Monday, 4 May 2009


Finished the introduction, finished the redrafting, wrote up the contents, emailed contributors for biogs, now just waiting for a few replies. This is how the intro to the anthology (yet to be titled) begins:

In case anyone should have forgotten, we had a 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 goes. The parties, the ministries, the armies, the officials, the management, the cadres, the career paths, might hang suspended for the equivalent of a historical instant but then the wall would be gone. And that is what happened. The mortar that had held brick to brick had long turned to powder by 1989.

That mortar was compounded of belief, fear, and an everyday, ordinary confidence in its sheer existence. It was the 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
I am trying to set the world the poems - mostly not political poems, or if so very indirectly so in most cases - appear in or evolve from. Granted all periods are transitional, this one seems to me more transitional than most. The introduction - thirteen pages of it - ends:

These are, if you like, poems of transition from what we think we knew to what we only apprehend. The illusion of a settled state of affairs in the world, a fixed binary opposition between directly conflicting systems and incomparable lives, has melted away. Perhaps it always was illusion, or at least partly so, but it had offered, if nothing else, an illusion of certainty, something a Hungarian could shrug at and accept as just another damn thing in a long unbroken sequence of damn things. At least it was a constant damn thing.

That is gone, but history has not vanished with it. The new position leaves less room for heroics and for myth, But they have not disappeared either. They are simply moving at greater depth, with smaller, often sharper teeth.

Binary oppositions continue to exist, of course. They don't go away. It's just that they are never fixed quite where we think they are. That's life's delicious / horrific uncertainty.


James Hamilton said...

History marching in the manner of a clockwork mouse - the mouse being another of those damned things?

Do you find more than a few hints of shruggism in British life, incidentally?

George S said...

Beware the Mice of Doom!

Yes, but a different brand of Shruggism, more Indifferentism in Indifferentism joined with Fulminationism. (For the full patriotic version see under Fulminationalism).

The 'damned things' were and are just that much damneder in Hungary. I think the shock of actually winning anything or coming out on top of something, or even performing particularly well in something without the spectre of another catastrophic reverse might prove fatal.

In order fully to understand Catastrophism it does help to be Hungarian. Shruggism is nothing without it.