Imagined Body, Real Place

As part of the ‘New Narratives for Europe’ project being delivered by the Free Word Centre, translator and poet George Szirtes writes the third in a series of essays exploring the state of European identity today

This piece originally appeared at the Free Word website

I was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1948 to a father whose own grandparents came from Moravia and Bohemia and to a mother who was originally from Cluj – which was known by the Hungarians as Kolozsvár and by German speakers as Klausenburg – in the disputed territory of Transylvania. She was born in 1924 and was therefore Romanian. Had she been born five years earlier, in 1919, she would have been Hungarian. Her parents certainly were. However, in 1940, under the terms of the second Vienna Award (under pressure from Hitler) her own part of Transylvania was returned to Hungary which enabled her to travel to Budapest as a sixteen year old in order to be apprenticed to one of the great unsung Hungarian photographers, Károly Escher. During the war my father served in forced labour behind the front lines in Ukraine and Belarus and my mother survived two concentration camps, Ravensbruck and Penig, in Germany. At the end of the war Transylvania reverted to Romania. I think that makes us Europeans, or Central Europeans at least.

By way of addition to the family history, we came to England in 1956 after the revolution. I married an English woman of a Scottish mother who was born in China, spent her early childhood in Malaysia and returned to spend the rest of her life in England after I did. My brother’s first marriage was to a half-Jamaican, half-Italian woman. His second is to the daughter of a Polish refugee.

The curious thing is that all this is not so curious after all, nor is it new. From the Indo-European shifts before the Bronze Age,  through seismic movements under the Roman Emprire, the Hungarian conquest of Pannonia, the Viking and Scandinavian raids of the Middle Ages, the religious expulsions and migrations, after Huguenots, Jews, Asians, Africans, Caribbeans, to the aftermath of  empire in Britain, people have been on the move. Today the movement is as much global as within Europe (though even some of those movements seem to trouble certain people) but much of it is centred on Europe as the source of late eighteenth and nineteenth century colonialism.

The Europe of the rest of the world is one aspect of the continent. The Europe of the European maps is another. The maps have shifted time and again so that pockets of this or that language or ethnic group continue to live in the pockets of other ethnic or language groups.. When we left Hungary we simply walked across a border that happened to be where it was at the time. Another time it might have been – and was – elsewhere.

There are several ways of understanding Europe. One is in terms of politics, another of land and attachment to land, another in terms of language, another of religion – it was after all, Christendom at one important period of its existence. There are  of course, as ever, the vital realms of trade and economics, but the one I, as a writer, am most intimately concerned with is culture, by which I mean the arts both high and low, the way thoughts and feelings are articulated, the points at which our feelings may pool for any of the reasons above.

Culturally speaking, Europe is a body of the imagination. I think I can find my way around its main internal organs, wander the streets of its stomach, liver, kidneys, lungs and mind, and even though I have never quite been able to point to it, am constantly aware of the beating of its heart.

The metaphor of Europe as body may be far-fetched yet I can’t help imagining it. That may be because I grew up in a house where the radio played not only Beethoven, Johann Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, but where my parents sang old cabaret songs and tzigeuner laments. Although I knew no Shakespeare and Dante as a child, I knew they existed and were important. My parents were, after all, natural internationalists. They were not intellectuals, simply intelligent people with some idea of a high, broad, and deep culture within which they passionately felt they had their place.

What was their place? What is ours? It is not purely an aesthetic niche. It is both history and imagination, both body and place. How do we describe place? There are many ways and there are subtle differences betwen them, as for example between the words scenery, landscape, terrain and environment. The first, scenery, we see in theatrical terms. Do we understand the nature of the theatre it constitutes? Do we know its modus operandi, its field of expectations, its significance in terms of symbol, vehicle, and backdrop? Landscape is a term developed from visual art. It is land as formed in terms of use, possession, and ideas. It seems to embody what we think of as nature, but it is not nature pure and simple. Who owns it, we ask. For what purpose? With what history? We know that the term picturesque, which is associated with it, is an artistic reversal: an idealised landscape being viewed as a picture which  in the eighteenth century becomes a principle for reconstructing a landscape according to the ideas of art. A terrain is where we operate. Armies work over a terrain, seeking advantage, exploring dangers. An environment is where we live our daily lives, the street we walk down, the river at the end of the road, a thing so everyday we hardly notice it. We pass through all these ideas as nature passes through us. Europe works the same way: like a ghost it passes through us, and we pass through it.

The thing we pass through has an imagined body but inhabits a real place. I recognise it in terms of scenery, landscape, terrain, environment and culture. It is a culture full of metaphors loaded with history and significance but it is not a pure thing: it is as much process as product and comes to us in many complex forms. The passage of people through it is a vital part of both process and product.

As an English language poet, for example, I am able to use and inwardly recognise forms such as the sonnet, the ballad, quatrain, villanelle, terza rima, sestina, canzone, ode, bucolic, eclogue, sapphic, and many more while knowing that none of these forms is English by birth – they are all imports that are, however, recognised everywhere in Europe. Over the last hundred years or so other forms like haiku, tanka, ghazal and pantoum have entered European practice to open up new ways of feeling. There will be many more out there, some of which are very local but less well known: the Welsh forms of the cynnydd, the cynghanedd and theenglyn. From Scots we get the Burns stanza. From Russia the Onegin measure. There are patterns adopted from Hungarian folk song. Beyond all the received forms we keep inventing new ones. Europe, in verse, contains the known-received, the less-known-received, the invented and the introduced. We are constantly inventing what we are, introducing ourselves to ourselves.

I have referred to Europe as a body. It is a body, that like other continent-bodies, has done the most terrible and the most marvellous things about which we should be honest. It is neither superior nor inferior to any other continent-body though Europeans might have thought otherwise at different times. I make no special claim for it except that it is partly my body too. I am more aware of its condition than I am of that of other bodies. I think I have some idea of how it functions. I even know that it is, in many respects, a synthetic body made up constituent parts, of  nation states, principalities and domains. I also understand Europe as a word I have not yet used, a territory, which has its own extent, as my body does; but I am far more aware of it as a body constructed out of several imaginations that are constantly passing through my own.

There are many who would like to take the imagined body apart again. My own country of birth, Hungary, has been muttering against Europe while being part of it for a few years. There are movements in many parts of Europe, very much including England, that would prefer to dismember Europe politically and economically. However they seek to do so they will be unable to dismantle its culture and sever its imagined limbs.

People are naturally jealous of their particular way of doing things but those ways don’t exist in vacuums of their own. They have come about through modification and sharing. In a world composed ever more of giants what we have in common is more important than what separates and differentiates us – especially when we share so much already. We are not at our best as a set of atavistic groups. We are a body and we are located.

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