János Kornai’s encounter with István Széchenyi (1)

Today’s post is inspired by the speech Professor János Kornai gave at the Széchenyi Academy of Literature and Arts. The occasion was an evening devoted to the great nineteenth-century statesman, István Széchenyi.

I will not repeat myself by relating details of István Széchenyi’s life and importance because three years ago I wrote a fairly lengthy piece about Széchenyi as the object of historical falsification. I focused on a movie made about Széchenyi’s life at the first Orbán government’s expense where the actor, influential in Fidesz circles, refused to play the part of a hero who commits suicide. No problem, the sponsor, i.e. the Hungarian government, obliged. The film ended with a lie: Széchenyi was murdered by the evil camarilla in Vienna.

Szechenyiistvan

István Széchenyi (1791-1860)

István Széchenyi (1791-1860)

In my earlier post I mentioned that conservative governments usually develop a veritable Széchenyi cult while liberals and socialists cling to their hero, Lajos Kossuth. This has been the case all through the last hundred and fifty years, and allegedly Széchenyi is the idol of the present regime as well. But after reading János Kornai’s speech it becomes crystal clear that Viktor Orbán and his friends should be the last people on earth to even utter Széchenyi’s name. Because this government’s policies go against the very core of Széchenyi’s ideas about Hungary’s place in the world.

The title of Kornai’s lecture was “Meeting Széchenyi.” I must admit I often thought about translating some of Széchenyi’s famous sentences about Hungary as he saw it in the 1830s. But it would be a formidable task because the Hungarian language of almost two hundred years ago poses a real challenge. At times one needs to be very imaginative to figure out what certain words might mean. Professor Kornai collected quite a few typical Széchenyi quotations and perhaps one day I will translate them all and even more, but if I tried it today there would be nothing to post.

János Kornai assumes, correctly I think, that Széchenyi would feel quite comfortable after a while in our world. He was always terribly interested in technology and surely, says Kornai, Széchenyi would be fascinated by the Internet. He would read a few new books on economics, learn something about the present economic situation in the world and in Hungary, and he would be ready to listen to Kornai’s lecture. Moreover, Kornai thinks that Széchenyi would agree with most of what he has to say.

To begin with, István Széchenyi travelled widely in Europe and he was especially taken by the leading industrial state of the time, England. Therefore, he had a knowledge of the countries west of Hungary and was able to compare Hungary to them. And one had to be blind not to see how backward Hungary was in comparison. Here are two quotations I managed to translate this afternoon.

In his famous book Hitel (Credit, 1830) he wrote: “To brag about the defects and blemishes of the fatherland is the property of lowly and cowardly souls. But not to acknowledge them or perhaps even extol them as virtues–as something we often encounter–is the sign of blindness and ignorance.”

Or in his Diary, from 1832: “I used to be against the Turks but now I’m on their side because they want to become civilized. Only they don’t know how. The Hungarians are more ignorant. They imagine in their conceit to be superior to all other nations.”

The backwardness of Hungary in comparison to other western European countries is still a fact of life. In the last twenty-three years Hungarian GDP/person once reached a high of 51% that of Austria. Downtown Budapest would most likely delight Széchenyi but not the outskirts or some of the smaller towns, especially in the eastern part of the country. Széchenyi was especially fascinated by the development of what we call infrastructure today: bridges, railroads, navigable waterways. He would be upset to see that the construction of the Budapest metro is stalling, that building of new modern roads has slowed, and that buses, streetcars, and railroad cars are in terrible shape.

Széchenyi would also be very upset about the state of the Hungarian budget. He wrote in his Diary (1826): “I’m afraid Hungary will collapse financially. Even the worst managed estate or household can go on indefinitely and without hindrance as long as the sum of the expenses is smaller than the sum of earnings.” Poor Széchenyi if he woke up today and saw the state of fiscal affairs in Hungary.

Széchenyi also considered the educational level of a society an absolute priority. Here is another quotation from his Diary (1832): “It is said that money makes the English. Take away his money but leave his brains. Give the money to the Hungarian but let him remain ignorant. And all will remain the same. Indeed, money is the visible instrument of development but deep down invisibly it is the brain that works.” Or in Világ (Light, 1831): “Public intelligence is the only real strength. There is no greater power. It must be developed far and wide.” Somehow I don’t think that Széchenyi would be a great friend of the Fidesz boys or Rózsa Hoffmann who don’t seem to have a terribly high regard for learning. Although we all know that economic development and wide-based educational attainment go hand in hand, the current government is spending less on education and believes in a very small university-educated group on top. And that elite should busy themselves with engineering or computer science. Literature, history, economics, legal studies–not really important.

Orbán and his friends completely misunderstand the requirements of technologically advanced societies. They think that what Hungary needs is a large, uneducated work force. Teaching anything to the “masses” is a waste of money. I don’t think that we can even comprehend the long-lasting damage the Orbán government is inflicting on Hungarian society. Széchenyi would be outraged.

(To be continued)

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The Hungarian Student/Comedian
Guest
The Hungarian Student/Comedian

Thank you for the great post. I love reading about Széchenyi.
In the spirit of the second to last paragraph on education, I think Széchenyi would turn in his grave if he would be aware of the current situation unfolding. I get this creepy feeling that the current government wants to slowly shape the education system (more specifically the law and economic branches) to become something that can only be accessed (sooner or later) by the elite, or more specifically the Fidesz loyalists. Maybe I’m becoming paranoid.
The diary entry in 1832 that contained the sentence as follows: “The Hungarians are more ignorant. They imagine in their conceit to be superior to all other nations.” Does a majority of Hungarians really have this narcissistic view? I can’t really reflect this, I would think many of us are humble, but maybe I’m just in it all to be able to see it. Of course I’m not talking about the prime minister and the cabinet, that’s a psychological mess that would even give Freud a run for his money.

The Hungarian Student/Comedian
Guest
The Hungarian Student/Comedian

I forgot to add there was a short but great interview with Oszko Peter this Sunday (recorded Friday) in the TV show called Profit on ATV, related to the current financial situation and the more interesting 2010 situation prior to the current government taking over, which sort of relates to the blog post.
The video will appear here later on marked with Sundays date:
http://atv.hu/musoroldal/profit
(Finally Vicsek Ferenc performed an interview without consistently interrupting the interviewee.)

LwiiH
Guest

Széchenyi is one of my Hungarian heros. IMHO, his interest in improving public infrastructure that resulted in providing farmers better routes to markets along with other projects that saw new technologies being used in food production and transportation improved Hungary in a way that could still be measured today.

petofi
Guest

I’ve always preferred Szechenyi to Kossuth.
My skepticism regarding Kossuth is, I think, echoed in the famous song, “Kossuth Lajos Azt Uzente” (Kossuth Lajos Sent This Message).
The song states that Kossuth has lost his regiment; and if he sends that message AGAIN (!!) then all of them–presumably the crowd in the tavern–would have to leave and to help him.
Love the cynicism of that ditty…

Guest
London Calling! István Széchenyi is my Hungarian Hero too! I look forward to further blogs on this subject. I’m sure you will enlighten us Eva – but as a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth – he did remarkable good. It may be embarrassing for Fidesz and Orban to admit that the SuperHeroes of Hungary relied on the British to build his bridge? I’m sure you know – (I have referred to it in passing before) but for all those who don’t they may be surprised. Apologies for teaching grandma to suck eggs to those who do. Széchenyi was obviously an Anglophile! He asked William Tierney Clark to design his bridge – an English architect who had already built the proven design as there is an almost exact replica in Marlow England – built ten years’ earlier – but without the lions! The much smaller bridge in Marlow – and the one in Budapest are both beautiful in their settings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marlow_Bridge Even the man who managed the ‘build’ was Scottish and is still honoured by the ter named after him – Clark Adam Ter. Unfortunately his name was Adam Clarke so the spelling error remains! The lions… Read more »
anecdote
Guest

@ Hungarian Comedian.
Have no fear…..you are absolutely not paranoid.

Wondercat
Guest

@Prof Balogh: I look forward greatly to those Szechenyi quotes — if you elect to provide both the original texts and your translations, that will be grand. Thank you in advance.

Odin's Lost eye
Guest
@CharieH Marlow bridge yes I know it well. I have been across it and under it many times. Mind you it is tiny compared to ole Bill Clark’s bridge joining Buda to Pest. There are no lions to guard it just a ‘God House’ on the town side and a very snooty hotel (The Complete Angler) and a boat yard on the other. I did not realise that Adam Clarke was a Scott. The spelling mistake in the name caused me to think the two were related. The one thing I have learned about Hungary it is folly to show that you have any knowledge of anything. Even rude mechanical things like screw threads. If things do not fit the natives use a bigger hammer! They often ask me why I have 8 hammers in my work shop and another three in the wood shop. It is useless to explain that these all do different jobs and trying to explain the ‘1 thou nudger’ (with it I can move something 1 thousandths part of an inch –about 1/5 of the thickness of a human hair- @The Hungarian Student/Comedian you are not paranoid. It is part of the new 1000 year… Read more »
Lutra lutra
Guest

Wasn’t aware of the bridge in Marlow but Hammersmith Bridge is another of Clarke’s works. The main difference is that Hammersmith has to be closed for repairs if a fully-laden No. 33 bus goes over it, but it takes thousands of tons of Nazi and Russian explosives to do the same for the Széchenyi bridge.

Odin's Lost eye
Guest

@ Lutra lutra I know it is perhaps difficult and confusing but the previous Hammersmith bridge was designed by William Tierney Clark not Adam Clarke.
Both the current and previous (Clark’s design) Hammersmith bridges are generally known to be very weak and is one of the reasons why various groups have tried to blow it up.
The reason why the Széchenyi bridge. is so tough was that it was properly built. Hammersmith was always interfered with by the LCC

Kirsten
Guest
The Hungarian Comedian: “I can’t really reflect this, I would think many of us are humble,” Perhaps “split personality” could explain that. In my experience the observation of Szechenyi is as good a description as is yours. They apply to different circumstances. When you come to Hungary as a foreigner, knowing no Hungarian, relying on tourist guides, you will be explained that the most rotten houses are actually treasures reflecting the ancient traditions of Hungarians. If a house is in good shape, this is sold as a treasure unique to the whole world. (Quite unbelievable to Hungarians who happen to be witnesses to such extravaganza.) The building of the parliament is seldom related to its purpose (participation) but its size is presented as entirely extraordinary (positive) as are the costs of running it (“only we…”). Or: “Here you see the Great Plain (= nothing), entirely unique and breath-taking. Only we can offer you such views.” Etc. Arguments using this kind of reasoning are (in my impression) the standard fare currently of Fidesz and there are people that go marching for these maxims. So somehow this IS part of the Hungarian “national heritage” and has an appeal. That this is combined… Read more »
The Hungarian Comedian
Guest
The Hungarian Comedian
@Kirsten First of all I would like to say thank you for taking the time to elaborate! I’m not sure if my reply will make any sense, and please ignore the reply if it doesn’t make sense. I want to give two examples of two different public and controversial incidents and my personal reaction to them, as the public reaction was made very clear in media. For instance, when Kertész Ákos wrote that ‘the Hungarians are genetically dependant’ (a magyar genetikailag alattvaló), my first reaction was; “Why would he say that?”, “Is there any truth to it, or is he lashing out?”, “Can there be a scientific explanation, or perhaps a biochemical anomaly in this region of Europe that could be statistically proven?”. The second example would be Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech in Balatonőszöd in May 2006, when the sound bite ‘Instead, we lied in the morning, at noon and at night.’, was repeatedly played over and over, and was practically the Fidesz meal ticket; that and the financial crisis in 2008. My first reaction to this was again, “What made him say this?”, “What was the purpose, and what was the lie?”, “So what will happen next? Will he correct… Read more »
petofi
Guest

@ The Hungarian Comedian: “…is he lashing out..?”
Of course he was. Kertesz is/was a wordsmith: he knows the allusionary power of his words. Sure, he might have sought expiation in that ‘secondary’ meaning of “genetically”, but I’m sure he was after the insult value of the term. And why not? An 80 year old, much-celebrated writer is seeing his world disintegrate around him; and his cultural roots being daily denigrated by the activity of a madcap government. What lover of his country and its culture would not get red-faced angry? And for this he was cajoled and threatened, and had to leave the country?
Decency, Intelligence, Goodwill, and most other virtues of civilization have left the House, perhaps never to return…

Carolyn Y.
Guest

Fantastic. The finance-related quotes (and accompanying disappointment) apply to so many countries today, not just Hungary. But I love the quotes that encapsulate the nature of being Hungarian. Such a fine line between confidence and conceit!
I’m looking forward to more quotes– and I agree with Wondercat. Could we have the originals along with the English?

The Hungarian Comedian
Guest
The Hungarian Comedian

@petofi
The point I was trying to make although I wasn’t able to get it across I’m afraid, that, it never crossed my mind to be angry with the statement. It was merely an evaluation and moving on.
While others apparently spit on him and cursed him in the streets. That to me shows what Hungary has become today.

LwiiH
Guest

Gyula Budai said in an interview with Magyar Hírlap that “legislation will have to be enacted which does not run counter to EU law but which ensures that no Hungarian land is owned by foreigners.”
How is this in line with EU rules?

petofi
Guest

@ LwilH…”..in line with EU rules?”
In any sane country a guy like Budai would’ve been forced to resign a long time ago.
Hungarians have a theory about self (“We’re superior and we know best”) and government (“Laws, Precedent, Democratic Values mean what we say they mean) that is 24 carat proof of the mass psychosis they suffer from. Szeycsenyi was prescient to see all this 170 years ago. Of course, the knowledge of it,
and the hopelessness of the problem sent him around the bend.
A historical lesson here? The nervous nature of plateau folk from the Asian hinterland are just not suited to the placidity of plains living…

Paul
Guest

Why do we have to choose between Széchenyi and Kossuth? Both were great men, both tried to improve Hungary in their own way, both gave their all, and both had flaws.

Kirsten
Guest

The Hungarian Comedian: “it never crossed my mind to be angry with the statement.”
But those statements have very different political impact. Assuming that the statement of Akos Kertesz was really nothing else than an opinion of a writer who just happened to argue along the same lines of reasoning that the Hungarian nationalists do but in reverse, it is “just” a personal opinion. Certainly you can “modestly” or generously just overlook that. But in the case of Ferenc Gyurcsany and his speech? That was highly political and the reaction to it a complete misunderstanding of his intentions. I also think that such strong words could not have been passed over but the worst has been made of it. So if you actually mean by “modest” that people abstain from politics and let those more ruthless do the job (wondering why society then starts to behave according to their standards), I think it is time to reconsider the benefits of modesty. You need not copy what followed after 1789 but the “negotiated” or “velvet” revolutions in 1989 apparently did only half the job.

The Hungarian Comedian
Guest
The Hungarian Comedian

Kirsten: “So if you actually mean by “modest” that people abstain from politics and let those more ruthless do the job (wondering why society then starts to behave according to their standards), I think it is time to reconsider the benefits of modesty.”
No, sorry, I have to distance myself from your definition of modesty. I just think it’s important to think first, shoot second. Some people don’t stop to evaluate anything now days, they are just slaves to what is put in front of them.

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