A Generation in Doubt
The very existence of the generation which I am about to try and introduce is doubtful. That is to say it does exist, but only in the minds of a number of individuals – the members of this supposed generation – who know each other largely through hearsay or perhaps on the basis of one another’s writings. It is not unusual for generations, movements or trends to be designated or “discovered” without their representatives getting to hear about it until after the fact (if at all), – in his manifesto, for example, the American painter Ron B. Kitaj, suspected any artist with a “multiple identity” of being a “diasporist”, irrespective of their cultural background, epoch, or self-declared affiliation. In what follows we will be talking about declared identities only: about an image which nine Central and Eastern European Jewish creative intellects have endeavoured to build around themselves, as well as a myth which they have tried to make acceptable to their contemporaries, that is, to those born into the third generation after the holocaust. It is a familiar intellectual “recirculation” process – the intellectual presents herself as the most sensitive antenna to the traces of the social agent, and sets herself the task of transcribing the thoughts and moods that lie latent in the polity. The resulting texts then supply the same social agent, whose “traces” were registered in the first place, with processes of reasoning and strategies for happiness, thereby producing a circuit, in which the intellectual acts simultaneously as mediator and generator of opinions. What is interesting in the case of the Jewish intellectual is that these texts begin to transmit feelings and moods to a subject which was rumoured not to exist any longer, or to have at best a purely physical existence, the last reserves of the spirit having been exhausted to the point where it would be senseless to say they even had “opinions” to “generate”.
The story begins when Gábor T. Szántó and I with the help of János Kõbányai organised a meeting in the Central European University with the aim of deciding whether such a generation really exists and if so, what are its defining features. Not a single one of the contributors we invited turned us down – although with the exception of three, none actually turned up. The question thus remained unresolved: we each remained faithful to our own opinions. Then – and without any further encouragement – the invitees began to contact us one by one with their contributions and essays. Each of them wrote about how they dealt with their own Jewishness, and what it was that prompted them to identify themselves as Jewish writers despite not having endured the “shared experience” of the Shoah – the lives of their parents having been (or being) spent between the twin temptations of wholesale assimilation or emigration. From their enthusiasm we realised that we were moving into uncharted territory, where the concepts were at least as difficult to map as any relating to either Central and Eastern Europe or Jewishness in general.
The only sure things in the midst of these doubts was that there were still Jews in the area, that creative intellectuals and writers existed among them, and young ones at that. Our term for them, the “third generation” was not without ambiguity however: two of the nine chosen witnesses – Victor Neumann from Temesvar and David Albahari of Belgrade – were over forty. They contrasted with the general collection of kid-survivor-grandchildren – a theme which receives full treatment in the psychological literature (Thalassa, 1994, 1-2). Age-group and generation don’t necessarily fall into the same bracket however – not only did the older members enthusiastically send us their texts (and therefore consider themselves to be members of the “third generation”), but the trajectory of formation of their characters also bore similarities to the younger ones – resulting more from a series of conscious childhood decisions, which arose along with the possibility of identity choice in a (closed) society, and was only an indirect continuation of the traditions learned at home. At the same time the “third generation” came into being without exteral provocation, as a psychological reaction to the absence of a “canonical order”. This generational consciousness didn’t necessarily manifest itself in opposition to another generation – it would be more accurate to say that the hidden behavioural patterns of the previous two generations brought it to the surface. The fact of the existence of generations does not therefore conceal a single inter-generational conflict – rather the whole of society confronts the Jews with its “generational unconscious”. This is most likely what nourishes the “consciousness of social norms” of those of the third generation.
Time stands still
In this region – with the possible exception of Hungary and Poland and maybe pre-’68 Czechoslovakia – the generation issue up until the mid 80s was a physiological rather than a philosophical or sociological question. In a state where the emblematic figure of social mobility is a leader who retains power until natural extinction, and where the entire official order within the state reflects this, it is meaningless to talk about generation gaps or sharp conflicts between the generations. In the interests of “social stability” – as social stasis was termed at the time – every (non-state) organisation had to become official, if it wished to continue. In other words it had to fit in with the “ruling gerontocracy”, wherein what was produced was an exchange of leadership elite with no pretensions of adjustment to changing circumstances and no resulting generational shift, but merely the promotion of a number of youths of an adaptable nature. De Tocqueville’s remark that “among democratic nations each generation is a new people” – applies negatively to these conditions. De Tocqueville penned this comment about America in the first half of the last century, and as usual, in this too he was prescient: Twentieth Century American history could be described as a ferocious fight between the “GI”s and the “boomers”, and then between these and the “thirteeners”, with the committed assistance of the “silent generation”. The “thirteeners” generation can be justifiably compared to the “lost generation” of the First World War, and two witty and knowledgeable American writers do just that in the greatest imaginable detail (Howe-Strauss, 1992, 67-89). But the whole story arouses about as much familiarity in the average Eastern European as, say, the debate of the Sunnis and Shi’ites about the correct interpretation of the Koran.