Béla Hamvas (1897-1968) was an outstanding Hungarian philosopher, writer and social critic whose work integrated Eastern and Western philosophical traditions in seeking answers to contemporary (and eternal) existential issues. Born in Eperjes (Prešov, Slovakia), he moved to Hungary after World War I and worked as a librarian for almost 20 years, writing for some 25 periodicals. In 1937, with his second wife Katalin Kemény, he founded the distinguished intellectual circle Sziget (Island). Despite being drafted in World War II, suffering the loss of his library and manuscripts, and being banned from publishing by the Communist regime from 1948 onwards and forced to earn his living as an unskilled worker until his retirement, his spirit was unbowed and he continued to write and translate; some of his work circulated in samizdat. His post-1948 writings were not published until after the fall of communism. His early works include Szellem és egzisztencia (Spirit and Existence, 1941), an essay on the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, who was a major influence; A láthatatlan történet (The Invisible Story, 1943), essays on literature, psychology, philosophy and cultural history; and Scientia Sacra (1942-1943), six volumes on, inter alia, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and European mysticism. Analysing the spiritual crisis of his age, Hamvas read extensively in the metaphysical tradition, the collective spiritual knowledge of humanity enshrined in sacred books. His important postwar collections and translations include Anthologia humana: Ötezer év bölcsessége (Human Anthology – The Wisdom of Five Millennia, 1946); the essays Unicornis, Titkos Jegyzőkönyv, and Silentium (Unicorn, Secret Protocol, and Silence), published as late as 1987 but written 1948-1951 in parallel with his magnum opus, the unclassifiable modernist work Karnevál (Carnival), published in 1985; three shorter novels, Szilveszter (New Year’s Eve, 1957), Bizonyos tekintetben (From a Certain Point of View, 1961) and Ugyanis (Or Rather, 1966–1967), published together in 1991; the collection of essays Patmosz (Patmos, 1959–1966), published in 1992; and the second part of Scientia Sacra, Az őskori emberiség szellemi hagyománya II. rész: A kereszténység (The Spiritual Heritage of Mankind, part II. Christianity, 1960–64), which appeared in 1988. He felt a particular kinship with the writer John Cowper Powys, with whom he corresponded.
Peter Sherwood has translated the only works of Hamvas currently available in English, the collection of essays Fák (Trees) and a version of A bor filozófiája (The Philosophy of Wine).
A short article on Béla Hamvas’s essays in Hungarian Literature Online
Thomas Nydahl’s essay on Trees by Béla Hamvas
Béla Hamvas website
Csontváry’s Great Cedar of Lebanon
There’s a tree, of many one, says Wordsworth. It is like other trees, yet in its glorious individuality it is inimitable and unique. This, of supreme import to the ancients – the absolute spirit, which always was and always will be the same – and of utmost import today – personality, that never was nor ever will be – this and only this unique instance exists, only here and only now, nowhere else and at this moment, and it is not like anything else. Csontváry wanted to paint in its full glory an individuality inimitable and unlike any other, and so painted not a self-portrait but a lonely cedar on the peaks of Lebanon. As Van Gogh, too, painted not a self-portrait but a wicker chair. A portrait would have been no more than an apologia, a novel. This, here, is a vision. A vision that is the apotheosis of the uniqueness of the individual in the preterhuman.
The spirit of the absolute has always been at the ready, and remains always ready and complete; man receives it whole and that is what is grand about the spirit of the absolute. Personality has to be forged by oneself, because nowhere before had it ever existed and it is not a gift from somewhere, and that is what is grand about personality. But this is not right. Because what I receive ready-made and unalterable, is not mensurable. Grandness is a measure of what I must forge myself. The spirit of the absolute simply is; personality is grand.
In the ancient past the measure of existence was the spirit of the absolute; today it is personality. Measured by the spirit of the absolute the human is eccentric and exotic, ephemeral and instantaneous, dream and dazzlement. Yet personality is grand, because it is to do not with the spirit of the absolute, but with origin. It is not a system, it is an image. It is not architecture, it is sound. It is to do not with creation but with the creator. What is European exists not in the spirit of the absolute but in the grandeur of personality.
Which of the two is the greater is difficult to establish, since even if we know a spirit of the absolute in the form of a personality, and a person who has the fom of the spirit of the absolute and even if we understand that person, we cannot follow him. We are becoming more and more personal and non-unique, and our encounters increasingly occur uniquely in the realm of the personal, where everyone is different, and not where everyone is the same. What makes one human is not the fact that there is a point of identity with another, but that there are no two of us the same.
The spirit of the absolute is suprapersonal. What it bespeaks is revelation. It is recognised by its unmoving and immutable nature. It does not do anything; it simply is. Here are located the creatures on the higher echelons of the hierarchy: the cherubim, the seraphim, the statues of ancient Egypt, the Buddhas, the mosaics of Byzantium, the icons. This unmovingness is rarely realizable. We know that peace of mind can be achieved only through decades of practice and unimaginable effort. The tao of the Chinese and the yoga of the Hindu teach us how this biological mechanism can be slowed down, and sometimes, perhaps for a few days, arrested. But if you have not mastered these techniques you are helpless and doomed to movement even in your sleep – for you dream. You can never stop. Where you stop, that is no longer life, it is being. Unmovingness cannot be realized here on earth. We sense perhaps only negatively what is outside history and time, what is beyond our epoch and eternaly present, what is certainty and the abolute and knowledge. We are immersed in time, in relativity, and only in the moment do we act and move; we do not know, we merely recognize; we do not reach anywhere, we only search and search. The being of which we are merely a function is shaped by the spirit of the absolute. And shaped without movement, and what is shaped is ourselves; and we change.
The spirit of the absolute is not an active force. The spirit of the absolute sees. And it radiates this seeing. In Hebrew tradition the world that sees all and which radiates this seeing is called olam ha-atsiluth, the world of emanations. The closer the spirit is to stillness and to seeing and to radiating this seeing, the closer it is the absolute. And that is eternal and it is knowledge and it is certainty.
Behold the cedar. Here it stands unmoving, like the cherub in the olam ha-atsiluth, and sees everything, and radiates. It is like the tao and the ultimate goal of yoga; it no longer undulates, it is creaseless and there is on it not a single shiver or furl. It dreams no more. This is not living; it is being. It is being like the being of Egyptian statues and the mosaics of Byzantium. It stands like an archangel, who does nought but just is. Nietzsche says: the greatest is to say I will. Jahveh speaks thus: eheye asher eheye – I was that I was, I will be that I will be, I am that I am.
The personality makes itself absolute by cutting itself off from everything and everyone. Absolutized by isolation, as Huxley has it. The person acts and moves and works and realizes. It matters not how. In the end it does just one thing: it realizes its own sacrosanct personality. The perfect person is the one who resembles no one in any wise. The spirit of the absolute thinks in terms of analogies, because for him everything is connected and there is nothing that does not correspond to something else. The personality thinks in terms of differences and chooses always only what he and no none else can choose.
What is for the spirit of the absolute: analogy is for the personality: dharma. Dharma, in the personal destiny of man is the law of sacred unrepeatableness. The Hindu holds that the crippled beggar who fulfils his destiny is worth more than any wise, powerful, and rich ruler who fails to fulfil his. The person is, in his sacrosanct individuality, one among many. He is unpredictable in his ways and in time eternal, and in the moment, in his place, here, in space and time, now, in his people, in his religion and in his language and in his loyalty to the soil and to his destiny.
Behold the cedar. There’s a tree, of many one. There is no other like it. It has made itself absolute in its isolated uniqueness. It is like no one else and like nothing else. It is possessed of its own time and place, it stands here, embedded in the world and in its people and its religion, loyal in its sacral oneness to its earth and to its destiny. It is unaware of the spirit of the absolute and of revelation, of what stillness is and how the surface of a sheer lake is untroubled by a single ripple. It sees not the whole scene at once, just a sliver of a view and even that not unclouded. Not for a moment is it still; it is always working towards its self-realization, sure of nothing, always swaying and trembling and shimmering and erring and being dashed in its hopes, but like no one and nothing else, uniquely itself.
The wicker chair of Van Gogh, too, is uniquely absolute and absolutely unique. But the wicker chair is more humane and sociable and approachable than the cedar. Speech to the cedar would be in vain, as it would be to a cherub. It hears but it does not stir. The wicker chair wills, the cedar is. The wicker chair dreams and suffers, the cedar sees. The wicker chair is a still life, the cedar is etched in being. The wicker chair moves me, it makes me want to go over and help it, to touch it or console it, or hold its hand. The cedar towers above me with its unapproachable mass and in a fearsome calm, as if it had shed God and the world, and now stands lone on Lebanon’s peak.