Happy with Tears: On Melancholy as a Hungarian Condition

By Nicky LoomisJuly 20, 2016

Happy with Tears: On Melancholy as a Hungarian Condition

Melancholy by László F. Földényi

HUNGARIAN ESSAYIST László F. Földényi recently published a post on the Yale Books blog “Unbound” entitled, “Are Hungarians Melancholic?” As it happens, I’ve spent the past month ruminating over the same question, as a fellow Hungarian (half) and reader of Földényi’s newly translated (by Tim Wilkinson) book, Melancholy (1988).

“Why are Hungarians sad?” I asked my Hungarian mother, non-facetiously, over the phone while writing this piece. Go directly to the source, as they say.

“It’s because Hungary is landlocked,” she told me. “And because it was occupied one too many times,” — e.g., the Romans, Turks, Ottomans, Germans, Soviets, et al.

It sounded too simple an answer, but the more people I spoke to, the more I read, the more I began to believe political circumstance may indeed have perpetuated the stereotype, however true or false it may be. In the foreword to the book, Canadian writer and translator Alberto Manguel observes:

Though this is not part of Földényi’s exploration, it can be said that not only people but also places can suffer from melancholia, and a vocabulary of poetic fallacies has emerged to characterize some specific geographic instances: the saudade of Lisbon, the tristeza of Burgos, the mufa of Buenos Aires, the mestizia of Turin, the Traurigkeit of Vienna, the ennui of Alexandria, the ghostliness of Prague, the glumness of Glasgow, the dispiritedness of Boston, and the hüzün of Istanbul.

Földényi hardly discusses the question of Hungarian melancholy in his book at all. There are one, maybe two, references to Hungarian poets or artists, and just briefly at that. Instead, the book impressively and comprehensively explores melancholy as a philosophical and cultural issue from the ancient Greeks to the Romantics to the present day: melancholy as physical ailment, as celestial phenomenon, as “hysteria of the spirit,” as impulse to creativity, as mental illness, as a state of genius.

I am curious how Földényi, who first published this work in 1988 in Hungarian, thinks of himself, personally, in relation to melancholy. I’m not arguing he is obliged to insert himself into his book. But I am questioning if his identity as a Hungarian had any impact on his choice to write a 350-page book on the subject during the less-restrictive era of “Goulash Communism” — and, further, if the cultural stereotype that Hungarians are melancholic by nature has merit.

As Földényi remarked in his blog post,

This past April, the American edition of my book Melancholy was presented at the Rubin Museum in New York. While spending a week in the city, meeting friends and acquaintances, I was often confronted with the question: “Are you Hungarians melancholic?” Initially, my answer was: “No, not more than any other nation in the world.” However, after a while the saying of the Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran, came to my mind, who asserted that there are three melancholic nations in Europe: the Russians, the Portuguese and — the Hungarians, of course.

No better expert than Cioran on the subject of total abject sadness.

Földényi’s Melancholy is framed around the Aristotelian question, why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholic? This is due to their knowledge of mortality:

Their strength is infinite, because they have gained knowledge of the end, but they are unhappy, since having experienced the ephemeral nature of humans, they have lost their trust in existence. Their strength and frailty, their unhappiness and their heroism, cannot be detached from each other.

Földényi’s ability to provoke and explore paradox makes his book feel more like a philosophical quest — one with no real answers. Many of his most profound statements feel not unlike Cioran aphorisms, albeit embedded in his dense, often circuitous essayistic prose:

Since melancholics can only long for metaphysical solitude, they are prisoners of that longing […]

A melancholic wishes, first and foremost, to escape from himself, but he can find no crack in the homogeneous, overarching culture, and resignation grows in him, together with a sense of helplessness. In the end, he petrifies inwardly as well, feeling he has been robbed of his capacity for both wanting and not wanting. He has lost himself: he feels as if his body and soul had been replaced by a void, a yawning gap. (In the Middle Ages lead weights were placed on the head of some melancholics so they could feel that they had a head and body.)

Péter Nádas, Hungarian author of many English-translated novels, including Parallel Stories (2005), a three-volume novel that took him 18 years to write, published an essay on the subject of melancholy in his collection, Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays (2007). There, he speaks on Földényi’s book:

Földényi, who may himself be a practicing melancholic, makes great mental efforts not to negate the claims of one period of our cultural history against those of another; rather, with contradictory though interrelated truths he surrounds the dead space where, in a mentally sound condition, we cannot hope for an answer, though we could have never asked the question without that hope. When one reads this book, the image arises of being in a dead space but besieged by a desire to know […] Whoever reads this book will feel more precisely what melancholy is but will understand it less. This is natural, since the most characteristic trait of melancholy is the sensation of a void of knowledge or an awareness of a void of sensation.

My family fled Hungary during the 1956 Uprising when my mother was five years old, her younger brother just a baby. I spent a year in Budapest in 2011 researching my family history, with melancholy as intergenerationally thematic to the novel I was writing. Can pain be passed down, I naïvely wondered. The more I heard while living there, the more I began to project — e.g., the pain in a woman’s eyes on a train was because of some horror she witnessed during her lifetime. This is a very powerful and dangerous road to go down as a writer, but it is unavoidable as you begin to research a place and write about it, to start to connect the dots in the landscape you are moving through. Let me not grow too fond of other people’s pain, I kept reminding myself.

Yet that pain, that melancholy, kept presenting itself during my time there. The Hungarian landscape can be horribly bleak, particularly in winter. Béla Tarr set his famous seven-and-a-half-hour 1994 adaptation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Sátántangó (1985) in the dreary great plain, the Puszta. I remember watching the black-and-white film while in Hungary and feeling particularly moved by Tarr’s exploration of human existence at its lowest moments of desperation. The “melancholy” it explored felt absolutely Hungarian — there seemed no “way out” and, therefore, not even the film could be shortened to a reasonable length.

When I returned to the United States, I studied for a year with Les Plesko, a fellow Hungarian and the finest writing teacher I’ve ever had. Les, who committed suicide in 2013 here in Los Angeles, wrote, subtly poignant as always, of the Hungarian psyche in his wonderful posthumous novel, No Stopping Train (2014):

Margit threw herself onto her back. “Now I’ve managed to make you sad, too.”
He lay beside her in his shoes and his pants. “It’s just the Hungarian disease. When it comes, I forge a new document.”
Margit tented the blanket and sighed. “It feels as if history climbs into bed with us every time we lie down.”
Sandor waved smoke from her face. “Sure, even love’s a political act.”

It’s just the Hungarian disease — a disease that certainly pervades the country’s art. Hungary has its own “suicide song.” It’s called “Gloomy Sunday” and Billie Holiday sang it well. Or look at the last stanza of the country’s national anthem, “Himnusz,” written by nationally renowned poet Ferenc Kölcsey in 1823:

Pity, God, the Magyar, then,
Long by waves of danger tossed;
Help him by Thy strong hand when
He on grief’s sea may be lost.
Fate, who for so long did’st frown,
Bring him happy times and ways;
Atoning sorrow hath weighed down
All the sins of all his days.

I’m not sure, but I’m guessing not many countries use words like “pity” and “sorrow” in their national anthem.

Judith Sollosy, former senior editor at Corvina Books and translator of many books by Hungarian authors, including Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies (2004) and István Örkény’s One Minute Stories (1997), says it best: “nestled into the Hungarian psyche: the Magyar as the great loser of history. I know of no other nation that, for want of something better, is left with celebrating its losses and defeats, from the Battle of Mohách (1526) to the Treaty of Trianon (1920).”

At the same time, Sollosy argues that the typical image of melancholy as we experience it is in fact a Western stereotype that at one time Hungarian artists and filmmakers perpetuated themselves. As she says,

Melancholy grew out of Romanticism and Sentimentalism, and was a favorite subject of the so-called Academic painters who attended the art academies of Munich and Vienna in the second half of the 19th century. The Hungarian Academic painters were no less prone to depict scenes of melancholy, most notably Mihály Munkácsy and Viktor Madarász. People of means loved to own their paintings, while people of lesser means — though well off themselves — loved just looking at them. Melancholy was something to be displayed as a pleasing image. It was what today we’d call a fad or a fashion.

In Endre Ady’s “Lake of Death,” Hungary’s most famous early-20th-century poet compares his country to the eponymous body of water:

We wheel above the Lake of Death —
fair, bold, and haughty birds;
and lazy, loathsome, hungry fish
with serpent heads emerge.
This reeking lake, this somber curse
they give the name of Hungary.

And all is vain, we all are drawn
into the lake below.
In vain our love, our bursts of flame,
Our goodness, brain, and soul,
for we will never win or own
this Lake of Death, this Hungary.

It wasn’t until the Hungarian Cultural Foundation’s 1969 publication of Poems of Endre Ady that Western culture was given access to his work. Editor Joseph M. Ertavy-Barath notes in the foreword of the book:

While the music of Bartók and Kodály gained international renown, Ady’s art remained a prisoner of the non-Indo-European Magyar language in which he wrote. Throughout Hungarian history it has always been the non-verbal creative men (composers, conductors, instrumentalists, sculptors, painters, moviemakers, and scientists) who established the legendary achievements of Hungarian art. The reputation of Hungarian men of letters, however, has been sadly confined to the national boundaries.

Perhaps, though, the Hungarian language is no longer imprisoned. Hungarian literature is being extensively published in translation because, I would argue, national boundaries, in terms of literature and art have begun to evaporate, giving readers a chance to experience what Hungarian writers were experiencing years ago, almost as if a time capsule were opened.

A writer friend described Hungarian literature as having a sudden “mystique,” largely due to the popularity of Krasznahorkai’s novels. As James Wood puts it in his 2011 New Yorker piece, “Madness and Civilization,” Krasznahorkai’s “work tends to get passed around like rare currency.” His first novel, Sátántangó, was originally published in 1985, but only released in the United States in English in 2012. Krasznahorkai, winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, is a fantastically dense writer whose sentences can go on for pages, creating huge blocks of text — something his translator George Szirtes calls a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” Reading Kraznahorkai is not unlike reading Karl Ove Knausgaard: it gives writers cachet at cocktail parties. These authors are sexy because they are prolific and hard to read.

Kraznahorkai describes Hungarian sadness, in a 2012 Bookworm episode, as perhaps Hungary’s “only treasure.” That statement is fertile, particularly as he goes on to explain how, in Hungary, sadness and happiness are almost the same. To be Hungarian is to be, he says in a resonant and haunting phrase, “happy with tears.”

New Directions, Archipelago Books, and NYRB Classics are the top translators of Hungarian literature. Recently, Magda Szabó’s The Door was widely reviewed by American critics. Szabó died in 2007. Said Claire Messud in a New York Times review, “It’s astonishing that this masterpiece should have been essentially unknown to English-­language readers for so long, a realization that raises once again the question of what other gems we’re missing out on.” And will those “gems,” as they continue to emerge, contain melancholic sentiments, or will we begin to realize that “melancholy” is indeed just a misconstrued cultural construct?

I wrote to Péter Nádas’s translator, Imre Goldstein, who has also translated many fine Hungarian authors’ works, including Tranquility by Attila Bartis (2008), another read steeped in melancholy. I asked him if he felt that melancholy pervades the Hungarian psyche on an individual and cultural level, and he, too, connected the sorrow to political circumstance:

Melancholy was one of the things that had been presented throughout my school years in Hungary (1945–’56) as part of the Hungarian psyche/culture/character. Sometimes it was combined with the love/habit of drinking, sometimes with love of “melancholic,” usually Gypsy music. In high school, one teacher attempted to attribute Hungarian melancholy to two defining factors of being Hungarian: the sorrow over losing three quarters of the country because of the Treaty of Trianon and the lingering problem of sitting in the middle of Europe as an “alien” people with a language unrelated to any other in the “neighborhood.”

Again we have the notion of “sorrow” being connected to a political act, a point Sollosy also underscores in her comments on Hungarian writers working for high stakes, under political pressures:

[T]here is a sense of urgency in 20th-century Hungarian literature and art, and the writers and artists are writing for dear life, writing with their pen or brush steeped in their own blood. In Hungary, literature matters. The best Hungarian writers challenge life’s predicament; they are searching for a way out, and they are searching for God, and the answers are equivocal. Which would not be sufficient unto itself, except that the best writers are masters of their craft, using language not simply to describe or narrate, but to create something new that did not exist before they put it on paper.

Sollosy mentioned that the Nobel Prize for Literature that was awarded to Imre Kertész in 2002, “for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history,” did much to call attention to modern Hungarian literature as a whole. Kertész, a Holocaust survivor and author of Fatelessness (1975), died in March of this year at the age of 86. This first Hungarian Nobel laureate in literature said in his 2002 acceptance speech,

The nausea and depression to which I awoke each morning led me at once into the world I intended to describe. I had to discover that I had placed a man groaning under the logic of one type of totalitarianism in another totalitarian system, and this turned the language of my novel into a highly allusive medium. If I look back now and size up honestly the situation I was in at the time, I have to conclude that in the West, in a free society, I probably would not have been able to write the novel known by readers today as [Fatelessness], the novel singled out by the Swedish Academy for the highest honor.

No, I probably would have aimed at something different. Which is not to say that I would not have tried to get at the truth, but perhaps at a different kind of truth. In the free marketplace of books and ideas, I, too, might have wanted to produce a showier fiction. For example, I might have tried to break up time in my novel, and narrate only the most powerful scenes. But the hero of my novel does not live his own time in the concentration camps, for neither his time nor his language, not even his own person, is really his. He doesn’t remember; he exists. So he has to languish, poor boy, in the dreary trap of linearity, and cannot shake off the painful details. Instead of a spectacular series of great and tragic moments, he has to live through everything, which is oppressive and offers little variety, like life itself.

According to Hungarian Literature Online, at the request of Kertész’s wife, writers Péter Esterházy and György Spiró delivered speeches at the funeral. Esterházy’s eulogy contained the following observation:

Kertész brought such restlessness into the Hungarian language. The new order of restlessness. If I had to associate one word with Kertész, it would be suffering. His life, his death and his art were all in the sign of suffering. Sometimes it was suffering that found him, sometimes it was him [sic] who found suffering […]

I wonder if suffering is meant politically, whereas melancholy may have a lighter tone — a kind of nostalgia, with some strange sense of hope.

“So, are the Hungarians melancholic?” Földényi concludes in his blog post. “I leave the question open, while remembering a friend of mine, who asked point-blank: would you have ever written your book on melancholy, had you been you born in another country, raised in a different culture? And to this my answer is univocal: I do not know.”

We will undoubtedly be hearing more voices from Hungary that speak of their own experiences of melancholy. I am particularly looking forward to hearing more Hungarian women’s voices. So many Hungarian authors are writing, beautifully, of the pain of an era long past but evoked now before our eyes in these translations. They are like messages in bottles, drifted at last to shore. Happy with Tears.


Nicky Loomis, a former Fulbright scholar, is an MFA candidate at UC Riverside’s low residency program.

LARB Contributor

Nicky Loomis, a Fulbright scholar to Hungary, holds an MFA from UC Riverside’s low residency program. She is at work on her first novel, set during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.


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