Literature and National Consciousness
in Hungarian History and in the Culture of Hungarian Minorities
Nation and Literature
Among all the notions that Hungarian history has endorsed and public consensus has accepted, the notions of nation and literature have always been closely linked. They are bridged by a creative reciprocity: on the one hand there is national history, along with all the movements that have tried to exert an influence, and very often suffered defeat, in the course of that history, always defining the voluntarily undertaken tasks, as well as the missionary identity, of our literature, mostly in the sense that it was up to literature itself to restore the unsettled spiritual balance of the nation; on the other hand, it was traditionally in literature that those personality traits were constituted, the sum total of which make up the national character of the Hungarians.
In other countries the concept of nation had catchwords and attributes such as glory (“gloire”) or power (“Macht”); we shall find none of these in long centuries of Hungarian history. Quite the opposite: from Bálint Balassi to Dániel Berzsenyi, from Mihály Vörösmarty to Endre Ady, and from Gyula Illyés to László Nagy, “nation” and “literature” have always been inherently connected. This twin-couple of notions looks at us from the past, and probably also from the present, with a real Janus-head of two faces: what appears to be the struggle of a historical human community for survival from the one side, is a historical continuity and a system of sublime artistic values when seen from the other side; and what appears to be thought, poetic imagery and verse form in one reading, is a wasting struggle and suffering to find home for fifteen million people in the community of nations and to enable them to realise their intellectual and moral values.
Hungarian literature’s voluntarily accepted obligation to find a solution for the “life-and-death questions” of national history and national life, that communal and public ethos which permeates even the brave experiments of form and the light-hearted plays of this literature, can be traced back to here. One does not necessarily have to be a political writer or a writing politician to produce works in which these “life-and-death questions” echo strongly. It is not only Miklós Zrinyi and Petõfi, Ady, Attila József and Illyés who give an account of the experiences, efforts and sufferings of national history. Like some secret water mark, this identification with history and community, this missionary commitment and acceptance of responsibility is existent e hidden in the works of all the others: in Bálint Balassi’s turning to his Creator, in Dániel Berzsenyi’s contemplating about the power of transience, in Mihály Csokona Vitéz’s escape to the mirth of love, in Vörösmarty’s struggle with Romantic excesses, in Arany’s spreading common-sense, in Babits’s salvaging European spiritual values, in Sándor Weöres’s turning to the teachings of ancient myths. In reality, there were no Hungarian writers who could screen themselves from the shared experiences, problems and tasks, and if we were to regard Hungarian literature as the product and spiritual institution of history, we would have to convince ourselves that this literature has above else been the formative influence of national life, and the keeper and guardian of national conscience.
The Historical Force
This is especially so in hard times, when inauspicious historical developments—and they have been numerous in our history, remote and recent alike—land the Hungarians and their historic institutions into crisis and peril. These are the times when the feeling of responsibility in our literature shows up best. As László Németh says: “The truly characteristic periods of Hungarian literature, those that appeal to the researchers the most, always come when, with the hailstorm ruining the sowing of hope gone, the will to live returns and forms small islands, with the hopeless self-sacrifice once again producing hope.” True, throughout its eight-century-old history, our literature has always been assigned to that role: to restore the unhinged spiritual equilibrium of the nation, to get spiritual satisfaction after devastating defeats, to revive the historical life force shattered by the blows.
This was what happened after Mohács when, in their poems and chronicles, Péter Bornemissza, Bálint Balassi and Gáspár Heltai pieced together a virtual Hungary in place of the Hungary that had been lost on the battlefields. And this was what happened after the failure of the efforts to create an independent, modern Hungary at the end of the eighteenth century, when the language-reformer Ferenc Kazinczy and the Romantic poets Ferenc Kölcsey and Mihály Vörösmarty revived the hopes extinguished in the bloody fields of Vérmezõ. And that was what happened after the surrender at Világos, when the nation’s spirit was resurrected by the books of János Arany, Imre Madách, Zsigmond Kemény and Mór Jókai, giving free scope to a strict self-examination and painting the rainbows of hope over the dark skies; and this was also what happened after the First World War, following the failed attempts of modernisation and the dismemberment of historical Hungary, when Mihály Babits, Zsigmond Móricz, Dezsõ Kosztolányi and Attila József, along with the popular writers Gyula Illyés, László Németh and Áron Tamási, searched for the forces of preservation in tradition and for new guiding stars in the ideas of democratic reforms.
Having witnessed historical resurrections followed by newer setbacks ever since, we can safely say that our literature has played a part in the resurrections, and always looked for the possibilities to renew national self-knowledge and self-confidence and to summon creative powers after each fall. Or was it not what Illyés and Németh, Déry and Kodolányi, István Vas and István Örkény, Zoltán Jékely and János Pilinszky, László Nagy and Ferenc Juhász, Ferenc Sánta and Sándor Csoóri did after the terrible tribulations of the 1950s and the tragedy of the Hungarian revolution of 1957, in the decades of new Hungarian literature’s appearance in the otherwise stale intellectual desert under the Communist tyranny, rising precisely in opposition to the spirit of dictatorship? Our literature—not just within Hungary, but also under the conditions of minority life and dispersion—have always served the continuous preservation of national history, culture and identity, and it was precisely in this service that it discovered its own dignity and universal human mission.
Hungarian writers have fulfilled their own humanity in the nurturing of national culture and mother tongue, and became the spokespersons of universal humanity, the fellow-workers of other cultures’ and other countries’ literature in that way. The Hungarian nation has probably rendered the greatest service to universal human culture and God’s creative designs by developing its own language, culture and spirit, thus enriching mankind’s colourful universality with new values, tones and colours. Our nation makes the universe of mankind more complete by preserving Hungarian culture and national identity, as mankind cannot surrender those values which only the Hungarians can add to the cultural universe. Let me quote István Széchenyi’s words: “To preserve a nation for mankind, to protect its characteristics as relics and to see to the utilisation and ennoblement of its forces and virtues in their immaculate condition; and, having thus moulded into a new and hitherto unknown shape, to lead it to its final destination, the glorification of mankind—I ask you, could there be a purer and less embittered feeling? And if, like ants, we can contribute to such a glorification by no more than a smidgen, could befall a sweeter lot to any man who is not impregnable to spiritual joys?”
Széchenyi’s words still carry weight and meaning today: what he once said about the close relationship and creative reciprocity existing between the Hungarian nation and universal mankind can still be regarded as an actual task and intellectual strategy; it also outlines the desirable and necessary strategy of Hungarian culture and Hungarian literature.
Literature as Institution
I would like to quote Gyula Illyés’s already classic parable, occasioned by the French edition of László Németh’s novel, Iszony; with the help of this parable, Illyés wanted to familiarise the foreign reader with the peculiar nature of our literature. “Let’s imagine that an eminently talented man writes a novel about the calamities a village has to suffer on account of the Danube’s recurrent flooding. We can only congratulate him for rendering service to such a noble cause. Next let’s imagine that the greatest playwright of the same nation writes a tragedy about someone’s failed attempts to prevent the flooding of the Danube. And the greatest poet, too, writes his first, second, tenth volume of poetry about the urgent need to control the Danube. Then the critics, too, evaluate the merits of the works by their usefulness in preventing flooding and all the associated misery in health care, transportation, agriculture and public education that the uncontrolled river can cause. We, too, can imagine the tone in which the reader cries out after the twentieth depiction of the countless consequences of the flooding: What is the water conservancy bureau doing?! And the health ministry, the agriculture ministry, the defence ministry?! It is beyond comprehension why literature, of all things, has to torment itself with these problems?”
Foreigners wishing to acquaint themselves with the character of Hungarian literature find an educational parable here, which—like the good portraits of faces and characters drawn with a few lines—renders the character of the phenomenon to be described with a single, dynamic line. All these hardly modify the true picture, however: in the course of its eight-hundred-year history, Hungarian literature was very often obliged to act as the foremost institution of national life: the earliest proclaimer and constant representative of the common goals, the keeper of the historical interests and the organiser of the ambitious projects. And although now the water conservancy bureau is up an running—and hopefully running well—and there are also government offices busy at work, this should not mean that our literature can retire to the inner circles of art life and creative work, refraining form its traditionally assumed task of putting forward proposals, mobilising for action and freely criticising the affairs of public life.
I am talking about the present, and anyone who cares to look around in our intellectual life will confirm that our literature is presently suffering from some kind of a crisis of identity. In the past decades, in accordance with the traditions outlined above, our literature undoubtedly served as the principal trustee of national life; the general assemblies of the Writers’ Association and the meetings of the Association’s representatives formed a ‘quasi Parliament’, as the Hungarian people’s complaints and demands were given a hearing in these forums for lack of a genuine popular representation. The great historical changes taken place since then made the strongly politicised role of literature superfluous: why, with the rule of law introduced in Hungary, and with popular representation established in the Hungarian Parliament, there is no need for the Writers’ Association to serve as a substitute Parliament, nor for literature to act as the principal trustee of national sovereignty.
Nevertheless, it does not seem likely that writers would, as so many people suggest, be willing to retire to the more intimate world of literary workshops. And I do not have in mind only the writer-politicians and politician-writers, of whom there are plenty in the political parties, both in power and in opposition. Writers actively involved in politics, and notably those who are openly committed to any one of the political parties, have become somewhat suspicious and objectionable persons recently. Probably for good reason, too, as the spiritual independence and sovereignty, which is so essential for creative work, does in fact draw an imaginary line, beyond which the functioning of this independence and sovereignty become questionable. There are writers who have evidently crossed this line, thus becoming more the men of politics—of rising to, and staying in, power—, rather than men of literature, of the spiritual world. It is a shame to lose them in this way, since the internal and external sovereignty of people playing a part (also) in the intellectual life are assets, which would be desirable to retain in the interest of the nation and the national culture.
However, literature as a spiritual and national institution has a public, and I dare say political, role and significance, even if the writers themselves are involved in politics only partially, in their capacity as “private citizens”, or if they keep away from the political arena, not wishing to take part in the struggle between various political parties and movements. Of course, literature itself can have a public role only in a more indirect way, which is quite all right, as culture should never assume tasks of actual political or tactical nature.
This on the one hand means that our literature should still carry on functioning as a national institution. Hungarian literature has always been the visible institution of spiritual and moral life in Hungary, the organising force of the “daily plebiscite” as Renan put it, which help charging up nations, and especially small nations left to their own devices, with resistance and innate sovereignty. All this also means, however, that literature will have to continue undertaking some roles in public life in the foreseeable future. Above else, it will have to go on accepting the task of protecting national identity and culture and preserving some sort of a virtual public and moral codex. This moral role of literature is indispensable in the restoration of the effective historical power of moral and spiritual values.
On the other hand, literature has strategic tasks and possibilities in the restoration of the Hungarian nation’s (at least) intellectual and spiritual unity. There was a time, or there were times, when the nation was held together by literature itself, and if we see that at the present the Hungarian nation is divided by state boundaries in the Carpathian Basin, and that a large part of the Hungarians live scattered all over the world, we should come to the conclusion that those times have not yet gone. Yes, the Hungarian nation hungers for national and spiritual unity; it has an historical and spiritual need for integrating Kolozsvár and Marosvásárhely, Pozsony, Kassa and Szabadka into the nation’s blood circulation. Today, this blood circulation can be envisaged and realised primarily in the universal and unitary order of national culture. This is an organic order, a living organ, some very important vessels of which have been severed with the so-called peace treaties enforced upon the Hungarians: Trianon and Paris. As a consequence, a general state of paralysis set in: not only with regard to the Hungarian groups torn away, but also in the case of the mother country. Our literature, and our culture in general, will have to overcome this paralysis, restoring the natural flow of blood.
This is shared responsibility, which befalls on all of us, and a communal work, which has tasks for every one of us. Regardless of what political parties or ideologies will play the lead in the nation’s future tasks, and regardless of what passport we carry in our pockets. With the end of the century (the turn of the millennium) approaching, the great task for our literature is to stay in the service of the nation, and to play a strategic role in the shaping of the future. Our moral heritage is like a continent with a secure foundation: neither by the conflicts of opinion within the country, nor by the storms coming from outside can shake it.
National life and national culture have a very significant segment, where literature has to continue carrying out its traditional role of preserving the nation. What I have in mind here is the literature of Hungarian minorities in the surrounding countries, where, by default of other spiritual institutions, literature has to play the historic roles of preserving and nurturing national identity and spiritual traditions; and in this unenviable situation it even has to sustain the idea of the historical bond between the people of the Danube region. In László Németh’s words, minority literature is still “the factotum of spiritual life”; and regarding the position of minority writers, Németh’s admonition to Eastern European writers still holds: “A writer, if he wants to be a writer, has to settle in the seat of a village teacher; he has to saddle himself with the lame science and, in order to be able to breathe, he has to purify the air and govern the politics.”
Yes, this missionary role, which is at the same time a responsibility, still remains the source and the life force of minority literature: literature has to make up for the missing cultural institutions, the higher educational institutes and the research centres, and the writer cannot be just an artist: he has to accept the role of historian, sociologist, ethnographer, journalist and cultural organiser. We have every reason to be proud of the fact that the literature of Hungarian minorities, while accepting and discharging these numerous tasks, create quality art of high aesthetical values; suffice to mention here the works of András Sütő, Sándor Kányádi, Gyula Szabó, Domokos Szilágyi, Aladár Lászlóffy, Tibor Bálint, István Szilágyi, Géza Szőcs, Béla Markó, László Dobos of Slovakia, Gyula Duba, Árpád Tőzsér, László Cselényi, Sándor Gál, Lajos Grendel, János Herceg of Vajdaság, Nándor Gion, Ottó Tolnai and László Vári Fábian and Károly Balla D. of Kárpátalja.
Mirror and Pattern
Our literature provides both a “mirror” and a “pattern” for the nation’s life, faithfully reflecting the history of the Hungarian people right down to the changes taking place in the sub-conscious mind of the nation; it also provides a pattern, presenting the nation with attractive and accepted values. This pattern has a role in regulating the behaviour of both the individuals and the community; the great personalities of Hungarian literature, as well as the popular heroes of the literary works, show qualities and personality traits, the moral irradiation and effects on the readers’ world-view and character play a large part in the preservation of the historical continuity of national awareness. The personalities of Bálint Balassi, Miklós Zrinyi, Ferenc Kölcsey, Sándor Petõfi, Endre Ady, Attila Józef and Gyula Illyés serve as moral examples, teaching us a sense of reality, loyalty to a community and ideological consistency, as do the fictitious characters of József Eötvös, Zsigmond Kemény, Mór Jókai, Zsigmond Móricz and László Németh, each representing national and universal values. The ideas and thoughts irradiating from the literary works, as well as the behaviour patterns and the emotive power and character building force of the literary creations, might have a very important function in the preservation of national identity in the case of Hungarians thrust into minority existence or living far from the country.
Therefore, we should look upon our literature as the trustee of national conscience, and also the most important instrument of its preservation; accordingly, we should do our best to make sure that our literature reaches those Hungarians who live outside Hungary, whether just across our borders or dispersed throughout the world, including people of Hungarian ancestry; literature should be present in their everyday lives, as a guidance in their efforts to study the Hungarian past and present, but also as an aid to preserve their Hungarian identity. Surely, these goals and tasks can be realised only by discovering the entirety of our national literature, along with the genuine values hidden this heritage. We must lay claim to the entirety of this literary legacy, in which there is room for Endre Ady struggling with the national fate and Babits discharging an European mission, for László Németh drafting a program for the nation and Lajos Kassák proclaiming the universality of modern art, for Gyula Illyés committed to the popular cause and the town-dwelling Miklós Radnóti, Attila József with his left-wing ideas and Jenő Dsida’s Catholic faith. Naturally, we should not be content with laying claim only to the literature of Hungary proper, but must also make every effort to mediate, and to appropriate, the universal Hungarian literary culture.
In addition to laying claim to the entirety of literary traditions and to acknowledging the results in the whole of Hungarian literature, we must uphold high standards in the process of evaluation and selection, making sure that those artists and works be placed in the foreground of attention, who and which convey artistic and moral values suitable for the preservation and nurturing of national consciousness. We have to do this, because national consciousness of any substance and good quality Hungarian culture can develop and preserve its integrity only by the spiritual appropriation of genuine values; giving support to spurious works and ephemeral successes will eventually destroy, rather than build up, the cohesive force of a cultural community. We firmly believe that values are not created by national rhetoric; instead, the genuine values create the character of national culture, thus founding national consciousness.
Literature, and especially Hungarian literature, is not simply the art of ideas and words; it is also an institution: the institution of the nation’s spiritual life. It is our duty to preserve this institution in its former power, effectiveness and continuity. We should see this not as a cultural political task, but as a supreme element of national politics; and this politics should realise that Hungarian literature, which has always been shelter and protector, and in some cases the keeper, of the nation, will continue to be one of the guarantees and safeguards of our national existence. Because Hungarians live not only by their language, but also by their literature.