A Case Of Reduction To Human Scale: The Legend Of Master Manole

To the achievement of literary impact, Argeş Monastery comes up with a simple and ingenious solution: the absolute contrast between the soft and caressed tenderness of form, on the one side, and the wild graveness of the underlying tragedy, on the other. In the style and vocabulary of the ballad everything is but kindness and compassion: the predilection for everyday words; the verb to be used in its short, familiar form; the countless elisions (as against the whole text this is, I think, the fragment most replete with apostrophes); the persistence of the ethic dative (unchallengeable and, of course, touching grammatical proof of the magnanimity, the gentleness and the self involvement faculty specific to the Romanians); the employment of the dative form of the personal pronoun only in its abbreviated, colloquial variety; the subjunctive always contracted; the preeminence of the imperfect, a tense particularly acknowledged as source of the sentiment of evanescence; the diminutives (up to the enumeration in this fashion of the parts of the feminine body, a device that could easily have drifted into impropriety, were it not so flawlessly woven into the tonality of the ensemble as to leave the danger immaterialized); the verbs' tendency towards the reflexive voice, more intimate, more akin to the ethic dative; the manifest hostility towards all kinds of loftiness, rhetoric, either morphological or syntactic; the weakness for sweetened vocals.If, according to Mircea Eliade's interpretation, Mioriţa is, above all, a poem of transfiguration, of the Romanian people's ability to turn the terror of history and the absurdness of affliction into greatness (cosmic wedding), then it is clear to me that Master Manole represents and reveals, to the contrary, another characteristic (itself fundamental) of the "Romanian phenomenon": the lucidity – slightly cynical, slightly ironic and largely resigned. Here the "adverse deed" (the sacrifice of the wife) no longer appears transfigured, like the tragedy (the killing) in the other essential ballad: it is simply narrated (in a "poetic" but strictly expositive manner) and toned down to the dimensions of human realities, comprehension and possibilities. Mioriţa is a poem of enthusiastic, passionate and boastful resignation; Master Manole is a poem of skeptical and bitter disillusion (skeptical: the masons' cheerfulness at seeing that it is not one of their wives as comes to the site, the maliciousness of fate that drives the sweet and serene Ana, turning her steady faithfulness into the lure of torment; bitter: the Dynast's cruel conduct, Manole's ante- and post-mortem anxiety, Ana's reaction, obedient but unconsenting). Resignation, in Mioriţa, is doubled by reconciliation with the destiny, with the spirits; in Master Manole there is no trace of reconciliation, only sorrow and implacability. The absurdness of the situation that follows the performance of the sacrificial act (for it is impossible not to detect in Argeş Monastery elements of absurd literature) can only be explained by identifying the Dynast with the artist's own conscience, always dissatisfied with the work accomplished, always eager to attempt the achievement of another, more consummate and, alas, possible. It is from this possibility that stems the Dynast's wrath: the artist's conscience is requiring him to deny himself, outdo himself and be reborn through another possible, more splendid work.The contrast between form and theme emphasizes the absurdness and allows a more acute perception of the tragedy: it is precisely the language specific to the countryside, the colloquial, naïve pronunciation, the supremacy of the rough grammatical combinations, the elisions, the abbreviations, the diminutives, the tenses and the inflexion style lacking all solemnity and pathos that garb the mystery of the ancient ritual, the bloody ritual of yore in the rhythm of modest adornments, like popular art does, and gives it a conveying force of exceptional intensity: the "technical" tragedy of any artist or creator becomes within the confines of Romanian culture (and sensitivity) human suffering of general relevance, which breaks the reader's or the listener's heart, just as it breaks poor Ana's. The theme, as the narrative thread of the ballad unfurls, reveals itself gradually: a) the artist can only create via a sacrifice (elementary observation, but multiplied by hundreds, maximized, pictorialized, transferred from reason to affectivity1);b) the sacrifice is illusory and futile, because the Dynast (id est. the artist's conscience), naturally greedy, is constantly claiming something more beautiful;c) eventually the artist and his world (Manole, the masons, the journeymen) come to a death not very different from that of the guiltless victim (Iphigenia, in our folklore – also obedient and unconsenting – is not saved and carried away to any Taurus, but Agamemnon still comes in for an ugly death);d) and what endures of the whole happening, of the whole atrocity? A barren well - the text carefully dwells on the smallness and scarcity of the result (scarce, unfruitful water, soaked in tears).Unlike Mioriţa, where woe (caused not only by the killing, but also by vileness, squalidness, betrayal) is transfigured and ennobled, Argeş Monastery presents a tragedy in which sacrifice does not prove to be redeeming (except for the immediate practical efficiency – the erection of the edifice), but sheds light on the relativity, the vanity and paradox of human existence and creation. Here the realistic, undeceived lesson is completely opposed to the transfiguration in Mioriţa: not only man's historical existence is contradictory and futile, but creation as well is subordinated to the lawlessness of the absurd and the harshness of living in community. The Monastery is a story for grown-ups, a story "on a human scale."Only that in continuation of these steps there can be guessed another one, not mentioned in the ballad but included in the narrative and revealed by the very "object" whose actual existence dressed it in a legendary-patriarchal and primitive-ritualistic garment. For it is easy for anyone to notice that the work of art and faith has endured, defying absurdity, temporality, human nature, cruelty. The church of the Curtea de Argeş monastery is a being in itself which has escaped legend, myth, sacrifice, sigh, suffering, perplexity. It is now a monument, a Work. It is far from being a well with scarce, salty water; it is a miracle, a thing of perfection that justifies (or in any event signifies) even the most painful of sacrifices. It does not pertain to the category of gratuitous absurdities; it is a duration, a reality, an embodiment of beauty in the world. In the same way, for instance, Don Quixote or The Karamazov Brothers or The Legend of the Evening Star are not, precisely as the church in Argeş is not, poor wells with scarce water. The legend is wrong or, rather, it does not go to the ultimate consequences. Scarce or poor will have been the lives of Dostoevsky, Cervantes or Eminescu, qua human beings; since they produced works they are creators of non-time, non-absurd and non-entropic, they are wells of living water.But what does this mean? It means that, although conceived and achieved "on a human scale" and in a rigorously realistic tone, the ballad does not confirm the absurdness of artistic creation: it is not a Sisyphean task, it is not a farce, it is a work that depends on the conditions of human life, dual, whimsical condition, full of dangers, but not completely irremediable. Unwillingly perhaps, the ballad of Master Manole is, despite its realism and obstinacy, a story on a human scale that does not lack transfiguration, the transfiguration of the technical issue of the creation and achievement of the work of art. (The last line contains an incongruent image: how can water be "soaked," albeit in another liquid, in tears? The meaning is revealed only by the interpretation: water issuing from the eyes is water hallowed by suffering). So that we are entitled to say, without rush and grandiloquence: blessed be the sacrifice of Master Manole and of all those who, like him, gave away their most precious for the invigoration and elevation of our souls and the gratification of our eyes, while we only have to make sure never to behave like those animals before which pearls were cast. (One would say that we find even this task difficult).But why so much speech and guesswork? Go to Curtea de Argeş: the church (restored and rebuilt as it is by Lacomte du Noűy) will immediately reveal itself as a transfiguration of the place, of architectural art, of time and creative work. It will immediately carry you into the same world of splendor, just like Mioriţa.(This is the great curiosity – not to say ultimate mystery – of the "Romanian phenomenon": that to the adventures of some ordinary shepherds and masons2, rather than to anything else, is the idea of splendor bound.)Cartea romaneasca, 1987
1 It is edifying to compare the folk legend with its learned equivalent: The Moneymakers by André Gide. The theme is the same – the technical drama of the creator. But it soon becomes obvious that, treated cerebrally, it remains "dry" for those not involved, not interested. In Ibsen's Master Builder Solness, the two levels become intertwined and still the play, composite enough, does not go beyond honorableness. 2 Manole, naturally, is no "ordinary" mason, but a master builder in the medieval sense, that is a mason-architect, a keeper of trade secrets, a Freimaurer. But, globally speaking, I believe I am allowed to refer to "ordinary shepherds and masons."

by N. Steinhardt