Monday, 16 February 2015

Hungary in Glasgow 

Contemporary Hungarian Studies:
Multidisciplinary European Perspectives 5.ii

Budapest 2006



My own keynote on Hungarian identity and 'magyar ember' 2


... The years of adjustment after 1989 were naturally very difficult with the collapse of national industries and social networks, high unemployment, and quick disillusion with a new, relatively open yet uncomfortable and unfamiliar democracy that did not seem to be helping people to live better, more secure lives nor to resolve the anxieties and tensions natural to an essentially febrile nation. Parties came and went.

Then came 2006 and the end of what seemed to have developed into a two-party system. A lot of turgid water had flowed under the bridge by that time, nevertheless the events following the revelations of the then prime minister Gyurcsány’s behind-closed-doors speech seemed traumatic to an unresolvable extent.

Nor were things resolved. The current governing party came to power on a two-thirds majority that enabled it to change the constitution and to set about controlling not only the economy or the law or education or the media but culture itself.

...We are living at a crisis of liberal democracy. The culture of scepticism and doubt is itself being doubted and challenged. Religions challenge it, fierce atavistic feelings challenge it.  The urbánus side of the equation offers a rich European and cosmopolitan Enlightenment culture but lacks political cohesion and articulation. It is no longer a complete idology and is easy prey in a system developed expressly to strangle it by any means possible. The népies no longer needs rural support when it has the provinces. It no longer needs the label népies. It only needs to touch some of the familiar conservative chords - about those money-grabbing Lithuanians among them - to exercise its dominance.

I don’t want to smear the names of excellent népies writers. None of this is their fault. But think of the Karinthy-Tamási debate. Forget terminology: concentrate on value.

It is hard for the psyche to reject half of its habitation. Anxiety and those bottled furies continue to stalk the darkened rooms of the imagination. The rare richness, invention and voluptuousness of that imagination is under severe strain. I expect it to survive, but only by the skin of its teeth, given some luck and a favourable wind.


Afterthought

That's all very well but it is worth considering Dr Umut Korkut's charges against liberalism. Let's put neo-liberalism to one side for now and think of liberalism as we know it - here in Britain as well as elsewhere. I am myself of the left-liberal tendency and much the majority of my friends in youth as in middle age could be described as liberals. What I understand by such liberalism can be summed up in the terms I used to describe the urbánus movement: cosmopolitan, modernist, sceptical, European, as well as tolerant and supportive of minorities.

Yes, but we can be arrogant in exactly the terms Umut described. To think anything but what we think is not to be contemplated. It is simply beneath notice or to be treated with contempt. Do we remember Gordon Brown's encounter with "that bigot woman" who turned out to be a Labour supporter and to whom he had to apologise? That's us. Our mindset is as firm as the most bigoted right-wingers' but we don't see it that way. We dramatise it away in the name of solidarity. The forces of reaction and darkness must be talked down.

I am uneasy with that. As was my good friend, the great Hungarian poet Ottó Orbán, who wrote in his 1989 poem, A Roman Considers the Christians:

May the gods forgive me but I really can't abide them.
Their idea is a great one, but look at them all:
a bunch of quarrelsome eggheads picking their noses
who, under the spell of their thesis, would if they could
be hard-line dictators, all for the sake of tolerance, naturally,
who'd not kill with weapons but with murderous disdain
while breeding their own sloppy aristocracy...

Those seven lines from his unrhymed Lowellian sonnet are right on the spot. Ottó was of the left, not the right. I suspect he would have been happy with a more liberal version of the old regime, though I could be wrong on that. He was a deep-vein socialist in any case. But he knew his society. Ours is less fervent but is wedded to its own sloppy aristocracy.

I am a low-grade aristocrat in that scheme of things. I am uneasy.




Hungary in Glasgow 

Contemporary Hungarian Studies:
Multidisciplinary European Perspectives 5.i



This is much abridged but will still take up more than one post. I have the text and can cut and paste from it direct. It will lead me on to a few thoughts to follow.



My own keynote on Hungarian identity and 'magyar ember 1'


Hungarian identity is complicated.

In 1995 I was making a BBC radio programme about the anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising and attended a rally of the Kisgazda (or Smallholders’) Party at which a list of names was read out. At the sound of certain very Hungarian-sounding names a man in a national costume would cry out: Ez nem egy magyar ember! (He’s not a true Hungarian!) a cry taken up by several others in the crowd. (It was on the same trip that I saw a march of blackshirts pass through Blaha Lujza tér.) The question that immediately sprang to mind was: Who was a true Hungarian in that case? Who is magyar ember? And what was it about the names on the list that was not ‘True Hungarian’?

The simple answer is that some at least of the names were Jewish or were thought to be Jewish (it is revealing that to call someone Jewish, in Hungary, is to smear them.) But I think the answer goes deeper than that: it is historical, geographical and linguistic. 

I hardly need to mention all the heroic battles and disastrous lost wars, the foreign occupations, the constant shifting of borders and populations and the resultant changes in place names to which Hungarian territory has been subject. All this is enough to render any state unstable. The most repeated whisper in the early days of that extraordinary year of 1989, when I spent nine months in Budapest was the fearful: “Elszabadulnak az indulatok!” Hard to translate precisely, it means: “The furies within us will be released”, or to put it in more colloquial terms: “All hell will break loose”, where “hell” is what is within….

...What is the place of the Hungarian language in this? The great poet and novelist Dezsö Kosztolányi tried to address that question in his long open letter of 1930 to Professor Antoine Millet of the Collège de France, whose book, Les langues dans l’Europe nouvelle had suggested that Hungarian not only had no future but did not deserve one. In defending Hungarian, Kosztolányi describes the language thus:
    “...this marvellous orphan of the Finno-Ugric family, the orphan that lost its parents at an early age, was left to fend for itself while its kin moved to distant lands in the chaos of world history, and nevertheless had the gumption to survive without kith or kin near or  far.
That description offers two models: the deserted orphan and the gutsy survivor. It is, I think,  the language - that gutsy, orphaned, marvellous language, as Kosztolányi has it - that most deeply marks out Hungarian identity. It is a matter of pride that it has survived and is capable of so much but its isolation or orphanhood leads to feelings of vulnerability and exposure. The anxiety and pride have complex results. Anyone can learn it, of course, but it takes magyar ember to speak it truly. The search for ‘true Hungarians‘ is a matter of exquisite urgency to our vulnerable and exposed magyar ember in his quasi national costume. He needs clear markers. Nor do I want to make him an object of liberal contempt. That would achieve nothing. I would very much like to understand him....

... The problems of today were as immediately apparent in 1989 as they were obscured in 1988. Writer friends who had been friends with each other one year stopped speaking to each other within a few months of the next. The literary, cultural and political landscape was tearing itelf apart. The parties, over fifty of them, that had been formed as far back as May, were not settling into a straight left-right ideological pattern. The new parties that did emerge in some force - the Hungarian Forum, the MSzP, the SzDSz and Fidesz - not surprisingly considering their rapid almost instantaneous formation. They were instinctive groupings fraught with internal contradictions.

What did seem to me to be true was that the divisions within the parties as well as between them were as much cultural as political-ideological. They were along the literary népies - urbánus line. These seemed to me to run deeper than political ideology or strategy. They pitted against each each other two vital aspects of Hungarian society: a traditionalist, conservative, rural, post-feudal belief in solid values versus a cosmopolitan, urbanist, modernist, sceptical liberal-left Europeanism. That’s a lot of adjectives but they still seem valid to me. All the other major issues of who sells what to whom, who takes backhanders from whom, seemed to me simply end-of-era opportunism, almost free of ideology or cultural basis. ...

[contd


Hungary in Glasgow 

Contemporary Hungarian Studies:
Multidisciplinary European Perspectives 4



The Keynotes (1): Umut Korkut on the problems and downfall of liberalism

I too have a problem at this point since my keynote speech overlaps a little with the keynote of Dr Umut Korkut (Glasgow Caledonian University) whose came first. It is tempting to interweave the two but perhaps a short note on each before trying to draw them together. I, of course, have my text but not his, so his is from notes and memory. I suspect I may finish up writing more and thinking more at the end but I do want to present his case as best I can. The words are mine but the ideas his.


Dr Umut Korkut (I'll call him Umut from now on) gave, I think, the better speech but then he is a specialist scholar and knows more of the field. And yet it's more than that: he has a firm conceptual grasp of a wider process, with a wealth of reading:  I have my own sense of events but with relatively thin reading. On a personal note he is himself Turkish but speaks good Hungarian (maybe better than I do in some areas) as I found when talking to him before he spoke.

The key in his keynote was the idea of liberalism: how we understand it and how it operates.

Liberalism, he began, is in favour of modernity and against tradition but it faces mounting challenges. Nor is there a consensus on its virtues. It is deeply interwound with economic neo-liberalism, that is to say late capitalism, and is perhaps overdetermined by it.

He then gave a long and coherent critique of liberalism as we have it.

Democratisation is not the same as liberalisation. Liberalism, he said, has too many controlling assumptions. Arguments for the free market and democracy seem to go hand-in-hand. Centralised states were broken up to prepare the way to democratisation but the liberalism that followed was not the same thing. Liberals, he argued, demanded absolute support for economic liberalisation and thought in terms of the enlightened versus the unenlightened. In other words there was no argument against it. Anyone who thought otherwise was regarded as simply unenlightened (or stupid or mischievous).

The trouble with Europe was that it was too closely tied to economic liberalism. Its opponents, the conservatives, became fierce enemies, not only of economic liberalism but of social liberalism too, regarding it, not without reason, as elitist.

Historical liberalism had as its aim the creation  of 'the good society'. It was a process of renewal that began in the late nineteenth century. It meant change, but change from above. The controllers change but their replacements are also controllers.

He quoted a reforming member of the last Communist government, Rezsö Nyers, who argued against top-down change.

The question was why Hungarian liberalism had alienated the public. This was part of the answer.

He then dealt with the conservative reaction and cited the storming of the TV headquarters in 2006, attacks on Roma, and attacks on gays in 2007 and after. Xenophobia also grew: what was foreign was likely to be treacherous. And since the idea of liberalism involved both social tolerance and late capitalism, the world financial crisis of 2008 (which was a crisis of neo-liberalsm) dealt a serious blow to liberalism in general.

Left-liberalism was perceived by Hungarians to have started under Communism. In their rejection of it Fidesz wove together various patriotic themes and introduced a great many reforms. Ironically the economic reforms resembled those of the left-liberals but the political reforms were very different and embodied a different political climate (as represented by those events in 2006 above to the present). There was the continuing rise of the far-right Jobbik and Orbán's "illiberal democracy" speech to contend with.

He ended by pointing to the rich intellectual traditions of Hungary but blamed the lordly-disdain of liberals (left-liberals) for bringing about the current situation.


This argument left out the decisive and disastrous leaked speech of Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2006, the then MSzP (or Socialist) prime minister. I am not sure whether Umut regarded it as merely incidental, as just a trigger to a deeper process, or whether there was simply no time to deal with it. To my mind the Gyurcsány speech tied in with the concerns of the earlier paper about corruption. The argument also omitted any reference to  the increasing number and ferocity of religious assaults on symbols and institutions of social liberalism, but that would have been another large subject. We couldn't have expected him to cover that too. I only register these points as they seem worth mentioning.

Afterwards I asked whether there was only the one hard choice between liberalism / neo-liberalism on the one hand and conservatism / reaction on the other. What of social democracy on the Scandinavian model? The time for that was past, he answered (and others agreed). It was already passing in the 80s. The model was never quite what it is now painted now to be and it is redundant
(There was, in effect, no Third Way).
He may be right on that. We will see what Syriza come up with in Greece and what that leads to though I have no great confidence in single state solutions.

I was however taken by his critique of liberalism. I could readily see the justice of much of it and it bore directly on the question of Hungarian identity in my own speech later that day.



Hungary in Glasgow 

Contemporary Hungarian Studies:
Multidisciplinary European Perspectives 3

The stadium at Felcsut village


Session 3: Culture and Society

There were only two papers in the last session since two of the speakers couldn't make it. It was a pity because I would have liked to hear the paper about Roma graduates and the one about the Szekler (or Transylvanian) flag and its significance. It is, after all, the Szekler flag, not the normal EU flag, that is flying on the Hungarian Parliament, which seems a pretty clear declaration of sympathy and intent, so some exploration would have been welcome. In the event we had the two other papers on quite different matters.

*

The first was about the effects of 'preferential naturalisation' among ethnic Hungarians abroad. This naturally bore on the earlier paper about the teaching of Hungarian in Serbia. It introduced me to another new term, 'ethnizenship' which, apparently, goes hand in hand with its twin 'diasporisation'. I am sure these terms must be useful or why else would they exist? They seem to exist because the idea of dual citizenship is now accepted whereas it wasn't before 1989 (I think the date is right but I might have missed it.) Citizenship is to do with nationhood and is a matter of self-identification. Now we have dual extra-territorial citizenship, a kind of quasi-citizenship, hence the need for the new terms.

There was talk of the idea of 'homeland' as a spiritual concept [the German heimat naturally springs to mind but also the Hungarian haza, about which I have written before]. Many minorities feel homeless and, according to research, hold relatively negative views of native Hungarians to whom the idea of citizenship means little. It is particularly non-native Hungarians who feel the spiritual value of citizenship. Being a foreign citizen of Hungary (an ethnizen?) doesn't actually help Hungarians abroad though it works differently in different places. In Slovakia, for instance, there is no great clamour for Hungarisation (another nice word) whereas in Transylvania there is.

I myself have often wondered about the attitude of non-Hungarians in Romania or Slovakia or other countries where Hungarians live in minority ethnic communities. There is at least a hundred years of tension underlying changes of borders and administration. The hatchets may be buried: you can either scrape the ground away or pile more earth on top.

*

The second paper was about the use of sport for political ends. It made a delightful contrast to the rest yet it led us back to the same place (that I tend nowadays to think of as Orbánia).

Success in sport is a symbol of success in other spheres too so, under the Soviet system, it was important to have winners and dominance if possible. While the amateur ideal of the Olympics was a cornerstone of the tradition, sport in the Eastern bloc had to resort to all kind of devices to produce champions, often by offering favoured athletes token jobs where they had little to do but train and be treated with the latest available performance-enhancing drugs.

Nevertheless the leading role of the Soviet Union had to be maintained as primus inter pares so the SU was treated with extra favour, especially by SU judges.  The example given was of the 1980 Olympic Games, which were staged in Moscow and officially boycotted by the USA and sixty-four other countries because of the SU's Afghanistan campaign  (a boycott partially reversed by fourteen Soviet bloc countries for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles). The Soviet judges gave Soviet competitiors consistently higher marks than to the Hungarians in some events with the result that the Hungarian team threatened to withdraw, after which they received higher marks.

The case made by the paper was that Viktor Orbán's devotion to sport, particularly football, works in much the same way, especially in view of his programme of building or modernisation of football stadiums all over Hungary (a map was produced to show where they were and here's an article about parts of the project). International success for Hungarian football would be his success, an important monument to his wise rule. The most debated of these stadia, a very expensive state-of-the-art construction seating 4,500, is therefore situated Orbán's home village of Felcsut where the population is less than half the stadium capacity. The idea is to create 'centres of excellence' where the abysmally low stock of Hungarian football might be restored to the glorious peaks of 1953. (The average attendance at top level Hungarian league matches is under 2,000. Hungary has not qualified for the World Cup since 1986.)


It should be said that all nations tend to engage in 'grands projets' for political reasons but not necessarily as a systematic part of the state programme.

My
own pet theory is that, for that precise reason, it is countries with dictators that seem to do best at sport: Hungary under Rákosi, Romania under Ceausescu, East Germany under Honegger, Argentina and Brazil under military rule and the Soviet Union under Stalin and Khruschev.

This is not good news for the rest, or indeed for anybody.


I will write another blog on the two keynotes, including mine, and maybe a reflection on the whole conference, possibly in the same blog or a new one.


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Hungary in Glasgow 

Contemporary Hungarian Studies:
Multidisciplinary European Perspectives 2


Session 2: Language and Literature

Three papers here too, the first about the study of Hungarian language at the University of Belgrade. This was introduced by reference to the Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina region of Serbia, the old Yugoslavia. As to why there are Hungarians there at all that is the easy-to-answer prize question to which the answer will always be Trianon. (Trianon is a complicated, tragic, fierce, burning issue. It was so back in 1920 and remains on low but permanently combustible heat now. Trianon is the answer, and will continue to be the answer, to several questions, perhaps to any Hungarian question. See provided link for more.)

The paper took us through the foundation of the Hungarian department, the people who started it, the people delivering it and who was studying on it. There was the issue of Hungarian citizenship as mentioned in the first session and the matter of Serbian emigration to Hungary because of better prospects. There was demand, and demand was being satisfied in this respect.

In the discussion afterwards it was remarked that a good many historical antagonisms and atrocities lay buried under the apparent concord, but this was not much discussed (you could, of course, say the same of almost everywhere else in the region). There were practical considerations to bear in mind.

*

The second paper took us back to the roots of two vital Hungarian schools of literature - not just literature but colture and politics too, in my opinion - the urbánus and the népies. The definition of those terms remains open to discussion and I myself offered a definition in my keynote. For now it may be enough to say that urbánus is, as the name suggests, urban in that it is metropolitan / cosmopolitan / European in temperament, while népies is to do with the nép, the nation, the volk, the rural, the regional. But there is more to both these terms than that.

Here we were invited to consider the 1930 debate between the parodist Frigyes Karinthy and the poet-novelist Dezsö Kostolányi on the urban side, and journalist Imre Miklós and writer Áron Tamási on the other. The paper was a resumé of an article by the speaker, published in the literary magazine 2000. The link here is to the article in Hungarian. (Here, kindly provided by a friend, is an English version).

The 1930 debate was essentially about Transylvanian literature (Transylvania being the major territory lost under Trianon, and a still raw wound just ten years after the loss) of which Karinthy's had talked slightingly. In the course of the debate Tamási referred to Karinthy as a 'Lithuanian' (ie foreign) writer who was only interested in money. Being foreign and money-grubbing are two classic anti-Semitic tropes and Tamási tried to withdraw. But the incident did suggest that the népies movement had a potentially anti-Semitic side.

As I personally read it, the rift between urbánus and népies continues to be the key cultural divide in Hungary and I looked to make that case in my keynote afterwards. I hadn't read directly the 1930 debate and had missed the 2014 article, but I found this fascinating.

*
 
The third presentation was even more interesting. It was passionately but clearly delivered and was an account of the relative reception of two Holocaust memoirs, the world-famous Diary of Anne Frank (hardly worth linking to) and its Hungarian equivalent The Diary of Éva Heyman, published in English in 1988, but first published by the mother in 1948 in a small private edition that sold no more than a couple of hundred copies then was forgotten. The mother committed suicide some three years later.

There were two essential issues here. First the uses of Anne Frank in the communist East, not as a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, but as a victim of fascism, secondly the non-reception of Éva Heyman and the possible reasons for that.

The Diary of Anne Frank was performed as a stage play in Budapest in 1957, before the publication of the diary itself in 1958, but the Jewish element was played down. Anne Frank was an example of universalisation.

Éva Heyman's diary, it was stated, was not published at all under communism because Hungary was not keen to discuss its own role in the Holocaust. (The 1988 English translation was taken from an earlier Hebrew translation of the original and appeared before any Hungarian edition).

The gist of the argument was that the desire to bury Hungary's part in the Holocaust and its years of anti-Semitism (including the first anti-Semitic laws in Europe) continues to cause problems as the recent Holocaust memorial case shows.


The history of Central Europe is a matter of continual burying and disinterring. Sometimes it is the hatchet that is being buried but everyone knows where the hatchet is and is not above using it. The Éva Heyman diary is a story of disinterring but much else is buried there.

And that, precisely, is the problem.



Hungary in Glasgow

Contemporary Hungarian Studies:
Multidisciplinary European Perspectives


As visitors to this blog will know I have writen a fair amount on Hungary in the past and if I am doing a little less at the moment it is because Éva Balogh’s excellent Hungarian Spectrum website  has dedicated itself to the politics of the country and does a much better job of it than I could. I am saving my blog or press powder for occasions when I feel particularly concerned or when matters need extra amplification. In the meantime I continue to link to Hungarian news on Facebook and Twitter.



It is very rare to get a whole one-day conference in the UK (what is, at any rate for now, the UK) on the theme of Hungary so when one is organised its remit is likely to be large. This one covered three areas: Politics, Language & Literature, and Culture & Society. (The PDF of the programme can be downloaded here). It was in Glasgow because Zsuzsanna Varga is supervising a number of PhD’s there and her students were bright, ambitious and hard-working enough to organise it with her. Many congratulations to them. 

Those who gave the papers were all either PhD students or post-docs. It was a pleasure to be with them.

My own invitation was to give one of the two keynotes, the theme being left to me. I agreed to go with the  usual warning that I am not a specialist or even a scholar and that treading on other people’s fields of expertise may be not only supererogatory but annoying to them. This post won’t be dealing with my speech, though I might reflect on it in another. Nor wiill I try to discuss every paper given though I did pay close attention and take notes on each. I’ll just touch on matters in each session. The wording in each case is my interpretation or reading of what was said. That interpretation may be wrong. 

I’ll write three quick posts, one on each session. This is on the first session.


Session 1: Politics


Three papers here: one on the “Institutional causes of democratic regression”, one on problems with anti-bribery legislation and one on the EU’s response to political conditions in Hungary.



It was interesting to learn, in the first, that according to studies Hungarians rank highest in the preference for democracy while, according to other studies, the country has suffered the worst decline in democracy. The term ‘veto players‘ was new to me.  To have the power of veto is an important element in a democracy: it appears there are no veto players left in Hungary so Fidesz can do exactly what it likes and when it likes. It can, for example, restrict the freedom of the press because the media council is stuffed full of Fidesz members.



We had a working definition of corruption in the second paper as the use of positions of power to generate personal assets and gain influence, chiefly through bribery of one sort or another. In 2009 70% of Hungarians questioned considered the country to be highly corrupt..The chief problem seemed to be with government procurement, It was costumary, the speaker said, for teachers and doctors to be offered bribes for better marks or better care.



The third paper considered EU criticisms of Hungary and possible sanctions of one sort ore another. The criticism involved rewriting the contstitution without any consultation with interested parties, and with the use of members of parliament to introduce amendements that would also bypass the need to involve interested parties. There was the fixing of the ‘basic law‘ entirely in favour of Fidesz and the use of new citizenship votes for Hungarians in surrounding countries. There was the increase in numbers on the constitutional court by exclusively Fidesz supports. There was also the problem of retrospective laws. There was some mention of Orbán’s defence of such changes as being necessary “in an emergency situation”. The problems of EU response is that Article 7 that could restrict voting rights would be difficult to get through the European Parliament. Financial sanctions were suggested instead. Orbán is preparing for this possibility through attempts to form financial agreements with states like Russia, outside the EU and by ratcheting up anti-EU rehetoric, by depicting the EU as a colonialist force.




Personal comment

As with all the papers something of the groundwork was familiar to me, especially in the third paper, but the articulate and detailed presentation was very valuable.

I had read something about corruption as discussed in the second paper though there was some discussion of the nature and range of bribery particularly in medical surgeries and schools (the latter strenuously denied by some who actually had children in school). Giving gifts to doctors was not considered bribery by some because gifts had long been given to supplement a low income, not in the hope of gaining some specific advantage. All this shows how difficult it can be to distinguish social practice and gift giving from gifts as a form of gaining advantage over others. A relatively harmless social habit may lay the ground for bribery proper on a very big scale. Those vast procurements, and the greasing of palms for positions of major influence are the greater concern.


The first paper revealed a good deal about attitudes and pressures in Hungary. It was good on power concentration and the way power can be - and has been - manipulated. It also showed the confused state of public opinion in the country.


Saturday, 14 February 2015

A note on Fifty Shades -
the book and its contracts




Friends were discussing the film of Fifty Shades of Grey. One had gone to see it, the other said he would refuse to see it because it was degrading to women.

I haven't seen the film, nor am I likely to, but I did read the book and this seems like a good moment to reconsider it if only because, according to some, the film is better than the book, a book from which they are very quick to distance themselves on three grounds: first, that it is badly written and risible in style; secondly because it is 'boring'; and thirdly, because it is degrading to women.

I read the book at the time out of a normal curiosity but also on the assumption that anything dismissed in these terms by so many while so many more were reading it, must have something interesting in it. I don't think I was wrong.


1. Who writes it, who reads it, who directs it, who watches it

The book and its successors have apparently sold over 100 million copies by now, chiefly, I understand to women. It was written by a woman, with a female central character, and the film was directed by a woman. It seems to have been a great success with a good many women and there must be some interest in that fact, mustn't there? The book was not commercially hyped at the start: it was a form of fan fiction, an e-book whose reputation travelled by word-of-mouth up to a certain critical point at which it became news.


2. The visible risible

On the 'risible style' question there was a very funny and beautifully written Guardian article by Victoria Coren, titled Finally I get the sex in Fifty Shades of Grey. In it Coren points to the inadvertent comedy of some of the passages about sex, specifically about the constant contracts, and decides that the real focus of erotic desire is food. She presents this neatly and makes an interesting point about food as an object of desire, touching on, but not exploring ideas about eating as an erotic act. There is no reason she should explore them. It is a light comic article she is writing, not a thesis: what she wants is laughter at a point neatly made and the matter stops there.

There is, however, a genuine connection between sex and eating. We have quite a few transferable terms that I won't bother to list here since that is not my immediate concern. But there is one major difference in that, as far as food is concerned, there is only one agent, the eater. The eater is in control. The food is not going to talk back or engage in complex psychological games. In other words the discourse itself is eminently controllable. But control and agency in gender relations, and especially regarding the act of sex, is always disputed and remains a key - perhaps the key - issue. (One feminist argument has been that, from the male point of view, the woman is in effect treated as the food and has therefore no agency at all.)

The other problems with the 'risible' argument are that it doesn't touch on the uncomfortable subject but diverts from it and that giggling at something that is an object of desire downplays the nature of the desire. (I could write more about this, but there is not the time or room to discuss everything in a single blog.)


3. Dullness is boring
It is a common distancing device to declare something we don't like 'dull'. It assumes we are above all this kind of thing, have been there and back several times, and don't need some dullard to instruct or entertain us. It imples that we have done the things presented to us and have found them otherwise to the point of ennui. Like the 'risible' argument this depends on dismissal without engagement: it is a kind of white lying, a form of manners.


4. Control / Agency
This, to me, seems to me the crux of the debate.

There is a history of serious literature of sadism / masochism with either men or women as submissives. Fifty Shades is not a major addition to that genre. What is interesting is so precisely for the reasons Coren dismisses. It is the contracts of consent that hold the book together. These written contracts echo the unwritten contracts in any relationship of trust. Those unwritten contracts are full of tension.

In other words the actual theme is deep enough. The writing is poor, but I doubt anybody has read the book for its literary quality, nor for the occasional food porn, nor indeed for the relatively tamely (and lamely) written sex scenes. The narrative and erotic tension of the book is all to do with thresholds and contracts. The rest amounts to little. The contracts are a sequence of permissions but also a developing index of desire both for the transgressive and for the complex triggers of mixed feelings everyone experiences in any sex act - and I mean both men and women.

In all the political rhetoric on the issue, in the striving for control, agency, guarantees and advantages, a crucial complexity is lost.


5. Complexity: an anecdote

I am myself a fairly complex creature, a straight white male of the species, however complicated by some not uncommon factors of circumstance and some relatively rare ones, also of circumstance. Two years ago I had a conversation with a gay male friend who was - to put it bluntly - looking to seduce me. He, being a highly sensitive and intelligent man, suggested that all human beings are potentially androgynous and that all it would take would be an act of will on my part.

I answered that that was possibly true, and that there are many circumstances in which human beings turn to their own sex, and they may have been so inclined from a very early age. I accepted that there was nothing closed or final about sexuality but explained that my life had been predicated on one form and, chiefly because I loved the person in whom that form was embodied, I would, in all courtesy to him, not want to change it.

Going by his argument (not that he argued it) it would also be possible for me to move in the direction of either sadism or masochism, depending on whom I was with. But again, this option was one I would not take because not only my own form of relationship but the form of the person I loved was predicated on something different. The relationship worked. I wanted it to work. (It has worked for close on forty-five years now.)

Pain and control, or its loss, are central to the sexual act: it is an unavoidable part of its pleasure for both men and women. For both there is a pleasure in losing control: for both there is a degree of pain-as-pleasure. The borders are constantly shifting and that is a part of the excitement. The predictable is not exciting. The potentially transgressive is. The sexual act, after all, is a form of transgression into both another's being and our own. The whole point of erotic writing is to maintain the prospect of transgression. It is all suspense and threshhold.


6. Words and Contracts

We have words for things, events, and conditions, but words are an imperfect parallel to that which they refer to. The apocryphal words of Samuel Goldwyn that "a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on" have, like a great many apparently nonsensical statements, an element of truth. We do what we do and we look for reassurance in words. To make extra sure we write them down and have them witnessed and signed.

There was a debate at some point - it may still be alive - that, since it was difficult for a woman to prove that she had not given consent to this or that sexual advance, there should be some form of recordable evidence to that effect. A signed consent-contract was actually suggested. It was quickly pointed out - not surprisingly perhaps - that if each subsidiary act to the point of intercourse had to be signed for, intercourse would never happen. But is this right?

In Fifty Shades contracts are the only available erotic element. They are contracts about control that Christian Grey is constantly producing for Anastasia to sign. Look, say the contracts, you control it. You can say when to stop, when to put a curb on my desire. Ana does the signing. The tension lies in what she signs up to next. What she signs up to is not marriage or even a declaration of romantic love.  The contracts are her own self-trials for which Grey is a relatively dimensionless proxy, a fixed entity you might have met in earlier form in the Mills and Boon novels, which were also read - almost exclusively - by women. Like Rochester or Heathcliff their 'heroes' were projections, not models. Christian Grey is given a history but has no internal life except that which the writer / persona chooses to reveal or guess at. All the interiority is Anastasia's. All the threshholds and transgressions are hers. His were in a past in which there are no more decisions to be taken.

To repeat: Grey, like other such figures, is a projection not a model.

We, being a paradoxically - and often hypocritically - moral generation, are keen on models. We ourselves, of course, are too clever to be taken in by so-called models but we worry (so desperately we worry) about the idiots,  dupes and weaklings out there who might impose their models on us.


7. 'We are better than this'

There are millions on millions of women out there who have read this book for reasons of their own. Many of them are now likely to be queueing at the cinema to see the film (one photo I have seen shows chiefly a mass of young women waiting to go in). I doubt they are thinking that either Christian Grey or Anastasia Steele are role models but in Anastasia - or so I suggest - they perceive something of their own situation in terms of control and agency. It tells them they have the choice, even with a handsome, master-of-the-universe businessman like Grey. They have the agency. They are in control.

Is it good that they should make this assumption? I don't know, but I am not willing to call the readers or viewers of such mass-selling works idiots, dupes, weaklings or perverts. I have no wish to patronise them either with jokes or with literary hauteur.

The question of hauteur also arose at the conference in Glasgow. I will try to think about it later.