Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Body of Culture

I was born in Budapest and have lived in many places, but by the chance of war and the clock’s rotation the Bavarian town of Tirschenreuth became my home town. I lived there during crucially formative years (8 to 13); there is more on Tirschenreuth here on this blog. I show the photo featured on Wikipedia (link); everybody always uses the same view and for a good reason. It combines in one image the two places where in ancient times the collective life of humanity took place: the market and the church. I also show the city’s crest; at its founding it came under the sway of the Abbey of Waldsassen, and the abbot ruled. Tirschenreuth is a county seat and has a population just under 10,000. However tempting to continue—such are my feeling for this place—my subject today is the body, thus the institutional expression, of collective life. I begin with Tirschenreuth because there, in the period 1944-1949, I actually experienced what life in medieval times might have been like. The “body of culture” there was the church; it organized collective life and structured time.

I got to thinking yesterday about the three layers of personal and collective life: the physical, cultural, and the transcending. It occurred to me that the middle level in this triad has drastically changed since my childhood. At my birth in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, the market had its usual role—indeed in virtually every settlement of meaningful size there was a large market, either permanent or organized once or twice a week. The cultural level was decisively secular; in Hungary, which was roughly evenly divided between Catholic and Protestant regions, culture expressed itself in such institutions as theater, orchestra, opera and the intellectual life. Parents introduced their children to these realms with conscious effort. We were taken to concerts and the theater much as we were taken to church—and the experience was much the same one. The two lower layers were still unified, as it were. The topmost had already parted into at least three separate domains. The country wasn’t unified at the level of faith. Some were Catholics, some Protestant, and a minority (to which my maternal grandfather and Mother belonged) decidedly humanist. He was a Mason (in Europe that meant atheist). My Mother’s religion was High Art, a kind of amalgam of music and of literature.

The point that I would emphasize here is that culture still meant one thing, and something one acquired, couldn’t simply buy. The concept of pop culture hadn’t formed yet. My reflections yesterday yielded the notion that this middle layer has become transformed so that culture as we used to think of it has become a life-style choice, not a collective experience; it has been replaced by politics and pop culture—movies, TV, “music,” and increasingly social networking. Indeed the distinction between politics and pop culture has also begun to blur. Communications media have changed politics and merged it with entertainment; leaders have become pop stars. A single “body” has emerged in consequence and now represents culture—it organizes collective life and structures time: the media. That amalgamation of institutions is altogether dominated by commercial motives. It is itself being transformed from what used to be a print into a visual medium, signaled to us by the drastic decline in newspapers, inwardly (read content) as well as outwardly.

Having jotted down some notes, I went on to thin our Japanese Knotweed. My notes contained no reference to Tirschenreuth. But this morning, waking with some dread of what is to come today in the media, awareness of my home town was suddenly quite large and an addendum to my reflections present. It was that in Tirschenreuth, when we arrived there as refugees in 1944, an earlier order yet had still prevailed. This somewhat backward pocket of Catholicism in Bavaria still retained an order that Hungary had already left behind. Here everything still remained strongly rooted in the old time religion. I’ve always been very grateful for having had the experience. It helps me face the rising flood with equanimity.

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