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  • Matei Calinescu: The Adventure and Drama of Modernity
  • Marcel Cornis-Pope (bio)

Modernity, then, can be defined as the paradoxical possibility of going beyond the flow of history through the consciousness of historicity in its most concrete immediacy, in its presentness.… Separated from tradition (in the sense of a body of works and procedures to be imitated), artistic creation becomes an adventure and a drama in which the artist has no ally except his imagination.

—Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity (1987)

When his 1987 book, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism, was published, readers familiar with Calinescu’s work recognized in it a movement of imaginative “revision,” amplifying an earlier version of the book, Faces of Modernity (1977). In turn, this earlier book drew on his Romanian publications, before his emigration to the US: Eseuri despre literatura modernă (Essays on Modern Literature, 1970) and Conceptul modern de poezie: de la romantism la avangardă (The Modern Concept of Poetry: From Romanticism to the Avant-Garde, 1972). By adding a section on postmodernism, which rereads, in a retroactive movement of revision (1987, 292), the previous sections on modernism, decadence, avant-garde and kitsch, Calinescu produced in 1987 a new book. I would argue that much of his work, both creative and critical, followed a similar movement of revision and amplification. The same impulse underlies Calinescu’s own intellectual career as a Romanian expatriate who had to reinvent himself successively as an analyst of modernity, a literary and cultural comparatist, a theorist of rereading, a political essayist, and a creative writer. In his “adventure” and “drama” of reinvention, his faithful ally was his own prodigious imagination.

Chronologically, the first facet of Calinescu’s reinventing impulse can be found in his literary criticism published in his native Romania, in 1960s and early 1970s. Calinescu played a significant role in the process of cultural de-Stalinization and the emergence of a new literature by setting mythopoetic fantasy and experiential subjectivity against the outworn doctrine of “socialist realism.” Building on the model of the interwar aesthetic criticism (especially Eugen Lovinescu’s emphasis on the recreative role of literary imagination), [End Page 255] Calinescu’s essays and reviews advocated innovation and norm-breaking, perfecting a type of critical rereading that would become one of his trademarks. In addition to the two seminal books on modern literature and the modern concept of poetry, mentioned above, Calinescu’s Romanian criticism included an earlier study of Romania’s premier romantic poet, Titanul şi geniul în poezia lui Eminescu (The Figure of the Titan and the Genius in Eminescu’s Poetry, 1964), a book-length study of European classicism (Clasicismul european, 1971), and several collections of critical reviews that supported the emerging new writers. His critical columns—like those of several other colleagues of generation—were an important locus of revision and reformulation. The critic’s self-assumed role was to redraw cultural maps, fill in gaps, discover models for the new course of Romanian literature, not in Soviet but in Romanian and Western traditions. At their best, Calinescu’s creative rereadings performed the combined functions of applied aesthetics and revisionistic literary history. His effort was not only evaluative, but also partisan, using new works as cornerstones in a broader argument for aesthetic and ideological restructuring.

Calinescu contributed to the Romanian literary revival of the 1960s his own work as a modernist poet and fiction writer. His philosophic-symbolic volumes of poetry, especially Semn (Sign, 1968) and Umbre de apă (Water Shadows, 1972), and even more so his short novel Viaţa şi opiniile lui Zacharias Lichter (The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, 1969), winner of the Romanian Writers’ Award for fiction, introduced significant innovations in theme and form. Calinescu’s novel used a raisonneur from the spiritual family of the Biblical prophets and eccentric thinkers to question the conventions of rationality and of totalitarian thought.

After his transplantation to the US in 1973, Calinescu became a reference point for an entire group of Romanian expatriates (Virgil Nemoianu, Andrei Codrescu, Thomas Pavel, Mihai Spariosu, Christian Moraru) engaged in rethinking the boundaries of their own Romanian culture, fractured between an internal, often-underground production, and the...


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