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Jewish Social Studies 10.3 (2004) 1-22

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The Budapest Flâneur:

Urban Modernity, Popular Culture, and the "Jewish Question" in Fin-de-Siècle Hungary

In 1908, the Hungarian-Jewish journalist Adolf Ágai commemorated the newly rebuilt Budapest with a collection of urban vignettes called Voyage from Pest to Budapest, 1843-1907. Part popular history, part tourist guide, and part epic chronicle, the book presented a loving portrait of the changing landscape of late-nineteenth-century Budapest. No detail of the urban scene was too small or too unimportant to escape the watchful eye of the narrator. The city's neighborhoods and ethnic groups, its bridges and monuments, its coffeehouses and restaurants, and its hospitals and slaughterhouses were all objects of vivid interest and analysis.

Ágai's text was a classic example of a type of urban literature that was pioneered in 1840s Paris and was used to celebrate the diversity and dynamism of the modern city. At the center of this popular genre was the figure of the flâneur, or urban stroller, who embodied and represented the quintessential qualities of urban modernity. In 1846, the poet Charles Baudelaire described the type as a hero of modern life;1 almost a hundred years later, Walter Benjamin saw in him the tragic incarnation of a commodified modernity.2 However one interprets the meaning of the flâneur, central to his formulaic figure was a disturbing ambiguity, manifested in his invisibility. Like his Parisian or Berlin predecessors, the urban self at the core of Ágai's text could not be identified through his physical appearance, religious origins, social position, [End Page 1] or political opinions. His distinguishing characteristic was precisely his lack of personal qualities, his complete anonymity. For all intents and purposes, he was an invisible and disembodied self, lacking a particularized ego. He rendered the physical details of the city visible and legible, even while he himself remained invisible and illegible.3

Ágai's enigmatic narrator was more than a simple incarnation of Budapest modernity, however. He was also perceived, though never explicitly identified, as a Jew. The Budapest flâneur thus raises complex questions that go beyond the problem of urban identity in the modern world. He also embodies the tangled problem of Jewish assimilation in late-nineteenth-century Hungary. What was the connection between urban sensibility and assimilated Jewish identity? Why were both perceived as "invisible"? How can we begin to define the characteristics of this invisible urban self that was also a Jewish self?4 These questions are inseparable from the so-called "Jewish Question" that preoccupied Hungarian public opinion at the end of the century. Yet they are not completely identical with it. They presuppose an exclusively cultural—as opposed to a political—approach to the problem of Jewish assimilation.

What I mean by "cultural" will emerge in the course of my discussion, but, as a starting point, I would like to make two broad generalizations that underlie my approach. The first is that I regard culture as an essentially symbolic rather than an empirical phenomenon, one whose traces only exist in the discursive practices of a community. The second is that the meaning of these traces is never objectively given but highly fragmented and inseparable from the interpretative activity of the historian. Culture, as a category of historical analysis, is thus a difficult and allusive concept that does not claim to provide "objective truths" about the past. Yet, insofar as it gives access to such important and essentially fragile phenomena as experience and identity, it has a place in the repertoire of the historian.5

Viewed from the hermeneutic perspective of cultural analysis, Ágai's invisible narrator immediately acquires resonances that transcend his time and place. In fact, the problem of an "invisible Jewish Budapest" has recently emerged in several contemporary discussions of Jewish life in Hungary. Historical accounts, such as Jewish Budapest, tentatively touch on it.6 Richard Ungár's humorous short stories, Change of Regime in...


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