19 July 2017

The Celebration of a Tragedy


May I begin by thanking you for inviting me to speak on this occasion. My credentials for doing so are slight. I am neither Hungarian, nor a poet, nor a novelist, nor a writer of imaginative and creative works, but a journalist and cold-blooded political analyst. So my only justification for being here is that I believe this book to be an important one that deserves to be read not only in Hungary and the Hungarian diaspora – where it will be appreciated, indeed treasured – but also read by those abroad who need to be reminded of what the Hungarian Revolution was and why it should be cherished by all decent people. We need, in other words, to remind the world of what it felt spontaneously at the time but has now been forgotten.

As such the book is a quixotic enterprise. It is a collection of prose and poetic responses to a revolution and war of independence. The responses glow with many emotions – with compassion, with regret, with rage, with tenderness, but above all with pride. And that is an oddity. I do not think I need spend time demonstrating how rare it is for a war or revolution to be celebrated or even just remembered with pride at least in the world of recent literature.

War poems today are almost always anti-war poems – and have been since the Great War of 1914–1918. That is understandable and in most cases creditable. It is sensible to wish not to be killed, and it is an elementary decency to wish not to kill other people. One can make only the most qualified argument for engaging in war, namely, that it is sometimes preferable to things much worse – such things as slavery or gross injustice or genocide or unpunished mass murder. Even then the decision to take up arms has to pass a series of practical tests which can be summed up in the question: is the outcome of a war certain or almost certain to be an improvement on the status quo? The end result is a strong predisposition never to start or enter military conflict voluntarily and to condemn those who do.

Human beings have not always felt this way; and they will not always feel this way in the future. We are both surprised and disturbed when we read of how the young men of England and Germany and their allies such as Hungary and Italy marched off gladly to war in moods of optimistic and passionate patriotism. It seems naive and superficial and an invitation to disillusionment.

In fact disillusionment did not occur at the time. While the war continued, most people remained patriotic. But as the corpses mounted, their patriotism had to be expressed in a minor key. Hence we find deeply sombre poetic expressions of the same bellicose sentiments that were sung and shouted joyfully in August 1914.

One of the most powerful patriotic poems in English to emerge from the First World War was written by a young Canadian officer in 1915 following his friend’s death in battle. “In Flanders Fields” is still read on Remembrance Day, 11 November, in England. It still packs a punch. Some of its impact comes from the melancholy fact that the voices speaking in it are those of the dead soldiers buried where the poppies grow in Flanders.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.

 

These voices counsel not peace nor forgiveness, however, but revenge and renewed determination to press on to victory:

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

 

A reason why these sentiments are now minority ones – and why the First World War poems that we tend to quote and anthologise express much more pacifistic sentiments is because of what happened afterwards. What was supported as the war to end all wars ended, in the words of Earl Wavell, as the peace to end all peace. That cast a retrospective light of disillusionment over any more positive interpretations of the Great War. Ernest Hemingway expressed one of the most influential responses to the war when he developed a staccato English that consciously avoided any of the ten-dollar words such as, well, patriotism. That disillusionment flowered into a literary orthodoxy almost a decade after the end of the war following novels and films like All Quiet on the Western Front and the growing popularity of the English war poets.

It seemed to fade briefly when the Spanish Civil War aroused a generation of young left-wing idealists and inspired them to leave their countries and journey to join the “anti-fascist” forces defending the Republic. Poets, novelists, journalists contributed to a 1937 book titled Authors Take Sides in the Spanish War, almost all against Franco and eager for intervention by London and Paris to save the Republic. Among them was W. H. Auden who published a poem on the war, titled simply “Spain” that included the lines:

 

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs, The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion; To-morrow the bicycle races

Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

 

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder; To-day the expending of powers

On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

 

It was a little hard to maintain this attitude when it became clear, after Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, that the war had not been a pure battle for the just city against the fascists but a smokescreen behind which Stalin’s agents had been decimating the idealistic ranks of the non-Communist Left. Auden altered the lines I quote above – to remove the phrase “necessary murder” – and he would not publish the poem in his Collected Works because he thought it rhetorically dishonest. Disillusionment thus revived again until the Nazi–Soviet Pact in August 1939 and the opening of the Second World War.

For the next two years pose of disillusion was affected by much of the Left which, following Comintern orders, treated the war as one between indistinguishable “capitalist states” from which socialists should hold themselves aloof. But this pose was an insincere one, reflecting pro-Soviet sympathies and imitating the somersaults of Kremlin policy. It was promptly abandoned when Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded Russia. Communists throughout the West became jingoists for Moscow overnight.

On the Right, however, the Nazi–Soviet Pact had provoked a more substantial illusion and subsequent greater sense of self-deception and betrayal. Evelyn Waugh had been one of only five writers in the Spanish War symposium to oppose support for the Republic on the grounds that it was rooted in ignorance of Spanish realities. But in his great trilogy on the Second World War, The Sword of Honour, he has his gentlemanly English Catholic hero, Guy Crouchback, respond to the news of the Pact with a commitment to a battle for chivalric ideals.


The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.

By the end of the novel, however, the Soviet Union is one of the victors, it has occupied half of Europe including countries that Britain went to war to protect, the West has accepted this outcome at Yalta, and yet millions have died in the conflict. Guy himself feels the futility of a war for ideals. A Jewish woman whom he tries to protect from Tito’s Communists (ineffectually as it turns out) tells him:

 

It seems there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians – not very many perhaps – who felt this. Were there none in England?”

God forgive me”, said Guy. “I was one of them.”

 

That was not a judgement that most ordinary English people could feel in 1945 or for a long time afterwards. At that time it would have been more readily understood in the half of Europe separated by Yalta. But by 1956 this disillusionment with chivalric or martial ideas or even just ordinary love of country was de rigueur in the world of words. There was almost a literary taboo against poetry or imaginative prose that treated heroism, self-sacrifice, or love of country in anything other than a disapproving pacifist way. Patriotism was just about acceptable as a sort of green environmentalism, but it was frowned on as a political or moral statement of any other kind. I imagine that in Central Europe it was further discredited by the cranking out of Soviet-style proletarian nationalism in the controlled media of the regimes. Not least it was reinforced everywhere by the fear, both real and cultivated, of nuclear weaponry that had the potential to destroy all life, all mankind.

Yet in 1956 the Hungarian Revolution broke through this rooted sentiment of the artistic world and intellectual public and won their unstinting admiration and support. Today this selection of poems, diary entries, letters, short stories and other works of the mind and imagination stimulated by 1956 reads as that very unlikely paradox: the celebration of a tragedy. Against all the odds it elevates courage and puts disillusionment to flight.

I do not think I can explain why it has these effects. One can not really explain a poem or how it stirs us since the same poem can elicit very different reactions from different people. All one can say is: read the thing and feel for yourself. But I can throw out a few simple and obvious ideas on why our reactions to 1956 are so powerfully similar to the reactions of other people while yet diverging sharply from our reactions to the earlier works and events discussed in this introduction.

To begin with, though there are modernist works in this volume, there is no hint of any modernist ambiguity here. Nor was there in the actual events of 1956. The Revolution was two weeks snatched from the Heroic Age and plonked down in the 20th century. Time magazine put a painting of a generic Hungarian revolutionary on the cover of its “Man of the Year” issue (there is a revolutionary Hungarian Woman of the Year visible over his shoulder) and for once it expressed a universal opinion. We were all acclaiming the modernist anti-hero in the novels, plays and films of the fifties and later. But we did so with some doubts about his doubts, and it was a relief to run into a hero who recognised evil, fought it bravely, and for a moment seemed to prevail, without constantly second-guessing his own motives or looking on dispassionately as his fate was decided.

Nor were we tempted to sympathise with his oppressor who happened also to be the oppressor of all. This volume’s title – Down Fell the Statue of Goliath – is alone enough to explain the West’s admiration for 1956 and the loving celebration it receives here. By 1956 everyone knew Goliath and his real nature. He was not the imaginary bringer of social justice whom some mistakenly welcomed in 1945. There could be no sympathy for a totalitarian regime that ran its tanks over both people’s bodies and their hopes, thus there could be no disillusionment with resistance to Goliath whether it succeeded or failed. So when his statue was pulled down, “even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer”. Reporters for Communist papers in the West resigned and wrote the truth of what they saw.

It helped that the Revolution was not a battle for someone else’s territory or for any objective with even a hint of moral taint. It was a Revolution by ordinary people – by workers as well as by students – to recover the simple personal liberty that people throughout Western Europe already took for granted. But it was also a popular national Revolution to recover the independence of their country from an occupying power. It was a Hungarian Revolution in which Hungarians of almost every political faction took part, with none of them manoeuvring carefully to calculate how he might emerge on top of the heap in a future Hungarian democracy. And, of course, there was no Hungarian democracy in their future, not for another thirty confusing years spent by the survivors crossing a desert of national betrayal and political seduction until eventually the promise of 1956 was finally redeemed. Just as Hungary had wounded Goliath deeply in 1956, so a later Hungary outwitted Goliath in 1989 and brought down not the statue but the monster itself by holding a picnic to conceal a flight of his captives.

Thousands of Hungarians, young and old, never lived to see the day of liberation. Some died in battle, some in the prisons and labour camps of Goliath, some in exile. But in those two short weeks, they had achieved astounding things. As well as wounding Goliath, as it turned out, fatally, they had wiped away the memory of 1944 and 1945 with all their sad ambiguities. They had changed how the world saw Goliath. Yes, but more importantly they had changed how the world saw Hungary and Hungarians, not as bitter-sweet ironists, witty pessimists with a death-wish, sophisticated observers, but as gallants gambling against great odds and turning their loss into heroic reputation. That heroism had always been there, but now the West rediscovered it. And in the world of words, they put disillusionment itself to flight too. As this volume demonstrates on page after page, they forced the world to concede that bravery, self-sacrifice, and love of country and one’s fellow-countrymen are qualities we need for those moments and great causes that come along rarely, sometimes very inconveniently, but always compellingly. Goliath learned that. The rest of us should not forget it.

 

(Delivered at the symposium launching Hungarian Review’s Down Fell the Statue of Goliath. Hungarian Poets and Writers on the Revolution of 1956, on 10 May 2017.)




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