Monday, 16 February 2015

Hungary in Glasgow 

Contemporary Hungarian Studies:
Multidisciplinary European Perspectives 5.ii

Budapest 2006

My own keynote on Hungarian identity and 'magyar ember' 2

... The years of adjustment after 1989 were naturally very difficult with the collapse of national industries and social networks, high unemployment, and quick disillusion with a new, relatively open yet uncomfortable and unfamiliar democracy that did not seem to be helping people to live better, more secure lives nor to resolve the anxieties and tensions natural to an essentially febrile nation. Parties came and went.

Then came 2006 and the end of what seemed to have developed into a two-party system. A lot of turgid water had flowed under the bridge by that time, nevertheless the events following the revelations of the then prime minister Gyurcsány’s behind-closed-doors speech seemed traumatic to an unresolvable extent.

Nor were things resolved. The current governing party came to power on a two-thirds majority that enabled it to change the constitution and to set about controlling not only the economy or the law or education or the media but culture itself.

...We are living at a crisis of liberal democracy. The culture of scepticism and doubt is itself being doubted and challenged. Religions challenge it, fierce atavistic feelings challenge it.  The urbánus side of the equation offers a rich European and cosmopolitan Enlightenment culture but lacks political cohesion and articulation. It is no longer a complete idology and is easy prey in a system developed expressly to strangle it by any means possible. The népies no longer needs rural support when it has the provinces. It no longer needs the label népies. It only needs to touch some of the familiar conservative chords - about those money-grabbing Lithuanians among them - to exercise its dominance.

I don’t want to smear the names of excellent népies writers. None of this is their fault. But think of the Karinthy-Tamási debate. Forget terminology: concentrate on value.

It is hard for the psyche to reject half of its habitation. Anxiety and those bottled furies continue to stalk the darkened rooms of the imagination. The rare richness, invention and voluptuousness of that imagination is under severe strain. I expect it to survive, but only by the skin of its teeth, given some luck and a favourable wind.


That's all very well but it is worth considering Dr Umut Korkut's charges against liberalism. Let's put neo-liberalism to one side for now and think of liberalism as we know it - here in Britain as well as elsewhere. I am myself of the left-liberal tendency and much the majority of my friends in youth as in middle age could be described as liberals. What I understand by such liberalism can be summed up in the terms I used to describe the urbánus movement: cosmopolitan, modernist, sceptical, European, as well as tolerant and supportive of minorities.

Yes, but we can be arrogant in exactly the terms Umut described. To think anything but what we think is not to be contemplated. It is simply beneath notice or to be treated with contempt. Do we remember Gordon Brown's encounter with "that bigot woman" who turned out to be a Labour supporter and to whom he had to apologise? That's us. Our mindset is as firm as the most bigoted right-wingers' but we don't see it that way. We dramatise it away in the name of solidarity. The forces of reaction and darkness must be talked down.

I am uneasy with that. As was my good friend, the great Hungarian poet Ottó Orbán, who wrote in his 1989 poem, A Roman Considers the Christians:

May the gods forgive me but I really can't abide them.
Their idea is a great one, but look at them all:
a bunch of quarrelsome eggheads picking their noses
who, under the spell of their thesis, would if they could
be hard-line dictators, all for the sake of tolerance, naturally,
who'd not kill with weapons but with murderous disdain
while breeding their own sloppy aristocracy...

Those seven lines from his unrhymed Lowellian sonnet are right on the spot. Ottó was of the left, not the right. I suspect he would have been happy with a more liberal version of the old regime, though I could be wrong on that. He was a deep-vein socialist in any case. But he knew his society. Ours is less fervent but is wedded to its own sloppy aristocracy.

I am a low-grade aristocrat in that scheme of things. I am uneasy.

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