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The Hungarian Lesson

  1. Background Reading

Imagine a garden maze, a maze in which mirrors conceal the hedges, giving the illusion of open space and free movement, but also distorting wildly, as in a fairground hall of mirrors. At one corner you look impossibly tall, thin, and pale, like the poet Petöfi; at the next, absurdly squat. First you confidently step forward—and hit a mirror. Then you nervously edge round an open space. But sometimes you can walk straight through a mirror (or hedge), only, of course, to find yourself in another alley. Here you meet the administrator of the maze, himself lost in it.

This is Hungary.

At a recent meeting of the writers’ union one of Hungary’s most respected writers, István Eörsi, delivered a powerful appeal for censorship. Yes, for censorship. Give us censorship! he said. Give us one office which is clearly and officially denoted as the Censors’. Specify its powers. Give us legal definitions of the boundaries. Prosecute us in the courts if we trespass beyond them. At least we would then know where the hedges are. Eörsi’s idea was not new. Solidarity in Poland, attacked the censorship in precisely this way, by demanding its selfdefinition, and partly achieved that goal in the 1981 law, “On the Control of Publications and Public Performances.” Even today, the censorship is more explicit and visible in Poland than in any other East European state, which is a kind of progress.

In Hungary the position is worse and better. Better because in practice so much can be published officially, including works of Polish writers such as Witold Gombrowicz which cannot be published officially in Poland. Worse because, since there is no Censor, everyone has become a censor; not just the officials in those departments of the Central Committee and the Culture Ministry which are, in fact, politically responsible for censorship, but every newspaper editor, publisher’s reader, television producer, and, worst of all, the writer himself. Because there is not one censorship there are many censorships: collective and individual, political and social, pre-and postpublication, before, after, and during the very act of writing. In this respect, Hungary is more like the Soviet Union—where, as is well known, there is no Censorship.

The Hungarian difference consists not in the machinery of censorship, but in the way it is used. Pierre Kende1 has identified three main surviving categories of “outright taboo.” You may not question or criticize the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe, Soviet foreign policy in general, and neighboring socialist states insofar as they follow Soviet precepts. (This last is the only major constraint on what economists can publish officially.) The basic legitimacy of Communist party rule is also sacrosanct. Finally, you cannot directly attack Marxist-Leninist “socialism” by name.2 Yet as Kende points out, there are startling exceptions even in these categories: a historical journal has published an astonishingly frank account of how the Communist party rigged the 1947 elections, which formally legitimated its seizure of power, and even the great trauma of 1956 has been treated—with the barest of allegorical disguises—in fiction and drama.

Many Western observers apply the word “liberalism” to this state of affairs. Hungarian writers talk rather of “chaos” or “anarchy” in the cultural dictatorship. Nowadays, they say, you simply can’t tell what will get through. There’s almost nothing that might not be allowed; but what was permitted at eight o’clock may be denounced at noon. The instruments of control are out of sync. A new textbook in Hungarian language and literature (which includes a chapter on the Bible) is officially passed for use in schools; then it is fiercely attacked in the official press. Books that have passed through all the hoops of precensorship are suddenly withdrawn after being on sale for several days. This happened most recently to a biography of Bela Kun by a scholar at the Institute for Party History—following a protest from the Soviet embassy. And so on. Here is the moving maze.

Two main reasons are given for this “anarchy,” one contingent, one systemic. The contingent reason is that György Aczél, the inventor of the maze, the Kádár of culture for a quarter of a century, is no longer in command. Aczél it was who in the late Fifties and early Sixties made the essential “Kádárite” bargain with writers. Its terms were, very roughly, that if they desisted from engaging in politics, as they had done with such spectacular results in 1956, if they observed the political limits, then the state, imposing virtually no stylistic limits, would publish and provide for them, generously, even lavishly. The maze has a deep-pile carpet. The limits were never clearly defined, but on any one borderline book, essay, or film, there was this one overlord who could say. “That is the wrong side of the hedge.” But at the last Party congress Aczél surrendered his overlordship of culture.

The systemic cause—which already began to take effect in the latter years of Aczél’s reign—is quite simply that the people who administer the system do not believe in it any more than the people they are censoring do. Marxist-Leninist ideology in Hungary today is as obviously wax as the face of Lenin in the mausoleum on Red Square. “If you write a rabidly anti-Russian article,” a friend explains, “the editor or publisher’s reader will not try to argue with you. He’ll say: ‘Marvelous piece. You’re so right about ‘56. I couldn’t agree more. Have a drink on me.”’ As a result, the censors have no objective criteria for deciding where the limits are: they too are lost in the maze. “Accepting the realities” is the slogan. But what are “the realities” for most editors or publishers? “The realities” are a judgment of what is acceptable to your superiors. But their “realities” too are mainly a judgment of what is acceptable to their superiors, and so on up to the very top.

And what are the top people’s “realities”? They are, we may surmise, twofold. First, there is the one living piece of Leninist ideology: the question of power. Here is a real criterion: Does this or that strengthen or weaken our power? But the answers to even this question in contemporary Hungary are often far from clear. Is it more strengthening or weakening (“stabilizing” or “destabilizing” in the jargon of Western political science) to allow relatively free debate about economic reform, to publish or to prohibit this book, that play? The second “reality” for Hungary’s top people is the same as everyone else’s: a judgment of what will be acceptable to their superiors. As most Hungarian writers are expert at judging what their editors will tolerate, so the top political leadership must be adept at judging just how much the Russians will tolerate. Rulers and ruled are united in self-censorship. Probably the usual effect of these successive levels of self-censorship is to stop the writer or artist well short of the actual limits. But because nobody believes in the ideology, because even Party officials seem to find it increasingly difficult, with the best will in the world, to see things the way the Russians do, they sometimes walk through a hedge (or mirror) themselves. Then the Soviet embassy protests.

The maze has its own language. I call it the Hungarian Periphrastic. It is a language of diabolical circumlocution, of convoluted allegory and serpentine metaphor, all guarded by a crack regiment of sub-Germanic abstract-compound-nouns. Nothing is said directly. Everyone is taken from behind. A spade is never a spade. A crime is never a crime. Here is Central Committee secretary Mátyás Szüorös describing how foreign policy was made in the 1950s under the Comintern: “Essentially it was done by a collective and pluralistic decision.” Pluralistic! “In certain specific cases this may have been harmful and as a whole perhaps objectionable in principle.” This is newspeak turned against its makers.

Yet the great majority of Hungarian writers, intellectuals, and academics also live and work in the maze. They too write dialects of the Periphrastic. Their criticisms of the authorities are oblique, implicit, elliptical, or metaphorical. To the initiated and sophisticated reader their meaning is no doubt entirely clear. The non-maze dweller and non-Hungarian speaker must hesitate to gloss what he does not understand. I am told that the finest contemporary Hungarian poetry and fiction are written and published in the maze. Their artistic quality I cannot judge, because so pitifully little is available in translation. Yet anyone can see that the Periphrastic is not a language to bring you to the barricades. It is the intellectual version of an attitude which prevails in the whole society: that of getting around the system rather than confronting it, of finding loopholes and niches, rather than making demands of the state; and the premise of this attitude is, again by contrast with Poland, the essential permanence and immutability of the system.

Not everyone works inside the maze. Since the mid-1970s, Hungary, like Poland and Czechoslovakia, has seen the growth of an intellectual opposition with its own independent samizdat publications and a pronounced allergy to the Periphrastic. Today there are two leading samizdat reviews, Beszélö and Hirmondó, and three samizdat publishers, AB, ABC, and Hungarian October. The publishers have produced some twenty books in the last year. The reviews probably reach some 10,000 readers. So far their main strength has been their treatment of social and political problems inside Hungary—poverty, inequality, alcoholism—and of developments in other Soviet bloc countries. As the publisher’s name suggests, the “Hungarian October” of 1956, that central negative reference point for officialdom, is the central positive reference point for the opposition. While officials, and all too many Western analysts, argue that Hungary has got where it has in spite of the revolution, the opposition intellectuals maintain that it is only because of the revolution, because of the resistance, the refusal to “accept realities,” yes, and the bloodshed then, that Hungary’s rulers now exercise their power in a relatively restrained, cautious, and tolerant fashion.

Emphasis falls on the word “relatively.” Generally speaking, those who publish regularly in samizdat will not be published officially and will be disbarred from official employment. Even with such an extensive second economy, this can make it very difficult for them to make ends meet. In addition, they may experience difficulties in staying in their state-owned apartments and in the education of their children. In this respect, too, the difference between Hungary and other Soviet bloc states is one of degree, not of kind.

This is still a modest opposition by Polish standards. Hungary’s “democratic opposition” of intellectuals has not yet developed either a distinctive political strategy, such as KOR did in Poland, or those links with other classes—above all, workers—without which Solidarity would never have been born. Its impact has nonetheless been considerable. Probably the main effect so far has been to extend the limits of the possible in official culture. Editors of official journals, who themselves have anyway become bolder since the late 1970s, can now argue that if they do not publish this author or that essay, he or it will “go into samizdat.”

  1. 1

    Censorship in Hungary, pp. 43–54 in Study No. 9 of the Research Project “Crises in Soviet-type systems” based in Vienna and directed by Zdenek Mlynar.

  2. 2

    Of course socialism remains a name,” a high-placed official intellectual told me, after describing his government’s further moves toward capitalism. “I mean ‘an aim’ not ‘a name,’ ” he corrected himself, tittering. But how often had he made this “slip” before, in private conversation with Western visitors?

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