Balkan Roots of Romanian Literature – between Heaven and Hell


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Balkan Roots of Romanian Literature – between Heaven and Hell

Ph.D. Lecturer Maria ALEXE

National University of Arts, Bucharest

Ideea acestei lucrări se datorează faptului că în prezent se observă o încercare a mediului cultural bucureştean de a recupera ceea ce este în genera considerat „moştenirea balcanică”. Această atitudine nu este singulară. Se poate aminti expoziţia organizată de 60 de artişti din diferite ţări balcanice în oraşul Graz sau cartea Mariei Todorova – Balcanii şi balcanismul.

Am încercat să analizăm cât mai obiectiv diferite percepţii şi atitudini, de la demonizarea la care a fost supus acest spaţiu cultural din partea Occidentului, la atitudinile voit părtinitoare şi apologetice.

Fără îndoială, o problematică atât de vastă şi complicată nu poate fi epuizată în spaţiul unui simplu articol. Din acest motiv analiza a fost făcută luând în considerarea aspecte semnificative din opera lui Mateiu Caragiale, Ştefan Bănulescu şi Mircea Cărtărescu. Un capitol a fost consacrat presei româneşti, capitol pe care ne propunem să-l dezvoltăm într-o lucrare viitoare.

The idea of this paper occurred due to the general climate of Bucharest artistic life, where Mateiu Caragiale’s novel The Idle Princes of the Old Court (Craii de Curtea Veche) is considered the masterpiece of Romanian literature, “a masterpiece of Balkan vision and language” [Eugen Simion] but where, at the same time, the Balkans are associated with most negative images.

Opposed to the rational, clean and modern Occident the Balkans has been perceived as dangerous and fascinating place, associated mainly with adventure then culture. Unlike the exotic Orient (a place of fantasy) the Balkans induces a straightforward attitude, usually negative. .Modern Romanian culture, from the first decades of the nineteenth century on, has distanced itself symbolically from the Balkans and adopted western attitudes and cultural forms. Postmodern writers have reconsidered the heritage of the 18th and early 19th century and re-evaluated the Balkan and Oriental influences upon the Romanian culture.

1. Working Hypotheses
New Europe a cultural continent part of the global village feels that each country has to fight for its national identity. Is Balkan heritage part of Romanian national identity? The idea of this paper occurred in order to answer that question and due to the general climate of Bucharest artistic life, where Mateiu Caragiale’s novel The Idle Princes of the Old Court (Craii de Curtea Veche) is considered the masterpiece of Romanian literature, “a masterpiece of Balkan vision and language” [Eugen Simion] but where, at the same time, the Balkans are associated with most negative images. From Dracula's castle to the Orient Express, any place in the Balkans seems to be a "danger zone”. The image f the zone in Western cultural institution is quite pale. For example in a famous musem as Louvre does not exhibit Balkan items.

2. General Perception

A place is a magic circle with limits belonging to our mind, but it is not isolated [Geta Brătescu 1999]. The magic circle including Romanian culture suffered the influence of three different cultural spheres, among which the Balkans changed perspective along the centuries [Sorin Alexandrescu 1998].In a world where the old religions and gods are all forgotten in favour of the young goddess of COMMUNICATION, stereotypes are more alive than ever. The Balkans’ culture hasn’t escaped to this general atmosphere. For centuries, it has been associated with the idea of violence, irrationalism, despotism and fanatic behaviour, sometimes picturesque, more than to the Byzantine cultural heritage. If during the communist regimes the Balkans seemed to be less important than the difference between the political systems, after 1989, the “old” Balkans’ image reappeared. Unlike the exotic Orient (a place of fantasy) the Balkans generally induces a straightforward attitude, usually negative and if there is a romantic appeal, it is that of the Middle Ages [Todorova 1997].

The psychological explanation for the Westerners' need to demonise the Balkan people is given by Athena Vrettos in Somatic Fictions. Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture: any "in-group" like the Victorian society needs a convenient "out-group" on which to project all its hatred, fear and disgust, in order to preserve its self-respect. Thus Dracula can be seen as the symbol of the ambiguous psychic reality: both demoniac and human, both a murderer and a victim. This perspective upon the Balkans, as a negative projection of the Occident started in the Enlightenment period and was due to a strong feeling of superiority of western culture. This attitude is much debated by Milan Kundera, who reinterprets the riots in Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic in the communist period as the core of the Western repressed tragedies; the Balkans are the scapegoats of the Western Europe and, at the same time, the means of satisfying their thirst for sensational. The violent acts in the East make the Occidental exclaim: "How lucky I am to live in a safe country!"

In an attempt to re-establish the truth about her native area, Maria Todorova re-discusses all its fake images, which the Western culture has encouraged so far by means of pictures, films or literary works. In her opinion, the notion of Balkans has no grounds, being just a Euro-centric discourse to discredit a part of Europe as inferior. The Balkans representation in the Western culture is nothing but an arbitrary construct, having nothing in common with the "real" ones. They have been thus described by the Occidentals in order to create a negative counterpart for the "civilised" West. The examples she takes are both popular and academic writings, but they prove the same thing: the West-Europeans have needed a scapegoat for their inner flaws and have created the image of the barbarian Balkan, meant to incarnate everything that is contemptuous for a civilised man. Even if the author's position can hardly be considered objective, her claim to say the truth about the "real" Balkans becomes a way of proclaming her love for her native part of Europe. Ismail Kadare as well as Julia Kristeva wrote about the beauty of the popular literature of the aria.

In Romanian culture things have changed since Mircea Muthu have written his book about Balkan literature. The different perception is due to his serious synchronism and diachronic analyse of literary works belonging to Dimirtie Cantemir, Anton Pann, Ion Ghica or representatives of modern period as Fănuş Neagu, Ştefan Bănulescu, Constantin Ţoiu.

Postmodernism promotes everything that is different, peripheral, and culturally pluralist. Its discourse turns reality into a mere object of language and reduces identity to expression. In these circumstances, one is what one says he is; that's why the means of emphasising one's own identity are extremely important. Imagology, a discipline that has recently become more and more fashionable, has tried to stress the difference between identity and otherness, presenting The Other under a multitude of aspects, both positive and negative. What is different can be seen either in a radical manner (good vs. evil) or in a neutral one (subject vs. object). The very concept of difference is ambiguous. Strictly related to it, that of frontier tries to clarify the dichotomies, establishing the so-called space of interference, in which every element tends to be defined by its opposite. The Balkan culture is seen as such a space, which allows both breaking up with the traditions and preserving them.

The presented paper cannot deal with the multitude of aspects concerning the way in which the postmodern culture preserved or changed the general perception. As an attempt of restoring the truth it will focus on the way in which Balkans as a cultural heritage is assumed by the Romanian modern (post-modern?) literature. The critical attempt starts with a short historical view which is considered as a background for analysing three cases: Mateiu Caragiale, Ştefan Bănulescu and Mircea Cărtărescu.

3. A Brief History
The first attempt in defining balkanisation is dated back to 1921, when the European correspondent of Chicago Daily Press, John Scott Moreover, defined this term for the first time, as "creating a mixture of hopeless races, of mentally and economically backed up small countries". These states are seen as "a continuous prey for the violent drives of the great European powers". Later, the term has become a synonym for multiculturalism, a metaphor of postmodernism or, in Harold Bloom's literary studies; a pejorative denomination of everything there is to blame in literature ("the balkanisation of the literary studies is irreversible").

Philosophical-political models, first and foremost Nicolae Iorga's Byzance après Byzance revivalist fantasy of many local princes, were equally found south of the Danube. In the eighteenth century social imaginary, self-identity, and symbolic geography included the Roman origins to be one ingredient among two (with the Dacian "substratum") or more (with Slavic and other elements, among which the Byzantine heritage added an imperial aura to the melting pot).During the First World War, John Reed, an American journalist, was writing about Romanians' pride of being half Romans and their rage against those who considered them Balkans.

4. Romanian Perception

Regarding the Romanian culture as a frontier one, Sorin Alexandrescu opposes the idea of prolific intercultural exchange to that of marginality and lack of coherence. Mutatis mutandis, his statement is valid for all the Balkan cultures, in which the permanent interference between East and West has led to a particular picturesque aspect, the element the Westerners most appreciate at the Balkans. It has even become a cliché, which the Balkan imagologists try hard to demolish.

Imagining the Balkans, and oneself in relation to the Balkans, has been a Romanian intellectual pastime for roughly two centuries.[ Sorin Antohi] As he assumes, his inspiration, as that of many modern Romanian writers comes largely from the Burkean and Kantian aesthetics of the sublime; from the late nineteenth-century aesthetics of the ugly and its twentieth-century aftermath; and from the meaning of sublimation for chemists: the transformation of a solid, with no transitional state, into gas. Mircea Cartarescu’s novels, as the paper will demonstrate, seem the perfect illustration of this attitude. Romanians seem very surprising to the Westerners because of their features of character. They have a hybrid temperament and easily pass from one mood to another, puzzling their interlocutor. John Paget, a British diplomat in the 18th century, analysed their behaviour in different circumstances and drew the conclusion that this psychic instability was caused by the mixture of races that created this nation. He called them "mud blood", a pejorative formula, which was later used, with a different meaning, by J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter (where Romania is presented as the strange homeland of dragons). This idea that Romanians are a mixture of different races, which has placed on them the stigma of vice and alienation, is well rendered even in the Romanian literature (see Mateiu Caragiale – Craii de Curtea-Veche or Mircea Cartarescu’s own family background.).

The Phanariot period, that is reinterpreted by contemporary historians is arguably the first "Balkanization" of the Romanian principalities, a process by which the political system, social structure, everyday life, high and cultures are brought closer to the Levant. Modern Romanian culture, from the first decades of the nineteenth century on, has distanced itself symbolically from the Balkans or messianic self-included. Since then the Romanian connection with the Balkans has been a constant problem and a general debate, which has not ended yet. In one of his studies from Critice I, E. Lovinescu questions the boundaries of the aesthetic field by means of race. Without adhering to the Hegelian concept of cyclic cultures, he still agrees with the fundamental racial element, saying that some cultures are more inventive than the others. Consequently, the uniqueness of a people is determined not only by its power to create, but also by its inspiration to adapt. One of the most creative peoples the Greeks, inspired many cultures, from the Romans to the Arabians. The Byzantine art has been a continuous source of inspiration for many artists – both from the West and from the East –, but it has been so much adapted to the local spirit of each of them that its specific elements could hardly be recognised among the foreign ones. It is Nicolae Breban who, like many English travelers that vised Greece in the early nineteenth century, underlines the fact that what is now considered as Balkan is far from ancient Greece.1

It should be underlined that Lovinescu promoted the term Balkanism in Romanian literature, in order to define Ion Barbu’s poetry and since then concerning literature the term has had a positive connotation (originality, rich imagination). The strange part is the fact that it has been associated with modernism too [Al. George]. Now the word semantics is even richer since when national identity was associated.

Many critics consider that the Balkan trend in Romanian prose started with the beautiful novel of Mateiu Caragiale The Idle Princes of the Old Court. This novel is representative for the attitude of the Romanian literary society. By the end of the 18th century, the residence on Dâmbovita's bank would be called the Old Princely Court, a place of evil repute, where beggars, tramps, thieves, robbers, cheats, swindlers of the town would meet, hide, or just use it as a shelter, as the Balkans was fascinating, ugly and picturesque at the same time. It represented the heart of the city, a place where luxury and poverty, were mixed up, a place where the Eastern world would meet the Western one in this part of Europe, which was unique.

5. Literary Attitudes
In Romanian culture the idea of “Balkanism" has been successively deplored as "a national geographical complex" (Ov.S.Crohmalniceanu), or hailed, in the tradition of the aesthetic of the ugly, as "that superiorly ennobled abjection" (I. Negoitescu), or imperial heritage in Stefan Banulescu;s novel Let us, very briefly, look at several literary examples from Mateiu Caragiale to two of the most outstanding representatives of postmodern literature. Although different all those visions prove a certain fascination for a world that can be decode only by certain gifted, almost supernatural artists. They all create an image in contrast with the Western clichés.

5.1. Mateiu Caragiale
Against the Balkan vision of his famous father, in a declarative way, Mateiu Caragiale’s expression of an aesthetic-mystical and philosophical-ideological program that represents the sublimation of the Balkan reference by means of the categorical translation of (vulgar) decay
into (noble) decadence, of (first-degree, "animalist") vice into (meta-, self-reflected, constructed, "divine") virtue.

Mateiu Caragiale’s heroes, as well as their fictional Bucharest, are shaped by logic of ambivalence. On the one hand, they epitomize a Balkan universe of decay, misery, promiscuity, failed Europeanization, Oriental dishonesty, lack of (work) ethic, vice. Mateiu Caragiale transfers all this on the level of the sublime, by means of a fin-de-siecle discourse which is the Romanian avatar of the most influential Western glorification of decadence: dandyism [Sorin Antohi]

All the main representative characters of the Balkan literature (Mircea Muthu) can be found in this masterpiece. The first person narrator of Craii portrays three of his acquaintances and their (but also, ambiguously), his world without hiding his partiality. Actually, the narrator is himself one of the three crai, in the true dandy tradition of indistinct image between life and art (both were to melt in a kind of holistic aesthetics, the dandy Gesamtkunstwerk ); the nickname, crai, is shouted to them by Pena, a half-crazy, alcoholic, ugly (former) whore who lives off the bathing of the dead. The second crai, Pasadia (the name has a Levantine flavor) is an old erudite aristocrat, a historian and genealogist, immersed in the sources from the middle ages and (self-referentially) the Phanariot century; At night he joins his friends and parties, moving from elegant restaurants to the sordid pubs of the Bucharest’s outskirts, a stereotypical Balkan realm of brutal debauchery; Pasadia hates Romania, quotes Poincare’s dictum in earnest, and burns his many manuscripts before dying while having sex. His last will also demands that his decadently luxurious house be burned; upon his return from the West, he had been regarded as a foreigner (another self-delusional cliché of the self-hating "natives", who daydream about their assimilation into their reference group, signalled by the fact that his kin cannot recognize him as one of them anymore). Pasadia’s multiple genealogy is part of the same stereotype The third crai is Pantazi, whose family had come to Wallachia one century before, "from the Turkish lands", i.e., from the Balkans; Pantazi had lived abroad before, and goes back there at the end of the novel, after his soteriological plans to marry the pure, beautiful daughter of a real grand boyar fail with the girl’s death. Only the buffoon of the crai, Gore Pirgu, thrives when everybody and everything else decays, dies or otherwise leaves the stage. Pirgu, who joins the three real gentlemen when it comes to depraved outings, is the Romanian bourgeois arriviste, who becomes patriotic only when drunk, is the "living embodiment of the very dirty and nauseating spirit of Bucharest": he makes a fortune, enters politics, and is president of a "sub commission of intellectual cooperation at the League of Nations"
5.2. Stefan Banulescu
His novel Cartea milionului presents a strange world located along the Lower Danube, Romania’s former Levantine "frontier", as well as powerful, larger-than-life tableaux of the plain and of its connections to the Balkans and to the Mediterranean world, suggesting the Byzantine heritage. It is a world between the real and the magic suggesting the atmosphere of an oriental fairy tale, depicting a strange mythical geography under the shadow of Byzantine Constantinopole, governed by an even ancient mythology. In those pages the decadency is not as obvious as in Mateiu Carageale’s novels and is generally the suggestion of a miraculous past beauty and almost forgotten myths.

The world the writer re-creates for his readers is made of different images, in a succession that is proper to a movie. Both sides of the Balkans are suggested by long succession of strange adjectives (sometimes author’s own creation). Nostalgia for a lost world of Arcadian harmony and frugal hedonism, cast against the backdrop of a regressively sublime representation of a natural landscape and of a vernacular culture which are the epiphanies of higher anthropological, and indeed spiritual and ontological, domains, this is what brings Banulescu’s fiction closer to the level of the (Homeric) epos. Thus, the local acquires universal significance and meaning in redeeming ways. It can be also compared to Eco’s attitude in The name of the rose [Mihaela Constantinescu] because the writer tries to recreate the magic atmosphere of the past a deep suggestion of a lost paradise. The Byzantine heritage is suggested by the strange name of the places such as Metopolis, Mavrocordat, Cetatea de Lâna or Dicomesia.

Like in famous stories of Nastratin Hogea (common hero of different national culture in the Balkans) the epic that inspired the Balkan trend in Romanian literature, the characters in Banulescu’s novel are metaphor for an old romantic life and symbols of a mythical existence. Their lives seem to be governed by old traditions lot more powerful than contemporary lows. The writer him self suggests that the world he is re-creating is the pale image of the imperial Byzantium The author gracefully adds more and more episodes, which introduce a large number of characters, suggesting once again the narrative structure of oriental tales. Some elements introduced in the text may suggest a real historical epoch, but the main characteristics of that period are not relevant for the characters and their way of living.
5.3. Mircea Cărtărescu
Postmodern writers have also reconsidered the heritage of the 18th and early 19th century and re-evaluated the Balkan and Oriental influences upon the Romanian culture. Previously rejected, those aspects are now considered fascinating and even mysterious. Mircea Cartarescu is one of the most outstanding representatives of Romanian contemporary literature in which the individual is dominated by old tradition. As a poet he seems to be fascinated by what he calls “the beautiful Levant”. That particular region gives the title to his best poetry and because of its success and probably due to the author’s attachment to the subject some of his poems were turned into a theatrical representation2. Unlike Modernism to which it is generally opossed, Postmodernism does not reject the influence of myth but puts an end to what are commonly known as the grand narratives3

In Mircea Cartarescu’s poetry and novels as well as in Stefan Banulescu’s work, the Levant is not a re-creation or a description of a real country but a poetical image of a place ruled by legends and fantastic creatures, brought to life by the author’s own nostalgia. The author is not only fascinated by the romantic colourful image of the Balkans, but also proud of his own Balkan ancestors4. Sometimes he goes back to an older society, which may rememind us of the Phanariot period. (Egor from Rem) In one of his last volume Corpul (the Body) he writes about the stage events that forced his mother ancestors to run from Bulgaria, dangerously crossing the frozen Danube.

In his novel the heroes live in a world governed by the fetish where the alternative reality is a mythological past, a world where real political boundaries seem unreal. Mircea Cartarescu’s novels describe a society where communication from person to person is quite difficult and the same is true about the sexes seen as powerful. fetishes.

The real geographical location of most of his prose writing is a block of flats situated on Stefan cel Mare Avenue (one of the main street in Bucharest, where the old city and the new post war districts co-exists) The writer leads his reader into a multicultural society. Some of the characters have strong roots in the Romanian country regions, they are a kind of peasants who accidentally live in town, others come from far away southern regions, mainly the Balkans, or they are of other nationalities.

6. Balkan Images in the Romanian Media
The situation with the media in post-communist Romania has changed significantly, and research on the media is just now growing to a substantial volume. The following is an incomplete overview of the media attitude.

When the Romanian society started to turn versus the Occident, around 1900, Bucharest society was mirrored in Claymoor’s chronicle, a strange character that loved Paris and hated everything remanding him of the Balkans. After a century this opinion still has its fans. Nicolae Breban for instance wrote a series of articles against the Balkan spirit, which in his conception is responsible for most of the weaknesses of Romanian contemporary society.

Claymoor’s articles are the starting point of a series of articles written by one of the postmodernist critics Dan C. Mihăilescu5. In a “Balkan” style” he has a nostalgic view over Claymoor, nostalgia that makes him more tolerant concerning the Balkan aspects and ironic versus the strong French influence. In an article [Mahalaua şi purpura imperială] the same critic admits that he is sensible to the picturesque and points to the dichotomy between the image of the Balkans as an imperial heritage of the Byzantium and that of an evil place.

As Mircea Vasilescu points the media have underlined the image of all good things coming from Western Europe and all the bad things from the Balkans. Kusturica‘s movies are interesting but it is not safe to live there.

It does not mean that the whole media agree with those points of view, but they are aware how difficult it is to change them and that we have to change our own perception first.

It is of no importance how evil the Balkans is for Western Europe for Romanian culture it is pointing to two temporally and spatially distinct roots: Imperial Rome and the Christian Orthodox Byzantium.

7. Conclusions

  • Over the past centuries the Romanian intellectuals have been “imagining the Balkans ”and have been reflected on their ambivalent connection to that part of the world.

  • Rejected or assumed the Balkan heritage played an important role in Romanian culture and literature over the centuries

  • Fighting against grand narratives is one of postmodernism’s main characteristics and one of the traditional vision upon the Balkans. Romanian postmodern literature re-evaluates and re-interprets the Balkan heritage.The Renaissance of the Byzantine spirit is an important feature of Romanian postmodernism.

  • The situation with the media in post-communist Romaniaia has changed significantly.

Selected References

  1. Alexandrescu, Sorin – Paradoxul românesc – editura Univers, Bucureşti 1998

  2. Andraş, Carmen – România şi imagininile ei în literatura de călătorie britanică, editura Dacia, Cluj-Napoca, 2003

  3. Ardelean, Carmen and Alexe, Maria – Orient- Occident. Where is the boundary? Rodopi –vol II, Istambul 2003

  4. Antohi, Sorin Transit-Europaeische Revue. -Tr@nsit-Virtuelles Forum, Nr. 21/2002

  5. Bănulescu, Ştefan – Cartea de la Metopolis editura Eminescu, Bucureşti, 1977

  6. Bernea, Ernest- Cadre ale gândirii populare româneşti- Cartea Românească, Bucureşti, 1985.

  7. Blaga, Lucian –Gândirea magică şi religie ed. Humanitas Bucureşti 1996
  8. Brătescu, Geta - Axul abstract – Secolul 20 loc-locuire-poluare, nr 1,2,3 /1999

  9. Breban, Nicolae – Despre balcanism (1,2,3), Secolul 21, Bucuresti , 2001

  10. Cărtărescu, Mircea – Postmodernismul românesc –editura Humanitas, Bucureşti, 1999

  11. Cartarescu, Mircea - Nostalgia, Ed Humanitas, Bucharest , 1996

  12. Cartarescu, Mircea - Travesti , Ed Humanitas, Bucharest, 1997

  13. Cartarescu, Mircea - Corpul (The Body), Ed Humanitas, Bucharest , 2002

  14. Constantinescu, Mihaela – Forme in miscare-Postmodernismul romanesc

  15. Lungu, Eugen -Islamul la noi acasa- Sud est –arta cultura civilizatie 2004

  16. Mihăilescu, Dan C – Bucureşti, carte de bucăţi - editura Fundaţia PRO, Bucureşti, România,2003

  17. Todorova, Maria – Balcanii şi balcanismul, editura Humanitas, Bucureşti, 2000

  18. Martori nr 6-The Museum of The Romanian Peasant Anthropological Revue, revistă editată de Anca Manolescu, Irina Nicolau, Ioana Popescu

  19. Muthu, Mircea – Balcanismul literar românesc, editura Dacia Cluj-Napoca, 2002

  20. Goldsworthy, Vesna – Inventarea Ruritanie (Imperialismul imaginaţiei) editura Curtea Veche, Bucureşti, 2002

1 Nicolae Breban – Despre balcanism “Balcanic“, se’ntelege, nu in sensul valorilor vechii Grecii, ci a „turcismelor“ si „grecismelor“ din comert si administratie, boala afunda si coroziva de care n-am scapat nici in timpul domniilor faste ale celor doi regi – Carol I si Ferdinand”.

2 After the great success of the poem the same topic was used by the author himself to write a play.

3 Cartarescu especially is an author who reconsiders the influence of myths (folk myths as well as Oriental ones) upon modern sensibility.

4 Essay Medicul şi vrăjitorul.

5 The articles were gathered in a book Bucureşti, carte de bucăţi.


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