Small Culture, Big Mistakes

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THE CRITERION ASSOCIATION of Romania, which staged well-organized and well-attended public seminars on a wide range of controversial literary, political, and philosophical topics from 1932 until its dissolution in 1935, is the starting point for Cristina A. Bejan’s study of the intellectual climate of interwar Bucharest. This is perhaps not a book for the uninitiated; in places, Bejan’s close focus on the Association’s workings — with lists of subjects, dates, and speakers — comes at the expense of a more readable narrative. And yet, her portrayal of a group of thinkers engaged in a vibrant, ambitious modernist experiment, against the backdrop of a growing fascist order that eventually destroyed such freedom of inquiry, finally manages to be both complex and compelling.

The Association was the brainchild of the US-educated Petru Comarnescu. Its membership was a Who’s Who of an entire generation of young intellectuals and writers, including Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Eugène Ionesco, and Mihail Sebastian, to name only the most prominent of those whose work is now read internationally. The social milieu they occupied is impossible to imagine in Berlin or Paris. As Bejan shows, Bucharest’s intellectual class during the early 1930s had a remarkable cohesiveness, largely because Romania was a marginal, provincial culture with a small elite. “If individuals wanted to be involved with the cultural and intellectual currents of the time,” she writes, “they had to compromise their ideological allegiances.” In addition, this elite was foreign-educated and polyglot, conversant with the very latest modernist ideas and eager to spur a backward, agrarian state on the road to future greatness.

The so-called “Young Generation” to which the Criterionists belonged came of age in the decades following the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, with its creation of a Greater Romania doubled in area and population relative to the pre–World War I state. To many, this seemed self-evidently the dawn of Romanian greatness, and it was equally self-evident to intellectuals that their vital task was to recreate the national culture. The Criterionists were the avant-garde of a modernist politico-cultural project, though the Association was composed of individuals of contrasting and incompatible dispositions and ideologies and included both communist and fascists.

Indeed, some of the Criterion communists later turned fascist, changing in the 1930s under the pressure of events as nationalism became Romania’s new orthodoxy. Romanian interwar politics was obsessed with the problem of the minorities within its borders, particularly the Jews; the new state had only recognized the rights to citizenship of linguistic and religious minorities under pressure from the major powers. Had Romania enjoyed a more stable liberal democratic order, the possibility for reasoned debate might have been possible. But the center did not hold, and some of the Criterionists assisted in destroying it.

Italian fascism in the 1920s was in many respects an outgrowth of leftist politics, with its vision of a revolutionary cadre driving the evolution of the state, but with the nation replacing the proletariat as the engine of progress. This was an attractive idea for a country such as Romania, which sought to retain its territorial integrity while sharing a border with the Soviet Union. The Italian fascists were not obsessed with race the way the Nazis were, and in its early days the movement included Jews among its members. The German obsession with race evolved in part out of the inter-ethnic politics of turn-of-the-century Vienna, where Hitler had lived and studied as a youth. Greater Romania, having inherited a chunk of the Hapsburg Empire, was inter-ethnic, and so shared a preoccupation with cultural minorities, though this was reduced during the 1930s to an obsession with Jews. While Italian and German fascism were secular, even anticlerical, the main current of Romanian fascism, as embodied in the Iron Guard, was imbued with Orthodox mysticism. Of the major fascist movements in Europe, the Romanian has received little attention from historians until relatively recently, due in large part to the inaccessibility of archives during the era of Soviet domination.

A glance at the Eliade-Cioran-Sebastian-Ionesco quartet reveals the diversity that Criterion encompassed (though Bejan’s study also references a plethora of lesser-known names). The author and philosopher Eliade, regarded at the time as the leader of the Young Generation, was initially left-leaning and appalled at the crudity of Jew-baiting nationalism. As the ’30s progressed, however, he cemented his loyalty to the violently antisemitic Iron Guard and ultimately the dictatorship of Ion Antonescu, a staunch ally of Hitler’s Germany and a collaborator in the Final Solution. Mihail Sebastian (born Iosif Hechter) was a Jewish playwright and novelist, increasingly appreciated today as his work finds its way into English and other languages. His journal, which he kept from 1935 to 1944 (and which was finally published in 1996), is a magnificent document, recording the country’s slow descent into tyranny and barbarism. It also records the painful deterioration, in the post-Criterion days, of his once-close friendship with Eliade, showing how seemingly enlightened intellectuals could casually discuss the “Jewish problem” in front of Jewish friends suffering under increasingly cruel antisemitic legislation. Bejan quotes a passage in which Ionesco drunkenly confides to Sebastian that he is Jewish on his mother’s side. Ionesco would go on to fame for his one-act play Rhinoceros (1959), with its vision of a society dominated by an absurd totalitarian fantasy. Rhinoceros is the surrealist, fast-forward version of the process depicted with lucid, agonizing slowness in Sebastian’s journal. Cioran was another Iron Guardist, though in later years he repented his youthful oratorical excesses.

Of course, to speak of “oratorical excesses” in the context of the Holocaust, and the brutal war unleashed by the Hitlerist project, sounds wrong. And yet, Bejan’s study manages to show the degree to which a generation of well-meaning intellectuals, who were products of Enlightenment culture and modernist optimism and who wished to create a better world out of words and ideas, were at first incapable of imagining how utterly their civilized order would collapse. If the national fervor and popular Jew-hatred before the war can be characterized as mass psychosis, the mental state of some Romanian intellectuals seems to beg for a more exact clinical diagnosis. The more intelligent the man (and they were nearly all men), the greater the sense of resentment at the inferior status accorded to Romania in the project of European modernism. In 1937, Cioran wrote: “To realize that you can only become successful once your nation becomes successful, and to have no guarantee of that ever happening! Here lies the key to all Romanian uncertainties. And this is the tragedy of the lucid individual in a minor culture.” Being Romanian was thus a problem, a bind that the narcissistic young Romanian intellectual was incapable of escaping: the country had to be castigated or exalted, and usually the latter required the former. Cioran was explicit about his disgust at being Romanian and equally categorical, in his 1936 book Romania’s Transformation, about the need to ethnically cleanse the country of Jews and Hungarians.

Eliade, in an article published by the Criterion Association, asked what would have become of the great intellectuals of history had they been born in Romania. Not much, he concludes, blaming the corruption of Romanian politics: “Anyone who wants to lift himself up in this country needs to be dirty from head to toe. The mentality of Romanian politics cannot accept pure whole people.” In other words, the existing political order needed to be swept away for a man like Eliade to take his rightful place. Eliade persuaded himself that the appropriate vehicle for this change was the Iron Guard, with its messianic goal of national redemption, and he offered himself as its spokesman in the post-Criterion years. The country’s refusal to transform into the dream-Romania of the mystics inevitably expressed itself in violent resentment at a “corrupt” (liberal democratic) order. Constantin Noica, another Iron Guardist, believed that “those who know better than the rest could construct a better society for everyone” and, suspecting that he might be one such philosopher-king, traveled with Cioran to Heidelberg to study under Heidegger (at that point a member of the Nazi party).

The increasing anxiety of the ’30s, as Europe felt itself edging ever closer to war, only intensified the political fervor of those on the right and left. In the case of the right, it created a desperate identification with the nation and political groups that encouraged a radical withdrawal of empathy from those outside its membership. Though Bejan does not make this psychological evaluation directly, it is clear from her discussion that the anticipation of imminent catastrophe only hardened attitudes toward potential scapegoats.

The latter part of the book, which describes the disintegration of Criterion in the face of external pressures and deepening internal schisms, is particularly interesting. The Association dissolved abruptly in 1935, after a number of symposia on controversial subjects had been met with street demonstrations by rightist students, who showed an increasing intolerance toward free speech. Meanwhile, within the Association, the Guard was gaining recruits. Chief organizer Comarnescu became the target of a relentless campaign of vilification claiming that he was a promoter of homosexuality, since he had been associated with a dance performance at the National Opera in 1934 that some newspaper editors had seen as promoting “pederasty”; soon Comarnescu and his circle had been driven from public life. Bejan is interesting on the subject, revealing how sexuality formed a fault line in the culture wars between traditionalists and those promoting “decadent” Western values and art forms — though she perhaps makes a bit too much of Comarnescu’s intense youthful relationship with Noica, suggesting that their affection may have been more than Platonic. In fact, the attacks on Comarnescu seem to have been related to his marriage to the daughter of a prominent liberal politician; the end of the campaign against him coincided with the couple’s divorce in late 1935.

Fascinating too is the chapter on the eventual fates of prominent members of the Association. Bejan begins by quoting at length a 1945 letter from Ionesco to Tudor Vianu, a prominent Romanian literary intellectual, and there could be no better roll call of the principal actors:

The “Criterion” Generation, the conceited “Young Generation” that ten to fifteen years ago disintegrated, perished. Not one of us is yet forty years old — and we are finished. Others, just dead. Your [older] generation was much luckier. And much more solid than we were. We were some mad men, unlucky guys. From what I know, I cannot reproach myself for being a fascist. But all the others can be reproached for this. Mihail Sebastian kept a lucid mind and an authentic humanity. It is a shame he is no longer with us. Cioran is here, in exile. He admits he made a mistake in his youth. It’s hard for me to forgive him. Mircea Eliade has come these days: for him, all is lost, since “communism has won.” He is truly guilty. But him, and Cioran, and that imbecile Noica, and the fat Vulcănescu [Mircea Vulcănescu, a Romanian economist who served in the Ministry of Finance under Antonescu], and all the others […] are victims of that odious defunct [Guardist ideologue] Nae Ionescu. […] Fifteen years ago, Haig Acterian [a film and theater critic] and Mihail Polihroniade [a historian and journalist] were communists. They died because of their stupidity and incapacities. Eliade himself recruited some of “his generation colleagues” and all of the intellectual youth. […] Some dead from their idiocy, others fugitives in Europe, and fortunately mute — the whole “Criterion” generation is destroyed. […] The only one who remains is Petru Comarnescu, but he was only the impresario, the organizer of “Criterion,” “the animator”; he no longer has anyone to animate or organize.


Ionesco remained in Paris and would thereafter write only in French. Cioran, who also adopted the French language, repented the excesses of his youth in an aphoristic nihilist philosophy that denied the security of certainty about anything. Sebastian died in a traffic accident in 1945. Acterian died on the Eastern Front. Polihroniade was killed in prison in 1939, in reprisal for the Guardist assassination of the country’s prime minister. Noica served 10 years in a communist jail. Comarnescu made his peace with the communists, becoming a party member and, later, a Securitate informer. Eliade continued his career as a professor and author in the United States, where his studies of the mystical aspects of religious experience won him countercultural fame. He never repented his Guardist past but was also careful never to bring it up.

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Philip Ó Ceallaigh is short story writer as well as a translator. In 2006, he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, were short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He lives in Bucharest.