On April 26 the students and faculty of ECLA had the privilege of welcoming Agnes Heller, one of the greatest living European intellectuals. Heller has become an outspoken critic of the political changes occurring in her native Hungary, where she now lives after many years teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York.
Born into a Jewish family in Budapest in 1929, Professor Heller experienced the death of her father and of many childhood friends in the Holocaust. The attempt to confront the genocide—the problem of human evil, and the nature of the social determinants that unleash it—lies, she says, at the centre of her work.
Because of her belief in a Marxism that promised a practical human liberation and a creative, culturally-rooted response to the challenges of the modern world, Heller repeatedly found herself in opposition to the orthodoxies imposed both by the Communist party and by the Soviet-backed regimes that preceded and followed the brief period of pluralist openness glimpsed in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Ultimately, to escape government harassment and surveillance, Heller and her family chose exile in Australia in 1977.
The best-known and most important influence on Heller’s intellectual development was the Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács. Lukács occupies an unusual position among radical Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century: he rejected the embrace of modernist innovation explored by the members of the Frankfurt School, becoming the foremost theorist of ‘realism’ in literary aesthetics, a concept which he updated to encompass the intellectually intricate narratives of Thomas Mann, through the idea that historical causality could be revealed in the representation of social ‘type’. Lukács was also unusual among Marxist aesthetic theorists in playing an actual—if controversial—part in historical events.
He was twice a member of politically-progressive Communist governments (after WWI and again in 1956), and despite marginalization and persecution, remained committed to a position of reformist critique and close attention to the fortunes of his country. Lukács’s influence on Heller can be seen not only in their shared concern with how to describe and respond to contemporary conditions, but in her emphasis on involvement in the political life of one’s immediate context.
It was an especial pleasure to welcome Agnes Heller to ECLA because so many of its courses are and have been dedicated to the central currents of twentieth-century ethics, aesthetics and political theory to which her own work is a vital contribution. On the day of her visit, we were to experience the enormous range and command of historical, philosophical and literary knowledge at Professor Heller’s disposal. She gave the opening lecture to the second-year BA core course on the Florentine Renaissance.
The talk provided an overview of the fundamental concepts at stake in the course and their significance. Pivotal in Professor Heller’s account of the Renaissance was the notion that it involved a championing of the individual, in particular the sensuous reality of the individual human body. This transformation had the power to overturn tradition, kinship, patriarchal authority—as in the sexual choices of Shakespeare’s Juliet, and his Desdemona—and also the primacy of religious piety in the visual representation of ostensibly sacred figures and tableaux. This change was not without its unsettling dimension: she noted the ‘evil’ attributed to the “natural” (illegitimate) son Edgar in King Lear. Similarly, the separation of morality from politics as an art of calculating discrete strategic interest, theorized by Machiavelli’s The Prince,gives rise to a sense of disquiet, and even to the misunderstanding encapsulated by the insult ‘Machiavellian.’
Professor Heller observed that the reaction of Savonarola to the aesthetic achievements of the Florentine Renaissance can be seen as a kind of ‘anti-modern’ fundamentalism, a wish to return to the certainties of the past—although she acknowledged that this interpretation is one that has only become visible as a result of conflicts in our own time, and that Savonarola’s revolution was also a violent attack on the inequalities of wealth that made lavish Renaissance patronage possible.
Professor Heller stayed on in the afternoon to address the ‘Politics Club’, ECLA’s extra-curricular discussion group for contemporary political affairs. She spoke of the current situation in Hungary and its origins, arguing that the repressiveness of the current government is facilitated in part by a longstanding refusal to address bygone suffering and trauma. The experience of transition from Communism was one largely imposed from above, and there has been little attempt to process and acknowledge the wrongs and divisions of the more distant past, in particular: complicity with the Holocaust, and the silences and betrayals wrought by the pressures of totalitarian rule.
Discussion moved to an exploration of the reasons for the rise of a right-wing populism across Europe, whether characterized, as in Germany and Denmark, by intense media debate about the problem of ‘integration’, or, as in Italy, by overwhelming private political monopolization of the media itself.
Apart from expressing warm appreciation for the sophisticated level of commentary exhibited by the German newspapers, Professor Heller declined to remark on those contexts with which she as not personally familiar, but noted three important things: firstly: in Hungary, the situation is now such that dissent from the government even on a non-political issue can result in the loss of one’s job. She also suggested that the rise of right-wing sentiment principally has economic causes, wryly noting that student activists in the far right ‘Jobbik’ party are much less likely to be found in an engineering faculty.
Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party (which heads the present government) deploys populist, anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric in order to appeal to a broad disaffected mass, but in fact it is itself funded by and caters for rich supporters, the main beneficiaries of its policies, a contradiction that leads Heller to call its ideology “Bonapartism.” Finally, she refused any fatalist idea of ‘inevitable’ repetitions or regressions, observing that swings back and forth from left to right are a normal dynamic of political history, and that such changes are “pushed” by the agitation of individuals and groups, making the active participation in the pursuit of justice all the more important.
ECLA students and faculty were left with the impression of someone who has herself lived this principle, and whose vibrancy of intellect and enormous generosity of spirit have been preserved by her commitment to it.
by Catherine Toal