotion”. The narrator sums up the
role of poetry in the era of Stalinist rule in Czechoslovakia in an eloquent indictment:
“Nowadays everyone regards it as an era of political trials, persecution, forbidden books, and
judicial murder. But we who remember must bear witness: that was not only a time of horror
but also a time of lyricism! The poet reigned along with the hangman”.
The voice of Petri’s poems is not far from Kundera’s thought. The poem I have just
quoted represents that kind of disillusionment Kundera is speaking about. The elegy felt over
the lost illusions is not always characteristic of Petri’s poem.
What Petri most obviously shares with his Romantic forerunners is the assumption that
poetry cannot avoid politics. But he has discarded the rhetoric of the Romantics in favour of a
language that is harsh, spare, colloquial, and ironic. He eschews overt attempt at idealism,
pathos or beauty; what grips us in his poetry is its force and uncompromising truthfulness,
which spares nothing – not even his own posture as truth –teller.
The whole of Petri’s poetry is a proof indeed to prove that poetry cannot avoid
politics. But the lyric poetry has to react to the altered ethos of the world. The hero is not the
representative of common values anymore, and the oppressor is not the very devil but a
bureaucrat of the state. Moreover, which is worse, the roles are interchangeable.
In some of his poems Petri has reassessed the political poetry. It became less high-
flown and more ironic. It has overstepped the requested stylistic level of the old language that
was in use to speak about the nation, the community, history, oppression and so on. Petri has
realised that language cannot be used any more. And the routine point of view has also lost its
These changes are the reactions to the altered place and situation of the individual in
the community. The sacrifices to be made are based on personal ethic rather than on the
As it is shown in one of the poems titled It Would Be Nice to Translate Mallarmé
16 Seaton, James, Lyric Poetry, the Novel, and Revolution:Milan Kundera’s
Life is Elsewhere, Humanitas, Volume XX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2007 17 sse Introduction by Clive Wilmer, in Eternal Monday, Bloodaxe books, 1989 , p. 12
It would be so nice to translate Mallarmé in another life (other lives being always full of sunshine) where people translate Mallarmé, not knowing this world with its grim winters.
The narrator of text has a strong wish to leave his own present behind. The pressure he
surrenders to is existential in the first place and not ethic. The question is not the choice
between right and not right. Neither is it the choice between good and evil. That possibility
One of his most known poems, Horatian
is about a tramp, a homeless man living in a
I’ve no ambition – less than a corpse in a grave Who , tickled by the worms, dreams of a deathless tombstone over his mortal remains. I have seen and lived enough. I’ll spend the short time ahead In a waiting room hung with spittle, littered with butts: Eyes open, resting my roaring head on a dented suitcase.
The text is focused on the illusion and disillusion of the dropout of the society, the
possibility of belonging neither to the oppressors nor to the oppressed. In a modern
dictatorship both of them are to refuse because they are equally part of the system. One takes
the other for granted. One infers the others .
About power and violence I pull up over my head.
I’ll dream that I’m a police dog , my coat shiny.
We could say, even the dreams are kept in captivity. The problem is elsewhere. In his
dream the trap is changes sides. His burning desire for assimilation is stronger than his wish
for freedom. The personal identity is not seen as a permanent result of self-development
which is based on growing self – awareness but as a sequence of interchangeable situations
The tramp is dreaming of becoming a police dog: it’s a kind of Stockholm – syndrome. The
prisoner assimilates to the prison warden. That is the substance of dictatorship.
18 in Eternal Monday, Bloodaxe books, 1989 19 in Eternal Monday, Bloodaxe books, 1989
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