LOUIS LIGETI (1902-1987)
Following a short illness Louis Ligeti – Lajos in the Hungarian form of his first name – died on May 24. He would have been 85 on October 2 of this year. Last year the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, for which he has done so much, honored him on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his membership; apparently no one has been a member for so long of this great Institution.
Obituary notices will appear In due course, full of data, listing his many achievements, the honors bestowed upon him, his membership in many learned societies. No doubt, most of these notices will be pompous, written in a style which alone makes one wish for eternal life on this earth, and – most probably – they would shed little light on the man Ligeti really was. I wonder whether anyone will dare to note that, all in all, Ligeti was not a man easy to get on with, that he had little sense of humour and a great sense of his own importance. Yet, he has always recognized something that was, in his eyes, much more important than his own person, something he has tried to serve with unswerwing devotion probably all through his adult life: pure, unadulterated, honest scholarship.
I first met Ligeti in the fall of 1934 when at the University of Budapest he taught Classical Mongol and a course on the Hsiung-nu. He was a superb teacher and if I was bored during many of his classes I can only blame myself for it. I was too young, too inexperienced to appreciate what he could offer; he was too rigid, too much thinking in absolutes to try to understand my own, then admittedly somewhat primitive, approach to scholarship. He had one scholarly idol, Paul Pelliot, whose courses he attended some years earlier in Paris. His praise of this genius prompted me to go myself to Paris, to see for myself who Pelliot really was and what he represented. Not unexpectedly, I also fell under his spell and stayed with him to his death in 1945. Working with Pelliot I came to realize how much Ligeti owed to Pelliot and how much I owed to Ligeti. When the war was over I had the opportunity to express my gratitude to him and, over the years, there developed between us a friendship based partly on our common heritage of Pelliot’s research methods and, in later years, on our administrative interests.
I last saw Ligeti in September 1986 and we discussed vigorously and in great detail the problems of Oriental and specifically Altaic studies in Hungary. I could not but admire his lucidity, his shrewdness, his willingness, literally to his last breath, to serve Hungarian orientalism. He was quite aware of the fact that he had trained an outstanding group of scholars but, as most academic administrators, he was not so sure that any or all can represent the interest of the field with the skill needed. Ligeti was a superb academic “operator” in the full American sense of this term. He knew when to speak and when to remain silent, he had a sound assessment of the limits of the possible in any given circumstances. In his lifetime he served under, and was honored by, very different political regimes, but he never sold his soul. In him burned an almost Pauline fire for the cause, and his occasional ruthlessness, his seemingly uncompromising attitudes, were dictated by the two great aims of his life: to serve scholarship partly by his own work, partly by that of his former pupils, and to contribute through this to a better understanding of the Hungarian past.
Those who know Ligeti’s superb work on Mongol, Kitan, Jurchen, or Tibetan, who appreciate the width of his scholarship in the pursuit of elusive Inner Asian words of civilization, or use his catalog of the Kanjur, if they cannot read Hungarian, they remain unaware of the dominant preoccupation of Ligeti’s scholarly endeavors: to shed more light on the history of the Hungarians prior to the conquest of their present land. His last published work, a monumental book of some six hundred pages, bears witness to this obsessive preoccupation. Entitled A magyar nyelv török kapcsolatai a honfoglalás elött és az Árpád-korban [The Turkic contacts of the Hungarian language prior to the Conquest and under the Arpad dynasty] it appeared in the fall of 1986. It provides a clue to the reason of many of Ligeti’s earlier works accomplished in fields as disparate as the linguistic relationship between Mongol and Manchu, the mysteries of the Kitan or Jurchen monuments. He was most fortunate to see the appearance of what he certainly considered his magnum opus.
Perhaps regrettably, Ligeti inherited Pelliot’s principal weakness: neither of them was a historian in the proper sense of this term. For Ligeti, as for Pelliot, historical research consisted in the clarification of a number of obscure points, irrespective of their importance for the understanding of the historical process. Yet, one does not get any closer to an understanding of the Mongols’ historical role by establishing the exact day of Chinggis’ birth.
In the last twenty or so years of his life Ligeti had reduced travel to an almost non-existent minimum. To the best of my recollection, he has attended no other meeting of the PIAC save that held in Szeged in 1971 (of which he was the honorary President). In 1968 the PIAC awarded him the Indiana University Prize for Altaic Studies.
For many of us who received our early formation wholly or partly under Ligeti, it is difficult to imagine Altaic studies without him. For over one half of a century one could never have a conversation with a Hungarian colleague without the name of Ligeti being mentioned within the first ten minutes. And in our research we had to follow the advice, which I for one have imparted to many research students in search of the solution of a problem: “Try to find out (in the thousands of pages published by him) whether Ligeti has ever said anything about it. If he had, you will have at least one solid datum on which to build.” In his long life Ligeti proposed few “interpretations”, and some of these may be in need of revision; but he provided us, and generations of scholars to come, with an impressive range of solid facts on which, and with the help of which, further research can thrive.
A giant in Altaic studies has departed. We mourn and grieve and know that his place will never be filled.
(Source: Permanent International Altaistic Conference Newsletter No. 17, June 1987, pp. 2–3)