Essays on Ethnicity, Identity, & Culture
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|Roots in Print
by Gerald Owen
"But the question that dogged me," says Richard Teleky, "since I have no particular flair for learning languages, was why bother now?" Why learn to read and speak Hungarian? Especially as an adult?
He never answers that dogging question, at least not in so many words. The answer is in the fruits of his undertaking: in these connected essays that emerged from his immersion in Hungarian culture.
And in Hungarian-North-American culture. This is a bookish book, and only two chapters could be called travel writing. "Visiting Pannonia" does not mean a trip to the ancient Roman province now inhabited by the Hungarians; it's a trip to a bookstore on Bloor Street in Toronto, a city where Teleky has lived for a quarter-century. (He is a short-story writer, university teacher, and editor of books.) The last essay but one-just before the concluding piece-begins, "For the past five years I have been working on this book, yet until recently I had never visited Hungary. Last year the time finally seemed right." He admits to some avoidance. When he finally decided to go there, he "had an onset of spring allergies-the worst in years." The visit seems to have lasted for some weeks.
The closest he comes to a specific answer to his own question is: "I think my resolve to learn the language formed when I read several histories of Hungarian literature, and found that important writers had been neglected in the English-speaking world simply because they hadn't been translated." The reason couldn't have been, he says, just that he was curious about an old box of letters written by his great-grandfather to his grandmother and great-aunts; his mother had already translated for him the most interesting ones.
A clue comes later, in this passage:
"The sounds of Hungarian have always been comforting to me. My grandparents, who lived in the top half of our duplex, spoke it with my parents whenever they wanted to discuss something I shouldn't overhear, or late at night when they talked of the `old country'."
So it seems to me that Teleky wanted at last to be able to eavesdrop on the grown-ups. I don't mean to depreciate that wish. It is of the essence of the whole interest in "heritage" and "roots"; it's a desire for insight into one's experience of one's family, and a desire to heighten the experience of the alienness of the familiar: of the world of difference that is hidden, or partly hidden, in people and things close at hand.
Teleky describes the experience of learning Hungarian as an adult, and being a bookish person, he interweaves this with an account of Edmund Wilson's learning the same language at the age of sixty-five (and lusting after his teacher). In the next chapter, "`What the Moment Told Me'", he turns to the great photographer André Kertesz, particularly to the differences in his work before and after he left Hungary. Among the other essays are "Without Words: Hungarians in North American Fiction", "The Empty Box: Hollywood Ethnicity & Joe Eszterhas" (about a screenwriter who grew up in Cleveland, like Teleky), "Towards a Course on Central European Literature in Translation" (a bit more than "towards", since it's about a course Teleky gave at York University in suburban Toronto), and "Introducing Peter Esterhazy", on a contemporary novelist-this is one of the few strictly Hungarian topics.
"The Poet as Translator: Margaret Avison's `Hungarian Snap'" is the most substantial chapter in a scholarly sense. (The "snap" is a musicians' name for a particular stress in Hungarian words.) Teleky interviewed Avison about her collaboration with the translator Ilona Duczynska on a collection of Hungarian poems. He gives us quite a few quotations from the original poems, as well as Avison's versions. Even if one can figure out only a few of the Hungarian words, one is getting a few direct glimpses, and an overall sense of the sound. The narrative here makes a good case study in literary translation, and provides some insight into Avison's own work. Since she is not one of our more garrulous writers, her recollections of this project are particularly valuable.
To me, the most moving chapter-or-essay is about how time has already passed by a monument of Hungarian North America. "The Archives of St. Elizabeth of Hungary" is partly a way of presenting the history of the Cleveland Hungarian community that Teleky's parents grew up in. The church in question is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places; an upper floor is crammed with books and papers. St. Elizabeth's isolation from its community is now striking: it is surrounded by a black and largely Baptist neighbourhood, and by urban blight.
A salad of a chapter (a goulash, I suppose) is called "A Short Dictionary of American Stereotypes & Kitsch". It confirms one stereotype: there is evidence that Hungarians have a higher propensity to be manic-depressive than most nations. Teleky seems to accept that there is something bipolar (to use the current psychiatric term) in Hungarian culture.
The Ancient Greek rhapsodia originally meant "a sewing together of songs". Teleky offers no definite explanation of his choice of title, but it's a good one. The book feels like a work-in-progress; the essays have been stitched together, yet there is a kind of narrative sequence from his decision to learn Hungarian up to his visit to Hungary, followed by his reflections on ethnic identity.
These last thoughts are Teleky's answer to a friend's question about what his ethnicity means to him. He tells us that as a child he didn't want to learn Hungarian, and even grew up with prejudices about Hungarians-in short with a belief in leaving behind the bad old world. Yet, "even as a child I felt more connected to the Hungarian manner and temperament of my own background than to the contemporary North American culture that seemed to be relentlessly swallowing up all differences not compatible with its icon and dreams-from Elvis Presley to the perfect suburban lawn."
In part, he has been coping with competing aversions.
"Ethnicity needs language," he says, "and associations with it-cultural, religious, political, familial." If he had studied another language, "there would always be something impersonal, even wilful or arbitrary [my emphasis], in my connection with [it]. I would have chosen it, and not the other way around." Again, he says his ethnicity isn't something external to him: "I can't imagine myself without it.. Hungary is part of my imagination." He took a long time to find it, but says by way of comparison, "I can't name all the bones in my right hand, but I rely on that hand."
This, however, is the height of his acceptance of ethnicity's substantial reality. It's an accident, the result of many accidents, that he was ever born, so "ethnicity is always arbitrary..Is it arbitrary, then, that I decide to explore that ethnicity?. Oddly, exploring my ethnicity became a way of exploring the arbitrary nature of my own life. It was not so much a search for roots as for a way of understanding rootlessness": for a contrast between to North America. But a "greater appreciation of the arbitrariness of my life.tied me to others, living and dead, and to the fragility of all human life.. What is arbitrary suddenly became the core of the human experience, more essential than roots and more enduring than the particularities of any one people and their history."
The winding variations on the theme of arbitrariness continue. Almost at the end he says that "ethnicity is a constructed thing even for first-generation immigrants who, more than many people, have to pick and choose who they are. Yet I do not feel entirely comfortable with the anti-essentialist position. Valuing ethnicity, even as a means to understanding how a culture makes arbitrary choices for us, doesn't automatically lead to a sense that ethnic identity (or cultural behaviour) is relative."
His conclusion is that North America should "immerse itself in the study of otherness-which other doesn't especially matter. It might even learn that the truths and traditions it regards as eternal are merely arbitrary conventions. And if it learned that, it might also understand that some of its conventions are better than others."
Better and worse? But also arbitrary? Merely arbitrary, at that! I won't try to disentangle all the turnings of Teleky's argument, except to say that for him "arbitrary" sometimes means "chosen", sometimes "not chosen". If it means both, could anything not be arbitrary? I haven't quoted all his uses of "arbitrary"; he works this concept hard; he never defines it.
He is right that "ethnicity" needs language, and associations with language, and he quotes some convincing findings of sociologists. They might, he says, call him a textbook case of the third generation. For the first generation, ethnic identity "helps and hinders" their adjustment in various ways. "The second generation may still speak their parents' mother tongue (with varying degrees of expertise and some unlikely accents) but they often reject, or put aside, an ethnicity that belongs to their parents. The third generation has usually lost the language skills that shape ethnic identity, while ties to religion and the `old country' seldom claim their imagination. Ethnicity has now degenerated into traditional holiday foods, sentimental gestures toward belonging, and memory."
This seems to me true, and well said. Teleky is a model of multiculturalism. Ethnicity is in great measure a matter of language, and he has plunged into a language and a literature. He is living what our schools call a "heritage language program". He knows his limits; he is not emigrating back, and cannot become fluent in Canada: "My Hungarian remains a language of the written word."
Even Teleky's rather contorted reasonings admirably express the position of a North American trying to take seriously a legacy from abroad-an often awkward position, occasionally rising to the baroque. Though Hungarian Rhapsodies sometimes feels incomplete, I don't think I can imagine a better book about ethnic identity and cultural heritage on this continent.