Sunday, 24 March 2019

Before the Monument of Reformation in Geneva, 70 Years On


There is a place in Europe where Oliver Cromwell, who became the leader of a short-lived republic after the victory of parliamentary forces in the English Civil War, and István Bocskai, who received a crown from the Ottoman sultan to become the prince of Hungary following an armed insurgency against the Habsburgs, appear side by side. The fact that the said place is the Reformation Wall in Geneva does not mean, however, that the only thing connecting the two men is their Protestant faith. It is telling that the monument honouring an English and a Hungarian politician who both fought for popular self-determination at the opposite fringes of Western European civilization stands in Switzerland, a country well-known for its deference to the will of the people as well as its commitment to independence from the rest of the continent. 

In fact, the monument brings to mind striking parallels between the politics of the Reformation and Europe’s current state of affairs, in which England has voted to renounce the supranational authority of the EU in a popular referendum while Hungary is entangled in a protracted dispute with EU leaders over divergent concepts of European integration and of the rule of law. Indeed, the parallels are so striking that Cambridge history professor Brendan Simms did not even need the Geneva Reformation Wall to compare Brexit to the establishment of the independent Church of England nearly 500 years ago. In the best analysis I have recently read on Brexit, the author argues that the Leave campaign’s wish to reclaim sovereignty from Brussels was similar to Henry VIII’s act of secession from the purportedly universal authority of the Roman Catholic Church, while both events formed part of a general trend of ideological fragmentation in Europe. 

Brexit's Lady Jane Grey moment

At a time when Brexit appears to be in jeopardy, it is important to remember that the consolidation of the English polity as a completely autonomous legal order took several generations, repeated attempts at Catholic restoration and a civil war led by puritans like Cromwell - while Hungarian efforts at achieving self-determination have had to be reconciled with exigencies of outside political forces ever since Mr Bocskai.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Yes, It’s 1979 All Over Again


It is amazing to see how people change. With Donald Trump's victory, we are fortunate enough to witness this amazing phenomenon once again. We are fortunate because it happens pretty rarely. In fact, such a radical change of mankind's spiritual condition occurred only three times in the past 150 years. In order to understand the significance of Trump's rise to power, it is useful to revisit these past epochs.

I really wanted to put a beautiful photo of "Mr Trump holding a mining helmet at a West Virginia rally" here but was unable to agree with Getty Images on the price. Maybe I should have consulted "The Art of the Deal" before I started bargaining. Fortunately, a prolific and highly influential hobby photographer came to my help (credit: Gage Skidmore).

"She called it the gold standard"

Departing from London to go round the world in 80 days, Phileas Fogg told his fellow club members with whom he had made the famous wager that “I am taking a passport with me, so that the various visas it will bear will enable you to check my itinerary when I return.” Notice that Fogg did not take the passport with him to be able to travel across the globe. It only served to document his journey – and even this was considered “unnecessary” by his friends, who would as well have trusted his “word as a gentleman”. A couple of days later he was once more reminded of the “futility” of passports by the British consul in Suez: “You know that a visa is useless, and that no passport is required?" This happened in 1872, before either Egypt or the Suez Canal came under British control.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Can Spengler Explain the Islamic State?


At university, I was sometimes jokingly accused of a tendency that, no matter what the actual topic was, the title of my writing assignments always began with “Spengler and the ...” If you take a look at my list of publications or even the posts of this blog, you will be able to establish that this was nothing more than a malicious falsehood. Still, Oswald Spengler remains a central point of reference to me and yes, sometimes I publish essays under a title featuring his name.

This and all other illustrations of this post are taken from
"Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", a
filmstrip drawn by Sándor Lengyel, 1963.
All the more so as the range of nouns that can appear in such a title together with Spengler's name is virtually endless. Relying on his encyclopedic knowledge, Spengler wrote about almost everything. First and foremost, however, he was a civilization theorist. A recourse to his thoughts therefore commends itself most clearly when a phenomenon is examined in the context of the civilization that produced it. This is the case with the problem of how the Islamic State is rooted in Middle Eastern culture.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Scripts for the Future

My history teacher once said, “It is our loves that make life worth living.” By this measure, I have no ground to complain.

I encountered my first love at the age of 10, on a rainy autumn afternoon. I was in the 5th grade, just having been allowed to return home every day right after the last class. The day-boarders of my class (i. e. those who remained in school for the afternoon) were brought to cinema once a month and we were invited to join them. That afternoon I was not sure if I wanted to go because the film's title reminded me of the action genre I did not like. Reluctantly, I went – and I was not the same person as I left the cinema. I fell in love with Back to the Future for the rest of my life.

The Power of Love

Hill Valley, 1955, as seen from the future
("Back to the Future", © Universal Pictures)
For a long time, I thought it was my interest in history which resonated so strongly with this time-travel movie. In fact, however, the film's protagonist does not travel back in time on a historical scale. He travels back in time on a personal scale, into a period which still lives on vividly in the memories of his parents. Instead of depicting a historical epoch, the film shows how a family's life was shaped by past events that happened to its members and how another turn of events could have led to a different form of life for the family and its members. It is this personal theme that has enchanted millions watching Back to the Future in the past three decades.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Song Factor

This is the time of the year in which television talent shows come to their finals.

Of course there are many problems with these shows. At present, I only wish to point to the most fundamental one: They nurture the belief that it takes a talent to sing a song. Those participating in the competition think they will become stars because they can sing. Those watching the show think they will spend their evening in a meaningful way if they listen to other people singing. Both are wrong.

Doctor Faust with students and musicians in Auerbach's Cellar
(mural painting from around 1625 in Auerbach's Cellar in Leipzig)
These expectations represent a significant “rupture” in people's attitude to singing which occurred with the emergence of recorded music. Before that time, singing by oneself ranked among the most important sources of joy in people's life. Indeed, it was held in the same esteem as love and wine as evidenced by the adage “Wine, Women and Song”, variations of which were known in many languages. Please note that “song” in this context meant songs sung by ordinary people at everyday occasions, be it work, leisure or a love affair, whether on one's own or with others. It is from this cultural background that the multitude of folk songs arose.

In the twentieth century, the trinity of “Wine, Women and Song” gave way to that of “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll”. This change of expression symbolizes a general shift towards crudity in our lives. With regard to music in particular, it shows how the enjoyment of music recorded by a few selected "stars" took the place once held by the pastime of singing by oneself.

I remember an inscription hanging in my primary school that showed a motto coined by the famous Hungarian composer and music educator, Zoltán Kodály: “Let music belong to everybody!” In my youth I felt this motto was too pathetic and sappy. Today, I fully approve of the message it conveys: People should recognize that singing is not something extraordinary, not something that only stars or would-be stars are able or supposed to do. This insight would be the first step towards rediscovering the joys that singing can bring.

Wine and love can be next on the agenda.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

A Beginner's Guide to Circumnavigating the Globe


Great circle route around the world starting from Budapest
and passing through China, Oceania and South America
In a previous post, I put together an itinerary to go round the world in thirty-seven days. The itinerary was then successfully implemented in a virtual world tour lasting from the 8th April to the 15th May 2013.

I received some criticism, however, for my very “loose” interpretation of the notion of going around the world. My world tour could be considered a circumnavigation of the earth only in one sense: namely, that I arrived back to my starting point after crossing every line of longitude of the planet. It did not fulfil two other criteria that one may expect of a circumnavigation: First, the length of the route did not add up to the circumference of the earth (the whole journey covered around 34.000 km as opposed to 40.000 km, the approximate length of the equator). Second, I came nowhere close to reaching the antipode, i.e. the exact opposite point of my starting place at the other side of the earth; in my case, this would have been in the Southern Pacific, but I did not even leave the northern hemisphere during my journey.