Endre Ady is one of the most famous Hungarian poets. Literary critics perhaps would place him next to Attila József (1905-1937) in order of greatness. He was born in a God-forsaken village called Érmindszent in Szilágy County (now Adyfalva in Satu Mare County, Romania). Today the village is clearly dying. It has 177 inhabitants; 80 of them are Hungarian, the rest Romanian speaking. In Ady’s days it was a larger village of almost 800 people, divided almost equally between Romanian and Hungarian speakers.
The Ady family was an old noble family, but by the time Endre came along the parents’ economic status was just a notch above the local Romanian and Hungarian peasants. As one can see the family abode was decidedly modest.
So, from early on he knew what backwardness and poverty were and also had an appreciation of his Romanian neighbors. The family was Calvinist (Hungarian Reformed), and thus he attended a Calvinist high school in Zilah (today Zalau, Romania) which in his day was a smallish town of 10,000. Again the population was mixed but here, unlike in Érmindszent, Hungarians were in the majority. After finishing high school he moved on to Debrecen where he studied law, but instead of lawyering he became a journalist. It was in Debrecen that he published his first volume of poetry. After two years in Debrecen he moved on to Nagyvárad (Oradea, Romania) where he found an entirely different atmosphere from that of Debrecen, which he heartily disliked. In his later years in his writings, poetry and prose, Debrecen is always portrayed as the embodiment of provinciality and backwardness. (Debrecen even today is a very conservative town where Lajos Kósa [Fidesz] has been mayor for the last twelve years and will be elected again this fall.) Nagyvárad was an entirely different town. Today Oradea has a population about 250,000, but when Ady moved there it had only 60,000 inhabitants and a very large Jewish population (about 15,000). Nagyvárad in Ady’s day had a lively cultural life and it was here that he met the woman of his life, Adél Brüll (Mrs. Diósi) who actually resided with her husband in Paris but was on a visit to her family in Nagyvárad. From here on Ady visited Paris seven times between 1904 and 1911.
Why did I decide to write about Ady today? Because an internet friend of mine sent me a short newspaper article by Endre Ady written in 1902, that is before he met Adél whom he called Léda, as in Leda and the Swan. So, let’s see what Ady had to say about Jews, Christians, corruption, and nationalism. First, an explanation of the title “Morals of Turan.” Turan is the Middle Persian name for Central Asia, literally meaning “the land of the Tur.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries Turan was primarily an ideological term designating Altaic and Uralic languages. In Hungary people often talk about the “Curse of Turan” (turáni átok) which is the belief that Hungarians have been under the influence of a malicious spell for many centuries. The “curse” manifests itself as inner strife, pessimism, misfortune, and historic catastrophies. For Ady here it meant a Hungary that is not western but Asiatic and therefore not modern and progressive. So surely these morals of Turan are nothing to be proud of.
According to Ady some Catholic papers published a letter from a candidate for parliament who was asking for the votes of the people appealing to “Jewish morals.” In the comments the editors used this phrase to make some antisemitic remarks. Ady explains that Christian morals by themselves don’t really exist. One can speak only of Judeo-Christian morals. And he adds that unfortunately “full blooded Hungarians, the flame of the Hungarian peasantry, didn’t manage to acquire these morals.”
Apparently a member of parliament announced that holding truly clean elections in Hungary is an impossibility. “We can’t really expect the poor citizens to love his country for nothing…. These are the Hungarian gentlemanly morals. So please don’t try to find the answer in Jewish morals. One should look around in the Land of Turan…. Max Harden, with his critical German mind, claims that the Hungarian is the most corrupt nation on the face of the earth. And that we were corrupt in the barbarian period and even today in our half barbarian times.
“If a cultured man were to take a look at the Hungarian election campaign, he would get sick to his stomach. Each election campaign reveals that we don’t have any talent for modern parliamentary life. Each Hungarian election is the bankruptcy of intelligence and maturity. The politicians themselves want it this way, and make sure that it becomes a reality….
“So please don’t talk about Jewish morals. This is a very weak clerical trick. Our Hungarian nation stands at the highest degree of morality….. total immorality.”
Is anyone surprised that Hungarian nationalists hated Ady? And this kind of brutally critical writing is typical of his journalistic activities. I try to imagine what would happen to a journalist today if he said that Hungary was the most corrupt nation on the face of the earth or that they lived in a half barbaric state. I’ll bet the Arrows of Hungarians, if they were not sitting in jail as they do at the moment, would go after him with a few Molotov cocktails.
In any case, the themes are familiar: Jewish morals, Christian virtues, corruption, cynical politicians, lack of talent for modern parliamentary life. Should I continue? It is sometimes worth reading writers from those “halcyon” days that are extolled by so many as the golden age of Hungary.