We have come here to bid farewell to Marcell Jankovics – one of the last polymaths raised by our land. Our friend left us a magnificent body of work: fascinating films, epoch-making books on art history, memorable lectures. We looked on in disbelief at how much could be encompassed by the life of one person. How could anyone devote twenty-three years of their life to The Tragedy of Man alone? The determination with which he threw himself into the project and the perseverance with which he saw it through was truly remarkable. But his true gift, his truly heroic deed was the final result itself: after twenty-three years, someone was finally able to release a work of art about which they could say that the years devoted to its execution – each and every day, each and every minute and the fight for it – had been worth it. This privilege is only afforded to those who understand that with their work they can be part of a sacred and uplifting service. They are among those whom God has allowed to truly lift their hearts, whilst occupying a world of a higher order alongside our mundane everyday reality. This stands above all worldly recognition, money, rank, influence and power. We could not wish anything more or more beautiful for ourselves than that which was given to our dear friend.
He played on every instrument of culture, of eternity. Perhaps there was one thing he might have missed: creating with materials that could defy the passage of time even better than film and letters. Rumour has it that more than once he mischievously congratulated Imre Makovecz on being lucky that the young Marcell Jankovics had not, like him, become an architect. But Marcell was not given permission for that: he did not receive permission from the mighty communists. They saw themselves as demigods; but while in their own time they seemed mighty, they could at most be petty potentates – with fleeting power at that – outshone by the regal splendour of Marcell Jankovics’s oeuvre. Several times I heard him say that when he can no longer carry the flag, the standard-bearer must wrap its canvas around his own body, when he himself will become a symbol. In my mind’s eye I can still see my wife and Polish girls in Gdańsk, preparing for John Paul II’s Holy Mass. The banners which they would later raise aloft could only be smuggled in under the noses of the Polish riot police if they were wrapped around their bodies.
In these febrile times, do we show our recognition and appreciation, do we bow our heads before the courage and virtues of those who do not open fire when kneeling in the front line, but stand steadfast with the flag wrapped around their bodies, on the high ground of their spiritual greatness and talent? When our time arrived, for many years I too was perplexed. I waited for the sweep and thrust of his blade: wide, strong and deep; to cut them asunder – or, like a folk tale hero, to hack them to pieces, as they had done to him when they forced him out, pushed him aside, and gleefully stabbed their treacherous daggers in his heart. As Prime Minister I supplied him with iron, a blast furnace, saltpetre, lead shot and gunsmiths. But still nothing. I heard no crunching of bones, no tearing of sinews, no sound of falling bodies; and I saw no heads falling into baskets. And I kept grumbling, complaining and urging him, asking him what he was waiting for. But no, nothing. It took me years to understand that I was waiting in vain. For that I would wait in vain. He had another mission. His mission was different from that of people like me. His mission – flag in hand, then wrapped in the flag – was to show us what we are fighting for, what it is we must defend. And that the battle should not harden our hearts irreversibly, that we can remain human even in the fiercest of sword fights, the most brutal of battles. That we realise that what matters is not the opponent we are fighting against, but what and who – those behind us – that we are truly fighting for. His mission was to warn us that, despite a string of victories, if we are not careful our wonderful culture will sink around us – as so many apparently vibrant cultures have disappeared in the swamp of time. And then what would we have been fighting for? It was his mission to dive into the very depths of Hungary’s spiritual realm, to bring forgotten treasures to the surface, to clean them and present them to us. For him, being Hungarian, speaking Hungarian, was not a condition but a rank. The world of Hungarian legends inspired him because Hungarianness shone through it. He became one with the hero János vitéz [John the Valiant], with Fehérlófia [the Son of the White Mare], with The Tragedy of Man and with the tragedy of the Hungarian people: Trianon. In Hungarian culture he revealed the universal; and in universal culture he revealed the Hungarian. He believed that Hungarian culture – in its unadulterated purity – could rightly demand the attention of the world. It never even occurred to him to render our culture digestible by repackaging it to suit the tastes of the Western world.
To be born is difficult. We cannot even remember our own birth. This is a clever arrangement of things. But when our children are born to their mothers, we see how painful and difficult it is. Dying, too, is difficult. And dying well is especially difficult. But for us Christians, God comes to our aid: early on, within us he makes the link between a productive, industrious, creative life and a good death. If we have fulfilled the mission that brought us to life on earth, we are spared from dreading life as a descent into futility and death as annihilation. Thirty years of learning, thirty years of creation, thirty years of repayment: preparing, creating, repaying. This is the path of Christians: to learn what you can, to create what you can, and to repay all that you have been given. If you succeed, you will have a good death and leave this world with life complete. Let us not be deceived by mathematics. Let us not be misled by the fact that the calendar showed only eighty years; it was ninety, or perhaps even more. Here and now, by the coffin, we can stand with a heart at ease.
“I fear not death, I stand to face it. But when it strikes me down, embrace me God.” God be with you, Dear Marcell. God be with you, grieving family. God be with us, Fellow Mourners.