”In 1955 in Hungary there lived only one single person who could have not only conversed but actually exchanged views with Heraclitus, Buddha, Lao Tse, and Shakespeare, and that in each one's mother tongue. If these four prophets of the human spirit had gotten off the plane in Tiszapalkonya, and if they had addressed the first laborer they came across, and if this had happened to be Béla Hamvas himself, after talking for three nights straight - during the day Hamvas had to carry mortar, but perhaps his guests would have given him a hand - well then, what might they have thought: if in this country the unskilled laborers are like this man, what then might the scholars be like? But had they looked around the country, they would have understood everything.” (Géza Szőcs)
One of the greatest metaphysical thinkers of the 20th century, Béla Hamvas, due to his wide range of interests, studied literature, cultural history, history of science, psychology, philosophy and Eastern Asian languages. He was a non-conformist, whose aesthetic views were attacked by György Lukács, resulting in the banning of his works from publication after 1947. Most of his writings were published posthumously, beginning from the early 1980s.
1897 born in Eperjes (at that time in Hungary); family later moved to Pozsony (today Bratislava, Slovakia)
1915–1917 wounded twice in First World War at the Austro-Hungarian – Russian front
1919 his father refused to take the oath for Slovakian citizenship, family expelled from Slovakia to Budapest
1919–1923 studied German and Hungarian Philology at the University of Budapest
1923–1926 journalist for the Budapesti Hírlap and Szózat (Hungarian newspapers)
1927–1948 librarian in the Central Library of Budapest
1935–1936 together with Károly Kerényi, founded Sziget, a journalist and intellectual circle
1937 married the writer Katalin Kemény
1940–1944 drafted into military service; posted to the Russian front in 1942; managed to escape
1945 his house was hit by a bomb, his library and manuscripts were destroyed
1945–1948 editor of the Leaflets of the University Press
1948 placed on the B-list, forced to quit his job, and to work on building sites
1948–1951 officially qualified as a labourer
1951–1964 interned, unskilled labourer in factories at Bokod, Inota and Tiszapalkonya
1964 retired from work at the age of 67
1968 died; buried in Szentendre, Hungary
Béla Hamvas found his form of expression in the essay, a genre at once literary and philosophical. His early essays were published in Magyar Hüperion (1936, Hungarian Hyperion), marking the end of his first period of thinking, to be followed by Szellem és egzisztencia (1941, Spirit and Existence), an essay discussing the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, one of the main inspirations for Hamvas’s thinking. He published a selection of essays on literature, psychology, philosophy and cultural history in A láthatatlan történet (1943, The Invisible Story). Analyzing the spiritual crisis of the age, Hamvas read himself into the metaphysical tradition, the collective spiritual knowledge of humanity conveyed by sacred books. His collection Scientia Sacra (the first six volumes, 1942–43) served to direct the attention of the age towards the philosophy of the Far East (The Upanishads, Tao Te King, The Tibetan Book of the Dead and others) and European mysticism. From 1945 Hamvas belonged to the spiritual renaissance for three years, during which he edited the series Leaflets of the University Press, held lectures and published the metaphysical Anthologia humana: Ötezer év bölcsessége (1946, Anthologia Humana – The Wisdom of Five Millennia), the fourth edition of which was banned and pulped by the communist regime. His essays written together with his wife on the history of art Forradalom a művészetben: Absztrakció és szürrealizmus Magyarországon (1947, Revolution in Art: Abstraction and Surrealism in Hungary) survey Hungarian art from KárolyFerenczy, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka and Lajos Gulácsy up to the activity of the “European School.” Hamvassaw in surrealism and abstract art the heritage of magic, the “tremendous presence of a higher existence”,and opposed “realistic” art. This concept of modern art was attacked by the Marxist ideologist, GyörgyLukács, and Hamvas was dismissed from the library and silenced for the rest of his life. His writings werepublished in samizdat.
His essays are grounded in tradition, their sense of humour is granted by knowledge, and humour, in turn, grants their freedom. Unicornis, Titkos Jegyzőkönyv, Silentium (1948–51, Unicorn, Secret Protocol, Silentium) were published as late as 1987, but were written alongside Hamvas’s great novel, Karnevál (1948–51, Carnival, published in 1985). This Magnum Opus, also called a “catalogue of fate”, a “human comedy”, spans continents and ages, Heaven and Hell. Hamvas’s three shorter novels, Szilveszter (1957, New Year’s Eve), Bizonyos tekintetben (1961, From a Certain Aspect), Ugyanis (1966–67, Therefore) were published together in 1991, followed by his collection of essays, Patmosz (1959–1966; Patmos) in 1992, whose title alludes to John the Apostle’s exile to the island of Patmos, and the second part of Scientia Sacra: az őskori emberiség szellemi hagyománya II. rész: A kereszténység (1960–64, Scientia Sacra – Spiritual Heritage of Mankind, part II. Christianity) published in 1988.
To view photos with Béla Hamvas please click here
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The Seventh Symphony and the Metaphysics of Music
Heloïse and Abélard