Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Shruggists and 1989

These are the first few paragraphs of my introduction to New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation, to be published by Arc early in the new year. It is a fully bilingual book and contains work by István Kemény, Szilárd Borbély, András Imreh, Mónika Mesterházi, Krisztina Tóth, Virág Erdős, János Térey, G. István Lászó, Anna T. Szabó, Tamás Jónás, Orsolya Karafiáth and András Gerevich. The full introduction will be published by The Hungarian Quarterly later.


In case anyone should have forgotten, there was a peaceful revolution - a grand European revolution with global implications - exactly twenty years ago in 1989 though, if we have forgotten, it may be because we are still living in it. It was Zhou En Lai who, when asked in the 1950s about the effects of the French Revolution of 1789, is supposed to have replied: ‘It’s too early to tell’. It is too early to tell with this one.

Too early and already too late. Time, the post-modern phenomenon par excellence, is the great confuser and befuddler of chronologies. There we were, thinking it marched forward, in its somewhat unremitting dialectical way into some all but pre-determined future, with evolution as a series of revolutions, when it performed one of its periodic panic fits: a, more or less, bloodless revolution. It was, said Francis Fukuyama, the end of history. Maybe it was - then.

But history is not just events themselves, nor the consciousness of experiencing those events: history is what we write about what seems to us to have happened. Who did what to whom, in which order, why, and with what effect, is, to put it mildly, subject to interpretation. In retrospect everything seems inevitable: after all here we are at the end of it. It may be that the task of rival interpretations is to offer us ever more convincing form of inevitability, to act as Benjamin’s Angel of History but with an agenda, a case to make and a set of files to keep in order.

It was not just the physical Berlin wall that collapsed in 1989, but its equally important metaphorical-ideological-psychological equivalent. The usual wall consists of bricks held together with mortar. Should the mortar disappear the bricks might remain in place, simply sitting one on top of another, but there would be nothing except gravity holding them together - one good shove and over it would go. The parties, the ministries, the armies, the officials, the management, the cadres, the career paths, might all hang suspended for the equivalent of a historical instant but then the wall would be gone. And that is what happened. By 1989, the mortar that had held brick to brick had long turned to powder.

That mortar was compounded of belief, fear, and a kind of everyday confidence in its sheer existence, a confidence that, however dreadful it was, there was actually a kind of coherence, that things had to be as they were. I once wrote that the characteristic late-twentieth century Hungarian gesture was the ironic shrug, a shrug that worked its way through everything from social manners to literature. There were few ideologues left standing by the time the shrug was established. We were all Shruggists. What, asked my elderly party-member cousin, in the March of 1989, what if a strong man comes to power in Moscow, smashes his fist down on the table, and cries “Enough!”? His far more active party member son-in-law, smiled, shrugged and replied: “The table breaks.”

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