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A Tale of Fire and Knowledge

ISSUE:  Winter 2007

One hot summer evening unknown perpetrators in unknown circumstances and with unknown intentions set fire to the four corners of Hungary. What we know is that the fire broke out at Agfalva in the west, at Tiszabecs in the east, at Nogradszakall in the north, and at Kuebekhaz in the south. Aflame were harvested fields, ablaze arid meadows, and sometime after midnight the fire reached the first village houses. A most gentle and innocent breeze, blowing from the west at Agfalva, from the east at Tiszabecs, from the north at Nogradszakall, and from the south at Kuebekhaz, was bending and swaying the flames toward the interior of the country. Budapest, unaware, was sound asleep.

It was reported, as the seventh item in the morning news, that in the eastern, western, northern, and southern counties, large-scale fire drills were being conducted since early dawn; this insignificant little piece of alarming news let every Hungarian know that the occurrence was indeed significant.

Although everyone knew the news did not mean what it said it meant, as a public they all pretended not to know what it really meant. In the Hungarian vernacular of the time, significant meant insignificant, for example, and insignificant stood for significant, but since words had not completely lost their original meanings, there could be no consensus, either, on just what they really did mean. Silent agreement, therefore, could extend only to what a nonexistent general agreement could not mean.

If, by some turn of good fortune, the words had lost their original meanings, they would acquire new ones, but this was unimaginable without making individual knowledge public, without a new general agreement. As a result, every word of the language—now according to people’s individual knowledge, now according to their common ignorance—meant something other than what it had once meant, and people had to look for a word’s meaning by alternately considering the speaker’s situation and the word’s new meaning relative to its original one. And if the word had seemingly become meaningless, because neither its sense nor the speaker’s situation was credible, then this absurdity had a deeper meaning, as if it meant something. In the language of the Hungarians, words with noncredible meaning referred to a profound human collectivity that Hungarians were forbidden to think about. When people who think in other languages think of nothing, they inevitably come up with something; those who think of nothing in Hungarian, however, have the following, evidently impossible historical task: not to let anything come to mind when thinking of nothing, or to allow, when thinking of something, nothing to come to mind that would lead their thinking to something.

Although this peculiar mode of using the language did not make communication simple, the basic rule was to avoid making individual knowledge collective—an avoidance with which Hungarians had great experience. In the last century and half of their history, they had learned that only collective ignorance could save them from individual folly. If they, therefore, did not share their individual knowledge among themselves, they could commit no collective folly that might get them into trouble with one another or with others. That is how they were thinking. Hard as it may seem to follow their logic, in the governance of their individual and collective lives it did not prove to be faulty. By dint of this common logic, which shut out collective knowledge, they remained Hungarian. So not only was their logic not useless for their survival, but it became the only and exclusive condition of it. However, what had proved to be a useful tool in a windstorm might not necessarily be useful in a conflagration.

On a ship in a storm, the sails are usually lowered, but the wind can sometimes create circumstances in which it is best to raise all sails. But if fire breaks out on shipboard, in the struggle with the destructive flames it makes very little difference whether the sails are up or down.

Therefore, the Hungarians’ behavior, the logic of their way of thinking and use of language, had one feature we can call neither erroneous nor flawed, but rather a drawback that is characteristic of everything ambiguous. When the avoidance of sharing individual knowledge became the basic rule of communication—because only by clinging obsessively to this tacit agreement could Hungarians preserve the national collective—it had an inevitable consequence for individuals. Every Hungarian assumed that what he or she knew was also known to everyone else, though no one could define what it was that was known or not known. However, being in a constant, mutual need of assumptions and searching for the meanings of words by bypassing their meanings, they collectively could know only that they were compelled to make assumptions about matters of which they had no individual knowledge, or rather individually they could not know what they did not know collectively.

Nevertheless, in this delicate situation, the country’s population remained united in that no one hurried to put out any fires. In the absence of activity that unquestionably referred to the fires, they maintained their collectivity by thinking of the meaning of the fires. And who would doubt that thinking is an activity? As for what the fires meant, opinions differed, of course, but no exchange of opinions could take place because everyone rightfully assumed that everyone else knew that they did not mean what they meant. If the fires did not mean fire, then it was either superfluous to be concerned with them—because they could only be fires that did not burn—or that one should be concerned with the burning question whether fire did not really mean water. Those who approached the question from the sense of the word, had to think, inevitably, of water; and those who approached the question from the situation of the speaker were forbidden to think of fire. While the former thought that in reality a flood of unprecedented proportions was threatening the country, the latter thought that instead of putting out real fires, firefighters were igniting false ones. Because if one can talk about a fire that burns nothing, then for the same reason one can talk about a false fire that does burn things in its path and is no less dangerous than a conflagration, which in reality means a flood.

By the afternoon hours, this collective avoidance of knowing about the significant danger had created an atmospheric tension, which in other languages to this very day is referred to as a tension of responsibility felt for the fate of the nation. Not so with the Hungarians of the time. Whatever their individual opinions, everyone felt the pungent smell of smoke, but even if they mentioned anything like that among themselves, collectively they opined that an unprecedented storm was in the offing—was not the sky becoming completely black?—though individually they knew that neither flood nor false fire could produce smoke, therefore no storm could result from them. The evening news program then gave a more detailed report of the events.

In the interest of better understanding these events, we ought, too, to say something more of the good women and upstanding men for whom reading aloud the news of public interest had become not simply an occupation but a way of life that involved them body and soul. In those years, Hungarians were becoming so equal in their thinking and behavior, and therefore in their outer appearance as well, that they could hardly distinguish between themselves. It was characteristic of them, for example, that they came into the world as adults, and, since there was nothing to grow up to be, they remained children. Schools became unnecessary. As an adult, everyone could teach anyone any subject because there was no one who would not remain a child; while as a child, everyone could learn something from everything, since there was no one who could become an adult. And if a person found him- or herself without anyone around, he or she could use him- or herself for instructional purposes, because it had become the common and inalienable peculiarity of every Hungarian that (as a child) no one was aware of what he or she might have known (as an adult). Within this equality, however, certain self-sacrificing individuals, precisely in the interest of complete and perfect equality, had to remain more equal than the others.

We must qualify as unfair and misleading the irresponsible presupposition according to which these more-equal individuals would have been the men and women who governed the country. In the current state of research and investigation, we have no evidence that any of these ever shared his or her knowledge with anyone. They did not do this among themselves or in connection with anyone else, and therefore the difference between inhabitants of the country who were well informed about public affairs and those who were ill informed was a mere formality. Inhabitants ill informed about public affairs, drawing precisely from their experience of being ill informed about public affairs, clung obsessively to the tacit agreement, which they had entered into for personal interest, that in no circumstance should any individual knowledge they had of things come into collective knowledge. Inhabitants well informed about public affairs, considering themselves well informed about public affairs, clung obsessively to the tacit agreement, which they entered into for public interest, that only a collective not-knowing of things could ensure the individual knowledge that no one should possess. The former pretended to have no individual knowledge of the matter, only collective nonknowledge, the latter pretended that public not-knowing was their individual knowledge. This was indeed logical. After all, if a person, through no fault of his or her own, is inexperienced in public affairs, how could he or she make individual knowledge part of the collective thinking? And if an equally faultless person is experienced in public affairs, on what basis could he or she not make the collective not-knowing of things the basis of his or her individual thinking? In this regard, we may surely speak of the essential equality of those who govern and those who are governed. Those who govern could not limit the governed in the freedom of their individual knowledge, but neither could the governed limit those who govern in the freedom of their collective not-knowing. In Hungary at the time, everyone could act on whatever he or she did not know, and publicly anyone could think of this anything he or she did not think. And if Hungarians, with this noble and attractive unconsciousness, managed not to hurl their country into the chaos of utter destruction, it is because among them were individuals more equal than they. And these individuals were none other than the news presenters.

Hungarian news presenters resembled every other Hungarian to a T, but the moment they opened their mouths they differed from other Hungarians in every way. They resembled all other Hungarians, because they were no less successful in blending adult and child in themselves. But while an ordinary Hungarian, at any given time, could unload his or her views about the world to only a few others, news presenters were able to instruct, in addition to themselves, every other Hungarian, yet they differed from other Hungarians in that their instructional activity could have no effect. Unlike the rest of the population that could interpret what they had heard as they liked, news presenters had to pretend, whether they liked it or not, that they understood not a word of what they were telling the country. They were lively in teaching but despondent in learning, because if they were the kinds of person who could not understand a word of what they were saying—for they were not individuals—then they could most splendidly embody the collective not-knowing that was the possession of every Hungarian. And if I can represent something commonly found in everyone, isn’t that enough for me individually to be enthusiastic?

As for teaching, no one could be more grown-up than the news presenters for they instructed everyone, but no one could be more childlike either, for they learned nothing from their own words. If, however, they had pretended they understood what they were saying, then everyone could have seen they were crazy, for that would have meant they understood something that in reality was meaningless. So they did not pretend. And that was more than reason enough to make them despondent.

There was another reason for admitting no doubt about their unparalleled popularity. In those days, Hungarians used only three words for speaking. Although they were taken from the realm of basic life functions, they had lost their original meanings. One word designated activity, another the object of the activity, and the third was a substitute for all possible adjectives and adverbs. We would not only violate common decency but would burst the limits of a scholarly study if we said anything more about these three words. However, we cannot keep silent about the fact that while in everyday speech the news presenters as individuals used no other words than these, like everyone else, but the moment they appeared before the public, they spoke a language no one else did. And this had multiple ramifications for every Hungarian. Mostly it meant that there existed a public language that did not exist, and it also reminded people that this language not only did exist but, by common consent obtainable through lucky coincidence, could exist.

On that hot summer evening when most Hungary was in flames, it was the turn of a maternally sweet-voiced, particularly popular news presenter. It would be no exaggeration to say that, even among the more-equals dispersed among the equals, she was the most more-equal. From her Hungarians had been informed about every single heartrendingly uplifting or woefully stormy event in the last century and a half of their history, and therefore the grateful inhabitants of the country could do nothing but lock her into their hearts. Her exceptional popularity was due to her exceptional mental endowment, which others desperately longed for but could not obtain, and at best could only imitate. Schizophrenia split her personality not into two parts, as it did other, ordinary Hungarians, but into three. As a result, not only could she present, with full conviction and complete identification, a text of which she apparently understood not a word but with her well-placed accents was able to signal to her listeners on the one hand what they should understand, from their collective not-knowing position, by all those meaningless words, and on the other hand, from the point of view of their individual knowledge, what they should not understand by things that, no matter how they looked at them, made no sense. This woman was a fountain of information, a soothsayer, and an oracle.

“I must start with the dramatic announcement,” she began in her cloudless voice that evening, addressing those who were still listening to her. While the irresistible charm of her mature womanhood brightened her face, she faltered and got stuck, as if she were drowning in one of those common words her glib tongue was so used to. She knew well that her compatriots would understand more from words not uttered, because they would understand not only what a word did not mean but also what it meant in relation to the current situation. Right afterward—as if referring in advance, from the standpoint of individual knowledge, to the words expressing collective not-knowing that would soon issue from her lips—sparkling with sarcasm, she looked daggers. Despite the rumors circulating about Hungary being on fire, she said, it can be categorically stated, on the basis of information obtained from the most reliable sources, that throughout the country life is going on in its usual, calm, and uninterrupted routine. No one has permitted him- or herself to be taken in by rumors. The daily portions of meat are being prepared in every kitchen; every child is brushing their teddy bear’s teeth, as he or she should; and the mechanical hearts of discos will soon begin to beat. She made these statements in a voice filled with tender sentiment, her eyes clouded over with real tears. “Those who do not believe it,” she said challengingly, lifting her head with death-defying courage, “let them look around.” She was playing it safe. Of course, in the Hungarian of those days, a challenge meant a statement, and therefore even Hungarians who were still in a situation in which they could have looked around did not do so. The beautiful woman said nothing more about the alleged fire drill, nor did she employ the usual hysterics of hostile news agencies to explain away the rumors that were spreading. With a smile disdainful of all credulous souls, she intimated that one possible source might be a report that over the last few days, during completion of an annual inventory at the National Cartographic Institute, certain maps had indeed been set on fire at their four corners.

Then, however, she made an irreparable mistake. The sheet before her said that the long-obsolete maps of Hungary had been burned, but what she said aloud was that the maps of the long-obsolete country had been set on fire. Which in fact almost meant what in fact it meant.

In the hands of blazing Hungary’s surviving inhabitants knives stopped moving, forks came to a standstill. The parsley-covered potatoes, the marinated pickles, and grilled chicken remained unprocessed in their open mouths. They all stared before them; everyone was silent by and for him- or herself. And this made for a silence that, whatever anyone’s opinion had been of the state of affairs until then, could not be not-ignored. No word is more powerful than collective silence. Every Hungarian had to acknowledge this simultaneously, and because of this lucky coincidence, his or her knowledge of silence became collective as well. The windows were wide open.

Everyone could hear his or her own silence, which did not differ from the silence of their neighbors. Silence does not disturb silence. And since everyone had more than one neighbor, it was unavoidable not to feel the same silence in themselves as the silence they felt emanating from one another. One Hungarian’s silence became the silence of another Hungarian. The silence became so collective that it was impossible to determine which silence belonged to whom, though everyone’s, invariably, belonged to him- or herself.

In the depths of their silence, they all heard the blazes of the conflagration. Only sound can disturb silence. But no one said anything. Because from that moment on, luckily for all of us, no one knew anything else but what the others might also have been thinking.

While there is still water in the wells.


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