Wise Humor As A Sum Of Contraries

Speaking about I. L. Caragiale, i.e. the quintessential comic playwright in Romanian theater, N. Steinhardt made a few distinctions likely to offer generous openings: "However powerful its spiritualism, Asia terrifies us with its uncivil dirt and squalor, while blind and frantic luxury also appears to us as coarse, though in a different light. The Romanian world, crystal-clear and thoroughly identified in Caragiale's plays, is neither a Western one, nor the world of the Slavic-Asian East. I would rather say it has the qualities of both and the shortcomings of neither (…) The Romanian world is located in a Middle East, on a golden point of equilibrium, and this must not surprise us at all, as we know from René Guénon that in the universe as well as on Earth there are privileged places (…) Mateiu I. Caragiale's motto of his Familiars of the Old Royal Court: 'We're here at the gates of the Orient, where everything is taken lightly' (Raymond Poincaré) is not necessarily pejorative. The French à la légère may signify (and does signify) not only opprobrious lightness, but also wholesome relativism, the charming relativism of the Orient (…) In Romanianness and Orthodoxy, father D. Stăniloae demonstrated in a clean manner that the fundamental characteristic of the Romanian soul is equilibrium. What appears as lack of seriousness, sloth, or frivolous behavior is often merely a spontaneous response of the personality against its enslavement by the gods of insanity, just as the body opposes disease or outer intervention through its antibodies."1I gave an ample quotation because the text is absolutely revealing from several points of view: ethno-psychological, historical, esthetic. This fundamental equilibrium, "well positioned between the limits," a fertile amalgam of contradictions, of East and West, must be the starting point of an analysis of Romanian humor.Their turbulent history, which kept them separated for centuries in provinces, at the mercy of the great powers (Ottomans, Russians, the Hapsburg Empire), never gave Romanians the chance of gratuitousness, of French salons where the cult of causerie and brilliant conversation deified the mot d'esprit. Neither did they enjoy the Germanic Witz (or Saxon wit), devastating through its massiveness and substance – but rather a waggish, ineffable, good-natured wit floating in ambiguity, tricky and sagacious, almost always illustrative and moralizing. An Arabian Nights, dreamlike brand of humor, teeming with malice, indirect and cruel, gurgling with nuances like a foxhole provided with many safety exits.Never groundless, always oblique, with an ethical design, the folk humor from tales with Păcală and Tândală (the real "national heroes" of ambiguous, bitter laughter) was infused into written literature in a satiric guise: Păcală (from the verb to dupe or cheat, in other words: sensible, allusive cunning) and Tândală (from the verb to dawdle or loiter – bantering laziness, asinine yet swank) are a didactic urgency rather than the liberating celebration of laughter. From M. Millo, V. Alecsandri and I. L. Caragiale to T. Mazilu, from I. Creangă to Mircea Dinescu, Romanian laughter has lived under the sign of the ancient ridendo castigat mores, with typical targets such as greed, sloth, self-seeking or ethnic specificity, and above all stupidity. Easy-going rather than sardonic, considerate rather than sadistic, bearing a strange kind of criticism (which satirizes while secretly conniving), caricaturing – but showing leniency, and agglutinating contraries with all its might, Romanian humor is the perfect match for Byzantine-like transactional politics.In the good Bogomilic tradition, the Romanian Satan is a little street-fair devil, a carnival mask, just fit for duping and tucking in a bag, a small exorcisable demon doomed to derision from the start. A colorful, Latin sort of comic, born out of a temperate climate and solar orchards and vineyards, out of the boisterous logorrhea of Southern people and the laxity of the Orthodox Church, the Romanian laughter – as Paul Zarifopol noticed – uses "Southern cheerfulness" as an "energetic reagent" which makes the ridiculous appear gigantic (a good example is the special comic in the tragic farces by Eugène Ionesco). And Zarifopol continues: "Stupidity, lying dormant in a Nordic human mass, phlegmatic and silent, will burst forth, lively and colorful, in the fire of meridional exuberance. Any Romanian who lived among Northerners for a significant period of time became aware of this distinction. In a Southern society one's attention is instantly drawn to the number of over-emphasized mugs – psychologically, in attitudes as in attire – which cry for caricature. Vanity, strongly evinced by all Southerners, has considerably worsened in this country by an unprecedented acceleration of the individuals' shifting from one social environment to another, too remote one."2The succession of standstills, abnormal development by huge leaps, which caused heavy mental fractures in the collective mind, in addition to the melting pot where the "Slavic soul", "Magyar coat-of-arms", "Turk's yataghan", "Greeks' mercantilism", "monopolizing Jewishness", "destructive Gypsy spirit" and so forth blended with the mentality of Saxons and Swabians from the Banat, Lippovans and Ukrainians from the Danube Delta or Maramureş, etc.; at last, the fact that from 1840 to 1990 Romanian literature was constantly assigned historical-political missions and social commandments, with no interest shown in the pure esthetic and gratuitous playfulness: all this has definitively left its mark on the characteristic of humor and comic genres as well.But let us not dramatize and generalize. There are quite a few signs that, with the generation of the 80s (Florin Iaru, Ioan Groşan), and especially since the 1990s – with Horia Gârbea (parodic inter-textualism, pastiche, collage, postmodern techniques) and the Academia Caţavencu weekly, the Internet era will loosen Romanian laughter too. The centuries-old "grin and bear it" – the Romanian bitter, moralizing laugh, will turn into the pure pleasure of… global fun.
 1 N. Steinhardt, The Secret of the Lost Letter. Essay on a Rational Interpretation of I. L. Caragiale's Works, in The Book of Sharing, edited by Ion Vartic, Biblioteca Apostrof, Cluj, 1995, p. 28 and following.2 Paul Zarifopol, The Public and Caragiale's Art, in For the Literary Art, I, edited by Al. Săndulescu, The Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, 1997, p. 193 and following.

by Dan C. Mihăilescu