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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter I. Cultural modernization: Institutionalization of “national sciences”

The small mirror of Hungarian literature

Zsolt Beöthy
Traduction de Dávid Oláh

Texte intégral

1Title: A magyar irodalom kis-tükre (The small mirror of Hungarian literature)

2Originally published: Budapest, Athenaeum, 1896

3Language: Hungarian

4The excerpts used are from A magyar irodalom kis-tükre, (Budapest: Athenaeum, n.d. [1930]), (seventh edition), Introduction, pp. 4–9.

About the author

5Zsolt Beöthy [1848, Buda – 1922, Budapest]: writer, literary historian. He stemmed from a Protestant gentry family, his father was Zsigmond Beöthy, prominent writer, jurist and politician. He studied in Pest, Vienna, and Munich. After working at the Ministry of Finance for four years (1871–1875), he became a secondary school teacher. After 1878, he started teaching literature at the University of Budapest. In his youth, he also wrote novels and short stories. Later on, he became a prominent personality of the Hungarian academia and also an acclaimed public figure whose voice was characteristic of the 1895–1896 Millennium festivities commemorating the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin in the ninth century. In 1903, he became member of the Upper House of the Parliament. He was the first president of the ‘Hungarian Society of Literary History’ (1911–1919). His works of literary history were of extremely high esteem at the turn of the century. While his strictly academic oeuvre failed to have a lasting impact, Beöthy’s construction of the history of ‘national literature’ influenced the historical consciousness of the middle class and the cultural discourse of the interwar period.

6Main works: A magyar nemzeti irodalom történetének ismertetése [Overview of the history of Hungarian national literature] (1877–79); Magyar balladák [Hungarian ballads] (1885); A tragikum [The Tragic] (1885); A szépprózai elbeszélés a régi magyar irodalomban [Prose narration in old Hungarian literature] (1886–1888); A magyar nemzeti irodalom története [A history of Hungarian national literature] (1893–1895); A magyar irodalom kis-tükre [The small mirror of Hungarian literature] (1896); A művészetek története [A history of the arts] (1903).


7Based on a series of lectures Beöthy held in 1895 and 1896, ‘The small mirror’ was written in the context of the euphoria of the Hungarian Millennium of 1895–1896, marked by the optimism of fin-de-siècle Hungarian ‘imperialism.’ The cultural-political discussions of the last twenty years of the nineteenth century were about the question of the capability of Hungarian society to turn the country, with a population of over 50 percent ethnic non- Hungarians, into an ‘organic’ nation-state. Ideologically, the period was marked by a combination of a historicist understanding of national evolution going back to the liberal nationalist tradition and an increasing stress on ethnic characteristics, albeit not in a strictly biological sense. Along these lines, Beöthy sought not only to establish the canon of Hungarian literary history, but also to forge a philosophy of the history of literature and to create a basis for a national characterology. In many ways, the text is thus an attempt to underpin the assimilatory conception of nation-building, while preserving the continuity of the ‘Hungarian race.’

8The book offered an encompassing picture of the spiritual development that allegedly culminated in the late nineteenth century, the golden age of ‘national classicism.’ This period came to be perceived as an ‘Augustan era’: fusing the topoi of national Romanticism with the grandeur of classicism, stressing the harmonious relationship of national and universal aspects of culture. Beöthy’s narrative was an unprecedented success; it was published in a shortened English and French version serving as an ideological ‘guidebook’ of the Millennium festivities and was re-edited six times in the subsequent quarter of the century. In a way, it became the master-narrative of the official nationalist educational and cultural program. Although it basically elaborated on the commonalities of the Protestant ‘Independentist’ (that is, traditionally anti-Habsburg) cultural-political canon, it managed to break through the usual denominational limitations and became formative for a large segment of both academic and popular cultural production. On the whole, it is a key example of the transfer of Romantic topoi to the canon of institutionalized ‘nation-building.’ Characteristically, Beöthy chose not to update this overview in the subsequent editions, and froze the picture at the turn of the century, unwilling to include the emerging new trends of literary Modernism (which he described as a “mongrel culture”).

9The introduction of the book represents an attempt to grasp the ethnicspiritual roots of Hungarian culture. Starting with the iconic image of the Volga horseman, staring at the remote horizons on the steppe, it seeks to de duce the psychological and cultural characteristics of the Hungarians from this substrate of nomadic culture. This culture, in Beöthy’s opinion, was marked by the strong collective solidarity, the force of contemplation, tranquility, transparence, and honesty. Implicitly, these features are contrasted to another national characterology (the German one), which accentuates the desire for ‘exploring the unknown.’ While in the first edition the ethnic terminology was less precise, in the second edition from 1900 Beöthy used explicitly the discourse of Turanism, which linked Hungarians with Turks, Bulgarians, Central Asians and even the Japanese, placing the military, nomadic and self-governing features of the ancient Hungarians into this pannationalist framework. This is markedly contrasted to the Finno-Ugrian theory, so much so that Beöthy even declares that the Ugrian substrate was an assimilated alien community dominated by the most archaic ‘Turkic’ layer.

10The core of his argument is that this powerful combination of ethnocultural peculiarities was crucial in determining the history of the subsequent centuries. This history was marked by a constant process during which ethnic aliens were assimilated into the body of the Hungarian nation, which, nevertheless, preserved its traditional institutions of liberty and constitutionalism. Beöthy’s discourse of national character stresses the spiritual and political markers as constitutive, and claims that the Hungarians’ most important feature is their permanent preoccupation with the public sphere. This political nationhood, precisely because it was institutional and not so much ethnocultural, was an ideal framework for assimilating newcomers. Thus, Hungarianness is based on common geographical determinants, institutions and, most importantly, a common history. This does not mean, however, that the Hungarian ethnic character was submerged completely. According to Beöthy, the nation was historically constituted, but, nevertheless, molded by the ‘Hungarian race.’

11This construction, linking a supra-ethnic assimilationist understanding of nationhood to an ethnic characterology, practically lost its relevance after 1918, with the collapse of ‘historical Hungary.’ At the same time, the symbolism devised by Beöthy could be used by the nationalist ideologues of the interwar period without much readjustment. The image of the steppe horseman in-between Europe and Asia and the topoi of national characterology allegedly based on the features of the Hungarians conquering the Carpathian Basin became key references of various mainstream and alternative projects of defining ‘Hungarianness.’


The small mirror of Hungarian literature

13From the mist of ancient times, a figure of a horseman emerges before our eyes, standing quietly on the lowlands of the Volga valley, watching. A peaked fur-cap rests on his head while his muscular waist, clad in pantherskin, seems to stem from his small horse. With eagle eyes, he looks across the seemingly endless plain whose every point is sharply lit by the bright disk of the sun. He is calm; he has no fear and no fancies. What matters for him is only what he sees, and his eyes, inured by distant images of the plains and their strong light, can see clearly all that the human eye can see from one point. His quiver is cast on his shoulders; his Persian sword is at his side: he watches for the enemy. If there are only a handful of them, he’ll brave them; if they come in groups, he’ll bring tidings of their approach to the others. It is for them, the others, that he keeps watch, and he flinches from nothing. He can fix his eye on the far distance that is said to be boundless, in a faraway black spot he can recognize the eagle, the strong and cruel bird of his god, feasting on a carcass. A good omen; he caresses the neck of his horse Ráró, and rests his steady hand on the sheath of his sword. He awaits the future and he feels, he knows that their common cause shall require his strength. His soul is filled with the sense of this strength and with his devotion to his race.

  • 1 Ármin Vámbéry (1832–1913): orientalist; Pál Hunfalvy (1810–1891): linguist, ethnologist, historian (...)

14The image of this solitary horseman goes to explain much not merely of the way of life of the ancient Hungarians but the essence and development of the Hungarian spirit. The entire spiritual life of the Hungarian nation is permeated by the natural and moral influences that prevailed in its ancient living conditions and took root in its soul. This nation originally belonged to the ancient great community of the Central Asian people, a people united by the hereditary and formative influence of soil, climate and a way of life, and today usually called Turanian. Like the Huns and the Avars, it was a tribe of nomadic horsemen of the plains; and the flat environment surrounding it with its vast extent, clear lights and few colors served to improve, rather than anything else, their contemplative power, the clarity of their discernment, the vividness and steadfastness of their perception and judgment. And also their self-confident calm, for they hardly had a reason to fear any danger approaching unperceived. Indeed, they developed these attributes rather than the desire to grasp the unknown, the ability to approach it, the vague imagination and, with its undulations and games, the submersion into the current of emotions. A nation small in number, even together with the strangers gathered around it; it was the struggles of self-preservation, the combats with men much more than with nature that required, engaged and developed all of inner and outer strengths. Besides a whole series of Greek and Arab authors from the ninth and tenth centuries, the first period of its life in the new homeland goes to prove that it subsisted more or less on the spoils of war. The prime interest of the community as well as the individual was closely tied to martial excellence: whatever they needed in life was to be acquired mainly by the sword. Thus the nation, or at least parts of it, was perennially compelled to fight; and well-nigh everything these warriors possessed was won by their valor and might. This personal prowess, rectitude and readiness to confront anything, all of which arise from the nature of combats of the plains, has become and remained to this day the nation’s characteristic trait and thus its ideal. It characterizes not just its behavior in war but the whole of its moral concept of life. Hungarians apparently owe these traits to the Turkish components that, merging with the more numerous Finno-Ugrian peoples, their kinsfolk through the ancient Turanism, had forged it into a nation. And it is probably also to the Turkish component that they owe their ancient letters or runes, whose popular usage may be traced until as late as the seventeenth century. But the Turks also gave the name of one of their tribes to them, a name that, according to Vámbéry, means “ruler” or “powerful one,” whereas Hunfalvy derives it from a word for ‘son of the earth.’1

  • 2 Otto of Freising: German bishop and chronicler of the twelfth century. In his Gesta Friderici Impe (...)

15Without a strong sense of interdependence, the personal valor of the individual would not have been sufficient to defend, conquer and sustain the territory of a small nation. From ancient days throughout the whole of its history, in all times and all hardships, during wars and internal strife abetted by outsiders, its very existence as a nation was threatened; and this fact developed in its members an exceptional propensity for paying attention to a common national interest and a willingness to make sacrifices for it. This characteristic willingness is related to the particular way that their heroic ideal was formed and took root in their soul. Apparently, they are always more inclined to serve the national interests to their utmost by mobilizing all their strength, by risking their lives than by renouncing any lesser interests. Hungary’s constitution, its free institutions, its counties and its parliaments emerging from the encampments of the nation all intensified this trait, the vivid and active sense of national interdependence. As early as the Middle Ages, the public interests of the nation, particularly in the face of foreigners, engrossed the attention of everyone in Hungary, the mighty and the small alike, to such a degree that Otto of Freising2 found this trait of the Hungarian soul worthy of special mention, comparing it to the political passion of the ancient Greeks. The whole outer and inner life of the Hungarians is guided at all times by this presence of the public interests and a national sentiment. Despite, or perhaps because of, the proverbial ‘national curse’ of constant dissent, their history bears witness to the power of this perennially effective concentric force. Parties and denominations as distant as possible from each other in their notions are still united in this inspired public feeling, and the most ardent personal and party conflicts could never lead to the division of the country and the nation.

16This trait is manifest characteristically and prevalently in the whole course and in all branches of their spiritual life: their poetry, their science and their art. Their whole way of thinking as well as their imagination are inspired by this national sentiment. Whatever this nation transplants from the culturally more advanced West, these concepts and forms are always, consciously or instinctively, altered and remolded in order to make them the most suitable to serve the Hungarian national interests. Indeed, this very percept is a chief principle of our thousand-year-long development, shedding light on the depths of the Hungarian soul and at the same time revealing the relationship of our cultural life to our politics as well as to foreign cultures.

17These ancient features of the Hungarian spirit and their constant prevalence are even more interesting as the nation emerged from the mixing of various races, and thrived through the ceaseless assimilation of foreign elements.

18It could imbue with its martial ideal the Ugrian fishermen and hunters as well as the peaceful settlers driven here by the vicissitudes of war in the West; it could establish in Italian and German newcomers, torn away from their original national ties, a deep and strong national sentiment; it could win over the Turks, Cumanians, Bulgarians, Pechenegs from the East, peoples full of discord and savagery, to its culture already adapted to the West, channeling their strength for the service of this culture and for national unity. In their soil and their climate, most of the territories in the new homeland resembled the steppes of their old dwellings, and the organization of the nation took form and evolved in a direction that guaranteed the influence of its members in public affairs and thus sustained and cherished their eager participation in them. The rising legal status of foreigners and immigrants depended on merits that meant in actual fact an adaptation to the Hungarian soldierly and political spiritual type—merits that were at the same time accessible for everyone.

19The Hungarian soil, the sky, the institutions, the history continuously developed and spread the Hungarian spiritual type, even beyond the boundaries of the Hungarian race in its narrower sense, among all those who have lived for centuries in this history, on this soil, under this sky, amidst these institutions. The present Hungarian nation has been shaped throughout the course of history; yet it has been shaped by the Hungarian race and shaped in its own likeness.

20It was this race that guided its history that established its objectives; indeed, the race created it, and strove to vindicate itself with it. Whomever this race linked to itself through its history and institutions has become imbued with this spirit, and became part of it.

21Thus the nature of the Hungarian soil, the dominion of the Hungarian race with its public institutions, the character of Hungarian history, the Hungarian language, whose forms the Hungarian mind has shaped in its own way—all these, despite the unceasing intensive mingling of races, have sustained, at least in its main features, the original Hungarian spirit. Assimilated foreigners, knights and warlike nomadic troops as well as settled farmers and craftsmen have in most parts become Hungarian not only in their language, as the large masses of Slavic population that had already been living here did, or as the Turkish peoples would later, but in their soul as well.

22And this development is made all the more astonishing by the fact that almost since the beginning, the military, political and religious motives of dissimilation—wars, party conflict, national and sectarian oppression and persecution—have afflicted the purest, most deep-rooted Hungarians most inauspiciously. Here we encounter the marvelous phenomenon that while there is hardly a nation in Europe manifesting such a strong and almost unceasing blending of the most diverse peoples; at the same time, there is hardly any one that has preserved the spiritual character of the founding race so faithfully and unmistakably despite all this mingling. The classic testament to this proposition is our literature.


1 Ármin Vámbéry (1832–1913): orientalist; Pál Hunfalvy (1810–1891): linguist, ethnologist, historian. These were the two main authorities on Hungarian pre-history and the steppe cultures in the second half of the nineteenth century.

2 Otto of Freising: German bishop and chronicler of the twelfth century. In his Gesta Friderici Imperatoris he included his eye-witness accounts on the Hungarians.


Dávid Oláh (Traducteur)

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