MEDITATION ON THE 1956 MONUMENT IN BUDAPEST

As it so happens, due to the circumstances of my life at the moment I drive almost daily down Dózsa György street, one of the main avenues of Budapest. I have therefore driven past the monument built in 2006 in commemoration of the Revolution of 1956 several hundreds of times. Rarely have I taken much notice of it, and when it happened to catch my eye, I usually just cast a scornful glance at the forest of rusty iron columns that are gradually more densely packed as they approach a triangular wedge of solid walls piercing the road. Even without taking into consideration the political circumstances of the construction of the monument (which was erected under a government led by the Socialist Party, the Prime Minister of which was justifiably regarded not as an heir to the Revolution, but rather as a successor to those who were complicit in its suppression), I felt a strong antipathy to it. It struck me as a typical work of provocatively unappealing art that expressed some arbitrary notion of the artist, a notion probably not entirely clear to the artist himself.

II

One sunny spring morning the rusty columns finally bore their way into my thinking as well. In the space of a moment I felt the powerful dynamism created by the tension between the rusty bars and the flat triangle. I could not help but reflect on it. Half consciously, I had always known that the columns were intended to represent the people who had taken part in the uprising, while the wall represented the outcome. But at that moment I came to understand what before I had only known. In a few minutes many different interpretations were swirling in my head, creating different levels of signification.

In spite of the highly abstract nature of the monument, the way in which the columns become increasingly dense as they approach the flat surface offers an almost figurative image of a crowd, with people scattered at the periphery and thronging in the centre. When some object arouses people’s curiosity, it leads to the formation of a kind of “human geometry”. In his Italian Journey, for instance, after having visited the arena in Verona Goethe writes brilliantly on the origins of the amphitheatre. The geometry of the amphitheatre, however, is suited to something arresting but fleeting, something that captures the interest of the audience, but vanishes just as suddenly.

The human geometry of this monument is different: it creates a slice of a circle. This is because it offers a visual rendering of a very different process, that of a crowd gathering with a common purpose, moved by a will deeply rooted in people’s lives and dreams. This is the precondition of any revolution: a moment that can never quite be foreseen, when ideas and emotions that existed before only inside people’s minds (usually carefully guarded out of fear) suddenly find outward expression and radically reorganize people’s relations to one another, and create of them a new geometrical figure. No doubt the rise of this sort of figure is almost as unexpected as the formation of a crowd gathering around an accident. But this figure is not static, on the contrary it is highly dynamic. The slice of a circle has a direction, it is in motion. It exists not only in space, but in time. It has one more dimension and therefore a higher degree of reality.

My first and fundamental perception concerned the tension between the forest of columns and the wedge of solid wall. On more attentive examination one notices that the wall itself is far from homogeneous. At the beginning of the wall we find protrusions – the last remains of the columns. Later they disappear and the wall becomes as smooth as ice. There is no sign of the wall arising out of individual columns. We can also see a parallel change of the material. Towards the point of the wedge it becomes increasingly bright. At the very end it is the least rusty. While the columns seem to be aging (they were made of a kind of iron that is rapidly corroding), the material at the point of the wedge seems as unchangeable as possible. It has no age and therefore does not express an event, but rather an idea. It clearly represents the consequences of a historical process and the birth of an idea and of common memory. It grasps the ungraspable: an idea in time, or even the birth of an idea in the flow of time, of history.

In my view, this is a fundamental law that governs history. And this is the real relationship between contingent individual human life and ideas, values, and symbols that arise as a consequence of contingencies and then influence later generations. I could not help but conclude that the monument, which I earlier had dismissed, expressed this fundamental truth ingeniously.

III

I felt I had to speak to someone about this experience. But I was alone. I had no one to talk to. And then I heard a voice from deep inside me, the voice of my father, who had died two years before the monument was erected. He had been one of the more fortunate ones, as he had spent only one year in a detention camp following the suppression of the revolution. He was indignant at having overheard my ruminations, and we got into a long debate. As the experience was strong and vivid in me, I did my best, and I was quite eloquent in my attempt to make him understand my point, but not successful. He had always been an intelligent and rational man, open to calm debate and able to understand other people’s points of view. In this case, however, this rational understanding was of absolutely no use.

He said he appreciated my idealistic view of history, and though he himself thought there was a little too much philosophy in it and too little historical reality, he would be willing to read one of my little articles on the subject – but only if it had no pictures of the ugly monument, which seemed to pressure him to think, while he would have preferred to remember, to remember the most important events of his life, the miracle and the tragedy, the days when he had been happier than ever before and ever after and the days when he had suffered more than ever before and ever after, the almost unbelievable days when hundreds of thousands of people had taken a noble stand, ready to give their lives for freedom and their country, when money had been collected in unguarded boxes on the street, as the fervour and unity inspired by the Revolution proved a more steadfast sentry than a whole division. He did not want to see ugly, rusty columns representing these people – himself among them.

I replied that the monument expresses precisely this miracle of the Revolution.

I reminded him that he had mentioned to me several times how depressing it was to have to bear witness to the demoralization of the people during and after the war, and how moving it had been to see the same people rise to new moral heights within the space of a few hours, surpassing the dreams of the most radical idealists. This deepest and most important essence of the Revolution is given visual form in the transformation of the rusty columns into an almost improbably bright wedge.

This might well have been the artist’s intention, he conceded, and perhaps he and other intellectuals, some one per cent of society, might be able to understand rationally and even identify with it. But he was simply not willing to do so, for it had not been a Revolution of one per cent. At the time – as never before and never after – the one per cent had genuinely been united with the other 99 per cent, those who were the real heroes of the Revolution, workers from the outer reaches of the city, most of them very young, who in the course of the battles in the streets had defeated the armed forces of a totalitarian regime and later had struggled with unbelievable bravery and success against the Soviet army, even managing to destroy dozens of tanks. These people, he insisted, would never understand my abstract interpretations or the abstract ideas of clever artists.

But then how, I asked, should one go about designing a monument that suits the cultural norms and values of people who have absolutely no sensitivity to the arts? How could one ever fashion a work of art that would be acceptable and accessible to everyone?

I am not saying that everyone should like the monument, but it is unacceptable to exclude precisely those people who played the most important roles in the Revolution by using an artistic language they don’t speak.

But what language should have been used, I asked. The language of monuments built a century earlier?

I don’t know, he said. I am no artist. No doubt it’s a difficult question. But you should either find a good answer or not build any monument at all.

I left without replying.

IV

My father’s arguments were sound. They did not, however, alter my experience. The two attitudes, my father’s essentially moral response and my artistically and intellectually positive experience, seemed irreconcilable. I went back to the monument to reflect. I tried to imagine how it could be modified so as to make it acceptable to my father, or rather to those whom he represented. I considered making it a bit more figurative. I tried to imagine how it might look if it had been made with softer materials. I imagined columns resembling statues which might perhaps make the whole monument more appealing to the teenager heroes of the Revolution, now roughly seventy years old. I tried hard to persuade myself that the task was not insolvable, but having realized that I had been unsuccessful in my efforts, I blamed myself for lacking imagination. I am not an artist, after all. How could I possibly improve the monument?

So I turned to other, more qualified people for help. I read some of the critical responses to the monument. I read about how according to some it had been overly influenced by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. I read about how the artists themselves had reached some of their decisions, and about the other possibilities they had pondered when reflecting on the details. It was interesting to discover how other artists would have solved some of the challenges, how they would have designed the monument. I knew very well, however, that the task was insurmountable. Any alteration that might make the monument more popular would harm the idea behind it. The two attitudes really are irreconcilable. My father and I were unable to reach a compromise.

V

But why? It would be easy to offer an answer if it were merely a question of artistic tastes. I do not think I am “right”, after all, when I like a work of art that others find uninteresting, or the other way around. There are works of art that I recognize as ingenious but do not really like, and there are others of which I am very fond that I realize are less brilliant. In his book on Rossini, whose music he adores, Stendhal includes a sentence from which it is clear that he realized that the real genius of his time was Mozart. But in this case the difference of approach was not merely a question of artistic tastes so much as divergent philosophies, philosophies that might well be mutually exclusive.

After further reflection I came to understand that the two attitudes are not two (right or wrong, valid or invalid) views, the origins of which lie outside the monument itself. Indeed I realized that the monument cannot be interpreted from the outside. Nor was this simply a case of the so-called “hermeneutic circle”, the notion according to which the observer is always in a relationship of mutual implication with the object of knowledge. In this case we ourselves must find our position in the monument. The difference between my response and my father’s was not a matter of two differing interpretations, but lay rather in the fact that we occupy different times in the monument. My father and I are both in it, because we are both part of the history it represents.

I am, I realize, somewhere at the point of the wedge, where the real events of a real history are transubstantiated into pure ideas. Reflecting on what had taken place in me when I had grasped the idea of the monument that sunny spring morning, I was compelled to face the fact that at the moment at which I had come to understand the monument, none of the particular details of the Revolution had come to mind. The monument did not call forth stories from the days of the uprising, though I had heard many such stories from members of my father’s generation. Neither did I recall much of the more abstract discussions concerning the Revolution, though I myself had participated in many. No, the monument reminded me of my own earlier meditations on history and the relationship between ideas and historical contingencies. Essentially the monument simply gave visual expression to ideas, more or less clear, that were particularly dear to me. A general idea, presumably inherent in history, was given material form. The unique historical event, however, did not play a role of any particular importance. On the contrary, the very precondition of grasping the idea was that the events themselves recede into eternity. The bright, inanimate texture of the point of the wedge expresses this clearly.

I could say, at least, that in this experience the nature of revolutions was important to me, but not the “annus mirabilis” (the term used by András Szesztay for the Revolution) itself, which had been some four years before my birth. I could even say that at the point of the monument I myself occupy the 1956 Revolution itself is already “dead”. It is not present, but rather always past. Or to put it more precisely, it had never been alive for me, because I myself had not been alive when it had taken place.

My father occupies a different position. No amount of knowledge concerning the nature of revolutions can ever compete with the single event itself, the days which had more presence than anything else ever would, a kind of present par excellence that would never be eclipsed by later presents. But he was somewhere in the middle. On the one hand he could identify himself in the form of one of the rusty columns, but on the other he knew a great deal about the formation of the idea. When he spoke about the revolution, memory and reflection were more or less in equilibrium. The process of interpretation arrived at a rather distant point in his case. The events began to be transformed into ideas in his mind.

I am quite certain that the simple people on whose behalf my father decided not to interpret the monument as I would have wanted him to (and as he himself could have done) occupy a position even more distant in the monument. They continued to live exclusively in the events of the Revolution. They never transcended them, and even if they had wanted to, they never could have forgotten them. They had been imprisoned not for a single year, as my father had been, but rather for five or six. And while in the state prisons they had not had the luxury of intellectually inspiring company (“the best university I ever attended was the detention camp”, as my father put it). And later, with a few exceptions, they had been persona non grata for the rest of their lives, and often must have been profoundly miserable.

VI

My first experience of the monument was that of its dynamism. Now I experienced it in a very different way. I felt the irresistible pull of the position where I had been placed by objective facts, and evidently that of the other positions where representatives of other attitudes had been placed as well. Each possible interpretation is bound to one of the “times” in the monument, and the different times form a solid, unalterable structure. While my first impression was one of freely travelling back and forth in history and also upwards to the sphere of semi-Platonic ideas, as things became more serious I had to find my place in the monument. For a time this effort seemed to offer some relief in my struggle with the two irreconcilable views. Could this understanding, i.e. the realization of the strictly historical determination of our attitudes, not play a role similar to that of the principle of freedom in aesthetic judgment?

It cannot. First and foremost, this would eventually necessitate the construction of at least a dozen monuments, different ones for different generations and more or less educated layers of society. The idea is ridiculous not simply for practical reasons. The “private monuments” would necessarily be enclosed in spaces from which on one would not be able to see the other monuments. The realization one experiences of necessarily belonging to a specific position in the monument is prompted precisely by the structure of the whole. It teaches us that we cannot leave our position, but also that we can see the positions occupied by others. Or do we have to? Who has to? All of us? No doubt those still living in the events, those unable to reflect on them, never will. It would be arrogant and possibly cynical to expect them to. My father, somewhere in the middle of the monument, made the wise decision to identify himself with those on the periphery, rather than with me. Those of us who are at the edge should do the same. We are the ones who can and must see the whole of the monument.

This means that the original geometric figure becomes a new sense. As a visualization of the events and the conception of an idea in history, the direction of the figure is from the periphery of the slice of the circle towards the point of the triangle. This depicts what actually happened. In the reflection, the direction changes. We can only see backwards. The whole can only be perceived from the vantage point of the end. Accordingly, different moments in time demand different virtues. There were those who had to be brave and there were others who later had to bear their sufferings with patient endurance. For those who came after the idea itself had been given life through the bravery of others, the fundamental virtue must be humility, humility that sharpens our senses and enables us to see and understand.

VII

The monument gave rise to an emotional debate. In particular, representatives of organizations of those who had participated in the Revolution were against it. This tension was aggravated by the fact that the monument was erected at one of the “holy places” of the Revolution (if not the holiest), where the grotesquely huge and imposing statue of Stalin had been pulled down at the beginning of the uprising. Proposals were made to demolish the monument or relocate it to the park on the fringes of the city where statues erected under communism are kept in a sort of open air museum. One also heard the arrogant refusal of the critics who dismissed as barbarous the views of those who could not understand the highly abstract monument and felt that it insulted their memories of the Revolution. The interpretation I have offered here perhaps helps one understand the extreme reactions on either side. But what should become of the monument? I can only come to the following conclusion: I would not condemn the removal of the monument from the current site in order to respect the lives and wills of the real heroes of our Revolution. But where should it be removed to? To a site of real significance, of real prominence, of real prestige in Budapest, a site worthy of a brilliant work of art that may help generations to come to better understand history, history in general and the history of Hungary in the 20th century.

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