Agnes Heller obituary: Outspoken Hungarian philosopher
Prolific, wide-ranging writer explored Marxism, ethics and modernity
Agnes Heller: Her strong criticism of the current Hungarian government left some friends and colleagues a tad sceptical about the circumstances of her death.
Born: May 12th, 1929
Died: July 19th, 2019
Agnes Heller, a prominent Hungarian philosopher and dissident who repeatedly found herself unwelcome in her own country, died on July 19th while holidaying on Lake Balaton in western Hungary. She was 90.
Her son, Gyorgy Feher, said Heller had gone for a swim, a favourite activity, when her body was found floating in the lake. She had been staying at the summer resort of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in the town of Balatonalmádi.
It was not written in the stars that Hungary would fare worst among all post-Soviet state
The cause of death was not immediately clear. The police, Feher said, saw no sign of a heart attack or aneurysm. “So what can one say?” he said by email. The police ruled out the possibility of a crime, according to the Hungarian news site Hungary Today.
Heller, a prolific, wide-ranging writer in multiple languages, explored Marxism, ethics and modernity as well as everyday life. Her eventful life included losing her father in the Holocaust, falling into official disfavour after the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and, most recently, speaking out against Viktor Orban, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister.
“A story is always a story of choices,” she wrote in one of her last essays, published in the journal Social Research last spring. “It was not written in the stars that Hungary would fare worst among all post-Soviet states or that it would be the most radical in its elimination of freedom of the press or balance of power in government and wind up with a system I call tyranny.
“Tyrannies always collapse,” she continued, “but whether Hungarians will escape with their sanity and sufficient clarity for a new start remains to be seen.”
Heller’s strong criticism of the current Hungarian government left some friends and colleagues a tad sceptical about the circumstances of her death.
“She was a strong and avid swimmer,” Judith Friedlander, a former dean of the New School for Social Research in New York, where Heller taught for more than 20 years, wrote in a tribute to her. “Yet somehow on Friday, she went into the water and did not come out.”
Friedlander called Heller “one of Europe’s most revered philosophers and outspoken dissidents, both during Communist times and again more recently”.
She noted that Heller had gone to the science academy’s resort every year.
“The Orban government had recently passed a new law that was going to dismantle the academy, and Agnes was still trying to fight that decision,” she wrote. “Full of energy and terribly concerned about the plight of Hungary and other countries in Europe, she was not about to give up.”
Agnes Heller was born on May 12th, 1929, to a middle-class Jewish family in Budapest. Her father, Pal Heller, was a lawyer and writer who had been helping people escape Hungary and the Nazi sphere when he was sent to Auschwitz in 1944; he died there. She remained in Budapest with her mother, Angela Ligeti, expecting to be executed – an experience, she said, that stayed with her permanently.
“A trauma cannot be forgotten,” Heller said in a talk in 2014, when she was awarded the Wallenberg Medal by the University of Michigan, given in memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the second World War.
I promised myself to solve the dirty secret of the 20th century
“You will not forget it even if you want to forget it. The more you want to forget it, the less you can forget it.”
Other family members also died in the concentration camps, and one theme of her later explorations in philosophy was set.
“I promised myself to solve the dirty secret of the 20th century,” she wrote in A Short History of My Philosophy (2010), “the secret of the unheard-of mass murders, of several million corpses ‘produced’ by genocides, by the Holocaust, and all of them in times of modern humanism and enlightenment!”
Much of her writing looked at issues of ethics and morality and pondered the relationships between the self and the human institutions into which a person is born. Her earliest influence was the philosopher Gyorgy Lukacs, whom she encountered somewhat by accident when enrolled at the University of Budapest after the war. She was studying to be a scientist, but a boyfriend asked her to accompany him to a philosophy lecture.
“I sat there listening to Lukacs and I understood hardly a single sentence,” she told the journal Radical Philosophy in 1999. “But I did understand one thing: that this was the most important thing I had ever heard in my life, and so I must understand it.”
She fell into Lukacs’ intellectual circle and later, in the 1960s, became a principal member of what was known as the Budapest School, philosophers whose common link was Lukacs. They initially focused on applications of Marxism, though most later distanced themselves from it.
Heller also became politically active, joining the Communist Party in 1947. It was the beginning of a turbulent relationship with the authorities. After the Hungarian uprising of 1956 was snuffed out by the Soviet Union, Lukacs was temporarily deported and fell into official disfavour, as did his followers. Heller lost her position as a philosophy professor at the University of Budapest. She felt ostracised. People she had considered friends turned away from her on the street to avoid having to greet her.
Her relationship to official powers in Hungary continued to be strained, and in 1977 she emigrated to Australia to teach at La Trobe University in Melbourne. She joined the New School in 1986.
“Heller was eventually faced with the task of reconstructing her life and career in another country and language,” John Grumley wrote of this period in the biography, Agnes Heller: A Moralist in the Vortex of History (2005).
“This is an obstacle that has destroyed many intellectuals. Yet Heller’s emigration to Australia in 1977 was followed by an enormous burst of theoretical productivity. Writing in another language and re-establishing her credentials in novel surroundings was just the challenge that she needed.”
She published at least 20 books after leaving Hungary, including A Theory of History (1982) and Can Modernity Survive? (1990). She retired from the New School in 2009. At her death, her son said, she had been living primarily in Budapest.
Heller’s first marriage, to Istvan Hermann in 1949, ended in divorce in 1962. Her second husband, Ferenc Fehér, another member of the Budapest School, died in 1994. In addition to her son, she is survived by a daughter from her first marriage, Zsuzsa Hermann.