Report on St. Martin’s Day

Photo Peter Župník

So what is this Central European Forum? It’s the little brother of Prague’s Forum 2000, only younger, more subtle and better looking. It shares its older sibling’s strengths: the idea of bringing together intellectuals from different countries and getting them to discuss a variety of subjects; making the debates accessible to the public of its host city; and the patronage of Václav Havel. It does not share its older brother’s weaknesses: overly abstract topics; too much emphasis on celebrities with media appeal; an ostentatious and gilded format.

Instead of global issues as in Prague, the discussions in Bratislava focus on the specific experience of Central European life. Instead of philosophising politicians there are “real” philosophers, writers and journalists, some of whom happen to have acquired the status of celebrities, Zygmunt Bauman being a prime example. Instead of hysterical celebrity hunters mobbing the front of the stage and squeezing out the odd student, there are students upon students.

And who are the organizers behind Central European Forum? They are Slovakia’s democratic intellectuals, the ones who have never quite got over the break-up of Czechoslovakia. The ones who don’t take offence when I gently tease them saying how much I enjoy being back in Bratislava, the coronation city of the Hungarian kings…

And how is it that Bratislava came to be the coronation city of Hungarian kings? Because following the battle of Mohács, the original coronation city Székesfehérvár was occupied by the Ottoman Turks and coronations had to be transferred to the unoccupied north – to Pozsony (Pressburg). St. Martin’s Cathedral boasts a copy of the Hungarian crown of St. Stephen and its walls are inscribed with the names of kings who were crowned here – they are also “our” names because the same men and the same woman also ruled the Czech Lands, from Maximilian II to Ferdinand the Good. Underneath the dome of St. Martin’s a Czech can feel more at home than anywhere else in Bratislava.

And why do I go on about coronations of Hungarian kings that took place in Bratislava ages ago? Because they do, after all, stand for our common Central European history in its real, totally material yet also symbolic form. Austrian journalist Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi, a last-minute selfless substitute for Karl Schwarzenberg (and what a suitable substitution: a countess for a prince!) whose ministerial duties prevented him from participating, asked me during a break: What would I in her place say if I were on her panel? – If I were you, I could hardly find a better opening statement than to say I was Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi, niece of the Pan-European movement’s founder. – The old lady just waved her hand: That’s all in the past, what I want to speak about is the future. – To which I responded that Central Europe means above all our common heritage and the experience this has engendered. The old lady waved her hand again: You are a man of the past. – To which I retorted that she was probably right and the fact that she should be speaking of me in this way was probably one of those Central European paradoxes.

So what did the participants of Central European Forum have to say about the future? Quite a few sad things about the triumph of authoritarian and nationalistic forces. It was the turn of the Hungarians to be the saddest. Not because Bratislava is no longer the coronation city of Hungarian kings but, quite the contrary, because Hungary is currently ruled by people who have apparently set out to curb democratic freedom invoking, among other things, the spirit of the crowned Hungary of old. The writer László Földényi and the architect László Rajk seemed to vie to present the blackest vision of their country’s near future. Belarussian journalist Andrey Dynko would have laughed at the Hungarian sorrows had he not been forced to mourn the state of his own country. The Slovaks are happy to have their Radičová, although anxiety over her fragile coalition and the return of populism gnaws at them. Those from the historically more fortunate parts of Central Europe, on the other hand, assured them that each Central European country has to get through its own nationalistic-authoritarian swing but the pendulum is certain to swing back sooner or later…

Is this still too abstract a topic? There was also something much more specific: the Roma in Central Europe. It unleashed a discussion of ethnonyms: Mircea Cartarescu told us that most Romanians reject the name “Roma” because it resembles the name of their own nation too much, and as a result Westerners tend to identify the Roma with the Romanians. On the other hand, a Roma blogger from Slovakia, whose name is, incidentally, Jeanette Maziniová, proudly declared: I am a Gypsy. Jáchym Topol told me in private: She can say that but I would never dare address her that way.

Were all the debates at Central European Forum serious-to-mournful? Not at all. The presentation of two of the eight heroes of Moscow’s Red Square – the eight who, in the midst of the darkest Brezhnev era, dared to protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 – turned into a bizarre show full of misunderstandings and misguided current references. Natalia Gorbanevskaya chose the only dignified approach: instead of philosophizing about the world she read her subtle poetry. And she chose well: icons are not supposed to philosophize, icons are meant to take the place of honour and radiate holy strength. For just a few days the Slovak National Gallery on the Danube embankment showed Daniel Fischer’s installation entitled Emerging: eight columns representing the Righteous Eight. From afar they are just metal columns – only as you approach one of the columns does a face of one of the eight begin to emerge. One of the eight genuine icons of our times.

So why did I headline this report with the name of St. Martin? Because, having begun with a praise of St. Martin’s Cathedral I will end with a praise of another symbolic cultural legacy of Central Europe, equally typical of the place, i.e. Bratislava, since Central European Forum 2010 was held on St. Martin’s Day, the day of the goose feast. So let us rejoice: Long live the goose!

And why should a goose live once it’s been roasted? Because by being roasted, it has fulfilled its mission in this world. May we all fulfil our missions in this world as well as the humble goose. And may St. Martin, the patron saint of Bratislava, help us in this endeavour.