Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Hári, Nietsche, Kant, Sinatra

Memento mori – memento vitae

Mária Hári died nine years ago today.

I was not there when she finally went.

Not long before, at my previous visit to Budapest, Mária already no longer recognised me and Erzsébet Szentesi and I agreed that there was no further point for Mária in my returning.

During the late summer and early autumn of 2001 I had been coming to Budapest frequently, to visit Mária in her strange, jumbled flat in Nádor utca (still then in my mind Munich Ferenc utca, close to the Parliament building. I would stay by Ferenciek tére Metro station and visit her once or twice a day, according to how strong she was feeling, and we would talk and show each other things. Usually I would go down to the Danube embankment and take the no 2 tram to Kossuth tér. Sometimes, in the late-summer sun, I would walk.

My walk would take me along Váci u, across Vörösmarty tér and then along Dorottya utca (from which the irreplaceable Museumbolt had already disappeared) till cutting across to her flat.. In the north-west corner of Batthányi tér, I got to look regularly at the excellent little souvenir stall that stood there, and perhaps still does. 'Souvenir' is maybe not quite the right word for, truth to tell, quite a lot of what it sold had nothing to do with Budapest, or indeed even with Hungary, but the stall did carry some nice and unusual stock.

It was there that I bought what is, I think, my only physical reminder of those sad weeks: a fridge magnet, enameled in yellow, red and black (maybe it is German). I bought it for its words, which are in English.


This small enamelled plaque reads as follows –

"To do is to be”
“To be is to do”
“Do be do be do”

Well, Nietsche certainly had Mária to a T, She certainly was what she did. Indeed sometimes it was hard to see through this to the human being beneath, to envisage that she had any personal or subjective life of her own, at all or even that she could have any time at all to do anything but fight for her cause. But Kant also knew a thing or two. Mária became what she was out of the circumstances of a bleak and difficult life. She became in many ways quite bleak, often very difficult  and totally driven. What she was was what she did, certainly the style of it.

The first two aphorisms on my fridge magnet co-exist in dialectical unity as statements of Mária's personality – as surely they do in all of us in our own personal balance. She had her own particular, driven mix, her own steely, self-imposed and embattled duty toward András Pető and his Institute. But what about the third aphorism?

There seems to have been very little do-be-do-be-do, at any period of Mária's life. My impression over the mere seventeen years in which I (intermittently) knew her was that she yearned that there should have been, but she had neither circumstances nor aptitude to lighten her life in this way. She showed little sign of what nowadays is called a work-life balance, between on the one hand doing-being/being-doing and, on the one other whatever it was that Sinatra was implying.

She loved it, though, when she was given the opportunity to stand outside the dutiful, work-oriented do-be/be-do dimension to which most of her waking hours were devoted.

Persuaded out of that trap, she would gingerly take the opportunity to let go and enjoy herself. She could become momentarily, endearingly girlie! And after she retired she did begin to let herself go rather more spontaneously, a bit. There was the pleasure that she took in regularly meeting up with a small group of old school-friends from the Baár Madas Református Gimnázium. And the private visit that she made to the city of her dreams, Paris.

A cheap tin-plate fridge-magnet. Hardly a souvenir of Budapest, or indeed even of Hungary. But a good memento of Mária –  not of her death, but of her life.

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  1. Emma McDowell writes –

    Dear Andrew,

    I read your “Memento Mori”, and was moved myself, remembering the Doktornő. I didn’t know it was Szentesi Erzsike who stayed with her at the end. I did know she was a favourite of hers... Szentesi was (is?) an excellent conductor, she led the teenagers’ group George was in at last. Parents were allowed to stay once a week. I learned a lot in that group.

    By the way, it’s the No 2 tram that goes by the Danube, along to the Kossuth tér. And this September George, I and my sister walked the same route (backwards) from the Parliament (Kossuth tér) to the Ferenciek tere (cheating just a little bit, by taking a couple of stops by tram No 2) as you did that autumn. George was asked whether he would like to walk, and he insisted. Hári (and Szentesi) would have been proud of him. We then had a small vacsora at the “Apostles” Restaurant – very much down to memory lane for me, too.


    PS In Goethe’s Faust: “Am Anfang was die Tat!“ (When Faust translates „logos“.)

  2. Thank you for that Emma.

    Fancy my getting a tram number wrong, of all things! I do hope that this was a typo and not a memory lapse (and, even if the latter, a long-term one and nothing to worry about. Thanks for correcting me.

    Faust: 'In the beginning was the deed". Of course, if you really wish to be diamat, the word (speech) is a deed (activity) too, a specifically human one...

    I am sure that you do not want to be diamat!


  3. Emma writes back –

    I just didn’t know this abbreviation.

    I passed countless exams on aspects of “Diamat” while studying in Hungary, and the German Department at Queen’s in Belfast (where I graduated) was truly “infiltrated” by this way of thinking at my time.

    Our most influential lecturer (under whose guidance we studied Goethe’s Faust) was a brilliant German Marxist (who, however, had defected to the West, and that’s how he could freely lecture on his beliefs). We tried to analyse all literature from this (very logical) point of view.

    I have all Lukács’s works here at home on my bookshelves, but I also know the downside of his personality. The latter from (directly told) memories of prominent Hungarian literary figures whom he and his cruder followers forced into inner (or outer) exile in the late 4Os, up to the late 5Os…

    As a friend of mine here in Belfast, a Hungarian professor of Chemistry who defected to Queen’s in 1968, says: 'Whoever was young back there cannot help thinking dialectically for the rest of his life…'