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Literature and Guardianship

Literature and Guardianship

Published Jun 3, 2024 Updated Jun 3, 2024 Culture
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Literature and Guardianship

translated by Owen Good

 

“The happiest nations are those who govern least. Strong governments are: guardians, and he who has a guardian is either himself a moron, or a minor.”

(Lajos Kossuth, 19th century statesman and revolutionary leader)

 

Growing up intrigues me: on a societal level, a community level. The conditions for a responsible, conscious existence. And the obstacles. Like the treacherous state, infantilisation, old reflexes. Underlying patterns. Toxicity feigning tradition, bad habits let on as professionalism, paternalism masquerading as good intentions.

The setting is Eastern Europe. Soon I’ll have been living here for forty years, I’m tied to this place by family and primarily by socialisation. The region where everything is suspiciously familiar, suspiciously homey. Transgenerational taboos and eroded institutions. Lost battles, repressed suffering, surface shine, and what that logically entails: personality disorders, alcoholics, mutterers, opportunists and predators. Societies taken hostage, put under guardianships. János Kádár’s Hungary, Husak’s Czechoslovakia, Zhivkov’s Bulgaria, Ceaușescu’s Romania or Gomułka’s, then Gierek’s Poland. The vibrant afterlife of interpersonal corrosion in our post-communist time. And that fucking great impenetrable silence.

Because oppressive regimes aren’t tied to any ideology. Certainly not to any ethics. Comrade or government commissioner: surface movements, words put under guardianship. The behaviour’s the real clincher. Any theoretical opportunity for resistance is worthless when someone hasn’t even noticed they’ve been made another’s dog. Been subjugated. Are being used. In psychological terms maintaining boundaries means that a person protects themselves in the interest of their own mental wellbeing and resists being tyrannized. At the very least puts up a fight. It’s a grave problem when both individually and socially those boundaries aren’t clear. When there is no template for how to effectively stand up to intimidation. The dictatorship experience however lives on in people’s heads, handed down to the next generation. The Kádár era’s most destructive period undoubtedly falls within those later lenient decades with a human face. Those years when Hungary was “the happiest barracks”. That was when the cognitive dissonance was enduringly built into the society’s subconscious; that potato soup, cheap beer and Lake Balaton are fair compensation for a lack of self-determination. That an authentic life can be built upon the systematic covering up of crimes. From here on in, the meaning of loyalty is: submission. Upsetting though it may be, maintaining a (more) conscious resilience is easier under open oppression. State treachery is hidden most cunningly by dictatorships with human faces and hybrid regimes.

After all, immunity is weakened in the human organism when it’s no longer able to distinguish between harmful and beneficial substances. On a social level it’s no different. Because the spark of resistance matters little when risking one’s benefits qualifies as a luxury. Democracy isn’t just a principle, but a mode of thought and behaviour. Having theoretical freedom matters little when consequently the message received from families, from schools, from workplaces is “don’t make a fuss.” When a milieu – due to lethargy, fatigue, neglect, or quite purposefully – makes it possible for older, well-ingrained modes of operation to live on, which results in those on the lower rung of the social-professional hierarchy or outsiders (or those labelled as such) not being owed the same respectful treatment, the same tone as those who wield power, prestige, and recognition.

The immunity-lost society is either unable to defend itself against harmful influences or also stifles beneficial influences. Such foster-earth is ideal for a Programme of Narcissistic Cooperation (as coined by psychiatrist György Bánki, taking after the Fidesz-KDNP government’s Programme of National Cooperation) to thrive. Its traits are a masterful arrangement of doublespeak, guilt and shame, the swollen power of the clans, and that the demands of the programme will dominate the citizen’s life, not vice versa – in the rhetoric, however, the opposite is drummed in. And as a whole this guardianship is so familiar, so reassuring. A place where votes bought with post-communist flavoured potatoes, declarations of zero wealth, and the strength of rampant capitalist mantras (“those who have nothing, are worth nothing”) can cohere seamlessly. The bloody rhetoric of normality to cover the burning of billions and the selling off of a country. That is what we’ve become accustomed to (and dependent on).

In the literary life of Hungary too. Keeping quiet, looking the other way. The guardianship role is filled by publishers, directors, editors, literary associations, societies etc. Even listing them is boring. The author of course can resist only when she has a healthy mental immune system. And then after a while – when she’s sufficiently run-down, playing it safe, or has got accustomed to the infantilisation – she bends, she bows. Or worse, she believes that the guardian always knew better. She believes that she’d be better off dropping her name (“you’ll never make it with that name, just wait and see”), by rewriting her text five-ten-twenty times (the fate of the writer mentored to death, squeezed dry), by entirely rewriting her book under external pressure (“your writing is too complicated, you’ll never make it”), by overwriting her own authorly intention (“the publisher just wants the best for you, that’s why it won’t publish it”). She believes that she has to think in terms of authority figures and gatekeepers. That she can’t say no. That she has to laugh along, even when her stomach turns. That she cannot ask back, cannot debate, cannot criticize her own milieu. It’s through behaviour that oppression takes root.

During panel discussions editors/publishers/etc. with human faces attempt to convince the audience why it is beneficial that the text be rewritten behind the author/translator’s back without otherwise informing her. Why it is expressly good for the author if she has no say in the text’s final form. How she will be grateful for it later. Or worse the author herself will be trotted out to declare how she really is grateful that instead of cooperation she was overruled. Market economy bred on goulash communism: the old faithful, the autocratic method, interiorised. But there are even cases when they don’t ask the author’s permission to publish her text, her excerpt. N.B.—from private correspondences too. They just send word that the material is already off to the printers. Or when a book’s cover and body matter, despite having been agreed in advance, the result of numerous people’s collaboration, changes entirely before or during (!) printing, because it suddenly turns out that “it’s the only way they could solve it,” or “otherwise it won’t sell.” There are thousands of examples of how the professional and power elements of a position are deliberately blurred. What’s crucial is that the author feel honoured: a writer patronized.

Currently our literary infrastructure carries the oppressive characteristics of post-Kádár reflexes and capitalist commodity logic. Often the two – see above – cohere seamlessly, thereby forming and maintaining the immovable blocks, centres, tastes. Monopolies. Everything that could make this structure colourful, plural, fluid (journals, zines, small workshops, advocacy groups, cross-border cooperations) become the victims of administrative bleeding out. Nothing is banned now, only rendered financially inviable.

Physical, intellectual, and emotional self-defence against hypnosis requires constant vigilance and awareness. That’s growth. Not a peak but an everyday practice. Not a subversive event but the start of a healthy, responsible life with clearly demarcated boundaries. In which freedom and the associated risk-taking aren’t merely granted in principle, but can be continuously exercised.

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