Virgil Nemoianu, a leading scholar of Comparative Literature originally educated in Rumania and who now teaches at Catholic University, has written a remarkable, wide-ranging, and complex book that recapitulates the theoretical perspectives and practical criticism he has articulated over the years of his richly productive career. But Postmodernism and Cultural Identities should in no way be read merely as a personal summa, as a retrospective, nostalgic gaze cast at the past as if Nemoianu had decided to take inventory of his work, test its coherence, but really stand aside from present literary and political debates. There is not a trace of an elegiac bent or longing toward some sentimentalized, idyllic stage of antiquity, of autobiography or Old Europe’s traditional values. Quite to the contrary, this book belongs fully to the realities of our present intellectual/moral dilemmas and it demands to be read as the product of a sanguine teacher who is still on his way, far from reaching an intellectual closure, and who self-consciously looks at the past in order to point the way to the future. As befits a teacher with a high sense of his mission as an educator of the young and future generations, Nemoianu casts his work as a series of meditations on the role education (and largely the humanities) can play in the spiritual crisis of modernity. To put it differently, he is engaged in a project of thinking through a plan for what he takes to be the necessary, inevitable reconstruction of Western moral, religious, and political history.
The governing insight shaping Nemoianu’s literary/educational project can be summed up in one phrase: the revival of a dialogue within the fragmentary discourses of our culture. To be properly provocative and persuasive in this project, it cannot but come through as anything less than a synthesis of history, esthetics, religion, and philosophical/moral thought. Consistent with this aim, Nemoianu moves within the tradition of the encyclopedic interdependence of the most disparate disciplines. The encyclopedic ordering of the arts and sciences entails the adoption of a critical viewpoint that both valorizes local (or what elsewhere he calls “secondary”) cultures and systematically transcends their narrow boundaries to attain a “comparative” standpoint. Fully aware of the dangers (e.g. non-historical abstractions, multiculturalism etc.) besetting the institution of comparative literature (135–154), Nemoianu recommends the immersion in the Lebenshorizont of historical actuality, and his critical practices gleefully retrieve historical traditions and/or the deeper sediments [End Page 1123] of the intellectual histories of countries such as England, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy.
This double view of the concrete, local literary experiences and at the same time a theoretical gaze on philosophical problems provides the structure on which Postmodernism & Cultural Identities unfolds its narrative. The self-conscious rhetorical posture allows the author to write his relentless critique of abstract fantasies and contemporary utopian delusions underlying the claims of scientific rationalism, and, at the same time, he can promote a Lebensphilosophie (the concept articulated by and central to Dilthey’s historical hermeneutics). The posture is explicitly modeled on the works of two Christian philosophers of the eighteenth century: Leibnitz and, above all, on Vico’s New Science (23–37). The literary form that best describes Postmodernism is exactly Vichian: the satura, which Vico links to the ancient tragedy produced in the vintage season and to “a dish made of various kinds of food” (New Science, par. 910). In epistemological terms satura catches Nemoianu’s medley of multiple modes or perspectives ranging from historical analyses of, say, nineteenth century France to meditations on the relation between philosophy and theology, from amiable polemics over postmodernism to literary appreciations and to an autobiographical confession. By this mode of argument we are invited to join a philosophical banquet during which we dialogue and reflect on the crisis of the modern age and, as happens in Vico’s philosophical work, we are asked to see with different eyes the limitations of postmodern culture and to work for the desirable reconciliation of seemingly contradictory viewpoints.