Articles and Poems in English

Fifty Shades of Europe. 

The Romanian Public Discourse on Trans-Forming/ De-Forming/ Re-Forming/ Con-Forming (to) Europe

             To speak about discourses on identity seems to be rather a process of opposing different identities hoping to define one of them. For me, the supreme irony here is that, we define our cultures, our values the only way we can, and that means to place them so that they face other cultures or values.  Consequently, the existence of an alterity, of an otherness, is absolutely necessary in order to determine and strengthen one identity. Identity in itself can be defined as what remains after a struggle with an alterity, an otherness which challenges it in a precise moment in history. Ergo, the concept itself is doomed to be conflictual. For a more graphic image, allow me to picture the struggle like this: a certain identity and a certain alterity collide in a certain moment in time; they mingle in a melting pot and then, they end up by being influenced one by the other, but never to that point to become one. The conflict still exists inside the melting pot, although “in times of war, we forget how much we owe to our enemies” (Ruskin Bond, “Book of Humour”). In the end, no pure identity and no pure alterity will arise from the melting pot; nevertheless, any discourse on identity will emphasize, at one point or another, the idea of “purity”. I am pure, The Other is impure. In his book entitled “Pure and Impure”, the French philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch says: “Once fallen into History, what is pure, is doomed to become impure, even if it were to remain alone in the world”. History is here a metaphor for the human interaction throughout time. By interacting permanently, humans share their ideas and values in such an indistinct way that it is impossible, at one moment in history, to state precisely that one’s identity is completely unaltered by these continuous interactions. The idea of purity degenerates in nationalism and violence precisely because those who consider themselves pure feel the desire to defend their purity at any cost.

            What does it mean for a 21stCentury Romanian citizen to be European? It depends, of course, on the citizen we discuss about but, at the same time, more disturbingly, it depends on what kind of space and time this European identity faces. On the streets of Tel Aviv, one can have a different sense of being European than on the boulevards of Paris or Berlin. For an Eastern European, the paradigm is even more confusing. For almost half a century, inside the Iron Curtain, the Easterner had a distinct feeling of being thrown out of Europe, the feeling of not belonging to a type of society upon which he/she had projected dreams, wishes and images. In order to describe this sense of awkwardness an Eastern European felt after the fall of Communism when being in a Western country, allow me to quote a Georgian writer, Lasha Bugadze, who said in his novel “The Literature Express”: “I guess the Europeans don’t suspect such complexes exist. One has to come from the former Soviet Union or be a survivor of the `80-ies in order to understand these fears. The fear of making a mistake. The fear of misdemeanour. The fear of pissing in Vienna airport toilet design for handicapped and being obliged to pay the fine out of the miserable amount you managed to save for your trip abroad. Why have you urinated in the toilet for handicapped, citizen?” (p. 16)”.Therefore, the title I chose for my lecture. “50 Shades of Europe” is a metaphor covering the idea of Europe as an escape from a world of prejudices, conformism and lack of freedom and prosperity. Throughout my lecture I will use the terms Occident and Orient, as an alternative for the commonly used East and West precisely because this terminology is closer to the Romanian cultural realities about which I will try to discuss.

            After centuries of being in the Ottoman sphere of influence and, much recently, under the Russian influence, the way Romanians perceive Europe is significantly different from the way a Westerner does. Apparently, we all speak about the European identity, in reality we just use the same concept which covers completely different, and sometimes antagonistic, realities. Precisely because of this unavoidable dialectic, allow me, at the beginning of my lecture to draw some red lines on which I would like to focus on. Firstly, I would like to introduce a brief history of the idea of Europe in the Romanian culture starting with the Romanian Renaissance, moving through Enlightenment, then to the dawn of the Romanian state (19th Century), the interwar period, the Communist era and, finally the spectacular change of paradigm which began at the Fall of Communism, in December 1989. Secondly, after stating the obvious, meaning East and West have different views and approaches on the same European concepts, I will try to identify the moments in history when Romanian culture, alongside with some other Balkan cultures, seemed to drift apart from what is today the core of Europe. My conjecture is that we need to focus mainly on the 15th and 16th centuries and on the 20th Century. I think we will find fascinating premises there.


            As opposed to the Dark Ages, Renaissance (14th Century – 17th Century) detached from the idea that the human being was being reduced to just a creation of a Divine force by stating that Man was defined by free will, freedom and the ability of evolving on his own. Europe rediscovered the Latin and Greek Antiquity not exclusively through the filter of religion, as it had been before. For Moldavian and Wallachian intellectuals (two separate Principalities which, centuries later, would form Romania), the stake was even higher.

            In spite of the generous Renaissance ideas, it is precisely the religious paradigm that was to fuel up the discourse about a common European identity during the 15th and the 16th centuries when the Ottoman Empire reached its peak. At the end of the 14th century, the Balkan Peninsula falls under the influence of the Ottomans; in 1453, after the Conquest of Constantinople, Europe felt the constant threat of an alien identity which produced soon enough a retaliation, an exacerbation of a common European discourse whose core was the idea of defending Christianity.

            The Myth of the never-ending fight of the Medieval Moldavian and Wallachian rulers to protect the Christian Europe is one of the strongest ideas which is still extant in the Romanian collective mentality and excites it even today. Facing a common opponent, the Renaissance intellectuals from Moldavia and Walachia discovered the Latin roots of their language, portraying the struggle against the Ottoman Empire as a resistance of a Christian world against an Islamic one. The Moldavian historians Grigore Ureche and Ion Neculce of the 17th century attempted to create a feeling of belonging by emphasizing the ideas of Moldavians being the ancestors of Romans. In his chronicle covering the history of Moldavia between 1359-1594 (allegedly written between  1642-1647), Grigore Ureche provides us with a relevant depiction of the Ottomans, emphasizing the paradigm Islam vs. Christianity: “This kind of people which we call Turks, who were, in the beginning, but a hand of criminals spread so much that they cover two parts of the world, Asia and Africa, and they are attempting now to conquer the third part, Europe; they [seem to be]  allowed by God to fight the Christians and spread horror on all their neighbours”. With Russia not playing yet a major role in the European game of power and not having a common border with any of the later Romanian territories, with the Ottomans shaking the gates of Europe, there were not too many options left. The immediate consequence of Romanians’ perceiving and presenting themselves as the inheritors of Roman ancestors was to give birth later to the Romanian national conscience. At that time Europe was a euphemism for the Christian world. As a consequence, Christianity remained until later on a defining idea of the major discourses on European identity.

            With the Enlightenment (17thth Century – 19th Century), the history of Europe seems to evade the religious paradigm. The new religion of Enlightenment will be the concept of the social contract and, later, the notion of the Nation State. With the decline of the common enemy, the Islamic world, (The Ottoman Empire will collapse in 19th century), there was enough room for the new enemy. The old paradigm Christianity vs. Islam was temporarily downgraded and replaced by the new one, The Empires vs The Nation States. The alterity was now not the Non-European, but the foreigner from within, from inside the continent. On the stage of the history of ideas, the Transylvanian Romanian intellectuals emerged. After 170 years of independence, Transylvania was part of the Austrian Empire from 1699 till 1867. From 1867, the province fell under the influence of the Hungarian side of the newly created Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although, throughout the years, the numbers have been used ideologically, according to a census organised by the Austrians at the beginning of the 18th Century, 34% of the total population of Transylvania were Romanians. Poorly educated and having no civil rights, Romanians, as many other minorities incorporated in the dualist Austro-Hungarian Empire, were fascinated with the ideas of the French Revolution. The Transylvanian Enlightenment (“Școala Ardeleană” i.e. The Transylvanian School) developed at the end of the 18th century. Samuil Micu, Gheorghe Șincai and Petru Maior, following the Enlightenment tradition in Western Europe, strive to make knowledge available to people in their own language that is Romanian. They translate, publish dictionaries and set up schools, disseminating the idea of the Latinity of the Romanian language. Their cultural option for the Western Europe is defined in opposition to what they perceived to be the Hungarian oppression. In an official document sent to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Leopold II, was written” “The Romanian nation is the oldest amongst all the nations in Transylvania, because it is well known and proved, by historical documents, which testify of a [Romanian] tradition never interrupted, of the language, customs and folkways all proving that  that the Romanian nation originates in the Roman colonies set up at the beginning of the 2nd  century by the Roman Emperor Trajan, , who repeatedly sent  large numbers of veteran soldiers to defend the Province Dacia”.

            Perhaps now there is the right moment to introduce in this stream of thought one of the strongest inner contradictions which defines Romanian culture even today; the vast majority of the Romanians are Greek Orthodox, but the language they speak is Latin rooted, Latin being the liturgical language of Catholicism. Moreover, the relation between State and Church, the perception of the state in the collective mentality derives from Byzantium; even today we have European aspirations, but Byzantine expectations. Precisely this contradiction was and still is the source of many cultural conflicts and a possible explanation for the superfluous and superficial understanding the Romanian society has of some European concepts such as tolerance, multiculturalism, plurality or globalization. In Transylvania, in 1697, 1698 and 1700, the Romanian Greek Orthodox Church, represented by its clergy, wanted more rights and recognition for people, and consequently signed three documents stating the affiliation of the Church to Catholicism. At first sight, from the outside, this might seem an attempt to create cohesion between the Latinity of Romanian culture and the Romanian religious beliefs. Reading the documents carefully, yet one may notice that, in terms of beliefs and ritual nothing is changed: “And in such a way do we confess to be part of the Sacred, Catholic Church of Rome that we and our ancestors shall not be alienated from the traditions of the Eastern Church. And all our rituals and fasting will be kept just as before, following the old calendar […]”. So, the Union with Rome was more an administrative and political movement meant to obtain civil rights and influence for Romanians in Transylvania than an attempt to deal with the cultural tension between an Eastern Church and a Western rooted language.

            With the creation of the first Romanian state, a never-ending debate starts: where are we, the Romanians, culturally placed? In the shade of Orient, in the shade of Occident or, if of neither, are we a bridge between Orient and Occident, and what exactly does this mean and imply?! Never before the late 19th century did this debate seem to be more prolific. Not having a state, struggling to create one, while the Ottoman Empire was haunting the continent and sending cold shivers to the Christians, the option for the Romanian intellectual elite seemed to be clear: we have the Latin language, we belong to a Christian Europe, we have to keep our eyes opened to the West… In the second half of the 19th century, the matrix is much more complicated. When a nation needs to create a state, its elite faces many challenges, and the first question which arises is: on what kind of values, on what kind of institutions, on what kind of foundations should this new state be built? Above all, a newly created nation needs heroes. Nicolae Bălcescu, a Romanian revolutionary of 1848, created one of the most important Romanian heroes, the medieval ruler Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave), in his book “The Romanians under Michael the Brave” (allegedly written in 1846). For Bălcescu, Europe should be grateful to the Romanians for their fight against the Ottomans. “If our neighbours had been making the same sacrifices as we were or, at least, if they had had supported us more, if the Germans had not been so soft in the war and so unreliable in their promises, if the Polish had not stopped us […], then the Turks, these cruel enemies of civilization, whose cruelty have been delaying the enlightenment and the freedom of the world for centuries, would have been thrown away to their Asian deserts, and Oriental Europe would have had a different fate”.

            In 1859, Moldavia and Wallachia became unified under a single ruler, Alexandru Ioan Cuza, forming The Romanian Principalities. A series of reforms follow soon; a national system of education was conceived, the Latin alphabet replaced the Cyrillic one (1862), the estate of the Church was nationalized and given to people. The Orient and the Occident were still disputing their pre-eminence; centuries of being under the Ottoman influence shaped the mind of people in a way that was incompatible with the ideas of the French Revolution. On the streets of Bucharest and Iași, the two capitals of the young state, one could easily catch a glimpse of this puzzling reality by paying attention to the way people used to dress. If, by any chance, one of us were to get teleported in the late 19th century Romania, maybe the most striking image would be that of an amount of Romanians wearing the old Oriental clothes while the other amount dressed according to  the fashion of Paris and Wien. The dressing code is primarily a significant, relevant metaphor for these two cultural options which the Romanians faced. The most important Romanian play writer, I.L Caragiale, in his comedy “A Lost Letter” (1883), creates a character (Nae Cațavencu, a demagogic politician) who summarizes, in a comic way, the confusing attitude towards Europe: “I do not wish to know, my dear honourable man, about your Europe, I want to know about my Romania and only about my Romania. The progress, my dear honourable man, the progress! In vain do you come with lies and antipatriotic inventions, with Europe, to deceit the public opinion […] Europe should mind its own business. Are we interfering with its business? No, we are not!… Consequently, Europe does not have the right to interfere with ours…”.

            With the first king of Romanians, Carol I, who comes to power in 1866, the option for Europe, for West, seems to be clear, strong and irreversible. Ruling for 48 years, the King gave his country a Constitution, inspired by the Belgian Constitution, created democratic institutions, while the political parties played a certain role in governing the country. But the state itself, young and vulnerable, remained corrupt and venal. Authoritarian, the King, coming from the Hohenzollern-Singmaringen family, has the merit to have accomplished a major achievement and that achievement was that of turning the country face to the West, and of removing it out of the Ottoman sphere of influence. But, we are now at the dawn of the 20th century, when the European paradigm became even more complicated and when the West itself could not be defined anymore as just the land of Enlightenment and culture. The time when the Ottomans were the only alterity is long gone. In 1918, Transylvania became part of Romania. In the field of culture, the old debate was soon to be returned to: the Orient vs. the Occident, the East vs. the West. This time, with the rise of Russia, the cardinal points which catch the intellectual’s attention are much more diverse. Two major cultural trends were being disputed on the Romanian stage of ideas in the interwar period: Modernism vs. Traditionalism. While traditionalists considered Western Europe as being the otherness, Modernists, on the contrary, saw in the West the Lighting House. Nichifor Crainic published, in 1929, an article entitled “The meaning of Tradition”. He wrote the following: “If the purpose of the Romanian people is to create a culture of its own, this also implies an orientation towards something. Those who seek an orientation towards the Occident, state a non-sense. The Orientation has in itself the word ‘Orient’, and means looking in the direction of the Orient. The religious altars are built facing the Orient, the religious icons are placed on the walls facing the Orient; the peasant, when making the sign of cross on the fields, turns to the Orient. An old saying says the light comes from the Orient. And, because we are geographically placed in the Orient and, through our Orthodox religion, we possess the truth of the Eastern light, our orientation cannot be elsewhere but towards the Orient, towards ourselves, towards what we are through the heritage we are proud of. We inherited an Eastern land, and we are the inheritors of our Christian forefathers – our fate is all contained within these geo-anthropological data. […] Occidentalizing ourselves would mean denying our Oriental side; the European nihilism means the denial of our creative potential”. Unfortunately, this view, not at all singular, will be the root of Romanian nationalism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia.

            On the other hand, Eugen Lovinescu, the promoter of Modernism, elaborated his well-known theory of synchronicity. For him, the Romanian culture should try to keep an eye open for the Occident, the place where the main philosophical, political and cultural ideas were spreading from country to country, shaping a strong cultural identity. In his monumental three volume work, “The History of the Modern Romanian Civilization”, published between1924-1926, Lovinescu proved that the modernization of the Romanian culture was based on European ideas. While for traditionalists, the Greek Orthodox religion was the natural expression of the Romanian spirituality, a cardinal point which should guide the Romanian culture, Lovinescu had the remarkable intuition of seeing inside the Romanian society the clash between an Eastern religion and a western based culture. He also argued that the Slavonic language having been imposed as the liturgical language delayed the appearance of the first documents written in Romanian. Moreover, he equated Capitalism with the modernization of the Romanian state. Lovinescu also spoke about the spirit of the time (zeitgeist), a concept used, in various contexts, by Hegel or Herder. Each century, each specific historical moment has its own spirit, is defined by a set of values and norms which cross borders and contaminate cultures. For Lovinescu, this was of extreme importance for a culture, to be connected to the spirit of the time, to evolve and manifest itself while being aware of the existence of the spirit of the time. In the particular case of the Romanian culture, connecting to the spirit of the time means connecting to Occident. The main challenge his theory had to face was the accusation that, by accepting the Occidental cultural influence, the Romanian culture would be doomed to remain a minor one, imitating and not producing original works. To this accusation, Lovinescu replied with the same theory of synchronicity; to him, any process of synchronizing a culture with certain cultural models would eventually lead to integration and finally, originality. As a consequence of his ideas, a new generation of Romanian writers were born. Writers such as Camil Petrescu, Hortensia-Papadat Bengescu, Anton Holban, Ion Barbu, reading their texts in Lovinescu’s literary circle held in his own house, being guided and influenced by his aesthetic views and theories, produced a type literature partly synchronized with the new aesthetic ideas which animated the  Occidental literatures.

            Unfortunately, those were not auspicious times for ideas and debates. Nationalism, fascism, anti-Semitism and Communism arose; ideas were silenced by the noise of arms. After the Second World War, Europe was split, Romania falling under the influence of USSR. On February, 1945, in Ialta, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill divided Europe into two spheres of influence. Eastern Europe was supposed to follow the Communist ideology while the West went on the Capitalist path   with more than financial help from the USA. For more than four decades, the Iron Curtain (the term was used with its nowadays meaning by Churchill) fell over Europe, blocking any kind of cultural exchange between The Occident and Romania. Poverty, provincialism, propaganda, political cleansing were mutilating the Romanian society. Although having a theoretical international agenda, Communism imposed an aggressive nationalism under Nicolae Ceaușescu, the last Romanian Communist president. Not only was synchronicity as envisioned by Lovinescu not possible anymore, but also Capitalism and the Occident, the entire world outside the Iron Curtain became, in the official propaganda, a demon, an euphemism for exploitation. In the field of culture, the Romanian Communist Party encouraged writers to reflect on their works the great achievements of Communism, idealizing the status of the workers. Those who would fit in the new ideology were promoted and published, the others were constantly marginalized and banned. Everything was rigorously controlled by the Party-State that is the Party which was the State; the censorship and propaganda were functioning precisely like in Orwell`s novel “1984”. For Romanians, Orwell’s novel was not a Utopia or fiction, but the reality itself. During Communism, the Romanian collective mentality perceived Europe as a forbidden land. The borders, so strictly monitored, prevented the Romanians from travelling abroad, giving them the feeling that they were, in fact, outside Europe.

            Immediately after the Bolshevik coup d’état, in 1917, a new political ideology was to be created. According to it, art was supposed to reflect the struggle and the triumphs of two social classes: workers (proletarians) and peasants. In Romanian literature, this trend artificially imposed by the Communist Party was later on called “proletcultism” (effective between 1945 and 1960). The word drives from two Russian words “proletarnaia kultura” (the culture of the proletariat). For the new ideology, the artist was supposed to come down from his ivory tower, to go to factories, to speak with the workers and to reflect the contribution of the latter to the creation of the Communist State. Although several remarkable novels were written and published, the general view one has of the culture under Communism is that of a culture ideologically oriented. The crisis of the Communist system, more than obvious in the late seventies, contributed to the idealization of Western Europe. The more propaganda would say Capitalism was the absolute evil, the more powerful was the fascination towards it. Europe ended up by being seen in opposition to the Communist world. More than relevant is the fact that by saying the word “Europe” in Romania, everyone understood exclusively “Western Europe”.

            With the fall of Communism, the full proportions of the disaster appeared in front of our eyes. Everything seemed to be collapsing; one by one, the old illusions so carefully and nicely presented by Communist propaganda were falling apart. For more than forty years, Western Europe was moving in a different direction. The art of dissimulating, a common practice for the Romanians, where everyone had to live in a schizophrenic universe, with bright official political speeches and dark realities, was easily transferred to the field of culture. An entire mythology so aggressively promoted by Romanian Communism became effective. Europe, for so long a forbidden place, was poorly understood in its values and ideas. The tolerance for sexual, religious or ethnic minorities, freedom of speech or the commitment against death penalty were ideas built during centuries in Western Europe. They grew up gradually and were internally assimilated while in Romania, there was never a real debate on any of them in the public space. Before joining E.U, in 2007, being forced to adjust the legislative system in such a way as to become compatible with the E.U standards, Romanians did not have the time to fully understand and commit to any of the values which define E.U. today. Whenever tough decisions had to be made, Romanian politicians would blame E.U for trying to impose them on Romania. Although Euroscepticism was initially marginal, after Romania’s joining E.U, the faith in Europe dramatically decreased. After so many dreams, after so many unreasonable expectations, the tendency was nothing but normal.  The desire to be part of E.U was exclusively based on the idea of being part of a richer world. Often, Europe was seen as an aggressor to the Romanian national specificity. On April 2013, a pole on Romanian Euroscepticism revealed the following data: 58% of the respondents considered their life had been changed for worse after joining E.U. 53% of them did not know anything about the European institutions and their role.

            On the other hand, after empathizing with the Romanian revolution (December, 1989), several waves of Romanian emigrants severely reduced the sympathy the Occident had for this eastern country so highly regarded for its struggle to get rid of Communism and embrace democracy. While separated by the Iron Curtain, East and West, Occident and Orient, were idealizing each other. When, finally Romanians were not only a geographical, abstract reality, but a real presence on the streets of Madrid, London, Paris or Rome, it was impossible to ignore anymore a simple fact; for more than four centuries, East and West were speaking different languages, were raised to believe in different values. The tolerant Western Europe, facing an economic crisis and meeting easterners whose minds had been shaped by decades of Communism, rediscovered an early 20th century discourse, nationalistic and hatred-centred. All the illusions, all the expectations regarding a unifying Europe seem to fade away today.


Now, after having briefly covered some centuries of Romanian history and culture, centuries where the idea of Europe changed under ideological pressure, there come, perhaps, the time to try to give a possible answer to the question I raised at the beginning of my lecture. When exactly in history, did Romanian culture drift apart from the West, ending up being embedded in a different cultural paradigm? I suggest we focus on two crucial moments. The first one takes place in the early 15th century and is referred to as The Age of Discovery. Westerners, pushed forward by economic necessities, were discovering and colonizing exotic spaces. For them, this was the alterity, the otherness. From the 15th century onwards, the mind of the Westerner was shaped around two concepts which have remained unknown for the Easterner: colonialism and post-colonialism. While these two topics are merely subjects of academic interest in the East, they had become important parts of the everyday life in the West. For Romanians, the 15th century alterity was the Ottoman Empire. While the West was arguably imposing its own values on faraway territories, the East was preoccupied with accommodating itself to the values and desires of the Ottoman Empire. For centuries after, the East and the West were playing these two different games. In spite of the fact that the ideas of the French revolution penetrated the cultural Romanian space in the 19th century, the seeds were falling on a completely different ground. An Oriental one.

            Secondly, for the Romanian collective mentality, the date of 30th of December 1947 was a crucial one. It came precisely when the gap between the Orient and the Occident was slowly closing. The Romanian king was deposed by Communists. What initially seemed to be but a mere  sinister joke that is the Romanian Communist Party having  only  few members at that moment, became a reality which was to shape the Romanian cultural space for almost half a Century. The gap was dramatically widening. It is of extreme importance to state that in the whole Romanian history, the period between 1990 till present is the longest time of uninterrupted democracy. And, as we all know, democratic mechanisms need time to impose themselves, nations need time to assimilate them, and people need to continually exercise democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of vote, equality of opportunity s.o in order to profoundly understand how they function.


            At the end of my talk, allow me to indulge in a speculative attempt to picture the future of the Romanian’s relations to Europe. It is merely an exercise of imagination, plus an important dosage of wishful thinking. The key to closing the gaps between West and Romania might be… time. More than two and a half millennia ago, the Chinese general, Sun Tzu, in his well- known “Art of War”, said: “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by”. Provincialism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, xenophobia can be, sooner or later, alien concepts for the new generations travelling from country to country, meeting people having different ethnic origins, sexual or religious options. The sense of belonging, for so long defined in a violent opposition to the Other will, perhaps, step aside from the path of violence. The body of the enemy, which is the ignorance and the exacerbation of several forms of cultural autism, will float by the river if we wait long enough and, while waiting, we find ways of allowing young generations to travel and find the Other, speak to him about things we share. The Bogeyman, portrayed as a dark and devilish monster, might be, when met directly, just a human being who perhaps thinks differently, behaves differently, speaks differently but has the same desire of stating his difference in a calm voice, using arguments and ideas… I am the first to admit there are not too many signs to justify such a bright view today. But, no one can reasonably predict the way our world will be in, let us say, 2090. The grownups who will populate the Earth in 2090 are not even born, and the beauty of it is that, under the circumstances, everything is possible…


            In the modern Indian literature, a feminine body is rarely just a feminine body. When women move in the fictitious world of R.K Narayan, Ruskin Bond, Chetan Bhagat, Jumpa Lahiri, Aravind Adiga or TarunTejpal they are always more than characters rambling around a paraphernalia, justifying a narrative strategy or a theoretical need for narrative coherence. The present paper intends to analyse the body precisely from this perspective, having as reference a collection of erotic short stories published in India, in 2009, and entitled “The Electric Feather”. Throughout all the 13 short stories, when a feminine character reveals her body, in a rather shy and very often clumsy attempt of creating an erotic atmosphere, the reader intuitively discovers that nakedness is a statement, a metaphor or simply a craving need for freedom.

            A reader with an exclusively European experience, not at all familiarized with India can perhaps never imagine how or up to which extend the removal of clothes can intricately be associated with the idea of freedom. Modern India, culturally torn apart by both Hindus and Muslim fundamentalisms, does not give too much space for women to explore or even openly express their needs, their desires, their necessity to step firmly inside the 21st century. Arguably enough, some might say that this desire itself is insufficiently fought for, insufficiently asserted, insufficiently assumed.

            “Electric Feather” appears in an Indian social and cultural context which makes the book something more than just literature. The recent scandals of brutal gang rapes or honour killings, the arising of nationalism, violence and intolerance, the results of recent elections shook up the nowadays India, raising questions about the future development of the entire Indian society. In the introduction, the editor Ruchir Joshi provides us with a glimpse of this dark threatening curtain of fear, traditionalism and obscurantism which starts to fall upon the Subcontinent: “This project was conceived in the shadow of exiling of M.F Hussain on a ridiculously spurious ‘charge’ hatched by the Hindu fascists, and the beginning of the resurgence of the Taliban goons in Afghanistan; the volume comes out in the shadow of the assault by the Hindu Taliban on young women drinking in a pub in Mangalore. Hopefully, in its own small way, this book will join the resistance against those and other such depredations” (Joshi, 2009).

            Ruchir Joshi gives us from the very beginning an idea of how difficult it was for him to convince writers to participate with texts to his collection of erotic stories. He confesses in introduction: “[three writers] did variations of spluttering into their beer, «Me, writing porn for you!?! No fucking way!» and promptly crossed their legs […]” (Joshi, 2009). Not without interest should the reader pay attention to the biographies of the writers signing texts for this collection. Out of 13 names, 5 are males. Out of 8 female writers, 4 are not currently living in India or are educated abroad. Tishani Doshi has a Welsh mother, being born in Canterbury, Abeer Hoque lives in the States, Sheba Karim currently stays in New York, Kamila Shamsie lives in London. Although all writers present in the book have a connection with the Subcontinent, just four of them assume the difficult task of writing from inside its borders. Consequently, my analysis will focus upon the following short stories: “Tourists”, by Paromita Vohra, “The Advocate”, by Sonia Jabbar, “The First Time”, by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan and “The Quilt”, by Parvati Sharma.

            The plot of the short story “Tourists” is rather a simple one, not at all original. The narrator, Paolomi, an emancipated woman in her thirties, accompanies her female friend Kiranon set of a Bollywood movie where the main movie star is Sartaj Khan, a classical prototype of a Bollywood actor: arrogant, infatuated and proud of his perfect body and his equally perfect six pack. Although the short story starts with the narrator and her friend sharing a chocolate, in a scene of explicit lesbian eroticism, soon this narrative path is quite oddly abandoned in favour of another one. Watching from a reasonable distance the erotic scene between the narrator and Kiran, the actor expresses his desire to have some of the chocolate the two girls are sharing. When it happens, suddenly the narrator and the gorgeous actor are getting teleported in time and space, in a Guest House they do not recognize and in a time and space which they eventually identify as being 1977, Nicobar and Andaman Islands. In spite of the fact that the Guest House seems to be expecting a guest and has a lot of peons around, no one seems able to notice the existence of the two time travellers, who indulge, of course, predictably, in their erotic games undisturbed and unnoticed. When the expected guest arrives, both realize that they are in the presence of nobody else than Indira Gandhi. After a series of unsuccessful attempts of going back in their own time, the two protagonists succeed when they share again a chocolate bar found in Indira Gandhi`s purse. The predictable end of the story finds both the narrator and Sartaj Khan, the actor, on the same set of the Bollywood movie their fabulous journey had begun.

            What firstly puzzles the reader is a fracture inside the story. The lesbian scene, which at one point seems to be the core of the story, is abruptly abandoned. Why would someone describing so passionately a scene of eroticism would brutally abandon it by choosing to develop the plot in a totally different direction, introducing a mambo-jumbo element such as surreal teleportation? The message one gets from this narrative strategy is that the present time of the story, which is contemporary India, does not allow such type of manifestation of eroticism. To fulfil it, to get in touch with her own sexuality, Paolomi needs to go back in time. Only then does her body become free. Consequently, the strategy can be read in terms of a critique to Indian contemporaneity.

            Not without interest is the description of the Guest House the two get teleported to. “[…] oil paintings – of Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and a village scene with Satyam Shivam buxom belles” (Vohra, 2009). It seems odd enough that the narrator, Paolomi and the actor indulge in a full exposure of their bodies surrounded by pictures of India’s founding fathers. Again, the suggestion seems to be the incongruence of what India was meant to be and what it really is. While in the present time of the story Paolomi is rather shy and reserved, she discovers her sexuality when teleported in a space when, from the walls the whole sexual game is witnessed by India`s founding fathers.

            Moreover, between the lines, in a rather childish dialogue (dialogue being, in fact, a disturbing flaw of the story), one might find an intriguing definition of the body itself. While engaged in an erotic game, half-naked, Paolomi says to her lover: “Your body is made up of some sort of special material that’s created from lots of people wanting you and you knowing that” (Vohra, 2009).In other words, the body is what the society and the cultural taboos or habits allow it to be. The usage of our own bodies is far from being a matter decided by us, the physical owners. Such an intimate relation like which developed between ourselves and our bodies is always culturally regulated through education, moral norms or the level of tolerance and acceptance from the society we live in.

            Written with much more maturity, “The Advocate”, by Sonia Jabbar has such a carefully developed plot that it remains unpredictable until the very end. The narrator is a young man who tells the story of the advocate P.K Sharma, 43 years of age, to whom he was an apprentice once. When presented to the renowned advocate, the narrator, young at that time, looks up to P.K Sharma, considering him a role model, both professionally and ethically. Soon, the young apprentice discovers the advocate has a lot a mistresses and indulges in sexual experiences, although he is happily married to a nice, decent middle-age woman. Being dragged into drinking, the young apprentice finally comes to terms with his boss behaviour. One day, in P.K Sharma`s office comes a very attractive Muslim woman, Laila Bano, wearing a traditional burka, her whole body covered, and with whom the advocate irremediably falls in love. The advocate asks his apprentice to drive him and the Muslim woman around the premises; during the drive, on the back seat of the car, P.K Sharma and Laila Bano, still covered in her burka, consume their passionate physical love. Tired and needing some rest, the advocate insists on his apprentice losing his virginity in the company of Laila Bano. The young man, after a disturbing sexual experience, during which the woman insists on keeping the lights turned off, falls asleep and wakes up in time to witness the following scene which is, at the same time, the final scene of the short story. P.K Sharma realizes the amazing Muslim woman whom he fell for is no other than his own wife. The advocate loses his temper, but not because he finds himself sharing his wife with the young apprentice. What makes him angry is that his wife, a Brahmin, had slept with a boy much under her cast.

            What offers us an interesting perspective here is that the writer is a woman but she tells the story in the first person singular, in the voice of a male narrator. The advocate has a distinct opinion regarding women bodies. They are there for consumption; they need to be replaced when they do not satisfy the consumer anymore. Ergo, a woman`s body is nothing more than a vessel. P.K Sharma`s paradigm is, in his own views, so obvious than it does not need any further proof, being accepted, he believes, by women themselves. Talking about his wife, he states: “Don`t get me wrong, I love and respect her. I have put food on the table and my seed in her womb. This is another matter, not for her to interfere with. Can you eat the same thing for breakfast every day? No, you can`t. No matter how much you love those precious parathas of yours, if someone served you an omelette for a change, you`d grab it and wolf it down. Your Bhabi [the wife] knows that and never questions me” (Jabbar, 2009).

            Apparently, playing a minor role in the whole narrative development, P.K Sharma`s wife, who, to be desired again to her husband, needs to pretend to be a Muslim woman (Laila Bano) covered in burka, is, no doubt, a key-character. As a wife, she appears for the young apprentice “[…] like a kind lady, quiet and efficient […]. Her home was always tidy, her cooking delicious […] she didn’t seem the type who would ever nag her husband” (Jabbar, 2009). What captivates the reader is the total transformation she suffers when appearing as an alias, an alter ego, as an object of sexual desire. P.K Sharma does not recognize his wife and madly falls in love with her. Let us start from the description of the first meeting between the advocate and the avatar of his own wife, Laila Bano. P.K Sharma recalls the meeting as follows: “[…] the lady was shrouded in a black burka, but she had the most exquisite fair hands. Her fingernails were long and stained with henna and every finger was bejewelled. When she spoke her voice was barely audible, a low husky tone. And what she couldn`t convey with words she did with her hands” (Jabbar, 2009). The advocate`s wife succeeds in re-becoming sexually desirable not by revealing, but, on the contrary, by covering her body. Pretending to be someone else, she transforms while having sex to such extent that even she becomes unrecognizable to herself. Her body becomes free only after she creates the illusion of becoming someone else. And precisely this idea is the link between the first short story I have previously discussed and “The Advocate”, by Sonia Jabbar. A woman’s body becomes free only when it eludes, through various stratagems, the reality.

            “The First Time”, by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, is a story of a 27 years old young man, Aditya Sarkar, losing his virginity to a co-worker, Disha. What intrigues the reader here is, of course, not the story itself, not at all imaginative, full of narratological clichés, but the way the woman body is described. We have a meaningful parallelism between two different erotic scenes. Firstly, the narrator describes the lust of some school kids when seeing their good looking Geography teacher. Obviously, her body, being covered, invites the viewers to engage in a game of imagination. Each of them tries to put together images they do not see based on what they catch a glimpse of. “They eye-fucked her when she turned to write something on the blackboard and raised her arms, when the cut of her waist between blouse and the lower half of her sari was pronounced, and each boy imagined himself […] her lover” (Madhavan, 2009).  Years go by and the narrator, a grown-up though still a virgin, finds himself all of a sudden with a naked woman (his co-worker) in his bed. The entire tone of the description changes. The desire disappears and the body is being seen as a functional machine, as a presence, as an object whose instruction manual mentions one objective usage: to help the narrator lose his virginity. Even more, the woman perceives herself as a body and only a body. “[She] was now stretched across his bed. Nacked. He didn`t know how she got there […] she didn`t really seem to be listening to what he was saying”. The sex scene which follows is, stylistically, as mechanical as the rest of the description. A cascade of gestures technically correct, but lacking any kind of affection or emotional involvement. The adjectives are almost absent and the text itself turns into porn. Aditya Sarkar permanently compares the image of a woman’s body as he imagined watching porn with what he sees. Now, the challenging question is how does Aditya Sarkar, as a school kid, instinctually a sense of eroticism which is completely lost in adulthood?! How can he be erotically imaginative in school and erotically not there as a 27 years old virgin?! Culturally, this transformation cannot elude the formal education our character is subjected to. Coming to Delhi for college, he embraces a cultural pattern, a way of seeing the body of a woman as a functional one. The instinctive sexual desires is replaced, culturally conditioned by the mechanics of eroticism. The end of the story is a veritable climax of this whole non-involvement attitude of the male character. After losing his virginity, after all a moment equally important for a man no matter which culture he evolves in, Adytia Sarkar kisses the girl on the “top of her head” and watches her leaving his apartment quietly.

            “The Quilt”, by Parvati Sharma is an example of metaliterature.  Two lesbians discuss the famous short story entitled “The Quilt”. Written by Ismat Chugtai, who was accused of blasphemy and dragged in court in 1944 for describing in her text scenes of homoeroticism, the text is a symbol of freedom of speech. Just by invoking the name of a well-known controversial Indian short story, Parvati Sharma makes a statement. The short story, though poorly written, is a parabola. The two feminine characters make love under the blanket and whenever the blanket is removed or about to be removed one of them makes the symbolic gesture of covering their bodies, although the setting of the story is a very private, quiet, intimate one. The dialogues are quite lame and the erotic scenes reveal too much, describe too much and offer too many visual, explicit clues for being erotic. But precisely in this far from a shy setting, this obsession of covering the bodies otherwise fully described is an indication of an almost political statement. “The Quilt” talks about a society which contaminates even the most secluded, private spaces with its taboos and prejudices.


            Now, intuitively I dare guess the question of the reader hearing this type of text analysis. How orthodox, how professional can it be to interpret literature so… ideologically?! The European literary criticism owes so much to Harold Bloom, after all, who teaches us how wrong it is to look at a text through the glasses of ideology. I would start by saying that, unknowingly, Bloom himself, institutes a type of ideology. He rejects Feminism, Marxism and so on as literary tools but, precisely by doing this, he creates a new space for a new ideology, his new ideology, the ideology of Aesthetics. Our analysis works on the premise, which functions inside the field of imagology, that literature will always be, even when it denies it, a social phenomenon.  This is why, when a woman body moves inside a fictional reality, it moves at the same time in the writer` mental paradigm which is, no doubt, culturally conditioned by a system of education, by a political, economic or social system. “No man is an island” and no character can float in a vacuum, even when we call it an aesthetic vacuum.



  • Jabbar, Sonia (2009), “The Advocate”, “Electric Feather”, New Delhi, Tranquebar, pp. 79-101.
  • Joshi, Ruchir (2009), “Repairing Brindavan. An Introduction”, “Electric Feather”, New Delhi, Tranquebar, pp. VII-XII.
  • Madhavan, Meenakshi Reddy (2009), “The First Time”, “Electric Feather”, New Delhi, Tranquebar, pp. 158-171.
  • Sharma, Parvati (2009), “The Quilt”, “Electric Feather”, New Delhi, Tranquebar, pp. 172-179.
  • Vohra, Palomita (2009), “Tourists”, “Electric Feather”, New Delhi, Tranquebar, pp. 23-54.

Cities beyond Cities

 – an essay –

Text prezentat în cadrul conferinţei cu tema “City City Bang Bang”, 21-23 Martie 2013, University of Delhi, New Delhi, India

            When looking, out of the window, from a sky scraper in Singapore or Hong Kong, nowadays one can see surreal fly-overs, a strikingly amazing number of cars, 3D cinemas, and people cuing up for taking the next metro, which often runs above the street. In Delhi, within one day, the traveler witnesses the remarkable urban space of Gurgaon and the totally unremarkable reality of the slums. In Singapore, there is a neighbourhood called “Little India” and, of course, a China town. In Kuala Lumpur, one walks across the zebra in a middle of a crowd where a woman wears burka, another one a miniskirt, where a man in a suit, working for a big corporation is followed by a youngster, a Green Peace activist or anti-globalization supporter. In Tokyo, the urban jungle of Shibuya neighbourhood, with its teenagers wearing the outfit of Japanese animés is counter-balanced by Ueno Park with its temples. One could go on like this forever. The 21st century metropolis has such a complex identity that it has ended up, in many cases, by being shaped in such a way to prevent the clashes of identities by cultivating modern concepts like tolerance, political correctness, multiculturalism, globalization and so on. As Henri Lefebvre puts it, in his book, “The Production of Space”: “urban space gathers crowds, products in the markets, acts and symbols. It concentrates all these, and accumulates them. To say ‘urban space’ is to say centre and centrality, and it does not matter whether these are actual or merely possible, saturated, broken up or under fire, for we are speaking here of a dialectical centrality”.

The urban space is merely one which accommodates diversity, in all its various manifestations. Many of the cities today contain a multitude of social, ethnical, political, economic layers either inter-acting or opposing each other in such a random way that, by focusing on understanding or deciphering them, one feels irremediably lost. If, ,to all that we add the hybrid identity which  Homi Bhaba talks about in his book “Location of Culture” and the fluidity of the periphery, which often replaces  or contaminates the center, then, in front of us, we have the entire panoply of insurmountable difficulties which a researcher faces when discussing cities and their identity paradigms. Precisely because of this, my analysis on the city and literature has to go back in time, searching for a more solid ground, where a necessary systematization can be operated with the assumed purpose of discussing about the mechanisms which altered, redefined and reshaped the human-mind setting. If nowadays we travel comfortably in huge iron-birds, which we call planes or move from a floor to another in glass-cages named elevators, we might have the natural tendency to consider our comfort technology has being something familiar and even surrender to it as being a reality so mundane that it is beyond questioning or debate. In reality, behind any urban nature there hides at least one ancestor who, at one moment in time, considered the city to be an alien. An ancestor for whom the banal escalators or the crowded intersections, with their traffic lights and the surreal number of four-wheels vehicles must have seemed alienating, disturbing and confusing.   

            Consequently, I will discuss the displacement one feels when initially moving from a traditional village to the city and the way this displacement is reflected in literature. The interest of the analysis might arise from the necessity of understanding how we, as human beings, deal with disrupture and which are the reactions to the fracture we face when needing to cope with a kind of reality which we have not been prepared for. The question which I find challenging to give an answer to is the following: what is essentially changed when a human being trades his or her identity as a villager for an identity as a cityman? Of course, there can be as many answers as there are individuals, but, beyond or in spite of this, a pattern can also be identified.

Before a person adapts to an urban reality, there is an in-between identity problem, a moment which, though extremely intense, does not last too long. It is the precise moment when the individual establishes the initial contact with the city. In Aravind Adiga`s novel, “Between the Assassinations”, a rickshaw puller (Chenayya) recollects his memories when first facing the city as follows: “The realization came to him now, that the first day in a city was destined to be the best: you had already been expelled from paradise, the moment you walk into the city”. In the same novel, two brothers come to the city, hoping for a better life. One of them describes his first impressions: “Two cycles swerved around him, nearly running over his feet; in every direction, cycles, autorickshaws, cars, threatened to crush his toes”. (p. 113)

 Herta Müller, the Literature Nobel Prize Winner in 2009, depicts her experience in “The King Bends and Kills”.   For her, the essential difference between the rural and the urban realities stays in the way she is forced to use the language. While in the village, the routine and the daily rituals are commonly known, accepted and strictly followed, in the urban jungle she has to verbalize more. Silence is no longer possible. “When one does not have the habit of speaking to people in one`s proximity, one does not need to get used to thinking in words. There is an inner attitude here [in the village] which in cities can be found only in dahlias, not in people”. Silence is here a metaphor for a sort of familiarity which allows villagers to identify problems, solutions and human behaviours based on patterns or/and routine. Even today, you walk down the main street of a Romanian village and you do not have to be too perspicacious to notice that everyone and everything has a place and a role in the community. Often, in these villages everyone greets everyone, and even the outsiders are greeted as if knowing each other and one another.  

In Tarun Tejpal`s dystopia, “The Valley of Masks”, the main character, brought up in a secluded, orthodox community, venerating a deity called Aum and following strict rules, escapes his world, although knowing that in the end he will pay for the gesture with his own life. He recollects his first memories of the new city he was settling in as follows: “There is so much music in this place that I have come to […]. It flows out of houses and it beats out from shops, it envelops the carts of street vendors and it fills out cars […]. Coming from a country of deep silences I am constantly aware of it. Men here move through it as if it did not exist, or take it for granted like the trees and the air”. We have here the same antinomy silence vs. noise, but, also an interesting way of perceiving the city with the mind-setting of an individual not belonging to it. The music, at whose omnipresence the character is amazed, equates with the presence of a more familiar universe, defined by trees and air. The need for a parallelism with something familiar is the only way of making sense of the new reality.

Out of many, I mentioned just three different depictions, three different writers, three different experiences, but nevertheless one constant: the noise of the city, the annihilation of the old self by a new one, which is built around the concept of social skills. As silence stands for an ancestral, undisputed order and hierarchy in the village, the noise of the city signifies the aggression of a universe where the main tension is generated by a paradox: although accommodating numerically important communities, the city establishes among them relations based on the assumption that the interaction can be minimally invasive, formatted, defined in a set of social rules with a high degree of complexity. Octavian Paler, a Romanian writer and journalist, remembers his first journey out of Lisa (a small village in Transylvania) to Bucharest (the Romanian capital) as if travelling in time for centuries. In his own village, the child had not seen any movie, any Christmas tree and, as he confesses, he had not known the meaning of half the words used in the city.

We have the same recurrent theme; the inability of verbalisation in a new topos, one in which the subtlety of language is meant to denominate objects and processes which have been absent in the traditional village. It would be superfluous to assume that we are facing here a minor, linguistic problem. The usage of words and the richness of the personal vocabulary can be relatively easily surpassed. What remains, though, is the amazement of one having to name things which one cannot mentally indentify and get accustomed to. To describe it, I would use an allegory from Jose Saramago`s book, “Blindness”. In an anonymous city, a mysterious epidemic of blindness, forces all the characters to achieve new skills, to try to transgress everything which was coined before and taken for granted in order to survive. It is a classical process of adjustment, with the one and only major difference that it has to be done suddenly, with such an aggressive speed that the mind does not even have the slightest chance to process. The blindness Octavian Paler and the other characters quoted here have to face, expressed as a complete reshape of an entire inner universe, is the discomfort of not possessing the code which allows understanding and interaction.

  The reality of the city forces the human mind, not accustomed to it, to incorporate a social universe which demands constant attention in order to decipher a never-ending Brownian motion in which one, in order to function as expected, needs to see patterns. But, and now the difficulty increases, the patterns which are to be decoded should coincide or be coherent with the general pattern of the city. Otherwise, the individual is trapped inside his own way of sense-making, like Maximillian Cohen, the main character from “Pi”, a movie directed by Darren Aronofsky. He is a brilliant mathematician who is able to see the world around him as a succession of numbers and formulas, but fails constantly in decoding the social pattern of the same world he lives in. The code or the language of the city is the first manifestation, the primary symptom of the displacement as described in the examples quoted above. 

After the need to achieve the language of the city, there is another one, not less aggressive and confusing: to make sense of distances. The urban space expends to a point when it alters and gets to incorporate a multitude of non-places, as Marc Augé would call them. In his book, published in 1995, “Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity”, the French anthropologist coins the notion of non-place, referring to transitory places with transitory identities like the airport, the supermarket, the cinema hall or the escalators.  While the village condenses in a small number of topoi, the whole social activity of the community, the city demands from its inhabitants an adequacy to a multitude of social situations. Going to a bar, taking the cab, following the traffic rules, filing a complaint in a police station, using the escalators –  although they all seem for most of us small, petty, everyday, implicit gestures, at the same time they all involve a predefined understanding in the absence of which the social life is significantly altered. The memory of a non-place helps one to have the   adequate and comforting attitude towards it while the absence of such a memory generates a displacement. Aristotle states in “On Memory and Reminiscence”: “[…] to remember the future is not possible, but this is an object of opinion or expectation (and indeed there might be actually a science of expectation, like that of divination, in which some believe); nor is there memory of the present, but only sense-perception. For by the latter we know not the future, nor the past, but the present only. But memory relates to the past”. In this sense, we have to picture the disruption of one facing, for the first time, the urban jungle imagining the men from Plato`s cave; the references of their memory, in relation with the past, do not help them to orientate themselves outside the cave.

  In the city, the existence of distances, as related to memory, brings us back to the Aristotelian paradigm. So that for one to be socially apt, the urban space requires from him or her a complicated mechanism of identifying and interpreting the architecture coherently, the streets, the pedestrian crossings, the cycling trails and so on. It is, after all, a mimetic mechanism, but nevertheless, when one is suddenly confronted with it, with no tools for deciphering it, the initial impact is far more complex than the simple idea of an individual lost in a metropolis would make us believe.  Balram Halwai, the main character from Aravind Adiga “The White Tiger”, born in a village in Bihar, becomes a driver in Delhi. His perspective of the vastness and chaos, though specific, referring to New Delhi, is relevant for the process I am describing: “Every road in Delhi has a name […]. And no one, masters or servants, knows the name of the road. You ask someone, `Where is Nikolai Copernicus Marg?` And he could be a man who lived on Nikolai Copernicus Marg his whole life, and he`ll open his mouth and say, `Hahn?` Or he`ll say `Straight ahead and turn left`, even though he has no idea. And all the roads look the same, all of them go around and around grassy circles in which men are sleeping or eating or playing cards, and then four roads shoot off from the grassy circle where men are sleeping or playing cards, and then four more roads go off from it”. (119) 

 No wonder the city is associated, in many various cultures, with the concept of alterity or otherness. An important part of the nationalistic public speech creates a dichotomy, periodically reactivated: the village is seen as a metaphor of a spiritual Golden Age of the nation while the city is corrupted by cosmopolitism and, later on, by industrialization, multiculturalism or globalization. The nationalistic discourse, developed fully in the century called in Europe the century of nations (19th century), embedded in its theoretical approach the idea that the core of the nation lay among fields, crops and traditions. Nowadays, one is so used to this idea that one barely asks why. Firstly, the village came into being first and in our culture we often associate the idea of purity with the idea of primordiality. Secondly, as Rabindranath Tagore states in his essay on Nationalism, the nationalistic ideology feeds itself on the presupposition that going back to our roots and ancestors will give us a strong sense of belonging: “ We never dream of blaming our social inadequacy as the origin of our present helplessness, for we have accepted as the creed of our nationalism that this social system has been perfected for all time to come by our ancestors who had the superhuman vision of all eternity, and supernatural power for making infinite provision for future ages”.

Nevertheless, there is another paradigm which allows us to decipher the pre-eminence of the village, both in the Romantic imaginary and the nationalistic discourse: the myth of the peaceful co-existence between Man and Nature, the myth of purity. While in the village,  as both bucolic poets and nationalists seem to suggest the human being is in agreement with Nature, obeying and following its laws, in the city, Nature is subjugated, coerced to feed and serve the human needs. An interesting depiction of Nature`s unstoppable force appears in Ben Okri`s novel, “The Famished Road”. A wild party in the village turns into a violent carnage, with drunkards fighting and crowds shouting, threatening and yelling. When the climax is reached, something happens; the only thing which could possibly stop the bloodbath: “It was not the tragedy of the night that dispersed everyone. It was the rain. The thugs fought themselves right through different strata of time. The soldiers left as a group […]. The tramps […], the people who had turned up to hail their new hero, the wretched and the curious, were all washed away by the gentle flood” (483)

The idealization of the rural space seems to be an intellectual, almost ideological and political, by-design construct, a concept which imposes itself forcibly, graciously ignoring the village and its realities. Whoever reads today “Godan” (Premchand), “The Peasants” (a novel by the Polish Nobel Prize laureate, Wladislaw Reymont) or the Romanian novel “The Uprising” (Liviu Rebreanu), easily  notices the roughness of the rural reality, its cynicism and its randomness. Romania, when it came into being in its modern shape (1859, 1918) was, mostly, a rural country. The cities, not many in number, were a heterogeneous mixture of ethnicities and religions. Jews and Hungarians, Armenians and Bulgarians, Turks and Germans, all sharing the same urban space. Consequently, when the nationalistic time arose, people being preoccupied with defining the nation in terms of ethnicity, the city became a target. It became a shelter for corruption (in the sense of alterity), a threat for the national identity. A mass production of Romanian literature, ideologically rooted, started creating a typological literary character: the villager, with his or her sense of decency and duty, with his or her strong ethics, with his or her healthy thinking vs. the cityperson with his or her petty intellectual dramas, with his or her depravity and indulgences. The tendency was counterbalanced by the appearance of what in Romanian literature is called modernism. Although modernism rehabilitated the city, even now one of the strongest nationalistic myths remains the purity of the village vs. the decadence of the city. The Romanian example might be a particular one, but I dare say, not a singular one.   

The bucolic space, the rural landscape, the forest with its twittering birds, the village covered in snow during winter, with its smoky chimneys hardly visible from the distance, the fields and the crops, the shepherds and their yearly transhumance, the mountain rivers and its fish swimming undisturbed by the human presence, the patriarchal communities where lived the old and wise, the village with its strict hierarchy, the peasants with their traditional costumes were all, and for many centuries, the main texture of  literature. Not many would have conceived that the background for a literary love story can be, let us say, instead of a beautiful lake in a mountain, an elevator cabin stuck somewhere between the 51st and the 52nd floor of the Empire State Building. Nevertheless, in spite of being constantly depicted as a sanctuary for alterity, the city claimed for itself a status which nowadays is more and more acknowledged and assumed. Many of those who idealize the rural space today do it from in front of a laptop. They use a Wi-Fi connection to post on their blogs various texts in which they demonize modernity, technology and the city itself. The nationalists deliver their speeches about how perverted the urban space is as compared to the rural one from inside a television studio, revising and rehearsing their speeches in a plane, flying over the Oceans, the rivers and the lakes they idealize; the poets write their texts about the mirage of Nature, the beauty of the forest using a sheet a paper which was, not long before, part of a tree.

Modernism and postmodernism, the post-culture, as the term was coined by George Steiner, have all imbedded the reality of the city in them. The displacement I was discussing and analyzing transgresses and eventually comes to terms with the urban space, which has the ability of incorporating even the attitudes against it. The power of the city, the dreams it feeds, the greed it encourages, the way in which it unfolds so as to cover, accommodate and allow cultural tension – they all come from the tolerance it has towards chaos. Once the order is established in one chaotic paradigm, a counter-chaos is arising precisely in the core of the newly achieved order; once the centre feels settled and strong, the periphery invades it, claiming the status of the center, contaminating it until it completely reshapes it or replacing it just  so as to be itself replaced by another periphery. Life which pulsates in the city is not a coherent, monolithic, predictable axiom, but just a never-ending and fertile dialectic; a dialectic which I like to describe and to think about as a manifestation of a city beyond a city beyond a city beyond a city…    


Text prezentat în cadrul conferinţei cu tema: Laugh so you don`t cry? Contemporary Encounters of the Tragic and the Comic. 1-3 martie, University of Delhi, New Delhi, India

All of Us Cry in the Same Manner, Each of Us Laughs Differently?!

-an essay-

Writing about tragedy and comedy nowadays is merely more a scholastic intellectual convention than a concrete step or approach meant to elucidate some contemporary literary issues. And this is because tragedy and comedy as pure literary genres (as Aristotle defined them) or species of dramatic genre, ceased to exist. Using the original Greek terminology, one has to accept that both, tragedy and comedy are nowhere to be found in what we call today, with a name lacking precision, but fuelling different intellectual debates and providing conferences with some delightful topics, modern literature. Three statements have to be made as a sort of forward in the beginning of my text. First, I will discuss tragedy and comedy in Aristotelian terms. Tragedy is seen as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” (Aristotle, Poetics), while comedy implies an “imitation of characters of a lower type –not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly” (Aristotle, Poetics). Second, my analysis covers the European cultural space and all my arguments and demonstrations use European references. I would be more than glad to see that they are applicable to other cultural spaces, but not at all responsible if not. Third, outside the Aristotelian paradigm, I will not use the terms tragedy and comedy, since my strong conviction is that they don`t exist anymore as pure genres, preferring instead terms like tragic and comic literary elements.

From being a text in itself in ancient times, these two concepts evolved or decayed (if one must necessarily be nostalgic!) to being components embedded in literary texts, serving a much more sophisticated consciousness, both in readers and writers. We have today the tragi-comedy, a perfect paradox in front of which poor Aristotle would be astonished and confused. In the end of some plays called tragedies, the hero doesn`t die anymore, which is a serious deviation from what Aristotle wrote about tragedies. More than this, even the dramatization of the old tragedies follows the zeitgeist of our era.  In February, 2011, the German director Frederika Heller put on stage the tragedy Antigona (Sophocles), where the ancient chorus was replaced by a… rock band. One of the female characters, Ismena, Antigona`s sister, wears… mustache. I am not talking, of course, in terms of esthetic quality; I am just justifying the decision not to talk about tragedies outside a certain paradigm.

The cause for all this not so mysterious disappearance of pure tragedy, so popular in Ancient World, is the technical limitation which tragedy imposed on writers, readers or viewers and a certain dogma implying that a literary text has to have an extreme emotional impact on reader. For Aristotle, tragedy had a specific purpose of generating in the audience feelings like fear and pity. “Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear and pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design” (Aristotle, Poetics).

 This are limitations, serious ones, because, due to the spreading of literature nowadays and due to the habit of reading, which is, of course, regulated by a market which functions with the rule of the market, not with the rule of the canon, in the reader cannot be aroused, like in the Ancient time, extreme feelings with the Aristotelian devices. The concepts of fear and pity themselves were transformed by industrialization, capitalism, globalization or, why not, fascism and communism.

A special chapter in our discussion is, also, the deep connection between tragedy and religion. Both tragic and comic texts were, initially, parts of religious rituals. The evolution of European society from polytheism to monotheism and the appearance of Christianity as a main stream religion  made impossible for the tragedy to exist in the exact form imagined by Aristotle. In Aeschilus`s tragedy Agamemnon, the main character sacrifices his own daughter to the god Artemis; destiny is under the will of Gods. With the appearance of Christianity, liberum arbitrum in Latin, free will in English, became a concept praised by many Christian theologians. In the Cathehism of the Catholic Church we find the following paragraph: endowed with a spiritual soul, with intellect and with free will, the human person is from his very conception ordered to God and destined for eternal beatitude. In this new context, the entire inner motivation of the tragic hero to surrender in front of an implacable destiny controlled authoritatively by Gods loses its consistency.

Sense of tragic itself is altered in a world in which the death of a character doesn`t have the same significance. Dozens of characters die today in detective series and novels without arising any feelings of pity and fear in reader. The producers of a well known British series, Midsomer Murder declared once that in one of the episodes, they just forgot to give an explanation for the existence of a corpse. The inflation of corpses on that episode was so high that one of them was just forgotten. In Agatha Cristie`s novels, very often a few murders have no other reasons to exist than to cover or explain the first one. On the other side, comic elements found a way to transgress all this evolution of literature, being less perverted, less affected in their own core. Moliere developed his comedies of manners and of characters without affecting in such an important degree the principles which this genre is based on. We have, also, nowadays dark comedies where death can be laughable and suicide aesthetically enjoyable, occasion and source of amusement like in the dark comedy Harold and Maude (1971). So, how exactly a poor tragic hero, with such high moral standards, with his hunger for pathos and seriousness, is supposed to survive in such a fictional world?

As for comedy, so categorically dismissed by Aristotle, considered not serious and profound, it has quite a spectacularly ironical destiny. Unfortunately, the presumed second book of Poetics, which dealt with the theory of comedy, is lost or never existed. Nevertheless, Aristotle made some remarks on comedy in the first book: “comedy aims at representing men as worse, tragedy as better than in actual life” (Aristotle, Poetics). Revitalized by Classicism, so brilliantly explored in the French literature, comic elements preserved their substance. One can say that the same happened with the tragic elements in Corneille and Racine`s plays. Not quite. In Le Cid, a tragedy, some scholars see entire passages as being impregnated of tragicomic meanings.  Racine was accused of not killing any of the characters in the end of his tragedy Bérénice. Maybe he was too merciful, but the incident, one of many, proves the perversion of the concept.

While tragedy is associated in Europe with the Old Time, at least in the collective mentality if not, I dear say, everywhere), comedy has still a label of modernity on it. Though, is too early to draw a conclusion, I will rephrase it as a premise, but the listener/reader should know that, in the end of the paper, it will definitively be the conclusion: all of us cry in the same manner, each of us laughs differently. Now, let`s imagine that crying is a metaphor for tragedy or the tragic sense and laughing one for comedy or the comic sense. If we do this, we are in front of a rhetoric question which deals with an exercise of imagination. It is well known that a literary text survives centuries after being written because of its flexibility, because of its capacity to transmit different ideas and feelings to different types of readers. Now the question which arises from here is: between tragedy and comedy, which one is more flexible? The scholar Ian Johnson makes an interesting remark which gives us the answer in one of his lectures on Shakespeare: This apparently simple structural difference between comedy and tragedy means that, with some quick rewriting, a tragic structure can be modified in a comic one. […] If Juliet wakes up in time, she and Romeo can live happily ever after. If Cordelia survives, then, Lear`s heart will not be break; she can marry Edgar, and all three of them can live prosperously and happily for years to come. And so on. Such changes to the endings of Shakespeare`s tragedies were commonplace in eighteenth-century productions, at a time when the tragic vision of experience was considered far less acceptable and popular by general public.

On the other side, comedy, like laughing, is so specifically expressed, so different and so complex, so astonishingly linked to a cultural context that the fascination towards it never ceased to exist. After such a pleading in favor of a premise which I already uncover as a conclusion, let`s go back, for a paragraph or so, to Aristotle. If he dismissed comedy and pleaded for tragedy instead, many centuries after, we look around us just to see the exact opposite of it. So, what happen to literature in the mean time?! It was an earthquake of such magnitude to reverse the trend? Disappointingly enough for those who appreciate Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes, nothing of this kind ever occurred. Between Aristotle and Oscar Wilde, no literary sudden devastating earthquake, no bloody conspiracies, nothing miraculous is to be found. It was just an effect-cause evolution which accompanied symmetrically the evolution of the entire society.

I invoked, together Aristotle and the English writer Oscar Wilde here not to forget about them, as producers of Midsomer Murder did with their corpse, but, merely as names which represent another pair of metaphors for the entire change of paradigm. For Aristotle, literature is mimesis (imitation) of reality. For him, the purpose of art is catharsis. In this sense, nothing is more coherent than considering tragedy as the literary queen, because it discusses severe subjects, themes that were considered essential like destiny, divinity, death s.o.: Tragedy is, then, an enactment of a deed that is important and complete, and of magnitude, by means of language enriched, each used separately in the different parts: it is enacted, not recited, and through pity and fear it effects relief (catharsis) to such emotions. But this definition emerged from the firm Aristotle`s conviction that art finds its inspiration and model in reality. Being put on stage, tragedy functioned as religious ritual and, in the same time, as collective excitement. The printing press was not yet invented, the time machine is not yet invented, so Johannes Gutemberg couldn`t interfere in Aristotle`s thinking. Literature couldn`t be spread around the world with the rapidity known to us today. Consequently, the literature consumer did not affect the act of writing; he was merely a clapping audience. Literature was not only strongly regulated by canon, but its prisoner. In this sense, tragedy paid a way to much a tribute than comedy, which explains the fallen status it has nowadays. Let`s take a closer look. In discussing tragedy and comedy, in their initial meaning, I propose you three levels of analysis: plot, characters and purpose.

Aristotle defined plot not as story, but as “the arrangement of the incidents” with a very strict cause-effect chain of events. “The plot […] is the first principle and […] the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place” (Aristotle, Poetics). The end of the tradegy is the final effect of a series of causes and it has to solve all the conflicts developed during the play. An open end was inconceivable. The concept of deus ex machina is entirely forbidden. The main incompatibility with nowadays literature comes from the strict pattern a plot is forced to obey to. It doesn`t matter the theme, the finality of the plot finds the hero defeated. Main character, in the background, confronted with an insolvable situation, crushed by it, chooses death. All the events during the tragedy have to be linked and they develop one from another, coherently, without any gaps or fractures. A tragedy should start exploring an ancient Myth (Aristotle calls them “received legends”) which an author cannot change essentially or alter by intervention of irrational episodes. The bigger and important a tragedy is, the more it explores themes and literary motifs universally understandable, the audience can empathize with. The entire mise en scene of a tragedy is a place the audience usually associates with a certain gradeuer: a battlefield or a castle while the setting for comedies was commonly used places like a room in a normal house or a public place.

A discussion about characters implies a brief reflection on an indispensable collective character, the chorus. Chorus, usually ten or fifteen people, was an intermediate between actors and audience. It explained parts of the play and set an example to the audience of how to react to what happened on stage. The main character of a tragedy is condemned to live a tragic destiny: he realizes his mistakes or misunderstandings, but when he does it, the course of events cannot be undone or restored. Therefore, the great fall starts. Stronger than the audience or most of the mortals, far more advanced in ideals, thinking, acting and reacting than most ordinary, common people, the tragic hero suffers from a form of delusion generated by the disproportion between what he tries to achieve and what he finally achieves. Confronted with his error of judgment, this superhero collapses and ends dead…

 On the other side, the comic character is adapted to survive. He is, in most of the cases, a common mortal, who not only that doesn`t fall, but recovers from various, sometimes improbable, situation to triumph in the end, being in most of the cases in the center of the play. While tragic hero has, from the very beginning, strong moral ideals, the comic one finds his better side only after his flows, his defects, are exposed and laughed of. His final triumph is often due to luck, quid pro quo`s or cheating other characters. His moral inconsistency offers the writer a lot more fields to explore. It is, if we have to resume, the difference between the superhero (in tragedy) and antihero (in comedy): the first one is a monolithic structure, moved by fixed patterns and rigid rules, while the second one releases the writer`s imagination, opens a door for further developments and finally and paradoxically, generates a bigger empathy in the audience than the superhero. Consequently, on a long run, this is the reason for which tragic character, as it was imagined by Aristotle, couldn`t find a way to survive and preserve his superiority over the comic one, still vivid in today`s literature.     

Discussing tragedy and comedy on the level of purpose implies a brief recourse to etymology. For Aristotle, comedy derives from komos, a kind of show performed by males around the image of a phallus. There are some other testimonies (Aristophanes) about the connections between comedy and some sexual rituals. As for the tragedy, according to the same Greek thinker, comes from trgoedia, a ritual song dedicated to Dyonisus, the Greek god of grape and wine, associated with the idea of pleasure. From this perspective, not such a big difference; this is why researchers say both species come from the same initial root, which Aristotle admits it: “Be that as it may, Tragedy, -as also Comedy- was at first mere improvisation, The one originated with the authors of the Dithyram, the other with those of the phallic songs, which are still in use in many of our cities. Tragedy advanced by slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in turn developed. Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form, and there it stopped” (Aristotle, Poetics).

 In terms of purpose, it worth discussing the perpetual lamentation which haunts the tragedy, because, in my opinion, here is to be found one of the main causes which created the inadaptability of tragedy in our modern time. The hero ends crushed by an inevitable destiny, a destiny far more powerful than any reaction this hero can have in front of it. So, whatever story one imagines, whoever is the super hero, however he tries to solve his moral dilemmas, the end is ineluctable, unavoidable, a fatality. It doesn`t matter how talented a writer is, the technicalities embedded in the canon limits drastically the creation itself. In the same time, comedy promotes an open end which deals with very out to date concepts as cynicism, irony, self irony, satire, delusion, self delusion s.o. The capacity of a comedy of diversifying itself grows in proportion with every cultural space it covers. Through allusions to linguistic, historical or social contexts, a comic text has an amazing ability of adapting to modernity.

I mentioned Gutemberg here, the inventor of the printing press in Europe, because his invention introduced in the literary equation a new variable: the active reader. Once he appeared in stage as a reader and not as a passive audience, like in Aristotle`s time, he started demanding the same rights as the writer. The canon started fading or, at least, it lost its rigidity and in this new literary scenario, not so firmly regulated, comedy found its way out while tragedy retreated in the background. Of course, this doesn`t mean that after Aristotle, we don`t have tragedies anymore. If one just thinks of Shakespeare or Jean Racine, one has to admit that no reasonable researcher can talk about a complete silence or disappearance. But the point this paper intends to make and, in the same time, the question it aims to answer to is how comes that such well regarded form of literature lost ground in front of a dismissed, unserious, ignoble one (I am talking about comedy).

So, synthesizing in a metaphorical statement, Gutemberg was the first of Aristotle`s enemies. The second one, not less lethal, was an extravagant 19th century English writer: Oscar Wilde. In The Decay of Lying, among other things, the charming dandy impersonates a character named Vivian who talks explicitly and at large about how Life imitates Art. Although it is not precisely the topic of this paper, the subtle irony of this text worth mentioning. Wilde chose to develop his anti-mimesis theory in a text conceived as a Socratic dialogue. Well, if one has to fight a battle against Aristotle`s ghost, at least one has to have the courtesy to do it on a battlefield familiar to the old Greek philosopher.

What are the implications of Vivian`s apparently extravagant statement “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”?! First, let us put on page Wilde`s arguments: “The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate apple-women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers. This interesting phenomenon, which always occurs after the appearance of a new edition of either of the books I have alluded to, is usually attributed to the influence of literature on the imagination. But this is a mistake. The imagination is essentially creative, and always seeks for a new form. The boy-burglar is simply the inevitable result of life’s imitative instinct. He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is, with trying to reproduce Fiction, and what we see in him is repeated on an extended scale throughout the whole of life. Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy” (Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying)

 An important distinction should be draw at this point of our argumentation: anti mimesis theory doesn`t originate from Wilde, it was just acknowledged in The Decay of Lying, put on paper and recognized as a phenomenon. One which started much earlier, maybe the most obvious of its manifestations being the idea, present in almost all Christian countries in different degrees, of Imitatio Christi. The first consequence for the tragedy, as it had been theorized in ancient Greece, was that it could very well function in a paradigm when it imitates life, but could not become a fictional rolling model in a world where life imitates art. If we transfer a Darwinian concept into literature, the survival of the fittest is the process we are talking about. Tragic elements were not designed to be flexible in relation with the reader; they have too many restrictions for being capable of accepting influences from outside the canon. The tragic hero, the tragic plot, the tragic effect on audience, all was fatally secluded. Finding the same narrative solutions (death) for all the problems surrounding the hero, tragedy lost its status as literary queen. Readers are now in search of diversity, they started appreciated quite a long time ago the unforeseeable, the sudden change in the destiny of a character.  

Comic elements instead, accepting more natural modern concepts as Deus ex machina, quid pro quod, intertextuality, irony, black humor, had, also, the advantage of preserving a certain, if not national, than, at least, regional specificity. All of us heard of British humor, although not all of us can appreciate it. Humor is an important part of how a nation defines itself while the tragic sense is, at large, the way we define as species. In the precise moment when we come across for the first time with extraterrestrial beings, maybe we will go back to tragedy, because it gives a monolithic representation about who we are and how we perceive ourselves as an entire. We don`t have the slightest chance to communicate with aliens if we use comic devices; our sense of irony would appear like making no sense at all, our most laughable jokes will arouse an astonished movement in their antennas, our most appreciated comedians or stand-up comedians would sound like a declaration of war. But till then, we indulge in a literature which shows specificities, which has an enormous potential to evolve and to keep up with modernity. Thank you for your attention!

The Frontier as Illusion in and after Communism


Key-words: identity, frontier/border/limit, collective mentality, Iron Curtain


The Romanian Communism (and this is also available for Communism in general) meant above all a continuous identity mutilation in its attempt to impose an illusory utopic society. Similarly to Orwell’s utopia, the Communist Romanian society imposed individual and collective frontiers, all of them traumatic through the permanent isolation from what lay beyond the Iron Curtain. Such a paradigm generated a series of complexes and frustrations, reactivated a series of myths of resistance, all exacerbated in Post-Communism after 1989. The Romanian culture often found itself in the position to evolve while totally disconnected from the European culture, and thus developed in conditions of identity autism. Consequently, what was happening beyond the borders produced an enormous quantity of illusions regarding normality, an imaginary normality, based on the certitude that outside one could find the reversed reality of what was inside Romania. For the past 20 years, the opening towards the cultural European space has been a continuous attempt to recuperate different viable means of communication. As Grete Tartler proves in a paper dedicated to European identity (European Identity), the Romanians have seen the cultural European space as a necessary return to a space of absolute normality. One of the most important illusions and traumas as well of the Romanian collective mentality aimed at exactly this never-ending attempt to cross the symbolic Iron Curtain which prevented the free circulation of ideas and values. Alain Brossart, in an essay dedicated to frontier (Zones d’attente, zones d’expérimentation de l’exception) believes that the frontier has a great political connotation. Starting from this observation, and applying Jean-Jaques Wunenburger’s theoretical instruments (Philosophie des images, La vie des images, Imaginaires du politique), I shall try to detect and follow the myth of the frontier as it appears in the Post-Communist literature. Consequently, the present paper aims at analysing the way in which the Romanian literary texts reflected the idea of frontier/border/limit, focusing on the cultural shock produced immediately after 1989. Salman Rushdie stated that “In our deepest natures, we are frontier-crossing beings” (Step Across This Line). Yet, what happens when an oppressive system makes the frontier become insurmountable? The result is an identity trauma transmitted probably best through different cultural products. Their analysis always helps in the exact understanding of the traumatised collective mentality.

  1.  The Frontier as Trauma

What does the frontier mean for the Romanians? With how much fascination would they have regarded it during Communism? The frontier acquires new meanings in a world thrown by its own political system in marginality, and this happens because, as Alain Brossat notices, ‘the frontier is a territory of variable dimensions and depths, and whose property is less topological (a separation line) but rather political: a space governed by special rules – themselves variable – and whose relations with the territory are susceptible to alter according to circumstances’.[1] At the level of collective mentality, frontiers preserve the myth of the fortress in a siege; they function starting from the idea of an unsecure space which needs to be continually defended. Together with them, the myth of the rescuing hero comes into being; the individuals inside the frontier, cut from what is happening across, as a compensation, develop the need to transfer, to delegate their own desire to know. Eugen Negrici, in an analysis upon the book as object of the collective cult in Communism, makes the observation that many of the collective frustrations and misfortunes were channelled to the desire to read[2]. According to the same paradigm, the impossibility to go across the frontier can be translated through the avidity with which one reads books about exotic spaces. In Post-Communism, the appetence of the consumer of culture for eroticism and exoticism to the same extent, (because exoticism is ultimately the expression of transgressing a border) represents nothing but the exhibition of a latent need to escape.

First of all, the frontier is a limit, both physical and imaginary; ‘The frontier is the physical proof of the human race’s divided self [3]. And this happens because, as it is already a well-known fact, the more secured the frontier is, the more mythical what lies within becomes. When looking over the fence – so specific for Romanians – becomes impossible, the frustration increases and, together with it, a whole range of mythical elements and symbols. This range has two functions: on the one hand, it generates the fascination towards the foreigner, and on the other, it contributes to stirring a sometimes morbid curiosity for anything that is related to intimacy. This is the key to reading the literature written by the young writers of the Romanian Post-Communism. In Vakulovski’s texts[4], beyond protest and terribilism, we can easily notice the pleasure of peeping through the key-hole so well described by him. In the same way we can read the literature of the panspermia (the term is used by Dan C Mihăilescu[5]) so well illustrated by Ioana Băeţica. In Fişă de înregistrare[6] we find an incoherent epic formula, disabused characters, without substance, all compensated by a pure, unjustified eroticism. Here we deal with the same invasive intention to force the tabu-borders between the intimate (the private) and the public. If such texts, functioning as excitants disguised by cultural acts, are of any value or not from an aesthetic point of view is another discussion. Nevertheless, they respond to the need to exhibit an intimacy refused in Communism. In Nora Iuga’s novel, Săpunul lui Leopold Bloom, there is a feminine character who resumes this attitude very well. Harassed by a neighbour who always shows up in the most inconvenient moments, the heroine finds herself in the position to have to make a tacit pact with her. So we have a spontaneous coalition against a state which is perceived as a total expression of aggression: ‘Caught you, you had your light on, right? – No, only the lamp, I was just writing something and…- Come on, why are you so embarrassed, I ain’t turn you in, as you, when I asked you for something, you didn’t say no. -Yea, but I got scared and I feel, hmm, as a criminal caught in the act. I heard they gave huge fines’.[7]

For Romanians, as a consequence, freedom is a synonym, in Post-Communism of the freedom of movement, i.e. the movement of ideas and the mobility of individuals. The signals received from beyond the border in Communism (letters from abroad, football games watched on the Bulgarian channels, listening to the Radio Free Europe, etc.) acquire the significances of a miracle in miniature. These represent the almost mystical joy of a secluded person who, all of a sudden and for a short time, feels himself part of a world he only presumes, of which he dreams and which he infuses with his or her own hopes.

We might say then, rightfully, that Romanians have never had a special desire to travel. ‘We should not forget that, at the beginning of the 19th century, for 90% of the Romanians, the world ended at the margin of the village or town they lived in. The horizon was where stories started.[8] Nevertheless, as Salman Rushdie noticed (he himself an authority in what regards limits and frontiers) `in our deepest natures, we are frontier-crossing beings`.[9]

Mihail Sadoveanu spoke in his story Negustor lipscan about the fascination a character has upon his listeners when he is telling about his adventures in Europe. Even if without desires as homo viator, the Romanians, at least through their elites, have always had frequent contacts with the civilised world; in certain border regions (Dobrodgea or Banat) the space has always been a cosmopolite one, and in Communism, the desire to go across the borders was fuelled by the radio programmes of Free Europe and the Voice of America, as well by the samizdat (as much as it was) which familiarised the reader with spaces a lot closer to reality than the Romanian one.

 Ultimately, the Romanians’ prostration in front of the foreigners, specific for the first years after 1990, arises also from this frustration. They come from beyond the frontier, from a new forbidden world. We do not know them but we have envisaged them all in the nights when the Romanian Communists left us in the dark in order to cut the electricity expenses. And, in the dark, the border becomes even more mysterious.

The Communists are no pioneers here either. The fear of foreigners and the need to protect oneself through frontiers dates back to even the dawns of the Romanian state. On April 4th, 1881, when it turned out that Romania had become a refuge for the second rate foreigners, a new law was adopted, through which ‘the foreigner who through his or her behaviour might compromise the inner or outer security of the country could be forced to leave the place he inhabited or to transfer in another region or simply thrown out of the country. An expelled foreigner, who entered Romania again would be arrested, and submitted to the correctional police, which would condemn him to prison from 5 days to 6 months, and after this period, he would be taken to the border without having the right to be shown the exit point.’[10] With such history, there is no question why our relations with the Others are defined by permanent suspicions.

The foreigners who come to Romania do not come from France, Germany, Italy or Spain, but from beyond the border. Consequently, we have here ’a radical dissociation of two destinies: that of the cast of the worldly, who have the possibility to move around without any obstacle and thus live in time, and that of those who are prisoners within a certain space, who do not start moving unless they have to, unless they have no other choice and who face the inhospitality of the world’[11]. Consequently. The border is also a qualitative delimitation, a fracture between two categories of citizens (the Romanian public discourse will frequently use the syntagm a second rate European citizen).

Romanians have always treated their neighbours with condescendence and irony (especially the Bulgarians and the Moldavians beyond the Prut) as well as everything that could have reminded them of their Oriental antecedents. The historian Marius Oprea notices that ‘the Turks entered history and football, the Bulgarians the jokes, as for the Serbs or the Russians, we hardly like to mention them at all. Today we admire or despise the French, the Germans, the English or the Americans. The mentality and the behaviour have changed in the past two hundred years because then, more than two hundred years ago new models were produced”.[12] The imaginary does not register any deep change of perspective after Romania’s joining the European Union either (on the contrary).

In an article published in the Romanian edition of the magazine Le Monde Diplomatique, Victor Negrescu states that ‘the Romanian person goes through a deep feeling of complexity towards the other European citizens, for different reasons whose source lies in the acute lack of knowledge regarding the European matter and of the Romanian-centrism promoted by politicians.’[13] The complex of which Victor Negrescu speaks about (and not only he) is in itself the expression of a border.

With Romanians, borders multiplied in an alarming way. Not only in Communism could people not cross the border, but also the simple trip from one county to another, from one city or town to another became an adventure. For economic reasons and not only, cars were allowed to circulate only according to a very precise timetable (according to the vehicle registration plate which was either even or uneven) the citizens who happened to be out after a certain hour were asked their IDs, it was difficult to get residency in a city or town (it was so difficult to get residency in Bucharest that Romanians had to offer huge bribes or even to get married there). It is important to run back over all these limits whose proximity increased to such extent that the individual found himself or herself to lead his or her existence in almost claustrophobic spaces. Forced to live in ever more restrictive reservations, he or she felt acutely that everything in Communism developed under the paradigm of frontier. Speaking about his leaving for the USA, Valeriu Anania describes the moment when the stairs of the plane was lifting indicating finally the taking-off to another space. The fragment is relevant for the way in which the collective mentality relates to the frontier: ‘The fascinating stairs which a Romanian of today can make the first steps to freedom, the scary stairs which, at a simple sign of the finger, could turn you from the door of the plane to humiliation and fright’[14].

Beyond the village, beyond the city, beyond the area in which everything could be controlled rigorously, existence became an adventure. In a book of memoirs about the resistance in the mountains, Ion Gavrilă Ogoranu describes this world: “The entrance into the woods was guarded as a frontier. The people in the village were not allowed to leave the village in the evening.”[15].

The discursive frontier could not be avoided either. Never before Communism had euphemism been so present in discourses. The allusion, the parable, the ambiguity – all of them represented supplementary frontiers, verbal disguises of ideas always repressed, always forced to adjust to an official discourse which (confusing indeed) modified itself. In Communism ‘everything urged towards interpretation, urged you to search for meanings carefully, and more and more courageously to give new meanings sprung from the world of your ideas’[16] The effect was, on the one hand, the idealisation of literature, its consideration as a symbol of anti-communist resistance, and on the other hand, the freezing, the robotisation of the Romanian society. A true paradigm was created; any discourse was regarded, even after 1989, in the terms of a double language. Beyond the written or uttered word there was a true delirium of interpretations going on. Censorship functioned as border in this case as well. Each supplementary frontier added a new frustration with generosity.

Not being exclusively a simple physical obstacle, the frontier could not simply disappear all of a sudden. The isolation produced by the imaginary barrier between us and the Others and continues producing its effects. Vancea, a character in a short-story written by Cornel Ivanciuc, ‘for a second has the feeling that – the same one as in 1968 – over the frontier on which he was born, in Sighet, and now over the infinite market, a division of fighter aircrafts were dive bombing’[17]. Life on the border is never easy. Similarly to any life fact at identity level, it has its own symptoms. Which are these? First of all, the exacerbation of the myth of the Romanian conspiracies. The lack of real contact with the world across the border raises suspicions. Then, the excessive valorisation of Romanian spirituality or, on the contrary, the minimalisation of the national identity…even though they are antagonic processes, they are generated by the same identity isolation.

 The frontier not only prevents us from the accessing the other side, but with the Romanians, it also prevents the free circulation of culture. The lack of accordance with the spirit of contemporaneity also generates identity insecurity or, on the contrary, sufficiency. Compensatorily, any imprisoned person (whether we talk about the physical prison or not) develops an irresistible desire to travel. Valeriu Anania confesses in his Memoirs that ‘this longing became stronger along the years spent in prison, the reclusion itself making the starving dream only about food, and the enchained of journeys’[18]

  1. The Romanian Strawberry Picker. A Hybrid-Typology

The Romanian strawberry-pickers, an identity equivalent of the Polish plumbers, emigrate en masse to Europe. The term itself, maculated by a strong pejorative meaning, is defining today for an identity mark which has not said its last word yet. In an article published in the Romanian journal Observator cultural, Iulia Popovici seems to give this term a marginal meaning. ‘invented by the media after the migration wave of the local workers to the strawberry farms in Spain and perceived as defamatory by many of those hinted at, the term strawberry-picker – used comfortably in informal language to designate those called by the Italians stranieri, will very likely disappear from common language in the next years, and the Romanian language does not show any signs to fabricate another’[19]. Even if the Romanian language will exclude it from its linguistic corpus, the strawberry picker represents above all a typology which, no matter our revolt or opposition, will define the Romanian identity tract in these transition years. He will be a character (or maybe even a text author) in literature and from here slowly, he will make his way to the collective mentality. The approach of the Romanian strawberry picker was very often made from the very well-known traditionalist points of view. Mircea Vasilescu makes the following observation in an article entitled Generaţia căpşunarilor (The Generation of the Strawberry-Pickers): So the generation of the strawberry-pickers (no matter what domain they work in, I take the liberty of calling them all this way to mark the phenomenon) represent nothing out of the ordinary.  It seems to me that the insistence of the media on this subject, treated pathetically and pitifully and tagged by the old Romanian syntagm difficult, my friend does nothing but extend up to the 21st century the traditional Romanian exile doina, as well as maintain uselessly the tendency to lament that we will never catch up with them[20].

In societies sensitive to the myth of the invasive foreigner, people talked often about Europe’s invasion by the Romanians. It was not a proper invasion because, no matter what one might say, they were never too numerous, but an invasion of a way of thinking, acting and reacting. Europe itself was little prepared to make contact with this type of vulgar-utilitarian, minimalist, sometimes even gregarious Eastern-European culture because the frontier played its role well. It was not just a limit for the Romanians, but also for the Europeans, who never knew exactly (at the level of collective mentality, because otherwise information circulated) what was beyond the Iron Curtain.

 Uprooted after previously Communism had trained him to live in disabused communities (see the Communist blocks of flats), the Romanian strawberry picker transferred his little universe with all its frustrations and myths to Europe. He took with himself his customs and his way of relating to the others. He knew how to behave because that was the way he had behaved when Communism destroyed the Romanian villages, transferring the people into blocks of flats. Now as it happened then people took the benches in front of their houses and placed them in front of the blocks of flat as well as they started cultivating vegetables in their balconies, as well as they started raising chickens at the back of the block, they transplanted their lifestyle over the border in the same manner.

 Nevertheless the differences were huge. While in the first situation there were people who shared the same alienating Communist experience, now the strawberry pickers found themselves in front of a society built in a fundamentally different way. Hence the misunderstandings, the identity conflicts. Both there and here the frontier had created two contradictory visions upon normality.

            Although the frontier started as an external limit which separated worlds, it ended up by functioning at an individual level. The communication habits altered by Communism transformed the strawberry picker in a taciturn, suspicious, deeply inward person. What could he communicate about his own culture which he did not know very well and which he was used to considering minor and consequently inferior? What could he bring to a world where he was only for economical reasons? The identity walls, easy to ignore inside the frontier, had become, now, outside the frontier, impossible to climb. Then the Romanian strawberry-picker does not have access to the deep culture of the country in which he works, but rather to its marginal parts full of bluntness. The frontier, the imaginary limit between world, is crossed abruptly, making a transgression from the superficiality of a former Communist Romania to the superficiality of a peripheral Europe (the Romanian strawberry-picker comes to know the periphery first with all its disadvantages). In a short essay entitled Nici neoliticul nu mai e ce-a fost (Not even the Neolithic Age is any longer what it used to be), Marius Oprea speaks about this phenomenon: ‘The more brutal the changes and the shorter the period they happen in, the more the big memory blanks in which the nostalgia for old times combines strangely with a new pragmatism of the present’[21].

The Romanians went abroad after 1989, but it was not the elites who left, because they were still confused and incapable to find the right track which would have allowed them the access to the values of Western Europe, but the peripheral majority, those who were most affected by Communism. In its profound strata, the Romanian culture is still inaccessible to the common European. The preoccupations for a country brand did not manage to transmit a coherent message, they only wasted energy and financial resources. The reason for that is a simple one. The collective mentality does not form under the pressure of the official actions of promoting a country, but rather under the impact of the concrete cohabitation between individuals. The straberry-pickers are thus the carriers of a perception about Romania against which it is impossible to fight by organising concerts or by exhibitions at tourism fairs. Day by day, the Romanian strawberry-picker poured his frustrations over the world he lived in, only that this time they were not perceived as personal frustrations but as Romanian frustrations. The strawberry-picker has never been preoccupied with his self-image, with the way in which his gestures will be taken for gestures representative for the territory he comes from. He came to Europe in order to be better off and not to pass on identity information. When speaking about a globe trotter of the 19th century (Ion Codru Drăguşanu), Marius Oprea makes the following observation: ‘both in the case of the Transylvanian pilgrim in 1840 and in that of the Romanian strawberry pickers who met their death in the terrorist attacks in Spain, the journey represented a road, the only one, to fulfillment; the road and life itself are one’.[22]

Consequently, the strawberry picker first suffered the shock of seeing his own certitudes disintegrate. How to adapt from a society whose mechanism was suspected to have everlasting engines to a society where the individual had to go through a qualification process several times in a life time in order to survive? Moreover, how could one stand a society where one’s own problems could not be transferred to other people? The myth which helped the Romanians survive in Communism was that of the switchman Păun[23]. Guilt could easily be transferred. The frontier which still parts us from the Others is no longer an outer one, and that is the reason why the redefinition of our relationship with the Other can no longer be approached from a propagandistic point of view. The Romanian strawberry picker has first to redefine himself, to find out who he is, where he comes from and what identity genes he carries. ‘The frontier is a wake-up call. At the frontier we can’t avoid the truth; the comforting layers of the quotidian, which insulate us against the world’s harsher realities, are stripped away, and, wide-eyed in the harsh fluorescent light of the frontier’s windowless halls, we see things as they are’. [24] Only afterwards can relationships be rebuilt between those whom history placed on one side of the border or the other.

            Living in a secure space can mean (if the borders are maintained for a longer time, as is our case now) to become dependent on everything that the border can offer. The limit, no matter which this might be, is a brutal bounding of an individual horizon, but is, at the same time, a comfortable area, and comfort inevitably leads to dependencies. In our case, the frontier which separated us from Europe during Communism also ensured the comfort of the predictable abjection. We can find this idea expressed in a novel published after December 1989: ‘Before – ugly or injust – there was order; a certain security. […] The income – small, was safe to come on a certain date. […] It was bad, but a lot better as some might say’.[25] We knew the electricity would be cut, we knew we were supposed to queue for salami or cheese, we knew we had to go to work and pretend we were working, we knew we would retire from the same single work place, we knew that the state would give us an insanitary apartment through whose walls we could hear our neighbours fighting, we knew only too well our gallery of saints that made everything possible (the party secretary, the director of the factory, the people from the Security Police)…all these certitudes created in time the premises for an indissoluble dependency. So much the more the identity degradation had altered us to such extent that it seemed that the situation would go on like this for ever.

That is why the customs officer is for the Romanian collective mentality perceived as being a privileged person exactly for his physical proximity to what is going on beyond the frontier. In an artificially spectacular novel published at Nemira Publishing House, Cosma Braşoveanu makes us witness the monologue of a character which gives expression to such perception: ‘In front of a box of American cigarettes, even the customs officers pretended to see nothing’[26]. This excessively qualifier ‘even’ is emblematic. Max Solomon speaks in similar terms as well: life near the frontier definitely has other rules: `Prepare the box of cigarettes and two bottles of French perfumes in their original package so that you could take them out from the first suitcase […] so that you could push them on the control table and put them apart from the rest of the things. The customs officer will know what he has to do and you will not have to open the other suitcases’.[27]

            Once overcome, the frontier becomes a catalyser of a painful, subtle identity change, at first difficult to notice. This is what happened to the Romanians (and not only with them) all along their cultural history. The Transylvanian School started to become important once the young Romanians went across the frontiers to study in the great libraries of the empire, the revolutionaries in 1848 modified the Romanian cultural paradigm only after they crossed the Western frontiers, the members of Junimea[28] had great influence upon the cultural and political Romanian life only after they received their PhD titles in important Western European universities. Modern Romania was built only after its elite crossed the frontier in search for a king. Even Ceausescu himself was finally to be devoured by the existence of a personality cult which reached its peak when he made his visit to North Korea and China. The conclusion would thus be that any massive crossing of borders made a huge contribution to the Romanian identity profile. Salman Rushdie thus makes notice of the following fact: ‘We become the frontiers we cross’ [29].

Then there comes a natural question: what will bring to Romania the generation of strawberry pickers, spread all over the civilised Europe? Put simply, we should doubt that a generation of people crushed from an identity point of view, a-cultural and with monolithic certitudes, lacking any personality, with a narrow horizon would be capable to redefine a rigid collective mentality. Nobody should expect spectacular changes. Yet the violent clash of values, the direct confrontation of different systems of thought cannot stay without consequences.


  • ANANIA, Valeriu. Memorii, Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2008.
  • BĂEŢICA, Ioana. Fişă de înregistrare, Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2004.
  • BRAŞOVEANU, Cosma. Fiara, Bucureşti: Nemira Pulishing House, 2004.
  • BROSSAT, Alain. Frontiera ca muzeu şi laborator al exceptării, in Teritorii (Scrieri, dez-scrieri). Coordinator: Octavian Groza, Bucureşti: Paideia Publishing House, 2003.
  • ECOVOIU, Alexandru. Ordinea, Iaşi:Polirom Publishing House, 2005.
  • IUGA, Nora. Săpunul lui Leopold Bloom, Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2007.
  • IVANCIUC, Cornel. Cartea cuceririlor, Bucureşti: LiterNet Publishing House, 2003.
  • MIHĂILESCU, Dan C. Literatura română în postceauşism, (3 vol.), Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2006.
  • NEGRESCU, Victor. Sunt românii cetăţeni de categoria a doua?, in „Le Monde Diplomatique”, Romanian language edition, nr. 4, aprilie 2007.
  • NEGRICI, Eugen. Iluziile literaturii române, Bucureşti: Cartea Românească Publishing House, 2008.
  • OGORANU, Ion Gavrilă. Brazii se frâng, dar nu se îndoiesc, Timişoara: Marineasa Publishing House, 1993.
  • OPREA, Marius. Zorba şi Catedrala. 59 de povestiri de la frontieră, Bucureşti: Humanitas Publishing House, 2006.
  • POPOVICI, Iulia. Comunismul sau manualul emigratului român, in „Observator cultural”, no. 354, 11 ianuarie 2007.
  • RUSHDIE, Salman. Step Across this Line, Colected Non-Fiction 1992-2002, London: Vintage, 2003.
  • SOLOMON, Max. La 90, Bucureşti: LiterNet Publishing House, 2004.
  • STAN, Apostol. Putere politică şi democraţie în România, 1859 – 1918, Bucureşti: Albatros Publishing House, 1995.
  • VAKULOVSKI, Alexandru. Letopizdeţ, cactuşi albi pentru iubita mea, Cluj-Napoca: Idea Publishing House, 2004.
  • VAKULOVSKI, Alexandru. Pizdeţ, Braşov: Aula Publishing House, 2002.
  • VASILESCU, Mircea. Generaţia căpşunarilor, in „Dilema veche”,no. 2, 23-29 January 2004.

[1]Alain Brossat, Frontiera ca muzeu şi laborator al exceptării, in Teritorii (Scrieri, dez-scrieri). Coordinator:  Octavian Groza, Bucureşti: Paideia Publishing House, 2003, pp. 101-102.

[2] Eugen Negrici, Iluziile literaturii române, Bucureşti: Cartea Românească Publishing House, 2008.

[3] Salman Rushdie, Step Across this Line, Colected Non-Fiction 1992-2002,London: Vintage, 2003, p. 412.

[4] Alexandru Vakulovski, Pizdeţ, Braşov: Aula Publishing House, 2002 and Alexandru Vakulovski, Letopizdeţ, cactuşi albi pentru iubita mea, Cluj-Napoca: Idea Publishing House, 2004.

[5] See Dan C. Mihăilescu, Literatura română în postceauşism, (3 volumes), Iaşi: Polirom Printing House, 2006, vol. 2,  pp. 354 – 358.

[6] Ioana Baeţica, Fişă de înregistrare, Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2004.

[7] Nora Iuga, Săpunul lui Leopold Bloom, Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2007, p. 103.

[8] Marius Oprea, Zorba şi Catedrala. 59 de povestiri de la frontieră, Bucureşti: Humanitas Publishing House, 2006, p. 17.

[9] Salman Rushdie, Step Across this Line, p. 408.

[10] Apostol Stan, Putere politică şi democraţie în România, 1859 – 1918, Bucureşti: Albatros Publishing House, 1995, p. 138.

[11] Alain Brossat, Frontiera ca muzeu şi laborator al exceptării, p. 107.

[12] Marius Oprea, Zorba şi Catedrala. 59 de povestiri de la frontieră, pp. 22-23.

[13] Victor Negrescu, Sunt românii cetăţeni de categoria a doua?, in ”Le Monde Diplomatique”, Romanian language edition, no. 4, April 2007.

[14] Valeriu Anania, Memorii, Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2008, p. 345.

[15] Ion Gavrilă Ogoranu, Brazii se frâng, dar nu se îndoiesc, vol. 2, Timişoara: Marineasa Publishing House, 1993, p. 108.

[16] Eugen Negrici, Iluziile literaturii române, p. 30.

[17] Cornel Ivanciuc, Cartea cuceririlor, Bucureşti: LiterNet Publishing House, 2003, p. 81.

[18] Valeriu Anania, op. cit., p. 455.

[19] Iulia Popovici, Comunismul sau manualul emigratului român, in ”Observator cultural”, no. 354, 11 January 2007, June, 27, 2011,*articleID_16788-articles_details.html.

[20] Mircea Vasilescu, Generaţia căpşunarilor, in „Dilema veche”,no. 2, 23-29 January 2004.

[21] Marius Oprea, Zorba şi Catedrala. 59 de povestiri de la frontieră, p. 59.

[22] Marius Oprea, op. cit., p. 83.

[23] The expression has its origin in a tragic train accident which happened  in 1923 in Romania. The investigation revealed that very important people in the Romanian society had  been involved, but the only person to be blamed and convicted was Ion Păun, a simple switchman. From then on, the switchman Păun became a well-known expression which means scape-goat.

[24] Salman Rushdie, Step Across this Line, p. 412.

[25] Alexandru Ecovoiu, Ordinea, Iaşi: Polirom Publishing House, 2005, p. 51.

[26] Cosma Braşoveanu, Fiara, Bucureşti: Editura Nemira, 2004, p. 19.

[27] Max Solomon, La 90, Bucureşti, Editura LiterNet, 2004, p. 52.

[28] Junimea was one of the most influential cultural and political movements in the 19h century Romania. It was founded by representative Romanian intellectuals and brought together the most important Romanian writers. Its members were involved in the political and cultural life of the country until the very beginning of the 20th century.

[29] Salman Rushdie, Step Across this Line, p. 410.

From Vlad Ţepeş to Count Dracula.

A Challenging Relation between History and Myth

–        an essay –

Text prezentat la conferinţa cu tema: Figuring the Past: the Literary and Historical Imagination, conferinţă organizată de Departamentul de Limbi Romanice şi Germanice din cadrul Universităţii de Stat din New Delhi, India, martie 2011.

Any attempt to discuss the relation between myth and history has to start from the very beginning with the definition of  the myth itself. And this approach is rather difficult today when, on the one hand, we deal with a scientific meaning of the myth, and, on the other hand, we face a popular approach, indicating that this notion is part of the common speech nowadays. There is a tendency of establishing a complete synonymy between myth and story, which is more than relative. Of course, any myth feels the need to be verbalized, because, as Claude Levi-Strauss put it “the myth is language”, but the story is nothing than a shape which not always incorporates the myth in its integrality. The major distinction is that a story is always connected to the context in which it was written (saeculum, as Tacit formulated it), but the myth is to be found only in relation to an “illo tempore”, the primary, sacred time, as it was called by the Romanian historian of religions, Mircea Eliade.

Among the many examples I have in order to prove this theory, the myth of Dracula illustrates the distance, the distortion of the story over the myth. Being written at the end of the 19th century (the late Romantic period in literature), Bram Stocker’s novel is, of course, built on a Romantic background (I am talking especially about the dialogues and descriptions) or, to be more accurate, on a literary mixture between  Victorianism and Romanticism. At the same time, the 19th century being the century of the nations, the plot cannot avoid a national pattern: Dracula wants to invade England and, of course, he is stopped in time by some brave British people, with the help of a Dutch doctor. The book, as any literary piece, is a direct result of a literary context. Consequently, sometimes, in “Dracula”, one can easily notice, under the Victorian influence, a sort of prudishness when the author describes, for example, the love story between Lucy and Jonathan Harker:  “I love him. I am blushing as I write […]”. On the other hand, the myth itself transcends the literature, and this is not at all hard to prove.  If I discuss the 16th century legends about Dracula and I compare them with Bram Stoker`s novel, it is more than obvious that in spite of the fact that each story  deals with the same myth, they are  rather different from one another. And this is merely because the myth of the vampire reiterates the fear of  death and the  ancestral belief that the frontier between life and death can be, sometimes, transgressed . These types of fear are not subordinated to either literary or cultural trends.

Ab originis, of course, the Greek term “mythos” means “story” or “word”. Nevertheless literature today is almost incapable of creating myths, being forced to use variations of the ancestral ones . This happens  because, as the folklorist Mary Magoulick says: “Myths are symbolic tales of the distant past (often primordial times) that concern cosmogony and cosmology (the origin and nature of the universe), may be connected to belief systems or rituals, and may serve to direct social action and values”.  So, if the myth is not the story itself, what can it be? For the Romanian historian Lucian Boia the myth is “[…] an imaginary construction: a story, a representation or an idea which attempts to understand the essence of cosmic and social phenomena by the values of a community and with the aim  of assuring its cohesion”.

In my opinion, this is not enough. The aim of a myth, if we accept the idea that a myth has an aim of its own, is to transfer the responsibilities for something man does not understand (and thus to deal with his/her fears), to  a metaphysical background.  Claude Levi-Strauss noticed that “on the one hand it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen. There is no logic, no continuity. Any characteristic can be attributed to any subject; every conceivable relation can be found. With myth, everything becomes possible. But, on the other hand, the apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions. Therefore we have the following  problem: if the content of a myth is contingent, how are we going to explain the fact that myths are so similar throughout the world?” If the myth tries only to legitimate a specific community, how can we explain, then, the myth of the flood, for example, which is to be found in different territories with almost the same connotations? These communities are so different that the idea of cohesion between them is almost absurd.

The foundation myths can have, without any doubt, this role of assuring a cohesion, not necessarily a national one (it can be a religious one, as well), but all the other types of myths are not in a very deep connection with this idea of cohesion. Eschatological myths, for example, are to be explained through various fears the human being experienced in his entire existence, particularly at that time when science did not have answers for the most common phenomena today.

Jean Jacques Wunenburger, in his book “Life of Images” stated that “the foundation of a myth does not have to be understood as an invention or a creation, but, more likely, as a reiteration, or, as Plato suggested, as a reminiscence”. So, according to this theory, it is impossible for a myth to be entirely created by modern literature. One can argue with the argument of the urban myths, which seem a creation of our modernity, although, when having a closer look, these myths are nothing else than reiterations of old myths in a modern frame. The idea expressed by Jean Jacques Wunenburger is closer to my understanding of myth and to the approach this paper wants to achieve. Being more than fiction, more than pure history, the myth is a code which deals with the human experiences, and modern literary fiction is nothing but an attempt to use the substance of the myth without being capable of exploring the myth itself entirely. The rituals, the old legends and the collective mentality are all, in different proportions, a shelter for the myth itself. This is why the present paper does not intend only to analyze Bram Stoker`s text, but also to make the necessary connections between the novel and the other ways in which the myth chose to reveal itself.

Northrope Frye considers that the myth provides literature with patterns, structures, so, if I may add, any research on myth has to incorporate literary texts but cannot  rely on them exclusively. The historical myths, and this is the case with Dracula, have at least two other strong components which are to be analyzed in order for us to understand the appearance of such a myth, its function and its evolution. These two components are the following: the historical context and, as I have already mentioned, the role this myth plays in the collective mentality of those who are responsible for creating it in its actual shape (in our case, the Romanian collective mentality).

Like in many other paradigms, in the case of Dracula, the historical context is not just an accumulation of objective facts, but mostly a reflection of these facts inside the society. The image of Dracula detaches itself from the real character upon which it is based, following a separate symbolic trajectory, as in any other similar situation in our modern world. Because, as Jean Jacques Wunenburger already stated in his book, “The philosophy of the Images”, “with modernity, the image will achieve more and more independency from its model”.

Before discussing the historical facts is important to reaffirm the connection between Vlad Dracul and Bram Stoker` character. One may easily find the following excerpt in the novel :  “In the records are such words as ‘stregoica’ witch, ‘ordog’ and ‘pokol’ Satan and hell, and in one manuscript this very Dracula is spoken of as ‘wampyr,’ which we all understand too well”. The brief descriptions about the Count biography and the history of his family prove the connection, as well. “In his life, his living life, he go over the Turkey frontier and attack his enemy on his own ground. He be beaten back, but did he stay? No! He come again, and again, and again.”

Now, let us go back to the facts. The story begins in 14th century, when the King of Hungary, Sigismund of Luxemburg founded the Order of the Dragon. The symbol of this Order was a dragon and the purpose was to protect Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire. Vlad Ţepeş` s father (Vlad II) was a member of this order. Proud of his affiliation, Vlad II, the ruler of Walachia (an actual southern Romanian territory) stamped some coins with the figure of the dragon. The Romanians, not at all familiarized with this mythological creature (which was not part of the Romanian mythology), associated the dragon with Satan. And this is why, Vlad Ţepeş`s father was called Vlad Dracul or Vlad Drăculea – Dracul or Drăculea meaning in Romanian Satan, the Devil. The name was then perpetuated for all Vlad` sons, including of course Vlad III Ţepeş or Vlad Dracul (the character Bram Stoker chose to incarnate Dracula). Now, is time to elucidate the other surname of this ruler – Ţepeş. In Romanian, Ţepeş means the Impaler. The punishment, quite often in the human history, and for sure not an invention of Ţepeş, caused a slow and painful death. The convicted were often immobilized while a sharp stake was being driven slowly into their bodies. Vlad Ţepeş used to arrange the stakes according to the rank of the convicted, the height of the stake indicating the rank. This punishment is attested for the first time as a common one during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, so Before Christ. Some historians consider that the term “crucifixion” may also have the meaning of impalement in the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, in Asia and Europe, impalement was used on a large scale.

Famous for his battles against the Ottoman Empire, Vlad Ţepeş or Vlad Dracul never ruled in Transylvania, but thrice in Walachia, in the year 1448, between 1455-1462 and in 1476. As in the case of his surname which is a result of a misunderstanding, as I have already explained, the connection between count Dracula and Transylvania is again just a result  of a strange context which led Bram Stoker to the idea that his character should be located in Transylvania.

At this point, there are three major questions one has to answer: first, why count Dracula is located in Transylvania and not in Walachia, where Vlad Ţepeş ruled, second, how exactly the story about Vlad the Vampire appeared and, third, how these stories ceased to have just a national or, at any rate, a Balkanic circulation, becoming a source of attraction for the Irish writer Bram Stoker? For some of these particular answers, one has to stop interrogating history, and start  understanding the route of  human imagination and the general patterns of the historical myths.

The first popular legends about Ţepeş`s cruelty appear due to some Transylvanian merchants, a German-speaking ethnical group, not satisfied with the taxes Ţepeş imposed on them. Most probably, these legends were spread in the West, contributing later to Bram Stoker`s fiction. What is important to be mentioned is that in the 16th century there were two different, antagonistic approaches on Vlad Ţepeş. In an Italian text written by Michael Bocignoli (an Italian diplomat) in 1524, Vlad Ţepeş  is described positively. We do not  have reasons to suspect Bocignoli of being subjective, because the same diplomat, in some other texts, describes, in the worst terms possible, the realities in Walachia, a fact which proves he was not very fond of this country. The first legends about the cruelty of Vlad Ţepeş appear in Southern Transylvania between 1459-1460. Judging according to  the documents we have, it is not an exaggeration to say that count Dracula and Vlad Ţepeş are today related just because of a commercial dispute in the 15th century. Rich and with strong Western connections, the merchants being unhappy with the taxes imposed by Ţepeş, had had the possibility to pass the legends on. Between 1462-1475, the surname Dracula becomes famous in the West. Amusingly enough, I can say that if Vlad Ţepeş had been more tolerant with the merchants in Transylvania, he would not have had the honour and the privilege of being associated with the most well-known vampire in the history of literature.  This is why the plot of “Dracula” is settled in Transylvania and not in Wallachia. The legends about the dark side of Ţepeş come from Transylvania and, we will soon see, the man responsible for informing Stoker about Dracula was also related to Transylvania.

At this point, a digression has to be made. Although it is not a common allegation among the scholars, there is still a popular tendency to associate Vlad Ţepeş with the beginning of vampirism, which is quite inaccurate. The history of vampirism did not  begin with Vlad Ţepeş. He is just a minor vampire, maybe the most famous, but still a minor one in a history which starts almost 4 000 years ago with the Assyrian and Babylonian legends about the woman-demon Lamastu, who used to drink blood.

The first surprise one has when reading Bram Stoker`s novel is that Dracula is, in fact… not Romanian, but “szekey”. The Count says: “we Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship”. Although the etymology of the word is still under dispute,  szekely, has, for sure, to be translated in Romanian as “secui”. One may say there is just a little detail which, for the reader unfamiliar with the Romanian history, is not particularly relevant. But, it is crucial to mention that “secuii” were an ethnical Hungarian-speaking group. In Medieval Hungary, they were considered to be a minority, but in Transylvania, in 15th century, they represented a part of the economical elite, as compared to the economic status of the Romanians. Even the title count itself does not have a Romanian tradition, but it was mainly used by the Hungarian nobility, especially  during the Habsburg Dynasty.  Again, the question which arises naturally is why Stoker changed the ethnic origin of Vlad Ţepeş. One knows today that Bram Stoker used some paintings and documents from the Royal Library in London for his documentation. The paintings, from 15th century, were painted by some representatives of the same ethnic group against whom Vlad Ţepeş tried to impose higher taxes, so, what Stoker saw was the evil image of the Romanian ruler as it was described by his traditional enemies, the same ones who were responsible for spreading the rumors about Ţepeş being a vampire in the West.

It is important to mention that Bram Stoker never visited Transylvania or Walachia so, most likely, the ethnic origin of count Dracula was suggested by his friend, the Hungarian professor Hermann Vamberger. The professor himself becomes a character in the novel, under the name Arminius. “I have asked my friend Arminius, of Buda-Pesth University, to make his record, and from all the means that are, he tell me of what he has been. He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkeyland. If it be so, then was he no common man, for in that time, and for centuries after, he was spoken of as the cleverest and the most cunning, as well as the bravest of the sons of the ‘land beyond the forest’ [trans silva, the Latin etymology of Transylvania]. That mighty brain and that iron resolution went with him to his grave, and are even now arrayed against us.”

Consequently,history tells us how a common medieval ruler becomes a character due to a mixture of a particular historical context and some commercial animosities. This concoction is not, still, enough, to explain the success of the story. Literarily speaking, Bram Stoker`s novel is a mediocre one. It contains Romantic literary patterns and clichés, inconsistent characters, a predictable plot… and, above all, the inevitable battle between good and evil. Not even here does Stoker succeed in being particularly original. Dr. Van Helsing, who seems to know everything about vampires (no one explains how), has a certitude: the Evil cannot prevail over the Good: “in him some vital principle have in strange way found their utmost. And as his body keep strong and grow and thrive, so his brain grow too. All this without that diabolic aid which is surely to him. For it have to yield to the powers that come from, and are, symbolic of good”. Along with this certitude, the entire mystery of the novel falls apart.

So, which mechanism transforms a common novel into a successful one? The novel “Dracula” met success only after the death of the author and not because of the plot and hardly because of some aesthetic reasons. A typically Victorian gothic novel, “Dracula” is settled in an exotic place, thus responding to the eagerness of the reader for exoticism at that time. Apart from Frankenstein or Edgar Allen Poe`s short stories for example, Bram Stoker`s novel explores and exploits a space which generates itself a sort of strange fascination.  It was the 19th and 20th centuries themselves which granted the success of the book, a success which was consolidated when the story turned into a movie (“Nosferatu”, 1922). Let us imagine just for a second that Count Dracula is not a character living in Transylvania, but in Paris, London or some other well-known European metropolis. An important part of the strange veracity this character has, would disappear.

Bram Stoker himself emphasizes this distinction between a wild place full of superstitions (Transylvania) and a country representing the peak of civilization when he puts these words in Dracula `s mouth: “We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.”  Twice in the novel does the narrator underlines the superstitious nature of the natives, thus creating  the perfect plausible settlement for the story: “Full of beauties of all imaginable kinds, and the people are brave, and strong, and simple, and seem full of nice qualities. They are very, very superstitious.” The message for the reader can be synthesized as follows: you are located in a real space, identifiable on the maps, about which one hardly knows anything so the only option is to trust the narrator who deliberately mixes the reality with fiction.

One can wonder if veracity is important when we talk about literature. After all, literature is an alternative reality, so why should we judge it with the criteria of veracity? Well, if veracity is not an important criterion when we talk about the professional field of literature, it becomes important when we take the public success of the story into consideration or, in other words, when one tries to analyse  literature with the instruments provided by the sociology of literature. Will you, please, imagine, for example, what Dan Brown`s novel, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ would be without the interference of the reality into fiction? Even nowadays people make pilgrimage-like trips to the places described in the novel. If the 21st century, with all its technological developments could not oppose the desire of the reader to identify the reality with fiction, how could a Romantic early 20th century do it?

The visitors in Romania, when they go to Transylvania, they stop at Bran`s castle, hoping to find Dracula there. A few of them know that the castle does not have anything to do either with Vlad Ţepeş, or with count Dracula. Moreover, the fame of the Bran castle is rather due to the fact that, merely three decades ago, some American tourists saw it and it seemed to them  similar with the castle described by Bram Stoker. No document ever attested this was the castle of Dracula. Most probably it was in this castle that Vlad Ţepeş was imprisoned in 1462, according to a book published in 2002 by the Romanian historian Gheorghe Lazea Postelnicu. Even if the information is true, Ţepeş stayed there just for two months. Although, a myth never needs documents to rely upon; all it needs is to update old archetypes.

For the Romanian collective mentality, Vlad Ţepeş is associated with the supreme idea of justice. The old legends talk about a fair and wise ruler, during whose time one could leave a bag full of gold in the middle of the street without being afraid of getting robbed. The Romanian national poet, Mihai Eminescu, appeals to the image of Ţepeş when he wants to discuss the gluttony of his time in opposition to the old one. In 2007, the Romanian national television, following a BBC idea, initiated a campaign to attempt to find who was, according to the Romanians, the greatest Romanian ever. Vlad Ţepeş ranked the 12th out of 100 representative figures.

At the end of my paper, I would like to answer to what it could seem a very superficial question: how can one protect oneself against vampires? Bram Stoker mentions the power of garlic or the efficiency of a crucifix. I may add, that against vampires or against any myth which tends to capture one`s imagination one had better  protect oneself by trying to understand what exactly could lie  beyond the myth.Consequently, the understanding of the evolution of a myth and its functions is , from afar, more effective than any crucifix or any amount of garlic carried around one`s neck, if I may say. Thank you for your attention!

Text publicat în revista Echinox

From Balkan to Cultural Balkanism

The term Balkanism has suffered along history significant semantic mutations, according to the cultural geography or the geo-political context to which it was related. Moreover, there is a scientific semantic of the term and a vulgar one as well, which rely on clichés, on different cultural paradigms which, inevitably, place Balkanism in an inferiority relationship as to other spaces of European culture[1]. Sometimes, even in the discourse of different intellectuals, there are reminiscences of e pejorative tone which Balkanism attracts, explainable through the identification of the cultural discourse with the destiny of the Balkanic peoples, marked by convulsions and invalidated by recent history. [2]

The etymology of the toponym Balkan is to be found in the Turkish language, meaning difficult mountain. Balkan is, in fact, used as alternative of the Greek toponym Haemus, a mountain very little known today.

In 1808, the German geographer August Zeune named the territories situated at South from Haemus the Balkanic Peninsula. The syntagma survived, in spite of the fact that it was sporadically replaced with others (The Greek Peninsula or Slavogreece).[3] As a detail, which is rather anecdotal, we should mention the fact that the initial name The Balkanic Peninsula comes from a wrong appreciation. It was believed that Haemus is a mountainous chain which “crosses the Northern part of the peninsula from its Eastern extremity to its Western one”[4]; but, in reality, it was about a mountain with a total width of 550km from the Black Sea to the border between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

We have made reference exclusively to the geographical determinations of the term, those which refer to spatiality. Now, we shall focus on the cultural connotations and even moral ones the term acquired in time. On December, 20th, 1918, in an article from New York Times the term Balkanisation was used; it meant the process of disintegration of some large states, as a consequence of the historical events in the Balkans. In 1949, at the end of the Civil War in Greece, a period of peace followed, or, better said, apparent peace, which coincided partially with the instauration of the Iron Curtain. The identity cultural crisis of the Balkans was nonetheless far from being over; it had just been suspended in an artificial manner, and, obviously, temporarily. Under the dictatorial influence of a political system, whose essential attributes were brutal rejection and superficiality in the approach of the identity problems, the Balkans remained silent although it did not mean, actually, that these problems were solved.

Together with the beginning of the Cold War, the Balkans became the interest of different influence spheres. Greece and Turkey would remain outside the Iron Curtain, and, thus, they were to have a different evolution as compared to the other Balkanic countries. Geographers placed Greece and Turkey near Portugal, Spain and Italy, grouping them under the title of Southern Europe or Mediterranean Europe, while Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were in Eastern Europe.

After the collapse of Communism, the Occident lived for quite a while with the illusion that, if here paradigms verified in the Occidental societies applied, the results would be promising. The material wealth was declared the universal panacea for the illnesses of the Balkans. But here it was proved that the Balkanic civilisation had created an invincible immunity to all stereotyped-solutions, that it no longer reacted to the same type of Occidental logic, that had individualised to such extent that whoever would have tried to help the Balkans, had to learn their cultural geography first.[5]

All these elements of pure history, all the failures of the Blakanic peoples as well as the violence and the excessive nationalism (but which, it is worth reminding, is not the invention of the Balkans) led to the strict association of Balkanism to chaos, inconsistence and the picturesque. The lack of dignity, the lack of some coherent and consistent moral values, inconsequence – all these became almost perfect synonyms of Balkanism.

However, Balkanism grew out of its borders and became a depreciative adjective used always to characterise an incendiary political situation or an improper behaviour. The semantic confusions lead often to the juxtaposition of meanings which, if analysed from a cultural perspective, are forced and insufficiently argued. For instance, very often, terms such as Balkanism – Orientalism – Byzantinism are set in a synonymic relation. Consequently, a very strict delimitation of each and every of them is needed here, with a very reasonable analysis of the relationship between and among them. Without such an approach, any discussion about literary/cultural Balkanism risks to perpetuate a series of clichés.

What is still considered a definite feature of Balkanism is the power of cohabitation of contrasting situations, sometimes impossible to imagine together.[6] The Balkanic character is unpredictable not only regarding his outer manifestations (his or her relationship with the Other, actions, motivations etc.) but also the relationship he or she has got with the inner self. Linearity, normality, even the logic of existence are denied by the Balkanic character, apparently without any strong reason, but it is good to know that all this lability is a constructed, assumed one. The Balkanic character is aware of his lack of consistence, compensating it with an elegance which saves him from vulgarity most of the times.

We must say from the very beginning that the Balkanic character can be easily taken for the realist character, for example Dostoyevskyian. We find in the all world literature a wide range of inconsistent actants, without well-defined moral values and susceptible of certain easiness, which makes them act chaotically, instinctively. However, there is an essential difference between these and the Balkanic character: with the Dostoyevskyan heroes, there is no visible smile in the corner of the mouth, which a Balkanic character almost never loses. The tragic characters’ expression does not fit the Balkanic one; he is always between two feelings; he is, to take over an interesting motif from the Romanian fairy-tales, laughing with one eye and crying with the other, and is doing this at the same time, rendering confusion among his readers. The watcher (in our case the reader) no longer knows to which eye to pay attention, either to the laughing one or to the crying one.[7] The Balkanic humour is never one free from irony, laughter is not a break of joy but rather a prolongation of a general attitude towards existence; the Balkanic is susceptible, cannot invest himself only to one side or totally  in this very simple action of laughing, as even in laughter he preserves a defensive attitude of laughing at the other not with the other. [8]

Traditionalism and conservatism – these seem to be the most frequent attributes associated with the Balkanic societies.[9] The progress to which the Balkans adhered every time when historical context permitted to them could not get rid of this conservatory and traditional character, which, in spite of his efforts, the Balkanic feels he has to assume.[10] In time, these two notions became out-worn and linked to involution, anachronism, and the lack of emancipation. However, in reality, there are many advantages which a  traditional society can preserve and value; first, the elements which define this type of society are already verified values to which the Balkans can always go back to, when the political experiments fail. Thus, the stubborn resistance the Balkanic cultures opposed to the great colonising Empires can be accounted for.

Secondly, these Balkanic attributes give literature, and culture in general, a profoundly original matrix in which the new is not the cornerstone but always relies on the cornerstoneofsome traditional values.

The Balkanic world is one which lacks a centre, if we understand by centre authority and credibility. The Balkanic character denies, in a defensive manner, any kind of authority, submitting, however, to dictatorial wills because his revolt is one lacking violence, comfortable and reduced to rhetoric and eloquence[11]; the Balkanic does not protest against dictators but against some systems which, as they are abstract, turn him into a peaceful, inoffensive protestant. Accumulating tensions, he will break out violently only when he is among his people, who, thinking like he does, legitimise his virulent outbreaks and cancel his feeling of fear.

The Balkanic has his own range of values, without being uprooted whatsoever; he does not feel to belong to a certain space, his spiritual nomadism makes him feel comfortable in any territory he might be. Here it is not about adaptability to a certain place but rather about the fact that the Balkanic is faithful to sophisticated moral principles, marked by contradictions.[12] He is almost simultaneously brave and cowardly, never judges according to the same principles and adopts towards the others a certain attitude which rarely lacks forms of tolerance and intransigence.

Literary/cultural Balkanism also imposes an unusual relation between the character and the space he lives in. The Balkanic has certainly a space he gets attached to, but this is not exclusively related to a territory. What defines the Balkanic is so powerfully interiorised that he is not dependent on the geography of the places in which he lives. His memory is not that of a place, his nostalgia is far from being telluric.[13] The ethnic and cultural diversity, which has always defined the Balkans,[14] culturally resulted into the rich experience if the Balkanic character,[15] whom human characters no longer amaze.[16] He no longer has prejudices against the others, takes them as they are, and does not judge according to a given identity matrix, which turns him into a subtle observer, who appreciates nuances and details.

Cultural and literary Balkanism is to be noticed strictly linguistically as well. It is characterised by a wisdom of popular origin, imprecation as form of revolt or disapproval,[17]offence as proof of love, closeness, intimacy. Balkanism imposes language violence in order to suggest the affective links between/among characters; The Balkanic finds the urban civilised and correct language proper only when his interlocutor is a stranger to him, only when his conversation partner imposes a glacial attitude. Politeness becomes, thus, a mark of impersonal relations, from which emotional involvement is absent. However, a rudimentary discourse defines the discussion among friends, where the ornaments of rhetoric become useless.

The Balkanic time flows according to other rules or, better said, has a different significance than the one given by the Occidental. The past never becomes history for the Balkanic, it can be reactivated any time, sometimes violently, according to the present context.[18] We can state that the past has an existential character, it is continually in a process of becoming in Constantin Noica’s terms. There is no break with the past; on the contrary, along with the passing of time, the past gathers new dimensions. Here it is about a chaos of the traditional axis of time: past, present and future cannot be defined independently, in logical successions, but in an inextricable relation to one another. Compensatorily, as the Balkanic does not have the memory of territoriality, he does not have the sense of physical property; he develops an extraordinary temporal memory, which does not permit him to assimilate the past into history. Nevertheless, we can talk about the fear of time the Balkanic has,[19] but we should not understand by this a fear generated by the passing of time, but rather a sort of freight towards anything that means the passing of time as evolution, a freight however motivated exactly by the lack of temporal certainties. Not knowing when to end his relation with the past, how to organise the present or how to create expectations towards future, the Balkanic does not have references similar to the Westerners’.

The existence of a distinct cultural paradigm associated with Balkanism is presently denied by many researchers, one of the arguments being that Balkanism, as cultural reality, does not have a specific particular sphere, as it identifies itself partially with other already existing tendencies and trends. The approach to acknowledge a Balkanic cultural matrix is prevented also by the powerful pejorative valences which the term acquired as a natural consequence of the political and historical evolutions in the Balkans last century.

The, another impediment is represented by the fact that cultural and literary Balkanism is not identifiable exclusively in the region of the Balkanic peoples; however, this can be an argument of the profoundness and legitimacy of the Balkanic cultural frame as well.

It is also stated that all cultural symptoms associated with Balkanism are actually simple Oriental inheritances or of other origin, so the idea of cultural (literary) Balkanism is artificially created. It is, nonetheless, obvious that no culture can simply inherit the cultural frame of the societies preceding it just in the original preserved way; this frame is permanently enriched, and together with the parting from the primordial cultural frame, similarities become ever less. Balkanism can certainly keep something from the cultural matrix of Byzantium, can have features which make us think of the Orient, but all of them are shaped by the cultural realities of the 20th century. It is not very likely if not really impossible that historical realities such as the Balkanic Wars or the Iron Curtain should not have contributed decisively to a distinct Balkanic culture.

[1] Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p.3 : ”A specter is haunting Western culture – the specter of the Balkans. All the powers have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: politicians and journalists, conservative academics and radical intellectuals, moralists of all kind, gender, and fashion. Where is the adversarial group that has not been decried as „Balkan” and „balkanizing” by its opponents? Where the accused have not hurled back the branding reproach of „balkanism”?”

[2]Ibidem, p. 21 : ”In fact, this is a simultaneous process: at the same time that „Balkan” was being accepted and widely used as geographic signifier, it was already becoming saturated with a social and cultural meaning that expanded its signified far beyond its immediate and concrete meaning. At the same time that it encompassed and came to signify a complex historical phenomenon, some of the political aspects of this new signified were extrapolated and became, in turn, independently signified.”

[3] Max Derruau, L’Europeapud Georgios Prevelakis, Balcanii – Cultură şi geopolitică, Bucureşti, Editura Corint, 2001, p. 22.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] Georgios Prevelakis, p. 9: “The dominant ideologies strengthened the illusion of stability. Both Soviet Communism and the American Liberalism sustained, in a perfect consensus, that modernisation and especially the economic and social development were to drift away, once and for all, the old demons of the Balkans, that cultural homogeneity was to undoubtedly turn the old conflicts of identity substratum in simple folkloric curiosities. ” [our translation].

[6] Ibidem, p. 46: “In our opinion, there are at least two defining elements that a stylistic analysis could re-argue to sustain what we name literary Balkanism. On the one hand, it is Balkanism as association of contrasting feelings, and secondly, Balkanism as aesthetic recuperation of a collective drama. […]”. [our translation]

[7] Ibidem, p. 65: “This, [the Balkanic], being under the burden of his times, still has the force to grin and bear at every trouble and to change the drama into a trifle, out of a triple and compensatory necessity: resistance, survival and liberation, at least innerly.” [our translation].

[8] Ibidem, p. 69 : “As attitude, the character of this space is laughing with one eye and crying with the other. A generally fortifying conception about existence, crystallised in the paremiologic moralism, unifies with the conscience of the same existence perpetuated under times, hence the sublimation in the aesthetic construct of homo duplex. ”[our translation]

[9] Georgios Prevelakis, p. 105: “The Balkanic identities took the shape elaborated by Western ideologies (liberalism, nationalism and even communism). Their meaning, however, remained traditional.” [our translation]

[10] Ibidem, p 57:  “Albeit they let themselves taken by the great migration trends to the cities or plains accessible to the influences of modern world, the people of the Balkans are nevertheless powered by the nostalgia of traditional life.” [our translation]

[11] Ibidem, p. 19 “The spirit of resistance against superior forces is one of the constants of the Balkanic peoples.” [our translation]

[12] Meša Selimović quoted in Mircea Muthu , p.78:” [the Balkanic people ] inherit the laziness of the Orient and the taste for an easy life from the Occident; they are never in a hurry, as life is in the hurry; they are not interested in what tomorrow might bring them, as what will be will be, and too little depends on them; they are together only when in need, this is why they don’t like being together; they hardly trust anyone, but it’s easiest to take them in with a good word; they don’t look like heroes, but they are least afraid of threats; They don’t care about anything for long, they don’t care about what is going on around them and suddenly, they start being interested in everything, to ramble and turn everything upside down, then they become numb again,  disliking to remember anything of what has happened; they are afraid of changes, that often changes brought them misfortunes; and they easily lose interest in a person, even if he or she has done them good. Strange  world, it gossips you, but cares for you, kisses your cheek but hates you, mocks at noble deeds but does not forget you for generations.” [our translation].

[13] Giorgios Prevelakis, op. cit., p. 99 : “Solidarity among people does not imply a common attachment to a territory, and home is where your family is […]. The Balkanic is thus characterised by a little developed feeling of territoriality.” [our underlining], [our translation]; [our translation].

[14] Mircea Muthu, p. 22 “So, a form of relationship in South-East is the cohabitation, till the beginning of last century, of the cultures of expansion and that of concentration.” [our translation].

[15]Ibidem, p. 77: “[…] the Balkanic person, and by extension, the South-East European, participates, with his ethnic, mental and spiritual structure to more nationalities.” [our translation].

[16] Georgios Prevelakis, op. cit., p. 93 “Ethnic pluralism and the opening to vertical horizons are part of the urban Balkanic tradition.” [our translation].

[17] Constantin Ciopraga, Personalitatea literaturii române, Bucureşti, Editura Institutul European, 1997, p. 116: Balkanism acquired a wide range of insults, curses and filth[…].” [our translation].

[18] Paul Zarifopol quoted in Mircea Muthu, p. 91: “For Westerners, the old time is succumbed in strata, which slipped slowly into past, their old time is historical.”[our underlining], [our translation];

[19] Mircea Muthu, p. 97: “This is why we reiterate the statement that in South-East we could rather speak of a fear of time and less of space, which would account for the frequent over-solicitation of hearing as compared to seeing, of the ear as compared to the eye.” [our translation].

Bibliographical references

  • Ciopraga, Constantin, Personalitatea literaturii române, Bucureşti, Editura Institutul European, 1997.
  • Doinaş, Ştefan Augustin, Locul ca urnă funerară, in  “Secolul XX. Loc – Locuire – Poluare”, Bucureşti, literary magazine edited by Uniunea Scriitorilor din România and Fundaţia Culturală „Secolul XXI”, 1999.
  • Kaplan, Robert D., La răsărit, spre Tartaria. Călătorii în Balcani, Orientul Mijlociu şi Caucaz, Iaşi, Polirom, 2002.
  • Liiceanu, Gabriel, Repere pentru o hermeneutică a locuirii,  in „Secolul XX. Loc – Locuire – Poluare”, Bucureşti, literary magazine edited by Uniunea Scriitorilor din România and Fundaţia Culturală „Secolul XXI”, 1999.
  • Muthu, Mircea, Balcanism literar românesc, vol. I – III, Cluj-Napoca, Editura Dacia, 2002.
  • Nicoară, Toader, Introducere în istoria mentalităţilor colective, Cluj – Napoca Presa Universitară Clujeană, 1997.
  • Prevelakis,Georgios, Balcanii – Cultură şi geopolitică, Bucureşti, Editura Corint, 2001.
  • Todorova, Maria, Imagining the Balkans, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997,.
  • Tanaşoca, Nicolae Şerban, Bizanţul şi românii, Bucureşti, Editura Fundaţiei PRO, 2003.

Text publicat în volumul Romanian Culture in the Global Age

Romanians and Europe

The attempt to place Romanian identity within the larger context of the European identity (a syntagm to which we often relate with a sense of nostalgia lacking reason) is no longer a novelty. In this debate, we would like to start naively with the attempt to settle down some problems without which the seriousness of any discussion about the Romanian identity and /vs/ the European one would simply have an obvious and unwilled empiric character.

First, who (and not what) is Europe? Is there a true European identity or are we talking about a future construction of such an identity? Do we really want to integrate through assimilation or through the fertile incorporation of some values, which themselves will give a fecund mobility to the European identity? From the very beginning, we shall have to state the fact that we shall try to distance ourselves from protocronistic ideas, which place us in the center of European civilization and, at the same time, from those which throw us inevitably to the cultural periphery of the continent.

Nicolae Iorga justly noticed that

[…] in order to make something out of Europe, it is necessary for us first to know – and there have been so many who have never known, or knowing, they have forgotten – what Europe has been since immemorial times, when the word [Europe, o,n] was first used; it is then necessary to investigate where this Europe, which tries to be unified diplomatically, faute de mieux, could be looked for. (Iorga 22, my translation)

So, who is Europe? Initially, “the old Oriental peoples who lived in the countries where the sun rose, i.e. Asia” (Iorga, 22, my translation) established an interesting and just synonymy at that time between Europe and the lack of culture. Europe was for them not only the place where the sun set, but also a barbarious territory, with a cultural identity inevitably placed in an unquestionably inferior position to the Orient. Only the Greeks, taking over the values of the Oriental culture, established the premises of the development of what Europe means today. Thus, we notice how different the European contemporary paradigm is from what we can call, to a certain extent, the beginning of the European culture. Yet, though Greece represents the starting point of European culture, it represents a marginal culture today (from the point of view of perception) as compared to the two poles of the European construction: France and Germany. No matter how hazardous it may sound, Europe is the direct descendent of the Orient, as “Rome became orientalised, and through the work of its legions” (Iorga 23).

After World War I had devasted the continent, there was a more and more acute need for an economic Europe, which would preserve a peace to which Europeans aspired, gradually reaching  to the Community of Coal and Steel (made up of seven states), to the present European Community. The pattern of such a construction is not far from what the Roman Empire intended, for example: common administration and a free market. The present European Union has, yet, more generous principles and desires: a common Constitution and even a set of common values. Jean Monnet, one of the initiators of the European Communion,  considered it“a fusion of interests of the European peoples, not only the simple maintainance of the equilibrium of these interests” (Monet 336).

If such ambitions had been true before the Cold War, they became utopic under the circumstances in which Communism had already divided  Europe, which had not been homogeneous even before its birth. In this point of pure demonstration, we feel obliged to notice that Europe and the European Union are two different notions. As we talk about perceptions and imagological analyses, we shall have to admit that in the Romanian collective mentality, the integration into Europe and the integration into the European Union are synonims, and that is the reason why we shall study them as such, operating the necessary distinctions when necessary.

Consequently, Europe is an indistinct territory, rather a sum of individual cultures than the keeper of some distinct European values. Until the beginning of the 20th century, Brunetiere had considered the literature of the five colonial powers as belonging to the European literature. From the point of view of perception, in the Romanian mentality (and not only), Europe is neither a unitary territory, nor a coherent sum (and a correct one from a certain point of view), of cultures. We are dealing with an incomplete and conjunctural perception, which assimilates to Europe the Western culture gathered around France and Germany. It is incomplete as it operates an unacceptable reduction by associating exclusively with the cultural French and German territory (both important!) and conjunctural as

“the relation between the Centre and the periphery is historically very mobile and, consequently, passing. The first ‘strong nucleus’ of Europe was the Mediterannean territory From Athens, it went up to Rome, then stopped for some time in Constantinople. For some time, ‘the strong nucleus’ was the Aachenus. In the 17th century, ‘the European avangarde’ meant Louis the 14th, and in the following century, England, with the Industrial Revolution. In 1815, the ‘essential’ Europe was the equivalent of the Saint Alliance, reuniting a Catholic Austrian dynasty, a Protestant Hunnish one and an Orthodox Russian one. There were also great Italian moments (the Rennaissance), some Spanish and Dutch ones. We shall see what the ‘strong nucleus’ will look like after the last enlargement of the European Union brings along approximately 200 millions of new Europeans (central, Eastern, South-Eastern). Under the circumstances, to worship the temporary moment of the French-German antanta is a proof of definite obtusity” (Pleşu, 2).

Western Europe (as this is what Europe means generally) developed initially a superior passive attitude (until the end of the Cold War, and then a protective superior one (after the fall of the Iron Curtain). The origin of such a protectorship is not to be found in the profound compassion towards the state affected by Communism, as “while for Nazism [in Europe] a hipermnesia is registered, Communism benefits from an interesting amnesia” (Lovinescu 109), but in the need to create a structure strong enough so that it should count in the great economic battles. The European construction is built on the will of the Centre and the inefficiency (even uselessness) of resistence on behalf of the Periphery.

A relation of modern hegemony  was established between the Centre and the Periphery, a relation as it is understood and defined by Bajoit Guy:

“through hegemony we understand the capacity of that state to impose its interests (his or of those of certain social groups) outside its territory; these interests  are as diverse as possible: most often, they are economic, but also strategic, political, cultural, etc” (Guy 129).

In Romania, this type of relations legitimised the appearance of two types of relations with Europe. Among these, the Romanian political class will dangle too, noticing two great electoral sources. Masses will be induced the idea that the European project is that on which attention should be focused, though the reality after 1989 (it seems available for almost all countries in the Communist block) shows us that the great Romanian projects were rather marked outside the country, the Romanian politician not having the credibility necessary to impose them. Because

“ specialists in the old regime, in painting the fence before the visit of the Prime-secretary, they [politicians] are ready any time to re-paint it in pro-European colours if the inspectors from Bruxelles ask them how they are doing” (Vasilescu, 1)

In the Romanian collective imaginary, the politician has been neither pro-European, nor Euro-sceptic, only an opportunist. So, Romania has, under the circumstances, one and grand project: that of synchronising with Europe.

“The comparison with the West has become one of the most annoying characteristics of the Romanian public discourse. Everything, from the everyday objects up to mentalities, has to have a characteristic to remind us of our supreme purpose, the integration into the Western paradise. We have a European law, state MPs after they have voted another legislative initiative. I am selling a European apartment, say the announcements in the newspapers. When a new bar, club or restaurant is opened, after a first visit, you get to the conclusion: It’s cool here, is’s Western; when a historic building is renovated, you chat with you bodies: it looks good, just like in Germany; when a new block of flats is built of steel and glass, you boast off: You, see, we can also work as in the West. When somebody earns much, he/she’s got a Western salary; when the unions come out in the street, it is because they want salaries like in Europe, and the Governemnt doesn’t give them what they want as the quality of their work is not as it is there” (Vasilescu 4).

The European project has also become a pretext used all the time in order to justify or explain measures and decisions which, explained in another way, would have been disbelieved immediately. The Romanian manifests his tolerance towards everything that could come directly from Europe, because it has got an unquestionable shield for the moment.Jonatahn Schele stated in 2003 that there was the danger that

“the EU be an excuse for any measure taken, that it was important that Romanians understand why changes were made, what and how many changes were necessary for aderation as they are required by Bruxelles and how many were necessary anyway for the modernisation of Romania.” (Schelee 6)

On one side of this project, there were the local nostalgics, those who saw their fears confirmed regarding the loss of a sense of Romanian identity (which, nonetheless, none hurried to define concretely). There came the demagogues, i.e. those whose major preoccupation was the cultivation of an anachronic messianism from the perspective of the century they activated in, but a messianism extremely profitable at the pragmatic level of gathering votes; those people whose main interest seems the national interest. The project of Romania’s adherence to EU has generated the reactivation of Samanatorist discourses, gathered around some exacerbated ethnocentrist ideas. . Thus, the image of the Patriotic Romanian was shaped, the Romanian who uttered naturally offensive slogans towards the minimum decency, slogans which were themselves serious and obvious skiddings from the minimum, common sense logic (we are not selling our country or we work, not think).

On the other hand, the thought of a Europe that will be a universal panaceum for the humours gathered in Communism, has contributed to the birth of a generation for which Romania has become something obsolete, an anachronic state whose unique chance was the integration into a great and indestructible European family. The integration in the European Union was also an occasion for excessive pathetisms for those who had seen the European structures as the only salvation from the Romanian mediocrity; the public discourse of these Romanians contains a paradigm easy to identify, even simplist to some extent: We are alterity, the Others are hope, authenticity, value. As any paradigm characterised by the excessive valorisation of the Other, and this is on and off interrupted by a sort of fright expressed as follows: what if we won’t integrate anyway?  What if Europe doesn’t want us, what shall we do.

“The thought of these days, when the masters of Europe will caress our heads as as if we were some sad, handicapped children, raises in me a feeling similar to one in the highschool years, during the Romanian classes. The teacher, an excellent pedagogue, had a reply, both simple and painful, always uttered when someone said some stupidity. On a tone very similar used by people addressing beasts, he used to say: ‘Ehh…it is important that we be happy!’” (Sădeanu 8).

There is anyway, a tradition a strong tradition of inferiority placement in relation to the Others, a tradition very often resorted to It relies on the texts of very numerous Romanian writers in exile (it seems that Romania is also seen better from exile), many of whom reiterating the idea of the Romanian culture as a minor culture. Paul Goma, for instance, stated in one of his diaries: “Romanians are a community of non-jurkes, we could say: one made up exclusively of poets and gyps” (Goma 6). Cioran is also representative for this way of perceiving the Romanian destiny (to the extent to which, if we take over his type of discourse, we can speak about a Romanian destiny):

“Our national ego is superficial, lacking sap and profetism. We are satisfied to believe that Bulgarians have always been gardners, and we only heroes, without asking ourselves why we are so miserable after so much waste of heroism” (Cioran 155).

This perception of Romania as an insignificant  cultural territory was credibilized also by opinions expressed in the Romanian media by different European personalities. One of the recent examples in this sense is the interview published by the journal Suplimentul de cultura with the British film director, Peter Greenaway. He stated the following:

“You have too mimetic a culture. Romania is invisible in the world. […] I am interested in Romania just because you are invisible. Maybe Zimbabwe has more of an identity than Romania” (Greenaway 16).

Definitely, the Romanian collective imaginary considers such opinions credible just because they come from Europe, and, by extrapolating, in a damaging way, everything that is Europe is veritable and credible. In this case, however, the British director’s statements belong grossly to an amatoeur. To support our idea, we shall present another excerpt from the same interview: First, I was interested in the fact that once you were part of the Roman Empire, but also in the fact that you were part of the Otoman Empire as well.The information contains errors or, better said, betray the British man’s powerlessness to contextualize, to nuance his statements, to relate them to historical realities hard to question.

So, within the Romanian imaginary there are two tendencies coexisting and easy to summarise in two hypotheses  with axioma values, for those who believe in them:

  1. Europe is always right ;
  2. Europe is never right.

The fundamental errors of the two hypotheses will become obvious if we try to answer the following question: what Europe are we talking about? From cultural perspectives, the equation becomes even more complicated. There is a Europe of the French culture as well as there is a Europe of the German culture, of the Spanish, Italian, Hungarian or Polish cultures ( let us not forget that the Hungarians have 3 Noble Prizes for literature and the Polish two). And we could say, in a way,  tha all enumerated countries are part of the great European construction. Absolutely correct, but the same European construction leaves aside the Russian culture, that is exactly a culture whose voice has been and will stay one extremely powerful on the continent. “The great, authentic Europeans are the great creators, because, as Maoirescu used to believe, they are nationals who think in a universal manner.” It would be enough to cite here the great Russians […] without whom the spiritual Europe cannot be even thought of In fact, there have always been comparisons between the Russia outside Europe and the Romania,which knocks at the gates of Europe;  these are comparisons which echo  even in the Romanian colletive mentality. Here is just one, which can be considered representative:

“Only Russia is similar to us from the point of view of chaos, corruption and filthiness, but Russia, politically speaking, has such an obvious position that it produces other freights and other hopes than our poor little land. […] Russia risks to rebecome an Empire any time, while we drown in caricature as in pure nothingness” (Lovinescu 123).

As Jaques Wunenburger notices,

“together with the birth of reason, which has as purpose to subordinate reality to some thinking norms, plans, programs, the anticipations of the ideal society increased in number. Consequently, the awaiting of the historical changes […] rendered imagination the responsibility breaking up with the present and foretell the future. The history of the West has become thus inseparable from a politic and social dream, which gave birth to a specific genre – utopia.” (Wunenburger 160)

Thus, where will the Romanian  integration, assumed with the enthusiasm typical for the reference to the great utopias, take place ? In Raskolnikov’s Europe or in pere Goriot’s ?

While scannig the cultural press and the public manifestations of the political elite, we find it clear that very rarely have we been given another image than that of a unique Europe. This has been most often seen (in the South-Eastern part of the continent) as an alternative to Communism, that is it has been perceived sometimes as the opposite of what it has been in fact, if we think of the nostalgias of the Europeans towards the utopic socialism, so inoffensive in its theoretic  texts. Thus, the fundamental preoccupation has always been how we should behave as veritable Europeans, what we should do to seem Europeans in everything that we do. So, we have a role-model, but this has never been too well defined, it has been a generic model out of which everyone has understood what he or she has understood what he or she has wanted.

Many times, the European integration has also had hilarious aspects. Let us remember the law which established the minimum of square metres which a hen has to have in its chickencoop or the humanitarist suggestions, also with the value of law, about the way the pig has to be eutanised around winter holidays. Europe has been rather a synonym of something else, apriorically better, straighter and more beautiful. Under the circumstances, to mark the portrait of the European Romanian in opposition to the archaic, authentic, veritable Roamanian is an extremely complicated undertaking.

The European Romanian has to be a-national, above all. He has the duty to place himself in universality. He has to contextualize and be rational, that is tolerant and pacifist. If he does not have all these characteristics, then he has to seem credible, something necessary especially because the East-European generally knows a limit of tolerance, a limit that has to be abrogated if he wants to be European. All that is visceral, passionate and dedicated  changes into a European paradigm which is under the domination of the syntagm political correctness – in a slightly robotized lucidity, frustrating in a way, as it urges the individual to adopt attitudes which limits his manifestation in public (gipsies in a European territory are Rroma people, and the black people are Afro-Americans).

But how could the Romanian learn all these things in such a short period of time? Obviously, he could not. However, the solution, as in so many other cases, comes out if we look back. Obviously, this is a paradox , as modernism always legitimises itself with a modernism of another epoch. Eugen Lovinescu, as the evolution of the post-decembrist Romanian society inevitably leads us to the theory of synchronism, distinguished between two stages that needed to be made so that we get syncronized (to get synchronized becomes, in contemporaneity, a synonym of to get integrated). :

The first step is imitation. To imitate is nothing but to import structures associated in other regions with prosperity and welfare. Obvioulsy, the individual imaginary does not assume the new structures organically, but it is forced to become aware of their presence and thus, to attaempt their assimilation. But, if the new structures do not prove their validity in a reasonable period of time, they will be replaced by the old structures which do not leave the collective imaginary so easily.

Huge expectations have been created towards Europe, these expectations being a sort of boomerang, a possible identity conflict which can easily be detonated. The infailability of Europe, in the Romanian collective imaginary, could turn out to be the element that will detonate the trust in it, as

“The Romanian confident in the European Union will by no means accept that the European Union and its many other (too many) institutions can be, at little as possible, imperfect. Heavens is in Bruxelles, Hell is in Bucharest. They are the chmapions of the market economy, coherent, rigurous, rich, logical, just, strict, incorruptable, altruist, democratic. There is much to hope in the moemnt of adherence, and then of the integration, isn’t there? ” (Giurgiu 9).

Imitation creates, thus, expectations, as any imitation process, the imitating one admits either declarativley or tacitly that imitation enables reaching a more different territory, (by more different we should always understand better). Europe means decence and morality for intellectuals, for the common Romanian it means a better salary, a comfortable house and an expensive car.

“The West continues to be seen  as an El Dorado, as for many Romanians to work there for some hunderd Euro per month is the solution to getting out of trouble. […]”(Vasilescu 2).

The best solution to have them all is – firstly –  imitation, as understood by Lovinescu. As in the initial stages of the process, characterised by a certain cultural infantilism, what is more logical than to believe that if you behave as the Other, you will get to like him completely? Europe becomes, thus, a cardinal point for the Romanians at this moment. However, mimetism should not be an isolated phenomenon, but part of a more ample process.

The second necessary step, but not lacking obligation (in the sense that there is no gurantee that it will necessary follow imitation) is the differentiation of values. From a certain point on, imitation becomes very unsatisfying. There is a need to adapt it to a system which can also be assumed, which would overcome superficilaity and stay anchored in something authentic, coming from within the individual, within the habit and the tabuus of the life together in a national culture.  Differentiation, nevertheless, cannot be produced unless we define the two spheres very accurately. The one we imitate and our own culture. In other words, we shall have to know the distinctive characteristics of Europe and Romania so that Lovinescu’s synchronism not stay a simply lab experiemnt. But it is exactly here that the great confusion is produced.

We have tried to briefly describe the matrix of the European Romanian, as it was formed in the collectoive consciousness. Yet, we have noticed that all the traits associated especially to the European mentalities are nothing but fundamental moral values, which would have to define the contemporary man, irrespective of the territory which he occupies. The moral hole of the after December Communist society opposes, in a compensatory manner, another territory built on other coordinates and named, by chance, Europe.

Now let us try to define briefly also the Romanian from whom Europe has to save us. He is a vulgar man, who generalises much and who projects his  personal dramas on a universal background , he is the Romanian who will consider invariably that, if, he has a hard life, than the country is heading in a wrong direction too, he is the Romanian who has very little information, but very many certainties, most of which relying on hasty conclusions and ideas perceived fragmentarily. He is the imbecile so well described by Andrei Plesu:

“he shines through several strong certainties: he is sure he is smart, he is sure that defended the West from the Turks for five hundred years and he is sure that he is the victim of a world conspiracy. […]He won the battle in Calugareni, he died in Marasesti, he beat the Americans in a football game. […] He has the air that he is faithful; in reality, he is more preoccupied to prove that God believes in him more than in others,  than to believe in God” (Pleşu, 51).

In the public perception there is a sort of embarrasment when there is an attempt to make the robot-portrait of the Romanian with whom we should join Europe; it is the embarrasment of the someone who feels obliged in a way when entering a high-browed society accompanied by poor relatives, poorly dressed. For many people, inahbitants of the city not for long,  (as, no matter what is said, Roamnia does not have a long urban tradition), the pre-European Romanian looks as follows:

“Women in flowered skirts and in strong gipsy colours, with a crazy hair, dwarfish dark women dressed in I don’t know what, men with faces aged by endless drinks are scary,, each of them shouting at oneanother, will make you feel anxious whenever you drive by” (Ion 19) .

Here we also meet the same problems created by the image of the European Romanian. The portrait I have shaped is not specific for Romania, but rather for the nations traumatised by oppressive systems for centuries.

Another image, interesting and true at the same time, of the Romanian is dominated by an explainable general confusion. Not knowing exactly what Europe is and what it wants from them, Romanians are prisoners in a region of two identities interfering: the European one and the national one. They live in a hybrid identity territory, where two cultures attempt to harmonise in order to perceive life.

“As in Caragiale’s taprooms or as in Iocan’s clearing in the novel Morometii, people read the newspaper and make comments, ‘translating’ an important piece of information for everybody to understand (for instance, how you can obtain SAPARD funds, or how to set up a snailary or an ostrichry etc.). the news is brought by the mailman, the most informed person in the village (he is also called the Press), and the Teacher (who has already set up a snails farm with European funds and has already exported a first transmport to Italy, an opportunity to take another round of cheap drink), is the one who explains and mobilizes people, urges people for the integration, in toher words” (Vasilescu 33).

Moreover, inhabiting such a transitory identity territory tends to become  a constant especially because the break between the two types of identity perceptions (European and Romanian) is marked by the type of relation the Romanian has with God.

“Romanians and Polish believe in the exceptionalism of their nations and consequently, in the historical mission of their states. We are linked by the belief that we come from great peoples, that we have a privileged relation with God and Christianity, that we have a great culture. We are convinced that our nations are superior to all others” (Solak 64).

God was born a Romanian, he protects us no matter what might happen, he speaks Romanian, listens to manele and joins us even in pubs – these some of the coordinates of the relation the veritable Romanian and Divinity. On the other hand, Europe is one which promotes a sort of unaccessible ecumenism, and moreover, prevents explicit religious manifestations in the public space (see the measures taken by France in this regard). Is there any interference between these two types of relations with religion in this sense. Absolutely not.

There are specific pathetisms, the obsession of serious diagnostics in both relations with Europe. The Romanian culture is often seen similarly to a patient taken to different smart doctors, each of them preoccupied with establishing a general, exhaustive diagnostic, , which would render them a special status in the history of medical practice. Courageous sintagms such as Romanian culture, Romanian spiritulaity or general statements such as we, Romanians, the Romanian people should…, our consciousness as people…are much overused.

But, slowly, a thrid image comes between the two images of the Romanian (the European Romanian and the Archaic Romanian), i.e. th image of the Romanian who has found out, due to his persoanl or cultural experiences, that to assume a European identity does not mean to give up your national identity. These Romanians have noticed that many of those who speak about Homo Europaeus in their speeches, tend to attach this notion to the individual patter of their nation. This kind of discourses are not uttered by European orators, but  rather by French, German, Italian, British or Spanish ones. Reason has been hardly represented in the public discourses about Europe and the European Union after the revolution; yet it was timidly encouraged. For example, Andrei Plesu, when bringing this issue to discussion, says the following:

“[…] how optimist can the East be regardong the European unification? Can the difficulties of such an ambitious road be canclled or at least relativised? They can, if both parties take into consideration  four  pre-conditions for our success: 1. to cultivate  a solid and sincere mutual sympathy, to be, in other words, solidar in a huge effort of knlowledge, without any inferiority or superiority complexes 2. to keep our humour completely unaltered 3. not to understand unification as acomplete esompation of differences, but rather as an even more subtle harmonisation of them 4. not to have too great expectations, but to work full of hope” (Pleşu, 20).

This new and reasonable image of the Romanian is far from the pathetisms of the revolutionaries in 1848, and to the same extent, far from the naïve enthusiasm of the blind supporters of Europe. Europe can be necessar as an element of coagulation of some economic interests, but it becomes obvious that this construction will not abrogate the principle of ethnicity but rather partially. The future of every project, even a utopic one, is directly related to the past (more exactly to tradition) and,

“no matter what future will look like, things about the past seem to be as follows: a culture lives out of the latent themes of the culture preceding it; thes are dominant themes, stirring, in their turn, the latent potential themes to solve them; finally, the coherence state created around the dominant themes disagregates, aggregating around those latent themes which have been initially explanations or meanings of the initial fundamental themes: explanations become problems and so on ” (Patapievici, 293).

The European Romanian, the authentic Romanian and the trasition Romanian –they seem to be, from a rather simplist perspective – the components of the imagologic DNA of the Romania at the beginning of the 3rd millenium. There is no doubt that we witness, the initial changing processes of an identity; all these refereneces to the Others will mark the identity profile of the Romanian. No matter the depth of this new identity profile, it will be built on the old one, if not even assimilated and denaturated. As in this domain, only the shallow can have ultimate certainties and definite opinions.

Works Cited

Cioran, Emil. Schimbarea la faţă a României. Bucureşti. Editura Humanitas. 2001. Greenaway, Peter. „Suplimentul de cultură”. Nr. 57. 24 decembrie 2005 / 6 ianuarie 2006.

Giurgiu, Gabriel. „Dilema veche”. Despre eurotalibani şi Europele lor. Nr 9. 12-18 martie 2004.

Goma, Paul. Jurnalul unui jurnal. Cluj-Napoca, Editura Dacia. 1998.

Guy, Bajoit, Ferréol Gilles. „Dicţionarul alterităţii şi al relaţiilor  interculturale. Iaşi. Editura Polirom. 2005.

Ion, Raluca. „Dilema veche”. Satele în poarta Europei. Nr. 19,21-27  mai 2004.

Iorga, Nicolae. „Secolul 20, Europele din Europa”. Che cosa é l`Europa. Uniunea Scriitorilor din România şi Fundaţia Culturală Secolul 21. Bucureşti. 2000.

Lovinescu, Monica. Diagonale. Bucureşti. Editura Humanitas, 2002.

Monnet, Jean. „Secolul 20, Instituţiile”. Uniunea Scriitorilor din România şi Fundaţia Culturală Secolul 21, Bucureşti, 2000.

Pleşu, Andrei. „Dilema veche”. Optimism est-european. Nr.20. 28 mai-3 iun. 2004[1]

Patapievici, Horia-Roman.  Zbor în bătaia săgeţii. Bucureşti. Editura Humanitas, 1995.

Pleşu, Andrei. Comédii la porţile Orientului. Bucureşti. Editura Humanitas. 2005.

Pleşu, Andrei. „Dilema veche”. Nucleul tare al Europei. Nr.2, 23-29 ianuarie 2009.

Sădeanu, Adina. „Dilema veche”. Imposibila iluzie . Nr.8, 5-11 martie 2004.

Schelee, Jonathan. „Dilema veche”. Aşa ne cere UE. Nr. 6. 20-26 februarie 2004.

Solak, Janusz. „Dilema veche”. Despre etnocentrismul românilor şi polonezilor în Europa naţiunilor. Nr.64. 8-14 apr. 2005.

Vasilescu, Mircea. „Dilema veche”. Ca-n Europa. Nr 4. 6-12 feb 2004.

Vasilescu, Mircea. „Dilema veche”. Generaţia căpşunarilor . Nr 2. 23-29 ian. 2004.

Vasilescu, Mircea. „Dilema veche”. Între „noi” şi „ei” , Nr 1. 16-22 ianuarie 2004.

Vasilescu, Mircea. „Dilema veche”. La Europa. Nr.33. 27 aug.- 2 sep. 2004.

Wunenburber, Jean – Jaques. Viaţa imaginilor.Cluj – Napoca. 1998. Editura Cartimpex.

Discurs rostit la invitaţia Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, în anul câştigării Premiului Nobel pentru Literatură de către Herta Műller


The cigarette would have liked to go to church that morning

The cigarette would have liked to go to church that morning
believing, since teenage, that by prayers she could free herself
from tar and nicotine.
She woke up early in the morning, put a golden lace around her filter,
made the sign of cross carefully, so that she should not disturb her other nineteen neighbors,
but, while she was pushing carefully the cap of the package,
Ready for the liturgy,
she was taken up by two fingers, hit with its forehead to the corner of the table and bitten by the filter by God Himself…
Not at all disturbed, the cigarette was only slightly height sick,
but thought that from this privileged position it had now,
She could have an interesting talk to God…
No sooner had she finished its thought than she felt her body devoured by a terrible fever, from the leg up…
The cigarette was still calm,
thinking that it was impossible to die of fever between God’s lips…
Then, all of a sudden, it became foggy and the cigarette coughed violently,
and then, politely apologized.
For a few seconds she didn’t know anything,
felt her body broken from the white filter (prepared for prayer) now in dark smoke
She looked, with her turned upside down filter, for God,
To thank Him for liberating herself from tar and nicotine.

Finally I managed to light the fire in the middle of the Ocean…

Finally I managed to light the fire in the middle of the Ocean…
After hundreds of years of searching,
I finally found its middle…
I honestly tell you that at one moment I got to believe
that there was no thing having a middle of its own,
beyond which you could start counting in order to reach its limits
Only senses and my closed eye helped me to finally find the middle of the Ocean.
I started to measure it from shore to shore, with my steps.
I was walking on the Ocean and was measuring efficiently
When, unconsciously, I stopped to talk to a few whales which were unhappy about some political changes.
Naturally, I lost the counting and started all over again, but this time, I didn’t know what would come after
and had to go to the shore and attend the Faculty of Maths.
I restarted measuring the Ocean from shore to shore…
I measured it and wanted to divide the result by two
– at the faculty they hadn’t taught me that not all things could be divided by two –
so much trouble just to find the middle of the Ocean !!!
Yes … and I did find it:
One day, sick with routine, I stood up and simply asked:
„Which is your middle, Ocean?”
„Here it is,” said the Ocean, splashing a few drops in the indicated place.
„Thank you!”
„You’re welcome!”

Finally I managed to light the fire in the middle of the Ocean

I was born in deep waters, and scarcely could I get out, throwing my head ahead

I was born in deep waters, and scarcely could I get out, throwing my head ahead,
with my eyes staring at the fish hanging on my temples.
I don’t know what my mother thought of this underwater birth.
I heard that everyone was waiting for me somewhere downstream
for fear I should be pushed out too strongly,
for fear I should fly underneath water towards the river,
where, obviously, nobody would’ve ever found me…
But it wasn’t the case.
I stretched out my head for the first time and wanted to speak,
actually, my clear intention was to scream…
And I might have done it,
hadn’t my left hand come out, from water to water.
The first gesture of my left hand was to cover the incipient scream.
With my right hand, which came out much later, I strongly rowed forward.
Only later on did I realize I had been born.
I was complete.
I had healthy organs, which pumped out water to water.
I had deep nostrils as the eye hollows of a whale,
and a spine already cured of tumours by the piranha.
I was heading like that, born and complete, towards the river,
and I would’ve gone on like that, and I would be writing you today from the bottom of the ocean,
hadn’t one dry branch of a tree stretched out for me…
As a token of irresponsible revenge I parted my umbilical cord
in seven equal shares, impossible to ever measure.

It’s years since I have been writing…

It’s years since I have been writing…
ever since I cannot stop
I really suffocate whenever my pen runs out of ink;
I walk with three ink-wells hanging on my neck
and I change the ink with such dexterity anyone would envy…
in those few seconds my pen takes another breath of ink
my face turns red, my hands and lungs start trembling,
I grit my teeth…
And I could kill anyone showing up with a pencil in his hand.
I write on anything…
On walls, windows, people’s faces, the ozone stratum,
whenever I finish writing a word, I instantly forget it and continue writing;


a pianist
his fingers
in the keys of
his own piano…
The spectators,
in delirium,
were searching
under their
plush seats.
Old pomaded
torn apart
by pain,
were rounding
their time-eaten
in search.
and in agony,
the violins
were tossing
in the orchestra,
as if only now
their first youth.

On the white sheets,
were trembling,
the whole

Only he – the pianist –
was laughing

of absurd search
passing by…

Under red
moth-eaten chairs,
and useless
of strings
were lying
broken apart.
Old scores.
were crying
in silence,
out of a lack
of tears…
Only he
– the pianist –
was laughing

And one day,
when all
in the hall
had died,
and bits of violins
were burning
set on by strange
black signs
on sheets
of paper,
the pianist
to play…

His piano,
of course…


2 gânduri despre „Articles and Poems in English

  1. Sunt nou intrat pe blogul tau si am ramas stupefiat de modelul transmis si modul de a prezenta faptele minunate sau actorii legendari, care au avut ceva de spus…prin exemple bine argumentate si poezii/poeme, reusesti sa imbini povestea cu imaginativul care sta la baza ei..mi-am propus sa citesc absolut toate articolele postate de tine pentru a-mi forma o parere mai ampla asupra artei scrisului..dupa care iti voi urma modelul, voi adauga putina imaginatie si autenticitate proprie si imi voi prezenta si eu propria lucrare-blog.

    Sa speram ca elevul isi va intrece mentorul, sau macar sa atinga a zecea parte a operei sale.

    Multumesc pentru ca mi-ai dat ocazia sa cunosc acea latura a sufletului printr-un colt al mintii, anume creatia prin creativitate si pentru ca ma pot inspira, in sfarsit de la un adevarat jurnalist.


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