Gabor Gyani. Identity and the Urban Experience: Fin-de-Siecle Budapest. Translated by Thomas J. DeKornfeld. Wayne: Center for Hungarian Studies and Publications, 2004. ix + 271 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-88033-551-5.
Reviewed by Nathaniel Wood (University of Kansas)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Alexander Vari
Metropolitan Identities in Fin-de-Siècle Budapest
In the urban history of East Central Europe, Budapest holds a special place. While Vienna has long been the source for excellent studies of modernity, modernism, and “crises of identity,” Budapest has perhaps been most fruitful for exploring the social experience of metropolitan life. This is due both to the nature of the city’s modern history and to the quality of its historians. Formally created in 1873 from the unification of Buda, Óbuda, and Pest as a national capital for the ascendant Hungarian state, Budapest rapidly became a major European metropolis, reaching nearly a million inhabitants by 1914. Magyar in its outlook and governance, the city nonetheless had a significant population of Germans, Jews, and Slovaks, as well as lesser agglomerations of Czechs, Poles, Serbs, and Croats. Around 1900, it could boast the Continent’s first underground railway and its largest Parliament building, and was second only to Minneapolis as the largest mill city in the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the late Péter Hanák pictured Budapest as a “workshop” to the “garden” of private escape described in Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. If Vienna was a place of oedipal revolt and modernist angst, Hanák argued, Budapest was more concerned with the everyday concerns of work and development. Both Hanák (The Garden and the Workshop: Essays on the Cultural History of Vienna and Budapest ) and the Budapest-born John Lukacs (Budapest: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture ) have written eloquently about the social experience of the city, yet neither has addressed the lived experience of urbanites as fully as the social historian Gábor Gyáni. Collectively, Gyáni’s fascinating studies of the social and material culture of Budapest constitute the most thoroughgoing portrait of metropolitan life in this region. His newest book, Identity and the Urban Experience, points in a direction the now burgeoning field of urban history in East Central Europe should find quite useful, namely the notion of urban identity.
Gyáni, a senior research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and professor of history at Eötvös Loránd University and the Central European University, approaches the city from the perspective of social history underpinned with urban theory. The titles of his other books in English, Women as Domestic Servants: The Case of Budapest, 1890-1940 (1989) and Parlor and Kitchen: Housing and Domestic Culture in Budapest, 1870-1940 (2002), indicate his interest in social history, gender, and space. In his newest book, he moves from the private sphere of kitchens and parlors to the public sphere of streets, parks, and cafés, while emphasizing the primarily visual aspect of metropolitan existence. In most of his twelve chapters, Gyáni’s general method is to use a discrete source or set of sources--a diary, suicide statistics, divorce records, or formal complaints about “the hoodlum argot” of the “Budapest language”--to illuminate larger issues (often addressed in European or American scholarship) about modern metropolitan life. The result is a book full of interesting case studies, but underdeveloped as a whole. It is particularly strong on the issues of public space and urban spectacle, but, like several of its chapters, lacks a sufficient conclusion to pull its often brilliant strands together.
Identity and the Urban Experience is organized into four parts: “A United City on the Danube,” “The Social History of Urban Public Space,” “Uses and Misuses of Public Space,” and “The Psyche of Urban Personality.” The first part provides a history of fin-de-siècle Budapest, stressing the importance of formal integration in 1873, which helped facilitate not only the creation of a national capital after the Ausgleich (Compromise) in 1867, but also the rapid urbanization of the metropolis. In crisp paragraphs, Gyáni discusses the installation of sewers and waterlines, energy supplies, public health, and telephones, all while noting the city’s comparison to Vienna and Paris, which functioned as models for urban development. He describes the Danube as both a “divider and link,” concluding that many still thought of Buda and Pest separately, not least because the tax imposed for using the bridges discouraged their frequent use among ordinary citizens (p. 16).
Part 2 is composed of a chapter entitled “European and American Perspectives,” which contains numerous references to urban history scholarship from the particularly fruitful period of the 1970s and early 1980s, regarding the creation of public and private spaces as class- and gender-based phenomena, as well as a chapter based largely on the daily diary of a young married couple kept from 1873-76, which serves to illustrate many of the principles outlined in the theoretical chapter that precedes it. Both chapters emphasize the primarily visual aspect of metropolitan life. Gyáni’s discussion of the diary highlights how frequently the Csorba couple experienced the city as theater, going out to look at fires, floods, or festivals. Political parades, regardless of their ostensible purpose, were likewise simply appreciated as nothing more than a form of public entertainment and spectacle. “This is suggested,” Gyáni observes, “by the tone of the entries with their absence of any personal opinion or value judgment” (p. 77). Citing Georg Simmel, Gyáni notes that the Csorbas exhibited “a dullness in distinguishing the value and significance of things,” a dullness he attributes to the nascent development of metropolitan identity and its emphasis on spectacle (p. 78).
The middle section on the “Uses of and Misuses of Public Space” contains several excellent chapters on public space in Budapest. The first explores public parks, their use, and efforts by the authorities to control their use. The next two chapters on “middle-class sociability” investigate two semi-public locales: the café and the department store. Gyáni rejects the exaggerated notion that cafés were dominated by the intelligentsia and artists, a stereotype perpetuated by writers and artists themselves in their writings and memoirs, by depicting the stolidly bourgeois character of most cafés. Consulting the Csorba diary again, he demonstrates that people went to the café to get out of the house in a semi-public place and, above all, to stay informed by reading the press. Significantly, Mrs. Csorba’s use of the café, while always accompanied by her husband, still shows that as early as the 1870s, cafés were not exclusively masculine spaces in Budapest. As for the more feminized space of the department store, Gyáni notes that Budapest’s relatively “immature" consumers--who were most frequently civil servants and professionals who bought things on credit rather than an established commercial bourgeoisie--were ill adapted to the development of retailing, which appearedlater in the Hungarian capital than in Western Europe and the United States (p. 119).
The final chapter of this section, “Rites of Becoming Visible and Invisible,” is a magnificent exposition on metropolitan suicide and suicide attempts. Sadly, Budapest had the highest proportion of suicides of any European city, with figures for the period from unification until World War II averaging between 5.3 and 5.7 per thousand. In 1883, the Public Health Commission speculated that the city’s high rate of suicide was due to mental illness and imitative behavior, and encouraged journalists to exercise restraint in reporting suicides. Gyáni notes that while the commission may have been mistaken about the issue of mental health as a principal reason, their observation about imitation actually had some clout in reference to suicide attempts. Thanks to his close attention to visuality throughout the text, Gyáni’s subtle observation that many attempted suicides were efforts at becoming visible in the crowd of metropolitan strangers is even more effective. Distressed people atop elevated sites, such as bridges or one of the city’s very few tall office buildings, thus made their “entourage” or fellow alienated people aware that their personal problems had become untenable. “Such gestures are, logically, more effective if they are spectacular,” he adds (p. 131). A fire chief’s report from 1927 indicated that such dramatic attempts had become almost routine, yet actual suicides got far less coverage in the press than the “unsuccessful” attempts atop a bridge. (Firemen even got a bonus for rescuing people atop the bridge.) Gyáni undertakes a social analysis of suicide statistics, concluding that those most likely to commit suicide were those who had least control over their destiny: domestic servants among women and industrial apprentices or officials among men. Those who were least socialized in making decisions for themselves, Gyáni speculates, were thus most likely to seek the ultimate extrication from their lot.
Part 4 begins with a chapter entitled “Marriage and Divorce,” which offers an interesting analysis of marriage contracts and divorce statistics, demonstrating the patriarchal dominion implicit in each, but fails to show how this evidence contributes meaningfully to the overall argument of the book. The next four chapters on acculturation, language, visual identity, and “cultural modernism and identity crisis” work much better together. Without asking explicitly, it seems clear that Gyáni seeks to discover how new urban identities were formed in a city composed of a majority of immigrants.
The chapter on acculturation addresses the topic subtly and convincingly, taking advantage of Milton Gordon’s definitions of assimilation in the American context. Gyáni concludes that mass metropolitan culture was less differentiated into high and low spheres than previously thought. Regarding language, he observes that the metropolitan press was a major factor in disseminating the evolving “Budapest language,” which had originally been German and became Magyar, but of course not a standardized version, as it included Germanic, Slavic, and Yiddish words and constructions. New vocabulary was necessary to describe the novel conditions of the day. Complaints about “hoodlum argot” in the 1920s by a pedantic Magyar nationalist prove a useful source for demonstrating the richness of the urban dialect for creating synonyms that thus conveyed shades of meaning. Unfortunately, none of the expressions is translated, but Gyáni tells the reader that “there are many, many words that are designed to indicate or name the peculiar individual characters of metropolitan society. It is hardly an accident that the identification of the ‘stranger’ and the need for orientation among them in this strongly individualized, even atomized urban mass-society forces the individualization of the language and the proliferation of synonyms designed to classify" them (p. 195).
In the following chapter on panoramas and cinema, Gyáni somewhat undercuts his observations on “Budapest language” by asserting that a major reason for the appeal of panoramas and movie houses was the metropolitan environment, which created “little or no opportunity for verbal communication, for talking and listening, [where] the preferred method of obtaining information was the purely visual perception of people and things” (p. 197). One gets his point about the primarily visual nature of urban life, but it seems too stark here; clearly a major part of the linguistic acculturation discussed in the previous two chapters came about not only by reading but also by talking. Gyáni further notes: “Among the organs of metropolitan mass culture in the first half of the twentieth century the visually evocative moving picture was, next to the daily press, the most significant” (p. 202). Photographs from the period, he acknowledges, show that the city was replete with texts. Yet, neither here nor in other chapters, such as the one on cafés that stressed the importance of urban newspaper reading, does Gyáni ever undertake an analysis of the press itself as a source of urban self-identification, as recent studies by Peter Fritzsche (Reading Berlin 1900 ), Vanessa Schwartz(Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris ), or Roshanna Sylvester (Tales of Old Odessa: Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves [2005) have done. It is almost always unfair to critique a book for what it does not say, but I feel that this lacuna limits the text’s overall effectiveness. The popular press was a major factor in the process of urban self-identification in this period.
The final chapter addresses the issue of cultural modernism and crises of identity using Schorske’s tripartite discussion of the city in European thought as the city of virtue, the city of vice, and the city as beyond good and evil. Gyáni’s application of the theory to understand cultural modernism is wonderful, but unfortunately limited primarily to cultural elites. The modernists in Hungary almost completely eschewed the metropolis, because it was insufficiently Hungarian. But what about ordinary citizens? Did they reject the city? In what ways did they follow the Schorskean model of praising and blaming the metropolis? Here, again, reference to the popular press may have helped.
On the whole, this is an insightful and learned book. I can think of no other book on East Central European cities that is better informed on urban theory, and its author’s creative application of those theories to a variety of sources is impressive. Selected chapters, such as the chapter on European and American perspectives, which provides an excellent synthesis on theories of public space, or the chapter on suicide, would be well suited for upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses. The book clearly demonstrates the uses and misuses of public space in the metropolis, while highlighting the particularly visual aspect of modern urban life. For a book so concerned with visual representation, the lack of photos and other images is disappointing, and the failure to analyze the metropolitan press seems another significant oversight. Identity and the Urban Experience points toward but does not quite explicate a vitally important topic: the structure and formation of modern metropolitan identities. Nonetheless, it should prove an essential launching point for urban historians, particularly of this region, in their pursuit of this elusive subject.
. On Vienna, see, for example, Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Knopf, 1981); and Jacques Le Rider, Modernity and Crises of Identity, trans. Rosemary Morris (New York: Continuum, 1993).
. For more on how Budapest became increasingly national, see Robert Nemes, The Once and Future Budapest (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005).
. As studies of nationalism in East Central Europe have begun to wane, scholars are increasingly drawn to the multiethnic diversity and social complexity of the region’s cities. The Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, located in L’viv, is one indication of this new interest in cities of the region, as is the special issue of East Central Europe (2006) dedicated to urban history, which was supported by the center.
. Although Gyáni does not cite Gunther Barth’s City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford, 1980), the topic and, to a lesser extent, technique, of both books are similar.
. Carl E. Schorske, "The Idea of the City in European Thought: Voltaire to Spengler," in Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 37-56.
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