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In a series of mid-twentieth century essays the Hungarian historian, István Bibó, attempted to explain the blindness and irresponsibility that had characterized the interwar politics of the Central European states—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary—and led them to catastrophe. In doing so he proposed a new concept, that of political hysteria. Bibó’s central hypothesis was that when a community fails to find within itself the means or energy to deal with a problem that challenges, if not its existence, then at least its way of being and self-image, it may be tempted to adopt a peculiar defensive ploy. It will substitute a fictional problem, which can be mediated purely through words and symbols, for the real one that it finds insurmountable. In grappling with the former, the community can convince itself that it has successfully confronted the latter. It experiences a sense of relief and thus feels itself able to carry on as before. Anthropologists have explained the magical practices of ‘primitive’ societies along similar lines. Communities which feel themselves defenceless before a nature that they cannot control will people it with invisible powers—gods, djinns, spirits—that are its masters. At a stroke, these communities provide themselves with a means not just to understand the forces of nature but to affect them, by propitiating their gods with sacrifices and incantations.
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