For almost a century “crossing the frontier” has been an almost omnipresent metaphor in poetic and intellectual life. That should not perhaps astonish us in the aftermath of a war that first destroyed the frontiers dividing Europe and then drew new ones in the devastated continent. Frontiers and the states they enclosed could hardly seem so “natural” in this world of new maps.
Given that the frontiers of Hungary were altered more than any other single European non-imperial state, Hungarian writers might have been among the most radical advocates of frontier crossing. Hungarian socialists were indeed so to the extreme extent of favouring the abolition of national frontiers. But they had little influence in the Hungary of their day, largely because they were living in Moscow at the time. Otherwise Hungarian opinion on frontiers was beyond conservative. It was passionately restorationist. The Treaty of Trianon (1920) symbolised amputation, loss, shame, and the duty of recovery. Frontiers had to be crossed, certainly, but only for the purpose of firmly entrenching authentic ones.
It was the English, above all W. H. Auden, who pioneered the metaphor of frontier crossing as early as 1929. In Auden’s poetry, admittedly, the frontiers to be crossed were only rarely national ones. Mostly they were frontiers of law, custom, morality, class and sexuality. Sometimes a frontier, once crossed, offered refuge from the oppression of the domestic Enemy. Sometimes that Enemy was seeking the frontier as refuge from revolution at home (he wouldn’t get it). Sometimes necessity compelled the revolutionaries to invade across frontiers that represented dying values or outmoded class loyalties. But since patriotism was supposedly one of those dying values, sometimes the frontiers to be crossed or simply ignored were national ones too.
Both communists and fascists routinely ignored frontiers when it was in their interest to do so, most famously in the Spanish civil war. But communists were more consistent in doing so. Fascists supposedly believed in the frontiers they violated; for communists frontiers were bourgeois illusions that obscured the only true reality of class conflict. They had an armoury of mechanical arguments that served, like tanks, to flatten frontier posts and to coerce nations into becoming provinces of an ideology. In the old joke, they spoke Esperanto like natives.
They have vanished into history (well, almost), but their arguments have survived in only slightly edited form to suit new occasions and new masters.
This Hungarian Review is devoted to the topic of frontier crossing in some of its innumerable forms. Both Norman Stone’s tracking down of those Hungarians who penetrated into the hearts of the Ottoman Empire and Central Asia and the letters of the young John Maynard Keynes from the Hungary and Vienna of the Habsburg Empire just before its fall tell us a great deal about the worlds shaped by real frontiers. Except in extreme cases (Tibet, Yemen), those frontiers preserve cultural differences but their worlds are not impermeable to those of either an adventurous or an epicurean temperament. Keynes’s letters home are hardly important; they are upgraded versions of “what I did on my vacations”. But they show a sophisticated man’s friendly curiosity about societies that are close to him culturally – his praise for Vienna’s German culture actually understates that city’s frontier crossings in science, literature and philosophy in 1912 – but also different in a hundred little ways from military uniforms at tea parties to lower levels of sexual puritanism. Norman Stone’s Hungarian adventurers not only enjoy the exotic Islamic worlds of the Ottoman Empire and Central Asia, they help to modernise, defend and even govern them – that last requiring conversion to Islam. Presumably Istanbul was worth a khutbah – even a pilgrimage to Mecca.
In both cases frontiers produced neither hostility nor incomprehension but a delight in the exotic and unfamiliar. This in turn prompts a regret that the march of commerce, despite its other real advantages such as the reduction of poverty, is replacing much of that local exoticism with Western brand names. Commerce within a strong culture is a boon; commerce that drowns a genuine living culture under tasteless images, advertising slogans and silly-clever epigrams is a wasteland.
Just such a wasteland is mapped out by Nicholas T. Parsons in his essay on the commodification of culture in the art world. Simply put, today’s art market in London and New York has had all the landmarks of taste, beauty and meaning eradicated and judgement on a painting or sculpture reduced to a single question: what did it cost? What it is worth in a wider non-financial sense has no meaning in such a world. To ask for a different or higher standard from within art and its history is to confess oneself a philistine. That charge has no discernible negative effect other than a reduction in the alleged philistine’s self-esteem, but he pays millions of dollars to avoid it.
Still worse, this financial standard for art is embraced not only by the well-dressed hucksters but also by the artists themselves. Arguably, they go beyond the hucksters in proclaiming the utter meaninglessness of art or the futility of trying to establish its independent existence separate from other human activities. Artists even denounce their own work without this having any apparent downward impact on sales (though that sometimes happens anyway as a result of changing fashion). Outright fraud and criminality naturally flourish in a world without criteria of non-financial value. The end result is rather like a new version of the Emperor’s new clothes in which the Emperor himself tells everyone he is naked after which they enthusiastically order the new clothes. That is the reality of an art world without frontiers: when all is art, then art is abolished.
More insidious dangers exist in relation to morality. When we talk in positive terms of crossing moral frontiers, we think of such things as reforming laws that criminalise homosexuality. Most religious believers no longer support such laws; they are willing, even eager, to reconsider their old moral prohibitions. Yet however mistaken particular moral rules may be, a general disposition to challenge them must always be dangerous because it undermines the long social effort to direct human nature towards the good (or at the very least towards the respectable). It is, above all, imprudent and it thinks too little of risking unintended consequences. At the start of the 20th century, highly educated people began to think that they could dispense with traditional moral rules in creating a better world. In his latest instalment of “War and Art”, however, Árpád Kadarkay underscores the hideous paradox that the two most bloodthirsty tyrants of the 20th century were well-read bibliophiles devoted to their own distorted ideas of truth, beauty and human betterment. Yet as Kadarkay points out, in Hitler’s case this led to his committing suicide in an underground cave after dictating a last testament that called for the destruction of Germany and the creation of “a desert, void of civilisation”. Kadarkay comments: “He no longer knew any moral boundaries; a man to whom the end of his own life meant the end of Germany.”
For a while Hitler seemed to have succeeded. But Germany recovered because it was composed of Germans who gradually rebuilt their home on different (i.e. liberal democratic) lines. He succeeded in a different sense, however, because he made not only German leaders but also European leaders both suspicious of their own people and afraid to love their homes. The results are, first, a multiculturalism that divides nations into many ethnicities and, second, a hostile attitude to national borders and national cultures which, in recent days, has been aggravated by a general invitation to migrants from outside Europe. In response there has erupted a kind of non-military invasion over undefended or weakly defended borders by migrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East with very different religious views and cultural patterns from those of European countries. As yet these migrants are numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but the pool from which they come amounts potentially to hundreds of millions of people, if not billions. What then? As Christopher Caldwell asked in his 2009 book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: “Can Europe be the same with different people in it?” Unless these migration flows are reduced, halted, or even reversed, Europe risks becoming a truly different place, a fully borderless society, lacking not only national borders but also unifying national cultures, where the unifying European culture is not to permit one. It would be at best a marketplace, at worst a Lebanon or series of Lebanons.
Numerous rationalisations have been minted to justify this official recklessness. It was said that it was illegal for nations such as Hungary to refuse entry to migrants; then Denmark did so, and the complaint ceased. Then it was argued that fences could not block entry; then the fence was built – and copied by other countries to which the migrant inflows had been diverted. Now it is triumphantly explained that the migrants are in fact an economic benefit, maybe a necessity, to the recipient countries. Even in the best of circumstances, that claim is shown to be false when the rise in population is taken into account. Innumerable studies have long shown that though total GDP may increase following a rise in immigration, there is either no increase or a miniscule one in income and wealth when the figures are calculated on a per capita basis. In other words, native-born citizens get no economic benefit from migration. But current circumstances are not the best. As Eric Weede carefully documents, the migrants arriving in Germany, for instance, tend to have less education, fewer skills, and less adaptability to a complex modern economy like Germany than the German worker or – one might add – than the unemployed either in Germany or in other Eurozone countries devastated by the euro. They won’t have the beneficial impact claimed for them.
Otto Hieronymi provides us with a subtle and sure guidebook through this economic, social and moral maze. And though no one is spared criticism, it is clear that Western European political orthodoxy must bear the lion’s share of blame. He is seconded by the American commentator, Adam Garfinkle, in a despatch from Germany in The American Interest about the misplaced social moralism of the German elite:
The Left’s normative seizure of Germany is truly amazing. Even the Chancellor, who by German standards is far from a raving leftist, appears to firmly believe that everyone must be a multiculturalist for moral reasons, and that all people who want to preserve the ethno-linguistic integrity of their communities – whether in Germany or in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere – are acting out of base motives … [But] that is not racism in Europe any more than nervousness about immigrants is racism here in the United States. Wanting one’s own community to be a certain way is not aggressively or actively prejudicial against others, any more than declining to give money to a beggar on a city street is morally equivalent to hitting him in the head with a crowbar. It is simply preferring the constituency of a high-social trust society, from which, social science suggests, many good things come: widespread security, prosperity, and a propensity toward generosity being prominent among them.
“Good fences make good neighbours”? It was, of course, the American poet, Robert Frost, who wrote those lines, and they are not a simple response to Auden’s frontier crossings. Frost’s flinty neighbour speaks the words; the poet himself seems to regret the necessity for walls rather than celebrating them. But fences are certainly necessary to well-kept gardens, as also to private spaces, and to unorthodox opinions. When Ukrainians rose against Putin in the Maidan, it was to grasp at free and decent politics as much as to entrench national independence.
In 1968 a very different Auden condemned the flattening of one frontier and, still more, the lies and mechanical language in which it was justified:
The Ogre does what ogres can, Deeds quite impossible for Man, But one prize is beyond his reach, The Ogre cannot master Speech: About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips, While drivel gushes from his lips.
Drivel still gushes, but today thinly, and from West to East. And to be candid, this Ogre hasn’t been looking his best lately.