A Certain Incapacity

The ultimate test for everyone – therefore for nations too – is the capacity to contemplate while suffering. The Asians, the Chinese and the Indians in particular, are definitely superior to us from this point of view. These people give so much importance to contemplation that not even the worst physical pain can break them or make them go back to a state of animality. It is the Russians who seem to be totally incapable of contemplation when in pain, at least the Russians as they appear in literature. When they feel menaced with physical or moral pain, Russian characters always find refuge in drinking, in humility and animality. To them, "evil" is such a strong force that, when they don't succumb to it, they can't even look in the face. Misery of any sort suppresses in Russians any possibility of contemplation. Then they take refuge in bestiality, unconsciousness or heresy; in no case can they endure suffering, and they cannot overcome it through contemplation. There are some details in Romanian folklore and customs which entitle us to believe that we are, or used to be, one of the few European peoples that experienced contemplation while suffering. It's not only about being passive sufferers, or a mere acceptance of pain and calamity. There are also attitudes of real contemplation such as a perfect inner peace, a sign of having surmounted all personal criteria. This is the case, for instance, with the shepherd's death from Mioriţa (Ewe Lamb) who not only does not try to escape death and avoid suffering, but is completely at peace with it and serene. Nothing proves better the lack of substance and style of the Romanian suburbanite (who represents most of the population of Romanian towns) than his fear of suffering, his incapacity to contemplate when in pain. The suburbanite (the bourgeois, the intellectual, etc.) drenches his pain in wine; after an unhappy love affair, he gets drunk and goes to prostitutes. He does not kill, like his Russian counterpart. But he philosophizes refreshingly, mixing Balkan mockery with vulgar, occidental skepticism: "Never mind! It will go away! All women are the same!" He acts in the same way when confronted with death, after the surprise is gone and the rituals are about to finish: the suburbanite looks for a formula to solve his pain and lack of understanding, while avoiding contemplation... "That's life, just like an egg!" he exclaims, trying to resign himself and to drive away pain, ignorance and fear. If we only suspected how profound and how "contemplative" these mysteries – of death and love – are in Romanian rural communities... Excerpted from Fragmentarium (Vremea, 1939; Humanitas, 1992, 2003. Articles published between 1932-1939)

by Mircea Eliade (1907-1986)