2. Socialism Hungarian Style: László Németh

Curiously enough, the leading spokesman of populist ideology came from a middle-class background. A physician by qualification, László Németh (1901-75) made his literary debut in Nyugat with a closely observed portrait of a peasant woman (‘Mrs Horváth Dies’, 1925) but soon severed his connections with the literary organs of the day and, like Dezső Szabó, whose thinking influenced him, wrote and edited his own periodical, Witness (1932-36), backed by a small group of faithful disciples.

Németh’s essays in Witness revealed a puritanical mind; his basic impulse as a writer was derived from a moral dissatisfaction with the prevailing order of the world. Along with this, he believed that life should provide an opportunity for experimenting with ideas. His adventurous spirit moved freely in different ages and cultures, assisted by an aptitude for classical and modern languages. He was particularly attracted to the Greek idea of men living in complete harmony with their natural environment. In addition, he constantly sought racial traits in literature, since he viewed literary masterpieces as representing the greatest achievements of the ‘racial genius’. Instead of using biological criteria, he defined race by the common bond of the historical, linguistic, and cultural background. Like Szabó, he believed in the creative energies of the peasantry, except that he rejected the cult of őserő as being a romantic myth. Peasantry preserved traditions, in Németh’s view, and his sympathies for the populist movement, in which he occupied an isolated position, were based on the népi writers’ efforts to save the values of peasant life.

As a social reformer Németh was a Utopian, unlike the village explorers who devoted their energies to pragmatic issues; his ideas encompassed a vision of society as a whole. He thought to discover the roots of social evils in modern capitalism, which he held responsible for mass-production and mass-society; as a consequence of these, ‘quality’ (minőség, one of Németh’s keywords) had deteriorated. In his social criticism he was certainly influenced by Ortega y Gasset, who in The Revolt of the Masses also blamed modern society for man’s unhappiness. At the same time, Németh rejected Marxism as a solution, and preached instead ‘quality socialism’, for he believed that capitalism and Marxist socialism were the two sides of the same coin, and that they were the ultimate source of the same evil for mankind.

Németh’s solution, which he called ‘the special Hungarian way’ (külön magyar út), involved the reorganization of Hungarian society into a loosely connected association of small commodity producers. This new society would have no class-distinctions, since all people would be highly educated, whatever their occupation; consequently this utopian society would consist of intellectuals only. Needless to say Németh’s escapist dream, in spite of its laudable motivation and aim, had no chance of becoming reality in the shadow of a big corporate state which had its own aggressive ideas about the happiness of the majority. Yet the dream of a ‘garden Hungary’ (kert Magyarország) and the idea of opting out of society (kivonulás) fired the imagination of many a fellow-intellectual, largely for the same reason as that which prompts many intellectuals in advanced societies to give up their middle-class security for the prospect of cultivating a small farm producing ‘organic’ food, and to reject even the benefits of civilization as a protest against the assorted evils of modern technology.

Németh created no philosophical system of his own; his ideas were propagated in Witness and in books of essays: In Minority (1939), and The Revolt of Quality (1940). His essays were studded with metaphors, he seemed to have a special liking for expressing concepts by them: ‘Most scientific truths are metaphors. Does it matter? It certainly does not, if we know that metaphors are metaphors only.’ He believed that the conventions of language restrict thinking, and that the flow of well-worn idioms, clichés, and standard metaphors should be disrupted by new meanings and contexts, thereby releasing thought from the strait-jacket of language.

While his essays were characterized by an enterprising spirit, the novels and dramas which he wrote concurrently were the test tubes in which he probed into these ideas, for Németh criticized rather than illustrated his own theories. Human Comedy*The title in Hungarian, Emberi színjáték, is an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy (i.e. Isteni színjáték). (1928; in book-form: 1944) is the portrait of a solitary rebel who preaches his own ‘sermon on the mount’ to society, but is hopelessly alienated and becomes a failure, instead of leading the people to salvation. As a novelist, however, Németh excelled in creating memorable female portraits. Sophia Kurátor (Mourning, 1935), having lost her husband in a hunting accident, is grief-stricken for life; she is a peasant Electra held in the web of merciless village morals. Mourning is a psychological novel, a detailed analysis of its heroine’s consciousness, with little or no description of the outside world. Revulsion (1947), narrated in the first person by its heroine, Nelli Kárász, is a microscopic study of female frigidity, in which Németh assembles the full orchestra for a major novel. Miss Kárász is forced into an unwanted marriage by the father she idolizes, and her physical disgust and personal contempt for her husband drive her to the limits of human endurance. Németh’s medical background and artistic insight are united in a remarkable performance; his command of the female character comes out best in the offhand physical detail, his heroine’s ebb and flow between vulnerability and strength, and in his mockery of male theories about women.

The central character in Németh’s family novel (Esther Égető, 1956) is again a woman. The story spans half a century, from the beginning of this century to the years immediately preceding the Communist takeover. The execution of the novel does not match Németh’s original intention to write a truly great family chronicle. Esther’s figure, nevertheless, is unique in the gallery of Németh’s heroines, in so far as she is not possessed by those great passions which usually prove fatal to his heroines. She is neither a martyr like Sophie Kurátor nor a monster like Nelli Kárász; she lives a full life, although she always keeps a distance between her inner self and her environment. In addition, Németh finds an opportunity within the novel to criticize the parochial way of life in small towns, and to look back with irony to the heyday of the populist movement.

In his last novel, Compassion (1965), Németh sets out to discover the harmony which he could not find with complete certainty in Esther Égető. Compassion traces the development of Ágnes Kertész, how she finally suppresses her unhealthy inclination to moral bigotry, how she escapes the shadow of a dominating father, and how her aversion to the world is ultimately fought off by an understanding of the complexity of human relationships. Compassion is a novel about the necessity of accepting vital instincts, accepting the world as it is, notwithstanding its moral imperfections.

Németh was also a prolific playwright. His plays, permeated with a highly developed sense of morality, and set in contemporary or historical backgrounds, are further proof of his incessant probing into the conflict of noble-hearted, morally scrupulous individuals and the unworthy people surrounding them. These heroes perceive grave social problems, and always feel an innate moral obligation to remedy them. When they set out to improve the world they soon find themselves in conflict with their class background or with their family interests. Their tragedy is that they are not equipped to bear the burden of compromise; they were all born to be solitary torch-bearers of human progress, and the failure of their expectations forces them to withdraw from society. Németh’s historical dramas (e.g. Gregory VII, 1937; Jan Hus, 1948; Galileo, 1953; Joseph II, 1954) show that no injustice, no crime against humanity or against an honest idea left him untouched; he always dispensed poetic justice to heroes of moral uprightness. The execution of these dramas, however, exposes Németh as a better novelist than a playwright.

After the Communist takeover, Németh himself had no other choice than to opt out of society. He lived in near-isolation until 1956, as a schoolmaster in a small-town gimnázium, and his main intellectual pursuit was translating classic Russian authors. The sudden revolution of 1956 gave back some of his optimism, testified by an article he published during the revolution in Literary Gazette: ‘Rising Nation’. Later he accepted an invitation to the Soviet Union, thus demonstrating his willingness to conclude a separate peace with the post-revolutionary regime; this was a step the heroes of his dramas would have abhorred. Németh nonetheless learnt the lesson of history; after 1956 he saw little chance of his utopian plans succeeding, and gave up his opposition – he abandoned his ‘special Hungarian alternative’, according to which the complex social, ethnic, and political structure of Eastern Europe would have provided an opportunity for Hungary to create ‘an ideal country’, based on her own native human resources.

Németh’s experiences were summed up in a comedy, A Journey (1962), whose hero, Karádi, a schoolteacher from a small town, visits the Soviet Union on a package tour. After his return the local potentates utilize his visit for propaganda (the teacher’s travel experiences, very similar to Németh’s own, are supposed to convert Karádi to socialism), and those of his friends who have looked to him for moral support in their opposition to the regime now regard the unfortunate schoolmaster as a sad case of cowardice. His predicament supplies the elements for a comedy which could well have turned into tragedy if Németh had not felt a degree of optimism based on the probability of a future alliance, aimed at protecting the national interest, between the old intelligentsia and the new apparatchiks. It is Comrade Mircse, the local party secretary and a former pupil of Karádi, who formulates Németh’s hopes: ‘Most of us have just one life-belt round our waists and it is provided by the establishment. I possess an additional one fastened to me by the people who send me up like a mountain climber into the world of action to explore their possibilities.’ It was Németh’s belief in the new apparatchiks who ‘came from the people’ which seemed to justify his compromise with those who exercise power; consequently A Journey is the key to understanding Németh’s development in his last years.

All in all, it is doubtful whether Németh can be regarded at all as a populist writer. His novels, though they often deal with social problems, are primarily case histories of individuals, centred on the problems of the self. On the other hand, his essays were responsible for the formation of many népi concepts, without which populist ideology and the populist movement in general would not have been the same.