The Mourning Face Of Otherness

Un sot n'a pas assez d'étoffe pour être bon.La Rochefoucauld Let alone the characteristics of the genre, Mihail Sebastian's Diary is a confession about relationships with "the other" set against the background of rising anti-Semitism between the two World Wars. The moment chosen to start it off was one of crisis, as Leon Volovici points out in the introduction: a year after the scandal stirred by the publication of For Two Thousand Years and its preface, signed by Nae Ionescu, which supplied a theological justification for anti-Semitism. The author is constantly confronting the other: be it himself (he often speaks to himself: "As for the rest, as you know. That is, absurd, humiliating and unbearable." Or: "See how modest I am?"; or maybe to the model-reader, the narrative judge, which Eco implicates in any text), the family members, with their problems (especially during the war, when he makes efforts to help them, and becomes very worried about his brother Poldy, who was in occupied France at the time, as about the youngest brother, detained in a labor camp, or simply about the daily concerns: "If I knew they had food at home, everything would be easier to endure."); but in particular his friends: the many pages that refer to his relationships with his friends might as well belong in a treatise on false friendship, the possible title of which could be De Amicitie, and whose subject could be the survival of friendship in parallel with an aggressive surge of ideology. Sebastian permanently resorts to reason, and to the assessment of a situation "in cold blood" to hold off the quickly spreading violence and intolerance that will eventually end in tragedy – the more painfully felt as they come from people he loved: Mircea Eliade, Camil Petrescu (a counterexample may be Eugen Ionescu, the future author of the Rhinoceros, who sensed the fall into inhumanness). "Let us circumscribe the disaster, and see what's left to be done from now on." He never gets around this prerequisite, noting – often with bitter lucidity – the "variations in attitudes". It is the case of Mircea Eliade, whose ideological sideslip hurts and worries him. "Will I lose Mircea," he wonders, "to such trifles? Can I forget all the exceptional things about him, his generosity, his vitality, his kindness, his love, all that is young, childish, honest in him? I don't know. There is embarrassing silence between us sometimes, which only conceals half of the explanations we're passing up because each of us feels them; thus I'm accumulating disillusionments – among which his writing for the anti-Semitic Vremea (untroubled, as if nothing happened) is not the least. I'll do my best to keep him, though." Lucidity is complemented by deep sympathy and the capacity to understand the other; when reprisals are ordered against the Iron Guard, he inquires after his friend and lightens up when he finds out that he is alive and well: "I phoned Mircea, worried about his condition. He answered himself, and I told him about the proofreading of one of his articles for the Magazine. But what I really wanted to know, I found out: he is alive." Faced with dramatic events, he records his own helplessness: "I cannot evaluate this drama from a political point of view. As a human, I'm terrified."A special place in the relationships with the others, with Sebastian compelled to play the absurd role of the inferior counterpart, as member of a less and less tolerated ethnic minority, is occupied by his relationship with Nae Ionescu. The leader of the 1927 young generation grouped around the Kriterion magazine, a charismatic personality, Nae Ionescu became the key figure of the Romanian interwar intelligentsia. Sebastian could not be an exception; it is owing to Nae Ionescu that he became a publicist and came in touch with the "kriterionists". Later he awaited, and finally accepted the foul preface of his mentor; he was lenient on the histrionics of the personage which he "definitely prefer[s] in the auditorium"; he finds it hard to believe in the "suit" filed against him by the literary critic Tudor Vianu ("a representative of Spengler's and a few other fashionable Germans which he utilized in due time, without indicating the sources"); he accepts the proof of the plagiarism with difficulty, although he convinces himself that this is the truth; he cannot attend the courses any more; on the death of his professor, he can't help crying. He notes somewhere that to him, Nae Ionescu was "the Devil". A Faustian metaphor of the mesmerizing evil nearby, in its most dangerous version, enriched by sophisms ("not every assassination is forbidden by religion, therefore it is natural for the students to show solidarity with the assassins of Duca", or his deposition in the trial of the Iron Guard members who had kidnapped and tortured a Liberal student). Educated at a time when "big stories" meant something, Sebastian does not give them up even when they are doubtful or even endangered and replaced by their opposite. He is convinced that democratic values will not disappear (French democracy "will never perish", although it was put to a quite tough test at the last elections), and he hopes the moment will come when these things will be acknowledged, and he will be able to come around ("Everything is like in a terrible nightmare from which you can't wait to wake up," he writes, in Joycean style.)Camil Petrescu is another public figure whose paradoxical personality, dominated by "recklessness", is brought to light by Sebastian's testimony. Presumptuous ("My dear Sebastian, one person is capable of writing a major novel today – and that person is I again"), time-serving ("But today Camil explains, with the same doggedness, that he has never been a legionary and that he (literally) can feel good only in this regime, one that prizes national values"), and sniveling (he complains that, after the confiscation of the Jews' houses, he will not get one), the author of the "necessary noocracy" is an inexhaustible source of "camilisms". Even the self-"exculpation" he undertakes at the end of the war is looked upon benevolently. "However, my old affection for him is untouched. His little 'things' always amuse me – never annoy me. He is a remarkable guy, no matter what. I read some of his articles written in 1922, 1924 – they are amazing in their precision, tone, style." In this case again the author of the Diary shows understanding and respect for the writer's worth, irrespective of the man's sins committed during hard times, although he attempts to soothe the pain with values he stubbornly continues to believe in, even when they violently turn about.Another interesting relation is the one with the "writer" Sebastian who lost a briefcase full of precious manuscripts, who makes serious efforts in writing, especially outside Bucharest (his escapes to the countryside were cut short by "the history that makes no gifts", the same that blacklisted him for anti-Semitic reasons); who is not allowed to publish his books, and whose plays may not be staged any more (A Star without a Name was performed "under the name of a teacher who chose to remain unknown – and signs Victor Mincu"); who bitterly observes the absence of his "writer's skills" in Călinescu's History of Romanian Literature. He seeks refuge in music and books (he reads Locusteanu's Memoirs, War and Peace, Whitman, Balzac, Thibaudet, or Tristram Shandy, which he doesn't like – "A bit too long and diluted"); he continues to write without hope, wondering, "Will I remain a writer after the war?" He takes up translations to support his family. He tries to make the unbearable situation he faces more acceptable."On Thursday, Bucharest Radio broadcasted a new signal – a trumpet scream – bound to herald bad news. The diary pages are like the dismal radio jingle; they are the passage from Sartre's famous words "L'enfer c'est les Autres" to the wisdom quoted by Tzvetan Todorov, that of "learning to live with the others."

by Simona Brânzaru