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.
In Eastern Europe everyone is more or less concerned with increasing personal freedom, but everyone lives in a state culture. All those who are subject to control from above would like to be left alone; many of them would opt for a form of self-government, but an alternative culture, a parallel culture, has not taken shape yet—it exists in informal conversations, but not yet in books. Its key word is autonomy, which is not backed by any organized movement or institution; its only reliable base of support is the individual consciousness, a stage on which our autonomous self takes on our manipulated self. This conflict does not split society along the middle the same way the line between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat did forty years ago. The breaking up of the state’s monopoly of power is a joint undertaking in which—consciously or unconsciously—the entire society participates. Out of this silent struggle a parallel culture is born, which leaves its mark on every phase of societal life—on its poetry as well as on its economic theory, on production meetings and political jokes, on barroom brawls and bedroom mutterings. Here and there it even infiltrates the public culture. We are talking, then, about a contest between two value systems, and what makes the struggle exciting and tense is that neither side has contestants who are “pure” representatives of their position.
Three years ago in Budapest a singular honor was mine: at least a hundred employees of the state police were trying to prevent a study I wrote with a friend from seeing the light of day. For a week we didn’t see it either; but this little lesson was quite useful. The incongruousness of the minor police-station happening, the degrading of so many essentially decent people, made me understand that when action is taken against my ideas, the real victims are the accusers, not I. For a moment I saw right through their misery: they are afraid of something they do not understand and persecute their own secret thoughts.
We could say that the official of the state police is interested in preserving the hierarchy of his values, while the avant-garde poet is concerned with his personal freedom. But if we become conscious of the probability that they are both young, are perhaps the graduates of the same university, and in many ways have the same cultural background, then this rigid polarization breaks down. It’s possible that for the young detective it is unpleasant to interrogate his classmate; on the other hand the young avant-garde poet could conceivably approve of all the advantages intellectuals enjoy in state socialism—subsidized book publishing, for instance, or undemanding jobs in the cultural sphere.
We could say that in different ways the conflict between autonomy and respect for hierarchy affects both of them. We could not understand either man in terms of old-fashioned dichotomies; nor can we see them as romantic incarnations of good and evil. This conflict is in many ways unique to Eastern Europe, and no Westerner is in a position to comment on it in depth, although it is relevant to Western society as well since there, too, governmental authority, aided by parties and ideologies, is growing; Western Europe is also moving steadily toward a state-ruled society—its bourgeoisie is weakening and its technical intelligentsia is growing in strength. Eager for financial security and state subsidies, the latter rely on government control to protect their interests; and the masses of consumers, concerned about their standard of living, will gladly shift the burden of decision-making onto a paternalistic state.
Europe is confused; its western half no less than the eastern part. One after another, its ideologies have been exposed in their folly. Intellectuals from East and West have been remiss in not being able to illuminate either state capitalism or state socialism, and in them, the role of intellectuals, members of the most dynamic class in history.
Each ideology promises to extend my freedom, but if I become the follower of one, I pay for its modest benefits with other freedoms. With communism comes the Kremlin, with liberalism, Wall Street, with Christianity, the Vatican. With ideals come institutional discipline and partisan dishonesty. Each one is clever when mocking its enemies, and clumsy when justifying itself. An ideal is deformed as soon as it is adopted by a system.
The world would be a dreary place and I a fool if I simply adjusted the contradictions in my own mind to the ongoing ideological struggles of the superpowers. If I did do it, in the end I would be like the World War I army chaplains who argued eloquently that God was on the side of the Central Powers—or the Entente, as the case may have been. In any case, I couldn’t decide whether I preferred a communist hydrogen bomb or a democratic one.
Each revolution in history triumphs in the face of superior armed might. I saw returning war veterans, family men, change into revolutionaries between two bus stops; I saw policemen turn into ordinary citizens in a matter of hours. Freedom is a beautiful word even for an idiot; the desire for it, like the desire for sex, can be suppressed only temporarily. But people do not want an uprising just to provide the world press with an attraction, and then see their sons hanged by the hundreds. Until something better comes along, most people think about the house they would like to buy. Only among the guerrillas of the typewriter is there some commotion. Their fellow citizens smile at them cautiously, the more courageous among them shake their hands. There is no cause for alarm: in Eastern Europe the slow revolution of self-rule will not be brought about too hastily.
But a revolution is taking place already, without secret arsenals, underground organizations, or street demonstrations. Look at the unknown citizen who is promised all sorts of privileges if he agrees to become an informer, but he says no and smiles when threatened. Look at the unknown bureaucrat who finds a loophole in the official regulations in order to favor his client against the powers that be. This quiet revolution begins with people who do not subordinate their conscience to the needs of the state.
We represent the truth, our enemies, its opposite, believed the old-time revolutionaries. We awakened from this adolescent dream. The tensions of state socialism and those of my own mind reflect each other. The lackey resides in my head; until I see him for what he is I am his accomplice. I realize once again that social reform must go hand in hand with moral awakening.
The striving for personal autonomy is a lifelong endeavor. Our day-to-day existence may be less free than life in prison. Determinist world views cannot explain why so many people, even in the face of great pressure, do what they believe is right. This personal autonomy needs no set theory, secret organization, or official spokesman. It relies not on political power but on the moral resistance of the masses. It can be as different as people themselves—all of us are, after all, a personification of the eternal struggle between freedom and fear.
Personal autonomy is not freedom, but the utopia of continuous self-liberation. I cannot make decisions solely on the basis of my one-time experiences. It is when we are rejected on all sides that our spirit is relieved. In Eastern Europe anyone who decides he will not lie becomes, in a sense, a guerrilla fighter. Of course it’s difficult to be one; we have to re-examine our own selves, down to the very core of our being, and get to know one by one the objects of our fear. One thing keeps us going: the knowledge that we are more interested in our truths than in our comforts.
Let us not want to win; let’s just try to curtail each other’s power. It’s better to talk than fight. Negotiations require greater intelligence than subjugation or submission. Society cannot be rid of politics, but it can be rid of police terror. It is easier to solidify power than to dismantle it. It’s slow work to strengthen a weak society in the face of a powerful state. The sense of personal autonomy teases the curious man out of the respectable man; it suggests something that doesn’t yet exist, and finds a place for the unobtrusive counter-pressure of his truths in his environment.
Lies are always up to date; they are ten thousand cunning and condemned volumes. Truth is always unfashionable; criticism and compassion in the same sentence. It is as though the same ageless man were talking through the ages, promulgating a law by continually violating the laws. You can use violence with everyone, but the inner chambers of consciousness cannot be touched by violence; it’s much too crude for that. Fire, too, can destroy a tree, but it learns nothing of it in the process.
I would like to consider myself an independent writer, realizing that it is a lifelong struggle to strive for intellectual integrity in a world where official cultures, commercial considerations, fashions, prod me toward the commonplace, the arch-enemy of literature. With everything I write I formulate tentative answers to a question I pose every day: am I really a free writer? If my readers open my books after my death, they will have to decide whether I wrote anything that only I could have written, and whether I entered the Kafkan gates of that house of laws to which, though it’s protected by a forbidding-looking clerk, only I have access.
The label dissident, which other people may or may not attach to my name, says little about whether I did indeed enter that edifice. If to be an autonomous writer is a lifelong endeavor, the label dissident is a given title, a timely rank, a temporary stage in our life history—a little harassment from the police and it’s conferred upon me by the Western press.
I don’t have to write good literature in order to be considered a dissident writer; it’s enough if I am involved in a scandal. The more small-minded my country is in its supervision of cultural matters, the easier it is for me to become a dissident. All I have to do is to express the earthshaking opinion that I prefer freedom of the press to censorship, and I am entitled to the label. If what I write is the exact opposite of the not particularly witty editorials in my country’s official press, I may be called a dissident, but am not necessarily a good writer.
I do not like the literary application of the term because of its outdated moral-political connotations. According to many who use the word, the value of a book depends on whether or not it was published in the author’s native country, or whether or not the author was imprisoned—and not on how good the book really is. If it was published, perhaps it’s not that dissident, perhaps not even that good. When Khrushchev allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and “Matryona’s House” to be published, Solzhenitsyn was not yet a dissident, but when, in response to official rejections, he had The Cancer Ward and The First Circle published in the West, he suddenly became a dissident. Actually, Solzhenitsyn remained the same in all of these works, only the political atmosphere became more rigid. All of Pasternak’s works are published today in the Soviet Union, except Doctor Zhivago. Does that mean that we may speak of an official and a dissident Pasternak? Czech directors ushered in a new era in filmmaking in the Sixties with official blessings and were hailed in their native land. Today the same films cannot be shown there. The artists who made them did not become dissidents; the situation around them changed, and the state now considers provocative what a few years ago it approved. If Czech cultural politics were to become more liberal, the same works would again be presented.
In the Soviet Union abstract painters cannot exhibit their works; in Poland, Yugoslavia, and Hungary such works can be found in museums. Naturally, this does not mean that abstract art in the Soviet Union is more anti-regime than in those other countries, but simply that the regime is less tolerant.
Bans and permissions do not change the integrity, the autonomy of the work. They do not reflect its spirit, only new shifts in the wearisome struggle between the political leadership and society.
Works are completed, and depending on who comes out on top in the latest power struggle, are either published or buried. The climate changes of cultural politics can make an artist acceptable to the state or turn him into a dissident; thus, these changes can become important data in his biography, but they reveal precious little about the works themselves. Just as I don’t believe there is dissident music or dissident chess, I don’t think there is such a thing as dissident literature. The word dissident is simply not an appropriate adjective next to the noun literature.
And beyond literature, I try to view critically the culture of state socialism, but I am not engaged in any kind of exorcism. And as far as society is concerned, I declare my solidarity with the people of Hungary and of Eastern Europe, and I don’t want to be a dissident in relation to them. I have no umpire chair from which I tell the good apart from the bad. If being a dissident means something lofty, and the rest of the people are condemned to burn in some ideological hell, then I will quietly join the latter group. But if those are under fire who, with or without reason, call themselves dissident, then I am with them. In either case, I keep eyeing the judges with suspicion.
It’s a fact that the fate of a truthful work of art is always uncertain. The more significant the work, the better the author’s chances are that he will be neglected, suspected, even harassed. As in other parts of the world, good works cannot be born without moral perseverance in our region. But if moral courage is not radical enough to be universal; if the artist cannot extend his criticism of state socialism to a criticism of our civilization; if he doesn’t ultimately offer an ironic critique of the entire human race, then he is not rising above ideological journalism. Literary criticism motivated by ideology has already caused so much confusion and harm in Eastern Europe that I despair of its latest incarnation in the West.
The forcing of political considerations on art is not the sole prerogative of the Communist Party press. Critics of the liberal West can also indulge in conformist, moralizing inanities. Depending on fluctuation in foreign policy, they may over- or underrate certain East European works. The politically motivated adulation of authors results in their quick rise and fall. The overrated writer of average ability might exchange internal exile for a real one, where a cruel reassessment begins soon enough; it’s no longer necessary to praise him and add in a whisper: he might not be such a great writer, but he is a decent man.
I do not ask for unconditional support for Eastern European literature. Our works should not be looked upon as required edifying reading which might be politically useful but not good enough as literature. I would like the Western reader to see his own self, an imaginative extension of his own life, while reading our works. I would like him to feel as our readers do when exposed to good Western art.
The distinction between official and dissident literature requires so many complicated and partisan explanations. How much easier it is to say: good and bad literature. Public opinion, even that which is not printed in our newspapers, can accurately distinguish between these two, and will not be ashamed of a book even it if is published in the author’s own country. Dishonest works will ultimately sink into oblivion; truthful works are preserved by collective memory.
Naturally, we could also define the term dissident in a very general sense. In that case the founding fathers of our culture: Christ, Lao-tze, Buddha, Socrates are dissidents just as much as any great figure in philosophy and literature. None of them was liked by worldly powers; their presence was felt to be uncomfortable, and they were occasionally imprisoned, persecuted, starved. And we might say that this has been happening down to the present day. The most important writers of our century—Kafka, Musil, Joyce, Proust, Thomas Mann—could be considered dissidents in this sense. As I said, we could give the term a broad definition, but why should we—it will only denote the commonplace wisdom that great art is never conformist.
Literature is meditation; journalism is implementation. One can write journalism—but not create real literature—according to the requirements of the age, in favor of someone, against someone. The member of the secret police can be an enemy of the writer, but the writer, no matter how much he may dislike the man’s occupation, cannot be his enemy. On the contrary, he would like to beguile him into using his head and showing human emotion. Literature breaks away from everyone, and is at the same time close to everyone. It takes an oppositionist stance vis-à-vis the whole world and swears allegiance to the most miserable alley cat.
There can be no compromise. The more committed a writer is to serve—or fight against—a state, a party, a group, the greater the likelihood that his writing will drown in melodrama and demagogic rhetoric. The writer who joins militant alliances is a masochist: he is mutilating his own gifts. Literature is always out to protect the concretely human against the mostly violent and stupid formulations about the abstractly human. In this sense, it is public property; one cannot agree or disagree with it—one can only experience it or not experience it, love it or hate it, though it can even captivate those who hate its author and his ideas. Every decent writer is a one-man party and church, which cannot be joined. Literary movements serve propaganda purposes mostly, become extinct quickly, and what remain are a few individual works.
If we haven’t got our own individual world view which is expressible in concrete images we’ve got nothing—and neither Marxism nor any form of anti-Marxism can help us out. And even if we have our own view of things, each of our readers will inevitably misunderstand and reinterpret it. And thank God for that, for it may be the only thing that keeps our works alive.
(Translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders.)
January 26, 1978