Péter Nádas 1998
Fire and Knowledge – Fiction and Essays
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007

Twice, on two recent consecutive evenings, I watched how the former president of Romania and his wife were sentenced to death and how they were executed.* I saw two different documentaries, but since they both used the same original footage from 1989 to illustrate the ritual event, the effects of the two films differed very little.

The films made me ruminate over fundamental moral and aesthetic questions to which over the last ten years I have had no answers. Dispassionately I watched myself enjoying the tyrannicide. I kept observing that although I should have been ashamed for enjoying the sight, I was not ashamed at all. I found no mercy in my heart; I felt no pity for the couple.

I believe in just, legal procedures. Despite this belief, my conscience was conspicuously silent. I do not believe in capital punishment. Still, the brutality of the procedure I was witnessing did not offend me. Being vaguely aware that there had to be something I should object to in this outrageously unlawful, dilettante farce—though I had no objection—and that there should be another law-abiding and humane person within me to protest my moral indifference and oppose my aesthetic naďveté—though there was no such person to be found—created a strange vacuum.

Base enjoyment is dangerously close to the noble kind. Perhaps this is so because we have no separate sets of nerves for the two different kinds of enjoyment. Carnal pleasure and pain can also overlap—and not only in humans but also in animals. Any kind of pleasure tends to speed up or even disrupt breathing, causing the sensation that circulation is momentarily arrested. Hyperemia blots out consciousness with the feeling of sensual breathlessness. The physiology of mammals is a closed system. The graph of great political excitement or religious ecstasy does not differ greatly from the rising graph of lovemaking. When one is in this state, moral judgment is suspended and self-reflection takes a long break. Vision and other sensations are not blocked by inhibitions. A tension builds up, not only in the limbs but also in the groins and belly, in the intestines, and in the radial, annular sphincters controlling the anal orifice. This occurs whether I myself am doing the killing of a tyrant or if I watch others commit tyrannicide. Opposing, convulsive muscle contractions and muscular tensions become all-pervasive. This is the reason political or religious ecstasy on a mass scale is such an enthralling spectacle. And this is why mass hysteria is so frightening. Ultimately, it is only a matter of deciding what it is I want to make public and what it is I want to conceal. Dogs have erections when frightened; when happy, they urinate and whimper at the same time; anger makes the hair on their spines stand on end. Criminology is familiar with these phenomena. Burglars, thieves, and murderers evacuate compulsively in their pre-action sensual excitement and may actually ejaculate while carrying out their criminal acts.

In everyday circumstances one keeps in check the effects and emotions associated with base pleasures, and with good reason. If one does not guard well the delicate and sensitive border between hatred and love, between base and noble feelings, if ones closed physiologic system is not preserved for the more noble pleasures, then the chaos of suspicion, of being insulted, of the unquenchable thirst for revenge, of covetousness, envy, selfishness, vanity, and greed will quickly swallow one up. Sometimes one person with hysterical tendencies is all that is needed to drag the rest of a group along. This sort of chaos swallowed up Yugoslavia quite some time ago. The membrane that still protects Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Croatia has grown very thin.

A dreaming mind may give birth to nightmares, but hatred's fancy, uncontrolled by the mind, will engender vampires. From the danger I pose to myself nothing can protect me except the last remaining patches of my mind that I have managed to keep alert and rational.

The captors of the dreaded Ceauşescu couple, as if the two might somehow have broken out of the dreary room in which they had been tried and sentenced to death, forced them into a space between the wall and two steel-legged tables. Either it was cold in the room, or the uniformed members of the summary tribunal did not permit the tyrant and his wife to take off their coats. They were in a hurry. They wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. They had no lawful authorization. And even if they had had it, they wanted to slaughter the two tyrants exactly the way they would one winter dawn slaughter their cherished, fattened hogs they used to scratch with such pleasure. Political consideration also entered into their haste, of course. While the tyrants were alive, any attempt to restore them to power might be considered legitimate, in which case they, the judges, would end up dead. Who would kill whom first? That was the question.

Elena Ceauşescu wore a fur-lined, light-colored cape. Gathering it tightly about her, she hoped to defend herself. She was shivering, more likely in fear than from the cold. Yet no one can say she did not remain self-possessed until the very end. She knew what was going to happen, and she said so too. Nicolae Ceauşescu was not quite so self-disciplined, though he eventually realized that his end was imminent. And I am sure it was not only his obtuseness that helped delude him. The man was seventy-one years old at the time; for forty-four of his years he had been a member of the Central Committee of Romania’s Communist Party. That is much too long a time for even a single, tiny patch of ones brain to remain rational. No one had wanted to kill János Kádár when he was removed first as general secretary of the Hungarian party in 1988 and then entirely from political office in 1989; still, at the moment of truth he managed to save his mind by throwing himself into the dark abyss of dementia senilis. Ceauşescu just kept looking at his wife, rolling his small, shifty eyes and grinning nervously; you could tell he couldn't grasp what was really happening or figure out how he might gain the upper hand.

He was wearing a very heavy dark gray overcoat. The wearing of these wretched, ungainly overcoats had probably been ordered by a secret clause in the Warsaw Pact. János Kádár had the largest one of all; Mrs. Kádár had a pretty big one too. In Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov's was too small. President Gustav Husák of Czechoslovakia wore one with a dreadful cut. The mandatory headgear to go with these coats was a large, dark hat. On Christmas Day 1989 the Romanian head of state chose to wear an astrakhan cap. And to follow the example of his more disciplined wife, he stretched his arm across the table and held on to this astrakhan cap, kneading it, mangling it. He looked at his watch, wondering whether his rescuers were on their way. He looked at his watch as if to say, All right, I don't understand what's going on right now, but the real party conference is going to start anyway.

The cameraman aimed now at the two of them, now at members of the summary tribunal. In the whole room he found no angle from which he could frame all the participants. And he seemed unable to get close-ups either. He wobbled, jerked about, the camera shaking in his hands, and kept turning in different directions, undecided. And not only because he was no professional but also because he could not suppress his own fear and thirst for revenge. He could not reconcile his personal feelings with the task at hand.

Complete, total dilettantism lends perfection to this documentary film. You can cut it, edit it this way or that, nothing changes; its harmony remains perfect. None of its subjects, light effects, participants, sounds, or means of filming is anything but base, ugly, and amateurish. In this film the windows are blacked out, and no door is seen. There is no exit from this dictatorship. Even today we don't exactly know where we are in these shots. The cameraman can’t step out of the picture either; to do that, he would have to have something in mind besides the murder. Freedom is not something one receives as a present. The cameraman identifies himself with the emotional outbursts of the horror-stricken summary tribunal, and we follow his unpredictable, fitful roving. This might conceivably lead to a cathartic realization—if only we could experience, together with members of the tribunal, the emergence of truth. But that is not what happens. Narrow-minded and driven by their petty thirst for revenge, they condemn the two tyrants to death.

It cannot happen any other way because the judges and tyrants are so much alike. They are equally witless, ugly, unlettered, coarse, and common. Perhaps most important in terms of justice, their behavior and their words are completely devoid of anything that might lend a person dignity. And no one has ever seen true justice that lacked dignity.

A decade has gone by since the execution of the Ceauşescus only three days after they fled Bucharest. As I followed the camera’s undignified shifts, flitting to and fro among these people, who had lost all dignity and understood nothing, I failed to realize that my indignation, satisfaction, and enjoyment arose from my desire not for justice but for revenge. And it’s even more embarrassing than that. Tyrants go to their death without dignity, but at least they can bridle their fright. The members of the tribunal that tried the couple, however, not only feared that they wouldn’t have enough time to kill the two tyrants, in which case they themselves would be slaughtered by other avengers, but, even more, feared the very prospect of having to slay two such giants. They could not rid themselves of the image of their own dwarfishness. When looked at with the naked eye, in the entire course of world history we have never seen ourselves quite this way.

Just before the execution, when the tyrants’ hands are tied behind their backs with some coarse clothesline, we hear the drama’s single human sentence issue from the mouth of Elena Ceauşescu. Although ready to die, she and her husband still protest the treatment they’re getting. Even now they fear not the loss of their human dignity but the loss of their fame and prestige. The terror gripping the soldiers, however, is so profound it seems doubtful whether they can properly carry out their odious mission. "What are you so afraid of?” rises the female voice from the depths of the scuffle. And to make this self-portrait of dictatorship even more complete, in the very last scene the character who should have remained silent makes himself heard too; it is the cameraman, talking to the doctor from behind the camera when they’re already out in the courtyard where the execution by firing squad has taken place. The doctor’s hands are shaking so violently he cannot guide his stethoscope to the jugular vein. If only he could look into the eyes, under the lids. All his fingers, his whole body, everything is trembling; he cannot do it.

“Raise his head. Let us see he is dead.”

The doctor hesitates for a moment. He is not sure the cameraman’s request can be granted. If he steps out of his role as physician and does as he is told, he’ll be breaking the circuit of thousands of years that, with a last little puny string, still ties his person and his profession to Hippocrates. If he obeys and does as he is told, he’ll be carrying out the most terrible sentence of all dictatorships; nothing is sacred. And then he does obey. He raises and shows us Nicolae Ceauşescu's lifeless head. He pulls down the lower lids so we can look into the dictator’s dead eyes.

With this devastating sensory experience we carry the logic of dictatorships into the next millennium.

First published as “Nagy karácsonyi gyilkosság" in Talált cetli és más elegyes trások (Pécs: Jelenkor Kiadó Kft, 1992, 2000).


* On December 25, 1989, Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena, were shot by a firing squad after a secret military tribunal had found them guilty of crimes against the state; the charges against them included genocide and undermining the national economy. Their capture on December 22 had followed a week of increasing violence and an upsurge of mass protests against Ceauşescu’s brutal regime, which had been in power for twenty-four years—Editor.