At the University in Budapest
In summer of E1 I returned to Budapest Eagain permanently, I thought. For the two years in Slovakia Id also kept my set of rooms Elove nest, as Judit Zerkowitz called it Ein the former Swabisch settlement, Budafok, on the southernmost of the Buda hills down the Danube,. The Takács family had rented me this place above their own house more than a year before I began my Slovak sojourns. On a dirt road amid similarly small homes clustered amid garden walls, the TakE/font>cses afforded me a private entrance from within their center courtyard, an old European arrangement probably best known to Americans from Roman Holiday, where Gregory Peck has a similar courtyard entry, also under the eyes of kind working-class Europeans who speak no English.
The Hungarians had called Slovakia their félvidék Eupper HungaryEEfor the thousand years that this forest-carpeted, mountainous region had belonged to the crown lands of St. Stephen. Id been able to go up there and live and work even during the deep communism before the Wall fell in late E9. The Hungarian writersEunion journal, Magyar NaplE/font>, had vouched for me so I could keep my Hungarian residency at the same time. My U.S. passport simply needed a supplemental folio of pages for the many stamps Id accrued at the Hungarian-Slovak border crossings during these two years. Going back often to Budapest, Id used all the border points Eall the main line and local trains Ein thrall as I was with the remotest border villages, depots, and mountain terrains.
The TakE/font>csesEyoungest daughter, Magda, lived with her husband, also named LászlE/font>, and kids Ági and Csaba in another house across the same Budafoki courtyard. Farther back this rose into limestone terraces redolent in herbs, tomatoes, paprika, and apricot trees, where they had a patio amid currants, gooseberries, raspberries Eand more paprika. The Takácses invited me to use this terrace patio Ethough often returning home at night I found on the steps up to my rooms bowls not only of garden fruits theyd picked for me, but also homemade dishes of spicy fish soup, goose fat, sausage and lécső sauce, and the lemony birds nestEpastry that LászlE/font>s Ilona or their Ági had made.
LászlEwas retired Efinally able to dedicate himself to his painting: a cornucopia of Hungarian landscapes. He looked the part, short, a bit rotund, with a full white beard and a white head of hair that poked out of a worn beret he always wore gardening at home or out in the countryside with his easel. I bought several of his paintings. They showed vistas from the southern hills over Lake Balaton, flat land views of the puszta, scenes of the Tisza river, and of the kis Duna Enbsp; former bed of the Danube, now parallel to it, but otherwise a veritably lost, many-miles-long pond-like area of fishermens cottages and wooden docks along sandy banks of lily-thick waters. The kis Duna was a short as-the-crow-flies distance from Budafok Enot many miles east over the current Danube on the far border of southern-most Pests Manhattan-sized Csepel Island. LászlE/font> went there often, alone or with extended family on day-long outings. Wherever he went, his paintings showed some Hungarian lake, river, or pond in tandem with thatched cottages, trees weighty in their various seasonal fulnesses, and panoramas of huge skies swimming in feathery, cottony, and other mixed layers of blue, black, purple, and white.
I loved this place LászlE/font>, Ilona, and their extended family allowed me. I could get to it from the city by the #49 streetcar, whose terminus was in the market square of Budafok, just below the hill where I lived. More than a hundred steps in five different granite, field rock, or concrete staircases rose above Budafok and in vistas over the Danube. A single road allowed working class gardenersETrabants, Dacias, and Ladas into the hills, too. Then paved in cubes of black quarried stone which seemed slick when it rained, this road had such an incline over the Danube that I never ceased fantasizing as to outcomes when brakes might give way. The city provided local bus service up here, too, for those who lived year-long this far south, and those who lived in the concrete tiers of socialist housing in Buda and Pest and kept weekend garden plots the Budafok hills. Occasionally on leaving the streetcar I took the local bus up the hill. Usually, though, especially at night, when the moon shone over the river, I preferred to walk up the different curving and angular sets of steps, then along an unpaved hill crest path. Csepel Island lay in the dark below to the east, and the great plain of Hungary, its puszta, continued after that Efirst into the fruit belt southeast toward Kecskemét where they made the great pear, apricot, and plum brandies, then into drier countryside renown for the wheat fields that had given the Austrian Habsburgs their lightest of pastries, and finally miles and miles of dust-dry horse country that for centuries grew the fierce, independent-minded magyar horsemen, comparable only to Don Cossacks, Cheyenne, and Sioux.
A few girls had accompanied me on this nighttime path above the Danube Emost-recently visiting Slovaks who traveled south with me during the two years I lived in their Slovakia, and Hungarian girls before them, lányok, who had desired their experience of the visiting American. All had agreed the moon was lovely, and the Danube, and the views going on into the night. But now, in the summer of E1, I could no longer afford to keep places both in Slovakia and in Hungary. EE/font>tvös Loránd University was willing to give me the job I wanted in Budapest. Eötvös Loránd TudomE/font>nyos Egyetem (ELTE), had hired me to teach essay writing in its English department. ELTE was Hungarys flagship university, rivaling or out-distancing its peers in Warsaw, Cracow, Dresden, and Prague. From ELTE I was seeking a way to make connections no one had ever made before among these and other central European schools.
Other Americans were teaching at ELTE at this time. Hungarians had flocked to the private language schools teaching English even during communism, and now, with the red flags of international socialism gone, the three departments of English at ELTE had more students, and more applications, than all other departments. Its English departments had just moved in fact out from the old downtown Pest building to what before communism had been a beautifully-landscaped nunnery, and during communism had been continuing ed school for Party elites. The West won the cold war. Now, among the 100 so professors of English, ELTE had also hired a raft of native speakers from the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Australia, Scotland, and England.
One person at ELTE, an elderly Hungarian, was doing something close to what I wanted to do. This was István GE/font>her. Like the distinguished professor Edmund Hleba in Preov, Slovakia Efor age and white hair EGéher had long had a similar problem as Hleba. Through the Marxist era both practiced Roman Catholicism. The Party in both countries as in all lands of the red star had killed professional advance for those espousing religion. Hleba had gotten into bureaucratic trouble, so did GE/font>her. Both, however, had managed to keep academic positions Eand enjoy life. The Slovak put on weight for the central European dishes he loved. He grew a witty, nuanced sense of humor Efinding amusement even in faculty meetings where the ambitious never imagined smiling. The Hungarian, taller than Hleba, might take a bit of the famous Hungarian wines and brandies, but, stork-like physically, had no body fat on him. Géher in no way lacked for a sense of humor, but it emerged as drollery, understatement, and puns Enot the rollicking mirth of his félvidék counterpart. Géher, perhaps more than Hleba, sought individualities. He would interrupt his own lectures to ask students how they felt about issues, often spurred but by facial expressions. Students liked and respected him.
I first learned about GE/font>her from another American new to ELTE, Scott Long. Scott had recently come over to Budapest after finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard Ea dissertation on Nabokov. GE/font>her promptly invited him to join in team-teaching. The two made an odd couple: one elderly, tall, lean, Catholic, married, and a family man, the other young, not tall, not religious, loosely emotive, and openly gay. They got along great. Scott loved how Géher taught cross-culturally, how students in reading from American and British literature were also asked to make connections to works they also read from Hungarian, Czech, and other cultures of central Europe.
ELTE drew Hungarys most successful students. More than a thousand each June took the entrance exam for admission to the English departments in Budapest. After the angol tanszék skimmed off the top hundred scorers, half of the others could get admission to other English departments in Szeged, PE/font>cs, Debrecen, and Miskolc. The other half could not get admitted anywhere Espots for higher education severely limited in all the countries of eastern Europe. So as I knew my students were the countrys best and the brightest,Eone of the first things I did in each of my classes was to poll them on their own estimation of themselves. I wanted them to have an opening forum just to feel each other out. Also, I wondered if their city or country origins affected them. About sixty percent came from Budapest, knew the city well, and continued living in their family homes locally. The other forty percent came new to Budapest from varieties of towns and villages outside of the capital. My polls, however, showed origins neither raised nor lowered anybody. City kids loved the provinces Eusually had grannies and aunts and uncles out there Eand all loved the historic and beautiful landscapes of Hungary. Their common culture gave them all equal footing. It was as if poets Ady, Radnóti, Jozsef, Kosztolánzi, Arany, and Weöres infused them all similarly Eas did prose writers Jókai, Móricz, Krúdy, and Mikszáth Eto say nothing of Liszt, KodE/font>ly, or Bartók in music, Madách or Lugosi in drama, Kós in architecture, and Nobel laureates and internationally-renown others in math, physics, psychology, film, and literary and social criticism. Another fact united them. They all professed they were not after all the smartest products of the gymnazia whence theyd graduated. Every one of them had friends they considered more accomplished than themselves Eand too many of these friends had been unable to qualify for ELTE, or for any university on this years attempt.
ELTE students who came from the provincial towns and villages resided in student hostels. None of these were located close to the beautifully-landscaped grounds of the City Grove Ei>Varos Liget Ewhich stood beside our former nunnery and recent Party elite campus. These students all lived farther off, across downtown Pest, over the Danube, and several kilometers out in Buda. Along with the many international style concrete housing estates that brotherly-socialist architects had thrown up across the capital, these engineers of human souls,Eas Skvorecký called them, had also erected cubist towers of student housing. In them the out-of-town students founds themselves with roommates from any number of ELTE programs and other colleges and universities scattered about Budapest. My students in these massive residence halls typically lived in isolation from peers at the Varos Liget campus. At the end of each academic day, like any commuter college in sprawl America, all dispersed. Half returned to their Budapest childhood environments, the others to new cubist anonymity. Our campus, beautiful though it might be, hummed in commuter discontent. As all ELTEs other humanities and social science divisions were housed in downtown Pest, many of my students had double majors that took them there Eand to the adjoining cafE/font>s, coffee houses, bars, book shops, and theaters. But our English studies hovered apart from these urban excitements and dormitory settlements. Each day students came out to our beautiful Varos Liget campus, they came as if to yet another daily disconnect. I began asking my classes how so many bright and brilliant eighteen- and twenty-year-olds could so routinely feel themselves displaced and disengaged. Didnt they see how this feeling so largely affected each other?
When Id begun teaching English, first in Hungary, then in Slovakia, and before when Id taught immigrants in New York Citys Chinatown, Id made it central to my teaching to have students refer to things class peers had just said. I wanted them to rephrase previous statements, shift first-person to third, transpose direct quotes into reported speech, alter nouns to pronouns, abridge syntax, paraphrase, and embellish various grammatical forms by synonyms and other formulations. This pedagogy kept everyone sharp as listeners. It grounded all well in fundamentals. And now at ELTE I knew I could carry grammatical exercises to another key. I began asking these Hungarian university students to note what their peers were saying, in oral discussions and essays, and reference them Emention, acknowledge, include Ein each subsequent written work.
They liked it. I began photocopying and passing out several of the best essays from each round of writing students turned in. Each student could thus read three, four, and five papers from peers every week. All the essays began improving immediately Ethey all increased in levels of perspective, issue piquancy, and thematic nuance. They had the new vitality of citing things in each other. I also invited them to reference things their other teachers said. They could add points of view from discussions in other ELTE English courses. They could translate and paraphrase from their activities in Hungarian if they had studies at the downtown campus. This opened essaying range to wider emerging interests and concerns across ELTE. Three departments proved most fruitful: history, Hungarian literature, and the cross-disciplinary program called aesthetics, where students did not get normal academics as instructors. Instead, many of Hungarys best filmmakers, stage designers, directors, critics, journalist, novelists, and musicians rotated in as guests and periodic lecturers. They generated excitement. They brought students closer to work going on in fields tangible to them. My English language majors appreciated being able to loop their other ELTE work back into our classes. And for ELTE instructors making connections with Hungarian matters as key component, one name kept coming up more than any others, that elderly gentleman from the Eötvös József Kollégium on Gellért hill in Buda, István GE/font>her.
While the students proved adept referencing various instructors, another of my requests baffled them. They found it artificial and gratuitous to reference items from their own Hungarian culture. I knew from out-of-class conversations with them that all were deeply imbued with their magyar classcs. Any reference to any character in novels Egri csillagok, Édes Anna, or Légy jEmindhalálig would immediately resound in them. Anyones bracketed use of the term hintazni (rockingE or a late summer garden scene on Diana utca would unfailingly recall the doomed, elegaic poet Radnóti. These students knew and loved their culture, regardless of their respective folk or cosmopolitan positions within it. But they could not stretch for analogies to bring back into our English work.
The smallest of the loosely-affiliated departments teaching English at ELTE was American Studies up on the third, or top floor of the former nunnery on our Varos Liget campus. Soon after I started my essay-writing courses for the Applied Linguistics section of the main English department in the same building, I happened to meet a Brooklynite, Ray Neinstein, teaching upstairs in the American Studies department. As few years earlier, while a Fulbrighter in Poland, Ray had visited Budapest, and met a Hungarian girl with such personality and striking red hair that he couldnt help but fall in love. After his Fulbright, he moved to Budapest. He and the girl married and for the first year lived in an apartment in a most beautiful part of the Buda hills. Then to the U.S., to Rays Brooklyn, where they had a baby. The young mother missed her homeland, however, so Ray got another Fulbright, again in Poland. Thus he had a full year of periodic commuting back to Budapest, whereupon he declined the Fulbrights second year renewal: its benefits paling to being full-time with the girl and their baby. Ray had just begun at ELTE when I did.
During his Fulbright years, and before them, when he began his teaching up in a rural Maine he loved, Ray had attended many professional conferences. They suited his gregarious side. They fed into his omnivorous reading tastes. And now, in going to new rounds of academic conferences in post-communist central Europe, he found himself perplexed over a distinction he was noticing between American and central European intellectuals. The former in giving papers would always include personal perspective as matter-of-course in prepared texts and as asides. The latter Enever. Rays fellow Americans, he saw, would include anecdotes and analogies from experiences theyd had or from colleagues and friends. Intellectual issues, whatever they were, always had touchstones in real life. The central Europeans would never do such a thing. From Rays bewildered vantage the Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, Czechs Eeveryone schooled in the old regime Ekept public discussion impersonal.
The program I was going to start, Inner Values EOther Cultures,Ebegan to take shape from these conversations with Ray. In fall of 1992 he would become, in fact, this programs first American, or western representative. But I only had one definite aim in fall of 1991, when we became acquainted, and I was first hearing about, then visiting, Istvan Géhers courses over in Buda. I wanted to enlarge what Géher and his unlikely buddy Scott Long were doing. I wanted students to do more than simultaneously read work from central European and American or other English-language cultures. My talks with Ray helped me see how an exchange program might add some vitality to the tandem discussions Scott Long and Istvan Géher presented as for me but starting point. We might spur more genuine participation, I thought, if we had three components: an American or other English language representative, one from the surrounding central European cultures, and a third, from Hungarian culture. I began seeing the Soros Foundation people up in their new offices on Budas Castle Hill, as I readied a proposal for their funding a series of team-taught lectures the next year. Students would have the American (or other western) figure before them as constant panelist for an entire semester, joined for the same length of time by an eminent Hungarian Eand every two weeks equivalent peers from Slovakia, Poland, Rumania, Croatia, or the Czech Republic would come over and stay. I wanted students to see ongoing discussions among the three distinctly different cultural representatives. I also began enlisting my Hungarian colleagues who taught other sections of English in Applied Linguistics, so they might volunteer tying some of their sections to the ongoing series Efor further student discussions and continued rounds of essaying.
No one had done anything like this in any university in central Europe. I wanted it for my own edification EI wasnt otherwise getting enough input from my students as to their own culture. I wanted it, too, for the initial reason Id sought work at ELTE: back in Slovakia, after the Wall fell, I saw the hoariest, angriest, most stereotyping expressions of nationalism coming from shockingly many of the well-educated and privileged. Something new was needed to break the ancient cycles of so badly seeing others.Enbsp; Fraternal, international socialism hadnt done it. Normal education wasnt doing it, either.
A Hungarian poet who also taught in the English department of ELTE, GyőzEFerencz, was thinking along parallel lines at this time. As Bob Dylan had put it Ethe difficulty of living ethically, to live outside the lawEEGyőző did so in his own erudite terms. Eventually published in English in the winter 1993 issue of The Hungarian Quarterly, Győzős essay cited the impossibility of expressionEwithin the suffocating tragedy of the ontological (and for good measure the political) situation.E/font>
Ferencz (Győzős family name) was aiming at Hungarian culture and poetry. More specifically, he was talking about an elder fellow-Hungarian poet, DezsETandori. His terms Esuffocating ontological tragedy Eseem clumsy, intellectual, but this was a pose that coincided with that of the current two generations of poets I had known back in Slovakia, especially the seventeen in the recently-published anthology with English translations, Not Waiting for Miracles. Like his Slovak peers over the border, Győző felt language had reached an extreme. He titled his essay, The End of the Word.Enbsp; And curiously, as for the Slovaks he, too, could not access any language from public life. In his prose about Tandori, in his own poems, no names appeared of any cafE park, avenue, statue, bridge, clothing, film characters, or any other local particularity. It was as if all the public realm defied poetic usage. Ferencz thus praised Tandori for handling this Efor Tandoris bravery in dealing with the impossibility of expression.Enbsp; As Adorno had said after WWII Ethat large possibilities for poetry died in the Holocaust Eso Ferencz, Tandori, and virtually all educated Hungarians felt what western academics were calling the signifier-signified impasse. Hungarian poets, like their Slovak peers, thus keyed their arts to the proposition, as Ferencz put it, that the weighty, tangible layers of the language, regrettably, are incapable of conveying a precise image of the experience.Enbsp; And yet Ferencz in his essay lauded Tandori because the latter had written thousands of lines of verse in the face of this challenge. He called Tandori a great poet, emitting the high voltage of true lyricismE not only had Tandori been prolific, said Ferencz, he had found an way to use language at the same time as he had done away with the personal self.E/font>
So many Hungarian intellectuals felt this way. My friend from before I went up to Slovakia, MiklE/font>s Haraszti, the famous dissident, in 1987 had published the English-language translation of his attack on fellow intellectuals, The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism. Haraszti included himself as possessed of the common illness Ehis prose, too, trapped in atrophied sociology-speak. It came from years of being gradually, subtly, but thoroughly co-opted by the communist privileging system. The result for Hungarian writers: similarly steady streams of words, words, words.Enbsp; Trying to break out of this, Miklós had started work on something highly personal Ehoping he might do in prose as, he felt, only one Hungarian of his generation, György Petri, had succeeded in doing in verse. Haraszti had begun a memoir on his father, his fathers generation, and the idealism theyd all had in the E0s to build socialism.Enbsp; Then the Wall fell. Miklós in 1991 found himself in Parliament: with the return of free elections he, as his countrys best-known dissident, now represented his central Pest Eits Danube quays, fashionable Vaci street, Gerbeauds and other cafE/font>s, the formerly-named Karl Marx economics university, ELTE, the houses of Parliament and surrounding ministries. With public affairs pulling, he put the manuscript aside. Private life as an artist and its possible new language had to wait.
Hungary, like other Soviet bloc states, posed set demarcations for expressing oneself. As Joseph Brodsky had quipped about this in his native Leningrad, vodka and adultery there were standard personal retreats. Movies counted, too, as passive escape, but most from the West were not available, nor were jazz, blues, or rock music, nor brand-name fashions, nor many, many proscribed writers. In Hungary a similar ethos ruled, though Levis, Adidas, and Mcdonalds had opened concessions even before the Wall fell. My students understood how ELTE was public space, but they felt our classroom as additionally open, as I was American. So when they agreed how personal lives depended on privacies of kitchen table and bed; they could add, too, the #7 bus.
We were always alluding to this punctual and frequent public transport line whose local and express busses whisked thousands of passengers every day up and down ThE/font>köly út, the avenue nearest our Varos Liget campus. Most everyone used this line to get from where we were, east of Pests Eastern Railway Station, back downtown to ELTEs main campus, over the Danubes Erzsébet bridge, and to the dormitory area out in Buda. As correct as they were in their postures on campus, once on the #7 busses my students changed. It never ceased surprising me but, whether I knew them individually or not, once the they got on these busses most launched into animated conversation by gesticulating groups and couples in all degrees of kissing, stroking, necking, fondling, and other manual exchanges. The #7 buses posed no barriers between public and private.
I met Ágnes on the #7. A student of mine, she had the stunning beauty girls can show by intense sobriety and severity of facial expression. Tall, with strawberry-blond hair Eno need to add slender, as Hungarians always in contrast to Americans were EÁgnes had the bluest of eyes peering out from a symmetry softened but by a dusting of freckles. In these days just after the fall of the Wall, as before that, no self-respecting Hungarian girl wore a bra. Few had the weight and fat issues obliging it; there was no celebrity advertising. So Ágnes like other young women wore tops that skimmed, outlined, and bubbled their twins inside Ethough in all my years in Hungary I never once caught any magyar boy or man staring, not even through summer days when sleeveless tops and loose necks occasioned near continual revelation. Ágnes, too, never wore make-up. Never any loud colors or designs to call attention to herself. At eighteen she might have blended in with others, so many Hungarian girls with her posture and carriage, except Ágnes couldnt disguise the intensity in her. So when I met her on the #7 bus Ethe usual shenanigans, sport, and love going on around us EI broached her demeanor.
She was my student, so I felt it OK to inquire if something was troubling her Ekeeping her from sleep, perhaps. The blue eyes peered out at me from that whorl of strawberry blond hair, freckles, and chiseled cheekbone. Inside her shirt the two natural points followed her eyes pointing at me. Ágnes said yes, she was religious. I said, well, good, if something was pulling at her, she might well let it Eshe might draw on some of these things weighing on her by including them in her essays. No, she said, it was private. I said maybe so, but whatever issues preoccupied her, they also stood out. No, she said again, she was just tired, exhausted. Every morning she rose much earlier than the other students in her hostel in order to go to a hospital, where she spent the days earliest hours as a volunteer aid for the forgotten elderly. I said fine Eplease use that. Put some of yourself in your writing, something care about. She said shed think about it.
Though none stood out so vexed and burdened as Ágnes, I was challenging all my students this way. Before the rule of Moscow-led international socialism, before WWII, Hungary had had one of the worlds great cultures in the essay. Kosztolányi, Ady, Illyés, Márai, Németh, Móricz, and many others excelled in the feuilleton, the sketch, the panegyric, and others forms worthy of precursor Montaigne himself. Even the Marxist writer and critic GyE/font>rgy Lukács deserves mention Ethough it was he who also belied the fate of Hungarian letters during his lifetime when he boasted that he had no personal life. Building socialismEwent apace. Rajk, Nagy, and thousands others were murdered, with more in labor camps as Faludys My Happy Days in Hell described at Recsk. All took mandatory courses in Marxism-Leninism and scientific atheism.Enbsp; By the time my students got to ELTE, the essayEhad become strictly impersonal, all vision confined to the segmented, the hierarchically accumulative, the modular, and the objective.E/font>
In an issue of The Hungarian Quarterly that came out a few months before the one with Ferenczs article in it, the chairman of ELTEs English department published his own essay examining the situation for learning English at Hungarian universities. Its author, Ádám Nádasdy, allowed no hint of his own views. Void of subjectivity, the choices he listed all seemed to add up as but accounting exercise: numeracy, not literacy, I thought. So I copied it, brought the copies to my students, and asked them about it.
No one thought, seeing Nádasdys balancing skills in prose, that his personal capacities had to suffer for such neutral public expression. Nádasdy also published poetry, to some acclaim. In 1993, middle of my three years at ELTE, he in fact won the Robert Graves prize, annually awarded the author of the best Hungarian poem of the previous year. Our colleague, GyőzEFerencz, had earlier won it. In verse I liked Nádasdys plain style: ruminative, straightforward, everyday talk. But I disliked how he Elike the seventeen Slovak poets in Not Waiting for Miracles Eavoided all public reference. Public life, I knew, had been commandeered. Communism had stripped away all brand names Enbsp; across all the fraternal states there were no trade logos Evirtually no advertising for anything. And as commercial language had paled, so had folk purity. Traditional references to the land had been taboo. Barns, farms, orchards, rivers, woods, and other provincial scenes all threatened true international socialists EStalinists, Leninists, Maoists Ebecause land references had old associations with ethnicity, ownership interests, religion, and romantic individualism. So all populist themes and nativist vocabulary were proscribed by the agents of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. Poets like Nádasdy and Ferencz found space for themselves as poets by positioning themselves and their diction as far as they could from areas the Party monitored. Poets like them, like the seventeen Slovaks in Not Waiting for Miracles, adopted a plain register. With commercial and folk terms off-limits, they found as new the aesthetics of post-modernism Eminimalistic, halting in explanation, and fragmentary Ein addition to the left-overs of modernism: verse without rhyme, metricality, stanzaic form, or most other classic devices.
Nádasdy and Ferencz were both my age Ewe three all born in 1947. They came into their own young adulthoods around the time of the Prague Spring of E8, when Miklós Haraszti and his Maoist friends were running around the streets of Pest with their Little Red Books (the puritanic aphorisms of Mao). Nádasdy and Ferencz sought more genteel pursuits, compared to their more colorfully radical friends. By 1991 they were broaching middle age, but even then a few of the previous generation of poets Ethose who lived through WWII Ewere still living. One was Ágnes Nemes Nagy (pronounced one-syllable Nadj). Born twenty-five years prior to Nádasdy, Ferencz, and myself, Nagy yet had an imagination that could access Hungarian public references. She put them near-center of her aesthetics, which she explained in an essay, Towards the realm of the nameless.Enbsp; As the title indicates, Nagy esteemed the elusive, the ineffable, and the evanescent Ebut tied to the things of our everydayness. To stress such contingent magicality, she picked a certain corner on a typical street in her neighborhood. This was KékgolyEutca (Blue Stork Street). In a residential area of Buda, Déli pályudvar (Southern Railway Station) lay below it, embarcation point for Lake Balaton, the Villányi wine district, and Hungarys Mediterranean south. For Nagy the very names of these places infused the air around Déli pályudvar and her higher-up KékgolyEutca. She not only linked the southern locales with this quiet, leafy, hilly neighborhood, she also tuned herself to sensations on its street corner: lights of day, seasons, and aspects of the air that always changed, suggesting earlier but somehow different alignments. As Heraclitus said of his river, and Thoreau of his pond, so Nagy did for KékgolyEutcas chestnuts, honey locusts, and lindens. It was the poets job, she held, to come as close as possible to the right words and arrangements for the gradients of feelings connected to a place. It was the poets job to seek them even as particular subtleties defied the fit of words. Spurred by and inviting further subtleties, context kept always changing.
I wanted to honor Nagys spirit, and my student ÁgnesEquests. Nádasdy, as it turned out, served on the Soros committee up on Castle Hill, and it was he who pressed for approval for my Other Cultures EInner Values.EThough Nádasdy had aesthetics far from those I preferred in Nagy, as did Ferencz, the former got me the funding, and the latter agreed to serve as first representative Hungarian in inaugural semester, fall, 1992.
When I got the money Epart in still non-convertible Hungarian forints, part in U.S. dollars Eand could begin actually planning for the upcoming rounds of visitors, I first thought I should ask Nádasdy, as English department chair, as to any guests he thought appropriate. He deferred those decisions to me. It was easy to pick Ray to start as first semesters English-language representative EI couldnt consider Scott Long for that or second semester because hed just accepted a Fulbright professorship for the E2-E3 year over in Cluj, Hungarian KolozsvE/font>r, Rumania. I trusted Ray for his feeling about best Hungarian intellectual colleague to be paired with him. He liked Ferencz. At any event, money wasnt an issue Ewith SorosEgenerous funds I could pay and pay well Ray, Győző, and the best of rotating cultural representatives from the surrounding countries.
At the last full English department faculty meeting, concluding the E1-E2 year, I knew I had over sixty professors whom I could draw on from our three specializations: Linguistics, Applied Linguistics, and British Literature. (American Studies, Scotts department, GE/font>her but affiliated with it, was a separate, much smaller department; a large English-teacher-certification program, though also housed on our Varos Liget campus, was also separate.) I hesitated going to the sixty profs in my three-component department, as I feared getting many too many guest recommendations for me to handle from among their friends and colleagues in the various universities in Poland, Rumania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, and the Ukraine. But as my program, Other Cultures EInner ValuesEwas ELTE-hosted, and theyd all been here years longer than me, I thought it only fair to announce these new Soros monies, and that they could subsidize periodic visits from among their favorite professional peers.
Nobody responded. Two faculty members later sent me memos mentioning names of central European professors they had met by chance recently. Otherwise none of them had ever traveled to any fraternally socialist peer universities during the communist era.
Funny, I had been in central Europe five years Ebeginning in the deep freeze of the Moscow-dominated regimes Eand Id just assumed professional teachers had friends and peers in the various brotherly states. Id been projecting, as if intellectuals in the Red era had been able to circulate as we Americans took for granted. There had been scholarly conferences Ethats how Ray coming from Poland had met his redheaded Hungarian siren. What I didnt know was that no one traveled from Iron Curtain countries except under the strictest supervision of interior ministries, secret police, and other Party bureaucracy.
Other Culture EInner ValuesEbegan with American Ray Neinstein and Hungarian GyőzEFerencz as first-semester regular lecturers, and Slovak writer Pavel Vilikovský as first of the central European guests for the weekly lecture component. For the actual work that the students would do, a half dozen native-Hungarian instructors in the Applied Linguistics section volunteered sections of their courses so students could attend the lectures and follow them up in smaller class discussion and essays ensuing from them. We started with a hundred-and-seventy-five students. I collected essays from my own sections and the other participating instructorsE students, photocopied the best of them, and made them available every week to all attending the large, team-taught lectures. The students had an ongoing wealth of resources for referring also to each other.
Ray, Győző, and Pavel began probing nationalism Ehow we see and prevent ourselves from seeing others.Enbsp; Through the semester these questions, and the readings that fed into it, all accompanied the genocide everyone all knew was going on not far south from us in the Balkans. Serb nationalists and their criminal gangs freely brought in small arms, siege guns, mortars, and tanks from the formerly Yugoslav army, and ringed them around the multi-ethnic Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. Day and night they lobbed cannonades into the city, sniping, shelling bread lines and marketplaces, destroying buildings Eincluding the national library, which with all its treasures they destroyed just to rid archived art and memory. While diplomats in the capitals of Europe dithered, Serb leaders bought time for their murders by describing it all as just another civil war Eand that they, good Christians, were defending Europe from encroaching Islam. Washington equivocated. The Serb mortars went on turning into bloody pulp the children who sometimes thought it safe to come out and play.
Ray and I Emany of us in Budapest Eremained sickened by these events. The BBC and other journalists clearly showed the ethnic-cleansing,Emass rapes, and wholesale massacres. Yet the educatedEof the world bought the Serb fictions. The highest levels of the Bosnian Serb murder machine were conducted by college professors.
Prior to the beginning of our courses, I gave Ray my copy of Meron Benvenistes Conflicts and Contradictions. Benvenistes father had been first chief cartologist for the new state of Israel Ehis job to erase hundreds of long-time the Arabic names Palestinians had for their towns, villages, orchards, mountains, rivers, and deserts. Happily his father replaced them with Hebrew names that conveyed the nostalgia of Biblical Jewish culture. Meron Benveniste knew the excitement these new Jewish settlers felt in making a giant open-air Disneyland for themselves, even if the script they wanted forced erasure of the Arabic othersEand their far different narratives. PalimpsestEwas the name for it when old maps Eparchment, especially Eshowed landscapes with current names, but with the tell-tale names of previous dreams beneath them. Ray and I loved this term, palimpsest.Enbsp; He returned to its theme often in his weekly lectures. It fit not only Palestine, and Bosnia, but also so many others squared off against each other: Pakistanis and Indians, Roman Catholic Irish and English Protestant, Armenians and Azeris, Cypriot Greeks and Turks, Yorubas and Ogonis Eand soon Hutus and Tutsis, Russians and Chechens, and the Blacks of south L.A. in arson and rampage against their Korean shopkeepers.
The students in my section of Other Cultures EInner ValuesEwere writing brilliant, probing, nuanced essays. They loved referencing each other Eit involved and opened their essays further for them The proved deft handling Ray, Győző, Pavel, and the succeeding central European guests. Students from the sections of the other instructors, however, began tapering off. Their instructors continued to attend the weekly team-taught lectures Einterested of their own accord. But they had no experience in the personal side of essays, nor in the arts and wisdom of referencing widely. They may have had good hearts and eager intentions, but they were as set in their aesthetic parameters as the best of them, Ferencz and Nádasdy. Attendance dropped to sixty.
In late summer 1992, prior to the new academic year, an American poet came to ELTE as the U.S.I.A.s Fulbright lecturer in the American Studies department. Michael Blumenthal, born in 1949, was thus about the same age as Ferencz, NE/font>dasdy, Haraszti, Ray Neinstein, Judit Zerkowitz, and me. He had directed the creative writing program at Harvard, had several books of verse published, and the critic Helen Vendler loved him. Others didnt Efound him too ornamentalEin his happy, wide ranging. But I knew that even these excesses would stand well in the eyes of my students, especially in contrast to the plain, confined diction of poets like their NE/font>dasdy and Ferencz. So in addition to my overseeing Other Culture EInner Values,Eand my section linked to it, I designed a course based on the poetry of Nádasdy, Ferencz, and the new Fulbrighter from America.
The students loved Blumenthal. They had access to the magyar originals of the two who wrote in their own language, as well as to the English translations we used in class, so in both Hungarian and English we could see Nádasdy and Ferenczs dexterity, intellect, and focus. Blumenthal differed enormously. His lines coasted along in one mirthful situation after another, full of insouciant everyday pleasures. Not one of his poems registered caution at anything Eunlike the Hungarians who had grown up in grievously-damaged history. His nouns percolated in images from the botanical to the culinary, musicians to saints. One easily passed inside from sofas, bedrooms, and gyms to outside landscapes drenched in further aromas and tactile pleasures. Blumenthal delighted my students, most of whom were also in the Other Cultures EInner ValuesEexperience.
The team-teaching components shifted after the New Year. With spring semester 1993, new rounds of lectures had feminism as focus. From the American guy we had had in Ray, we now had an English woman in the person of Antonia Burrows. Before Scott Long had gone over into Rumania on Fulbright, he and Antonia had teamed up to host a series of guest lectures on downtowns main campus. Every week they brought in Hungarian social science academics, journalists, and public figures to address then-entirely-new issues of gender, domesticity, and gay rights. They drew consistently good audiences, and I looked forward to Antonia shifting focus a bit to include the literature and personalities of the nearby central European cultures. Antonia linked up with Judit Zerkowitz, head of our Applied Linguistics section, as her weekly counterpart. New representatives would come to Budapest from the neighboring cultures.
Certain issues kept coming up, chiefly the ways public and private linked. We read many Adrienne Rich essays from the 1970s, which stressed how economics, power structures, and class privileging shaped our personal worlds, and reciprocally how our private myths and narratives reinforced our public assumptions. The representative from Rumania, a woman teaching American and English literature at the main university in Bucharest, arrived with a series of books of recent Rumanian women poets translated into English, published mostly by Forrest and Bloodaxe in Great Britain,. The guest from Croatia brought a copy of a memoir, My Marina, published in English translation by a Croatian woman dwelling on her life and culture, and parallels with the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Two of my former students in Slovakia Eone now studying in the Czech Republic Ecame to Budapest to represent those cultures. With the death about this time of Ágnes Nemes Nagy, probably the best Hungarian woman poet was Zsuzsa Rakovsky, so I used the Soros money as honorarium for her to come over from her home in Buda. The students Ethis term we kept a constant group of about forty or fifty Eloved querying Rakovsky on her work that we had in both English and Hungarian. Good essays kept coming. Every week I had several of such excellence that one of the high points of each session was the new availability of copies. As winter snow led into spring rains, Adrienne Richs public/private dynamics held all our disparate elements together.
At one point Ágnes came up to me Ethe girl of the Simone Weil-like sobriety and intensity. Ágnes said she knew what shed like to write for the deepest, most personally-felt Christianity in her. Abortion. She wanted to argue against it. I said OK, but please not to concentrate only on the mass murder scenarios, but also to consider some of the consciousness issues wed been touching on Esome of the ways the central European women wed been reading had argued ethics, values and social roles.
Near the end of that academic year the universities of Debrecen and Szeged were combining resources to sponsor a first-ever Hungarian conference on womens issues. Three women from Hull University in England were coming to give talks over two days, joining Hungarian speakers on the same issues. So rather than stay in Budapest that early May week, Judit and Antonia agreed that we invite the whole class south to this beautiful old Hungarian town on the Tisza river. I took what I would have spent for a guest in Budapest that week Etravel, housing, food, and honorarium Eand allocated it to round-trip train fares for all of us. And two nights lodging in a Szeged student hostel. We all looked forward to the women from Hull and the other speakers on issues wed spent months examining. And we had the southern Hungarian countryside to enjoy: deep greens of the spring fields from the train, white flowering honey locusts, chestnuts full of blossom spires, lilacsEaromas, and storks and swallows newly arrived. Days summery warm, the girls could break out their light, loose summer dresses.
None of us, however, had realized the extent that academic specialization had taken over feminism. As the Hull women spoke, we saw that they could not access real women for all the obligations they felt to the names Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault. Next to them, Adrienne Rich didnt exist. For French theory the professional feminists from Hull exhibited exactly the impersonal scientism wed learned to be wary of from Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olsen, Willa Cather, Rebecca West, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf. For the sake of post-modern jargon, not a single one of feminists uttered a word from anything in their personal experience. None made any narrative digressions. No analogies. No anecdotes. So depersonalized had careerism made them, too, that they all spoke oblivious of where we all were. The three of them had academic friends in Debrecen whom they could have referenced, cited for examples. They could have read English translations of recent Hungarian literature for the experiences of women in Hungarian letters: Margit Kaffka, Ami Karoly, Zsuzsa Rakovsky, as well as Ágnes Nemes Nagy.
This didnt bother the Hungarian academics from Debrecen and Szeged. As it turned out, too, those in Budapest who oversaw Hungarian universities also resembled the Hull feminists. All had learned the priorities of specialization and depersonalized voice. Adam Nádasdy could no longer nudge his Soros funding colleagues into supporting Other Culture EInner Values.Enbsp; I would stay one more year at the university in Budapest, then follow a Slovak girl to her native Zilina, then Brno, Moravia.
I was still at ELTE when The Budapest Suns January 6-12, 1994, issue came out with a column by Michael Blumenthal. He was praising his host Hungary for what he saw as much richer humanity than in the U.S. Blumenthal expressed satisfaction that he and his wife could live in Hungary and so be spared the rank materialism which he claimed dominated America. In particular he focused on the pleasure he and his wife had sending their son to a local Hungarian nursery, rather than the richly-endowed American day-care center they could have had as Fulbright benefit. He described a visit they made to the American institution, finding it full of plastic toys, exercise equipment, and appliances of every sort. The stuff dismayed him. The Hungarian nursery by contrast might have been less-well equipped, he said, but it was endowed with something no amount of dollars can purchase: a calm and supportive atmosphere of tolerance, humor, and love.E/font>
I gave copies of this column to my students. Because they knew the clichés of American materialism, some wanted to jump to Blumenthals side. Then they recalled their own previous school experiences and how these did not corroborate Blumenthals paean to Hungarian pedagogic tolerance, humor, and love.Enbsp; They had known, instead, years of depersonalized competitiveness, information drill, and standardized testing. They began to add in the Hungarian novels and films which invariably showed school life as totalitarian, militarist, and demeaning, from the novel School on the Frontier to the film Pal Street Boys. One girl had worked in the particular Hungarian nursery Blumenthal cited. It was located, she said, in the diplomatic enclave adjacent to Andrássy út, the most elegant avenue in the city. Perhaps he had not realized it, but thanks to his Fulbright Blumenthal was living in the plushest neighborhood of Pest. The nursery his kid attended might have had fewer toys than the American one a long commute-away in Buda, but for materialismEhis kid was nevertheless among the most-privileged.
I met Blumenthal when he arrived in Hungary Etook him for beers at a garden inn under late summer chestnut and linden trees on one of the Buda hills. I got him his housing. So I was able to see how, contrary to the pose in his article, he depended very much on many material things. Thanks to the Fulbright Ethe American taxpayer Ehe brought his car over from the U.S. He had an expensive computer. He hadnt been in his Pest apartment long before he was nagging his landlord for a television. As Fulbrighter, too, he got not only the magyar forint salary as the highest-ranking Hungarian faculty got, but an additional $2,000-a-month American Efor three years Eagain courtesy of those Americans whose materialism he derided. He got travel compensation, housing allowance, medical coverage, and an extra $2,000 to buy American books of his choice.
Later in the same year, in The Hungarian Quarterly, Blumenthal published further pieces extolling Hungarian delights. His language bubbled in ebullient reference to the varieties of happiness he found in garden restaurants, cafes, pastry shops, concert halls, parks, and the quays and plazas of boulevardier street life. He cited various Hungarian writers and poets as friends of his to emphasize how well into the center of things he had arrived. Blumenthal could have mentioned particular thematic issues in his poet and writer friends. But he didnt. They existed not for any qualities in themselves, but as consort accompanying the popular, charming American poet indulging his own consumerism.
During this same time two books by Gretel Erlich came out. I liked the first, The Love of Open Spaces. Its writing lyrically described the landscape, skies, and weathers of Wyoming mountains and ranch lands. It also excelled in language of tools, machinery, cinches, straps, and ropes. I could overlook how Erlich presented herself in Wyoming as fleeing something, yet never dealing with what she was fleeing, either in her New York most-recent past or in herself. This omission was impossible to overlook in her next book, A Match to the Heart. In it Erlich fast-forwarded herself out of Wyoming. She had no explanation as to what happened in the relationship shed had with the rancher shed lived with in Wyoming. In fact she dumped everybody who had figured in the earlier book. Lightning had hit her one day out on the range. Hospitalizations and treatments followed. She began seeking spiritual growth.Enbsp; This quest Enaturally in California Edid involve other people, but none got any more character treatment than the Wyoming ones shed left. None got any more individual attention than Blumenthal could afford those adorning his cultural feasts. And as Blumenthal remained oblivious to how his U.S.-taxpayer-funded Fulbright allowed him his elevations, so Erlich took for granted the obviously huge family wealth underwriting her spiritual development.Enbsp; Her parents sent a private jet to fetch her from Wyoming. Without further comment she got state-of-the-art medical attention. Friends of her family had a beachside cottage in Santa Barbara she could use without concern for money. There she could meditate on the sun setting behind the Pacific every evening, spirituality floating to her.
Another curious book came out at this time beginning the E0s U.S. prosperity when CEOs, dot.com yuppies, and corporate elites were enriching themselves massively at the expense of American working and middle classes. The book was Eileen Simpsons Poets in Their Youth. A memoir of her former husband, John Berryman, and the famous poet friends they had in common, the book ambles along without a single reference to any of the poetry of Berryman, Lowell, Plath, Sexton, or Jarrell Eas if this woman couldnt be bothered with poetry, as if she couldnt take seriously that poetry might in face have fired the former husband and friends of hers. She ends her book describing how she learned of the death former husband Berryman. The scene emphasizes the comfort and privilege her life has reached, newly remarried with a career of her own. The newspaper comes home-delivered to her door EThe New York Times, of course. All she need do is open her apartment door and note not just final dismissal of the poet, but the serenity of noting this bloodlessly, as if all emotions such as poets have can so blithely be eclipsed.
Blumenthal during his time in Budapest wrote a novel, Weinstock in Love, similarly in the vein of Simpsons and Erlichs memoirs. A roman-a-clef, it skewered people he had known at Harvard during his early E0s time as director of its creative writing program. Though he based his characters on actual figures there, all existed for him to send-up in sarcasm only. Though a novel about school, no student emerges as an individual, except for one guy who drops out in cynicism. The single young woman shown as a person only got drawn enough to set her up as clichE/font> horny student seducing Blumenthals alter-ego Weinstock in the stacks of Widener Library.
As the E0s proceeded, corporate American media tooted the horns of prosperity. Large, headquarters-far-off, non-media corporations owned most all the television, radio, newspaper, magazine, and book publishing firms. They liked celebrating the celebrities who also served as mouthpieces for their other corporate products. American universities all bought into the mutual funds, pension plans, and endowment investitures propping up these corporations. And the rich did get richer Ea series of stories fabulously true and fabulously told, emphasizing mythologies obscuring the facts of how the powerful get that way by hurting others. The largest employer in the U.S. was turning out to be WAL*MART Ewhere over a million persons worked for the minimum wage, not close to a living wage, but useful for making five members of the Walton family among the ten richest human beings on earth, all five Waltons with a wealth of $20.5 billion each. Similar stories of greed and privilege abound, our nice universities depending on out-sourced teaching highly included.
My student Ágnes finally turned in a essay about abortion as murder. She appealed to the ideals of harmony, nesting, equilibrium, peace, and continuity Eand why couldnt we see these for the unborn?
Its our oldest story: return to the womb. The Hull feminists, Blumenthal, Erlich, and Simpson all enacted it in their turn. All found clever, charming, self-serving ways to exclude what was most convenient to ignore. In this they exhibit normalcy. They follow our universities as they, too, in the U.S. and around the world lie in similar conceits of closure. Our universities do this by what all commonly accept as departments. Friends of mine would object as I began more and more to rile at this Eat how our schools and intellectuals set all in erudite, genteel, and mutually-isolated comfort zones. But every time a Jew killed a Palestinian, and a Palestinian a Jew, and Pakistani Moslems killed Indian Hindis, and vice versa Eand Russians-Chechens, Hutus-Tutsis, fundamentalists-globalists Eover and over Eit made me angrier. Our schools and intellectuals feed on such isolations. They fuel our disconnects. In a few years, after my time at the university in Budapest, I would gradually see how we could ask instructors to change. Most importantly, we could ask them to listen to their own students for the individual themes, values, and ethics in them Eand quote them, refer to them, weave them back in other contexts. Not only could students read each others work and refer to it, but instructors could, too. Modeling the arts of wider attentions and connections would emerge in Essaying Differences.