Small magazines are the neurons of civilisation. They transmit vital messages between different cultural, academic, scientific and practical disciplines in much the same way as neurons link different parts of the brain. By this service they make a civilisation from what might otherwise be mutually incomprehensible worlds: dance without music, medicine without science, history without criticism. By small magazines I mean magazines that cover a wide range of activities and interests – such admired competitors as The Atlantic in the US, The Spectator in London, and Quadrant in Australia – rather than magazines with a small circulation (though, in this wicked world, the two generally go together).
Not only do such magazines link different worlds, but they also enable their readers to compensate for a misspent youth. Those who were educated, like Osbert Sitwell, “in the holidays from Eton” can catch up by virtue of a monthly subscription. Buying the magazine because they have a professional or technical interest in an article on the causes of economic growth or the latest production of a Chekhov play, they find their minds wandering onto other pages where poetry, opera criticism, philosophy, history, scientific research and linguistic theory all jostle for their attention.
Encounter magazine was originally founded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (behind which lurked the CIA for twenty years) in order to counter the Comintern’s cultural agitprop. That was a good cause in itself, even if it was a philistine one. But in this instance philistinism defeated itself. Anyone who read Encounter for a sustained period of time was more or less guaranteed to emerge from the experience as a rounded personality and a cultivated mind.
A new reader may have intended only to learn how to rout the barbarians, but in the process he ceased to be a barbarian himself (at least a little bit.) To his surprise perhaps, he discovered in himself an interest in such topics as Sir Peter Medawar’s Romanes Lecture on Freudian psychoanalysis and poetry. (Hint: the former is a variant of the latter.) Or in Conor Cruise O’Brien’s reflections, drawn from bitter diplomatic experience, on the United Nations as essentially a theatre for the psychodrama of Western guilt and expiation. Or in any one of a thousand other topics of merely general interest that linked him with other cultivated people in a fraternity of free minds and expanded imaginations.
Such linkages are always valuable, but they are especially vital in an age of specialisation when we are discouraged from intellectual meandering in the interest of advancing knowledge in particular disciplines. Magazines like the London Spectator not only knock down these walls of specialism; they also cross national boundaries to foster common cultural knowledge throughout the wider Anglophone world. And magazines such as Hungarian Review build bridges of understanding between different cultures and nations (which in recent years have corrected misunderstandings as much as fostered the mutual insights of different national cultures).
As I wrote above, small magazines are the neurons of civilisation. If that case needs to be made, it is made in this issue.
History? George Gömöri’s review of Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book on the Nazi- Soviet pact reminds us of the full significance of this well-named “Devils’ Pact”. It went far wider than cooperation for strategic advantage. In their treatment of the peoples of Poland, the Baltic Republics and Bessarabia, the Pact freed each of the totalitarian states to follow its natural impulses without restraint of law or treaty. Both then acted in the same barbaric fashion – invading nations on false pretexts, murdering whole classes of people in racial or class genocides, transporting thousands or millions of others to re-draw the borders of Europe, giving mutual economic aid to each other against the democratic Western powers. Those years – August 1939 to July 1941 – were the high-water mark of the totalitarian century. They ended because Hitler understood the logic of totalitarianism – there can be only one infallible truth of history – better than Stalin and betrayed him. That betrayal worked to Stalin’s advantage by permitting the Soviet Union to escape from its responsibility for the monstrous historical crimes of those years. Today President Putin avers that the Pact was not so bad; his actions in Ukraine suggest that he might even see it as a model. And that makes it all the more necessary for the rest of us not to allow it to be forgotten.
Science and culture? Our interview with E. Sylvester Vizi, the distinguished neuroscientist (and founder of the Friends of Hungary Foundation), discusses the role of culture in helping a nation wounded by history to revive its national spirit through learning and work without retreating into a defensive nationalism rooted in fear and distrust of other nations. Mr Vizi eloquently describes how he and his generation lived through a series of unparalleled national disasters from 1944 to1989. These disasters have left their mark on Hungary; they help to explain the persistence of an extreme and distorted nationalism in the country. Nor has Hungary reached safe harbour quite yet – several European crises won’t allow it to do so. Contrary to much superficial analysis among Western European intellectuals, however, Mr Vizi distinguishes between such a nationalism and a decent inclusive patriotism built on the Hungarian language, literature and learning.
There are some paradoxes in this patriotism: language may be the membership card of the Hungarian nation, but because Hungary is a small country, the same language inevitably restricts its cultural influence. Expatriates in Hollywood helped dramatists from Molnár to Lengyel (the original author of Ninotchka) to cross the border in linguistic disguise. Famously, however, no disguise was needed for Hungarian science and music. Hungarian music has had a worldwide impact without ceasing to be distinctly Hungarian. And Hungarian science has had a momentous impact on the world in this century – and by no means only in nuclear physics. When Mr Vizi argues for a welcoming attitude by Hungary to emigration, scientific cooperation, and building on the links with Hungarian diasporas as part of any policy for making Hungary a scientific and cultural power-house, he is pushing on several open doors.
And, finally, strategy? In the second of two coolly realistic appreciations of Central Europe’s place in the new geo-politics, Tamás Magyarics offers the prudent advice that if Hungary and its neighbours want to combine national sovereignty with the advantages of European Union membership, they should probably aim for a more decentralised EU in a wider Atlanticist setting. That question has suddenly become an urgent one, moreover, in the light of a possible Brexit following the recent British election. If Central Europe wants such an outcome, then it should probably demonstrate to the Brits a firm support for it – or risk watching a potential ally for such a looser Europe head for the door marked independence.
That accounts for a mere four articles in a richly-crowded magazine. If necessary, I could have written five or six more editorials drawing on other pieces. Even the selecting – or rather the excluding – was painful.
The New Yorker used to have a unique method of composing their cartoons. One person would draw the cartoon; another would provide the caption. This worked surprisingly well, though writers such as James Thurber, James M. Cain and Dorothy Parker guaranteed a high minimum standard under any method. Still, I wonder if the best method for writing a small magazine editorial might not combine asking one writer to nominate the articles covered and another to weave references to them into a seamless argument. For on some occasions the Associate Editor’s indecision is final.