May 11, 2008

The Ideology of Gymnastics in Hungary

Ignazc Clair was the first person to introduce Gymnastics into Hungary as a sport in the early 19th Century when he founded the Gymnastics society. Gymnastics developed in Hungary to a huge extent over the 19th Century- but more interesting perhaps than the fact of its development and its popularity are the reasons why it developed at that particular point. As Miklos Hadas argues in a perceptive, but often dense, article, written for the Fall 07 issue of the Journal of Social History, the timing of the rise of Hungarian gymnastics was no accident and tells us something very interesting about the process that we call modernisation.

There are two separate processes that Hadas identifies: both of which deserve some attention from us. The first is that the rise of gymnastics represented a change in the class structure of society. As society became more urbanised and more bourgeois the kinds of physical exercise preferred by people changed radically. The old aristocratic exercises such as duelling and hunting became less relevant, as the world shifted. Hunting obviously was not as important within the city of Budapest as within a country estate outside. Duelling too harked back to an honour code and an ideal of chivalric masculinity that was passing out in Burke's 'age of oeconomists'. They were replaced by gymnastics and sport. If you turn to examine the memberships of the gymnastic and sporting societies of Hungary in the century, you find that the majority of their membership were not aristocratic but were middle class- were bourgeois. As the Hungarian middle class grew, so did the obsession with personal sporting excellence.

When the bourgeois moved to exalting sports, they moved to exalting a different model of society. A duel is very different from a fencing match- and even more different from an individual athletic exercise. If I duel, I do so in order to harm my opponent- there is at least a significant risk of doing so. Fencing and to an even greater extent, rowing, and most of all gymnastics are not really about the other, the competition, as they are about the improvement of one's own standard. A duel is an important signifier when your rivals are few and very important- in the bourgeois world of late 19th Century Budapest however, your rival on the gymnastic stage is not likely to be your rival in the boardroom. Rather you use gymnastics to develop yourself as an instrument of self advancement- you do it in order to train yourself.

It is no surprise- and Hadas adopts a fairly Marxian framework based on class analysis to argue this- a framework that has its limitations but also invites us to learn a lot- that this craze for gymnastics took place at the same time as a craze for education. Over the 18th Century, the educative works of modern Europe from the great philosophers of the age- Locke and Rousseau instantly come to mind- were translated and taken on by Hungarians in order to form a new Hungarian citizendry. Rousseau in particular had a great influence through his novel Emile on the way that Hungarians thought about education. Education in Rousseau's view was a way of forming a person to live in a corrupt society- he argued that a vigorous and natural education would lead to a true citizen, whose world would not include amour-propre, the destructive self love- but instead be filled with true feelings towards society and himself. Hungarians shared that aspiration- as did others around Europe- just think of Arnold's Rugby and its description in Tom Brown's Schooldays. Education for them was a training- and it was a mental training. You placed within the individual dispositions through their education- raised them to the higher pleasures. In the classical world of the 19th Century middle class- one of the obvious ways to do that was through training not merely the mind but the body- through gymnastics in particular, through an exercise that promoted self analysis and self criticism and attention to detail amidst monotonous activity.

I don't entirely buy Hadas's thesis- I think he overstates the structural element to this. But I do think that the core is right- we are looking at a change within society and an accompanying change in mindset- and the invention of competitive sport is a part of that. It is a useful part for us because it throws light on the way that the bourgeoise of the 19th Century beleived that education formed the perfect citizen- that it implanted beneficent dispositions within the child in order to the fulfilment of society's ideal. What we are seeing in the development of 19th Century sport is the consequences of the Emilisation of society: hence amongst the most notable offspring of Rousseau should be counted the Olympic Games and the proud history of Hungarian Gymnastics!