Zoltán Balog’s message to Hungarian writers

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.

Zoltán Balog is giving instructions to writers and artists

Zoltán Balog giving instructions to writers and artists

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.

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exTor
Guest
Just earlier, I watched online news snippets following the train massacre that had been averted. It occurred to me that one [Anthony Sadler] of the labeled heros would be the kind of person that the Orbán regime would not want in Hungary: wrong color. This despite the fact that the actions of Sadler and his fellows saved a lot lives of people of the official color: white. So, Zoltán Balog attempts to promulgate another facet of Hungaricum: Magyarist realism, the analog of Soviet-socialist realism. Cower in the Hungarist homeland and show ethnic purity as it should look, a homeland untainted by refugees from war, a homeland that —irony of ironies— Roma who have been living here for generations are not allowed to join. Zoltán Balog is fighting a loozing battle. Andy Vajna, who has lived outside of Hungary for decades, knows the truth about Fidesz, but is a hypocrite, because Fidesz funnels gambling money to him. Others, who now live in Germany and England and elsewhere, are being tainted and they will (hopefully) bring that taint back with them when they return to Hungary. I was involved with the Toronto poetry scene for a decade and a half. It was… Read more »
Guest

Nationalist propaganda as the purpose and justification of literature: that appears to be the highest Fidesz literary ideal. These guys seem thick as a brick (begyepesedett fejű bunkók).

Guest
Has anyone noticed the latest Fidesz cultural phenomenon to hit the Budapest airport? With some time to kill, and nothing to read, I searched for an English language novel in the shops at the Ferihegy (now grandiosely called Liszt Ferenc) airport. I was hoping to find something of quality, something with an international reputation, and I did not care which country the author emanated from, as long as it was in original English. As I looked through every single contemporary novel on offer, I was shocked to find that they all had a Hungarian theme. And the shared topics were something like – what it’s like, and how amusing it is, for an ex-Hungarian to assimilate abroad, bringing with them their cultural heritage. I ended up buying a harmless light-weight novelette about a Hungarian family, hilariously dealing with their Hungarianess in England. So even while travelling, we are now perversely and ironically dictated to by our enligthened “leaders” what to read, which is a clear clamping down on freedom of speech and freedom of expression- literally! I suggest a committee be organised to investigate the bookshelves of Orbán and his politicos, to research what sort of literature they allow themselves… Read more »
exTor
Guest

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airport_novel

You didn’t think that you’d find ‘high lit’ at an airport bookshop, did you magyar2lips? There’s a good Wikiarticle on the phenomenon of certain types of literature being made more available in certain locations.

Your post made me think of Toronto’s transit system, specifically the subways. April is National Poetry Month in many areas, so poetry snippets are pasted overhead (in Toronto) where one would ordinarily find adverts.

I have a lot of issues with most poetry, which sucks (to be frank) mostly. I’ve seen NPM profferings that made me want to chuck my cookies, if you catch the drift of my Toronto highschool lingo.

Poetry —good poetry— should be read aloud, performatively. When I ref ‘subway poetry’ to my writer friend, it is always with the understanding that that poetry is (to be generous) less than good.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Guest

Actually, in many international airports, and even, previously, in Budapest, you could buy the classics – Dickens, Trollope, etc..

Now, the only English language literature at Ferihegy is solely limited to novels which have an ethnic Hungarian connection. That was my point, and my question is, which “enlightened” minister actually took the time and the trouble, while being paid with tax-payers money, to ferret out any subversive, non-Hungarian English language literature, to make sure that travellers would be fed yet more Orbán nonsense.

sedlacek
Guest

írók, írjatok remekműveket! Writers, write masterpieces!

eskild2013
Guest
exTor
Guest

Enjoyed the Charlie Chaplin snippet, which put me in mind of a screenplay-to-be that I’ve shelved for too long. In one scene, the protagonist (who is an amateur kickboxer) gets caught up in the WTO that’s emanating on his laptop as he writes. He gets up and synchros a choreography of punches and kicks as the music builds to its crescendo.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Tell_Overture

March Of The Swiss Soldiers [Wikiexcerpt]
[The finale’s] most famous use in that respect is as
the theme music for The Lone Ranger, so famous
that the term ‘intellectual’ has been defined as
“a [person] who can listen to the William Tell
Overture without thinking of The Lone Ranger.”

I guess that I’ve been excised from the league of intellectuals.

MAGYARKOZÓ

exTor
Guest

LOL, I’m now out of the LOI !!!

MAGYARKOZÓ

Guest

Charlie …he knows what good music is! And he’d no doubt dance a great csardas too…he could move!

Guest

Loved the Charlie Chaplin!! many thanks for cheering us up.

Ovidiu
Guest
Basically they are asked to write “blut und boden” (blood and soil) literature, that is to promote the nationalistic ideology through arts, just as it was done during the 1920s-1930s… and then again during 1950s-1960s, though then it was the communist ideology which was “incarnated” in fictional literary characters. No doubt there has always been a deep connection between arts and politics. It was noticed and debated already by Plato in The Republic, who also advised the rulers to promote, and to censor as well, the arts accordingly so as to maintain the stability of the polity. However, at a meta-level of analysis, such views (which make from his/her collective/group identity a subject of paramount importance for every individual/citizen) require an immediate existential threat. In the absence of such a threat it has to be invented by the rulers in order to force the citizens (or the ethnic/national group) to close ranks. I expect that in the near future Orban will start troubles with Hungary’s neighbors (not big enough to trigger war but big enough to create anxiety in Hungary).The subject of immigration form Middle East and Africa is also a godsend for Orban’s regime ideology, it will continue to… Read more »
exTor
Guest

Casus belli? Viktor Orbán? Rather laughable. To paraphrase a schoolyard rejoinder: “Who and whose army?”

Not sure what you mean by “[the refugee situation] will continue to be wiped out in the years to come”, Ovidiu.

You’re majorly correct about the refugee situation, where the most recent events concern those at the Macedonia/Greece border clashing with the cops trying to keep the would-be migrants from proceeding farther.

Events that are occurring in Hungary or lower down (in the Balkans) or in EU countries are grist for Orbán’s mill that he will use to rally the troops.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Ovidiu
Guest

I meant by that what you have just said ..”Events that are occurring in Hungary or lower down (in the Balkans) or in EU countries are grist for Orbán’s mill that he will use to rally the troops.”…

exTor
Guest

Okay, I get your point —somewhat— especially after you used my words to make it, Ovidiu. The problem was your use of the verb ‘be wiped out’, which nowhere comes close to meaning what my words mean.

I keep rereading your sentence “The subject of immigration [from the] Middle East and Africa is also a godsend for Orbán’s regime ideology, it will continue to be wiped out in the years to come.”

Please rewrite that sentence so that I can clearly know what you want to say. Your ‘be wiped out’ is very problematic, Ovidiu. Thanx.

MAGYARKOZÓ

ludwig
Guest

Nihil novi sub sole.The centuries-old principle,rule by fear.Works only,when the population is ignorant and uneducated.It seems to be the case in Hungary today….

exTor
Guest

Nothing new under the sun. [Nihil novi sub sole.]
How about something new for the Orbánistan man?
No rest for the wicked. [Nemo malus felix.]

MAGYARKOZÓ

ludwig
Guest

Yeah, you made my day….

Guest
OT The immigration issue Far be it from me to justify in any way Orbán’s crudely and cruelly xenophobic approach to the wave of refugees and would-be economic immigrants flooding into Hungary this summer, but I suspect that part of the reason for the neglect, chaos and general human misery, accompanied as it is by vicious nationalist incitement and attempts to fence out the flood, is to force the hand of Brussels to properly fund the rapid and orderly processing of illegal entrants into the Hungarian sector of the Schengen area. The bottom line is that the EU should have a properly funded overarching strategy to secure its Schengen borders. This should include very large capacity, clean and hygienic reception centers in Turkey and Libya, with Arabic, Pashtu and Dari interpreters on hand in Turkey (and Arabic and sub-Saharan ones in Libya), where the basic physical needs of the refugees and would-be immigrants – such as food, water, heating, cooling, medical care and physical safety, as well as organized activities and professional care for children and teens – would be generously taken care of while they were undergoing a rapid, but thorough UN-supervised screening. The reception centers in Libya would… Read more »
exTor
Guest

I’m majorly impressed, Mike Balint. My initial impulse, as I started working my way into your opus, was “No way!”, but it’s extremely well thought-out.

My next thought was that forward staging areas would/could work in Turkey, however Libya would be a major problem. There is no effective central government and competing groups (including an ISIS offshoot) are vying for power. Your suggestion of a forward NATO base might work.

Let’s say that a NATO base were established somewhere in Libya, that would make the base effectively an exclave of Europe, just as Guantanamo is a US exclave in Cuba. NATO in Libya could ultimately stabilize Libya.

What you propose here, Mike Balint, especially in Libya, can be viewed as a new version of imperialism and it will not be well received, mostly in the Middle East. Can there be such a thing as ‘benign’ imperialism? Can a dictatorship be ‘benign’? Theoretically, I suppose.

Is this your brainwave, MB, or are you riffing on someone else’s thoughts?

MAGYARKOZÓ

Guest
@exTor August 23, 2015 at 1:20 pm In effect, I am simply applying to the EU a version of the highly effective Australian “offshore solution” to the problem of Indian Ocean boat people who were flooding into Australia uncontrollably, at the rate of tens of thousands per annum from 2008 to 2013. The “off-shore solution” has effectively stopped the boats on the Indian Ocean route into Australia, and put the people traffickers completely out of their highly profitable business. The particular version of the offshore solution that I am advocating for the EU was originally proposed, though not actually implemented by the Australian Labour Party (union-based social democrats) under Julia Gillard, due to sabotage tactics by the Australian Liberal Party (center-right conservatives) in the Australian Federal Parliament. I might mention in passing that here in Australia our liberals – both the capital “L” dry kind and the small “l” wet kind – subscibe to liberalism in the original 19th century sense of the term, in contrast to the US and Canada, where the term “liberal” was appropriated as in fact a cover label for socialism and social democracy when the social science intellectual elite over there realized early in the… Read more »
Guest
Re: “How, for instance, can we separate the poetry of Sándor Petőfi, Endre Ady, or Attila József from the turbulent political events of their times?” Absolutely and the great men who also happen to be great writers truly never need ridiculous ‘instructions’ to put into their art what is felt deeply inside themselves as a moral injunction to express what they feel and see unhindered from what is perhaps ‘expected’ to be written as in Mr. Balogh’s urging. For Petofi et al there indeed was a moral drive inside them that generated those dynamic sparks for freedom and rights when it came to the Magyar nation’s future. It is to Magyarorszag’s credit that she still has those gleaming gems coursing through its literary culture. It can never ever be diminished. In my opinion, writing in Magyarorszag arguably has the taint of seemingly defending ‘myths’ rather than in the late American writer John Gardner’s belief that it should be used to open readers to ‘moral’ persuasion after enveloping themselves in those ‘hard problems’ so that ‘answers’ aren’t specifically given by rote. What Mr. Balogh appears to undoubtedly want is writing which extolls the position of the state through ‘fictions’ that may… Read more »
exTor
Guest
http://444.hu/2015/08/23/megtorpant-a-jobbik-zuhanasa It looks like time for Viktor Orbán to become worried again. While it’s normal for politicians of most stripes in most countries to opine on matters artistic, what went down in Tokaj (aside from many mouthfuls of local vintage) wasn’t the profession of personal opinion, rather it was the promulgation of official Fidesz policy in the form of Hungaricum lit. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/gormless The job of the aitchless Zoltán Balog, who is also the gormless Zoltán Balog, was to motivate the attendant human resources of a certain age —say a half-century plus, given all the white hairs in the audience— to support the party line literarily with (shall we say) MagyLit. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_literature Where I came from, the term CanLit is well-known, having been around for decades. Check the link for the four-one-one [North American slang (derived from the telephone system that gave NA 311, 411, 911, etc.) for ‘info’] on CanLit. Mostly CanLit was descriptive [eg: who’s writing, what’s being written, etcetera] rather than prescriptive à la Fidesz telling its captive oldsters what to write, namely Magyar realism, which is really Magyar unrealism. Finally Rikard, I’m not sure where you’re going with your final sentence. The mixing of fiction and politics… Read more »
Guest

Re: ‘Finally Rikard, I’m not sure where you’re going with your final sentence’

I am a simple uncomplicated man here. All I’d like is for my ancestral country to have writers forego being sheep with pen while producing ‘mythic fiction’ on paper to provide backing for ideology.

Member

I hate to say this, but it seems that only person who could defeat Orban is Donald Trump, and I am not even sure that a Trump kind of government would be worst than as of Orban’s mock governing.

Guest

Re: Donnie T…

Seems to be shaking things up here! We’ll certainly see where he winds up. I’ll just say that Viktor got in mixed things up good like a soufflé and had most if not all executing his bidding. Really he appears to be good both as a disruptor and unifier. Also he doesn’t strike me as free-wheeling politician. A calm and reserved populist with the brain clinking silently away.

The thing with Donnie is he’s a political disruptor alright. Question is after playing ’52 pickup’ and the cards get played again will he be as good a ‘deal’ maker as POTUS? I hope he doesn’t have an agenda of perhaps buying and then selling the White House. Hey with ‘gamblers’ you never know. They always have an itch. I’m not too sure that I’d like to see ‘game theory’ being worked at the highest level of our government under his purview.

Xi
Guest

Totally OT: An interesting oped on the internal Labour campaign for the chairmanship. Apart from Corbyn – the oped says – the rest of the potential candidates have no convictions, ideas, principles, they just want power. Does this story (ie. the abundance of empty, vapid leftists, the comedy of the internal struggles of a leftist party, the vacillating leftist leadership, giving up of principles for ‘electability’) sound familiar?

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/08/what-corbyn-moment-means-left

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