12. 12. 2011. 07:49

Comparative Hungarian Cultural Studies (Totosy-Vasvári eds.)

Twenty-six essays on Hungarian literature, art, history, gender and cultural studies, written by Hungarian and American scholars on topics ranging from Márai's Embers to Vámbéry and Dracula; from Michael Curtiz to Art Nouveau. - A review.

This volume of essays on Hungarian studies, published as part of the Purdue University Press monograph series in Comparative Cultural Studies, consists of twenty-six essays written by scholars from various academic fields (literature, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, gender studies), working at academic institutions both in and outside Hungary. The essays are grouped in five parts according to their topics: history and theory; literature; the arts; gender studies; and cultural studies on contemporary Hungary.

Part One (addressing history and theory) starts with a programmatic essay by the two editors, both distinguished scholars of Hungarian background whose work has greatly contributed to the dissemination of Hungarian literature in the English-speaking world. In their essay, Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek and Louise O. Vasvári outline a theoretical framework for comparative Hungarian cultural studies. The editors claim that a comparative cultural approach has hitherto been only rarely applied to Hungarian and Central European studies, for several reasons, some ideological – the intellectual legacy of dictatorship, the supercilious attitude of some Hungarian scholars towards American scholarship and the resistance towards being treated as a postcolonial society –, others material, such as the lack of resources due to financial strictures in Hungarian academic life. András Kiséry’s (The City College of New York) article is an excellent example of how enlightening and novel such an approach can be at its best. The article discusses the work of two Hungarian scholars, the literary historian Tivadar (Theodor) Thienemann and the historian István Hajnal, both of whose work anticipated much later scholarly interest in the materiality of the text: the technological and social aspects of literature and history as central to their textual meaning rather than as mere extrinsic factors. In discussing Thienemann’s and Hajnal’s work as well as two letters written by Thienemann to Marshall McLuhan, Kiséry shows that these Hungarian scholars’ socio-historical perspective resulted in a much more nuanced view than the rigid binary structure of orality and literacy in McLuhan and Walter Ong, to whom Thienemann and Hajnal are frequently compared. David Mandler’s (Stuyvesant High School, New York) article outlines the career of the eminent and intriguing scholar, Arminius Vámbéry (1832–1913), who was born in a poor Jewish family in Hungary, and rose to the status of a well-respected authority on the Ottoman Empire in London. Mandler focuses on how Vámbéry’s Jewish origins influenced his views on the Turkic peoples, on the Eastern origin of the Hungarians and on his conviction that Hungary’s future depended on ethnic inclusivity. He also discusses the influence of Vámbéry’s persona on Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Steven Jobbitt (California State University Fullerton) discusses Ferenc Fodor’s monumental work, The Geography of Hungarian Existence (1946), an attempt to apply a “geo-psychological” and nationalist approach to geography, informed by the need to re-imagine the nation after the cataclysm of the Treaty of Trianon and the two world wars. Jobbitt emphasizes that Fodor rejected the positivist approach, which he perceived as devoid of spiritual and moral elements, but was at odds as well with the conservative-nationalist project. Louise O. Vasvári’s essay on Alaine Polcz’s Asszony a fronton (translated as One Woman in the War and as A Wartime Memoir: Hungary 1944-1945) takes a new approach to this important work by a writer who is also a clinical psychologist involved with the terminally ill about her wartime experiences, which included repeated mass rape by Soviet soldiers – a traumatic experience for a whole generation of Hungarian women, suppressed and silenced to this day in Hungarian society. Informed by a feminist reading, Vasvári examines the treatment of the body in Polcz’s text “as both produced by and productive of ideology”, and arrives at the conclusion that contrary to current reading, in its fragmented representation of public vs. private body and its narrative of victimhood rather than agency, Polcz’s novel is closer to spiritual autobiography than to feminist writing.

Part Two (addressing literature and culture) begins with an essay by Györgyi Horváth (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest) in which she maintains that discourses and theories of literary criticism reflecting upon political and social conditions of literature tend to be silenced or marginalized in present-day Hungary. Arguments used against such discourses include the charge of Marxism or Western thinking, regarded by some as a threat to ‘authentic’ Hungarian culture. Horváth, however, sees this tendency as rooted in the socialist past: a continuation of the depoliticized, purist, formalist attitude to literature prevalent in the 1980s as a strategy to avoid political conflicts in the age of Communist rule. Lilla Tőke (Rochester Institute of Technology) offers a new interpretation of the Central European absurd as a form of realism. Analysing works by István Örkény, Jenő Rejtő and Lajos Parti Nagy, among others, Tőke shows that as the 20th-century experience of political, economic and social reality in this region was characterized by fragmentation, incoherence and nonsense, the absurd is a fully sensible reaction to this reality. Peter Sherwood (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), himself an eminent translator of Hungarian literature, discusses the German and English versions of Sándor Márai’s Embers. Translated into English from German, Embers became an instant success in the English-speaking world. The double translation, normally frowned upon by critics and translators, seems to have contributed to the success of the novel in this case, claims Sherwood. By eliminating the mannerisms of the original Hungarian text – a feature of Márai’s style that some readers like, but others loathe – the English translation became, in his view, the most readable of the three versions. In the final essay of Part Two Ilana Rosen (Ben Gurion University, Israel), relying on the oral lore of veteran Israelis of Carpatho-Rusyn origins, analyses narratives of Central and East European Jewish communities and the strategies employed by Jews in exile to cope with their ever-changing borders and their Rusyn, Ruthenian and Hungarian neighbours.

Part Three, addressing “other arts,” starts with an essay by Éva Federmayer (Eötvös Loránd University) in which she discusses the “ragtime culture” of millennial Budapest, particularly the appearance of internationally acclaimed black American vaudeville stars in orpheums and their racialized and gendered descriptions by contemporaries. Ivan Sanders (Columbia University) discusses Viennese operetta at the beginning of the 20th century, focusing especially on hidden Jewish-themed subtexts. Although musically, composers of Jewish origin tended to draw upon Gypsy music, they did not use Jewish folk music as inspiration; as assimilated Jews it was “too close for comfort” for them. However, Sanders demonstrates that their Jewishness surfaced on a thematic level, for example, in figures who resembled the stereotype of the parvenu. Catherine Portuges (University of Massachussets) draws a portrait of the Hollywood film director Michael Curtiz (1888–1962), from his little-known Hungarian career to his work as a director who left a strong mark on American film and directed such masterpieces as Casablanca, Mildred Pierce or Yankee Doodle Dandy. Debra Pfister (University of Texas, Dallas) explores the life and work of the painter Imre Ámos (1907–1944) in terms of a “struggle between the need for commercial success and self-expression”, in which eventually the need for self-expression prevailed as Ámos turned towards Hasidic myths and dreams of his childhood. Megan Brandow-Faller (Brooklyn College, City University of New York) discusses the ideological struggle around Art Nouveau (Ödön Lechner’s buildings, Vilmos Zsolnay’s ceramics and József Rippl-Rónay’s paintings) in the context of a search for a genuinely Hungarian visual culture. In this context, Art Nouveau was deemed by conservatives as conflicting with Hungarian tastes, and celebrated by its proponents as just the opposite: a uniquely Hungarian national style, conceptualizing art and life as an organic whole rather than a motley assembly of eclectic, borrowed and decontextualized motifs, as well as being a style that drew inspiration from the Hungarians’ Eastern origins rather than merely imitating the West.

In Part Four, in which questions pertaining to gender studies in the Hungarian context are discussed, Erzsébet Barát (József Attila University, Szeged) draws upon feminist scholarship, in particular Judith Halberstam’s concept of ‘kinging’, applying it to an analysis of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and lesbian billboards promoting participation at the 2002 elections in Hungary. Barát shows how difficult it is “to subvert and critique the dominant logic of sexualization of women’s bodies, clothed or otherwise”. Katalin Medvedev (University of Georgia) discusses the economic, social and ideological aspects of women’s clothing in the US and in Hungary in the 1950s, and arrives at the conclusion that “while in the US, social and political forces, as well as economic development helped turn women into clotheshorses, in Hungary the same forces turned women into workhorses.” Psychologist and literary critic Anna Borgos (Institute of Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) examines the case of Sándor/Sarolta Vay, a cross-dresser in fin-de-siècle Hungary, who was born a woman but lived her life as a man. The case of Vay fascinated the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who devoted a lengthy study to him/her in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), and most recently Hungarian writer Zsuzsa Rakovszky, who wrote a novel on Vay entitled VS (2011). Nóra Schleicher’s (Budapest College of Communication and Business) article examines language use, especially the use of swear words and English borrowings, by women managers in Hungary, analysing the message the users intend to convey – honesty in the former, expertise in the latter case.

Part Five contains essays on various aspects of contemporary Hungary. John Joseph Cash (Herman B. Wells Library of Indiana University) discusses the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution in Hungary, an event that is still largely contested and appropriated by various groups for various reasons. Cash considers the 2006 commemoration a failed attempt by the then current government. Kata Zsófia Vincze’s (Eötvös Loránd University) study throws light on the causes of the Jewish renaissance of post-1989 Hungary by placing contemporary phenomena in a historical context, and thus explaining the frustration of many parents – who strove to hide their Jewishness in post-Holocaust, communist Hungary – at seeing their children reintegrating into various, religious or cultural Jewish communities. Vincze discerns two waves of renaissance: the first centered around “coming out”, whereas the second as part of a larger, hip trend of the “cult of being different”. Ryan Michael Kehoe (Rice University) analyses a Hungarian cult film, Antal Nimród’s Kontroll and László Krasznahorkai’s novel War and War as representing acts of resistance and subversion against ‘necropower’ – a notion introduced by Achille Mbembe for technologies of domination resulting in the creation of death worlds and in conferring upon people the status of the living dead. Kehoe also discusses to what extent post-1989 Hungary can be considered as a postcolonial nation, caught between a past dominated by the Soviet Union and a future determined by Western powers, and involved in a struggle of regional identification (as a ‘Central’ vs. ‘East European’ nation) – a status that warrants a transitological approach to Hungary. Erika Sólyom’s (Eötvös Loránd University – Corvinus University, Budapest) article will be appreciated by any non-native Hungarian speaker who has ever tried to address Hungarian people of various ages and coming from various social strata. The article gives the uninitiated reader a glimpse into the complicated address system of Hungarian (English you has six equivalents in Hungarian, three pairs of two indicating the singular and plural number as well as various  degrees of formality) and analyses the transition from formal to informal from the socio-linguistic point of view. Sólyom contrasts informal address patterns of the communist and the post-1989 era, with the former being manifestations of a forced egalitarianism and the latter due to a shift towards a Western-style democratic political system. László Kürti (University of Miskolc) analyses Hungarian media images of the Roma, focusing on a “moronic mockumentary” broadcast on Hungarian TV featuring Roma musicians and a show featuring Győzike, one of these musicians. Kürti shows how Hungarian pop culture is increasingly dominated by ethnocentric and sexist elements and how ethnic stereotyping is used for profit maximization. Lajos Császi (Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) and Mary Gluck (Brown University) discuss the reception in Budapest of the Cow Parade, an exciting event of twenty-first century cosmopolitan life and participatory art. Sadly, they note that the Budapest exhibit “was one of the smallest among metropolitan centers, a clear sign of a lack of corporate interest”. Agata Anna Lisiak analyses the official city websites of Budapest and Prague and focuses on the strategies these two cities employed in reinventing themselves after 1989. The concluding essay of the volume was written by one of the editors, Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, and it is the one in which the ideological commitment that the editors posit in the introduction is most strongly felt. Discussing the attitude of Hungarians and Austrians towards Jews and the Roma, Tötösy condemns the essentialist discourse of Hungarian media and of certain parts of the population.

Reading this collection of essays of high academic standard, yet only rarely making use of overly technical academic language, was both thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable. Although the topics are highly divergent, many of them seem to come back to the same problems and challenges of contemporary Hungarian society, addressing them from different angles and placing them into perspective. The volume comes complete with a very useful selected bibliography for Hungarian studies. I have only two minor criticisms: some of the essays had an inordinate number of spelling mistakes that a quick reading would certainly have been able to detect and correct. Also, it is an unusual and (to me) somewhat annoying practice that the paragraph about the author at the end of each article begins with a full reference to the article one has just read. These small imperfections apart, this volume is by all means a valuable and unique contribution to Hungarian studies.

Comparative Hungarian Cultural Studies
Edited by Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek and Louise O. Vasvári
West Lafayette, Ind: Purdue University Press, 2011


Ágnes Orzóy

Tags: Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, Louise O. Vasvári