Living in a ‘Fool’s Paradise’


IT was on 2 September 1686 that the soldiers of Prince Charles, Duke of Lorraine, hoisted the Austrian Imperial flag with the double eagle on the fortress of Buda. The campaign, which started after a Turkish attempt to occupy Vienna in 1683, was a truly international affair. Many European nations sent troops to the siege of the Hungarian capital; several English and Scottish officers were among them. The great triumph was reported to the Christian world by eyewitness accounts in French, English, Italian, German, and even in Spanish and Portuguese.

In Hungary a new era dawned – by the end of the century almost the entire territory of Hungary had been liberated. Peace was ratified with the Sublime Porte at Karlowitz in 1699. The balance sheet of about one hundred and fifty years of Turkish rule in Hungary drawn up by later historians makes sorry reading. The population of the country, which had numbered about five million inhabitants in the late fifteenth century (roughly the amount of contemporary England’s population), had been drastically reduced. Estimates of the remaining population vary between two and four million. The heavy losses in human life were not exclusively incurred by casualities or random massacres by both the Turks and the Austrian mercenary troops in the long warfare; people were systematically rounded up and carried off to distant markets in Asia Minor to be sold as slaves, and young boys were kidnapped to be trained as janissaries of the Turkish army to fight on several borders of the vast Turkish Empire.*It was not long after World War II that a tribe called al-Magheri was discovered on the banks of the Nile; to the surprise of scholars they turned out to be the descendants of the Hungarian janissaries.

Hungarians soon found out the whole truth about their liberators; Austrian rule in the country proved to be only somewhat less brutal and oppressive that the Turkish yoke. The country became a sort of colony in the growing Austrian Empire, regarded as an inexhaustible source of natural wealth and cheap agricultural goods. Austrian rule was guided by economic considerations; and it showed its nature most clearly by its prices policy in the eighteenth century. Prices of agricultural products and raw materials were kept artificially low, while manufactured goods were imported into the country at exorbitant prices. ‘Luxuries’ were available only to a handful of aristocrats. Private enterprise in native hands was almost non-existent, and so no significant middle class emerged in Hungarian society, which had been stagnant ever since medieval times.

Immigration into the depopulated country was successfully encouraged by the authorities, to compensate for the losses in manpower. The policy of inviting foreign, mainly German-speaking, settlers was not aimed against the Hungarians as ‘an evil plot’ but was a rational administrative measure to provide cheap farm produce by utilizing the country’s unquestionable agricultural potential. The principality of Transylvania was ruled separately, and Southern Hungary was organized into a ‘military frontier’ (határőrvidék), providing a buffer against the Turkish Empire, which now was restricted to the Balkans.

The Hungarians did not easily yield to the new rule. Already in the seventeenth century there were conspiracies and popular revolts aimed at home rule and at improving social conditions. These movements culminated in a war of independence (1703-11) led by Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II. When Rákóczi and his followers went into exile after the surrender of the kuruc army, Hungary offered no more resistance, and caused little trouble to the Habsburg Emperors until the country was once more stirred by new ideas, this time those of the Enlightenment at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The period from the failure of the war of independence (1711) to the first signs of a national revival (1772) has been traditionally labelled ‘the Age of Dormant National Spirit’, as if the energies of the nation had been spent. This was a Romantic concept born in an over-imaginative age. However, various later schools of literary history have also vehemently criticized the eighteenth century for its alleged lack of national values. Marxist scholars have based their criticism on the direct connection between history and literature: when political activity is stagnant, literature is bound to be at a low ebb also. Yet this was the age in which the way was paved for the sudden outburst of energies, in all walks of life, that characterized the early nineteenth-century Age of Reform in Hungary.

Backward and underdeveloped though Hungary might have been in the eighteenth century, the peaceful three-quarters of that century provided what the country needed most for a fresh start from the wasteland of historical upheavals. Peace, in the parochial days preceding the rise of modern nationalism in Eastern Europe, provided a quality of life in rural Hungary which was far from being unpleasant. Rural society needed very little for its well-being. The nobility had a narrow view of the world; they were content with the products of their own estates provided by their own serfs. What happened beyond the horizon of their manor-houses was of little or no interest to them; consequently very few of them cared about such outlandish ideas as providing and maintaining roads, sanitary equipment, or medical facilities. They led a pleasant life, eating well and with gusto; they had plenty of leisure time for dipping into their favourite Latin poets or for reading occasional verses by the local pastor while smoking home-grown tobacco in their pipes. Their contentment was epitomized by the contemporary Latin saying ‘Extra Hungariam non est vita, si est vita, non est ita’.*There is no life outside of Hungary, if there is, it is unlike it.

Yet this seemingly indolent way of life accounts for a general consolidation and standardization of certain national, social, and moral values. Society had ceased to be torn apart by the political, religious, and social issues of the previous centuries which began with the collapse of the independent Hungarian kingdom, the ideological movement of the Reformation, and the social inequalities codified by Werbőczi after the peasant revolt in 1514. Tranquillity, tolerance, and a benevolent patriarchal attitude towards the serfs, together with a general political passivity, characterized the Hungarian nobility, and in feudal Hungary nobility was the nation, for serfs the misera plebs contribuens*‘The wretched tax-paying people’: a contemporary reference to the serfs, usually attributed to Werbőczi., irrespective of their nationality or creed, were excluded from the nation.

The intellectuals of the age were introspective; they turned to the past, perhaps unconsciously, but in any case avoiding the issues of the present. The consequence of this was a general upsurge in historical scholarship and related subjects. The school system and the standard of general education improved radically; furthermore, in the newly-established colleges and gimnáziums much of the instruction was in Hungarian, a fact often overlooked by critics of the apparent lack of ‘the national spirit’.

Book-publishing flourished, for a sufficiently large reading public not only maintained the printing industry, but was responsible for certain books becoming ‘best-sellers’. The re-established University Press in Buda became a centre for publication not only in Hungarian, Latin, and German, but also in the Slavonic languages and Romanian. Censorship practised by both the State and the Church was strict but erratic, so books on proscribed subjects did get published by several firms. True, no major original talent appeared on the literary scene; public taste demanded light reading with little or no social or political message. Higher education and scholarship were almost monopolized by the Church; particularly the Jesuits and, to a lesser extent, the Piarists were the educators of youth. While the Jesuits restricted the free flow of ideas in the country, they were also responsible for laying the foundation of modern historical scholarship based on publication and criticism of primary sources. György Pray (1723-1801) and István Katona (1732-1811) published monumental works on Hungarian history, for example. Hungarian Jesuits, however, were active all over the world, particularly in Latin America, primarily as missionaries, but also collecting and publishing a mass of ethnographical and geographical information on the American Indians and producing early maps of Mexico and California.

It was the Hungarian aristocracy which was losing its national identity. The new type of aristocrat was a far cry from the type represented by the Zrínyis or the Transylvanian Counts – it would have been very difficult to find zealous individuals among them who were committed to the national cause. They despised their own language, which they hardly knew, but were conversant in four or five other European tongues, kept their residences in the imperial capital Vienna, and travelled widely. On the other hand we find that they were sophisticated connoisseurs of the arts; some of them amassed vast fortunes in paintings, sculpture, rare books, coins, and medals. There is no modern Hungarian collection which does not owe some of its most treasured items to the efforts of eighteenth-century aristocrats. The richest of them, the Esterházys, who became princes of the Holy Roman Empire, were able to maintain magnificent country palaces that were compared to Versailles by contemporary observers, and in one of them the musical director was the celebrated composer Joseph Haydn.

During the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80) (known in contemporary English political literature as the ‘Queen of Hungary’) various social reforms were carried out and conditions slowly improved. The truce between ruler and ruled became a peace sanctified by the often quoted scene in the Hungarian Diet: when the young and beautiful Queen appeared before the Hungarian estates with her young child in her arms asking the support of the ‘chivalrous’ nobles for her foreign policy, they voted by acclamation ‘Vitam et sanguinem pro rege nostro’.*‘Our life and blood for our Queen!’ (Note. The official title of Maria Theresa was Rex and not Regina according to the peculiarities of the Hungarian Constitution).

The literature of the age is marked by two distinct features. In prose the dominant genre was the memoirs of a succession of statesmen and members of the upper class in Transylvania. The magnates of Transylvania had much cause for reflection, as the fortunes of the principality had changed often during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from the powerful principality of Gábor Bethlen (1613-29) which was a factor in European politics to a country ravaged by Turkish, Tartar, and Austrian troops, then becoming a vassal of the Sultan, and eventually ending up as a province of the Austrian Empire.

In Royal Hungary, which now included practically the whole territory of the former Hungarian Kingdom, it was mainly poetry that was cultivated. There were hardly any significant poets, the main feature of the original poetry being the perfection of form and construction in the late Baroque tradition following in the footsteps of Gyöngyösi. It is in the poetry of Faludi that innovation can be discerned. Faludi very probably unconsciously transplanted népies elements into his gallant verse. It is significant, because the népies trend became predominant in the next century and has been ever since an important factor in Hungarian literature.

The first significant figure in a succession of great Transylvanian writers of memoirs was János Kemény (1607-62), himself Prince of Transylvania. He wrote his Autobiography in 1657-8, while in Tartar captivity. Educated in the Court of Gábor Bethlen, he saw the decline of Transylvania in the second half of the seventeenth century, a decline which became irreversible after the death of Prince György Rákóczi II in 1660. The Autobiography relates both his private and public life; his memory reaches back to the beginning of the century. Kemény is completely disillusioned, hence the ironic humour of his style. He employs both long descriptive sentences and scenes with vivid dialogues, which enliven his prose.

Of the önéletíráses in Transylvania, Count Miklós Bethlen wrote the outstanding example. Born in 1642 in a small Transylvanian village, Bethlen had an excellent education. In Kolozsvár he was influenced by Csere, who introduced contemporary science and the philosophy of Descartes to him. He spent three years abroad studying in Vienna and Heidelberg, in Utrecht where he studied physics under Regius, and in Leyden studying theology under Cocceius. He also spent some time in Oxford; King Charles II received him in London. In Paris he visited Colbert, the founder of mercantile economic policy. Having returned home, he decided to study military science, both theoretical and practical, in Zrínyi’s court. He was able to witness only the hunting accident in which Zrínyi lost his life. In Transylvania Bethlen was a devoted representative of French culture and way of life. His public life was eventful. His political concept, Transylvanism, was modelled on Zrínyi’s idea. Instead of a national kingdom, however, Bethlen advocated only a separate Transylvanian state – even this proved to be wishful thinking. As a result of his political ambitions he was imprisoned by the Austrian authorities in 1704. After four years in prison he was transferred to Vienna, where he wrote his Memoirs (1708-10). He never saw his family and Transylvania again, and died in Vienna in 1716, shortly after his release.

His Memoirs are divided into two parts: the first part narrates his life up to 1666; the second carries the story up to 1710. The first striking feature of his Memoirs is his complete frankness. No incident was too sensitive for him if it served for his own characterization. This first part of the Memoirs is of the confession type very popular with writers of relentless self-analysis from St. Augustine to Saint-Simon and Rousseau. In the second part, his private life is suppressed, his compassion is reserved for minor human tragedies which he observed and for the general description of decay in Transylvania. Yet it is not an apology for his own activity; Bethlen made a strenuous effort to present the facts in an unbiased way, but made no attempt to write a history of Transylvania: ‘If I were a historian I could write quite a lot about events, but it is not my business’, he often remarked. The reader is able to witness the intellectual discipline by which he subordinated the free flow of his memories to his aim; only those episodes are discussed in detail which he considered to be of relevance. To avoid descriptions of scenery and of pleasing sights at all costs, for example when he wrote about his foreign travels, was one of his intentions, yet his pen slipped and he elaborated on these ‘unimportant topics’. He often remarked penitently: ‘My pen was carried away by my mind.’

On the other hand, retailing impressions and characterization of people was considered essential; the most colourful incidents he describes are those in which he relates how he asked for the hand of his first wife, recalls the circumstances of Zrínyi’s death, and his reception by Colbert in the court of the Roi Soleil, or gives dramatic descriptions of the savage cruelty committed by Austrian troops in Transylvania.

Bethlen wrote in colloquial Hungarian as used in Transylvania; he employed colourful metaphors and adjectives. Every now and then, Latin phrases were inserted into his Hungarian sentences, in accordance with contemporary practice. He frequently referred to the Bible, finding there the explanation of, or at least parables for, many of the events he described. The reader discovers anew in every paragraph that the author was a deeply religious person, a sensitive chronicler of the human condition.

In the rich variety of memoirs in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries there are at least two further examples which add extra detail to what has already been said about this literary form. The first entitled Metamorphosis Transylvaniae, was written by Baron Péter Apor (1676-1752) in 1736. Apor, educated by Jesuits, came (as did Bethlen and other memoirists), from an ancient aristocratic family. He also wrote other prose works, and cultivated poetry as well. These works were, however, inferior to the memoirs of the learned Baron. What distinguishes the Metamorphosis from the other memoirs is its nostalgic tone. Apor does not want to tell of his personal life; he wishes to record a way of life, ‘the good old days’ of Transylvania, when bread tasted better, women wore simple dresses, people were kind to one another and respected ‘true’ values. Apor had little interest in politics; his political comment was restricted to giving a reason why the old values had vanished: he claimed that it was due to the first appearance of Austrian troops in Transylvania in 1687. ‘It was their evil influence’, he moralizes, ‘that corrupted people. Look at the Transylvanian’ he cries out, ‘it is indeed not the taxes of the Emperor which limit his means, but the vainglorious, fanciful fashion of his wives and daughters.’ He is equally upset about the greed of his own days: ‘Transylvania used to be a very humane country; it was possible to journey across the entire land without a single penny, and both you and your horse had enough to eat.’ Apor wrote in colloquial Hungarian like Bethlen, his style abounding in obsolete words evoking an atmosphere of bygone days. The wealth of detail, his minute descriptions, makes Metamorphosis Transylvaniae nostalgic reading.

The other memoirs are those of Countess Kata Bethlen (1700-59), a niece of Chancellor Miklós Bethlen. Composed in the early 1740s and published posthumously in 1762, A Short Description of the Life of Countess Kata Bethlen Written by Herself was the result of remorse over a futile life. Her tragedy originated from her marriage to a Roman Catholic Count, her own half-brother, at the age of seventeen. The family of her husband pressed the young wife unreservedly to convert to Catholicism, and when she divorced her husband their children were separated from her, lest she should bring them up as Protestants. The bigotry of her in-laws and the tragedy of her second marriage (her children and her husband died early) made Kata Bethlen’s life miserable. She regarded her own life finished at the age of thirty-two, and channelled her frustration into different practical activities: managing her own estates, all kinds of charity work, supporting Protestant schools, collecting old books and manuscripts, and creating around herself a small court of intellectuals. Yet she still felt that her life was ill-spent; this profound experience impelled her to write her memoirs. The message of the memoirs provides a cautionary tale for others.

The Short Description is divided into 218 very brief chapters. The most striking feature of her writing is the immediacy of her suffering and her self-torture over a tragic life. Memories flooded her mind, things occurred to her ‘as if taking place on the very same day’ when she wrote them down. Her sufferings were sublimated into an overwhelmingly religious feeling, her devout Protestantism revolted repeatedly against ‘the foreign religion’. She never lapses into generalization, but stays on the firm ground of her own experiences; this is the story of her inner self and her immediate surroundings. There are, however, excellent descriptions of incidents which may seem unimportant but are terrifying to simple people who believe in omens: a flood, a hailstorm, outbreaks of fire, or a migration of locusts. The Short Description is written in a lyrical style; its composition is very often broken up by short prayer-like interjections at the conclusion of each little chapter – sometimes these exclamations lend her prose a mystic quality, completely alien to the rationality of her own religion. She was an instinctive writer, metaphors occurred to her naturally, and in excessive quantity: ‘Oh Lord, would you attack a quivering reed, would you crumble a dried leaf, or if you were an ever-consuming fire, would you go against a scutch? Because I am all these in your presence.’ Yet when she is talking about her suffering she is often short of words: ‘If every tiny bit of myself were to become a tongue, I still could not tell it all.’

The memoirs as a leading literary form began to decline in the second half of the eighteenth century as Transylvania lost her identity in the Habsburg Empire. The Transylvanian writers, however, have ever since added a distinct flavour to Hungarian literature; perhaps it was less perceptible in the nineteenth century, when demand for the unification of the két haza*i. e. ‘two homelands’. Hungarians used to refer to Hungary and Transylvania thus. was successfully met. In modern times, particularly after World War I when Transylvania and parts of Hungary were incorporated into Romania, Transylvanian Hungarian writing revealed once again its distinctive features, adding to the variety of Hungarian literature.