Editors’ Note: This article by the Hungarian novelist George Konrád was read at the Venice Biennale on Cultural Dissent which took place in November and December. (See The New York Review of Books, July 14, 1977, for the background to this event.) Many writers and artists from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who are now living in the West attended the Biennale, including Andrei Sinyavsky, Joseph Brodsky, Leszek Kolakowski, and Joseph Skvorecky. (Among the Western writers attending were Alberto Moravia, Susan Sontag, and Claude Roy.) Mr. Konrád was, however, the only writer now living in Eastern Europe who was able to take part; all the other writers in the USSR and in the Eastern European countries who accepted invitations were denied visas to travel to Venice.
Mr. Konrád is the author of two novels, The Case Worker, published in 1974, and The City Builder, which has just been published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. He was arrested in November 1973 while collaborating with a friend, Ivan Szelenyi, on a book on the intelligentsia in the East and West, and was soon after released. This work will appear in 1978 as The Road of the Intellectuals to Class Power.
Aside from the symposium on literary dissent, which heard Mr. Konrád’s statement, the Venice Biennale also included special sessions on nationalized filmmaking, religious and scientific freedom, and the history of dissent, as well as exhibitions of films and works of art. Stephen Spender, one of the participants in the Biennale, wrote: “I have the impression that this congress of dissidents at the Biennale will be of historic importance…. Its great value for those of us from the West may be that it complicates for us the over-simplified picture we had in our minds of the dissidents—of themselves, their literature, their problems. We are able to see all these as far more complex, varied, and rich than we had supposed.”
I am an Eastern European; I know what repression is like, and my experiences with it did not begin with Stalinism. I attended a small-town Jewish elementary school; out of its 100 students only four of us are alive today. I have known ever since that you cannot trust the state, only a few friends at best. It is also since then that I want private conscience, and not public loyalty, to choose between right and wrong. It’s to make sure this happens that I became a writer.
The death camps provided the twentieth century with the absolute model of evil. Those who built the camps, and who run and defend them, are not demented criminals; they are merely loyal, all too loyal citizens of the state. The true symbol of the totalitarian state is not the executioner, but the exemplary bureaucrat who proves to be more loyal to the state than to his friend.
It is quite easy to be infected by a state religion and very difficult to be cured of it. For me, one of the tasks of literature is to illuminate that secret network of roads that led to the camps. The signposts on these roads carry messages from an official culture that enfeebles the citizen’s moral autonomy.
The state culture can draw on left-wing or right-wing, anticapitalist or anticommunist rhetoric; but in either case, it requires from its citizens the kind of allegiance that shifts responsibility onto the leaders and installs a censor in our minds.
In all of us, the censor is out to cow the poet who has to say what’s on his mind. The better a work of literature, the more incompatible it is with falsehood; the better the writer, the less suited he becomes to utter lies.
When a writer lies he manipulates his thoughts; when he is truthful he is being led by them. Literature is a dive into the unknown, like falling in love or praying to God. One cannot falter and say to the creative spirit: I have followed you thus far, I’d better not go any further. The act of creation is always a radical act. With each work we test the limits of our consciousness.
I am subservient to that ironic demon of which Socrates and Kierkegaard spoke. It is self-evident that at a certain point, the aesthetic value of literature coincides with its ethic; and because this is so, the expectations of our superiors and clients must appear insignificant. If we worry too much about these expectations, we stand a good chance of producing inferior works. Thus it is in my own best interest to allow myself to be led by the demon of my creation.
The interest of bureaucrats lies elsewhere; their demon is the authority and imperturbability of the reigning ideology. It would be foolish of me to feel sad about our diverging interests. Whoever tries, out of political cunning, to appeal to the stale myths of the common good deludes himself, not the state.
Our means of expression is the word; the state relies on crude or subtle forms of coercion. I reject terror in any form, be it official or individual. The gallows erected by the state are not any more decent than a gun thrust out of the window of a speeding car. In our own century more than 100 million people died as a result of orders issued by statesmen. No common criminal can match this record.
I cannot espouse any doctrine that gives a human being not unlike myself the right to do away with an individual, or 100 million individuals, by signing a piece of paper or pressing a button. There is no political doctrine that does not reserve the statesmen’s right to be accomplices in murder. For this reason I can be neither communist nor liberal. If it were up to me I would not entrust the fate of mankind to the occupants of either the Kremlin or the White House—to these limited and much too fallible individuals.
The state puts fathers over us who play their political games, and while doing so cause others to die. The job of the apologists of state cultures is to justify degrees of violence. To do this they must lie a lot. I try to understand even the liar, but I do not want to be taken in by his lies. I am a writer; my stock in trade is irony, not ideology. The reason I try to see through deceit is not so that I, too, could become a deceiver. I did not quit one state culture to join another. We who devise amusing lies for a living do our job best if we are more skeptical and less generous with the venerable and self-righteous lies of our age than our venerable and self-righteous contemporaries.
I do not believe that people’s lives improve if a state bureaucrat, and not a private capitalist, controls production. The idea of private property does not fill me with joy, but neither does the notion of state property. There are capitalist dictatorships and socialist dictatorships; I do not believe one is better than the other. I have no desire to choose between Hitlerism and Stalinism, and do not ask if it is better to be tortured in an interrogating room which has a red star on the wall, or in one adorned with a cross.
But there are capitalist democracies whose stability lies not in the strength of their police or in their constitutions, but in the courage of their citizens, in their conditional and critical loyalty. Eastern Europe has a chance to achieve democratic socialism (or socialist democracy); from time to time this specter haunts the state socialist societies of that region. In theory, the two are not incompatible; there is no real reason why I should consider socialism and democracy polar opposites. The question of what portion of the total number of decisions in a society should remain state decisions is really a pragmatic one, part of the larger issue of the struggle between state and society.
If nationalization in any society is total, there will be obviously people who will wish it weren’t; they will say it oppresses them to know that wherever they go, they come up against the state’s prohibitive regulations, its dense ideological strictures, its vigilance, its control. Each individual—the general manager as much as the laborer—is interested in extending his freedom of movement. The manager would like to gain some freedom from the party office, and the laborer from the manager. During periods of reform, the dependencies loosen, groups within society become more critical about their own demands, and the utopia of democratic socialism is placed on the agenda. In Budapest in 1956 and in Prague in 1968, this utopia was not an illusion. It became one a year later, in both cities.
But socialism, like capitalism, is a historical structure, with many variations. The Cambodian version is quite different from, say, the Hungarian model. In one country more than one hundred thousand people are said to have been killed in the last two years; in the other, none of my colleagues is in prison. I do not consider this difference negligible. The difference between Cambodia and Hungary is at least as great as that between, say, Chile and Austria. I could not survive in either Cambodia or Chile.
Socialism for me is a general term for all that has happened and all that will happen in its name in Eastern Europe. Socialism is not only the five-year plan but the worker who fulfills it; not just the police agent but the person he is snooping after; and not only propaganda on television but my mother who watches it. Naturally, I prefer the worker to the plan, the man under surveillance to the surveillant, and my mother to the program on TV.
As I see it, socialism presents a new type of conflict between the leaders and the led; indeed a new kind of conflict is taking place in the minds of men. The third quarter of our century saw the thorough nationalization of Eastern European societies. My prediction is that during the fourth quarter ordinary citizens, in their slow and cunning ways, will “humanize” the state.
I have nothing against state-supported kindergartens, subsidized education and health care, or cheap books appearing in large editions. I am, however, strongly opposed to military hardware and to such things as house searches for manuscripts and electronic surveillance. But I do not like these searches any more when they take place in West Germany. I am not a fan of angry, obese politicians who blame all the ills of society on writers. And I don’t like them even if they claim to curtail freedom in defense of democracy. All reactionaries stifle their freethinkers by thundering against the enemy’s dictatorship. Authoritarian regimes of wildly different stripes detect freedom of conscience with equal fervor.