by Holly A. Case
On Tuesday of last week, the Hungarian parliament passed a law that seeks to drive the Central European University, founded in 1991, out of the Hungary. Many articles and op-eds have been written condemning the law, and declarations of support have come from Hungarian universities and student unions, scores of universities and scholarly organizations in Europe and the US, and from CEU students and alumni. Demonstrations and solidarity events have taken place in Budapest, New York, London, Lisbon, Friedrichshafen, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Saarbrücken, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris, Bucharest, Mainz, Vienna, Berlin, Cluj, Stockholm, Heidelberg, Zagreb, and Prague. Members of the European Parliament, as well as US and European diplomats and statesmen have criticized the law, all to no avail. The governing party in Hungary, Fidesz, with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at its head, remains unmoved.
Somewhere in between all the domestic and international support and the Hungarian government's attacks on CEU is the actual place and the people who have studied or worked there. What follows is a series of anecdotes about an educational institution in the heart of Europe like no other, one that has no obvious forerunners or successors. The child of a euphoric moment in the region's history (1989), CEU has since grown and changed, but has also transformed the many people who have passed through it.
1996: The Conference (by yours truly, no affiliation with CEU)
I first visited CEU in the spring of 1996. A friend of mine and I had come up from the town of Szeged for a conference. We met the other participants in a cafeteria-like setting at the brand new Kerepesi dormitory on the outskirts of Budapest. The conditions for language surfing were ideal. Everyone had a few, it seemed: all the former Soviets knew Russian, all the former Yugoslavs knew…well, that language that they all spoke (the name of which was a plaything in that cafeteria, but a minefield outside it; the war in Bosnia had barely ended). Plus there were the displacement stories, like Leonid, a Russian-speaking Jew from Moldova, who also happened to speak Bulgarian as well as that language, thanks to friendships and a love interest from Serbia.
I gave my conference presentation on absurdism in Polish and Hungarian literature. While the cafeteria conversations had unfolded in numerous languages, the conference proceedings were all in English, which was rough for many of the participants who had only been learning the language for a short time. After my panel, a group of us—myself, a Croat, a Latvian, a Hungarian, and Leonid—were standing in the lobby when someone commented on how good my English was. “How did you learn it so good?” he wondered. Before I could tell him it was my native language, the Latvian spoke for me, waving a hand dismissively: “You know how it was, the borders were changing so quickly.”
We burst out laughing. The collapse of multi-national states, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the bipolar world order: the borders had indeed changed very quickly.
And all sorts of unthinkable things had become possible, even me being there, just a linguistic minority among many, seemingly tossed by the same geopolitical tides and dodging the same undertows as all the others. It felt accidental and dicey, but also fortuitous, like stumbling upon an especially large and awkward family, discovering that it's actually yours, and loving them. Today, it reminds me of an observation made years later by the Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy: “It's like someone who has always lived in Munkács, and has never left Munkács in his entire life, but who has been, nevertheless, a one-time Hungarian, one-time Czech, one-time citizen of the Soviet Union, then a citizen of Ukraine. In our town, this is how we become cosmopolitans.”
The morning of my departure I was among the last to leave. We had stayed out very late the night before, and I got up to say goodbye to Leonid and some others as they left, then went back to my room and fell asleep. The sun was high and hot, and through the open window in my half slumber I heard a tractor idling on the street below. My mind, accustomed to straining to comprehend the language, translated the rhythmic pulse of the motor into an absurd phrase, repeated over and over in Hungarian: “A lengyeleknek… A lengyeleknek… A lengyeleknek…” [To the Poles…To the Poles…To the Poles…]
1998: Casablanca (by Emil Kerenji, Serbia, M.A. in History at CEU, 1998)
Unlike for most non-Hungarian CEUers, for me Budapest was not an unknown place. It is the city where my mother's aunt had lived, and which, for as long as I can remember, we had visited routinely, almost every year, on our drive from Novi Sad to Vienna via Budapest. We would stop in the city for a day or two to spend time with her, bring her the supposedly fancy and superior socialism-with-a-human-face chocolates and brandy from Yugoslavia; then we'd carry on to Vienna to spend time with my aunt and her family to enjoy the colors of what my father told me was “freedom.”
Budapest, therefore, was a familiar city when I arrived as a student in the fall of 1997. My mother's aunt had died the previous summer. The city was still alive with the spirit of change, in that short-lived and exhilarated period of a decade or so—Paris in the 1920s, Prague at the same time as Budapest—when everything seems possible, and physical and discursive remnants of the past coexist in a previously unimaginable way with new ideas and trends. Those fleeting years ultimately give way to an entrenched and discursively pure new regime: since I left Budapest, the poor had gotten poorer, the rich had gotten richer, the buildings and shops had become fancy and well-kept, and the politics had become predictable and predictably right-wing.
On a day that had to be towards the end of my student year at CEU, since I remember it was spring, I was walking from my home in Józsefváros to class. In front of what then was the main entrance to the University, on the corner of Nádor and Zrínyi streets, I was shocked to see two Jews standing at the door, smoking. I knew they were Jews because they had beards and side locks, and wore black kaftans and each had a black hat; but as if to dispel any doubt, each had a yellow star of David sewn up on the left side of his breast. That last detail stopped me in my tracks, and I remember thinking in disbelief, “Did I miss the news last night? What's going on?”
It turned out that the two men were extras on the set of the upcoming film, Jakob the Liar, starring Robin Williams. I never saw the movie.
This might also have happened a year later, when I returned to Budapest to stay longer—over a year this time. (Memory routinely plays tricks on me.) This was the time of the NATO bombing of Serbia, when you could sit in Gerbeaud on Vörösmarty Square and see your friends and enemies from Serbia go by. Budapest was like wartime Casablanca back then, teeming with Serbian refugees, draft dodgers, opposition activists, and regime spies.
2008-2009: The Staff (by Máté Rigó, Hungary, M.A. in History at CEU, 2009)
At my CEU, many ordinary Hungarians were employed who didn't speak English well or at all, were unaware of the mission of the school, and couldn't have cared less about Soros. Probably they didn't even know who he was. Ricsi was a body guard working for the security company that managed the university's main building and library entrances. He was a chubby guy, around twenty at the time, who looked more like a well-fed kindergartner than a security guard. He came from a working-class suburb of Pest, commuted an hour to get to work, and became the center of the institution's social life soon after he started working there. He learned English, helped out foreign students, chatted with everyone, asked how their day went, and treated the institution as his own. When I left in 2009, he had been promoted and said he was thinking of applying to CEU to study environmental policy
2010: Feedback (by Adrian Grama, Romania, M.A. in Nationalism Studies, 2012, and Ph.D. in History at CEU, 2017)
There was a mystique surrounding CEU in Bucharest, as two of my former professors whom I particularly appreciated, were alumni of this university. Their classes were text-centered, demanding, and debate-oriented, in marked contrast to most of the other classes I took as an undergraduate. It was from one of these former CEU students-turned-lecturers that I first received “feedback” on a term paper, an alien practice in Romanian universities to this day. So I went to Budapest with high hopes, eager to live in a different city, ready to take part in seminars, and enthusiastic about receiving more “feedback.”
With the university now under attack by the Orbán government, at least one of the meanings of academic freedom should be clearly spelled out. CEU is unique in East Central Europe because it promotes high-quality research. For the humanities and some of the “soft” social sciences, research is possible only on the basis of liberality, with no immediate goal other than the advancement of knowledge. To make the discipline of history—my own field of research—accountable to the state or to the market is patently absurd. What CEU has done over the past quarter century of its existence is precisely the opposite: it has heavily invested in academic pursuits which have been customarily highjacked by policy-makers or by the rules of profit-making, asking for nothing in return and thereby enhancing the dignity of public debate across the region. The byproduct of this activity is freedom indeed. CEU trained generations of scholars and professionals much like my professors in Bucharest, people who acquired the habit of taking their craft seriously, and it served as a place of intellectual emancipation for my generation, people who were first encouraged to take scholarship seriously not in their native lands, but in Budapest, Hungary.
2012: Orientalist Cliches (by WM, Student in Sociology/Social Anthropology at CEU)
This university has played a very specific role for students from distant corners of godforsaken Eastern Europe. In the age before library genesis or gigapedia, the CEU library in my field was a true revelation; in my topics it is indeed the best English-language library in all of Europe, I'd say. And inside you could always find those most peculiar creatures sitting like automatons from dusk till dawn (and beyond) reading. Scholarships were generous so it truly offered a chance for people from lower-middle-class backgrounds from Romania, Siberia, or Poland who otherwise would not have obtained a graduate education because they didn't know of any other opportunities to gain access to a world-class institution (and often there simply weren't such opportunities). So you could meet—!Disclaimer! Orientalist cliches and gender imbalance following!—these diligent Russian girls, handsome Georgian guys, Balkan machos, Gypsy princesses, Polish or Romanian village nerds, etc. advancing along intellectual paths.
2012: Clandestine Biographers (by MC, Student in History at CEU)
Starting with my last high-school years and until I arrived at CEU, so for more than six years, I was a fictional biographer. Each year I would follow, almost obsessively (trailing every piece of paper they ever wrote, every article they ever published or intended to publish, every diary they might have kept, every scribbling they might have made) one or two “writers” whom I fancied. They were not necessarily the people I respected, nor those that I admired, and even less so those I would agree with, although it's difficult to hide that yes, I still love some of them. There was MF, whose intellectual frenzy kept me stranded in awe and frustration for two years: for an adolescent period I saw in him some Proust of modern historiography and I still read him as such. And then there was RB, writing about signs, photographs; MB, whose intellectual courage and travails still pain me somehow; and a few others. It was a difficult job: keeping up with my studies, while following these people's writings, almost as in a detective novel.
I fool myself that this was a mute dialogue. When I arrived to CEU I was still caught up in this game which I had kept perfectly secret (this time I was trailing PB, the Pyrenees guy). And there was this moment when, in a response paper for some CEU class, I heard the people I had been trailing speak. It was not their ideas or their writings—I was used to that, they are part of the academic canon after all—but the tenor: the author of the response-paper seemed to dabble in the same game I had been playing, following the same clues and traces, acting in the same detective novel, listening with the same attention to texts and papers. I was reading the response paper and it felt good, it felt like we were both undercover: while keeping up the façade of academic decorum, there was this big detective novel in which we suddenly found each other.
This was A. and very soon I met I., S., Al, St., N., A., and so many more. With them I could soon get over my biographical obsession, which now seemed somewhat useless as I had them at arm's length, sly and elegant, playing the same game, ready to talk and share their writings. Much better players than me, treading with so much certainty, self-assuredness: displaying the intellectual elegance and trenchant curtness I had been fumbling for when reading MF, PB, MB. Plus the intensity, irreverent fun, and cunning. And more importantly, together there was a feeling of intellectual responsibility (i.e. probably another name for intellectual dejection): they taught me that, despite its beauty, the game was never an intellectual utopia. Beyond the curt reading of a text, beyond the elegant flourishes of an argument, there were our friends lost in a wasteland of joblessness, Blaha Lujza tér and its beautiful people harried by the police, the social carelessness outside the academia, the social carelessness inside, and all the sadness of all those blue buses beyond the Hungária körút.
2013: Not Like in Romania (by Leyla Safta-Zecheria, Romania, Ph.D. student in Political Science at CEU)
I remember that during my first term at CEU, I had a colleague who had also come from Romania and who had also studied in Germany before coming to CEU. We were discussing something—the content of which I cannot remember—in a small PhD seminar and we both said, “but in Romania…” and went on to say contradictory things. We exchanged a surprised look. We were both used to being the interpreters of a geographic and political reality that only we had analytical access to in an academic environment. CEU was obviously different.
2015: Encounters of the Third Kind (by Ádám Mézes, Hungary, Ph.D. student in History at CEU)
“Znaš li šalu što izvanzemaljac ide u kavanu i govori: Ja bi želio Heineken?” [“Do you know the one where an extraterrestrial walks into a bar and says: I'd like a Heineken?”] There is a corner on the corridor of Central European University where extraterrestrials entering pubs and asking for a beer in Croatian were not extraordinary occurrences. It was our tandem corner, where me and my Croat friend used to spend several hours every week: He was teaching me basic Croatian, I was helping him perfect his Hungarian. A little ragged, a little incorrect, but the above sentence is mine: the first sentence of the first dialogue I ever wrote in Croatian.
But while the alien was waiting for his?her?its?their? (you can never tell with extraterrestrials) beer, the long-dead Mihály Táncsics (1799-1884) butted in to warn us: “Irtsák ki a privilégiumot mind, ez ád egységet a hazának, nincs tartósabb egység az érdekegységnél, s ha még ehhez nyelvegység jár, a pokol kapui erőt nem vesznek rajta.” [“Eliminate all privilege. That will give unity to the homeland, for there is no more durable unity than a unity of interest, and if there is linguistic unity as well, then the gates of hell themselves will not be able to withstand it.”] My Croat friend was eager to discuss matters of fatherland, language, and diversity with Mihály, which is why he needed my help to decipher what exactly the Hungarian reform politician had said one and a half centuries ago.
I like the tandem-corner. I like places where Croatian extraterrestrials and Hungarian revolutionaries can meet and have weird discussions over a beer.
Wednesday, April 5, 2017 (the day after the law was signed): In Passing (by Gergő Pulay, Hungary, Ph.D. student in Anthropology at CEU)
While I was smoking in front of CEU on Wednesday, a small group of construction workers passed. One of them looked up at the building and said in a loud voice, “Mi van köcsögök, bezár a kupleráj?” [“What's the matter, Fags? Is the brothel closing?”]
2017: The Post Office (by Leyla Safta-Zecheria, Romania, Ph.D. student in Political Science at CEU)
At the post office where I often go when in Budapest, I recently asked in my semi-Hungarian whether it would be possible to speak in English, to which the lady behind the counter replied “But of course!” Upon seeing my “I stand with CEU” badge, she asked whether I studied there. When I told her I did, she said: “In Hungary we don't have Muslim shooting people, but we have politics instead.”