“A sort of oriental yearning for Nirvana” – Miklós Bánffy on doomed Hungarian geniuses


There is a famous anecdote told about Enrico Fermi, when he asked why there was as of yet no evidence of intelligent life from other planets despite the statistical likelihood of its existence, getting this reply from Leo Szilard “They are already among us, they just call themselves Hungarians” (edit – originally I thought the punchline was Fermi’s)

Reading Miklós Bánffy’s epic Transylvanian Trilogy is a slow, rich, rare pleasure, at risk of sounding too blurb-y. I have resisted posting any excerpts but will make an exception for this passage from “They Were Found Wanting” Balint Abady, the main protagonist, has just met Jopal, who in the first volume “They Were Weighed” is met having invented a flying machine – just after Santos-Dumont and the Wright Brothers. Jopal angrily refused Abady’s offer of help, and in this passage had just appeared as part of a delegation of charcoal burners at a development conference. Jopal has totally abjured technological and scientific work. In the passage that follows, Abady considers a whole host of Hungarian lost geniuses:

As Abady walked over to the restaurant he was thinking over what had happened to Jopal. How strange it was, the destiny of Hungarians! How many there were like Jopal, as full of talent as their greatest rivals in the world but who, once they had reached their goal, would give it all up as easily as it had been obtained. Such people would never fight for the recognition they deserved; it was as if they would soon lose all interest if everything didn’t go their way from the beginning, and that they had striven so far only to prove to themselves that they could do it if they wanted to, and not for worldly success. Several names at once occurred to him. There was Janos Bolyai, one of the outstanding men of his generation, who gave up everything at the age of twenty-one; Samu Teleki, who had explored so many hitherto unknown parts of Africa and discovered Lake Rudolf, but who never bothered himself to write about his travels; Miklos Absolon, who had been to Lhasa but who never spoke of his travels except obliquely and as humorous anecdotes. Then there was Pal Szinyei-Merse, the forerunner of the Impressionists, who gave up painting and did not touch his brushes for more than fifteen years; and, of course, Tamas Laczok, who earned fame in Algeria where he could have made history but who abandoned it all to return to Hungary and work on the railways as a simple engineer.

There seemed to be a sort of oriental yearning for Nirvana, a passivity as regards worldly success which led his compatriots to throw away their chances of achievement, abandon everything for which they had striven for years, sometimes justifying themselves with some transparent excuse of offence offered or treachery on the part of so-called friends, but more often offering no explanation at all. Perhaps it was the other side of the coin of national pride which led them to throw everything away as soon as they had proved to themselves that they could do it if they wished, as if the ability alone sufficed and the achievement counted for nothing. It was like an inherited weakness transmitted from generation to generation and, of course, it had been epitomized in Janos Aranyi’s epic poem about Miklos Toldi, who under appalling difficulties conquered all his country’s enemies in a few months and then retired to till his fields and was never seen again until extreme old age.

Most of the notables mentioned above are easily enough found on Wikipedia, with the exceptions of Miklos Absolon and Tamos Laczok; for the excellent reason they are characters in Bánffy’s epic tapestry. Laczok’s career in Algeria and subsequent humble worklife does echo the career of Amity Cadet’s father

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