I hardly ever write anything on literary topics although I began my university career as a student of Hungarian language and literature. The few times I wrote about literature I usually discussed it from a political perspective, which was justifiable because the relationship between literature and politics in the countries of East-Central Europe is legendarily close. How, for instance, can we separate the poetry of Sándor Petőfi, Endre Ady, or Attila József from the turbulent political events of their times?
For quite a while Fidesz has been waging a kind of Kulturkampf, which by now has resulted in a politically split literary community. The Association of Hungarian Writers was established in April 1945 on the Soviet model, but by 1955 the association became one of the leading opponents of the Rákosi regime. It had an important political role to play before and during the 1956 October Revolution, and during the Kádár regime the organization again slowly began to be politically significant. After 1990 most of the writers who sympathized with the liberals and the socialists left the association. By now it is a gathering place for writers who sympathize with the current regime.
Over the last 43 years the association has organized an annual week-long gathering of writers and other representatives of Hungarian cultural life, to which Fidesz theoreticians and politicians are now also invited. Last year only one non-pro-Fidesz writer was invited to speak, but he was unable to deliver his talk because someone who didn’t agree with his political views smashed his face. As usual, the gathering was held in Tokaj, and I’m sure that the ample amount of Tokaj wine consumed had something to do with the assault, but it still tells you a lot about this group of “national writers.”
Topics discussed in Tokaj are those that concern writers who side with the Orbán government’s fight for national sovereignty. For example, this year the theme was “National culture and myth in the age of global change,” a fertile topic for people who identify themselves as “national writers” as opposed to cosmopolitan writers who, in their opinion, don’t represent the nation. In the last minute the organizers decided to add the topic of migration to globalization as a threat to “the cultural roots, consciousness, and self-knowledge of the Hungarian nation.” Speeches were delivered on issues that were considered to be threats, like “the electronic industrial revolution” and “the products of the global media industry.”
These writers seem to be frightened by both foreign and technological influences on the national culture. Products of the media–meaning news–reach Hungarians far too easily. Growth in the mastery of foreign languages, especially English, is also considered a threat to traditional national culture and to Hungarians’ “knowledge of where they came from and who they are.” To make sure that no one has any doubts about the “myth that holds the nation together,” the organizers presented an exhibition of photos of shamans from Siberia.
The appearance of Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, was the highlight of the event. His speech was confused and incoherent, which usually happens when a politician talks about something he knows nothing about. Most opposition papers concentrated on what they found most objectionable: instructions from the politician regarding “the task of writers,” because it immediately brought to mind Andrei Zhdanov’s speech at the Congress of Soviet Writers which led to the official doctrine of socialist realism in the cultural sphere of the Soviet Union. Although Balog emphasized that writers are not politicians, he said that “we expect that they will tell us in the language of art and culture who we are and who we could be as human beings, as members of the Hungarian community, and as part of the European Jewish-Christian civilization.” One could ask, of course, why we need others to tell us who we are. Or why we should wait for a writer to tell us who we could or should be. This is not why we read a novel or a poem. What Balog demands here is a political agenda, not an artistic one.
Another troubling theme of Balog’s speech dealt with the spatial limits of Hungarian literature. Writers “with the assistance of their unique language” should tell us what “we don’t and do know about the world around us and about the wider world, the Hungarian world.” Writers are thus not meant to take us very far: this “wider world” is defined either by the country’s current geographical borders or perhaps can be expanded to include the space inhabited by ethnic Hungarians who, through no fault of their own (think Trianon), live outside present-day Hungary. The whole speech focused on learning about Hungary and the Hungarians. The individual is nowhere, the nation is everywhere. The individual following his own unique path isn’t artistically important; instead, the nature of his national identity should be the theme of Hungarian literature.
In case you think I read something into Balog’s words that is simply not there, I would like to call attention to another passage which reinforces my interpretation of Balog’s message. “Locality and identity are closely related concepts” and “mobility means loss of identity,” he claimed. The conclusion is that mobility is a threat to national identity, which in Fidesz thinking is the alpha and omega of national existence. Therefore, it seems, from the point of view of the current Hungarian regime the kind of closed-off Hungary that existed during the Rákosi and Kádár regimes would be ideal. Of course, if I confronted them with such a conclusion, they would loudly protest, but “mobility means loss of identity” in a context in which national identity is lauded as a virtue cannot to my mind be interpreted in any other way.
From this conference we get a pretty grim picture of the ideas of pro-Fidesz cultural and political leaders. Speedy communication and the rapid flow of information via the internet threatens national culture, and mobility leads to the loss of one of our greatest treasures, our national identity. According to this ideology, writers are supposed to tell us who we are within the “larger world,” which is only a few thousand square kilometers and which is under attack from foreign influences.