Monday, 16 February 2015

Hungary in Glasgow 

Contemporary Hungarian Studies:
Multidisciplinary European Perspectives 5.i

This is much abridged but will still take up more than one post. I have the text and can cut and paste from it direct. It will lead me on to a few thoughts to follow.

My own keynote on Hungarian identity and 'magyar ember 1'

Hungarian identity is complicated.

In 1995 I was making a BBC radio programme about the anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising and attended a rally of the Kisgazda (or Smallholders’) Party at which a list of names was read out. At the sound of certain very Hungarian-sounding names a man in a national costume would cry out: Ez nem egy magyar ember! (He’s not a true Hungarian!) a cry taken up by several others in the crowd. (It was on the same trip that I saw a march of blackshirts pass through Blaha Lujza tér.) The question that immediately sprang to mind was: Who was a true Hungarian in that case? Who is magyar ember? And what was it about the names on the list that was not ‘True Hungarian’?

The simple answer is that some at least of the names were Jewish or were thought to be Jewish (it is revealing that to call someone Jewish, in Hungary, is to smear them.) But I think the answer goes deeper than that: it is historical, geographical and linguistic. 

I hardly need to mention all the heroic battles and disastrous lost wars, the foreign occupations, the constant shifting of borders and populations and the resultant changes in place names to which Hungarian territory has been subject. All this is enough to render any state unstable. The most repeated whisper in the early days of that extraordinary year of 1989, when I spent nine months in Budapest was the fearful: “Elszabadulnak az indulatok!” Hard to translate precisely, it means: “The furies within us will be released”, or to put it in more colloquial terms: “All hell will break loose”, where “hell” is what is within….

...What is the place of the Hungarian language in this? The great poet and novelist Dezsö Kosztolányi tried to address that question in his long open letter of 1930 to Professor Antoine Millet of the Collège de France, whose book, Les langues dans l’Europe nouvelle had suggested that Hungarian not only had no future but did not deserve one. In defending Hungarian, Kosztolányi describes the language thus:
    “...this marvellous orphan of the Finno-Ugric family, the orphan that lost its parents at an early age, was left to fend for itself while its kin moved to distant lands in the chaos of world history, and nevertheless had the gumption to survive without kith or kin near or  far.
That description offers two models: the deserted orphan and the gutsy survivor. It is, I think,  the language - that gutsy, orphaned, marvellous language, as Kosztolányi has it - that most deeply marks out Hungarian identity. It is a matter of pride that it has survived and is capable of so much but its isolation or orphanhood leads to feelings of vulnerability and exposure. The anxiety and pride have complex results. Anyone can learn it, of course, but it takes magyar ember to speak it truly. The search for ‘true Hungarians‘ is a matter of exquisite urgency to our vulnerable and exposed magyar ember in his quasi national costume. He needs clear markers. Nor do I want to make him an object of liberal contempt. That would achieve nothing. I would very much like to understand him....

... The problems of today were as immediately apparent in 1989 as they were obscured in 1988. Writer friends who had been friends with each other one year stopped speaking to each other within a few months of the next. The literary, cultural and political landscape was tearing itelf apart. The parties, over fifty of them, that had been formed as far back as May, were not settling into a straight left-right ideological pattern. The new parties that did emerge in some force - the Hungarian Forum, the MSzP, the SzDSz and Fidesz - not surprisingly considering their rapid almost instantaneous formation. They were instinctive groupings fraught with internal contradictions.

What did seem to me to be true was that the divisions within the parties as well as between them were as much cultural as political-ideological. They were along the literary népies - urbánus line. These seemed to me to run deeper than political ideology or strategy. They pitted against each each other two vital aspects of Hungarian society: a traditionalist, conservative, rural, post-feudal belief in solid values versus a cosmopolitan, urbanist, modernist, sceptical liberal-left Europeanism. That’s a lot of adjectives but they still seem valid to me. All the other major issues of who sells what to whom, who takes backhanders from whom, seemed to me simply end-of-era opportunism, almost free of ideology or cultural basis. ...



Paul H said...

Interesting observation that Hungarian identity is intimately tied with the language. I am sure this is right. In my memory I recall the Hungarian writer Gyula Illyés saying that for Hungarians the language was both a cradle and a grave. I may have mis-remembered the quote. My reading of that quote was that Hungarians were born into the language, hence the widespread use of the term anyaneylv or "mother tongue". But likewise the language also serves to separate or isolate Hungarians from the rest of the world - the "deserted orphan" if you wish.

Of course the identity through language is not unique to Hungary. In New Zealand the Maori refer to their language as Te reo meaning "the language", with the emphasis very much on the definite article! For them the survival of their language is the same as the survival of their culture. It is almost impossible to imagine the concept of being Maori outside of the language.

Thank you George for sharing details about the conference. Always interesting to read and ponder.

George S said...

Thank you, Paul. I don't think that having an utterly isolated language could be regarded as incidental, especially in the middle of a crowded and elastic-bordered continent. People can learn the language of course and that would not make them Hungarian in itself in the eyes of many - which is part of my argument - but it might explain the specific nature of Hungarian nationalism.

You are right, I think, that other languages confer identity too. I imagine all languages have that perceived power. In English we have 'mother tongue. Island languages might have particular cause to regard themselves as the pattern from which all others diverge.

It is Kosztolányi's idea of 'orphanhood' that is particularly fascinating here: the concept that 'we' are 'orphans', and therefore particularly underprivileged, unable to receive the support of our kin languages. My hunch is that lies under the insecurity of 'magyar ember'.