On National Specificity, 1935

If I had had the courage to speak freely, directly, without resorting to these pages in front of me, and without caring about the serious language mistakes I may make in French – and which I will definitely make –, if I had the courage to start my free conversation with you, instead of reading a text written beforehand, I think the subject of my speech would have proven itself less difficult to me. I was not invited to speak to you tonight on a general problem. The title of this conference is somewhat improper – and I prefer to warn you about this trespassing. On national specificity! I think it is too vague and it goes beyond the much more modest and limited subject which was at first requested from me. My speech is about some aspects of the problem dealing with national specificity, aspects which stand out in a recent Romanian literary debate. In June 1934 I published a book which had no political aim, but whose subject was nevertheless irritating. Irritating in itself, irritating especially for the circumstances in which the book had to appear. It was a novel. The story of a young Romanian Jew who is forced, somewhat unexpectedly, and in a brutal manner, to question his social and spiritual affiliation. Who is this man? Is he a Jew? Is he Romanian? Maybe he is both at the same time? He feels Romanian by virtue of many things: the language he speaks, the landscape of his birthplace, the Danube of his childhood, the books he loves, the friendships he has. But at the same time he recognizes himself as being a Jew, by virtue of certain features of sensitivity and intelligence, some sort of intellectual feverishness, and a particular sense of the tragic. He does not see himself as being forced to choose between these two forces – his Judaism and his Romanianism, if you will allow me to make up a word which does not exist in French, but it is the only word which can translate the frequent term of "Romanian spirit". He thinks he can unite the two forces in the same lifetime, he thinks he can reach an internal agreement between Romanian values and Jewish ones which make up his being and his spirit. This is not the social argument of the book, it has no such argument, but it is its psychological problem. Well, it started a polemical storm, whose violence was surpassed only by its liveliness, a violence expressed by means of ideas and especially by vocabulary, surprising even in a country as agitated as ours. The scandal – because there was one – was due to the preface written by Nae Ionescu, my professor, Romanian theoretician of the right and at the same time theoretician of this "national specificity" of which we will speak in a moment. A real war was started around this novel and its preface, a war going beyond literature, and having the purely political plan as its battlefield. Politicians of the right and those of the left, Marxists and fascists, national Jews and anti-Semites, everyone considered themselves attacked by a book which had had the courage, the naivety or the imprudence of stating that being Romanian is not incompatible with being a Jew. Ladies and gentlemen, I do not intend to re-open before you a cause which has been judged and closed irrevocably for me. Two months ago, I published a new book, in which I tried to answer all the objections and in which I struggled to clarify everything that had remained obscure or uncertain after this terrible intellectual war. As far as I am concerned, this book puts an end to the debates and I promised myself not to come back on the subject again. Yet I am coming back, as you can see. Yes, it is true, I'm coming back. But I am not doing this to resume the polemic that ended so embarrassingly, but to extract from it some ideas, the few problems that are involved there, and especially this problem of the national specificity. It almost contains the theme of the debate. Our problem is not to know whether the national specificity exists or not. It obviously exists. There are national forms of culture, there are national sensitivities, certain national features related to intelligence and manner of thought. All these particular forms of existence and of expression are based on a common thought of spiritual resources. It is what we call – do we not? – national specificity. But without denying its reality, we can ask ourselves a double question. First of all, is this "national specificity" impenetrable? – is it inassimilable? Secondly, whether there is a degree of human profoundness which is nothing else than the cradle of this national specificity, innately limited, whether there are certain truths so comprehensive, so essential which form the permanence of the human soul over the years, when faced with life, love, and death. These problems referring to the extent, the importance and the features of the national specificity are quite old in the Romanian culture. They always come back, periodically, as it is only natural, in moments of crisis, when landmarks and reference points are looked for everywhere. Recently I've re-read, with lively interest, an old article on this recurrent problem of the national specificity. Allow me to quote a few lines without mentioning, for the time being, who wrote them and when they were published: "It looks as though the Romanian people is on the eve of a profound transformation, meant to specify and deepen its ethnic individuality. The multitude of cultural disturbances of our times: the amazing growth of the taste in reading, which tends to become a spiritual need; the exuberance of the literary movement – heading gropingly towards the starting point of the national spirit, towards peasant life and promising to grasp and to fasten once and for all the entire originality of this spirit; the ever-growing emphasis of a cultural movement which begins with negation, just like youth – all these ask for an intense assertion of the Romanian genius and of its specific gifts. Here are just as many suggestive symptoms of this transformation by means of which the Romanian people will pay its supreme duty towards itself and all the other peoples, by achieving complete embodiment of its national spirit." By reading these few lines, couldn't we say, ladies and gentlemen, that they come from a present-day newspaper, published in March 1935, when there is so much debate about a national transformation, a revived ethnic life, a peasant life destined mainly to national existence? Well, to say that would be wrong. The lines I've just read to you were not written in 1935, but in 1911! Their author was the critic Ion Trivale, who died in the war of 1916, a student and disciple of Mr. Rădulescu-Motru. He was Jew by origin, which did not prevent him from writing, as you may see, a plea for the Romanian national specificity, a plea which any right- or left-wing nationalist would have to sign today. All this is not deprived of humor. Yet I didn't quote Trivale's article to make this observation; I only quoted him to be able to point out its stirring topical character. The same ethnic-related preoccupations, the same worries, the same problems, the same words. Can we therefore say that nothing has changed in the Romanian life since 1911? And is this because the state of being "on the eve of a profound transformation" that Trivale announced continues to this day? I do not think so. We have here a problem which disappears and comes back regularly, it always comes back to us when a moment of crisis, be it economic, social, or political, demands searching for moral support and a criterion for reorganization. Peaceful times make this debate useless, but the troubled ones bring it back to life. As a matter of fact, I don't think this debate is entirely unknown even to you, the French people. Is there not in France the habit of discussing on the national specificity? What was the polemic between Gide and Barrès on the subject of Les Déracinés? What was it if not an old debate on national specificity? One has to admit that the debate occurs more often and with increasing passion in our case. This is because of the specific conditions which gave rise to Romanian modern life, to our culture and our modern society. They have their origins in the sudden and violent break with the past. The Romanian revolution in 1848 marks the somewhat brutal end of old traditions and local laws and the beginning of a civilization transplanted from the Occident. It is certain that, if left to follow their own natural course, Romanian political and spiritual dispositions would not have reached the present state of life and of culture. It is certain that the society of 1848, the "paşoptişti", as they are called in Romanian[1], les quarante-huitards did violence to the national specificity. The break-up was all too sudden; the incongruity between the adopted forms and the local necessities was too big for the causes of the crisis not to be thrown back on the 1848 Revolution whenever our political regime or our culture experienced a moment of difficulty. Then the simplest solution, which presents itself immediately to the spirit, is the return to local realities, the return to the national specificity. Is this return a revolution? Here is a much more serious question than it may seem. It may constitute a dividing line between Romanian sensitivities, for we can certainly assert that Romanian society is made up of two important intellectual families, according to the answer given to this question. First of all, there are those who feel nostalgic about particular values and who lead a self-sufficient life, leaving 1848 out of Romanian history, if possible. Secondly, there are the others who only accept a European Romania, who guard and complete the forms of our modern life, making them livelier, more active and more creative. For them, if national specificity is not exactly a superstition, then it is nevertheless a reactionary, obscure and delaying force. The two attitudes regarding this problem correspond to two well-defined mentalities: the rural and peasant mentality, on the one hand – the urban mentality, on the other. There are two orientation lines, two directives which can be followed, I believe, throughout Romanian culture, art, and politics, starting from 1848 and until now; these two directives confront themselves in an intimate spiritual and political war. This war has, of course, its moments of crisis and its moments of tranquility, its failures and fatigues, its violence and fatigues, but it never ceases completely. To follow them in all their phases throughout the latest 80 years of Romanian history would certainly make an interesting operation, but it would go too much beyond the more modest ambitions of our subject. I will content myself with the remark that my generation, "the young generation", as it is habitually referred to, despite its being not so young, has not only been drawn into this debate, but also expressed it with a certain intellectual violence which assigned a pathetic emphasis to the problem, an emphasis it seldom had in the past. All the colleagues from my generation had their debut in 1927. Well, the groups were quickly identified and it's not too much to say that the criterion for their division was none other than their attitude towards national specificity. To mark even better their stand, the new intellectual recruits grouped together around two opposing magazines: "Duh şi Slovă" (Spirit and Letter), and "Kalende". The existence of these two magazines is quite vague, but their program and ideology were not. On the contrary: nothing simpler, nothing clearer, or more uncompromising. "Duh şi Slovă" gathered the metaphysicians: Mircea Vulcănescu, Mircea Eliade, Stelian Mateescu. Should I mention Petru Comarnescu as well? He has left the group in the meantime, even though he used to be the fieriest combatant for national specificity. The opposing magazine, "Kalende", promoted the critics Şerban Cioculescu, Pompiliu Constantinescu, and Vladimir Streinu. The battle had been precisely arranged: the former were in favor of tradition, of native values, of peasant, orthodox spirituality, of an autarchic existence – if we may use this word which was not yet fashionable in 1927, but it is now. Thus, they found a word for "national specificity". The latter, those from "Kalende", took, on the contrary, an intellectual, critical, anti-mystical, radical and European stand. While "Duh şi Slovă" envisaged a return towards the Orient, Byzantium and the Balkans, the very places we were taken out of by the 1848 Revolution, "Kalende" defended the modern, Western spirit. It goes without saying that these two magazines, otherwise very modest and very young, are of interest to us only in that they continue an older debate, more stable than their ephemeral existence. What "Duh şi Slovă" and "Kalende" tried to be in 1927, two much older magazines tried before them; "Gândirea" and "Viaţa românească", with their respective editors, Mr. Crainic on the one side, and Mr. Ralea on the other, discussed rather violently the same opposition between critical spirit and orthodox nationalism. If we must find some patrons and inspiring figures for the young writers engaged in 1927 in the battle referring to national specificity, then at least two names can be mentioned: that of Nae Ionescu for the defenders of the national specificity and that of Camil Petrescu for its opponents. In his own magazine, "Cetatea literară" (The Literary Fortress), and in a long series of critical studies published as of 1922, Camil Petrescu attacked the mystical, Orthodox stand of the nationalists, supporters of the "national specificity", to whom he opposed an intellectual, critical directive which he named using a word very dear to him: substantialism. I leave him the task of explaining this word himself, if he deigns to do it. As for Mr. Nae Ionescu, considering everything he taught us in his university courses and everything he wrote in his articles, he was and continues to be the soul, the inspirer and the theorist of metaphysics of nationalism. In his view, national specificity takes the form of a biological, organic, structural, and completely invincible reality; a collective reality which has its own values, laws, and autonomous spirit; a reality to which nobody wants to adhere and which nobody can deny, either by an act of will, or by an effort to adapt. For Nae Ionescu, national specificity goes as far as claiming itself from the very biological elements of the race, from certain metaphysical roots without which no one can be considered Romanian. Christian Orthodoxy is such a root and Mr. Nae Ionescu didn't hesitate to contest the Catholics' quality of being Romanians, and he did this during an extraordinary discussion with a Roman Catholic teacher, Mr. M. Frolla. Ladies and gentlemen, I realize I have insufficiently outlined the old debate – perhaps the eternal debate of national specificity in Romanian life. If I have to go back to the starting point of my speech and return to the book whose subject constitutes the pretext of our conference, I will say that this novel nevertheless contains the problem of national specificity, without intending to "romance" it in any way. There are two heroes in this novel, Ghiţă Blidaru, a teacher and a traditionalist man, and the architect Mircea Vieru, a European mind. Their meeting, with no intention from my part to transform it into a symbol, raises exactly the premise of our problem today. I'll take the liberty of translating just one page: "There is an entire history to be solved, an entire culture to be understood between Ghiţă Blidaru and Mircea Vieru. If it wasn't for the personal picturesqueness of each of them, Vieru's blond faun head, Ghiţă Blidaru's fierce wolf head, if it wasn't for their animated and diverse lives full of passion, fighting and love affairs, what good characters for a Platonic dialogue would these two make, what opposing parts of a theorem! 'The drama of modern Romanian history', played and supported by two protagonists. Nothing more schematic, and yet nothing more just. Roughly speaking, Romanian culture is not over the stage of the conscience problems raised by the introduction of the railway in 1860. Be it the west or the east, Europe or the Balkans, urban civilization or rural life, the questions are always the same. Vasile Alecsandri formulated them naively – Ghiţă Blidaru and Mircea Vieru formulate them critically. Yet, the rural type and the urban one remain the only constantly valid categories in Romanian culture. I believe one can establish clear relationships in either one of these two directions, anywhere, in Romanian literature, politics, music, journalism…" Judging by this page I have just read, I fear my novel will look like a sort of political essay to you. I don't believe it, though, and if the problem of national specificity is to be encountered, it doesn't come up by means of a theoretical discussion; on the contrary, it does so by the simple unfolding of the episodes, by the protagonists' movement, by the events in which they are involved. There is one episode in this novel that tries to reproduce the destiny of our modern Romanian society at a much reduced scale and within the limits of a local conflict. In order to exploit a rich oil-bearing field, occupied by a village of wine growers, an American company decides to pull down all the houses in that village – named Uioara – and to build some sort of an industrial fortress instead. As for the village, it would be moved a few kilometers away and rebuilt there. Incidentally, this situation which seemed somewhat unreal at the moment when the novel was published does no longer appear so today. It looks like Ford will perform almost the same operation of demolition and building to install its factories in Romania. I am grateful to it for having put a novelist's fantasy into reality so quickly. Things are going quite well in Uioara at the beginning. The oil company has money and it doesn't refuse it. But when the situation is settled, when the new Uioara, with its plum trees and cattle, finds itself face to face with the old Uioara with its derricks and waves of oil, the conflict bursts out unexpectedly. It's the point of view of the interfering winegrowers. It's the voice of the plum growers and the sound of the derricks. Without pushing the symbol any further, don't you think that these two great and distinctive voices represent exactly the two opponent stands in the problem of national specificity? Mircea Vieru, the architect who demolished the old Uioara and built an oil fortress in its place, fiercely defends the present against the past. Ghiţă Blidaru, on the contrary, asks for this past to have the right to impose its own laws. Allow me to let them speak in my place and therefore to quote for the last time a few fragments from the book. Ghiţă Blidaru speaks first: "Let us make ourselves clear now: this is not about questioning the value of architect Vieru's work in Uioara. Perhaps this work represents an act of genius. What is debatable is its significance in comparison with the Romanian spirit and… the Romanian economy. My question is whether anyone has the right to perform acts of genius against the necessities of the land he lives on. More precisely: whether anyone, through his individual deed, can interfere with the latent process of the collective life forces, to modify them, to impose on them an objective that is not their own… In Uioara, in five years, a daring man substituted a wine growers' community with an industrial one. By virtue of what law? By virtue of a prejudice according to which a factory chimney has more rights than a vine stock. Well, this judgment is monstrous. Neither the factory chimney, nor the vine stock mean anything if taken in itself. They are not meaningful unless taken as a whole, as a family, as a structure. Beyond this structure, they remain simple and lifeless abstractions. The factory chimney in Uioara is no less an abstraction than the vine stock in Manchester. This ignorance towards specific laws that govern life, this ignorance of specific living forms…" This lively attack of Ghiţă Blidaru receives a no less lively response from Mircea Vieru, the architect: "It's a sure thing, I will never get along with Ghiţă, the teacher. He is a seminarian, a theologian. A man who is happy when he can submit to something, no matter what. With a thousand Moldavians like him, and with another thousand of Wallachians just like him, it's no wonder this land was dominated for centuries in a row by anyone who came here: Turks, Russians, Phanariots. His entire life is made up of submissions. "Submissions to realities," as he says. Submission to anything that is above your comprehension. I, for one, would shoot myself the day when I think that my simple condition of human being condemns me to inferiority. Either I am a free man, or I am no longer a man. I am free to think, free to establish values and hierarchies. The world can be understood by means of critical discriminations and thorough research. And, on the contrary, it can darken irrevocably if one gives up rational thinking and resorts to mystical intuition." Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for this much too long quote. After all, I did this at my own risk, as I have read to you the most abstract fragments in a book which has, nevertheless, the ambition of being a novel and not a social case study. I did it only to indicate as precisely as possible the terms of this national specificity problem as it reflects itself indirectly in this book. I don't have to tell you that throughout the book things do not look as cold and schematic as my clumsy quotes may have led you to believe. I didn't intend to write, and I hope I haven't written, a novel with a thesis. If problems, debates, ideas, or programs are to be found in it, it is because they have been engaged by the course of things and by the movement of my characters. The battle is between the new Uioara and the old one, between the winegrowers' voice and the sound of the derricks, and I did nothing more than to follow this battle with the restlessness of a novelist, for what is a novelist if not the spectator of his own heroes? What will be the end of this battle? I know nothing. I'm waiting. Ladies and gentlemen, If the novelist's stand was comfortable enough, because he had no right to hide anything, that of his heroes is more serious. I have already spoken to you at the beginning of our speech about this hero, a young Romanian-Jew who believed he was, and wanted to be, both Romanian and Jewish at the same time. It is not deliberate for him, it is not an act of will, but a reality. He feels it this way. He will never be able to give it up. It's a drama, or, if you will, to avoid being overemotional, a problem which poses itself quite often, and not only in Romania but almost everywhere in the world. In 1921 Jacob Wasserman published in Germany a small paper which represented a personal case of conscience: "Mein Weg als Deutsche und Jude" / My way as a German and a Jew. Also in France, a few months ago, a Jewish writer, Benjamin Cremieux, meditated on a possible relationship between his far-off Jewish memories and his French life, while being involved in a polemic with Charles Maurras. More dramatic or calmer, depending on the various circumstances which determined them, these cases of conscience of the Jew living in a country to which he feels spiritual and physical attachment, these cases of conscience always exist. And they will always meet the resistance of this theory which turns national specificity into a biological, racist and metaphysical notion, into an impenetrable, intransmissible and inassimilable value. It will meet the resistance of partisans of this theory whom, with your permission, and in order to make my task easier, I shall call "specifists". The word is terrible, I agree, but it is yet so simple. What can we think of this "specifist" law which closes people in irreducible structures? I cannot pretend to solve the problem, but I think, or, to be more precise, my hero thinks, that the human soul is much more flexible and more capable of nuances. To state this, he doesn't start from an abstract idea, but from contemplating his own life which combines – without collision or incompatibilities – his two voices, the Jewish and the Romanian one, the two voices which are, in fact, as one. National specificity? Obviously, he does not ignore it, although he has to deal with two kinds of "national specificities", the Romanian one and the Jewish one, and despite the fact that he has to stand the anger, the indignation and the intransigence of the two kinds of "specifists", Romanian specifists and Jewish specifists, some just as exaggerated as the others. He does not ignore national specificity, but he understands it not like a murmur, but like a spiritual climate, a lifestyle – comprehensive and flexible enough to shelter different sensitivities in their shadow. It is well-understood that this manner of thinking will not be easily accepted, but he has time to wait. And Ion Trivale's experience can be resumed anytime.
[1] "Paşoptist" is the name given to a participant in or a supporter of the 1848 Revolution (in Walachia and Moldavia). (translator's note)

by Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945)