Ismerős idegen terep – Irodalomtörténeti tanulmányok és bírálatok

TitleIsmerős idegen terep – Irodalomtörténeti tanulmányok és bírálatok
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialTakáts, József

Title translated:
Familiar Strange Field – Studies and Criticisms in Literary History

PublisherBudapest: Kijárat Kiadó
ISSNISBN 978 963 9529 55 7
Review year


Full Text

This collection of studies by József Takáts, a scholar of 19th century Hungarian literary and political texts in the first place, begins with the piece titled “Saját Hitek” (“Own Beliefs”) and ends with Takáts’ speech delivered on the occasion of his reception of the Martinkó prize [for his article “Nyolc érv az elsődleges kontextus mellett” (“Eight Arguments in Favor of Primary Context”), included here]. In between these there are seventeen pieces that appear under the four chapter titles Interdiszciplináris találkozások (Interdisciplinary Encounters), Kultuszkutatás(Researching Cults), 19. század (19th Century) and Bírálatok (Criticisms) that were written over the course of ten years, between 1995 and 2004.
In “Own Beliefs,” his first, crucially important piece József Takáts, who is in his forties, claims that his theoretical questions are those of a practicing historian dealing with 19th century Hungarian literature, and are therefore much more methodological (or practical) than philosophical in nature. In the first place, he is trying to answers the questions “how are they doing it?” and “how can it be done?” He argues that the test of any theoretical reflection (and thus also of literary theory) is in its possible applications, in the actual practices of the historians. In his view, the currently existing gap in Hungary between the two groups and modes of discussing literature is both artificial and problematic. Moreover, Takáts professes to be a methodological relativist: while he is passionately interested in methods, he perceives that the relations between theories and methods on the one hand, and research practices and results on the other, are often ironic. In his perception the quality of the one cannot assure the quality of the other.
Takáts’ interests have become much more interdisciplinary in recent years. He aims to analyze literary evidence in contextualist fashion (the literary works as they are surrounded by acts, institutions, conventions, as they are used), to explore the conventions of how a text was written and read, how conventional language use was at the time. On the most general level, his project is to relate language and society, and he claims (in agreement with Peter Burke) that we have all become historians of culture (in the broad sense of the term).
In this interdisciplinary practice, self-interpretations assume central place for Takáts. The inspirational role of interpretative and post-rhetorical turn cultural anthropology can easily be detected in this. He wishes to understand the perspective of the agents, which he conceives as decisively social in nature. They can be best approached through the explorations of the synchronic conventions of using signs. Instead of canonical exploration, what, as he claims, mostly literary historians (knowingly or unknowingly) do, he prefers to conduct “strictly historical ones.” This means that he does not want to deal with the history of something, but rather with a situation in the past, with an act or a text – viewing the past not as the past of the present.
In the first section, Interdisciplinary Encounters, Takáts begins with an exploration of the impact anthropological studies on culture and power (of four kinds: Geertzian interpretative anthropology, German historical anthropology and microhistory, the textual-rhetoric turn in anthropology and the research direction centered on the question of power) could have on literary history. In Takáts’ view, these could be fruitful in a number of ways since firstly, they can create distance between the researcher and his/her object, can help in seeing the familiar as strange and make us skeptical towards grand, homogenizing theories. Secondly, texts can be explored as achievements that are collective in nature. Thirdly, new curiosity can be expressed in the action of agents that are related to literary texts and their voices. Fourthly, a non-aesthetic perspective on literature can be attained. This anthropological perspective can also be useful when interpreting research directions and methodological choices. Takáts discusses these in relation to the current studies of literary cults and the writings on the history of criticism (that focus on norms). On the other hand, the empirical study of the allegories, fiction-like mechanisms and transcendental story that organize works of literary history is still ahead. His conclusion includes the claim that interpretation consists of the choice/attachment of a context to a text or an act.
Takáts adds a linguistic part to this study on anthropological perspective and literary history in his next one, where he argues for the value of social linguistic and the social history of language when studying literature. In his presentation of eight different ways (all drawn from neighboring disciplines) of justifying the value of studying the primary context of texts, he claims in conclusion that the lonely voices of some of the dead can reach us, but the universe of voices surrounding theirs barely do. Therefore, the task is to try to reconstruct this primary context as much as possible in order to understand the pronunciations of these otherwise lonely voices.
In a case study, instead of the usual way of paying attention to facts and logic, Takáts explores the metaphors and narratives of five works of major literary historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, namely of János Horváth, Aladár Schöpflin, László Németh, György Rónay and Aladás Komlós, which are all works presenting literary history as progress with definite meaning – that they were aiming to spell out to their readers. This meant a selective understanding, and grand determinations and epochs were the real actors in their stories, while the primary criteria of assessment were “the expression of the national essence” and/or contemporariness (with Europe) – which is still the case today, so Takáts. This conception regularly led to the choice of an author, work or group that represented one and/or the other primary criteria, and the rest could then be explained around this center of gravity.
In Hungarian scholarship on literature, researches on literary cults have been among the most fruitful innovations in the past two decades (Dávidházi, Margócsy and Tverdota have published significant works in this vein, among others). Studies on cults have stressed the societal embeddedness of literature and aimed to explore its institutional context (instead of its presumed essence). In his piece “Researching Cults and New Theories,” with which the second section of this collection begins, Takáts claims that this development has made Hungarian literary history more self-reflexive, it increased the historiographical curiosity of literary historians and the tone of some newer works are more ironic. On the other hand, Takáts’ opinion is that the frequently used analogy with religious cults has proved restrictive and that this strong interpretative perspective on literary cults is too homogenizing. He recommends more attention to individual and group strategies, to unusual uses of literature, local actors and individual events to balance this one-sidedness. He wishes for a presentation of literature through the conflicts and permanent negotiations, in other words the integration of questions of power and appropriations (with national appropriations crucial among these) into this research area. In short, next to the broadly cultural, political reflection would also be advisable. Moreover, Takáts claims that even though initially this new perspective also meant the belief in a strict separation between what is cultic and what is critical discourse (and thereby also in the need to evade the cultic and progressively move towards the critical), in recent years the unavoidability of the cultic has been more and more often recognized and this progressivist view was more and more abandoned.
In his study on the nationalization of space and time (i.e. the creation of homogeneous national space and linear national time), Takáts presents a perspective on the nation as a community of memory, for the emergence and maintenance of which various institutions and processes of socialization are responsible. Taking this perspective, one can see the cult of literary authors as part of this process of socialization, though this does not mean that local, sub-cultural or group interests can be overlooked, and simply subsumed under the category of the national. In another study, titled “The Construction of National Culture and the Cults,” Takáts remarks on the standard recurrence of certain formulas in modern political language, for which he identifies three sources: the Bible, ancient classics and Hungarian history. He argues that next to disseminated-unifying cults, which are crucial for nationalism and its “officially sanctioned reason,” there are also exclusivist-hierarchical ones worthy of attention. He also points to how the technological and institutional preconditions for and means of direct governance coincide with the emergence of disseminated-unifying cults.
The third section, Takáts’ six pieces on the 19th century begins with his presentation on Hungarian political languages (meaning vocabularies and concepts, but also themes, arguments and values as well as preconceptions and beliefs, as he defines it) in the early 19th century. He (tentatively) distinguishes between four, namely republican, that of cultural nationalism, the (third) one based on references to the ancient constitution and the (fourth) one based on the idea of enlightened governing, and presents each of them in turn. While paying close attention to the contemporary meaning of terms, Takáts traces the emergence of the idea of history in the modern sense as well as the rise of nationalism. He claims that references to the French Revolution gradually replaced the ones to ancient history. These political languages mixed, were rewritten, survived and left traces in other ones. Later on, all of these political languages could be employed in a variety of ways, for instance to justify liberal or conservative political stances. In more general terms, while the employment of a certain political language correlates with the political position taken in concrete debates, this correlation is not a strict one. Takáts concludes that it is more fortunate if intellectual historians do not ask what political historians tend to (what worldview or position does a certain text take?), but rather: what are the terms, arguments, formulas, “grand narratives” that a text employs?
Let me briefly present three more of the research articles in the third section. In an intriguing piece Takáts traces the origin of concepts in some writings of János Arany from the late 1850s and early 1860s, aiming to discover how the legal concept of consuetude derogate legiappeared in his literary criticism and to show how legal history can illuminate how his theory on the origins of epics emerged. The concrete answer cannot be asserted, but Takáts does have two plausible theories. This connection between legal history and literary criticism might sound unusual to us, but it would not have to Arany’s contemporaries, since both were conceived as expressions of the people (das Volk) and the expressions used in the two cases frequently overlapped. Moreover, it can be asserted that Arany’s theory of the work of the linguist resembles that of the author of epics and collectors of folktales. In another piece, Takáts analyzes the mixed vocabulary of Pál Gyulai (one of the most important Hungarian scholar of literature in the 19th century) and his attempts at canonizing (norms of literary criticism, principles of genres, single works as well as the periods of literature) on the basis of his memorial speeches that were delivered in thoroughly rhetorical veins. They were aimed at elevating their audiences and calling on them to turn their feelings into the cult of higher idea(l)s, the stoic ideal of man in particular who is, in Gyulai’s interpretation, at the service of his nation and not minding his individual tribulations overly much. Takáts explains that most of Gyulai’ norms had ethical contents since according to his convictions, only wise and virtuous men could be good artists or critiques. Reflecting on a piece by László Arany written in the late 1870s on the phenomena of feuilletons and tourism, Takáts shows the possibility of two interpretations of his discourse on tourists (metaphorically called genus migrants in the article): sociological (the bourgeoisie) and/or ethnicized (Jews). He also points to the fact that Arany’s piece is based on oppositions (of values) that are not spelled out (only one side is presented which is contrasted with something else that must have been tacit knowledge), but can be guessed or historically reconstructed (the latter of which is much more difficult, goes without saying). In this piece, Takáts also displays his firm grasp of social historical findings and the discourse of Hungarian social history.
In the last section titled Criticisms, Takáts discusses the convictions, norms and values of Béla G. Németh (who is depicted here as a progressivist who believes in the autonomy of literature and its role in Bildung), contrasts them with his own (without claiming the latter ones to be in any ways superior) and criticizes Németh on a few concrete points as well as for his proneness to take stances and formulate moral judgments. In Takáts’ second piece, Gangó’s book on József Eötvös in emigration is under strutiny. Takáts claims that Gangó wrote a narrative of Eötvös’ gradual development (his “road as a thinker”), using previously neglected evidence (discussing his work in its Austrian context and employing German scholarship) in this valuable work, but committed the mistake of assuming and presenting too much coherence in his essentially teleological story of how the views of Eötvös evolved. Takáts also debates whether the attempt of “uncovering views” is the right one, claiming that it is the position people assume in texts (in relation to others, in debates) that is worthy of exploration. While being critically disposed, this piece also stresses Takáts’ appreciation of Gangó’s work. The third one is perhaps the most significant of these studies, which deals with the school around Ernő Kulcsár Szabó and their recent publication addressing several of the novelties of the “cultural turn.” The members of this school published important studies in hermeneutical and deconstructivist veins, and have aimed to fuse the two in recent years. In this significant piece on these important and controversial authors, Takáts shows that recent theoretical innovations manifesting in current (interdisciplinary) cultural studies (of which he provides an informative and sophisticated panoramic view too in this piece) have passed them by, since they remained focused on the textual questions raised by literature (the idea of the autonomy of which literary theorists of their kind require). This asynchrony Takáts finds all the more remarkable since members of the school have been proudly claiming their up-to-date theoretical expertise and recurrently polemicized with “locals” (accused others of provincialism and worse, at times presenting unjustified, negative views on the work of literary historians). He sees their new volume as a form of admission that they have not been in touch with recent international developments, but have moved in a different, textualist direction. In the volume under scrutiny by Takáts, they are presenting novelties here, which they have read about but never applied in practice, and at times they seem ignorant about previous Hungarian reception.
In sum, Takáts’ thorough reading of a number of important Hungarian and international authors (many of them responsible for sophisticated innovations, such as Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, Pierre Bourdieu, Quentin Skinner, Edward Said or Mihail Bahtin) has enabled him to develop diverse expertise. His concerns on the pages of this collection are manifold and his intellectual agenda impressively inclusive and integrative. Moreover, not only does this collection show him as an able discussant of theories and methods from various disciplines (sociology, history of political ideas, philosophy of science, social linguistic, cognitive psychology, etc.) and as someone who can make valuable recommendations in terms of methods as well as topics while assessing the value (the fruits as well as the shortcomings) of research directions in a balanced manner, such ideas are frequently presented in connection with his research practice, since Takáts does not believe in universally valid methods and theoretical clarifications in abstractio. He also rejects the “fetishistic focus” on concepts and bases his pieces on argumentation. His clear prose allows him to elucidate matters that are often complex. In short, this is an excellent and thought-provoking collection that offers much more than its somewhat misleading subtitle indicates: it is among the most serious attempts to pursue interdisciplinary intellectual and cultural history in Hungary.