Orientalisme à la ougrienne: Károly Jenő Ujfalvy de Mezőkövesd

            In the third chapter of his work Orientalism, Edward Said explores the impact that the 19th century craze for geography had on the development of a European ideology of the East. Said’s particular focus is on the Arab regions of Western Asia. As such, his primary talking points are those British and French scholars and self-styled interpreters who sought out knowledge of the lands and landscapes inhabited by the Semites. He investigates, at length, the connections such writers made between these physical realities and an essential, primordial character of the people who inhabited them in the present. Of course, the Arab lands are not the only ones that were, or are, coveted by European and American powers. Neither were they the only places studied by 19th-century European geographers, bent on providing British, French or other thinkers and policymakers with an intellectual path towards the possession of a geographical space. Said himself problematized the position of Semitic Studies within broader area studies, highlighting it as one of the most conservative and regressive fields of late 19th and early 20th century scholarship. But does that mean Said’s insights into it are not transferrable to other disciplines? In this post, I’m going to see if there is some value in borrowing a few of the concepts explored in Orientalism as heuristics to understanding the work of a geographer with a very different focus.

            Among those who sought to interpret the great Eurasian expanse for the 19th-century French public was the Hungarian aristocrat Károly Jenő Ujfalvy de Mezőkövesd, also known as Charles-Eugène Ujfalvy de Mezőkövesd. Born in Vienna in 1842, he was the heir of an upper-class family rooted in Mezőkövesd, in contemporary Hungary’s north-east. A philosopher trained in Bonn, he moved to Paris, where he married his wife Marie in 1868. It was in France that he made a home, furthered his education in pedagogy, and found his niche in scholarly circles. It is apparent that, for much of his working life, Károly Jenő Ujfalvy sought to use his special position as a Magyar noble in French society to provide a bridge between French interlocutors and the essence of Hungarianness. This was only subordinated to his desire to wander and explore, and from 1876-78 and again in 1881-82, he completed three different trips into various parts of the heart of Eurasia, occasionally following in the steps of previous Hungarian travellers. He died in Florence in 1904, after having published a prodigious 21 titles, and edited the Revue de Philologie et d’Ethnographie.

            Rather than geography proper, I’m going to start with Ujfalvy’s interest in linguistics, given Said’s own questioning of philology prior to geography. In 1875, Ujfalvy published his Étude comparée des langues Ougro-Finnoises, an overview of the structure of the various Uralic languages. Most of the work is concerned with a comparative approach to these languages, including Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Udmurt, Khanty, Mari, Mordvin, Sámi and Samoyedic. The linguistic data is preceded by ethnographic sketches, which allows the author to link linguistic and cultural data to an overarching value hierarchy. We are told, for example, how the peoples who speak the various Uralic languages are divided, according to Friedrich Max Müller’s classificatory scheme, into those in a primitive state (including fishers, hunters, and nomads); the semi-civilized; and the civilized. The first group maps neatly onto those, such as the Vepsians, who speak “primitive” forms of Finnic. The last component contains peoples with literary canons linked to other dominant traditions, whether of the Germano-Latin type (Finns and Hungarians), of the Byzantine-Russian one (Mordvins and Maris). The implication here is clear: the closer a people approaches the socio-economic formations of Western and Central Europe, the more advanced, more historical it may be considered. Indeed, Ujfalvy pushes the bidirectionality of this relationship, stressing that the relative civilizational achievement of the various groups is essential to the proper classification of their languages. Ujfalvy’s system is a closed one, informed by its own components without space for extraneous input, not dissimilar from the models of Semitic linguistic and cultural development explored by Said.  

            Of course, it is geography where Ujfalvy’s personal calling merged best with that of institutionalized Orientalism, as seen in his Cours complémentaire de Géographie et d’Histoire de l’Asie centrale et orientale. This is the opening lecture of a broader curriculum, delivered on 17 November 1874 at the École spéciale des langues orientales vivantes, and it was drafted in Ujfalvy’s capacity as the Member of the Société asiatique responsible for courses. Many listeners were intending to pursue careers in the diplomatic or consular services, exemplifying the links between academia and state. Here, Ujfalvy is most concerned with ethnography, which the author calls “geography of people”, one of the branches of “the science that is concerned with the differences that exist between the human races.” More than physical geography or racial anthropology, he claims, it is ethnography that allows us to enter the mind and spirit of the various peoples of the globe.

The Cours is divided, broadly, into two different sections. The first is concerned with explaining the racial types understood by late 19th century Orientalists. Particular attention is paid to the Turanian or Altaic peoples, the composition of whom is discussed below. Their relative position among the perceived races of the world – always grouped according to their civilizational and intellectual ranking – is of the utmost importance for any future scholar or diplomat to understand.

The second component of the speech is devoted to a chronological overview of the history of Central Asia, beginning not with the development of the region, but rather the development of scholarship. Ujfalvy is careful to provide his audience with a full listing of all of the European travellers, philologists, anthropologists, diplomats, ethnographers and others who have helped fatten the 19th-century canon. It is only after respect has been paid that he can proceed to Central Asia itself, theatre of action for great empires both past and present. China, Turkic polities, and the various ancient and European rulers and states who all battled for these regions get their moment in the spotlight. Ujfalvy, nonetheless, looks to end with a reminder to his listeners of the utmost importance of Central Asia for Europeans. This is the birthplace of human civilization; that is, the cradle of the great civilizations that rule from Europe. As such, the understanding the heart of Eurasia is crucial to understanding European greatness; an argument analogous to Said’s propositions regarding 18th and 19th-century European scholars’ will to power over knowledge of West Asia.

Why would Ujfalvy have been considered such an expert on the geography and history of Central Asia? The above lecture was delivered in 1874, half a decade before he set off to explore these regions on which he was already recognized as an authority. It was evidently not personal experience, but rather scholarly interest and production that got Ujfalvy atop his dais. In 1873, he published Les Migrations de Peuples et Particulièrement celle des Touraniens. This hefty tome is focused on the Turanians, a term previously used to corral peoples as vast as the Hungarians, Finns, Nenets, Turks, Tatars, Mongols and Manchus. Turan was originally a historical and geographical concept connected to nomadic Iranic communities; one that featured in plenty of Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab and other narratives. The term became connected to Turkic and Uralic peoples (and less frequently the Mongolic and Tungusic ones) in the 19th century. This was thanks to a tautological process seeking to establish direct and unbroken links between contemporary populations across central and northern Eurasia – most of whom did not speak Iranic languages – and the peoples mentioned in ancient sources. A sporadic interweaving of philology and ethnography allows Ujfalvy to create a seemingly coherent narrative of the relatedness of the Hungarians, the Turkic peoples, the Estonians, the Scythians and the Sarmatians. This is accomplished through a patchy application of the concept of historicity and a tight bond between language, culture and physical appearance, all of which produce a story almost entirely bereft of the voices of the peoples concerned.  

Recherches sur le tableau ethnographique de la Bible et sur les migrations des peoples also appeared in 1873. It complements considerably the Migrations, and picks up on many of the ethnographic themes included in the Étude comparée as well. In all these works, the previous concern for a broad linguistic church fails to carry over into Ujfalvy’s approach to ethnography and anthropology. Instead, the Bible is called upon to help strengthen his argument: that in spite of linguistic similarities, only those individuals deemed to have been initially white – the Finnic, Ugric and Turkic peoples, that is – could have possibly sprung from the same Adamic source. In effect, Ujfalvy is circling the wagons around racial anthropology and Orientalist visions of white superiority. The Mongols and Manchus are out of the club, and any Finno-Ugric or Turkic-speaking peoples who might bear resemblance to these groups are evidence of miscegenation, not linguistic transfer. On the whole, the goal is two-fold: to allow for the Turanic peoples to be welcomed into the white European fold; and to protect European Christian civilization, which is argued to have emerged in Central Asia, from contamination by the darker races. In 1874, these arguments were enunciated once more in a far more succinctly and coherently organized publication, the Mélanges altaïques, which was commissioned by the French Ministry of Education.

In 1876-78, Ujfalvy departed on the first of his long travels through Eurasia. His experiences are memorialized in the Expédition scientifique française en Russie, Siberie et dans le Turkestan, a six-volume account of such exotic locations as Bashkiria, Siberia, the Caucasus, Tashkent, the Syr Darya, Kohistan and the Fergana valley. Madame Ujfalvy-Bourdon, his wife, accompanied him and wrote her own account as well. The prose of the work is a wonderful amalgam of the styles that Said explores with respect to Lane, Nerval, Flaubert and Burton: the erratic swinging from objective, distant and unemotional scholar, to the individual, sentient and eccentric traveller. Le Pays des Bachkires, the second chapter of the third volume in the series, provides an example of this dichotomy. It begins with painstakingly detailed information about the geography and climate of Bashkiria. A history of the Bashkirs follows, as well as an overview of their language, and then the precise anthropological measurements taken by Ujfalvy and the rest of the team of the Bashkirs they encounter. After this, however, the author switches to a first-person narrative of the trip itself. The section often slips back into a pseudo-impersonal voice, especially when information about the appearance and customs of the “pureblood” Bashkir is given, or his culture and its differences from that of the Kazakhs are discussed. Ujfavly is at pains to show the scientific, empirical nature of his conclusions, but it is ultimately quite difficult for him to avoid revealing the incredibly personal, subjective side of his own evaluations of data collection and analysis.

Similar accounts were produced for the other regions visited and the other peoples studied. Rather than delve into those in detail, I will focus, as we approach a conclusion, on the fourth volume of the work, the Atlas Anthroplogique. Ujfalvy’s previous writings have led me to believe that he is a man interested largely in ethnography and philology. The Atlas, however, causes the brief suspicion to grow inside me that this might have been the product of a dearth of anthropological material with which Ujfalvy could have occupied himself while in Paris. The Atlas is a rich and detailed exposition of something Said describes sparingly in his Orientalism: racial anthropology. It begins with a brief overview of the project, which is largely indebted to the Russian General Kauffmann, as well as an explanation of the ethnicities documented and the methodologies employed. Ujfalvy then presents the reader with dozens of frontal and profile photographs of bare-chested men and women representing the various communities of the Fergana Valley, “newly conquered by Russia.” The names and basic information (date of birth, place of birth, ethnicity, etc.) of each of the subjects is provided in the introduction, and the photographs end with a map charting the residences of the various ethnicities across Central Asia. Said might not have written about such work in Orientalism, but it doesn’t take much to extrapolate from his arguments to an understanding of Ujfalvy’s Atlas.

Fergana, newly acquired by the Russian Empire, does not escape the boring gaze of Europe’s scholarly class. Just as the land is to be held, studied and categorized to understand its usefulness to the colonial project, so too are its people. They are ordered and organized as named commodities, kept in small labelled pockets for future investigation as to their own usefulness or detriment to the expansion of Russian commercial, military and political interests in the region. The visual descriptors and socio-economic, racial and historical data as to the provenance and lifestyles of various groups are mixed together, creating essential, immutable categories of Uzbek, Sart, Tajik or Kazakh. All of the information presented by Ujfalvy comes to us with the seal of approval of Parisian geographic societies, not the first-person narratives of the individuals photographed. These have been stripped of their individuality and autonomy, rendered down to the basic components of a new economic order imposed by the Orientalist and the colonial administrator.

In the Atlas’ introduction, Ujfalvy writes of an extension of this project to include photographs of the same groups of people in their traditional dress, alongside their dominant socio-economic activities and decorative arts. The body was of great importance, especially for the narrative of racial hierarchy. But so too was the mind and its capacity, as colonial expansion is fuelled not only by a belief in the superiority of the metropolitan race, but also in the real financial and economic benefit that it can draw from the labour and resources of the dominated one. Ujfalvy did not express it in this way, but is hard not to draw such conclusions, eager as he is to compare his work in Turkestan with research completed by anthropologists in more traditional targets of European colonialism, such as that completed by the German anatomist Gustav Fristch in Southern Africa. 

The Expedition seem to have marked a peak in Ujfalvy’s scholarly activities. His writings become sparser in the years that follow. He published a number of studies on the arts of Kashmir, as well as his trip to the Western Himalayas, in the 1880s, followed by monographs on porcelain chips in the 1890s. This all led up to his monograph about the Aryans of the Hindu Kush, which appeared in 1896. In 1900, he published on the iconology and anthropology of the Iranic peoples, and his last work appears to have been a study of the physical type of Alexander the Great, which appeared in 1902. The reason for this winding-down is not immediately clear. Nonetheless, Károly Jenő Ujfalvy Mezőkövesd’s contribution to French, and broader Orientalist, understandings of the so-called Turanic peoples had been made. And, just like the scholars investigated by Said in Orientalism, Ujfalvy’s works became part and parcel of the Orientalist discipline, perpetuating ontologies and epistemologies common in Semitic, Indian or Chinese studies into new geographic realms, and providing future scholars with ample material from which to sample and cite. Racial hierarchies; the authority of the Orientalist over passive Orientals; a concern for the essential and ahistorical; and a conversion of Oriental information into Western knowledge in service of European greatness: all these characteristics of Said’s Orientalist scholarship are found too in the works of this Finno-Ugric specialist. Orientalism was indeed an ideology; one flexible enough to be applied in whatever direction scholars such as Ujfalvy saw fit.

The appeal of Finnish, Hungarian, Mordvin or Vepsian culture’s exoticism among the French was relatively limited compared to that of West African or Arab cultural expressions. But European reception is still only half the story. It is easy to see how Ujfalvy’s products, and those of other scholars’, also influenced the perception and self-perception of many of the peoples about whom he wrote. The Finns, Magyars, Vepsians, Mari and Turkic peoples were not usually within the sites of Western European Orientalists or colonial administrators, and ownership of their lands and productive capacities were often left to the Hapsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman Empires. It was in these imperial lands that the rush towards a new colonial order, bleeding into a reformulation of the polity along national lines, was influenced profoundly by the essentializing and dehistoricizing narratives that this school of thought peddled. From Budapest to Istanbul and St. Petersburg to Kazan, the mythical Turanic community of Uralic, Turkic and occasionally Mongolic and Tungusic peoples fuelled more than a few nationalist and nationalizing projects. These largely understudied phenomena are ripe for critical investigation, exemplifying, as they do, the transformation of the Orientalist’s patronizing and dehumanizing view into a mechanism for self-assertion and seizure of the means of cultural production.

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