Friday, 27 May 2011

Youthful Enthusiasm

Around the corner from my place in Budapest is the National Museum:
Supposedly, the poet Sandor Petofi recited his poem Nemzeti dal (National Song) in front of the building and started the Hungarian revolution. Anyway, I went through the gates this morning just as a group of schoolgirls was finishing reciting the same poem on the steps in front of the museum that now bear a sculpted relief of the poet's face. Their male colleagues got up afterwards and had a go as well (I'm afraid the girls seemed to have memorised the thing better than the boys; the boys, however, gave a more spirited rendition, all in all):

I suppose those who wish to see threats everywhere will regard the whole performance as a deeply troubling portent of the rise of militant Hungarian chauvinism. I admired the fact that the children had been set the task of learning something off by heart and had risen pretty much to the challenge and also the fact that they hadn't been persuaded that all cultures were equal and everything was relative and blah blah blah. Instead, they'd actually been given the opportunity to feel pride in where they came from and what they belonged to, (how shocking and unenlightened). In many countries nowadays, we have become so fearful that such feelings will automatically transform into aggression to others that our response, were we to see our own infants performing anything similar, would probably be to jeer and sneer and cringe.


  1. Yes, I know what you mean. The winner of the recent "Romanians Have Talent" (and they do, believe me) TV programme was an orphan lad who rapped about how Romanians should pull themselves together and make the best of themselves (or something like that). I didn't quite understand it, but apparantly it was very positive and quite affecting. Well done him. Then in the final he sang another rap but with a troup all waving Romanian flags behind him, with looked rather like a rally by the (irredentist) Greater Romania Party, and this Englishman was left in two minds.

    Interestingly, Petőfi Sándor was, like other nationalist icons - ahem, Hitler and Romania's own Codreanu, though these are unnecessarily extreme examples - not of the nationality for which he became a figurehead, being himself a Serb/Slovak.

  2. I give the benefit of the doubt, in that I think the nationalism being expressed is really directed against the sense of having been suppressed under the Soviet yoke for so many years, rather than being about a desire to crush anyone, if that makes sense. I noticed that about Petőfi Sándor. Often, it seems to me, people who are not fully credentialled as citizens of their country feel more intensely about it. I saw Ian Hislop talk about how, as a child of an engineer who'd taken his family off to Hong Kong and other places to live while Hislop was young, he, Ian, had formed an ideal picture of Britain that he is now always trying to persuade it to live up to. Also the current Prime Minister of Australia did not arrive in our country until she was 8 and, like many in that position, has over-compensated with an accent stronger than any local could manage, presumably in order to fit in.

  3. When my stepmother was a child, she had to memorize a stanza of "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere", and picked the longest. I do not remember ever being set a poem to memorize except in 10th grade, when it was "I Must Go Down to the Sea Again" by John Masefield--just the thing to resonate with boys at 5000 feet above sea level, equidistant between the oceans.

    I'm not sure what you'd have somebody memorize for a good patriotic poem in the US. "The Midnight Ride" has a good swinging rhythm but is not a great poem. Emerson's "Concord Hymn" perhaps stands up better as poetry.

  4. This a very interesting debate: I planned to blog on the subject of 'national' poetry and why it is often a bit, err, 'other', but I never got round to it. (I should have apologised for mentioning poets and dictators in the same breath above, but my thesis is still in its infancy....) Schoolkids of my generation were often given Ted Hughes' poems as a replacemnt for Rudyard Kipling's, and those in towns generally considered them a total irrelevance as they'd never seen countryside or proper animals. I think zedders is right about incomers trying harder - I rather hope that many of the East Europeans currently working hard in my own country will stay there and mitigate the apathy somewhat.

  5. I remember 'I must go down to the sea again'.
    I think the essential question is: do we perceive nationalism as without any redeeming features or can it act as a force for good at times? The current prevailing attitude seems to be 100 per cent against nationalism, but maybe that should be challenged.