restricted access The Nation and the Absurd: A Romanian Story of Modernity
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The Nation and the Absurd:
A Romanian Story of Modernity

“Oh words, what crimes are committed in your name?”1

A product of modernity itself, literary Romania, virtually unknown heretofore, entered the European cultural scene by way of its vibrant avant-garde. After an overdue romanticism and a secondhand symbolism, the Romanians made a spectacular breakthrough on the European cultural scene. Tristan Tzara, Constantin Brancusi, Gherasim Luca, Benjamin Fondane, and Eugène Ionesco are some of the Romanians who fashioned the vagrant European avant-garde, which was mobilized by the liberating modernity of Paris. Yet of their origins, of the less fashionable Romanian modernism from which they emerged, of their journeys from exotic Romania to the capital of the world republic of letters, we know little. Michael Impey’s provocative proposition that an important source for dada/surrealist and absurdist aesthetics originates in Romania remains largely unexplored.2 Why was Romania such fertile soil for the absurd linguistic provocations of the avant-garde?

Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 portrait of Romanian playwright I. L. Caragiale offers a very useful key to open the convoluted and as yet obscure story of the “regional context” that proved so propitious for the aesthetic of the absurd:

If we examine things more closely, and first of all in their regional context, they look even worse. Emerging from the Middle Ages of the Balkans, which had stretched on into the middle of the last century in the provinces of Romania, the country staggered straight into the liberal Europe. Rapid reforms gave the nation a new social structure; a bourgeois class sprang up from nowhere; [End Page 961] the petit bourgeois appeared, a tradesman wearing the uniform of a civic guard, identical to his French colleague and the universal petit bourgeois, but still more stupid. . . . Their ignorance was more complex. Understanding nothing about historical evolution, even the least fortunate of these worthy citizens still had a kind of ambition to understand something, but without success: Caragiale shows us this mental effort too, collapsing under the strain, in all its distressing glory.3

Ion Luca Caragiale (1852–1912) is Romania’s most famous playwright. His characters and memorable lines are often quoted in the most diverse contexts to describe the state of Romanian society or simply for the irresistible witticism of the language. Ionesco’s admiration for and emulation of Caragiale is no longer a cause for surprise for specialists of Romanian literature, but it is perhaps less known to critics of Ionesco unfamiliar with the Romanian context of his work. Still, the force of Ionesco’s description is striking even for the specialized reader who expects a strong affinity between the two playwrights. In “Portrait of Caragiale,” it is as though Caragiale’s “cretins” might be about to metamorphose into the disoriented aliens of one of Ionesco’s own plays, “collapsing under the strain” to understand what can no longer be understood after the complete divorce between meaning and sound. The text enacts an existential confusion between Caragiale and Ionesco himself, providing an illuminating account of absurdist ontology:

Caragiale’s heroes are mad about politics. They are political cretins. So much so that they have deformed their most everyday speech. The whole population feeds on the newspapers: written by idiots, they are read by idiots. The distortion of language, the obsession with politics is so great that all life’s actions are bathed in a bizarre eloquence consisting of expressions as high-sounding as they are miraculously inept, gathered from an inexhaustible storehouse of the most arrant nonsense, which serves as a noble justification for actions that are unspeakable.

(Ionesco, 140–41)

This argument not only introduces Ionesco’s interest in Caragiale, it also points to a history so far neglected but nevertheless relevant for a more pervasive understanding of Ionesco’s work. Existing studies focus on Ionesco’s rejection of Romanian culture, tracing, for example, the direct genealogy of Rhinoceros in Romanian anti-Semitism, without sufficiently investigating the circumstances of that rejection or more inclusively analyzing the political context of Ionesco’s forms.4 Ionesco’s professed affinities with Caragiale and the problems he flags introduce a new dimension to his aesthetics...


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