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Reflections on the Revolution in Hungary

John Kekes

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After half a century, does it seem worth it?

My most vivid memory of the Revolution is its smell -- of piles of plaster fallen to the ground, soaked by rain, and of the putrefying corpses buried underneath. The wall-less houses, partly destroyed by artillery and tank fire, were like stage settings after the curtain has risen and the play is about to begin -- except that the walls had come down, not up as theater curtains do, and the action was over and done with. A piano stood in the corner, its lid open, but the child was no longer there to practice Chopin. The pots were still on the kitchen stove; who knows, perhaps the gas was still on. Wardrobes stood open, and the Sunday best suit, hanging exposed to the elements, badly needed a brushing. People scurried by on their way to stand in line for bread or to find out how their relatives were, cautiously approaching corners to see whether around them was a barricade, a tank, a cordon blocking the way, or someone ready to shoot.

I took this picture with me when I left. From time to time, I opened the album I kept closed in my head, looked at the pictures in it, and remembered the smell -- especially the smell. Not as pleasant as Proust's madeleine, it was just as evocative. It became a symbol for me of what happened, of what I left behind, and of the fragility of the illusions of order and security with which we comfort ourselves as we scurry in search of our daily bread. We can sometimes lull ourselves into forgetting that danger looms around the corner, but I could not really forget either the Revolution or what had led up to it and had followed it. It has been my professional concern to try to understand why it, and events like it, happen.

My concern is not with a historical understanding of the influences that jointly result in the collapse of civilized order. Of course there are such influences, and it is important to understand them. But historical influences are not disembodied and impersonal, like gravity or entropy, which controls events regardless of our desires, hopes, and fears. Historical influences are exerted by human beings. If there are revolutions, it is because people make them; wars would not occur if people did not start them; and if civilized life breaks down, it is because people make it disintegrate. As the gun lobby says: guns don't kill people; people kill people. My interest is in why people kill, why they make wars and revolutions, and why they undermine civilized life even though their well-being depends on protecting it.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 28-Feb-07



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