One sentence about tyranny

Below is my translation from Hungarian of Gyula Illyés’ poem, ‘One Sentence About Tyranny’.

Written in 1950 in Stalinist Hungary, tyrannic censorship stopped the poem’s publication until November 1956 when it became a driving force behind the Hungarian Revolution. Two days after its publication the Soviet Union crushed this revolution against red tyranny and the poem was driven underground a second time until 1988 when it again moved to the forefront to spur Hungary’s transformation into a democracy in 1989.

Ilyés’ lament makes the reader sense what it is like to be buried under a kind of avalanche of human abomination, which is tyranny; omnipresent and overwhelming for all those who are trapped in it.

Perhaps the poem is made into one sentence because this way it encapsulates the entire horror of tyranny in a long and ever more incriminating single outburst.

It is a sentence as well, at least in two senses. Tyranny is a dignity-devouring sentence for both the tyrants and their victims. Second, it is, as if an impartial judge was passing sentence over tyranny for all its crimes against humanity.

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The picture expands from a stream to a river until it becomes the whole tsunami of tyranny. It lays bare everything in its path, including all vestiges of humanity.

The full power of a great poem comes from hearing it performed. Listening to the strength of conviction in the late Illyés’ voice as he recites his poem in Hungarian is like hearing a steely icebreaker cutting through the deadly ice of all embracing tyranny. It makes the listener want to cry out against it.

There are interesting parallels between George Orwell and Illyés.

Orwell was born in 1903, Illyés in 1902.

They were both originally attracted to communism: the former fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Communists and the latter participated in the unsuccessful Hungarian Communist Revolution of 1919.

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Each came from a middle class family, yet they both identified with the cause of the common people, in particular, with their liberation from poverty and oppression.

They became political writers early on in their careers.

They both criticised communist oppression from the Left; as social democrats they realised that the so called Communists betrayed communism and thus the people by tyrannising them.

Their uniquely original and devastating criticisms of Communism were made in close proximity:
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four was published in 1948 and Illyés’ ‘One Sentence About Tyranny’ in 1950.

Illyés unmasks tyranny from behind the Iron Curtain, Orwell from the other side of the Iron Curtain, from democratic England, where many Socialists were still starry eyed about Soviet Communism (just as today some people in the West are still starry eyed about the current Chinese Communist Regime).

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I my view, Illyés’ poem provides a vital link between Leninist Communism and the current Chinese Regime, which in its political system remains Leninist.

Present conventional wisdom in the West wants to downplay the significance and implications of this disturbing fact, as if the Cold War ceased with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Yet both Aldous Huxley and Orwell predicted the emergence of the world totalitarianism by the middle of the 21st century.

As I write about my life in Hungarian communism, I find that many lines in Illyés’ poem serve as epigrammatic summaries of some segments in my 17 years of life in Hungary in my youth. The poem is like an informal backbone of the Hungarian section of my memoirs. At the same time the poem also links the past Soviet style tyranny in Hungary with the present Chinese regime. It might even link the present ‘democratic’ regime in Hungary with China as the current right-of-the-centre government in Hungary is keen on an ‘alliance’ with China.

In this light, the words of the visiting Premier Wen to Hungary in June 2011 sounded chillingly ironic:

“The beautiful Danube river is flowing in exactly the same way as it did twenty four years ago when we first visited Hungary…”

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Illyés’ shocking cowing together with nearly all of Hungary’s dissenting writers after the crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 further validates the theme of his poem, namely, that tyranny scars all its victims for life. Kádár’s Soviet puppet regime, imposed on Hungary after the Revolution, made an offer to all eminent Hungarian writers, which they could only refuse if they accepted the prospect of never being allowed to publish again under the newly re-imposed communism and of risking imprisonment as subversives.

The offer-petition, which nearly all of them signed, sadly including Illyés, was that the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a ‘counter-revolution’, inspired by a fascist West, and that the United Nations should forthwith cease the investigation of the Soviets’ crushing of the revolution.

Orwell’s ‘newspeak’ of inverting words to mean their opposites, that is, calling a genuine revolution a ‘counter-revolution’, was at its full treacherous display in the regime’s propaganda campaign.

(*In the poem below, there is the phrase:’Laocoon mode’: Laocoon was a Greek priest who warned the Trojans not to accept the Trojan horse which the Greeks pretended to be a present to the Trojans. Alas, the Trojans did not heed his advice and fell for the Greek’s trick because they did not want to insult the Greeks by rejecting their ’present’. Legend has it, that the Greek God, Apollo punished Laocoon for his ‘whistle blowing’ by having him and his two sons killed by snakes. Hence the ‘Laocoon mode’ seems to refer to getting killed for telling the truth.)


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‘Where there is tyranny,
there is tyranny,
not just in the barrel of the gun,
not just in prisons,

not only in the interrogation rooms,
not just in the guard’s word
shouted at night;
there is tyranny

not only in the smoke-dark
streaming charge of the prosecutor,
in the admission,
in the prisoners’ wall tapped Morse signals,

not just in the judge’s chilling
verdict: guilty!-
there is tyranny,
not only in the marshal’s bark:

‘fire!’, in the drumming,
and in the manner of pulling the corpse
into the pit,

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not just
in the secret news
anxiously whispered
through a half opened door,

in the ‘sh’of the finger sealing the mouth:
‘don’t move!’
where there is tyranny,
there is tyranny

not just in the iron hard
facial feature
and in that iron, in the already wordless
struggling scream,

in the silence
boosting dumb
shower of tears;
in the bulging eye,

there is tyranny,
not only in the ‘on-your-feet’
blared ‘long live-s’,
‘hurrays’, songs;

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where there is tyranny ,
there is tyranny,
not just in the unremitting
clapping hands,

in the opera, in the trumpeting,
in the just as hypocritically cheering stone monuments,
in colours, in galleries, separately in every frame,
already in the painter’s brush;

not only in the noise of the softly gliding
car in the night,
and in that:
it pulled up at the gate,

it is there as you say ‘hello’
and you sense
through the silence of the receiver,
that a stranger is eavesdropping;

not only the wriggling
strangling of the phone wire of the Laocoon mode: *
train, aeroplane, track,
distaff, rope,

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for tyranny
is presently there,
in every single thing,
as not even your old god could have been able to;

there is tyranny in the kindergartens,
in father’s advice,
in mother’s smile,
in how the child replies to a stranger;

not only in the barbed wire,
not just in the slogans in book lines
which are even more stultifying
than the barbed wire;

it is there
in the parting kisses,
in the way the wife asks:
when will you be back dear?

in the street,
in the routinely repeated how-are you-s,
in the handshake
that suddenly loosens,

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and as instantly
your lover’s face freezes,
because tyranny is there
at your date,

not only in the interrogation,
it is there in the confession,
in the sweet word’s ecstasy,
like a fly in the wine,

because even in your dreams
you are not left alone,
it is in your bridal bed,
before that, in the desire,

for you will deem beautiful
only that which it already possessed once;
it was tyranny you lay with,
when you thought you loved,

on the plate and in the glass,
it is there in the nose, the mouth,
in cold and in twilight,
outside and in your room,

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as if through the open window,
the putrid stench flooded in,
as if somewhere in the house
there was a gas leak,

if you talk to yourself,
it is tyranny that questions you;
even in your imagination
you are not independent,

even the Milky Way above is different:
it is a border zone, scoured by beams,
a minefield, the star:
it is a spying window,

the teeming sky canopy:
it is just one labour camp;
for tyranny speaks from fever,
from the tolling bell,

out of the priest’s confessionals,
from the sermon,
the church, the parliament, the torture rack:
all are, but its stages;

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whether you open or close your eyes,
tyranny is looking at you;
as disease,
it accompanies you, like a souvenir;

you hear it in the rattle of the train wheel:
‘prisoner, you are a prisoner’,
on the mountain and beside the sea
it is this that you inhale;

in the zigzags of the lightening,
it is in every unexpected
noise, light,
in the startled heart;

in rest,
in shackled boredom,
in pouring rain,
in sky high bars,

in the cell-wall-white
entrapping snowfall;
it looks at you
through the eyes of your dog,

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and because it is there in every goal,
it is there in your tomorrow,
in your thought,
in your every movement;

as water cleaves its bed,
you follow and create it;
peek out from this circle?
it is tyranny that looks back at you from the mirror,

it is tyranny that watches; to try to run away would be in vain,
you are at once a captive and the captor;
it impregnates your tobacco’s aroma,
your clothes’ fabric;

it penetrates you
to the marrow;
you would like to think,
but only its thoughts come to your mind,

you would like to look, but you can only see
what it conjured up for you
and already forest fire surrounds you,
fanned into flame by the matchstick

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that you threw down
without stamping it out;
and it also guards you,
in the factory, in the field, at home

and you no longer feel, what it is like to live,
what is meat and bread,
what it is to love, to wish,
to open your arms wide,

this is how the slave
himself forges his fetters and wears them;
if you eat it is tyranny you nourish,
you beget your child for it,

where there is tyranny,
everyone is a link in the chain;
its stench emanates and spreads from you,
you too are tyranny;

for it is already because of you
that your child stiffens into spitefulness,
and your wife, swaying in your lap,
turns into a whore;

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like a mole in the sunshine,
we walk in blind darkness
and we fidget in our room
that is like the Sahara;

for where there is tyranny,
all is in vain,
this ode too,
any work,
no matter how true,

because from the first,
tyranny stands there at your grave,
it decides who you were
and even your ashes serve it.’

What is your reaction to this poem?

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