The Gentle Whisper Of The Magic

I certainly am neither the first, nor the only person to notice that the fantastic appears as a distinctive feature of Nordic, non-Latin peoples, rather than of the meridional spirit. The solar, mercantile, skeptical-rationalist South, and the sanguine, outgoing, relativistic Latin peoples fascinated by pantheism, hedonism and concordia discors in all things compose a structural environment hostile to lugubrious fantasy, metaphysical anxieties coupled with authoritarian and suicidal temptations, irrational excess, and demoniac nebulosity.Of course, preconceived schemes may be obnoxious, as exceptions abound; however, a quick, quiz-like consideration prompted by a question about the classics of fantastic literature would elicit my instant answer: Shakespeare, Poe, Wells, E. T. A. Hoffman, Novalis and Bulgakov, whose names may at any time constitute the framework for a history of this decidedly Saxon brainchild – from Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (the literary extension of the Gothic Revival's architecture of restless ambiguity and craving for mystery, triggered by the excesses of Enlightenment rationalism) to The Fall of the House of Usher, Peter Schlemihl, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, The Maestro and Margaret, via Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk by Matthew Lewis, numerous ghost stories and tales of terror, Wilkie Collins and Hawthorne, but also the German Gothic, with its Märchen full of fairies, ghosts and goblins, of aggressive heresy, romantic magic and cosmic dreaming, and eventually to the worlds of Stanislaw Lem and Stephen King, and the prolific SF genre.Far from the tenebrous North, Viking mist, and phantoms haunting the British moorlands, far from the German Gothic, "murders in the cathedral", and the "novels of the underworld", Romanian literature springs from the enchanted shepherd's soul, the fabulous "other realm" dragon, prince-charming and fairy tales, the lyricism of rustic festivals, the gaiety of pastoral feasts, and the heroic deeds from eponymous legends. A temperate climate, varied relief, from the mountains down to the sea, an ethnic melting pot, the geopolitical destiny that placed their land at the intersection of great empires (Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian): this explains why Romanians have always cultivated, above all, good conduct, temperance, wisdom, adaptability, pragmatic tolerance, efficient duplicity and an osmosis of the contraries, while choosing lyricism over ramifying epics, jocular heresy instead of ritualistic discipline, and the bitter, equivocal playfulness of the anecdote, in addition to sapiential theatricality, instead of terror, fever, horror and macabre fiction.With its first great European poet and its first classical playwright emerging in 1880-1890, with its first truly European novels appearing in 1920-1930, and its literary criticism connected to the dynamics of Western ideas only between the great wars, Romanian literature had – from its very beginnings – too many social, political, historical, pedagogical obligations to afford the luxury of the terrifying fantastic. In 1840, the cultural manifesto of the Dacia literara magazine firmly pointed out the need to stimulate originality out of patriotism, not for strictly esthetic reasons, and the need of inspiration from national history and folklore, by means of one and the same language (for reasons of political unity).Making giant (and sometimes dizzying) leaps forward, Romanian literature cut corners with excellent results. First synchronized by force, owing to its youthfulness, pliancy, and genuine mimetic capacity, between 1870 and 1930 it covered the distance from Molière and Marivaux to D. H. Lawrence and Proust, producing philosophers no worse than Bergson, an avant-garde movement with European echoes, featuring Tristan Tzara, Ilarie Voronca and Victor Brauner, among others, and personalities such as Mircea Eliade, Eugène Ionesco, or E. M. Cioran. But "historical necessity", "political reasons" and "social requirements" represented the iron triangle that "reigned" over Romanian literature almost without fail, ordaining sources of inspiration from the historical past of the nation, a particular moral code, strict rules in theater repertories, or a specific quota of "patriotic literature" for the "spiritual progress of the nation". Not without intrinsic risks: undue prejudice, de-synchronization, condemnation of the "frivolity", extravagance and superfluity of "art for art's sake", excessive prudery and ridiculous, but all the same outrageous lawsuits against so-called "pornographic literature", in 1863 as in 1937, a reactionary, isolationist constant with a consistent touch of xenophobia, and the like. The Romanians' "Celticism", cited by George Călinescu in the final chapter (The National Specific) of his History of Romanian Literature (1941), together with sociability, "energetic fatalism", the "sense of humor", the "interest taken in everything true and sound", in a measured, constructive élan that conceals "abrupt lust" behind illusive apathy, are features unlikely to foster a cult of the chimera, essential to fantastic literature.Such being the case, it was only natural that Romanian literature should prefer realism (either critical or descriptive, from "family saga" to "socialist realism", "magic realism", "neorealism", etc.), social satire, the Bildungsroman, historical evocations flavored with exemplary moralities, memoir writing in all forms, later on the "psychologism" of great urban themes, and only in the last resort fantastic literature. Almost invariably perceived (reproachfully) as "escapism", and relying on oneirism, dandyism, visionary initiation, magic, occultism, this brand of literature (introduced in 1872 by The Sorrowful Dionis) on the one hand avoided all the excesses of the genre (terror, cruelty, morbidity), and on the other hand, in compensation, absorbed the specific elements of the fairy tale.As a rule, the Romanian fantastic cherishes a benign type of marvelous and magical, as well as the fairy character and philosophical-demonstrative substratum, with moral intent, of the dance of phantasms; however, it still applies itself to the ghost motif, the "breach in reality", or the ghastly absurd, to fascination with deadly mechanisms, and obsessions such as the Double and the transmigration of souls, only it usually subsumes them not to the visceral, the pathological, the sheer emotional or to hair-raising fright, but to a philosophic or ethical attitude. More exactly, to a reflective force in moral patterns.Palingenesis, levitation, intergalactic journeys, split personality, androgyny, the divine child, alchemical phases (albedo-nigredo-rubedo), tele-portation, the Golem, demoniac selenism, evil femininity, transmutation from one kingdom (animal, vegetable, mineral) to another, mineral, vegetal and ophidian symbolism, what have you: everything is subject to Sophianic censorship, so to speak.In a chapter entitled The Sophianic Perspective (from The Realm of Mioriţa, 1936), Lucian Blaga, Romania's most important philosopher, makes an analysis of the Orthodoxy evinced by the architecture of the famous Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, a symbol of Byzantium: "A concrete expression of the metaphysical feeling of transcendence that descends and makes itself visible, in contrast with Gothic architecture, which indicates rather man's ascent to transcendence, and with the architecture of the Roman basilica, which indicates a parallel, but altogether out-of-transcendence, life. Basically, the Sophianic is that blurry, yet overriding feeling of Orthodox man, that the transcendent descends, revealing itself on its own initiative, and that both man and the space of this fleeting world become the receptacle of transcendence.""The Sophianic fantastic!" we may exclaim therefore, following Blaga's finding ("Considering this a starting point, any spiritual creation, whether artistic or philosophical, that gives expression to such a feeling will be henceforth named Sophianic.") Romanians – concludes Blaga – "seem so convinced of the divine presence in this world that they imagine the sky must have been once very close to man, his neighbor as it were."However inviting the prospect, this is not the right place to go into intricate speculations on the Orthodox (Byzantine, Balkan), Catholic, or Protestant fantastic. Suffice it to say that the religious (from the heretically punctured dogma to magic, and from mystical ecstasy to the notions of sin and guilt) plays an important part in fantastic literature. The same holds true for the psychoanalytical subtext, speaking of which it is essential to note that the Romanian intellectual's mentality constantly rejected, ostracized, employed with restrictions, or deliberately ignored Freudianism, whereas C. G. Jung's theories carried the day.The Sophianic formula, that rounds off divine grace to capture it better, in gentle vicinity to the human adventure, is the antipode of the Gothic spire – that perpetual assault on the Mystery in heavens. I believe this distinction is fully applicable to the relation between Western and Balkan fantastic. In the Romanian space, anything that bears the mark of terror acquires the attributes of the fairy tale, the fabulous, and white magic; the score of horror is sung flat, due to the perception of transcendence coming down by itself, like a dove alighting in the scoop of one's palms.*From 1871-1872 when, as a student in Vienna, Eminescu wrote The Sorrowful Dionis, till 1989, when Mircea Cărtărescu's superb Nostalgia was published, the Romanian fantastic – initially inspired by Novalis ("the world as a metaphor of spirit"), Jean Paul, or Chamisso's romanticism – experimented with a variety of styles (magic realism, bizarre picturesque, Luciferic dandyism, hallucinatory psychosis, etc.), to end in the postmodernism of all possible alloys. Each stage can be descried in this issue.Between the two bright parentheses, Eminescu and Cărtărescu, where metempsychosis and temporal regression are inserted into the myth of the androgyne, textualizing narcissism, and rationality invaded by matrical symbolism, the center of gravity is held by Mircea Eliade, who endows the literary with mythological substance, and the fantastic with the supreme magical-philosophical dimension.The following pages contain a good many gems: Mateiu Caragiale's spectral oddity, in the line of Barbey d'Aurevilly and company, Eminescu's trans-temporal reverie, the erotic-moral clash in Voiculescu's The Huck (akin to Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea), I. L. Caragiale's fiendish playfulness thirsting for ambiguity, and cynicism strangely attracted to Machiavelli and E. A. Poe, to cite only a few. Nevertheless, Mircea Eliade is the great exception that disproves (at least to some extent) Adrian Marino's due remark: "Romanian fantastic texts exist, there is no doubt about that. Not 'Romanian fantastic literature' proper, though – with authors specialized in the genre, with an appropriate doctrine, etc. After all, there is no French, Italian or Spanish fantastic literature as such either. In fact, in all these controversies, the point at issue lies elsewhere: it is the compatibility of the fantastic spirit with a particular Weltanschauung, and with the fundamental penchants of a particular ethnic temperament. There is a single answer to that question: we have plenty of literary qualities to claim one more – the fantastic." (op. cit., p. 685)In this respect, Eliade definitely has a "doctrine". He opposed it to the E. A. Poe - J. L. Borges line, seeing it as congruous "with my conception of mystic thought and the imaginary worlds it creates – worlds that are parallel to everyday life, and distinguish themselves, most of all, by another experience of time and space. That does not mean, of course, that the fantastic prose I write is inspired by my researches in the comparative history of religions, nor that it can be understood only by readers who are familiar with such studies." (from the preface to Dionis' Courtyard, Bucharest, 1981)In Mircea Eliade's prose, the relations between magic and myth, holy and profane, the contingent as a virtual repository of energies required by mystic ecstasy, are vital in understanding the dimension of the Romanian fantastic. They favor a scholarly, refined, or sometimes ostentatious display of symbolism, to the detriment of psychology (Cezar Petrescu is the exception in this case, while Ioan Petru Culianu's prose, tracing its lineage to Mircea Eliade, further confirms the assertion). Only at first sight does atmosphere prevail. In fact, the stress is laid almost obsessively on anything that denotes initiation.Open this book at random: Dan/Dionis' traveling in space and time, the recurring reflexes of the regressus ad uterum motif with Mircea Cărtărescu, Dr. Honigberger's levitation, Ileana's erotic magic in Voiculescu's story, Sir Aubrey de Vere's mysterious, otherworldly pallor… it is all sweet magic, voluptuous initiation sleep, kabbala, cave, transmigration with initiation virtues, descent into oneself, into mystery, death, and immortality, settling into archetypes. As I have already mentioned, the Romanian fantastic owes little to Freud, and almost all to Jung.Finally, anything may be said but this: there is absolutely no trace of vampires or Count Dracula in Romanian literature! The reader will come off with one myth less, but also with a few more truths, as indisputable as they are beautiful. And convincing.
* "The fairy-like seduces, the fantastic frightens. A reversed, predictable, 'institutionalized' order in the former; a reversed, unpredictable, 'wild' order in the latter. The dissociation is popular with modern theories of the fantastic. A few (e.g. Roger Caillois) believe it to be cardinal. It has many partisans, occasionally revealing innovative aspects. However, the remark dates back to Edmond Jaloux." (Adrian Marino, The Fantastic, in Dictionary of Literary Ideas, Bucharest, 1973, p. 676) I am a partisan of the idea cited above, as well as of Al. Philippide's, as far as relations between fairy tales, the fabulous, and the fantastic are concerned. Adrian Marino underscores precisely "the inconsistency of the theory which says that the fairy tale is the essential 'origin' of fantastic literature…" (loc. cit., p. 678)

by Dan C. Mihăilescu