Eulogy To The Romanian Peasant

Maiden Speech at the Romanian Academy, Bucharest, 1940excerpts Gentlemen of the Academy,Honorable Audience, I am elected to a newly-established institution, and I wish to preserve the academic tradition of lauding a forerunner, therefore I feel obliged to come forward with someone from the outside, my ancestor and the ancestor of some of you – in a larger meaning, everybody’s ancestor: the Romanian peasant. (…) The forerunner I dare bring before you is poor and weak. This is the way he has always been and probably always will be. His labor and suffering feed his oppressors and make them rich. He is destined to remain for ever impoverished. (…)In the lives of many nations, the peasantry has only been able to play – and actually has played – a secondary, low-key role; but in this country, it is the source of pure and eternal Romanianism. Here, the peasant has been the only permanent, unchanging reality. All this to such an extent, that the Romanian peasant is not a peasant like the peasants of other countries. The very Romanian word (taran – peasant) is of urban origin, at least in its present meaning. The peasant never calls himself a peasant. Only of late, with political influences, this word has penetrated into rural areas, getting to mean villagers as opposed to city inhabitants. But peasants simply call themselves men. In fact the peasantry has no name because theirs is neither a class, guild, nor a function: it is the people itself – the Romanian man. In everybody’s mind peasant is synonymous with Romanian, but city inhabitant is not, often it even means the opposite, especially in the eyes of the peasant. The peasant remained Romanian under the barbarians of the old and under all other conquerors; but the city dwellers were kind of Turkish with the Turks, Greek with Phanariot rulers, Russian with the Russians, German with the Austrians, until they became a hundred percent Romanian under the Romanians. (…)Historians, including Romanian ones, do not agree on our past. But in one respect I agree with all of them, namely that here, on our lands, agriculture has been done since time immemorial. But the existence of agriculture makes necessary the existence of the peasant. Unstable invaders, always in search of prey and bloodthirsty, were not eager to rummage the earth. So the natives must have done the work, while the cohorts of barbarians moved on, following one another in waves. Of course the natives learned, through tough experience, not to interfere at all, or as little as possible, in the fighting between successive tribes of invaders. Wars were total in those times, especially as far as the barbarians were concerned, who carried with them their women, children, and elderly folk, with all their animals. As early as those times, the deep forests offered hiding places that were secure enough for the natives who wanted to stay neutral. The invaders themselves rarely spread away from the main roads and the pastures that fed their cattle. And when some did spread and settle for a longer time, they became softer and adjusted better, glad to find a peaceful population that they could exploit.Many scholars think the birth and beginning of the Romanian nation is an enigma, or something impossible to explain using the usual historical methods. It is undoubtedly a miracle: the people have here endured and persisted in the midst of all hurricanes. But the Romanian peasant, his permanent existence here can be the key to this mystery and other mysteries of ours. The peasant is the beginning and the end. It is only because we have been a peaceful peasant nation, that we were able to keep our identity and land.When great scourges come, rich people, who own many things, are immediately ready to go away. They are not organically tied to a country’s land, and they part easily with the cities or castles they live in, sure to find, as long as they pay in gold, in other countries, other cities and castles, where they can go on with their easy, plentiful lifestyle. The peasant does not want to go and does not go, even when it is necessary. He has no place to take his poverty to, because, taken away from his plowed land, he would be sentenced to die like a tree pulled out of its roots. This is why the peasant is everywhere the keeper of the national territory.And if this is true in all places, why would it not be true for the Romanian peasant, too, whose love for the land is greater and more natural than that of other peasants? As far as our peasant is concerned, the land is not an object to exploit, but a living creature, which he has a strange feeling for, of adoration-fear. He feels the earth has conceived and brought him into this world, like a fairy plant that can never-ever be destroyed. This is why the land is his raison d’etre. Our land has a voice that the peasant hears and understands. It is the “sacred, inspiring land,” which has molded our body and soul, which, with its sun, waters, mountains, and plains, has bestowed on us all the qualities and drawbacks we now come before the world with. It looks like this land can only produce Romanians. The same way, the destiny of the earth that has fathered and raised us had to control the destiny of our nation’s development. It imposed on us for many centuries on end a life that was almost like that of a plant, a life of suffering and humiliation that only the peasant can put up with. As suffering accumulated and time went by, the Romanian peasant became increasingly persistent in his patience. His love for the land grew. The land was forever mixed with the ashes and bones of his ancestors, and the air was filled with their shadows and souls, up to heaven. Nothing could make him move away, no power and no torture.The result? Today’s Romania and ancient Dacia are congruent not only in geography, but also as far as the Romanian ethnographic configuration is concerned. (…) Leading roles in history are played by the nations that create great cultures and by those that destroy such cultures. The life of quiet people takes place behind the scenes, rather. The Romanian people has been the quietest in the world. We have fought no conquering wars in the past, only wars to defend ourselves. We have lived mainly in villages, in the shadow of the events that made history. But villages do not leave documents for future historians to study. Villages appear and disappear, leaving no trace, according to unknown laws and urges. (…)Language is an important characteristic trait of a people, equal to the blood community. Here language, too, is the work of the peasant. Romanian is a peasant language. Its specific charm and expressiveness come from its creator, the peasant. All its development, until the modern times, is indebted to the peasant, the only one who has always spoken it. (…) Our language has only been cultivated by peasants, in permanent contact with the land and with the concrete world, it has kept the naive image-related expression of the oral culture, it has kept its picturesque and colored freshness, and the rhythm of ever-changing life. This language, like everything the peasants do, is conservative and stubbornly defends its form, rejecting any attempts to violate it. (…) The peasant stubbornly spoke only Romanian and refused to learn any foreign language, even when circumstances and needs would have compelled him to. In Transylvania, in the mixed regions, Hungarians and Saxons have always been the ones to speak Romanian; Romanians did not speak Hungarian or German. I have never met a Romanian peasant to speak Hungarian or any other foreign language. Under the former monarchy of Austria-Hungary, regiments of Romanians were stationed for years in far-away foreign lands. The soldiers spoke Romanian wherever they went, in Vienna and in Bosnia, and when someone spoke to them in a foreign language, they invariably answered “I don’t know”; this is why some military units were nicknamed the “I-don’t-know regiment.”All this does not mean that the Romanian peasant in unable to learn a foreign language, it only means he holds his own language, passed to him by his ancestors, as the dearest thing in the world. (…)Similarly to the language, the Romanian peasant has kept and molded in his own image his belief in God. He has formed a specific religion out of old superstitions, leftovers of ancient beliefs that have been transformed and adjusted, and Christian dogmas and teachings; it is a profound blend of Christianity and paganism. This religion, the Romanian law, is the same all over the Romanian nation and above all theological controversy. It sums up the Romanian peasant’s view of life, his resignation, and his confidence in divine justice. Romanian law is the peasant’s moral support. It has given him the strength to bear and rise above ordeals throughout centuries. Our Christianity, practiced and experienced by the peasant, hides in itself all the stages and stories of the history of the Romanian people, just like the Romanian language.The Romanian peasantry was destined to preserve our race, land, language, and religion, so it is the sum total of all Romanian virtual features and energies; therefore, it has to be the starting point and inspiration of all that is Romanian. In the past, boyars rose from among its ranks by natural selection, and to it returned those who lost their jobs and fortunes, when they did not lose their minds as well. Of the peasants, the huge masses of fighters in times of war and the masses of workers in times of peace are recruited.The peasant never, under any circumstances whatsoever, takes up with foreigners. His eyes and his longing never go beyond this nation’s borders. He can bear any and all resignation. God is his hope. He can die without crying and, most of all, without rebelling. His patience is heroic, but sometimes this patience gets to be taken for apathy, as if the endless silent struggle to preserve his ethnic character had dulled his aggressiveness.But his patience and resignation, instead of being praised or at least acknowledged, made him be accused of being lazy and insensitive. It is characteristic that the accusation is brought by his exploiters of yesterday and today.Even if the Romanian peasant was reluctant to work, it would not be his fault. For hundreds of years, if not since always, the Romanian had to work for others, without reward, without hope, and without joy. In such circumstances laziness and lack of sensitivity were the only possible response. Plus the fact that poverty and misery became virtues that he had to build his life on. As he could not aspire to human living conditions, he organized his misery, like an implacable element.No matter how strange and sad it may look, this adjustment to poverty, with all its consequences, was a vital necessity for the Romanian people. Otherwise, they would not have been able to put up with life and they would have broken up and melted with other peoples. By confining themselves in poverty like in an impenetrable shell, they stood alone and were able to develop their specific character, to form their own national countenance. Life in poverty does not make spiritual wealth impossible. A poor man is closer to his own soul than a rich one, and he needs beauty more, so the transfiguration of reality becomes a source of hope and comfort. Our folklore, in all its manifestations, is a creation of a poor nation, but it is more valuable and richer than those of other wealthy nations. When work is futile and only serves to make exploiters rich, laziness and daydreaming are the only vengeance against injustice, and they produce art, the joy of the oppressed.In fact, we can imagine the kind of life the Romanian plowman or shepherd has lived throughout the centuries by watching what can be seen today: just a few dozen kilometers away from Bucharest, which rivals, as far as luxury and spending money is concerned, with the most newly-rich capitals of the world, you see poor human settlements that almost look Neolithic – those are Romanian villages and lodgings. This contrast is more telling than whole volumes of history. (…)However, the city dwellers were the ones to endorse and accomplish the emancipation of the peasants. Our revolutions, noisy rather than bloody, were all staged from up downwards, reaching the point where the huge land estates were expropriated and the peasants were granted property. The peasant himself, unable to organize himself and to initiate social upheavals, would have borne the yoke of servitude forever. (…)The wind of universal generosity also brought about, as it was natural, many exaggerations. The compassion and love for the peasantry created a false image of the peasant, a cheap sugary ideal, which was very far from reality. As interest in the peasant was rising, people got to talk about him only using hyperboles. And when universal suffrage offered a voting ballot to the illiterate, starving peasant, the oppressed man of yesterday suddenly became a tyrant by power of attorney. Because all movements in favor of the peasantry were infected by cheap rhetoric and remained mere intentions, without any practical results. A hundred years after the emancipation, now owner of all the land that can be farmed, the Romanian peasant lives in the same moral and cultural misery, and his standard of living has not risen at all. Which proves a sad flaw in leadership. (…)It was only when writers paid more attention to the literature of the peasant that they discovered the source of the Romanian language and literature. Vasile Alecsandri did a revolutionary act by gathering and publishing a treasure of folk poetry. Of course, later some people criticized him, because his adjustments and completions allegedly tampered with the original beauty. The accusers forget the art, even anonymous folklore, is always an individual creation. A folk song was invented first and foremost by an individual, and only afterwards did others show up, in time and space, to correct, amplify, or simplify it, anyway, to perfect it. That is exactly what happens to written poetry, too, but there, all operations are done by one single individual, more gifted for verse and criticism. So Alecsandri was the last corrector of the folk ballads he gathered, and of course, the most talented one.However, until Mihai Eminescu came along, the Romanian literary language still had many hesitations. Eminescu’s genius alone was able to organically integrate the treasure of the peasant’s language into everybody’s usual language. Through Eminescu, the Romanian peasant offered the most necessary element to the Romanian literature as a gift: his pure, rich, flexible language, always new, with an eternal capacity for renewal, and eternally dynamic – the dynamism of the ever-lasting, purely Romanian spirit. The cooperation between the most humble Romanian and the greatest poet has set the general direction for the Romanian literary uniqueness.Along this direction, writers were then able to go forward without fear of losing their way, as they always had the Romanian peasant readily available to them in case they had doubts. (…)The Iliad, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, and Faust are universal because, beyond aesthetic perfection, they express national souls and realities. This is not a question, as some people tried to say by twisting things, of reducing literature to a peasant creation, or music to the folk doina or ballad, or sculpture to wood carving. It would be an aberration to freeze and confine the artist’s inspiration. (…)But the city must also be imbued by the spirit of the Romanian land and soul. The voice of the earth must be heard and understood by city people, too, for it to become the grand law of the nation, that nobody can conquer or ignore again. (…)This is why today, and for a very long time in the future, we must go back over and over again to the Romanian peasant. Like Antaeus, who got renewed power and became invincible when he touched the earth, Romanian writers will create universally valuable works and will serve the nation’s fate at the same time only by keeping in spiritual contact with the Romanian peasant. (…)We are and always will be a nation of peasants. Therefore, our destiny as a nation, as a state, and as a cultural power depends on the amount of pure gold in the peasant’s soul. But it depends to the same extent on the way this gold will be used and turned into eternal value.

Translated by Monica Voiculescu

by Liviu Rebreanu (1885-1944)