One of the greatest metaphysical thinkers of the 20th century, Béla Hamvas, due to his wide range of interests, studied literature, cultural history, history of science, psychology, philosophy and Eastern Asian languages. He was a non-conformist, whose aesthetic views were attacked by György Lukács, resulting in the banning of his works from publication after 1947. Most of his writings were published posthumously, beginning from the early 1980s.
1897 born in Eperjes (at that time in Hungary); family later moved to Pozsony (today Bratislava, Slovakia)
1915–1917 wounded twice in First World War at the Austro-Hungarian – Russian front
1919 his father refused to take the oath for Slovakian citizenship, family expelled from Slovakia to Budapest
1919–1923 studied German and Hungarian Philology at the University of Budapest
1923–1926 journalist for the Budapesti Hírlap and Szózat (Hungarian newspapers)
1927–1948 librarian in the Central Library of Budapest
1935–1936 together with Károly Kerényi, founded Sziget, a journalist and intellectual circle
1937 married the writer Katalin Kemény
1940–1944 drafted into military service; posted to the Russian front in 1942; managed to escape
1945 his house was hit by a bomb, his library and manuscripts were destroyed
1945–1948 editor of the Leaflets of the University Press
1948 placed on the B-list, forced to quit his job, and to work on building sites
1948–1951 officially qualified as a labourer
1951–1964 interned, unskilled labourer in factories at Bokod, Inota and Tiszapalkonya
1964 retired from work at the age of 67
1968 died; buried in Szentendre, Hungary
Béla Hamvas found his form of expression in the essay, a genre at once literary and philosophical. His early essays were published in Magyar Hüperion (1936, Hungarian Hyperion), marking the end of his first period of thinking, to be followed by Szellem és egzisztencia (1941, Spirit and Existence), an essay discussing the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, one of the main inspirations for Hamvas’s thinking. He published a selection of essays on literature, psychology, philosophy and cultural history in A láthatatlan történet (1943, The Invisible Story). Analyzing the spiritual crisis of the age, Hamvas read himself into the metaphysical tradition, the collective spiritual knowledge of humanity conveyed by sacred books. His collection Scientia Sacra (the first six volumes, 1942–43) served to direct the attention of the age towards the philosophy of the Far East (The Upanishads, Tao Te King, The Tibetan Book of the Dead and others) and European mysticism. From 1945 Hamvas belonged to the spiritual renaissance for three years, during which he edited the series Leaflets of the University Press, held lectures and published the metaphysical Anthologia humana: Ötezer év bölcsessége (1946, Anthologia Humana – The Wisdom of Five Millennia), the fourth edition of which was banned and pulped by the communist regime. His essays written together with his wife on the history of art Forradalom a művészetben: Absztrakció és szürrealizmus Magyarországon (1947, Revolution in Art: Abstraction and Surrealism in Hungary) survey Hungarian art from KárolyFerenczy, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka and Lajos Gulácsy up to the activity of the “European School.” Hamvassaw in surrealism and abstract art the heritage of magic, the “tremendous presence of a higher existence”,and opposed “realistic” art. This concept of modern art was attacked by the Marxist ideologist, GyörgyLukács, and Hamvas was dismissed from the library and silenced for the rest of his life. His writings werepublished in samizdat.
His essays are grounded in tradition, their sense of humour is granted by knowledge, and humour, in turn, grants their freedom. Unicornis, Titkos Jegyzőkönyv, Silentium (1948–51, Unicorn, Secret Protocol, Silentium) were published as late as 1987, but were written alongside Hamvas’s great novel, Karnevál (1948–51, Carnival, published in 1985). This Magnum Opus, also called a “catalogue of fate”, a “human comedy”, spans continents and ages, Heaven and Hell. Hamvas’s three shorter novels, Szilveszter (1957, New Year’s Eve), Bizonyos tekintetben (1961, From a Certain Aspect), Ugyanis (1966–67, Therefore) were published together in 1991, followed by his collection of essays, Patmosz (1959–1966; Patmos) in 1992, whose title alludes to John the Apostle’s exile to the island of Patmos, and the second part of Scientia Sacra: az őskori emberiség szellemi hagyománya II. rész: A kereszténység (1960–64, Scientia Sacra – Spiritual Heritage of Mankind, part II. Christianity) published in 1988.
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“Good Religion” and Wine
(an Epilogue by Antal Dúl for The Philosophy of Wine)
The Philosophy of Wine is an apology for the rare, solemn instants of life, of ease, play, and self-forgetting serenity. This is the world of dionysian, Mediterranean intoxication, the bee-master’s half-awake, half-dreaming meditation on an August afternoon, under the nut tree, the pure, glittering serenity of Orpheus: some of the rare, idyllic moments lived by Hamvas. It is precisely a glass of fiery Szekszárdi or green-golden Somlói that could make us aware of them.
In the summer of 1945, during a short holiday spent in Balatonberény, Béla Hamvas writes, practically in one breath The Philosophy of Wine. It expresses the first quiver of a people who, harrowed and starved, sorely tried by front lines, concentration camps, and bomb shelters, have just reached the sunlight; curiously, it expresses not despair over the ruins, but an exuberant joy of life.
Hamvas begins by saying that he is writing a prayer book for atheists. But what is atheism? “The sickness of abstract life.” It is also a religion, because the most obdurate sceptic, and even the materialist, has a religion. But a bad religion: a belief in negation, and a belief in the lowest level of consciousness. For Hamvas, atheism is not a question of Weltanschauung or confession; it is not even an abstract speculation as to whether God exists. And, if the answer is yes, it does not inquire how God exists and in what manner: in substantial unity with the world, or high above the created being? These questions concern atheists just as the negation of God does, and neither Jesus, Buddha, Lao-tse, nor Heraclitus was willing to speak about them. For the atheist is not only someone living in the religion of matt er, and not only the Cartesian fanatic of reason. The circle is much wider. The zealously praying, devout pietist or the daily communicant could be, to the same extent, an atheist. One can hardly provide an exhaustive list of all those – from the fanatics of Weltanschauung to the hypocritical overeater, from the mad worshippers of fame, rank, power, and money to the stone-hearted misers, from the obsessive advocates of hygiene to the indignant prudes, from the life-torturing ascetics to the alcohol addicts – who belong to this group. One thing is certain: the number of inanities is infinite, and normal existence is always the same. As Heraclitus put it: “The waking share one common world, but when asleep each man turns away to a private one.”
The infallible sign of bad religion is “existence without intoxication.” The cause is a stiff fear of life, penetrated deeply into the soul. Nothing is more difficult to achieve than liberation from this state.
Good religion (the vita illuminativa) means higher sobriety. The first sign of healing: seeing God in stones, trees, fruit, or stars. In love, food, and wine. He who does not know, says Béla Hamvas, that God is in the cooked ham will not understand anything of this book. “I understood that Brahman’s highest form is food.”
Whose religion is good? The religion of he who dares to live in an immediate manner and knows that the joy of life is not something forbidden. Not something forbidden but, as the Gospel says, a plus. Food, wine, and love are not the goal, but helpful means. This world is a place of crisis and separation, and everybody has to declare his intentions. But in whoever the order is re-established, he does not need laws, prohibition, and asceticism.
The Philosophy of Wine is not an inventory of Hungarian wine treasures. Neither is it that of botany nor gastronomy. As in his other writings, Hamvas always pays attention to the main features of human behavior, to the bases of life. Classification is the task of books on oenology. The concern of this book is altogether different. It prepares the reader to worship the Presence.
Hamvas’s novel in a sense deconstructs the genre of the novel. It is extremely difficult to relate the plot, as all seven books have dozens of characters and only some of them return in the later parts, since the novel is “a grand catalogue of fate, an inventory” of mankind. The books are preceded and interrupted by introductory chapters, somewhat in the manner of Fielding’s Tom Jones (a novel referred to early on), except, as the reader learns later on, the novel lacks a fixed point from which either the writer or the reader could observe it. In these essayistic dialogues a Voice is narrating some mock-learned, mock-arrogant conversation between the protagonist, Mihály Bormester (Michael Winemaster), and himself, who claims to be an “agent spirituel” in telling Bormester’s story. If we can believe the Voice, Bormester would find this narration three times foolish - foolus termaximus -, first of all that it should have happened, then that someone should be telling it, and finally that someone else should be putting it down. Later on, the reader and the critic are invited into the foolishness.
“The novel describes the development and spreading of madness in a completely original way,” explains György Spiró. “The novel was born as a gesture of rejection of omniscience, and hence it is occasionally stinging satire on the human consciousness and soul, occasionally a parody of all possible (past and future) theories, including all rational and irrational philosophies, religions, aesthetics, and theories of everyday existence.”
In the first book, a red-haired assistant-draftsman (Bormester’s father) arrives to some town, where he meets as many people as there are attitudes or masks. All these characters are prismatic caricatures, some of them have more than one identity. Most of them return in the second book, but they have changed their distinctive “monomanias”. In the books to come, the hero, Bormester “saves” and marries a hysterical woman, then develops a double identity, strangles his wife, receives a spiritual leader and survives the war. Countless other characters turn up, every time in another environment, as the novel spans from the 1880s to the Second World War. In the seventh book a new character arrives: his name is Vidal (“the one who can see”), who is eager to shed his mask and get a glimpse of the Land of Promise. The narrator and the Voice discuss every part and almost every character of the book. They comment on the difficulties of narration, talk about time, reality, probability, style, common sense and the imagination, women, the body, misunderstandings, the masks that human society is wearing, and much more.
As György Spiró puts it, “Hamvas is not simply a caricaturist with wide intellectual horizons, because caricature is limited by the subject it distorts. He makes a parody of the whole of human existence and we have the feeling that he is most probably the freest of Hungarian writers. He is not so free, however, as not to be a Hungarian writer because his work was made in this language, in an original and varied language abundant in the possibilities of linguistic innovation, and he is not concerned for one moment by the spasmodic efforts oft en found in Eastern Europe to achieve European culture from an undeveloped marginal land. On the contrary, he has no inferiority complex, because he sits in a watch-tower from which East and West can be equally surveyed, that East and West which are not able to understand each other.”
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