Imitation And Identity

I will begin by quoting myself. Talking about the polemics between two people whose intelligence and moral stature I admire (the polemics took place, in its major parts, in the very pages of the 22 magazine), I used to say with a certain regret and doubtfulness: "On whose side am I? I stand, I think, I don't jump to conclusions, and it seems that everybody is right. I also know why I think this way: for me, the truth is a semantic field with its tensions and inner dynamics, with its many senses and dimensions, it's not a 'line', it's not a set of propositions either." I said that in Dilema, in February 1996.I haven't changed my opinion ever since. But I would like to complete it, briefly presenting the other side of the argument, I mean to explain where I think the two sides involved in the polemics made mistakes. I will begin with a parenthesis, saying, before all this, that even if I considered the polemics, the debate, the dispute, healthy for any community and for any individual, I won't pretend not to notice the possible (and quite frequent) pathologies of the debate, especially when, following this path, one can easily get an autistic position, totally losing the flexibility of an idea, which, under different circumstances, could be more open, more tolerant, more permitting; end of parenthesis. On the one hand, we have doubts about producing resemblances to the western world. Especially in America, the visitors often have powerful idiosyncrasies about the world, which, for the first time, they collide with. Young or old, men or women, it's always the same "cultural shock," the same trauma in confronting modernity in its radical form – after all, this means fear in front an unknown future, with all its uncertainties. The consequence of this is a stiff inside isolation. This syndrome is not so peculiar as it might seem. I faced it myself all the time, I noticed it with literally hundreds of people of all kinds, whether in America to stay or just passing by. I don't mean here only the Romanians or the Eastern Europeans: with these people the cultural shock would be easy to understand and easily excusable, due to the brutal isolation in which they had lived, as well as to the abnormal way of life imposed by communism. I'm talking about people all over the world, from all continents, and not less of people from Western Europe, acting the same when confronted with the radical democracy of America. I can't forget the young French student (consider it well: French), intelligent and well-informed, with excellent results, and who, within a few months of nervous breakdown and tears of hostility, surrendered, gave up her studies and returned to her homeland. Why would I wonder, then, about the resistance and the suspicions of Eastern intellectuals, no matter how honest and intelligent, who have to face the same difficulties.On the other hand, the position of the opponent has its own misjudgments. It would surely be unfair to mention the most hilarious of cases, the ignorant and pretentious ones that praise exactly the worst and disputable aspects of American society. But even at a higher theoretical standard of these polemics, some sort of rigidity can sometimes be found, some sort of nondiscriminatory attitude towards the wisdom of the Euro-Atlantic world, an insistence on mechanically taking it for granted without the slightest modification. Don't we sometimes see, in the pages of the imitation followers' newspapers, an obedient tone when they are talking about the contemporary West? (A tone that, as for me, unpleasantly reminds me of the one that in the past others used – of course, infinitely more obviously, more obediently – when they talked about the great totalitarian Eastern neighbor.) Well, these opinions might be partial, based on prejudice, of which, of course, I cannot be excused more than others. But I would like to take these objections to some people's writings as a basis for a larger object of reflection. Basically, these disputes (like others, at a lower level, easy to observe in the media or in the recent election campaign) are about a very important and serious issue that involves Romanian society. The question is: how does this society, this community want to build itself? What is its definition for the future, what does it want to imitate and how much, what does it want to preserve for its own future, and, basically, which one of the various pasts that the Romanian history has would it choose more carefully? We are talking about a modern alternative in the discourse of imitation and identity, which persistently preoccupied, in the last two hundred years, the Romanian intellectuals as well as society's political classes. Now, as always, the opinion spectrum goes from the ones that inveterately reject any kind of talk about the dynamic reality of Western neighbors, to those who, on the contrary, willingly integrating and obeying, persistently try to impose a perfect synchronizing with the most recent Eastern ways. Both parties are right, but they both are inadvertently wrong, when they are choosing the reference points that they want to apply to the Romanian situation. Indeed, both parties seem to believe that the issue is rather political than socio-cultural. To put it another way, everything goes as if the absolute priority is that of the alliance with the latest Eastern accomplishments. Of course, what a politician should do is immediately react to any crisis or specific circumstances that might appear. As for society, it has more important things to do, so that the cautious observer should care more about the latter. Romania, for example, wants to "integrate" – but in what? This Euro-Atlantic world is, after all, a simple fiction: the situation in Portugal is radically different from that in Norway, France and the United States are separated by many obstacles, the concerns of Canada are not the same with those of Greece and so on. Which one do we ally with? Which one do we imitate? Or, on the contrary, which one do we not ally with, which one do we not imitate? Seriously, now: Which part of the West is it that stands for an example? The first thirty years after World War II, almost all Eastern states were marked by massive social investments, by a certain economic interventionism, by the accentuation of common progress and the ideas of social justice. After 1975, after 1980, capitalism and liberalism asserted themselves dynamically, individualism and competition won the first place. The American President, ruler of a center-left party, confidently claimed that the era of government interventionism (the big government) had come to an end, and the social-democratic European parties submitted without hesitation to the open market economy. I will not further talk about the more ancient layer, about the world of the throne and the shrine, about medieval Europe; this world is not less real than the socio-liberal and egalitarian one from after the war. After all, even the chauvinistic fanatics may often address older or newer examples. Every decade, every century brings on a few changes. Which of these are to choose from? Only the answer to this question is the basis for shaping (better or worse) the ideological structures of Romanian parties. My own answer is trying to redirect a little the debates. I think of myself as a big supporter of integration and even of social and historical alignment, because I do not see why intelligent imitation should be shameful. But I do not think that a social community and its rulers should choose from one ephemeral historical moment or another and then copy with fanatic precision the chosen one. The pattern cannot be and should not be static (the Euro-Atlantic position at some point), but the very dynamics of this world, its movement and development, the way it progressed and behaved for centuries. If the imitation goes for a historically homogeneous way of life, there is no need for the Romanian world to painfully abandon its own identity, there is no need for grotesque adjustments (after all, totally inefficient) of the details. The intellectual and political effort goes for an ideal Europe (if you like), but a more complex one in its historical layers. An example that should be followed is that of an abundant, ingenious culture, of a respect (always different but always the same) for the human persons' dignity, that of a tenacious astonishing diversity of the freedom considered the ultimate guide of behavior, that of the creative opening to the transcendental potential (and not of the blindfold submission to some of its static images); that of a perpetual search for new relations between material and ideal. These examples not only accept, but also imperiously claim some belief in one's own identity. In order to become really European, the Romanian society needs to think about its own ideas and manifestations, again, in their own dynamics. It is exactly the discontinuities and the repeated coming-backs of Romanian history that offer excellent occasions for making suitable and interesting rhymes. What about the transoceanic world, you might ask. Is it not too far for a possible synchrony? I will answer specifically some other time. What I can tell you, briefly, is that I take a critical distance from the society within which I live. I will go further and say it directly: after communist Russia collapsed, the worst impulses in the world (vulgarity, rudeness, and stereotypes) came from America. But, at the same time, from the same direction, there came the healing serum, the brightest ideas, the compensatory forces, and the straighter reactions. Unlike other societies in the world (we cannot exclude some of the Western European democracies either), the American world has an erupting fundamental vitality. Good and evil are everywhere facing each other and struggling. Those who loudly condemn "American colonialism" or "the American world domination" never cease to amaze me, because at the same time they admire and cherish the worst parts of the world that they curse (as the Americans themselves do the exact opposite). Well, my secret hope is that this vitality, this capacity to negotiate with the evil within, and produce strong resistance, begins to appear today in the areas of the late communist empire. Maybe – who knows? – a sympathetic providence wants to compensate a little for the long lasting sufferings of those in this miserable part of the world and to give them a second chance. Some of this is hard to believe (not even I can entirely believe it), but at least it is not completely absurd. I am hoping I might see a few encouraging vital signs in Russia, as well as in Eastern Europe, and this is perhaps because here we have very few things to lose. Such an approach to the American pattern would be the happiest case of all: an approach not to the material forms, but to the fresh and healthy and at the same time dispersed and selfish energies that the human Northern American universe surely has.
Bethesda, MD, November 1996, 22

by Virgil Nemoianu