On Understanding Nothing Deeply
Creative responses to political misery in Hungary
Árpád Schilling was seated on a white sofa in his office in central Budapest, looking as if he might jump to his feet at any moment. His eyes shone with the charisma befitting a major theater director, perhaps the best of his generation. He was telling us why he had abandoned his theater career in Hungary and changed his life.
Schilling, now in his mid-forties, is the force behind Kretakör, the Chalk Circle, a company that grew to include over forty people by the early 2000s. They toured extensively, winning major awards in festivals around Europe. But by 2010 they were no longer touring, and Schilling was no longer seeking to fund productions in his home country. Instead he could be found in small towns in the countryside, working in village schools with just a few actors, or organizing forums where Roma and non-Roma students would be given occasion to voice their difficulties, prejudices, and listen to each other. Not interested in producing spectacles, he had devoted himself to grassroots politics.
A few weeks after I met him last summer, the ruling party declared him an enemy of the state. He responded with a gleeful Facebook post: “I was given the most prestigious award of the Fidesz government — the Medal of Traitors!”
I spent much of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, and was in Hungary many times over the past 25 years. I soaked in the celebratory atmosphere that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain, when Budapest seemed like a hotbed of experimental art and hedonism. Within a few years, though, that hedonism took a darker turn. Heroin flowed in, and the city became not only the duty station of the NATO troops in the Balkans, but the temporary headquarters of the ex-Soviet mafia under the leadership of Simeon Mogilevich, the site of the only out-of-country FBI office (famous for paying contractors with counterfeit hundred dollar bills), and the world capital of pornography. At the same time the economy struggled under one corrupt party or another. Privatization meant selling the national forests and turning over industry to connected individuals. It was nothing more than looting.
In my visits to Hungary from the Balkans, it was impossible not to compare the racist parochialism I found there to what had fed the genocidal violence in Bosnia and Kosovo. But the violence just simmered and fermented rather than erupting as it had further south. Anti-Semitic or anti-Roma slurs overheard on the city bus, brown friends threatened or attacked by skinheads, the population of protein-shake goons always more visible — in my ignorance, I came to see Hungary as a version of the racist Balkans stripped of charm. It was milquetoast, bitter, and cowed.
But as fate would have it I fell in love with a Hungarian woman and married her, and now go back to Budapest every year or two to visit family and friends. That part I enjoy, along with the food and the lovely neoclassical streets, but it has also meant witnessing Hungary take its place on the cutting edge of the populist, rightward shift that swept across much of the world. Before Donald Trump was inciting crowds to shout “Build the wall!” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had ordered his own wall on the country’s southern border. People fleeing war in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and other places were placed in chainlink detention centers in appalling conditions. I’ve heard American Trump supporters speak of this with enthusiasm, as if the Hungarian government had really taught someone a lesson.
Orbán’s party, Fidesz, has complete control of Parliament, and they have used their majority to stuff the judiciary, ministries, even local sports associations with obedient officials. Fidesz has strangled the independent media, nationalized the tobacco market, tried to drive out the country’s best private university, and eviscerated a once lively cultural scene. Public schools are now required to teach either religion or “morality.” Many excellent and talented Hungarians have left the country, some to settle here in New York. But it is sadly fitting that in the form of Sebastian Gorka, Hungary’s best known export to the US has been a racist, troglodytic politician.
My recurrent trips to the country began to fill me with an unnatural amount of bile. Compelled to be there for a more extended period last summer, I resolved to challenge my prejudices and dig deeper into what was going on. I was interested in people who were directly engaged in the worsening political situation. How did they react? And what could it teach me about the worsening situation here in the US?
I first interviewed Márta Pardavi, a human rights lawyer who is co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an NGO protecting refugees and prisoners; and Péter Magyari, a journalist with the independent operation 444, who investigates government corruption. These two committed fighters are not political partisans but professionals interested in transparency, ethics, and some version of the truth.
Magyari sees little hope for a political solution to the current anti-democratic forces in the country. He estimates that Fidesz has the support of about two million voters out of Hungary’s population of ten million.
“They don’t have the majority,” he said. “They are the biggest minority,”
But after rewriting election laws and gerrymandering, that minority is now enough to control the country indefinitely.
As government pressure on the media increased, Magyari’s career has migrated from a national newspaper to an online outlet called Index, finally to the investigative outfit 444 where he works now. Each time the move reflected an attempt to regroup, take a step away from government interference, and continue to work with integrity. But it’s not clear how sustainable even the small platform he has now might be. He has been sued repeatedly for his reporting. New laws and regulations infringe on his work. Still, he has children to feed, and none of his experience or the relationships he’s built up over years are transferable elsewhere. So there is no choice but to continue.
“I think if a change comes, it will come very fast,” he told me. “And I don’t think the result will be any better for us.”
Márta Pardavi has been working with refugee issues in Hungary since the early 2000s. When she began, the Kosovo crisis was driving Albanians north along with Serbian draft dodgers. And in fact Albanians fleeing Kosovo were the largest contingent entering the country when the crisis of 2015 struck. Soon huge numbers of refugees began entering from the south, sleeping in the train station, in parks and squares. Surprisingly, that was the moment when Hungarian xenophobia relaxed — seeing refugees in person, it seems, inspired compassion and the urge to help. But soon the government cracked down, the wall went up, migrants were removed from public view, held in detention centers or dragged back to Serbia. Then the government began a major PR campaign to slur the refugee population, publishing false statistics about stealing jobs and increased violent crime — much like Trump’s image of Mexican rapists taking the jobs of US Americans.
This effort succeeded in turning the public against refugees and other foreigners. And as the center-left opposition in Hungary is fragmented and ineffective, civil society has claimed the place of the government’s enemy of choice. Shortly after the election of Trump, Viktor Orban made a speech at a nationalist rally where he began speaking of “sharks in the water,” referring to members of Hungarian civil society. Forced to seek funding outside the country, NGOs like Pardavi’s that fight for good governance and the rule of law are now painted as foreign agents working against the national interest. This summer, the government plastered a snarling image of George Soros all over the country, with the slogan: “Don’t let him get the last laugh.”
As the government campaign to demonize the NGO sector has ramped up, people who work in the sector have become more circumspect. Who knows who is an informer, where and in what form the government is surveilling them? A year and a half ago, Pardavi and her colleagues began leaving their devices in faraday bags outside of meeting rooms, afraid of what might be recorded. It seemed strange at first, but is common practice now, though it’s still accompanied by a degree of nausea.
NGO workers were not the only ones nauseated.
The last left-wing Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, saw his government collapse after a tape was leaked of him speaking to his party leadership in a private meeting in 2006. To describe the behavior of his party he quoted a Soviet-era leader:
“We lied in the morning. We lied in the evening.”
He then went on to describe, in language that might give our own vulgarian president pause, what his socialists had done to the Hungarian public:
“We fucked them through and through.”
When the tape of this speech leaked, it provoked protesters to attack the national TV station. Gyurcsány was forced to step down, and when the next elections were held Orbán’s party took a commanding majority, able to rewrite the constitution and pass reams of laws entrenching their power, sometimes before the text was even finalized.
With the left shattered, many small parties sprang up. One was affectionately known as the Bike Messenger Party. Another, called Together, claimed only one member. But eventually the gases released by Gyurcsány’s fuckery and Orbán’s takeover mixed with a cloud of pipesmoke in the southern town of Szeged, and from that emerged the Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt, MKKP, or Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party.
It began as a group of friends gathering to smoke and joke and blow off steam. But the host of the party, Gergely Kovács, took it slightly more seriously, sometimes opening up a Photoshop file to sketch out the ideas that had popped out of his friends’ delirium.
They began with decent civic-minded actions, like going out at night to paint brightly colored designs over potholes and cracked pavement. They started a Facebook page to publicize their actions. When they were fined by local police, they would ask for donations, usually reaping more than enough to cover the fine.
When the government began its PR campaign to slander refugee with twisted statistics, pasting up billboards with statements such as: “Did you know — sexual assault has increased since the refugee crisis?” The MKKP produced their own billboards with dadaist statements: “Did you know — 70 weasels can easily block an average-sized drain?”
When Orbán’s government funded the construction of a major soccer stadium in the prime minister’s birthplace — a provincial town called Felcsút, the MKKP announced that they too had development plans for that inauspicious locale: they would build a space station there.
The MKKP’s pranks were balm to Hungarians disgusted by their government but disillusioned with the opposition. The Two-tailed Dog Party now has over 200,000 Facebook followers, more than the ruling party and second in the country only to a popular workout guru. The party is now officially registered and plans to run candidates in the 2018 election, with a platform based on free beer and eternal life. Their space program is a part of this platform too, but as it’s a low-budget operation, they say, they will need to shrink the astronauts so they can fit into a matchbook.
When I talked to Ferenc Sebő, one of MKKP’s spokespersons, I asked if the party had a message to the American people. He said they should take after the Felcsút astronauts: “They should dare to be small.”
Despite the recent political upheavals, Árpád Schilling claims his own awakening predates the elections of 2010 that established Orban’s complete control of the government. In 2004 he brought a performance to a festival in Ireland, a piece called “Blackland” that was very well received. The Irish public congratulated him on his successful method of addressing political and social issues on stage. But it left Schilling feeling disingenuous.
“Theater is always concerned with social issues,” he said. “But to me it was not political. It was about aesthetics — how to present these ideas with humor and irony, how to use music. For us it’s perfect if there are problems, because we can talk about them and we can travel a lot and we can earn money.”
He said it was around 2008 that he started to question where his career was going. He felt himself to be at the height of success, but began to wonder what it was all for. He had just had his first child, and watching the problems in Hungary spin out of control, he began to wonder about his responsibilities.
“All the time I go to the same festivals and meet the same people, the same critics, but we don’t change anything. We don’t want to change anything.”
He began to obsess about social stratification — levels of wealth and education. People were moving further apart, and if he didn’t step out of his milieu he would be blind. So he called a meeting with his company and began to talk about his concerns. He thought their next project would have to be different. Perhaps they would have to leave Budapest, spend time in the countryside. They had to talk to different people. Perhaps involve them in performances. He didn’t know, and his actors were skeptical, but he was sure something had to change.
A spate of violence had erupted in rural Hungary. Several Roma had been killed, and the government had been slow to respond, then issued inflammatory and racist statements. Schilling resolved to address the issue. But rather than make a play about racism that could be staged in Budapest, he funded a project in two small towns with significant Roma populations, holding events where the different ethnic groups were encouraged to question each other about their experiences. He felt it had been a success, but for those effects to last would require a sustained presence in the communities, which simply wasn’t tenable.
Then the elections in 2010 happened and the current government took control.
“It was like a wall,” Schilling said. “Before 2010 it was like: how can we use art to approach social issues? After 2010 I was like: I don’t care about art.”
He disbanded his theater company and formed a foundation that would be devoted to social, political, and education projects. He took work as a director internationally, but he stopped making theater in Hungary. Hungary itself became his project.
“It became my mission,” he said, “to understand what rights we have, what it means to be a citizen.”
Instead of theatrical productions, he began to produce protests. He joined a group of NGOs called Civilizáció, which held a major demonstration in front of parliament. Later, the teachers’ union asked him to help them produce an event in the same location. It was scheduled for March 15th, a major national holiday. So when Schilling arrived and asked the union leaders about the message they wanted to project, what demands they might have, he was surprised to find out they hadn’t discussed it. They just wanted him to set the height of the stage, help with the lighting and the sound system. They weren’t interested in politics.
“You want to make a demonstration in front of parliament about education and you say it’s not political?”
His role evolved into a kind of moderator, questioning teachers and asking about their concerns. Eventually he wrote a strategy paper based on the issues that came up in those meetings, a kind of political platform for the union.
Before the event, Schilling received notice that he was to receive the Princess Margriet Award for Culture, in honor of his theatrical work. It turned out that the ceremony in Amsterdam was the same day as the teachers’ demonstration. So he wrote politely to explain that he wouldn’t be there.
Instead he was in Budapest, behind the stage in front of parliament, happy to see that tens of thousands of people had come out for the event. Early on in the speeches rain began to fall, and soon it grew into a storm. One of the speakers called for a moment of silence. In fact, she called for five minutes of silence. Here Schilling’s dramatist’s mind kicked in: No! Five minutes is too long! It will never work. But he was out in the crowd by then, getting drenched like everyone else.
“That was the most joyful moment,” he said, “because I knew I was in the right place. No awards, not shaking hands with the princess. I was free.”
It was a moment to think about his new life, why he was behaving the way he did. Perhaps it was a waste of his talent not to produce plays in Hungary, instead writing long papers about political strategy that no one read.
“I’m here in the rain for five minutes completely wet. I don’t understand anything and I don’t know anybody here. And it makes no sense at all because this government won’t change. And I was asking myself: What is the sense in any of this?”
He thought for a moment and concluded: “Nothing! And you have to understand this nothing…deeply.”
He collected himself for a second, then raised his hands and finished with a livid grin on his face: “We will lose! but what a loss!”
When I first visited Hungary in the early 90s, a friend told me Budapest is the city with the most monuments to failure — statues of suicided poets, memorials to uprisings that were put down, bronze shoes along the Danube to remember Jews who were shackled and thrown into the river. Now this was another one: the rainfall on teachers who will not get what they demand, a demonstration that will have no effect. It was an enactment of the national mythology.
I remembered a demonstrator in Tahrir — “For a moment we had thrown off our fear” — and in Gezi park in Istanbul, running from rubber bullets with eyes burning from gas — “But at least we regained our sense of humor.”
Relentless engagement, often unglamorous, slowly working toward consensus, occasionally erupts in gleeful action with no thought of results. Ethics sound, compass locked, a glimpse of something else. It may truly be a harrowing nothingness, but which offers the chance to be free, in the moment, and wholly alive. May the monuments to failure be monuments to that.