The National Spirit, 1926

The polemic, sustained by two journals, around a problem that is admittedly dated has yet to die down. One of them maintains that we are surrounded by Chinese walls, that we vegetate in an oriental indifference when we are not openly hostile toward the flow of ideas and new facts that agitate the occidental world. We are too provincial and only provincial; we live in the outskirts of culture... we are not at all European, they write... And here in the other camp the flag flutters relentlessly, which if seen none too clearly, the fault must lie with the discoloring effect of age. A real cosmopolitan invasion threatens us, the defenders inform us, sounding the alarm. The language, customs, literature are in danger. For a while the polemic was more intense. It's simmered down lately, but continues in silence in one form or another, and we aren't mistaken if we say that it has a chronic character. From time to time more acute crises come to the fore: a young man, a revolutionary in principle, announces in alarm that we have not gotten the news that in Paris a new "ism" has appeared; no sooner has that left off some authentic native laments that our boyars no longer smoke hookahs and what's worse: they have now introduced the bell in the countryside, replacing the old and picturesque clapping of the hands. Because for one side this is Europeanism: the newest Western fashion, the latest dance, the latest form of verse, the most recent contorted pose, the red dancer's cocaine syringe, the newest absurdity furiously discussed. Our perennial concern as captured in Caragiale's famous refrain: "We too are entitled to our failures." And for the other side, most often, tradition means: the New Year's recitative pluguşor, the star carol, priestly garbs, the peasant dwelling in his colibă (hut), and Dincă Priboi's footwear of choice – the opinci. It absolutely means lute songs, Turkish words, illiterate priests and rustic poker-worked furniture. Between these two currents of thought there is an irreducible antagonism, which is explicable and natural. It is a surface antagonism. The relentlessness of a superficiality that threatens another superficiality. Between them, however, is the core of the great spirit that transforms everything that it touches in our culture. It's natural that this opposition would be of no importance. It is rather a stimulant – and so it should be – for as varied a literary topography as possible. However, it is no less true that more often than not these centrifugal tendencies of art, provoke overwrought confusion, lead many talents astray, put useless obstacles in the path of the chosen and particularly contributes to the maintenance of a depressing atmosphere of artistic immorality. This is why we think it absolutely necessary to logically delimit, as precisely as possible, the national spirit and culture on one hand and humanity and universal culture on the other. Seeing that in the order of moral phenomena no definitions can be given, delimitations become indispensable for orienting any discussion. What is the national Romanian spirit after all? Of course, we will not give a definition for the reason educed above; instead we substitute a description. It would be the degree of spiritual intensity, breadth and tonality of the majority of the members of a collectivity of people, who are and who feel related to each other by virtue of a kind of centripetal force. Neither customs, traditions, the fact of living within the same borders, a common past, and not even common origins, in the final analysis, are necessary and exclusive attributes common to all members of a national group. Some regions of Moldavia without a doubt have traditions in which a good portion is influenced by their proximity to Russia; those in Muntenia by the Balkan peoples, those in Ardeal by the Hungarians. You can find Romanian folk music, affirms George Enescu, as motifs among the Hungarians, the Serbs and Slavic peoples in general. Romanian folk poetry has principal variants in Serbian and Bulgarian; traditional clothing is many times influenced by other cultures. The language is mottled with borrowed words. It cannot, therefore, be a matter of pure race. (And it is undeniable that most all of our characteristic writers, Eminescu, Alecsandri, Caragiale, and most all of the leaders of Romanian culture have not come from purely Romanian regions of the mountains.). The Romanian spirit is a fascinating melding of some of the most diverse qualities and flaws, grafted on to a race. All the wonder is in the perfection of this fusion and in its own consciousness of its unity. The strength of this consciousness is proven by its great power of assimilating the elements of another people; it is proof of a superior formula. Certainly an ethnic formula exists, a formula of the Romanian spirit. It is a product of time and all sorts of circumstances. Customs, traditions, dress, music and even a part of the vocabulary are only exterior manifestations of this psycho-social whole. They follow ethnic and social laws, as they have for two thousand years, even without apostles of tradition. The qualities of sentiment, will, sensibility and intelligence are what distinguishes us from the Bulgarians, the Serbs or the Hungarians, much more than the folklore. Perhaps some will reply that the mere fact that our people has kept its traditions and folklore has contributed to its endurance in the region. (Though perhaps objection would be made that it has borrowed quite a bit from all parts). The truth is that it has kept its traditions, that it has endured – and it couldn't be more logical that it has – just because of its spiritual superiority, because of the prestige that this spirit had over other peoples with which it came into contact. The importance that is accorded to some secondary accidents is, however, of recent date. In the last century, political circumstances have caused a kind of "separation of water from land," a separation – more and more categorical – of peoples, in view of forming them into nation states. Folklore, at first, was a romantic political weapon. In order to justify its importance – unjustified because of its superficiality – folklore obtained a cultural value, which, no doubt, it did not have to such a degree, and neither did "a people". It was a kind of grist to the mill, arriving in time for the romanticism preoccupied with the picturesque. Folk dress, nuptial and christening customs, textile arts and crafts were destined to furnish the material for a literature avid for local color. It's difficult to distinguish peoples by their profoundly spiritual qualities and under any circumstances it's less agreeable than by the length of their shirts. To see that all these characteristics of folk art did not have who-knows-what great significance, it's enough to glance at the contents of history. Peoples persist in the consciousness of humanity through the wars in which they engage or through their culture, in the exalted sense of the word. Athenians and Spartans more than other Greeks live through the spiritual heights achieved by a few personalities. They live through Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and so many other philosophers, through Phidias and so many other artists, through Homer and so many other tragedians and poets. They have produced works that are still viable today. Certainly, all peoples have folk art, for no people exists that is without customs and traditions. Current civilization may very well do without all folk art of so many peoples more or less known, but it cannot do without the works listed above. We should not mistake the interest shown toward Romanian folk dances performed in who-knows-what variety theater, or even the predilection of some ladies for Romanian textile arts, the passion for Romanian songs in who-knows-what fancy restaurant and even the favor with which some citations from folk poetry are received. (No one has asked us lately for works of a picturesque Romanian character so that they may be presented to the English lovers of exoticism). Eminescu alone with his Luceafărul, Scrisorile and Călin is perhaps more than Romanian folk poetry taken together. It is without doubt difficult to discern the precious core under the trappings of cheap explanations, and it is particularly difficult to divest yourself of this vice of thought, characteristic of mediocre intelligences that only conceive in generalities. But does Russian art today mean the Cossack troika, vaults and the versta? If so, then any Russian writer who devotes himself to them would achieve greatness. Russian art means Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoievsky, Gogol, Chekhov. It means their spirit that we attribute, and rightly so, to the Russian people. It's not what is national in them that stirs us, but that which is profoundly and exaltedly human. They have heroes who think, love, suffer, have doubts, hope and hate extraordinarily intensely. But to think, to suffer, to love, to doubt, to hope and to hate are not acts that can be borrowed; they presuppose a soul and a soul presupposes a huge ascendancy. A spirit, whatever it may be, whatever influence it may be subject to, whatever may be its garb (and here there are spiritual laws that must be taken into account) is national, as even in Western clothing a poet is still the child of his mother and father, however much they may be of peasant stock. It is not the costume that the poet has inherited, nor the New Year's floral sorcova, but a certain quantity and quality of nerve, a certain spiritual structure, certain instincts and predispositions. The soul of a great writer is the spiritual synthesis of a people at a given moment. Traditions do not constitute the spirit of a people but its writers, thinkers and artists, whatever they may be, with the condition that they be great. Goethe and Eminescu are not great through their national art, but their nations are great through the art of these artists. Sometimes a writer may honor two peoples alike. This is the case with Heine. Without doubt a writer is subject to foreign influences, but even so, he is characterized by his race. Eminescu under the influence of German poetry means a Romanian spirit influenced at a given moment. But it is the same spirit as it is the same stream that becomes a river though different waters may flow into it. A Norwegian writer, a Russian writer and a Romanian one influenced by the same French literature are nevertheless fundamentally different from one another. We still hear: this is an imitation of French writers, imported literature "foreign to our spirit". Imitation is detestable whatever may be its provenance. It is futile whether it be an imitation of a foreign writer or a native one. But influence is something else entirely. Influence is desirable. No writer has ever existed in any country of the world who was not powerfully influenced. Goethe himself attested to this for his part. The literatures of different peoples influence one another and continue to do so as happens with civilizations. Romanticism was important in all countries to such an extent that no one knows anymore where it first started. Today the petite and the upper bourgeoisie all over Europe with the exception of, for the moment, Russia, dress in Western clothing, learn from the same science books translated into all languages, use the same means of transportation, communicate by telephone, mail and telegraph; in short, they lead the same social and intellectual life. What distinguishes a student at the University of Bucharest from one in Paris in his appearance and preoccupations? Almost nothing. But does this prove that they are not profoundly different spiritually? Certainly not. There is no doubt that as the means of communication spreads, the traditional dress particularly and folklore will disappear. The death of the picturesque. Does this mean that art will also die? It would be naive to believe so. At most national features and superficially characteristic details will be lost, becoming more and more inaccessible to superficial enthusiasts. In light of the above, we believe that the accusation leveled at some writers from time to time that "they have broken with tradition" appears completely unfounded. First, to a true writer it is exceedingly difficult to break with tradition, and of course the more he breaks with tradition the more valuable the work is. Therefore, all the weight falls on the intrinsic value of the work of art. This value is first judged, affirmed and then considered from the national and traditional point of view (as with the lineage of a creative genius). Just as a writer cannot be spontaneously generated as man, nor can the artist. In the distribution of moral rewards, all who have contributed to his physical and spiritual existence have the right to be present. And who knows what surprises a stricter investigation of the origins of the great personalities of history and culture in general could have in store for us. Who knows whether it would not be proven that almost all these great personalities are the product of a crossings of races. It's necessary for us to say now in closing, however, that from the didactic point of view, national art has a raison d'être and that it is of great significance to the political unity of a nation. Cetatea Literară (The Literary Fortress), 1st year, 1926, no. 5-6, March, pp. 33-34

by Camil Petrescu (1894-1957)