"A Portrait with Punctum and Aura: Review of vol. XIII. (2012) of the Eger Journal of American Studies, Special Issue In Honor of Professor Zsolt Kálmán Virágos" by Péter Kristóf Makai
Péter Kristóf Makai is a PhD student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, and review editor at AMERICANA – E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary. Email:
Eger Journal of American Studies, Vol. XIII.
Eger: EKF Líceum Kiadó
HU ISSN 1786-2337
What would you like to have as a gift marking the seventieth year of your life? I’m terribly bad at gifts, as I only give stuff I would like to receive (and eventually borrow), one could hardly argue with the notion that fond memories planted in others is the greatest gift to give and receive, which cannot be reified in any fashion. But, being a scholar, the closest you can get to an honest gift is remembrance and work done in your name, and the esteemed tradition of Festschriften is the very epitome of ‘the gift that keeps on giving,’ producing new knowledge, while at the same time honouring the spirit of one’s predecessors. The 13th volume of EJAS is ostensibly a labour of love conceived to show how Zsolt K. Virágos changed the profession that he himself has helped institute in Hungary.
The issue is a personal and deeply affectionate response to a man who has been infected with the teaching bug at the very beginning of his professional career, and who in turn has succeeded to infect many others, judging by the sheer amount of essays and the commendable thickness of the volume produced. It begins with an extensive and intimate interview with the scholar himself, steeped in embodied history of the kind that is inconceivable as lived experience for a child of the Internet generation, who knew Hungary as a state free from Soviet rule only. It is chilling to read Virágos summing up the effects of the Revolution of 1956 (on whose 56th anniversary I am writing this review) in what is essentially an option to study English, deemed the most exotic language of the available four at the time (the other were French, German and Italian) besides Russian. Today, when it is as much of a cultural imperative as a practical necessity to study English, this momentous decision might seem quaint or antiquated, but it was a life-changing event for a number of young people of his generation.
The interview paints the picture of a man of his time with an eye towards the future. The many opportunities he received, and the half-a-dozen years in which he enjoyed the hospitality of various educational institutions in the United States appear to be duly conferred upon him in hindsight. His academic output and cheerful outlook on life have combined admirably in him, and served as a dynamo of American Studies in Hungary. He was instrumental in instituting the discipline and sustaining its growth when it needed it the most.
The black and white photographs of the book only add to the sense of personal history, exuding a certain charm not just because of the haircuts, the glasses and clothes (which really do look like a thing of the past), but because they bring us closer to a life fully, one might say, enviably lived in nurturing scholarly communities. Tiny victories, uplifting scenes from the mundane world are presented with loving care, and even some of the tedium that comes with academia etches itself onto the face of Virágos as the photographic spread assembles into a tableau of sincere reflection upon achievements and experience, friends made and good times had.
The essays that comprise the greater part of the volume stand as a testament to the depth and breadth of scholarship Virágos inspired. Perhaps the most salient of them is the treatment of racial issues that lie both at the heart of American Studies in general, and Virágos’ own career in particular. András Tarnóc’s arguments concerning “The Indian captive as an early manifestation of the American Hero,” Judit Szathmári’s investigation of Sherman Alexie’s poetics and politics of space, as well as Zoltán Peterecz’s lucid historicisation of anti-semitism after the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles, Németh Lenke’s appreciation of the playful and dangerous possibilities inherent in racial masquerade that operate as a central theme of Suzan-Lori Parks’ and D. H. Hwang’s theatrical work, not to mention Zsuzsanna Lénárt-Muszka’s deft analysis of the animal symbolism in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man all speak to a sentiment of racial sensitivity and empathy that remain the hallmark of scholarship in the field, which Virágos’ research on negritude helped found and foster.
Another, equally important an aspect of American Studies (and just as vibrant) that drew compassionate tribute from Virágos’ colleagues was the philosophical and geopolitical impact of American thought and culture upon history. Irén Annus employs Virágos’ distinction between different myths to concisely argue that the M-2 type of contradiction-negating, self-serving cultural myths have been fashioned to aid the process of colonisation on the ideological plane. Likewise Péter Csató delves deeper into the study of Richard Rorty, analysing and thereby questioning the pragmatic philosopher’s metaphilosophy, surveying the role of irony inherent in his worldview. Later on, Ágnes Zsófia Kovács’ reading of Henry James smuggles in a bit of canonical literature, even if only in the form of travel writing into the picture. She insists that James’ interpretative model for experiencing life and the mind unravels in his account of the Old South. Her subsequent conclusion that James can only exclude the creative power of African-American culture at the risk of his whole intellectual enterprise falling apart prods us to rethink the cultural myths in a way that would surely please Virágos.
Judit Molnár’s interpretation of spatial relations as building blocks of ethnic identity in Frank G. Paci’s Black Madonna is a textbook example of the power of reading a rich cultural intertext of a literary work of art closely, and it has a special place in my heart for its willingness to emphasise narrative space as a locale for creating the self. Finally, Gabriella Vöő’s fitting essay, the one that closes the section, lays bare the politics of a remarkable Poe piece, “King Pest,” in which Vöő rigorously details the use of symbolism in service of satirising Andrew Jackson’s idea of democracy.
The third thematic unit that appears in the issue is the tangled relationship of the US and the UK with our own fair country. Hungary might have profited more from its partnership to the US and UK than vice versa, but it does not have to mean that the story of the mutual exchange of ideas, people and capital between the Carpathian basin and these cultures over channels and oceans is entirely one-sided, and the essays here suggest this much.
Csaba Lévai’s piece on Lajos Kossuth’s visit to the US and Máté Gergely Balogh’s review of Hungarian Émigrés in the American Civil War: A History and Biographical Dictionary by István Kornél Vida both set out to evaluate a section of scholarship on Hungarian-US relations at the Age of Reforms in Hungary. The picture that emerges is that of a man popping up at a wrong place in the wrong time, and it is humbling to see such a towering figure of Hungarian history shown in, well, less than endearing light. Yet, Kossuth remains a figure that inspired a generation’s worth of Hungarians to emigrate to the US, and following them in their footsteps is well worth one’s time, as István K. Vida shows.
Zoltán Peterecz’s study of the Hungarian Reconstruction Loan of 1924 deserves a second mention, as it unfailingly points out just how a nation can set aside one’s ideological qualms about the origin of money when it is offered with kindness (and interest to be paid, for sure) in a time of need. Mónika Fodor takes a different approach, and zooms in on the personal life narratives of Hungarian-Americans, highlighting the way in which conversation analysis and narrative interpretation can show individual people’s strategies of weathering the ebbs and tides of international politics with touching gentleness. Tibor Glant then jolts us back, giving us a wider view of Hungarian-US relations, and his panorama is also a plea for more in-depth cultural exchange, for educating Hungarians about our ties to the US, so that we can discuss international politics with greater vigour, while at the same time he calls for the dispelling of the exotic bubble that still envelops Hungary in foreign eyes across the Atlantic. And it would be a disgrace to forget Éva Mathey’s succinct assessment of Lord Rothermere in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles, which has sundered the former Kingdom of Hungary into its present, divided state. Her essay is an attempt to earnestly credit the ambiguous effect Lord Rothermere had in diverting money and power to aid the then-current cause of reuniting Hungary, when it was still a political possibility. Hers, and all the other essays dealing with the history of the uneven relationship between these two nations take us on a ride which we should all be familiar, and it is thanks to the efforts of Virágos and other pioneering academics that we have been able to train a new generation of American Studies scholars.
In summary, the EJAS’s 13th volume is a worthy tribute to a scholar who dedicated his life to the mutual understanding of diverse cultures. The printed issue as it stands should be regarded with pride by those who have produced it and those who get to read it, too. Only two minor improvements come to my mind: the footnotes of the essays would have benefitted from a more conscientious typesetting, and the published journal is still not bereft of typographical errors that could have been easily remedied. Nonetheless, these minor quibbles do not detract from the fact that the EJAS’ present issue is able present us with a timeless portrait of Zsolt Virágos.