WITHIN THE GRACE OF MEANING

The study of a national culture is, in essence, a search for beauty. To believe this we need not submit to romanticism or deny the cold realities with which history confronts us. Either in concert or isolation, mankind consistently contradicts utopia’s vainglory: our efforts are ever flawed. But beauty is what we may receive as part of our unearned place in the world; from the gifts of nativity, family, community, language, rooted custom, the rhythms of a land under heaven, revelation. What we ultimately cherish most in the world is what we have received, not self-oriented achievement or the boasts of the will. Who in old age would not swap adulation for one more meal cooked by mother?

The sharper the edges of an arrogant age become, and the more they impinge on our peace of mind and ability to truthfully survive, the greater the grace of what we are given becomes. And so it is our desire to ensure that others may likewise receive what we have; we wish to be those who conserve what matters and pass it on. This is the heart of cultures and the societies that cohere around them, even in days such as these. The centrality of reception and transmission in a culture trains our focus beyond the scope of a single era, self-centredness, passing abstraction, fashion, and artificiality.

Moreover, in the particularity and peculiar continuity of a culture is the ground of greater creativity and ingenuity than any civilization based on the pretence of abstract human omnipotence can foster. Preserving and passing on are far from robotic or passive duties. To manifest something perennial in the midst of a hostile present can be as painful as childbirth. It is always easier in the moment to bow only to the now. But looking backward as you press forward, channelling the wisdom of the ages in addressing the current—this is hard for us. It requires the mustering of humility as well as talent; reflection as well as expression. Within this context, a culture’s novel forms, developments, and unique moments can spring from and anchor themselves in a trans-generational collective consciousness.

* Author’s ‘Introduction’ to our recent book, Within the Grace of Meaning. Essays on Hungary in the Twentieth Century (Budapest: Hungarian Review, 2020), 242 p.

More than ever, therefore, the struggle to preserve particular cultures is a fight for meaning amid the technological life’s relentless unfurling. We daily face its insistence on impermanence; its intolerance for all that is not coldly abstract and quantified; and its glib and haughty universalism, based not on stillness before eternity but false objectivity. We are encouraged to believe that our modern views are formed by looking down on life from an Olympian height. In reality, we ever truly perceive our place on the earth from within and amongst its life, aware, if we dare, of the skies that will remain beyond our knowledge. We can only know what is generally true through what is particular. That is our access to meaning since it is the reverse of revelation’s trajectory. There is no use proclaiming to love all people if you despise your own.

The ferocity of abstract rationalism’s attack on subjectively rooted and perennial meaning did not begin in the twentieth century. But, particularly since the Great War, it has reached a boiling point from which it yet bubbles, spits, and overflows. ‘Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves’, Edmund Burke cautioned, 125 years before the First World War, in his Reflections on the French Revolution. ‘Compute your gains: see what is got by those extravagant and presumptuous speculations which have taught your leaders to despise all their predecessors, and all their contemporaries, and even to despise themselves until the moment in which they become truly despicable.’ Such a ledger would provide grim reading still.

In the second half of the century, it often seemed that the voices most powerfully raised against this trend came from within the Communist Bloc. Why was this? Firstly, behind the Iron Curtain, abstract rationalism could be both suffered and analysed in its starkest, most brutal and intolerant form. And particularly within the lands of Central Europe, thinkers had long found themselves not only at the frontiers and vanguard of clashing philosophies, but witnesses to their demise. Empires, ideas, and states—all with pretentions to immortality—had risen and fallen.

Surely that gave this part of the world both a valuable perspective and a healthy wariness. Its best intellectuals were not captive to Western Europe’s fashionable and self-indulgent moral relativism, and they had been inoculated against the utopianism of the left. But many also refused to accept that the solution lay in the importation of a rival utopia or an alternative abstraction. While London, Paris, and New York contained much for which the denizens of Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw were rightly impatient, the free world was not free from our era’s characteristic flaws. There could be no salvation in a thoughtless ‘westernization’.

‘The totalitarian systems warn of something far more serious than Western rationalism is willing to admit’, Václav Havel wrote in 1984. ‘They are, most of all, a convex mirror of the inevitable consequences of rationalism, a grotesquely magnified image of its own deep tendencies, an extreme offshoot of its own development and an ominous product of its own expansion. They are a deeply informative reflection of its own crisis. Totalitarian regimes … are the avant-garde of a global crisis of this civilization, first European, then Euro-American, and ultimately global.’1 In both its material and ideological developments, the three post-communist decades have more than vindicated this diagnosis.

In his last work, the great Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, who not only joined Havel in the Charter 77 protest but died as a result of the resulting persecution, considered that ‘the real question concerning the individual is not at issue between liberalism and socialism, between democracy and totalitarianism, which for all their profound differences equally overlook all that is neither objective nor a role’. As he explained, ‘a resolution of their conflicts cannot resolve the problems of setting humans in their place, resolving their wandering alienated from themselves and from the place that belongs to them’.2

In Hungary, the philosophical architect Imre Makovecz noted that ‘in both the east and the west [of Europe] societies are moving farther and farther away from nature in its original form. An atmosphere of impending tragedy is looming above us.’3 When interviewed in 1985, Makovecz reflected, ‘The most horrible danger of all is the process of losing presence, as well as the process of forgetting that is part and parcel of this’. He continued, ‘we all know it used to be a sacred tradition for each generation to build its activities upon those of the previous generations. It is very possible that, given another thirty years, all the basic objects and elements that would guarantee this sense of continuity will disappear.’4

And there was indeed an added dimension to the struggle for culture and meaning in Hungary’s long and lingering twentieth century. While its neighbours exited the cataclysm of the Great War with their national aspirations intact or enhanced, Hungary’s was savaged and denigrated. On the eve of this destruction, the last king of Hungary had been crowned in Buda, amidst a war that Hungary’s leaders had cautioned against. The legitimacy and authority, which this coronation conferred, briefly renewed this war-ravaged territory’s link to the foundation and animation of its independent existence—a Christian kingdom. The Trianon Peace Treaty’s subsequent injustice was sealed not just when Hungarian heartlands, communities, and families were ripped from their roots, but when the return of Hungary’s lawful king was declared a casus belli by the Little Entente that now surrounded it. In this way, European neighbours, fully supported by the great powers, barred Hungary from the basic continuity of its historical existence.

The rump of Hungary was, in other words, only permitted to survive as something other than its authentic self. What can a nation do when denied recourse to the most fundamental vessels of its continuity? In the inter-war years, many, while building a modus vivendi within the present, adopted the principle that also preserved hope from the defeat of the 1848 Revolution and War of Independence to the 1867 Ausgleich. ‘What violence robs us of, the fortune of time and circumstances may restore’, that compromise’s architect, István Deák, had counselled, ‘but if we ourselves give up our rights, they will be forever and irrevocably lost.’ The kingdom remained, for the time being, without a king, but hope lingered that the recent aberration of Trianon would be corrected.

This hope was smothered by the Second World War and its aftermath, with its two occupations. No nation or people come even close to purity and blamelessness, however victimized they have been, and Hungary is no different, as its own haunting national anthem affirms. Each must humbly reckon with their own sin. But it will also not be erased that while Regent Horthy clung still to the last strands of independence and legitimate rule in Hungary, he manfully resisted submission to the diktats of the Final Solution. It is not historical revisionism to recognize that only with the Nazi German occupation of March 1944 came those 142 trains from Hungary to Birkenau.5 This is a vital topic very well-covered elsewhere, but far less known abroad than those awful months are the first months of the succeeding Soviet occupation. Upon examination, it becomes clear that the post-war vengeance meted out upon Hungary in many respects exceeded that which even Germany suffered. Furthermore, in 1945 and 1946, both the United Kingdom and the United States naively assisted the Soviet Union in establishing the foundations of the crushing totalitarian dictatorship that lasted nearly half a century.

There is genuine deep grievance here, and in the events that follow, which weigh down the bones of those who must both bear it and acknowledge it as others dismiss or deny it. But while wound and grievance is the unavoidable and indeed essential context of Hungary’s twentieth century, it cannot be its theme. As dark as the century was, its harshest depths (at least within Hungary’s modern borders6) may well have been the years between March 1944 and June 1953, culminating in the knee-buckling Stalinist regime of Rákosi (which was not extinguished but mitigated by the death of Stalin and the subsequent temporary repudiation from Moscow of ‘Stalin’s best student’ in 1953). And yet it is precisely from under this darkness that two contrasting glories, for which Hungary became most known around the world, emerged.

Both the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Aranycsapat (the ‘golden’ national football team) of the early 1950s were, pedantically speaking, failures.7 But across the earth, both gave the old name of Hungary a new lustre. And they became banners of memory and identity around which national spirit could rekindle and find expression long after. Events since the Great War had, for many, hollowed out the connection between national past and present, leaving loss and humiliation in its place. But these were acts of a living people. As György Gömöri reflected in verse, forty years after 1956, ‘I could never before have said the word “Hungarian” / with my head raised so high or with such certainty / so conscious of my integrity as a human’.8

Some might find it inappropriate to thematically pair a sporting endeavour with an existential battle against an occupying empire. But since Western society became overwhelmed by urbanization and industrialization, the basis of modern sporting competition, the club, has become a new and significant vehicle of local cooperation, consciousness, and pride within so much else that churns and shifts. Indeed, it is this spirit that continues to sprout resistance to the money-grubbing, mercenary culture at the top of global sport in 2020. As local football clubs grew at the start of the last century, so too did the importance of the national teams to which they contributed. Local heroes became, in some cases, the nation’s foremost representatives.

But the crushing of the 1956 Revolution is widely believed, both within and without Hungary, to be the end of Hungarian football greatness. There are reasons to be cautious about this judgement. At the very least, it misses out a great part of the story, as the revolution saw the triumphant re-emergence of Hungarian football clubs’ local and rooted identities, which had been artificially distorted by the regime’s 1950 re-organization. After the revolution, this re-assertion of meaning remained.

Much else remained of Hungarian football’s rise to greatness since the 1920s too, and the idea of a 1956 ending does great injustice to the players and teams that followed. Soon to come, were golden ages for both Ferencváros—which included the emergence of Hungary’s greatest player not named Puskás, Flórián Albert, and the only European trophy for a Hungarian team (after a win in the final of the 1965 Fairs Cup over Juventus)—and Vasas. The national team that went to the 1966 World Cup were not equal to the Aranycsapat, but the latter is one of world football’s best ever—it cannot be a benchmark. Yet that ’66 team was a magnificent swashbuckling squad in the best Hungarian traditions, full of players who had been learning their craft in ’56, and who left a mark for the sporting ages in their victory over the world champions of Brazil. In the end, as the huge crowds and thrilling teams of the fifties and sixties testify, Hungarian football was its very best when people needed its succour the most.

Football was one way in which the communist regime found it could not indefinitely crush organic meaning beneath abstract ideological construction. The stakes were higher with Hungarians’ religious convictions, but ultimately we can see the same dynamic. Before Hungary’s communist regime was formed, Stalin had learned that a frontal assault on Christian churches was not the best way to pacify them as sources of resistance and contradiction. Following the Soviet lead, Hungary’s communists sought to co-opt church denominations, effectively absorbing them within the mechanisms of state bureaucracy. Church leaders who refused to serve a different master were persecuted and replaced. In most cases, a divide opened not between the regime and the denominations, but between denominational leaders, on the one hand, and lay people and local pastors, on the other.

Beneath the official structures, many believers refused to adhere to the distortion of theology and the denuding of their spiritual motivation. What made Billy Graham’s mission to Hungary in 1977 significant was that it enabled this quiet commitment and perseverance to bubble beautifully to the surface. The regime thought that Graham’s visit would affirm the wisdom of the official church– state relations that they had carefully constructed. But thousands of Hungarian Christians came to listen to this famous foreigner preach the gospel of Jesus Christ because it was this gospel and saviour to which they wished to hold fast. They did not doubt that it was the best hope for themselves and their neighbours.

Permanent meaning preserved and passed on through a culture’s generations has power beyond the present. But this hold is tangible in different ways for different cultures. All people look alike at the skies for orientation, but all understand their place in the world through the natural features that attach them to creation as a home. Therefore, one of the ways that the present can inflict great harm upon a culture’s grasp on continuity and meaning is by destroying or diminishing the natural inheritance it should vouchsafe. This is why the campaign against the destructive Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros dam system that flowered in the 1980s was such a vital manifestation of national principles and purpose.

This genuinely grass-roots campaign spread across disciplines, generations, and ideologies. Those who rallied to the cause of the Danube and its valleys as something more than a tool of man or a source of energy insisted that the despoliation of nature is an attack on the community that loves it, relies on it, and nurtures it. As they did so, they also helped to revive Hungarian civil society just as it would be summoned to the table. While other communist states had to wait until a climactic revolution for independent organization and thought finds its feet, Hungary entered 1989 with a civic flourishing that stood the country in good stead to face both solemn reckonings with the past and a negotiated path to the future. The Danube movement still instructs us that conserving nature is not the preserve of a partisan group and that patriotism is rooted in stewardship.

Years before, the great Hungarian poet Attila József had given voice to the Danube’s place in the Hungarian mind. ‘As if my heart had been its very source / Troubled, wise was the Danube, mighty force. … The Danube, which is past, present and future / entwines its waves in tender friendly clasps.’9 It is appropriate that József should muse like this on the Danube because Hungarian poetry has been the nation’s linguistic and literary river, carrying meaning and beauty through the years. Is there a European nation for which poetry has played such a prominent role as Hungary? Is there a capital city more adorned with memorials to poets than Budapest? It has surely been poets who have most acutely brought Hungary’s past, present, and future together.

Hungarian poets have simultaneously been both stewards and pioneers, and this has been their characteristic gift, in both senses of the word. ‘All previous—and in some mystical way, all future—poets were interlocutors, friends, intimates to the Hungarian poets’, concludes poet and translator Frederick Taylor. ‘We do not find in Hungarian the contemptuous and final rejections that characterized the darker side of English and French poetry—the English Romantics’ contempt for the Augustans, the modernists’ dismissal of the Georgians, the symbolists’ hauteur with respect to the Romantics, Eliot’s put-down of Milton. Even Ady comes to refresh, not destroy, the Magyar tradition.’ For example, writing Hungarian love poetry, ‘one became the intimate of the dead poets by taking up their ideas and feelings, internalizing them, and reincarnating them in a new century’s language … there is a continuous handing on of images and ideas and feelings, so that any Radnóti, József, or Nemes Nagy love poem is a veritable palimpsest of earlier poems in the genre’.10

When such men and women of talent use it with humility, seeking preservation and tribute in novelty, then there is beauty both in and through continuity. Without a whit of flippancy, we can see that even tragedy and defeat occur within the grace of meaning. Our very sense of the tragic is conditioned by our conviction of what is at stake in it, as well as our duty to remember and commemorate.

One of the great poets of the twentieth century, Miklós Radnóti, lived his final harrowing weeks in a labour battalion force-marched from Bor, in occupied Serbia, back into Hungary. During those last days, he wrote ten poems in his native tongue within a small notebook, which nestled in his pocket when he was shot and buried in a mass grave on 4 November 1944. One year and a half later, Radnóti’s body was exhumed and his notebook found. Exquisite in both form and expression, inked on paper with death all around, closed up in the earth, these poems have remained. ‘Is there a land still, tell me’, he had written, ‘where this verse form has meaning?’11

1 Václav Havel, ‘Politics and Conscience [1984]’, in Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965–1990 (New York: Knopf, 1991).

2 Jan Patočka, ‘Is Technological Civilization Decadent, and Why?’, in Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, translated by Erazim Kohák (Chicago: Open Court, 2006), 115–16.

3 János Gerle, Architecture as Philosophy: The Works of Imre Makovecz (Stuttgart: Axel Menges, 2005), 148.

4 Gerle, Architecture as Philosophy, 82–83.

5 This refers to the trains that took Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau during the main period of deportations from 14 May to 9 July 1944. There were a few others in April and after 9 July. And, of course, there were other ways that Hungarian Jews and other Jews living in Hungary were murdered during this period.

6 For many of the millions of Hungarians within the borders of Romania, the worst was yet to come after 1953.

7 After nearly four years unbeaten, Hungary lost the 1954 World Cup Final 3–2 to West Germany, missing out on the crowning achievement that most agree the team’s brilliance warranted.

8 György Gömöri, ‘Polishing October’, translated by Clive Wilmer and György Gömöri, in Steep Path (Budapest: Corvina, 2018), 79.

9 Attila József, ‘By the Danube’, translated by Péter Zollman, in Inspired by Hungarian Poetry: British Poets in Conversation with Attila József, ed. György Végh (London: Balassi Institute, 2013), 52–55.

10 Frederick Turner, ‘The “Thou” of Hungarian Poetry: Translator’s Note’, in Ozsváth and Turner, eds, Light within the Shade: Eight Hundred Years of Hungarian Poetry (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014), 268, 239.

11 Miklós Radnóti, ‘Seventh Eclogue’, translated by Clive Wilmer and György Gömöri, in Forced March (London: Enitharmon Press, 2013). György Gömöri has discussed the difficulty, and differing approaches, to translating this line into English from the original: ‘Mondd, van-e ott haza még, ahol értik e hexametert is?’ George Gömöri, ‘On Translating Hungarian Poetry’, World Literature Today, 60/3 (Summer 1986), 407–409.

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