Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2005

3.6. Kulturelle und Sprachvielfalt. Koexistenz, Interferenzen und Divergenzen in pluriethnischen Regionen
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: András F. Balogh (Budapest) / George Gutu (Bukarest) / Dagmar Kostálová (Bratislava / Preßburg)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Shift of Languages in the Works of Robert Reiter

Imre J. Balázs (Cluj/Romania)


The boundaries of a culture are defined more or less precisely by the boundaries of the language to which it is connected. At first sight, this hypothesis seems rather plausible. However, if we take into account the historical changes to which a culture is exposed, we could argue that this hypothesis has its roots in fact in a regional and historically circumscribed perspective. The cultures of different European ethnic groups were linked for several centuries to Latin. The radiation of religious culture was to transcend the boundaries of languages also in the Balkans. Later on, German was also a starting point for the innovation of languages in Central Europe. French appears to be an important source of inspiration in Russia at the turn of the century around 1900.

From these examples we could easily come to the opposite conclusion - that languages are not important at all, the link between language and culture is circumstantial, that culture can be easily globalized and so on. What I would like to argue here is in fact a double thesis. First, that the boundaries of a culture - beyond the criterion of the language - are dependant on the receptivity of the community that creates it and reacts to it. From this point of view, the question of whether something does or does not belong or to a particular culture can be decided at the point of its reception, not "genetically", that is, not at its point of creation. In many ways the structure of a culture depends on what the group, the community accepts as a part of its culture.

The second thesis is that the boundaries of a culture remain in flux, in a state of constant change. That is, there are shifts in the structure of a culture, in the set of criteria according to which something is accepted as belonging to a certain community. This second thesis could lead us to the question of canonicity: in a more strict sense we could say that only what becomes canonical, what circulates among the people belongs to a culture. This would, of course, reduce the horizons of this investigation. Later I will discuss the possibility of incorporating something into a structure, into a tradition rather than the actual act of its incorporation.

The poet I will speak about, Robert Reiter, created his works at the intersection of at least four cultures, so the potentiality to integrate him into different structures of the Central European tradition is quite plausible. I will insist first of all on the historical-biographical background that could indicate beyond the factual level also the context and the guidelines that framed the developments in Reiter's reception. This will serve as a sort of introduction to the issue of shifts of discourses (and shift of languages, which in Reiter's case can be seen as strongly interconnected), and an interpretation of these shifts.

Robert Reiter (later also known as Franz Liebhard) was born in 1899 in Temesvar, his father being of German and his mother of Slovakian origin. Although the family did not primarily use the Hungarian language, he attended a prestigious Hungarian school in Temesvar (with such students as Arnold Hauser). The language through which literature and sciences entered his world was Hungarian, the second decade of the 20th century being also a progressive period in Hungarian culture, which brought about not only the breakthrough of modernist literature in a broad sense, through the review "Nyugat" (West), founded in 1908, but also the more radical discourse of avant-garde literature that was promoted in those years mainly by the reviews "A Tett" (The Action) and "Ma" (Today), founded by Lajos Kassák in 1915 and 1916, respectively. In later life Reiter often recalls his reading of these periodicals, which circulated at school and in the family, as well as of other German journals such as "Der Sturm".

The region itself, the Banat, where Reiter lived for several decades, was characterized by the coexistence of cultures: I will only note here that Romanians, Hungarians, Serbians, Germans, Jews inhabited the city itself and the surroundings of Temesvar for centuries, constructing in a sense a miniature version of the Habsburg Monarchy. The first shift of languages in Reiter's life, from German to Hungarian, was therefore a "cultural" option, although not a very conscious one at the beginning. The context in which he made his first steps towards "self-development" made him become a Hungarian poet. In some interviews that he gave in his late years, Reiter presents this shift as a process that occurred over several years and that is difficult to reconstruct. As he suggests, his older sister played an important role in his assimilation into Hungarian culture: "It is difficult for me to describe my relationship to the two languages. Getting to know the language did not come of itself: it was a result of many circumstances and of a long struggle and process. My sister was eight years older than I, and she read a lot - she was an intelligent person and took care of what I did, what I was preoccupied with during my first years of school. ... She worked perseveringly and sometimes even nervously so that I would learn Hungarian."(1) In another interview he also points out that, while he did not speak the language at all at the beginning of his first school year, at the end of the year he already spoke Hungarian fluently, according to his school report.(2) Starting from this point, it is quite interesting that at the age of 17 he is already the founder of a Hungarian literary review called "Holnap" (Tomorrow), edited with some school friends, featuring a program that can quite rightfully be labeled as avant-garde: "The review 'Tomorrow' is a rupture with the past, a wild growth of young people into the future. Because: it is a sin to let oneself be dislocated from his own time. ... We keep the values of the past but not the tradition. Because authentic values never become simple tradition. We feel a strong solidarity, the atmosphere that warms up everything; this is where the social value of our effort lies. And its aesthetic value cannot be judged seen from the perspective of old concepts." The school administration bans the review after the appearance of its first issue. Reiter does not cease to publish Expressionist poetry, however. Since 1917 he becomes a regular contributor to the review "Ma", edited by Lajos Kassák in Budapest, the review that was, of course, the main source of inspiration for his own literary journal.

Reiter studies at the university in Budapest, becoming one of the main figures in Kassák's circle. His talent is noticed also by the editors and contributors of the modernist review "Nyugat". Reiter recalls later on discussions with Mihály Babits and Ernő Osvát, both of whom invite him to publish in their review. At this stage, however, Reiter seems devoted to the discourse of militant Expressionism and its literary institutions.

After the 1919 revolutions in Hungary, Reiter goes back to Temesvar that has just become part of Romania. This is the period when Kassák and his former authors are driven into exile all around the world, having been declared undesirable in Hungary. Kassák himself and some of the members of his group come to Vienna, and the review "Ma" is revived in Vienna between 1920 and 1925. Reiter works in Temesvar as an editor of social-democrat journals, published in both Hungarian and German. In 1922 he rejoins the "Ma"-circle in Vienna and again frequently contributes poems, translations and even two essays: Vázlat: Társadalom, művész, művészet (An Outline: Society, Artist, Art) and Dogma, szkepszis, konstrukció (Dogma, Scepticism, Construction). These texts show already a mature personality, marked by his readings of philosophy and by his study of philosophy at the University of Vienna. They also suggest that Reiter has now a critical point of view as far as the collective ideologies of the Hungarian revolutions are concerned, bearing, however, a sort of idealism:

Materialist socialism (the product of Western materialism based on self-interest) cannot offer a superior balance in the life of the individuals and of society precisely because of its (purely material) nature. ... All movements that remain within materialism, no matter how revolutionary they may prove to be in the material world, and even if they create a new material order, still maintain the constant struggle towards a natural (material-spiritual) balance that only changes its outer appearance and with time becomes more and more intensive. ... The efforts through which nowadays ... some try to link art to some social movements and thus to reduce it to an instrument of agitation, of propaganda, are in fact a degeneration into naturalism, causing the death of art. Where imitation begins, all possibilities to create cease. It does not matter in this sense, whether the object of copying is a landscape or the given social structures. The value of imitation is not enhanced if it refers to factories, barricades or the marching crowd instead of quiet lives."(3)

These remarks reflect of course the well-known position of Kassák and his circle in connection with communism and Marxist literary theory: although sympathizing with the socialists, they did not accept a mimetic concept of literature, an option which led to several conflicts among Hungarian left-wing artists. Robert Reiter writes in this period a more and more personalized version of Dadaist, Constructivist and Surrealist poetry. (In Hungarian avant-garde poetry it is difficult to delineate the different avant-garde discourses because they do not follow specific artistic movements, but rather attempt to synthesize the results of different movements.)

Financial difficulties cause Reiter to return to Temesvar in 1924, where he again works as a journalist. The shift of languages that I mentioned at the beginning takes place soon after his return. He ceases to write and publish Hungarian poems in 1926, and from then on signed his name as "Robert Reiter", German journalist, instead of "Reiter Róbert," Hungarian poet, - as he had signed his works before. A few years later he begins to write poetry again, but German poetry, after the Second World War even publishing some volumes of poetry under the name "Franz Liebhard," the name that became famous for Romanian readers of German poetry.

If we examine the shift of languages - now from Hungarian to German - we can see that it is a multiple change: from one language to another, from one discourse to another, from one genre to another. In a newspaper article Reiter explains this shift as follows: "The poem I wrote about the keeper of nature who passes through the world in slippers made of straw, besides the wind and with two branches of rose above his head, was my swan-song.(4) I am a convict, bound to the galley of weekdays, and a vulture is eating my heart. ... Temesvar, 8 December 1926. From now on I am one of the nameless chroniclers."(5) This account refers in fact to the shift of genres: Reiter changes his identity from poet to journalist.

On the other hand, with modernist poetry we could also speak about a poetics of silence. The prototype of this "poetics" is, of course, Arthur Rimbaud, who became a merchant after abandoning poetry. Susan Sontag identifies silence as a recurrent "aim" of modernist art: "Silence is the last gesture of the artist as he secedes from the world: through silence he frees himself from the binds of the world - his patron and client, consumer and enemy, judge and falsifier of his works - that imprisoned him."(6) This means in fact a radical response to the inadequacy of the means of expression. Robert Reiter, as an avant-garde poet constantly experimenting with the limits of language, could "logically" conclude that there are no artistic means to express the wholeness that art points at.

Avant-garde poetry itself experienced a crisis in the late 1920s. The previously well- known reviews like "Ma", "Genius", "Periszkop" all ceased publication around 1926. The crisis of the avant-garde discourse might have contributed also to Reiter's decision to give up poetry. Literature, writing as communication, seemed possible at this stage only by means of a radical change for the poet: the shift of discourse, of language and of the audience at the same time. With this decision Reiter moved completely from the perimeter into the sphere of German culture.

This shift did not mean for him to abandon his past totally. He continued to be an author who felt free to connect different cultures. In this decade he publishes, for example, the German translation of the famous Romanian folk ballad "Miorita". In the letters written from Siberia to his wife in 1948 (having been deported because of his ethnical background), he also mentions that he had translated there some of Goethe's poems into Hungarian. Later, he signs many articles referring to the multicultural regional traditions of the Banat as Franz Liebhard. In this sense his works represent a valuable contribution to multiculturalism in Romania.

In 1969 Franz Liebhard speaks in public about his "colleague" Robert Reiter. He presents the relationship between the "two" poets as a paradox. He refers also to a possible "shift of generations" represented by the two poets.(7) Franz Liebhard, the poet of the 1930s and of the decades after the Second World War, wrote poems in a classical form and rhythm. The imagery of these poems can be linked, however, in at least some cases, to the poetics of "Reiter".

The reception of Robert Reiter's works are noteworthy for several reasons. I began by referring to the historically changing boundaries of any particular culture. In this sense Reiter's and Liebhard's poetry can be situated at the borders of several cultures, or rather, as I would suggest, as being part of several cultures at the same time. The examples of Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade, Tristan Tzara, Eugen Ionescu, prominent figures of Romanian culture of the 20th century (we could, of course, also mention authors like Samuel Beckett or Vladimir Nabokov), point out the fact that the language in which someone creates can be overlooked in some cases. Thus Cioran or Tzara can become at the same time important for both French and Romanian culture. Reiter's case is somewhat similar, although at a lower, regional scale. His oeuvre is not very vast, although he published some volumes as Franz Liebhard after the Second World War. His approximately 70 poems written in Hungarian have only now appeared in a collected edition, despite József Méliusz's constant efforts. It is, however, noteworthy that a German translation of these poems was published in 1989 (the year of Reiter's death) in Klagenfurt and Salzburg.

This means that Reiter is somewhat more thoroughly integrated into German than into Hungarian culture. In the 1990s, however, through the works of Pál Deréky, György Kálmán and others, Hungarian avant-garde literature became more and more discussed, and some collective anthologies were published, including several poems of Reiter. Also András F. Balogh in some of his recent German writings pointed out the importance of Reiter’s poetry. In fact, it is Hungarian avant-garde literature itself that is poorly integrated into Hungarian culture at this stage. The growing interest in this period may in the next few years bring about an important change. Reiter's Hungarian poems are also ready to be published in the period to come.

It is important to note also a growing interest of Romanian scholars living in Temesvar to get to know the regional basis of culture in the Banat. In recent years the Romanian literary review from Temesvar called "Orizont" published several articles and documents referring to Reiter. This could mean that the borders of regional culture are more flexible than those of national cultures. Reiter Róbert, Robert Reiter, Franz Liebhard are no longer bound to remain silent.

© Imre J. Balázs (Cluj/Romania)


(1) Az avangardizmustól a helytörténetig. János Szekernyés's interview with Róbert Reiter. "Ezredvég", 1990, 1., p. 152.

(2) A rejtőző költő. Transcript from Péter Mag's interview with Róbert Reiter, broadcasted on the National Television in Romania on the 2nd February 1976., p. 9.

(3) Reiter, Róbert: Vázlat: Társadalom, művész, művészet (An Outline: Society, Artist, Art), "Ma", 1922. pp. 2–3.

(4) He speaks about his last poem written in Hungarian, Jeromos (Hyeronimus).

(5) "Egy csöndes ember jegyzetei". (Notes of a Quiet Man) "Temesvári Hírlap", 6th March 1927.

(6) Sontag, Susan: A csönd esztétikája. (The Aesthetics of Silence) Budapest, Európa Könyvkiadó, s.a.., p. 9.

(7) See Franz Liebhard Reiter Róbertről. "A Hét", 14th June 1974. p. 6.

3.6. Kulturelle und Sprachvielfalt. Koexistenz, Interferenzen und Divergenzen in pluriethnischen Regionen

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Imre J. Balázs (Cluj/Romania): Shift of Languages in the Works of Robert Reiter. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 12.8.2005     INST