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St Martin’s Report from the Central European Forum

November 3, 2011


What is Bratislava’s Central European Forum? The little brother of the Prague Forum 2000: younger, slighter, and better looking. He shares his strengths with his older brother - the intention to seduce intellectuals across countries and sectors to debate in discussions open to the public of the host city, under the auspices of Václav Havel. He does not share the weaknesses of his older brother: themes which are too abstract, too much emphasis on mildly attractive celebrities, and a form too opulent and ostentatious.

In contrast to the Prague theme of globalisation, Bratislava focused on the specific experience of Central European life. On the stage - instead of philosophising politicians – were “genuine” philosophers, writers and journalists, some of whom, coincidentally, have also become celebrities (Zygmunt Bauman, in particular). In the audience - instead of hysterical celebrity - hunters barely allowing space for a few students - mostly students and more students.

And who organises the Central European Forum? Slovakian democratic intellectuals. Those who still slightly regret the extinction of the common state with the Czechs. Those who are not offended when I tease them how happy I am to be in Bratislava – the coronation city of Hungarian kings...

Why was Bratislava the coronation city of Hungarian kings? Because the original coronation city, Székesfehérvár or Stoličný Bělehrad, was occupied after the Battle of Mohács by the Turks and coronations were therefore moved to the unoccupied north – to Pozsonya or Prešporka. In St. Martin’s Cathedral, we can see the copy of St. Stephen’s crown of Hungary and on the wall read a list of the kings crowned here – and there are “our” well-known names, because the same men and the same great women were indeed also Czech Kings and Queens, from Maxmilian II to Ferdinand V the Good. Under St. Martin’s vault, a Czech can feel even more at home than anywhere else in Bratislava.

Why do I mention the coronations of Hungarian kings in ancient Bratislava? Because it is indeed common Central European History in its real, thoroughly material and yet symbolic manifestation. During one break, I was addressed by journalist Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi, who was selflessly “filling in” for Karel Schwarzenberg, whose participation was thwarted at the last minute by ministerial obligations (and it was indeed an equal stand-in: a Countess for a Prince!) She asked what I would say if I were in her seat on the panel? – If I were you, I’d hardly begin any differently than by saying that I am Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi, a niece of a founder of the Pan-European movement. – The old lady waved her hand: That’s past, I want to speak about the future. – I argued that Central Europe is especially a shared past and the experience emerging from it. – The old lady waved her hand: You are a man of the past. – I say that she is probably right and the fact that she is telling me this also belongs among the Central European paradoxes.

So what was said at the Central European Forum about the future? Cheerless discussions about the topic of authoritarian and national forces. The Hungarians were the most cheerless on that point. Not because Bratislava is no longer the coronation city of Hungarian kings, but on the contrary, because Hungary is at the moment ruled by those who plan to cut off democratic liberties, referring also to the spirit of the ancient Hungarian monarchy. Subtle writer, László Földényi, and impressive architect, László Rajk, seemed to compete with each other in their black vision of the immediate future of their country. Byelorussian journalist, Andrej Dynko, would have laughed at the Hungarian misery, if only he were not so unhappy himself about the state of his own country. Slovaks are grateful to Radičová, but are afraid of the fragility of coalition and a return of the populists. And on the contrary, those from the historically more fortunate part of Central Europe calm them down by saying that individual countries of Central Europe have alternately gone through national-authoritative deviations – but every swing sooner or later was repeated again...

Is this still not too abstract a theme? There is one even more specific: Romanies in Central Europe. And so a discussion on ethnonyms begins: Mircea Cartarescu explains that Romanians in droves reject the name, “Romanies”, as it too much resembles the name of their own nation, so westerners identify Romanians with Romanies. A Slovak Romany blogger, by the name of Jeanette Maziniová, on the other hand proudly declares: I am a gypsy woman. Jáchym Topol privately comments: She can say it, but I would never dare to address her like that.

Was debate at the Central European Forum only serious or even sad? Far from it. The presentations by two of the eight heroes of August 1968 of Moscow Red Square – those eight who, in the midst of Breznev’s machinery, went to demonstrate against the occupation of Czechoslovakia – became an absurd theatre full of misunderstanding and unfitting updates. The only dignified solution was chosen by Natalia Gorbaněvskaja: She did not philosophise about the world, but read her gentle verses. An extract was: Icons should not ponder, icons should stand in an honorary place and radiate the power of holiness.

An exhibition by Daniel Fischer, entitled “Coming up” was held in the Slovak National Gallery on the embankment for only a few days: Eight columns representing the eight brave. From a distance they are smooth metal columns – and only when the visitor comes closer to a column, does the face of one of the eight start to emerge for him—one of the eight real icons of our age.
Why is this report called “St. Martin’s”? Because it started with praise for St. Martin’s Cathedral and now ends with praise for another symbolic cultural heritage of Central Europe—characteristic both for the place, that is for Bratislava, and the date of the Central European Forum: praise for St. Martin’s goose. Therefore: Long live the goose! Goose!! Goose!!!

Why should a goose live when it is already cooked? Because, by being cooked, it has fulfilled its mission in this world. If only all of us could fulfil our mission in this world like the goose.

To this end, please help us, St. Martin, Patron Saint of Bratislava.

Martin C. Putna


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