Los Angeles Review of Books, July 20, 2016
HUNGARIAN ESSAYIST László F. Földényi recently published a post on the Yale Books blog “Unbound” entitled, “Are Hungarians Melancholic?” As it happens, I’ve spent the past month ruminating over the same question, as a fellow Hungarian (half) and reader of Földényi’s newly translated (by Tim Wilkinson) book, Melancholy (1988).
“Why are Hungarians sad?” I asked my Hungarian mother, non-facetiously, over the phone while writing this piece. Go directly to the source, as they say.
“It’s because Hungary is landlocked,” she told me. “And because it was occupied one too many times,” — e.g., the Romans, Turks, Ottomans, Germans, Soviets, et al.
It sounded too simple an answer, but the more people I spoke to, the more I read, the more I began to believe political circumstance may indeed have perpetuated the stereotype, however true or false it may be. In the foreword to the book, Canadian writer and translator Alberto Manguel observes:
Though this is not part of Földényi’s exploration, it can be said that not only people but also places can suffer from melancholia, and a vocabulary of poetic fallacies has emerged to characterize some specific geographic instances: the saudade of Lisbon, the tristeza of Burgos, the mufa of Buenos Aires, the mestizia of Turin, the Traurigkeit of Vienna, the ennui of Alexandria, the ghostliness of Prague, the glumness of Glasgow, the dispiritedness of Boston, and the hüzün of Istanbul.
Földényi hardly discusses the question of Hungarian melancholy in his book at all. There are one, maybe two, references to Hungarian poets or artists, and just briefly at that. Instead, the book impressively and comprehensively explores melancholy as a philosophical and cultural issue from the ancient Greeks to the Romantics to the present day: melancholy as physical ailment, as celestial phenomenon, as “hysteria of the spirit,” as impulse to creativity, as mental illness, as a state of genius… [+]