Balázs Imre József

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utolsó frissítés: 2016. szept. 1.

Histories of Transylvanian Hungarian Literature. Transylvanian Review 2004/4. 52—59.

Spre o posibilă rescriere a istoriei literaturii maghiare din Transilvania

Histories of transylvanian Hungarian Literature

Definitions and Stories

"It has ten legs, three eyes and pink-yellow stripes, what is it?" — there goes the question. The one from whom the answer is expected, scratches his head, thinks through the possibilities given in the encyclopaedias, then says: "I don't know." The one who asked the question before, says: "I don't know either, but if I were you, I'd take it off my shoulder."

Let us forget for a second that such dialogues are usually connected to a specific context: the context of telling a joke. The seemingly small question "what is it?" gives way even within that context to the reflexes of finding a match for the definition. The answer could consist of only one word, if the given definition would have a referent — but there is no such reference, of course. If we step back and consider this whole dialogue from a sort of anthropological perspective, something very interesting happens, however. We can see that there is an attitude that we could call "definitive" in the sense that it is searching for answers, for definitions, and for the referents of definitions. But there is also an alternative to that attitude: taking off the "thing" from the shoulder, without taking the trouble to define it. This does not mean that looking for proper definitions is totally useless, but it shows that there are other types of behaviour.

Whenever I read scientific definitions of abstract notions, trying to compare them and their applications, I feel that definitions do not mean anything without their contexts, usually consisting of whole books. Cognitive semantics confirms in a way this aspect: abstract notions can only be defined by other abstract notions. The different definitions come from different perspectives, different contexts, therefore it seems less and less likely that the same word means the same in these contexts. There is no argumentation that could give a meaning to abstract notions in a non-circular way. The meaning of the abstract notions comes not only and not particularly from the definitions but rather from the way we use them, from the stories that are connected to it.

I will not insist here very much on whether writing literary history in general resembles more to the way definitions work or rather to the way in which the "things" are taken off from the shoulders. I believe it requires something of both attitudes because of its problematic and paradoxical nature: one cannot go on telling a story without knowing the story of what he or she is telling. (Questions like: "What is literature?"; "Is literary history the history of literature or the history of something else?"; "How can we define the referents of different stories? — that is: Which is the best story of them all?" should be considered before starting to write a text of literary history.) And, on the other hand, as shown above, one cannot know what the thing is without having a context and/or a story of it.

My main concern here is to investigate how different words try to bring along their contexts into constructions of literary history, on the case study of the histories of Hungarian literature from Transylvania. The meaning and implication of terms like "Hungarian literature from Romania", "Hungarian literature from Transylvania", "Transylvanian Hungarian literature" is, of course, hard to be grasped without the context of a whole book, but if we deliberately speak of histories rather than of a history (for example the existing histories of Ion Chinezu, Pál Sőni, Lajos Kántor — Gusztáv Láng, Béla Pomogáts, Zoltán Bertha — András Görömbei, Gavril Scridon — and of other possible histories that were never written), we can already comment on this topic from different perspectives. It is important to see also how these terms can be linked to the concept of regional literatures: is this literary corpus a regional literature and if it is, what does this mean — what is the ontological status of a regional literature?


I argued above — inspired more or less from the theory of speech acts — that the meaning of words is in a very strong connection to the context in which they are frequently used. One of the questions that arise from here is whether the meaning of a word can be changed in this approach. In his quite interesting book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity,[1] Richard Rorty argues that such changes can take place if a new (and strong) context is created around the word — the "vocabularies" through which we think come from different times and from different directions, and they are far from being stable. Rorty's point is in his insisting on the language that is being used — and we can agree that authors like Freud or Marx were able to reinterprete the world by creating new contexts for words like "man", "woman" or "capital".

Terms like "Hungarian literature from Transylvania" or "Hungarian literature from Romania" have some limits in their usage — that is, they were far from being stable concepts during the 20th century, even if some interpretations tried to give them such a meaning. Ferenc Szemlér wrote for example in 1937 about such changes in meaning, discussing the problem of Transylvanism (or Transylvanianism): "If before the war someone was called a »Transylvanian«, that meant a bit of ethnographic peculiarity, a hint of irony, perhaps some anxiety as far as his spiritual and mental background was concerned. After the changes of rule, the word got new meanings."[2] The term "Transylvanian" has a sensibly different meaning therefore in Szemlér's text in 1937, in Károly Kós's text that was written as an answer to this one, in the texts before 1918 (as suggested by Szemlér), and of course in the period when Gusztáv Láng, Éva Gyímesi or Béla Pomogáts tried to redefine and reconstruct the interwar meanings during the 1980s and 1990s.

There are also regional—geographical differences as far as the notion's usage is concerned. György Szántó's anecdotical account of the 1933 Budapest Bookfair also shows such delimitations: "They believed that in Transylvania there existed only wild mountains and there lived only Szeklers. They believed the Szeklers to be all woodmen and shepherds because they presumed in the mountains grows nothing else. Therefore they earn a living from wood-cutting, or trading mineral water and books. (...) We fought against this type of charity actions. We told them that Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Armenians, Bulgarians also lived there in large numbers and we get along pretty well together."[3] This account is more or less a joke, of course, but such superficial images of Transylvania — with other "markers", like the one of Prince Dracula for example — still persist in some places and in some people. To sum up: the stories, the specific elements connected to Transylvania changed largely throughout the 20th century, having also geographical variants — not to speak about the images of Transylvania differentiated according to ethnical groups.

Regional literatures

The concept of regional literature(s) emerged and was promoted during the twentieth century in strong connection with the collapse of the historical grand récits, when the monolithical narratives of national literatures became more and more challenged from different alternative points of view: these narratives were reinterpreted as logocentric, patriarchal, bourgeois (in the case of English-speaking cultures even as racial) constructions and so on. This type of criticism pointed out that there is no single central value of a culture, but there are many centers, this being true also in the geographical sense. Therefore the project of promoting regional values in literature went on along with the de-centering of Romantic national cultures that tried to legitimate themselves through the claims for an organic community.

In the case of Transylvanian Hungarian culture this shift was somewhat different: with the peace treaties after the First World War, Hungarians lived now in at least five different countries — therefore Hungarian culture became regionalized in a quite radical way. With time the effects of regionalization became though very similar to those taking place in Western European and American countries during the decades to come. Hungarian literature became a literature with many centers — like Budapest as a main center, but also Újvidék, Kolozsvár, Pozsony etc. — that contributed each to the shifts of literary discourses in different periods of the 20th century. Hungarian literature can be considered this way a bit more than the sum of its regional literatures, because the structures of the different regional cultures are not the same: they are not fully "compatible" with each other.

This view on regional literatures — conceived as being a "reaction" to a formerly monolithic canon — seemed to fit in quite well into the concept of American multiculturalism. During the 1990s, however, critics pointed out also some fallacies of this system of thought. A 1996 paper that appeared in the Critical Inquiry shows that regional narratives reinvented many times the truths that were contested before within national narratives. In many accounts of 'the regional', the regional community is presented as "more natural" and thus less divided than the national community with its differences in economics, gender, creed, race and so on. "It is in this reevaluation of notions of authenticity, of natural and organic community, that I see regionalism as an attempt to revive some peculiarly nationalist ideals by passing them off as »new« regionalist ones."[4] — points out the author of the above mentioned paper.

If we try to adapt this point retroactively to the histories of Transylvanian Hungarian literature, we can notice many similarities. The problem of these histories is in many ways that they try to essentialize this literature, either by referring to a permanent historical-geographical character that defines the Transylvanian region, or by describing this literature as being a minoritarian literature and therefore having different functions (for example: preserving the culture intact, or asserting the cultural identity) from those of a "regular", national literature. These debates began already in the 1920s and 1930s and were reconceived at the beginning of the 1990s, when several writers and critics tried to deny any regional "touch" in Transylvanian literature. In fact this latter approach was an attempt to subvert the formerly monolithical, "transylvanist" canon which neglected almost entirely the values that did not fit in the above mentioned identitarian project.

Regions — even if they function as sorts of "anecdotes" in the narratives centered on the histories of national literatures — are themselves "hybrid" societies or communities. They have a utopic nature: they are not something given but rather an ideal place where the regional projects can be at home. Histories of Transylvanian Hungarian literature (and later, of Hungarian literature from Romania) did not try and therefore they did not manage to show the diversity of this literary corpus. Essentializations followed each other in the different books, either in geographically-historically "transylvanist" approaches, or in minoritarian discourses, or (in Pál Sőni's or Gavril Scridon's case) even as Marxist essentializations (that reinterpreted transylvanism as an aristocratic-bourgeois construct), insisting on the referential and socially defined reading of literature.

In the 1920s the theoretical writings of Károly Kós, of Aladár Kuncz and others insisted quite a lot on the multicultural aspect of Transylvanian culture, that had its roots in the presence and coexistence of different ethnical groups in the region. In fact, Ion Chinezu's narrative accepts this point and sums up quite clearly the ideas expressed at that time by the Hungarian essayists: "We shall try to see if there really is an art-generating Transylvanianism, a specific soul of this region, a Transylvanian way of thinking, capable of crystallising itself into its own form of literature. Such an approach of the issue is within the field of literary geography. Well, it is beyond doubt that a Transylvanianism of this kind does exist, and that it also existed when it was being ignored, the same way one could discern a Moldavian, Muntenian, Transylvanian and Oltenian soul in Romanian literature. (...) Out of the torrent of articles and studies that have tried to analyse the content of this so much debated concept, two conclusive elements that are at the basis of Transylvanianis, have resulted: the geographical and the historical one. (...) Much attention has been given the century-old contacts between Romanians and Transylvanian Saxons, on the various mutual influences resulting from this contact, which gradually gave rise to a specific outlook according to which Romanians, Transylvanian Saxons and Hungarians have common characteristics. Scholars have also dwelled on the historic role of Transylvania as a mediator between two worlds, between the West and the East, a role which became very important with the penetration of Protestantism."[5] However, this aspect did not receive a special attention at the time. Partly because Romanians and Transylvanian Saxons were less and less interested in a Transylvanianist project (perhaps having a greater interest in the "immediate" integration into their national cultures), and partly because for Hungarians themselves, who promoted this idea, the Romanian and German concepts of Transylvania were less visible, therefore the interaction between these ideas was weaker than what they hoped for.

In a recent paper,[6] Endre Bojtár discusses the possibility of writing the history of regional literatures, referring in particularly on the possibility of constructing a Central-European historical narrative. His conclusion is that the diversity of the cultures in this region (even if having many parallel social-historical aspects) makes such a project almost impossible.

I would argue that if literary history itself is possible, it should be the narrative of diversities, of paradoxes. If regional literatures exist, they are literatures of diversities and paradoxes.

Definitions without Stories

Without having the possibility here to attach a whole narrative that could explain concepts like "Transylvanian Hungarian literature" or "Hungarian literature from Romania" I would stress only on a couple of differences between the possible usages of these terms. Before doing it, however, it is important to point out perhaps the fact that during the last two decades the Hungarian literary canon (meaning the canon of literature written in Hungarian, independent of its "region") was quite successfully revised from a point of view that could be labeled as either aestheticist or poststructuralist. The shift towards a textual, fictionalized reading and the breaking with the genetic and social readings was felt along with the spectacular turns in contemporary literature itself: works of writers like Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas, Miklós Mészöly, Ádám Bodor encouraged in a way a re-reading of the whole Hungarian literary history, producing shifts in evaluation mainly beginning with the modernist period, but also in the readings of medieval and Renaissance literature. This does not mean, of course, that this canon is already settled or that it will settle very soon. Anyway, there seems to be a large consensus around some newly promoted values (that are not very new themselves: works of Dezső Kosztolányi, Sándor Márai, Milán Füst, Géza Ottlik and so on were in fact re-inserted into the narrative concerning the first part of 20th century Hungarian literature).

In such a context it is a relevant question how can a regional perspective be used to tell a story of Hungarian literature in Transylvania. If the genetic and the social perspectives are not taken into account, do we still have the possibility to construct a regional literary history?

There are several answers to this question. The one that I feel the most provocative (and therefore the most acceptable) is that we could speak about a regional literature without staying within the field of "literary geography" as Chinezu suggested, or within the framework of the genetic approach (which would say: Transylvanian literature is the literature written in Transylvania). This point of view (largely relying on the conclusions of a poststructuralist approach) suggests that Transylvanian literature is what is read as Transylvanian literature. This implies also that there are several readings of the same work of art: we could read a novel (for example György Szántó's Stradivari) as an artist novel, as a Central-European novel, as a Hungarian novel, as a Transylvanian novel and so on — or even as "simply" a novel, this latter reading being the closest to a structuralist approach.

How could we conceive a "Transylvanian" reading within this somewhat relativist concept? Perhaps by seeing these readings as "using" the same text in different contexts, or rather contrasting the same text to different types of texts. A Transylvanian reading would be to link the text itself to a specific (literary) tradition: to see whether it can be situated in a dialogical pattern with texts of Áron Tamási, Károly Kós and other authors. It could be also a referential reading in the sense that the assertions of the text would be linked to different realities "outside the text", but it would be more consistent to say that these assertions would communicate with the assertions of other texts situated within this tradition.

In this sense — and here I come to the point whether the narrative built on such a concept would be the narrative of "Translyvanian Hungarian literature" or of "Hungarian literature from Romania" — the preferable option would be the first term: not because there is something essential in "the soul of this region" but rather because of the nature of literary tradition.[7] The dialogue between texts does not take into account geographical and historical borders: a contemporary poem could initiate a dialogue with a text from the 14th century as well as with one from 1968, for example. In this sense, a "Transylvanian" characteristic could be also the fact that Hungarian literature in this region prefers the dialogue with the texts of Dostoevsky or Turgheniev more than Hungarian literature from Budapest. "Transylvanian" means here therefore this free possibility of dialogue with (the ever restructurated) tradition. And also diversity: the fact that there are alternative stories and histories about this tradition.

[1] Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[2] Ferenc Szemlér, Jelszó és mítosz (Slogan and Myth). In: Béla Pomogáts, Jelszó és mítosz, Tg. Mureş, Mentor, 2003. p. 154.

[3] György Szántó, Öt fekete holló (Five Black Ravens), Bucharest, Kriterion, 1982. p. 475.

[4] Roberto Maria Dainotto, "All the Regions Do Smilingly Revolt": The Literature of Place and Region. Critical Inquiry, Spring 1996. p. 488.

[5] Ion Chinezu, Aspects of Transylvanian Hungarian Literature (1919—1929), Cluj-Napoca, Centrul de Studii Transilvane—Fundaţia Culturală Română, 1997. pp. 45—46.

[6] Endre Bojtár, Lehetséges-e regionális irodalomtörténet? (Is Regional Literary History Possible?), In András Veres (ed.), Az irodalomtörténet esélye (The Chances of Literary History), Budapest, Gondolat, 2004.

[7] The term "Hungarian literature from Romania" is much more strict from the historical and geographical perspective, but it misses perhaps the relatively self-sufficient character of literature and art in general.