On a chaotic planet, printed books still rule

Our civilization has been strangled by materialism. Pictures instead of writing, screens instead of pages, information instead of coherent understanding, infotainment instead of reading. But beware: books take revenge on those who do not read them. From Márton Békés, lead historian of the House of Terror.

Armed idealism

Without a doubt: the mind comes first, it is thoughts that lead to actions, and ideas that lead. Matter only follows that, which in the world of the intellect has already been born. Because, as the Hungarian avant-garde poet Lajos Kassák wrote in 1955 in his diary, ‘physical matter, sinks by its own weight, the intellect, however, by virtue of itself is lifted up high.’

The biggest mystery of our culture is that the Word becomes Flesh. For quite a while now, the idyllic Platonism of our civilization has been strangled by apparatchiks of materialism: pictures instead of writing, screens instead of pages, bits and pieces of information instead of coherent understanding, infotainment instead of reading.

But beware: books take revenge on those who do not read them. This is what the melancholic and militant book-based literate few can safely trust in.

The best know that everything starts with the thought. As Irving Kristol has said, ‘ideas lead the world, since it is through them that we understand reality’. During the greatest intellectual face-off of Hungarian political thought, István Széchenyi wrote the following: ‘Our present as well as our future is based on the intellect, our financial literacy is based on how literate we are, not vice versa.’ And of course, Hungary never had a more impactful economic leader than Széchenyi himself. He was a true institution builder, a real creator.

And lo and behold, the founder of the Casino, the Academy, the Chain Bridge, horse breeding and horse racing, Hungarian theater, steam boating on Lake Balaton, the first roller mill, Hungarian silkworm-breeding, the regulator of the Danube and the Tisza, the chief transportation officer, and then transportation and labor minister published a book that went with almost every single one of his founding or organizing. The goal of these publications have always been to prove that the institution in question had a cultural mission beyond its obvious, practical function.

Culture first! The goal of Széchenyi was quite clear: by improving transportation, by creating new financial institutions and new social forums, and by bringing about new economic institutions he wanted to establish the institutional infrastructure of modernization that would also help nurture the corresponding culture. All of this fit together in a cross-referential way. A good example for the parallel development of intellectual and financial life is the establishment of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the first bridge between Buda and Pest. Already in 1821, Széchenyi intended to donate the interests of his lands’ in one year proceeds to the construction of a bridge over the Danube. Yet he deposited that money during the parliamentary debate about Hungarian language use for the purpose of establishing a scientific society first, because he believed that first you need cultivated citizens, who will then be able to build bridges.

In 1842, when the bridge’s foundations were being laid down, Széchenyi gave his inaugural speech at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. So the first step towards connecting the two parts of the city and thereby moving towards equality under the law both symbolically and practically, happened in the same year when the society tasked with maintaining Hungarian language itself was promoted to become an Academy. What a Hegelian moment this is: as if content and form had been melded together by the World Spirit itself.

Political changes are the mere consequences of changes that already took place in culture.

‘Every revolution has been preceded by intense activity of criticism, of cultural penetration, and of the permeation of ideas’, said Antonio Gramsci one hundred years ago. ‘Neither revolution, nor any change to the political regime is possible if those changes which we would like to effect in the political sphere have not pre-occurred in the world of the intellect’, said Alain de Benoist, the self-described right-wing Gramscian theorist of the Nouvelle Droite.

The collapse of the power structure, the undeniable decline of authority is preceded by a long and much more quiet process. It is preceded by a change in the culture and those institutions that provide legitimacy for authority, as well as in public opinion in its broadest sense. Power is upheld by ‘cultural hegemony’. If there is no consensus that sustains authority; if people don’t think that those in power act rightfully and/or usefully, authority soon collapses.

So the ‘foundation’ in this sense is really culture, it is culture on which everything else is built. And this foundation is always built by bricks made of books.

Cultural revolutions are started by the rebellion of the mind. As Salvador Dalí wrote in his 1968 manifesto, My Cultural Revolution, ‘the most beautiful and most impactful cultural revolutions were fought without barricades, when revolutionary violence dominated only the mind which ruled over space and time’. All this quite often starts with a book. The great movement of the Protestant Reformation would have been unimaginable had not the Bible been translated into national languages and redacted versions had not been created, so that its content had been made available and accessible to everyone.

The philosophical foundations of the French Revolution were summarized in the Encyclopedia, but those hard-to-classify books that contributed to political unrest by the dissolution of the moral order also played an important role. Eighteenth century libertine literature destabilized the alliance of the altar and the throne with pornographic stories which by their loose language, hedonist plot, obscene materialism and frivolous content constituted a palatable, hard-to-resist kind of challenge to the reigning moral order which was the foundation of the political system at the time.

These ‘unclean books’ of course were anathema for the church, they nevertheless spread like wildfire even in the classiest of salons. The classification of books that have been categorized as so-called gallant fiction and ‘single hand books’ ceased only in 1972 in libraries. Books published by the Catholic Church even today can only appear if they are a granted ‘nihil obstat’ classification. That is because a book is always a risk as well.

Dangerous books

Books are weapons, reading is an act of war. Knowledge spreading in the form of a book is one of the most expressive and well-known cultural codes we have, which appears time and time again where social and political change is brewing. Since the book is an edited story stuck between two covers, it serves as a harbinger of the Other’s opinion in times of change. Schopenhauer went as far as calling the book the lighthouse which helps the human mind to find its way, saying that ‘without books, civilization’s development would have been impossible.’

Because these are the engines of change, they are windows on the world, as the poet says ‘they are lighthouses standing in the sea of time’. They are companions, teachers, magicians, they are tradesmen of the mind’s treasures – books are nothing less than civilization itself in print.’ ‘Books of upheaval’ and ‘dangerous books’ spread the winds of change going from hand to hand, creating storms out of seemingly gentle winds.

People read books wrapped in newspapers or fake covers, people hide them in secret places, they uncannily slide books over to the next reader, they read them in the dark and distribute them by ‘forgetting’ them on benches in parks. Books are unstoppable by nature.

The book builds and destroys, but it never rests. Széchenyi expanded the action plan of his 1830 book Credit by two more books into a trilogy which proclaimed the political program of modern Hungary: disbanding the lifeless, rotting structure of feudalism to be replaced by institutions worthy of the young nation. He realized that the most important dilemma of political action is the art of timing. In People of the East he provided a timeline for prudent progress, and in 1847, he published the corresponding political program. During his thirty five-year-long political career, he wrote twenty books of importance, meaning he wrote one every one and a half or two years!

The power of his books was also noticed by his political opponents: editions of Credit were burned in some counties by the petit-bourgeois, the leader of the conservatives responded with a counter-publication and Széchenyi’s very last book, despite being banned caused the oppressing regime to crumble, primarily by morally undermining it and making it look ridiculous. Well-timed books can be like a pebble thrown into still water: its ripples extend out a very long way.

Books sometimes become symbols themselves. With their preludes and sequels, intertwined with the fate of their authors, books become part of a larger picture and their titles are condensed into symbols. One of most influential books of the 19th-20th century, Das Kapital was typically one such book. Simply uttering its title is a political statement: one simple word encapsulates the meaning of dozens of other books by its author, works published together with its co-author, and even works that have been written completely independently by Engels.

The first edition of the opus magnum published in 1867 indeed covers the ‘process of production of capital,’ critiquing the economic theories of the ruling capitalist order; yet not one mention of the word ‘socialism’ throughout the 800 pages of the book. The three-volume book considered to be Marxism’s key manifesto has become the intellectual golden reserve of socialism without ever saying anything concrete about the political order of the future. Although its enigmatic title is synonymous in political discourse with the powerful critique of capitalism, undoubtedly, the number of people who reference the book is incomparable to the number of those who actually have read the text itself – this proves the notion that when books become symbols their impact is even greater. Nietzsche’s Will to Power, Alfredo Oriani’s Revolution of Ideas, Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, or Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political are certainly all such symbols. Sometimes it is enough simply to mention the authors’ names, like Kant or Hobbes, Fukuyama or Huntington to express a certain position with regards to serious dilemmas.

Ideas start in the form of books and they evolve into political action. We need to have patience, since, as the Hungarian writer László Németh once wrote, ‘ideas will spread, they will disperse and after a while, they will make their mark on politics.’ As the neoconservative/ neoliberal persuasion that provided a critique of the welfare state had its own foundational books, like Milton Friedman’s books which provided a simplification of Friedrich Hayek’s – already quite simplistic – 1944 book, Road to Freedom; likewise the intellectual decay of the sixties, which resulted in certainly not just the ‘student revolutions’, had its own precursor books that provided the philosophical grounding for the movement as well as its corresponding artistic programs (beat literature, situationalism).

It doesn’t matter what kind of political movement we are talking about: at its inception, we find a book.

Be it a translation of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France that provided the underpinning for German romantics or John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, the basic work of the Scottish-English Enlightenment, which was an inspiration for the founding of the United States. It is true for political systems as well: tell me a book title and I’ll tell you who you are! Ideas rule the world. Even the most materialistic political practices have their origins in idealist books.

Karl Popper in Open Society and its Enemies, this rather superficial and third-rate work of political philosophy, not only willfully mischaracterized Plato, but at the end of the second world war, declared victory for liberal democracy. Liberal democracy, according to Popper, with its ideal of the ‘open society’ will defeat the autocratic ‘closed societies’.

Since the extensive foundation-networks of George Soros has armed this popperian idea with sufficient amount of financial and lobbying power, the book’s basic stipulations became a reality fifty-seventy years after its publication. The billionaire Hungarian-American businessman himself was an aspiring philosopher. As he himself remembered, ‘I regarded myself as a philosopher. In 1963, I spent three years of my life trying to work out my philosophy, and I ended up where I began.’ He named his first foundation Open Society Foundation. His first programmatic book, Open Society or Reforming Global Capitalism was published in 2000 which descended well below from philosophical heights, and turned Popperism into practice.

According to the book’s main tenet: ‘Since sovereign nations abuse their own power, the decline of their authority is an outcome we should welcome. While sovereign nations are weakening, international institutions must be strengthened’ – whether that be the IMF, the EU or his own NGO network. Those who think that behind this theory lies merely the power of international speculative big business and not thoughts manifested in books and networks – are simply wrong.

Reading guerilla-style

The book is a dangerous weapon. In 1984, Orwell’s well-known and influential dystopia, the symbol of resistance is a book, to be precise, it is the work of Emmanuel Goldstein, whom the dictatorial regime made the subject of hatred for his ‘treasonous behavior’. Reading Goldstein’s book becomes an act of resistance against the system, punishable by horrific retribution. In Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi Fahrenheit 451, published five years later, the symbol of resistance again, is a book.

In its post-historical, tyrannical system that takes total control of consumption and entertainment, the ‘firemen’ burn down libraries, private book collections and books kept in secret, so that controversial thoughts would not disturb the happiness constructed by the tyrannical regime. The fanatic book burning boss of Guy Montag, the fireman who rebels against the barbarian system, says at one point: ‘The book in a house is like a loaded gun. Who knows who the well-read man’s target will be?’ Of course, according to the novel’s author, there are more sophisticated methods than book burning. For example, instead of making a bonfire out of books, it is enough simply to make people not read books. The technological proliferation of entertainment channels offer easy and safe recreation, as opposed to reading a book, which is an intense and serious activity.

We live in a world, where only homeless people, reactionary liberal arts students and anachronistic lads read on the street.

Who can say of himself these days, as the essayist Antal Szerb remarked, that his ‘overnight friend is a nice book’? Against capitalist consumerism’s aggressive acceleration, the imperative of resistance is: Slow down! Read!

Books not only wait for their readers, they also find their readers. The abovementioned László Németh can credit the turnaround of his political thinking and his most important political thesis to good fortune. One of his relatives, a railroad worker, found a book on the seat of the Berlin express train. The End of Capitalism, which the relative sent to Németh, was written by the influential German national revolutionary, Ferdinand Fried. This book has brought about a turning point in Németh’s thinking, when based on what he had read, he recognized that it is possible to ‘defend qualitative work and the right to human variations’ in order realize a kind of community that protects freedom but also provides justice.

In 1933 he then launched the program of the so-called ‘revolution of excellence’, which in various forms, he represented until his death. It is not just the frivolous aesthete that finds pleasure in browsing first editions, signed or rare publications with their old-book smell, but it is also the amateur booklover, who after his long quest, finally stumbles upon a ‘lost edition’, but it’s also the bibliophile antiquarian, the serious book-collector and the one-time bookworm. The acquisition of a rare book is always a celebration.

The good book stirs you up and does not leave you alone. Emil Cioran, the author of many disturbing books thought that ‘a book should open old wounds, even inflict new ones. It needs to inspire a kind of creative chaos – but above all, it needs to be dangerous.’ According to him,‘obvious works are perishable by their very nature, because a book lives on due to the misunderstandings it causes in its readers.’ Kassák thought that ‘a good book does not provide consolation, instead, it painfully agitates you, it inspires you to act and to think.’ Works like this are harder and harder to find, and if they do come about, then the mass production of books, global illiteracy, the tiptoeing of publishers or the marketing of their loudly provocative covers makes them so much harder to find. But still, such books eventually do find their way to their readers, even if it takes a long time.

Really interesting books, of course, are written by ‘difficult people’. The author’s own character emanates from the pages of the book, because his moral character leaves a mark on his writing. ‘Behind every book there is human a being’, as the rebellious Guy Montag says.

Nonconformist behavior is timeless. The first half of the twentieth century is full of disconnected authors’ forlorn works. Books that fell victim to the dictate of political good taste can each be considered to be a part of an invisible series, but we can also read them as independent episodes of a kind of secret story. Their authors are early harbingers or latecomer apologetics – independent from, yet connected to each other.

These extraordinary books are ever so exciting especially if they disregard the rules of the boring and repetitive reigning discourse, and if they are written about topics and in a language that violate the rules and taboos of political correctness.

Opposition, resistance, and turbulence means in every such case a breath of fresh air, a kind of intellectual challenge and the freedom of the mind that stems from breaking away from everyday conventions.

These are hard to find, rare books, usually stand-alone works that enjoy a certain elevated status, books that we find outside the conventional canon, and that have something to say that is radical and free of compromises. For example, George Sorel’s The Illusion of Progress completely deconstructed the idea of civic progress. Curzio Malaparte who has travelled a long and winding road from fascism to communism in Coup D'etat: The Technique of revolution summarized in a strikingly practical manner the history of coups.

Then you have Georges Bernanos who juxtaposed his Catholic-Monarchist worldview with mechanization in France Against the Robots, which was then used by Jean-Luc Godard of the New Left to create the movie Alphaville. One of the German conservative revolution’s influential brothers, Friedrich Georg Jünger wrote prophetically about the ruthlessness of technological advancement in The Perfection of Technology, while his sibling, Ernst Jünger, through the forest-dweller’s character in The Forest Passage has showed the way out in a world where choices did not in fact offer meaningful choices at all. Each and every one of these works are extraordinary intellectual achievements in and of themselves.

The book is a statement.

This article has been translated from Hungarian exclusively for Friends & futures by our beloved partner and friend, Anna Smith Lacey.

(On the cover: interior view of the bombed library at Holland House of Kensington, photographed in 1940)

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