Relatív történelem

TitleRelatív történelem
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialGyáni, Gábor

Title translated:
Relative History. Series: Historia Mundi

PublisherTypotex: Budapest
ISSNISBN 978 963 9664 39 5
Review year


Full Text

This new collection of studies by Gábor Gyáni, one of the most significant Hungarian social historians with an inclination for theoretical reflection (unfortunately far from common among historians), includes fifteen of his writings on diverse matters, alongside an introductory piece. They were originally published in various organs in the years 2002 to 2006 (with the exception of one study that appears here for the first time). Relatív történelem is divided into three sections titled Cultic PastCollective Memory of the Past and Historian’s Discourse on the Past. Though thematically diverse, the studies included in this volume are unified in their purpose of clarifying the central concept of relative history – a particularly contested issue in post-communist times when the newly gained freedoms and institutionalized pluralist environment makes various forms of relativizations (of the Truth, of historian’s objectivity, of historical progress, of various conventional grand narratives, etc.) the (at times normatively conceived) goal of some, while at the same time these relativizations are (again, often normatively) contested and even rejected by others.

Gyáni aims to present his ideas on the matter not only on a theoretical level, but with the aim of presenting empirical proofs and “tangible” (falsifiable therefore properly scientific) statements as well (p.18). In other words, one of the major purposes of the book is to introduce and assess recent theories (of the broadly conceived postmodernist vein, which no doubt covers rather heterogeneous innovations; see Gyáni’s list on pp.187-8) that have been too infrequently understood and too often criticized by historians, and not only in Hungary. In his “briefest possible” summary of the postmodern conception of history, Gyáni presents it as the recognition that (1) our awareness of things can only emerge through mediation, (2) our knowledge of reality (as a reference) is constructed, and (3) form and content, utterance and meaning are codetermining each other (p.189, see also p.220).

The introduction presents thoughts on the connections between the writing of history and moral judgments, an area of recent contentions and debate (p.8) that, among other things, the freedom of interpretation and representation have brought, raising the question of relativism and its limits with urgency. Gyáni claims that the meaning and sense of the past is created by posterity and used for its own purposes. It should not be viewed as something inherent in the past (p.11). He also states that if we wanted not only to describe and explain the past but also to understand it, we cannot escape using judgments (p.12). In other words, moral responsibility is an almost self-evident obligation for historians (even if it tends to be emphasized less than it would be justified) (p.14). In this introductory piece, Gyáni presents some of Hayden White’s views and his exchange with Dirk Moses in particular. White claims that neutral, objective, purely scientific inquiries are in opposition to the raising of the existentially relevant questions (p.18). Moreover, (correct) judgment depends on the choice of (the right) values not on the accuracy of memories – here Gyáni (approvingly) quotes Todorov.

Unfortunately, there is not sufficient space to cover the main points of each study in a review of this length, therefore I decided to select some of the crucial pieces for one paragraph summaries and added shorter descriptions of several other ones. Gyáni, in his piece on the contemporary dilemmas of Hungarian historiography (“A mai magyar történetírás dilemmái”) states that three factors besides the ideological and political changes have been impacting the profession with similar force: the change of generations, the strengthening of national consciousness and the facts of cultural globalization (p.286). He describes the mainstream in negative terms, claiming their focus is on a narrowly conceived national history, the writing of which is often accompanied by “naïve realist” positivism (p.287). In his view, they have preferred to refrain from self-reflection and have not shown much openness to innovation (p.291). He perceives social and cultural history as scientific subcultures that have some generational coherence (the middle generation and even younger people) and their own forums (the journals Korall and Aetas, and ELTE BTK Atelier and Hajnal István Kör are mentioned) (p.292). They have altered the temporal and spatial frames of interpretation, and stand in opposition to traditional national historiography. Historical studies have been enriched by new subfields of historical study ambitioning contextualization and understanding (microhistory, Alltagsgeschichte, etc.), and some other disciplines, notably cultural anthropology, psychology and literary theory, specifically manifesting in the raising of questions related to memory and narrativity (pp.295-6).

In his new piece on modernity and tradition in the metropolitan past (“Modernitás és hagyomány a nagyvárosi múltban”), Gyáni’s thesis is that modern metropolitan development is deeply rooted in the historical world of traditions and the two are constantly implicating each other, making the modern metropolis a mix of revolutionary innovation and historical archaisms. Moreover, the societal reception of modernity was in no sense automatic or general. This overall, theoretical claim he presents in three empirically verifiable ways, on the level of habitual (deep routines and their manifestations in bodily practices), cultural (architectural and spatial practices) and communicative memory (the use of space, in particular the public spaces “quasi-sanctified” by ritual) (p.85). Here Gyáni has to draw on various evidences, more concretely, he writes on the cases of the use of public transportation (tramways in particular), the construction of modern and historicist Vienna and Budapest, and the history of cultic “national locations” in Hungary (Mohács, Ópusztaszer, Hősök tere).

In his piece on the role of contextualization in the writing of history (“Kontextus és kontextualizáció a történetírásban”), which arguably amounted to a veritable contextualist turn in recent decades, Gyáni recommends the constant awareness of the exceptional importance of contexts, without making it into a sole method and giving up on transcontextual requirements (p.259). The article has an excellent short overview of the meaning of the erosion of anticontextualist convictions (that were related to the idea of Universal History), the debate between textualists (particularly LaCapra and the weaker formulation of Spiegel) and contextualists, and idea of contextualization on the micro level (particularly the ideas of Levi). Gyáni takes a middle position, which might be called supportive but critical: recognizing how needed the contextualist way of historicization is and how refined it can be, but at the same time presenting four point on the concept’s status (pp.252-3) and calling attention to six possible shortcomings of relying on “primary context” (as proposed by József Takáts in his consciously one-sided presentation in favor of it) (pp.254-8).

In the study on the possibility of writing the history of a battle, the “historically/nationally decisive one” of Mohács (a Hungarian trope that plays a role akin to that of the battle of Kosovopolje for Serbian nationalists, though the recent implications of these historical myths have no doubt been very different), Gyáni provides the reader with some of his metahistorical reflection (“Elbeszélhető-e egy csata hiteles története? Metatörténeti megfontolások”). He discusses the scarcity of sources on the battle (there is only a single primary source in Hungarian), and asks the questions concerning the reliability of the witness and the possibilities of historical narration (p.221). He compares two tried ways of discussing this battle (that of the modest and restrained historian, who relies on his/her “scientific fantasy” only moderately, as illustrated by Szakály, and the normative type of writing based on the ambition to apply models, as done by Perjés), and finds both of them problematic, though prefers the first over the second, since even though the latter appears more complete, it is further from the sources (or the one Hungarian source in this case). Description and explanation cannot be correct in the absence of reliance on sources, let alone their refutation – these are faulty practices Gyáni believes Perjás committed (pp.231-8). Gyáni propagates a third, emphatic way, as practiced by Georges Duby (who merits a lengthier discussion in another study, see “A megtapasztalt és elbeszélt múlt,” pp.192-7), which means taking seriously the narration of the event (the writing of which creates it) and identifying with the participants, also in order to reflect on the larger problem of societal development and the development of its system of values simultaneously (p.239).

Furthermore, there is a study on the dilemmas of the research on literary cults (“Az irodalmi kultuszkutatás dilemmái”). Gyáni sees this research direction (that can be seen both as part of and beyond literary history) as in some ways parallel to social history (from among the subfields of the discipline of history), especially in them both being conscious challenges to the mainstream (pp.22-23). Gyáni discusses the early stages of this area of research when authors began to draw on insights from anthropology and religious studies. He presents the recent rejection of the stark early opposition between cultic and critical by a younger, second generation of scholars and the spreading of skepticism, also otherwise central to postmodernism. Moreover, Gyáni proposes a rethinking of literary cults in the framework of modern myths, with a focus on the intriguing and many-sided (cultural) phenomenon of nationalism in particular – instead of referring back to the somewhat sterile conception of (the “anthropological given” of) the longing for transcendence, it should be replaced with more historical sensitivity for discontinuities (pp.33-36).

Following these one paragraph long presentations of five studies, let me continue with briefer summaries of some of the remaining pieces. In his piece on the myth and memory of 1956 (“Az ’56-mítosz, az emlékezet tere”), Gyáni points to the lack of continuity of the memory frames of the revolutionary elites and their subordinate political positions after 1989 (p.164) – the opposite of which have been decisive in the canonization of 1848 after 1867 (p.160). Still, he maintains that the widespread talk of how dead and empty the memory of 1956 has become is senseless (p.166), since it remains an example of “hot memory” – the continuous contest over its meaning and the plurality of voices are no reason to worry, rather they assure the continued presence of 1956 as a myth (in the sense of a source of meaning, arguably even of fundamental importance). Writing on the memory canons of the Habsburg past of Hungary, Gyáni provides a panoramic overview of views, discussing how exceptionally important the nature of these views were in Hungarian political culture (i.e. how strongly political positions correlated with views on the Monarchy, the latter potentially serving as a litmus test of the former), and pointing to the strong, though not mechanical connection between politics and historical conceptions, hoping that this politicized discourse of history and historicizing discourse of politics can be put behind (pp.122-3). In his piece on national identity and identity politics in Hungary, Gyáni opines that the nation would survive longest as a cultural community (p.132) and points to the slightly schizophrenic nature of Hungarian national consciousness around the turn of the millennium (since cultural integration relativizes national identity in Hungary, while ethnic solidarity with Hungarians in other countries point in the opposite direction) (p.135). Gyáni applies the concept of “framework story” to analyze the narratives of Hungarian (1956er) émigrés (p.141) and finds ample evidence to call these narratives subjective and view them as based in the present (i.e. of the making of the interview) both in objective and subjective ways. At the same time, believes in the importance of using such testimonies [especially about their émigré experiences, where they are invaluable (since irreplaceable) sources] and the need for historians to conduct hermeneutical practices, but he judges a critical, reflected approach to oral history material to be necessary (p.154). In his piece on historical novels and their “moral lesson” for the historian, Gyáni presents the intriguing history of the relation between fact and fiction and rethinks it (in line with the current “climate of opinion”), bringing the possible and the realistic closer to each other. He points to the benefits of replacing the idea of the true with that of the realistic and using the concept of the imaginary (Iser), since literature and historical science, though by no means identical, share some important affinities (pp.273-8).

In conclusion, Gyáni competently presents recent theoretical innovations that can make historical studies more sophisticated by problematizing and refining our understanding of language (language of the historian as well as his/her sources), the questions of narration, issues such as nationalism, memory, tradition, myth or time dimensions. In several studies, Gyáni draws on a number of significant authors in particular, notably Hayden White, Georges Duby, Ernest Gellner and Jan Assmann. Not only are these theoretical exercises delivered in clear (and, what is more, nicely written) prose, they are at times also successfully connected to research practices and problems. While he approvingly presents much of the relativizing tendencies, he remains a “relative relativist” – to use the tongue-in-cheek expression of Hayden White. Gyáni maintains how crucial the commitment to speak the truth and the difference between truth and falsehood are, even if he propagates the enrichment of our vision of the past through a multiplicity of perspectives and the employment of alternative contexts. In other words, he is in favor cultivating a plurality of takes on the truth to thereby successfully detotalize history (pp.218-9), but warns against the dangers of the descent of pluralism into chaos.