Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Budapest 6: Thinking back: moments of brightness / darknesses, anxieties

Budapest, The Hungarian Academy building by the Danube

We leave the flat for the airport in a couple of hours time so this is the last opportunity for a few extra personal thoughts from Budapest itself.

The Academy
Just a sentence or two on this. It still doesn't seem quite real. Sometimes I feel I am walking about in two parallel lives: the life that is writing this, that goes to the shops and talks to people, the man I see in the mirror; the other life is that of a man whose name I recognise as my own but whose person seems to be located in a figure more respected than I consider myself to be. I am enormously grateful and flattered by the kindnesses done to him and am constantly worried that he is a dream that may vanish into thin air or fade with the light. That means I like having him around and that he gives me the sort of confidence the first figure never has. That means I am vain. That means I remember the big hall, the surprisingly large audience and the reactions to my speech, and the fact that, behind all this, there were people who nominated and supported me. Beyond that, that this marvellous, now embattled institution in this, my first country - an institution I instinctively support - has some space in it for me.

The Monastery
There have been times in my life when I have almost wanted to be a monk, maybe only for the unworthy reason of getting away from the material world in order to concentrate on the spirit or mind or heart or whatever you call it, and to keep things simple. Being in a monastery such as Pannonhalma, tht is such a mixture of plainness and opulence, of inwardness yet of beyond-self works, awoke all those early feelings. The service especially took me back to my religious phase in my twenties, when I was attracted by the plainest of plain services, of crosses drawn in biro on the wall, of a non-cerebral sense of togetherness and dedication, the time spent in non-conformist churches, of full-immersion baptism, of the sense of sacredness in small things - all associated with a romantic love for Clarissa, though I would never have used the term romantic love then: it was all just love, non-cerebrally generalised. My poems then included erotic elements as though they too were natural in the state of sacredness. This will seem odd in view of my as-yet unconfirmed Jewish background, but in those two or three years I would not have wanted to, nor did in fact, see any distinction. It was at that time I fell in love with the writing of William Blake and yet remained in love with the revolutionary and brilliantly profane poems of Arthur Rimbaud. This is what love is like, I thought: it is everything, indiscrimate, a kind of upwelling that steadies itself while remaining off-balance.

That couldn't last. That was not the way the world actually behaved. I drifted from it, as did Clarissa, and it seems a very long way away, like the memory of a honeymoon of which one remembers only moments but the sense of which has a reality of its own. But that's the way it was, I say to myself, and feel that it really was.

So the monastery. This time round the religious experience was loaded with far more intellection. Every feeling was a thought that I looked to articulate to myself. That is the way it has to be since that is what I am, or so it turns out. And there is a genuine beauty in the sense of living on the edge of the absurd, the ascetic, the beautiful, the prayerful, even of the grotesque, yet with a consciousness of the existential choice to submerge oneself in these things or to reject them. It is a choice that may be made at any time. The great hill hovers there like a tangible mirage. The Gregorian Mass may be a set of absurd mostly bearded men in a hierarchical yet humble male world or a decision to discipline that very sense of absurdity into a formalised awareness of the sacredness of everything, including absurdity. The music is beautiful, the church is beautiful, the history is extraordinary as witnessed in codex and breviary and bible, and it is all exactly as I expected before I came, if only because one can imagine this from evidences of reading, and yet it is actually there, being believed in, in whatever manner believing happens.

As you read this you will no doubt see how far the visit drove me into myself, and I too see it; it is just that I am pretty sure that the this interiority is not the same as subjectivity but something quite the converse. But I cannot name that converse. I look at the fields beneath the monastery and see the chimney of the camp where Radnóti slaved before he was marched away to be shot, and that world seems as much part of the interiority as the mass, in which we did not take part but simply observed.

Hungary itself
I did not mention the lovely and long evening we spent at the flat of a younger poet friend together with other poets of his generation. We intended to stay for an hour or so but stayed five, talking. And of course the talk kept straying back to the condition of the country which they all feel intensely because it impinges directly on them. They are very talented people: I have translated work by them and they have translated work by me. I understand something of their ways of feeling and they must surely understand something of mine. We sipped wine and nibbled salty little cakes as the dark drew on. Rain fell then stopped falling.

Yesterday we met with two others, one an old friend from the 1980s when she was in radio, the other a much younger woman who is an art historian. I have told her story briefly on facebook as The Art Historian's Tale but will reproduce it here once I am home.

Everyone we know here speaks of the same feeling of creeping darkness and powerlessness, the sense of drifting back in time towards some historical iceberg. I have heard not one redeeming word from anyone. Maybe it's just the people we know, but they are the people we love and trust. It has been our most oppressive experience of the country, worse than the eighties because then there was a suspicion that it was going to end, that we were living at the end of something. Now there is just this backwards drag into apprehension.

The faces in the street have hardened. One man - so a friend recounts - declares that Hungarians should be ready to die to defend themselves from Europe. Posters declare Europe - respect Hungary! In the meantime the country is approaching a condition of one-party dictatorship. The government's favourite trope is that western (ie dreadfully liberal and tolerant) Europe has a narrative that wishes to humiliate and destroy Hungary and regards it as (I quote George Schöpflin, Hungarian Euro MP) 'a hairy ape'. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hungary had for decades been regarded as the clever country, the sophisticated country where people entered revolving doors behind you yet emerged in front of you.

The truth is that the narrative works the other way. The Hungarian right spread the lie that Europe and Europeans are the poor Hungarian nation's enemy so that they, and the whole country, might cosy up to the kind of 'strong-man' dictatorship they themselves aspire to impose. Hungary get big funds from Europe but insist that Europe takes more from Hungary. Hungarians (conceptualised as essentially das volk) adopt all the gadgets and gewgaws of consumer society but are encouraged to claim that they stand for something nobler, more patriotic than that.

Budapest is a beautiful city and the country looks wonderful in sunshine but the dominant feeling of this visit is of a darkness I won't forget. Clarissa woke from a dream that our friends were in danger. In the dream following we were being attacked by dogs rather like humans. The two dreams were related. They are only dreams, the unconscious inventing metaphors for its anxieities, but the anxieties are real enough.

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