It was as a student that I met my first Hungarian intellectual. I was so ignorant at the time that I did not even know that Hungary had an intellectual tradition that in importance completely belied its relatively small size both in geography and population. Of course, knowledge is always finite and ignorance infinite, so perhaps I need not feel too ashamed of my former self; but my ignorance is still infinite.
The Hungarian intellectual friend with whom I shared lodgings was called George. He was a child when he came to England in 1956. Notwithstanding the experience of his parents, George was a hard-line communist who deprecated what he called revisionism, of which, in his view, 99.99% of other people who called themselves communists were guilty. He hated them much more than he hated, say, John Foster Dulles. He was on the central committee of a communist groupuscule, practically all of whose other members were also on the central committee.
George was still at the stage of political development when a picture of a factory with a chimney belching black smoke seemed to him like the augury of a glorious future. He was very keen, as were all communists of his type, on a commodity known as pig iron. I think he could have been a proletarian Marie Antoinette: ‘Let them eat pig iron!’
He wore nylon shirts not because he liked them but because they represented a triumph of Man over Nature. Nature he regarded in the same light as Vyshinsky regarded the accused in show trials. Nevertheless, George was very amiable and after a few drinks would stand on a chair and declaim Louis Kossuth’s speeches at great length. Of course, I did not understand a word of them, but I knew they were sincere. What became of George, I did not know. Once, he applied for unemployment benefit and said that his profession was economic journalist; he was rather put out when the Department of Work and Pensions, or whatever it was called in those days, found him a job the very next day.
Since then, I have known personally four Hungarian intellectuals, or rather intellectuals of Hungarian origin. They were far more eminent than George. One was an economist, two were sociologists, and one was a psychiatrist. All of them were masters of English prose who put most native speakers to shame.
The economist was Lord Bauer [of Market Ward]. He used to say that Mrs Thatcher had two accomplishments to her name (and only two): The first was the destruction of the unions in Britain, and the second was the raising of him to the peerage. He was a development economist who stood out against the orthodoxy of his time, namely that the people of very poor countries were incapable of accumulating any capital to invest and therefore that the government had to invest for them, obtaining capital either by forced saving or foreign aid. He was very much against most foreign aid, and his most famous dictum (which, however, he denied ever having formulated) was that foreign aid was the means by which poor people in rich countries gave money to rich people in poor countries.
I met him at a lunch at the Spectator, and we became friends with a mutual interest in the absurdities of Tanzanian socialism. Bauer called Julius Nyerere, the first president of the country after independence (and for 25 years), St. Julius because of his sanctimony. Reality follows satire, and there are moves afoot to canonise a man who immiserated his country by forcibly moving its peasantry into collectivised villages.
Bauer was a precise and fastidious man. If you said you were going to phone him at 7:15 pm, he would be on the phone to you at 7:17 pm if you hadn’t called. No man was easier to love than he.
Bauer was the friend of Dr. Thomas Szasz, the psychiatrist who for a time was a major figure in the countercultural movement, though he was clearly a bourgeois of Central European type despite his long residence in the United States.
Szasz was a brilliant, erudite and passionate polemicist who argued that mental illness was a dangerous metaphor, used to impose conformity upon the population. He was partly right and partly wrong; one of his greatest, indeed almost unparalleled, achievements was to get the Lancet to publish a hilarious paper in which he maintained that happiness was a rare mental illness caused by delusion and a deficient grasp of reality. The beauty and vigour of his prose was extraordinary for a man whose third language English was: in this he resembled Joseph Conrad.
Paul Hollander, who alas has just died aged 86, was also a stylist in English. By his adolescence he had had experience of living under both the Nazis and the Communists (hiding from the former and exiled by the latter), which was enough to last anyone several lifetimes. He was a sociologist with a very firm grasp of concrete reality, and a sense of proportion that only experience, or perhaps in some cases imagination, can give.
It was always a pleasure to listen to him speak, for he always had something arresting to say on whatever subject he spoke — otherwise he kept silent. The brilliance and originality of his mind was immediately apparent, but he was never arrogant. He seemed to me to go through the world with a detachment that was not quite amused, but sharp-eyed for its folly. He was realistic but not cynical.
He wrote very amusingly on subjects such as the small-ads of the New York Review of Books, in which lonely literary ladies and gentlemen sought each other out, all claiming to have an excellent sense of humour and to be of liberal sympathies with a liking for authentic Italian cuisine and good burgundy.
Lastly, I may mention the only one of the four still living, Professor Frank Furedi, another sociologist, a scholar with the acutest intellectual antennae for absurdity (he does not lack for material).
I suppose that if I had to choose one quality that unites all four eminent Hungarian intellectuals whom I encountered after George, it is a profound sense of irony.
My small sample, but to me it has meant a lot.