Editor's Note - Memento Vivere

It seems almost provocative to launch such an issue on the local pleasures, pastimes and delights, while nowadays a troublesome Romania appears as plunged into unending economic and social difficulties, striving to cope with various shortcomings and weaknesses.However, neither entertainment nor pleasure is a matter of wealth, at least not in the case of Romania, whose problems appear to be permanent all along its history. And yet, a whole tradition of manifesting lust for life is transparent both in popular and cultured expression. Delight is bubbling in literature and the arts, in music and especially in dance, in lavishly ornamented popular costumes, in gastronomy, in urban mores, customs and lore, in tales, pranks, curses, sayings, and in (merry) epitaphs even!One could hastily mistake the autochthonous civilization for a sheer hedonistic one, fatuously contradicting its meager material condition, if one overlooks the paradoxical feature of the Romanians' peculiar lust for life, consisting in the sharp insinuation into pleasure and exultation of the opposite feelings of anguish and mourning. A paragon of such a convoluted disposition and split mood is precisely the opening piece of this issue, the final fragment from Mioriţa, the famous popular ballad that was viewed as a mirror of the national psyche by cultural philosophers like Lucian Blaga. There, the imminent coming of death is conjured up by the slain-to-be shepherd in terms of a universal, cosmic wedding, in which the whole nature contributes to a grandiose feast, whose final background is funeral but whose transfigured, moving jubilance makes one confused, transported, happy. This popular attitude facing death, this transparence of an elegiac memento mori inside a hymnal memento vivere has survived for centuries, and one can encounter it again in cultural terms in the works of, among many others, Mihail Sadoveanu, Mateiu Caragiale, Miron Radu Paraschivescu. On the other hand, it is also striking that more often than not local delights do not need too much from the substantial or material point of view in order to be experienced as overwhelming. One does not necessarily need to be rich in order to feel wealthy. This is the case with Romanians. Although not prone to excessive simplicity, the authentic Romanian folk music knows only few instruments from which pipes and panpipes detach themselves as the oldest and most representative ones. A huge variety of sophisticate vocal ballads and doinas were accompanied solely by such wind instruments, developing into an intricate and mesmerizing folklore, which was seminal for such musicians as Bela Bartok, himself a native from Transylvania and a researcher of its musical treasures. Similarly, the old and fascinating Romanian gastronomical refinements quite often make use of some modest, low profile, if not humble, ingredients such as quinces, sorrel, lovage, nettle and hop, but their preparation is indeed tremendously dainty. The included recipes, separated by hundreds of years, one coming from the oldest preserved manuscript Romanian cookery book, from the 18th century, and the others from the recent, ethnologically attested tradition, are so consistent in their sophisticated handling of unpretentious ingredients that one can only think of the permanence not only of a forma mentis but also of a shape of taste. Contrariwise, when the ingredients are fine and costly, their treatment could be so refinedly brutal and brisk that the dish regains a certain roughness if not simplicity, as is the case of the recipe of lamb cooked the bandits' way, provided by Nicolae Filimon's novel.No surprise that some Romanians of a certain standing used to pose and be taken as prominent dandy figures. Such is the case of the prince Antoine Bibesco, one of the social models of Marcel Proust, who used to have lunch served in open air near his residence on the island of Saint Louis, in the very heart of Paris, inviting people passing around to join in, as if he was standing in the middle of his domain in his homeland. In the essay that Proust dedicated to him, he quotes one of the prince's sayings, his own personal memento vivere/memento mori, that 'the only true happiness is the immediate one,' which is profoundly Romanian in its essence.This issue is mapping some typical Romanian instances and accouterments of such happiness: places, situations and a whole range of the pleasure's instrumentarium. First and foremost are the typical rural entertainment, as the Romanian civilization used to be until recently a basically rural one. Therefore, the hora, the regular dance in the centre of the village, connected with certain feasts and events, in which the whole village was involved, with its children, youth and aged ones, is obviously present.The illustration corpus shows how was imagined or depicted the pleasurable facet of the visible world, and it appears that the two basic and complementary tendencies were either the representations of nature and landscapes or the immortalization of social ceremonials of divertissement such as the balls and the hora. As the first Romanian modernist school of painting was connected to the French modernism of the BarbizonSchool, one is not surprised to find an enormous amount of delectable landscapes as the basic output of major local painters from the late 19th until the mid-20th century, such as Grigorescu, Andreescu, Luchian. Much of Grigorescu's landscapes are also populated with peasants working with such an exhilarating stance as if they were essentially enjoying life instead doing a job. This was already comporting a visual concept of what pleasurable life meant: it was the pastoral life simply idealized. This concept of nature as a reservoir of pleasure was later on, in the early 1930s, enriched with another one, linked to the seaside resort of Balcic (now in Bulgaria), where the entire Romanian high-life, beginning with the royal family, indulged in the delights of the sea and the sun. There a real artistic colony was established, following the oldest model of the French artistic colonies from Brittany, Normandy and the Midi, or the more recent German expressionist artistic colonies by the Baltic sea, as in the case of Die Bruecke movement before 1920. Major artists such as Petraşcu, Dărăscu or Iser were mesmerized by the clear-cutting pregnancy of the colours at Balcic, by the mineral blue of the sea, the sharp green contours of the vegetation, and the glassy limpidity of the air, in which the sails of the boats seemed almost immobile. Thus a real, somewhat chic standard of the seascape emerged in Romanian painting, encouraged by collectors and amateurs, usually pertaining to the same high society that shared Balcic with the artists during the summers, and subsequently wanted to keep in (at least visual) touch with the resort for all the seasons. If one finally aims at an insight into the specificity of the local register of pleasures and amusements, as it appears in the imaginary reflected in cultural production, one should firstly remark the dominance of group (convivial) distractions. It is not team games that prevail, but on the contrary, community entertainment, one in which the whole of a society interacts and builds itself around that interaction, as an entity. This is the case of both Rebreanu's hora and of Creangă's şezătoare (when men and women meet together in the house of one of them in order to accomplish a certain working task, while they also chat, eat, drink, play tricks and tell stories), or of Preda's pseudo-political chat of the peasants at Iocan's, the blacksmith. It seems that most of the pleasures imagined by Romanians were happening among their fellows and together with them. With rare exceptions it appears that they did not enjoy too much to be happy inside the walls of their own homes. There is a need to get out, to take one's pleasure outside, into the wide world, that one can perceive in the Romanian civilization, so different for example from the bourgeois, Dutch or French culture of the 18th century, with their typical enjoyment of the warm, closed riches of one's own home. A second characteristic is the relationship with nature, the prominence of distractions in the open air, that involve a lot of movement in space, be it dance, hunting, excursions. This is true even for that strange, urban dance of the bohemians from one tavern to another, propelled by an unconscious desire of meeting and going to the fore when celebrating, a not so distant heritage of the behavioral structures of the traditional hora.A third characteristic would be the absence of cruel, bloody amusement, except for the hunt, which is however associated with the need for food, and not with the kill for fun. Such entertainment as the corrida and the like (cock or dog fighting etc.) is utterly lacking in the traditional Romanian pleasure culture. A fourth feature would be the little significance of sports as an entertainment, including the sports that traditionally involved a relationship to animals, like horse-riding, that virtually have no cultural representation. A lot more was written and sung about drinking for example, than on any sport. It seems that it is only late that the sports entered into social consciousness, and then they didn't reach that strong relevance as to penetrate the culture realm. The fifth and last characteristic is that the enjoyment of culture, which is itself a major source of pleasure (one only has to think of reading, theatre-going and art-collecting) does not figure among the prominent types of entertainment, not even in cultural products such as novels themselves. They rather praise nature, voyage, society, friends, tales and debates, cafes, their drinks, food, feasts, music and dance, and that quintessential, capital and absolute – somehow even tragic – fun of killing time. For the writers, even in their writings, the pleasures of living lay somewhere else than in writing, generally somewhere else than in culture too. Yet another paradox of local pleasures.

by Erwin Kessler