Saturday, 28 February 2015


(4 May 1928 – 10 January 2015)

Elemér Hankiss died last month. He was 86.

I never actually met him. That was careless of me and I know that I missed a great treat. I had been aware of him for some years through conversations, correspondence. and other written exchanges with Emma McDowell. She had known him from her days as a student and held him in the highest regard.

Hearing about Hankiss

Emma started talking to me about András Pető a long time ago. When our talk turned to the social situation, both within the Pető Institute and in wider Hungarian society, she often invoked Elemér Hankiss. She had first known him in in Szeged where he was a brilliant young lecturer in English literature. She kept in touch with him when shs moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she was writing her PhD thesis on comparative literature, using the structuralist method that she had learned from Hankiss. Back in Budapest he become an outspoken and critical sociologist. In Belfast Emma's thesis had to give way to her new role of full-time 'conductive mother' to her son George and her PhD was never finished. It was in this new role, seeking out whatever she could find to shed light upon Conductive Education. that she again sought out her ertstwhile mentor in Budapest, in the year of the collapse of communism, the 'change'.
Elemér Hankiss was extremely appreciative of the work done at the State Institute for Motor Disorders but he suggested that it suffered from a fundamental institutional problem that went back to András Pető himself. This was a common problem within an 'unhealthy' Hungarian social pattern: traditionally paternalistic but distorted by the threatening Party-rule, causing an unfree, suffocating atmosphere within talented work-force (the more talented, the worse for them). Hankiss himself had worked under this within the Academic Institute of Literature. Accordingly and ultimately, the leader – here András Pető and his successor – must represent the source of that 'good/bad' mixture.

This triangulated with what I had been hearing, and have continued to hear from other sources. Under András Pető there was little 'sideways' communication between staff (they didn't dare and they did not trust), and their emotional force could only be expressed directly to the children. Nobody could have a personal opinion about the work, or ask questions. The socialisation of conductors into their work led to their doing only as expected and never stepping outside narrowly defined ways.

Mári Hári – it was suggested – had preserved this regime as unchanged as she could manage. It suited her that András Pető's ethos should continue to run right through the staff, with anyone who could not take it either dropping out or being cast out from the Institute, never to return.

Such conversations with Emmaserved to illumine my own observations and my developing conclusions about András Pető's institute – and about features of the the spreading conductor diaspora. That 'atmosphere' has pearsisted over the generations and even permeates conductors trained elsewhere, long after András Pető and Mári Hári have gone. Fascinating micro-sociological material!

I do not of course say that all conductors are the same in this respect but there is a certain insecurity that can limits what they do, not sticking their necks out, or venturing original or personal opinions in public. Some may not even feel free to describe how they work

A society within a society

Emma of course well knew the general social background against which András Peto's institute had developed, from her own earlier life in Hungsary, and she had picked up snippets about András Pető himself hrough personal contacts. Below I offer a selection of what she has communicated with me about this over the years , and about one of the leading Hungarian sociologists of the twentieth century –
The women employed by Pető at first included 'refugees' from the Proletár Diktatúra [the Dictatorship of the Proletariat] who could not obtain employment anywhere else because of their 'undesirable' background.
Such a one was my friend Ida, a university colleague of my Aunt, who explained it all to me. Her father and her fiancé had both been army officers. They died in the war. Her mother had no pension and was dependent on her. She was a young, intelligent, handsome, sporty, teacher-qualified girl, who became one of András Pető's favourites, but she left as soon as she could (after about eight years) because the 'atmosphere' was better at the physiotherapy department that she was head-hunted to, and from where she eventually retired.
Ida said that at the beginning there were all sorts of deklasszált elemek [declassed people] working for Pető, méltóságos asszonyok [honourable ladies] and the like... Declassed  people had been declared persona non grata, stripped of all social position, denied work or any form of relief. It was illegal to employ such people – except as casual physical labourors – but it was also illegal and punishable for anyone not to work. Desperate for work with any dignity at all they would accept minimal remuneration, often only basic rations, and were totally in the power of those who did offer them employment. They felt lucky because Pető gave them work. He was their protector. It was 'white collar' work, and food was also provided (mostly while at the same time teaching the children to eat). You would not have met any of these, neither did I, because after '56 (and in the years leading up to it) the original, cruel, harsh regime had softened.
Historians reckon that the worst period lasted for less than ten years but it was enough to destroy the normal social system of a 'just-democratised' society, never to recover, or not starting to recover until the present.
Hankiss had started as an English literature scholar, that is how I got to know him at Szeged University, and he had quite a followership among students and post-graduates from then on. He was always 'dancing on ice' and got removed from direct university teaching as well as – later – from his position as researcher in the Irodalomtörténeti Intézet (Institute of the History of Literature). The latter was (and I think still is) housed in the vicinity of the Villányi St Institute, on the Gellért Hill. We had chats a few times there; I even joined the post-graduate seminar that he was allowed to run for a while. This was in the period when I spent most time in Budapest with George (mid- to late-seventiess) and it may have been then that I told him about the autocratic atmosphere at the 'Pető' under Hári, and we may have discussed how it reflected the wider outside atmosphere and the character of 'typical' Hungarian institutions. 
Elemér Hankiss analysed this in his books (already published, daringly, before the change, i.e. in the late seventies and early eighties). He analysed how people's free associations, networks, trade unions, church-based social activities, non-Communist youth work etc. were all systematically destroyed, or driven into the exclusively private sphere (families) by the Party programme, and how by the seventies this had made Hungarian society 'sick'. In his popular essays Hankiss analysed the particular sick atmosphere of late Socialism (two of his best known collections being Társadalmi csapdák ('Social Traps'), 1979, and Diagnózisok ('Diagnoses'), 1982, thereby constantly putting his own existence in peril.
Quite a few of his books have been translated into English...

A Hungarian hero of his time

Under Socialism Elemér Hankiss steered very close to the wind in what he wrote and said. In the first three years after the change he was President of Hungarian Television. Then he left Hungary for a time and served as a professor in leading institutions in Europe and the United States.
His analyses of present-day Hungarian society (and by extension of other societies that have been similarly traumatised during the twentieth century) are both entertaining and thought-provoking. If you regard Conductive Education as Hungarian, as empirically in many ways it is, but find yourself sometimes prone to illiberal thoughts about 'Hungarians', have a look for example at these articles:
Hankiss, E. (2008) Doom and gloom, Hungarian Quarterly, no 190

Hankiss, E (2007) Transition or transitions? The transformation of Eastern Central Europe, 1989-2007, Hungarian Quarterly

When Hankiss was elected Chair of Hungarian TV (was it in 1989?) I went in to the Szabadság tér TV Headquarters to see him. (No appointment was needed.) I congratulated him – he was very modest, as usual – we were all incredibly happy in those days. I hadn’t seen him for some years by then (but read everything that he published, wondering how he could, because he wrote ’dangerous’ stuff, brilliant, analytical social criticism in enjoyable style...
At our next meeting at TV Headquarters, 'in freedom' times, I told him how we were getting on with George and how the Institute was now discovered as achieving incomparably better results than possible in Britain (he was always a fan of the English). I asked him to help a little bit with publicity. He said that he had no say in the work of the various departments, they all had their own budgets etc., he was just a sort of political head, a 'thank you' perhaps, and expressed that he was much astonished at that. (He was later removed from his Chairmanship, accused of being too impartial, even a 'friend' of the remaining communists; he was the subject of heated arguments in the next couple of years.) However, at least one particular report on the Pető Institute was made soon afterwards, sprearheaded by a female reporter whom he introduced to me.
I recently saw him interviewed on TV, still as witty and clever as ever, a bit of a Maverick, too... He would be able to analyse the special atmosphere that characterized the Institute during the various stages of Communism, and for some time beyond. To what extent it was common with ALL state institutions, offices, etc. during the enforced Communist (Party-led) regime, and what was, and remained purer in it, can be separated. Especially striking was the contrast with the Hungarian National Health System where a special kind of corruption reigned, a sort of 'protectionism' where a compulsory 'gratitude-payment' was perceived as necessary and was gladly tolerated by the state. This was not then so within 'Pető'. I still saw this inheritance intact while the generation that learned their vocation under the first two leaders were the tone-givers. Some of them are still acting as conductors and I know them to be still like that [2009].

A missed opportunity

More than once Emma offered me (no, urged upon me) the chance to meet Elemér Hankiss when next I was in Budapest but by then my visits were becoming ever more brief and occasional, and I let this opportunity slip hoping for better days. A missed opportunity for me.

Among other things I should have enjoyed and probably benefitted from talking about the reasons for my diminishng contacts there, general and specific. And a missed opportunity for Conductive Education. His intellectual force and authority might have have helped blow away a few cobwebs, at home and abroad. The questions about what was specifically 'Pető' and what just Hungarian had been a discussion point between myself and Mária Hári. It had been quite clear to her: 'Not Hungarian: just Pető!' Further discussion of this would needed a sharper and differently positioned intellect such as his.

And I would have liked to float the notion that the 'atmosphere' that he passed down through his followers, whatever its drawbacks, was (and perhaps still is) an active ingredient in the perceived effectiveness of conductive pedagogy and upbringing – not to mention conductor-training... Another time.

Thank you, Emma, for permitting me to share your above recollections a little more widely, along with some of my reflections upon these.


Personal correspondance with Emma McDowell, between August 2009 and January 2015.

Thank you Emma for sharing this with me over the years and permitting me to quote from what you have written.

Sutton A. (2009) Social background of Conductive Education: in a country very different from our own, Conductive World, 8 August

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