Reading Nicholas Parsons’ Civilisation and Its Malcontents – Essays on Our Times,1 its 462 rather generously packed pages. I felt a thrill: the thrill of racing through the highways of what Eric Weinstein dubbed as the Intellectual Dark Web, where there is no speed limit to thought.
What is in the book that makes it so special? Let me start with what it does not have: no processed or pre-packaged ideas; no bias, no preconceptions, no political tribalism, rather the examination of discontents on both sides; no tight focus, no “grievance studies”; no chanting of hollow mantras or slogans; no “virtue signalling”, since the unapologetic critical examination of events and ideas is a virtue that needs no signalling. In other words, not only is it original throughout, but as John O’Sullivan puts it in his “Foreword”, it is the “articulation of a consistent moral and political outlook”, written in a “wonderfully melodious” style. Moreover, with its clear argumentation, it helps its readers clear up many terms and distinctions purposefully left hazy and foggy by others, while it also widens our perspectives, by putting the examined issues and topics into larger intellectual, international or historical contexts.
Out of many virtues of this collection of essays written over the last decade or so, I would only like to discuss three: the diversity of its topics, the wider intellectual/ international perspectives and the treatment of language.
First, the diversity of topics. What are the essays about? Here is a long yet still incomplete list: Islam, “Islamophobia”; the EU; Central Europe; bien pensant liberal discourse; Viktor Orbán; Protestantism in Hungary; Austrian identity; travel guides and Baedekers; fashion and the nouveaux riches; the removal or relocation of statues; the canon; the joys of bad poetry; the author’s own intellectual heroes, among them some not properly appreciated figures such as Pascal Bruckner, Norman Douglas, Ian Greenlees, Norman Stone and the poet William McGonagall. And finally, we have poetry, Parsons’ own poetry marking the section breaks.
Second, the wider intellectual and/or international contexts Parsons places his topics into. To start with, we have the title that evokes Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents; naturally, Parsons’ focus is different, departing from the narrowly sexual approach to the persons who are “malcontents” due to the proliferating forms of current authoritarian orthodoxy. Moreover, many of the essay titles offer associations with canonical texts; among these, the chapter title “Elective Affinities and Desire for Recognition” is associated with Goethe, “Augustin Agonistes” with Milton, “The Balkans without a Baedeker” with T. S. Eliot, “Tyrannical Schoolmaster” with D. H. Lawrence, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” with Buñuel, “The Devil’s Dictionary” with Ambrose Bierce, “I Remember, I Remember” with Thomas Hood. This particular set of readings evoked by such elegant authorial gestures represents the common cultural heritage Parsons’ thinking is grounded in.
As to the international contexts, Parsons places each phenomenon into a wider perspective, highlighting the double standards applied by the liberal Left. For example, when discussing the charges against Viktor Orbán, he draws attention to comparable policies introduced by British, Austrian or US governments, or points out the double standards of liberal critics concerning the Hungarian Prime Minister’s closing the international borders of Hungary to curb illegal immigration, the religious law banning bogus sects from claiming tax breaks and subsidies, the drafting of a new constitution, his holding the banks accountable, or setting the retirement age of judges.
On the contentious issue of demands for the removal of statues, Parsons distinguishes between damnatio memoriae, the Roman phrase for obliterating the memory of persons whose legacy the current ruling powers wish to remove from consciousness, and the resurrection or erection of monuments whose contribution is now thought to be more appropriate. In Budapest you have both phenomena, the sensible (and pioneering) placing of Communist era statues in a special open air museum and the restoration of statues such as that of Count Gyula Andrássy in front of the Parliament, as well as the commissioning of some historically controversial new monuments. Hungary had already experienced its damnatio memoriae moment in 1956 with the jubilant hacking down of the mega-statue of Stalin. In Vienna and Oxford similar historical cleansing has also been under way, generally on the initiative of activists.
Lastly, on Parsons’ clarity of language. The author is clearly part of the Orwell tradition, which places great emphasis on the clarity of language, “the mirror of clear thought” (77). Parsons cites Orwell’s dictum, “when words lose their meaning, men lose their freedom” (77). Indeed, one cannot have it both ways in the sense Herbert Marcuse insisted with his coinage “repressive tolerance”, squeezing into the meaning of a phrase its contradiction, thereby creating an oxymoronic trope with an open-ended propagandistic implication. As the author convincingly argues, this desire to use words in new meanings is exactly what happens today in the discourse of the bien pensant rhetoric of the liberal Left, who seem to use such semantic appropriation as a form of control. To illustrate the “ongoing struggle for ‘ownership’ of words” Parsons cites Pablo Iglesias, leader of the radical leftist Spanish party Podemos, saying, “Reality is defined by words. So whoever owns the words, has the power to shape reality” (344). In other words, language is a tool of manipulation: the “ownership” of words brings about the power to shape reality and control thinking.
This desire to “own the words” reminds us of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, who declares himself to be the master of language:
“When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone,
“it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is”, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many
“The question is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
On a more serious note, one is reminded of Imre Kertész, the Hungarian Nobel laureate writer and Holocaust survivor. Always sensitive to crimes of language, he identified such efforts to narrow or change semantics in order to fit a special agenda as characteristic of the language of Nazi Germany. Kertész insisted that such totalitarian language is characterised by a whole vocabulary fabricated in order to mislead people as to the true nature of affairs and with the purpose to brainwash those who had not yet been converted. In such instances, language dictators are trying to cover up the real meaning instead of articulating it. Kertész calls this process “stylisation”: the hypocritical tactfulness of evading truth because of its violent brutality.2
And of course we could cite George Orwell himself, who offered the wittiest examples of the fictional vocabulary of Communist dictatorship. In 1984, he demonstrates that new meanings are manufactured by the Party in such a way that familiar meanings of existing words are extended so that they include new, most often contradictory meanings. As we read in the Appendix attached to the novel, “The Principles of Newspeak”, some words “mean almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean”3 (252). Among these words he lists joycamp, Minipax and prolefeed, meaning “forced labour-camp”, “Ministry of War” and “rubbishy entertainment and spurious news which the Party handed out to the masses”, respectively.4
By this principle, the job of the Ministry of Truth is to fabricate lies; of the Ministry of Love to spread hatred; of the Ministry of Peace (Minipax) to wage war; and of the Ministry of Plenty to bring about starvation. Indeed, Communist totalitarianism has successfully extended total power’s total control to what and how words mean.
The trope of extending the meanings of existing words so that they gain new meanings is called catachresis, which is a most original and innovative trope in poetry. Yet while it vitalises poetry, it will only create (deliberate) confusion when used in political discourse disobeying the principle of the clarity of language. Moreover, if the reader or listener is unaware of what is going on, the author’s or speaker’s manipulation will be successful.
What words are we talking about? For one, progress, a term that is being hijacked by radical liberal discourse as the term for self-identification. Hence, progressives, the progressive movement. Countering this leftist impulse to appropriate progressivism, Parsons presents progressive thinking in its complexity, insisting that that there are two forms of progress, two strands of progressive thinking. As an example of these two forms of thinking, he points at the two views behind the migration crisis, both of which can be interpreted as progressive: “the first stresses that Europe is morally obliged to open its doors to would-be immigrants, partly because of its past misdeeds”, while “another strand of progressive thinking firmly believes that the EU represents a gold standard of democracy, freedom and tolerance, a standard whose expression in terms of what is permissible may not be shared by immigrants if it conflicts with their religious dogmas or social customs” (8–9). But while leftist orthodoxy excludes the latter from the progressive group, it is willing to include Muslims, some of whom, as Parsons points out, “do not hunger for pluralism and democracy” (51), or do not endorse freedom of speech, tolerance of other beliefs, female emancipation, or the separation of religion from political governance (52), and have not adjusted to secularism (61).
Victimhood is another concept where meanings get blurred. Often, social groups are portrayed as victims of oppression, when actually they themselves act as would-be oppressors. This is the case with Radical Islam, where Parsons cites Pascal Bruckner’s view that it speaks two languages, that of the victim, and that of the executioner (86). The relationship to the West even of ordinary Muslims is also somewhat contradictory, since on the one hand they are devotees of a religion that believes it has a mission to overthrow the irreligious West, while on the other hand many such devotees are desperate to settle there for its economic attractions, if not always its freedoms. In all these matters the liberal media – which repeatedly refers to migrants not as illegal, nor even, as of now, as economic migrants but more often than not as refugees or asylum seekers – is complicit (142) in not describing things as they actually are.
To continue the list of words that have been commandeered recently, one might cite names of leftist “virtue signalling” such as human rights, diversity, equality, social justice, fairness, and a “whole lexicon of words associated with the politics of victimhood and identity” (358). In other cases clarifications are evaded, as for example when the role of NGOs is being left unclear; as Parsons, mobilising Bruckner’s argument again, points out that these organisations – “unelected, well-funded and immensely influential” – which represent “a democratic deficit in our political arrangements”, should be held accountable by the press, otherwise they may constitute “a strange perversion” of democracy (78).
And finally, such desire to “own language” – or be the master, as Humpty Dumpty wished – certain words are banned by the liberal Thought Police. Parsons cites the amusing case of the Austrian historian who called the change of Hungary’s official name to Magyarország an “act of provocative nationalism”, forgetting not only about other countries’ names bearing the same morpheme (land/ország) but also about the fact that ország does not mean Reich (empire) as he asserted, while his own native Austria is called Österreich in German. And the Thought Police goes even further when it blacklists words to embargo critiques of Islam, and stigmatises critics (e.g. calling them “Islamophobic”) who are of different opinion. So much for freedom of speech.
* * *
In closing I would like to say a few words about Parsons’ own poetry that separates the various thematic sections. These are self-reflective lyrical pieces inspired by some known poetic styles – that of the Vienna street balladeer Augustin, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hood – and reflecting on private and public daily events, travels and thought processes, while interspersed among these poems we have his bravura translation of Hungarian poet Attila József’s “The Seventh” (“A hetedik”). The lyric piece that most clearly stands out is Parsons’ summa vitae style long poem, “I Remember, I Remember”, written as “an autobiographical pastiche” in the voice of 19th century Thomas Hood. This “backward glance o’er travel’d roads” poem, to refer to a similar piece by Whitman, takes a sweeping glance over the past, giving a lyrical assessment of life’s memorable events. All this by a man with an unassuming modesty only intellectuals of the highest order possess. He presents his marriage to a Hungarian woman (the art historian Ilona Sármány) as the determining moment of his life, bringing about “the great adventure” as well as his inevitable struggle with the culture and the language.
So began the great adventure
That many praise and some disparage:
Night owl turns to homing pigeon –
I speak, of course, of ‘marriage’.
I learned the Magyar faith
All masochists must master –
For every day that brings success
Another brings disaster. (461)
Well, if this is any consolation, we Hungarians have had trouble understanding the “Magyar faith” as well, the bone-deep divisions within the body of the nation and the extremities of temper ranging from cheerful optimism to the darkest black Irish mood, from the uplifting sense of mission to suicidal submission. But it is clear from reading Nicholas Parsons’ book that his mastering of Hungarian history, culture and politics has brought no “disaster”, only “success” – success for the benefit of us all.
(This is an edited version of the presentation given at the launch event of Parsons’ book organised by Hungarian Review and the Danube Institute, 8 October 2020, at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. See: Nicholas T. Parsons, Civilisation and Its Malcontents. Essays on Our Times. Budapest: Hungarian Review, 2019.)
1 Budapest, Hungarian Review, 2020. 476 pp.
2 Kertész, Imre. “Who Owns Auschwitz?” Trans. John. MacKay, The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001): 267–272. p. 268.
3 Orwell, George. 1984, New York: Signet Classics, 1949/1961. p. 252.