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  • Matei Calinescu: An Independent Intellectual
  • Douwe Fokkema (bio)

Matei Calinescu was a courageous man. Perhaps everyone is who decides to leave his or her country of origin and become an expatriate, but I wish to refer here to his intellectual work in which he displayed a rare independence.

In the early 1980s, I came into contact with Calinescu through his Faces of Modernity (1977), which I admired. In those days, I was writing a book on modernism in collaboration with my wife, Elrud Ibsch, published in English as Modernist Conjectures (1990). But my later cooperation with Calinescu was motivated by our mutual interest in the enigmatic concept of postmodernism rather than in the well-known contours of modernism. When Hans Bertens and I organized a workshop on postmodernism at Utrecht University in September 1984, Calinescu was invited as one of the main foreign speakers. In his essay “Postmodernism and Some Paradoxes of Periodization,” he used his enviable erudition and stylistic cunning to save the idea of literary period from the garbage can of history. Analyzing the views of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault on literary history, he observed that they avoided the familiar period terms such as romantic, realist, and symbolist, but instead resorted to “an oversimplified model of literary evolution” (1986, 241). It was certainly courageous in those days to criticize these avatars of literary theory.

More specifically, Calinescu argued that Foucault’s “discursive determinism is unable to devise any model of change” (243), a view also held by the German theorist Claus Uhlig in a paper read at the 10th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association in New York in 1982 (Uhlig 1985), but elaborated more patiently and more convincingly by Calinescu. His criticism of the nonexistent relation between Foucault’s epistemes cleared the way for asking the question of how change in literary production and reception is brought about, or which factors can be held responsible for such change. Calinescu emphasized that period terms are constructs (1986, 247), thus implying the possibility of devising a metalanguage. However, the idea of a metalanguage was anathema to the Foucault of Les Mots et les choses (1966) and L’Archéologie du savoir (1969) as well as to most poststructuralists, although in the practice of their analyses they could not avoid to design their own critical vocabulary. [End Page 267]

From a theoretical point of view, Calinescu reopened the way to literary-historical research, which had been almost blocked by structuralism as well as poststructuralism. How could one discuss modernism and postmodernism without taking their historical dimension into account, he asks. He saw the historical and geographic dimensions of period concepts, implying also their social restriction to a particular group of writers and critics, most clearly in Five Faces of Modernity (1987a). The applicability and validity of the period term are in fact strongly reduced by its three dimensions. Critics of period terms have always objected to their allegedly totalizing character, but their validity is always restricted, first, of course, to a particular period of time, second to a limited cultural space, and third to a specific social context. Calinescu rejects the totalizing interpretation of period concepts by emphasizing that they are “modes of questioning” (249). It is by interrogating the meaning and reception of texts that certain texts will yield some similarities against a background of differences. In the same context, he refers to the German theory of reception aesthetics.

In Five Faces of Modernity, Calinescu showed particular interest in problems of reception—for instance, in his discussion of the international dissemination of postmodernism, which “was achieved through the efforts of the American postmoderns (including their sympathetic critics) to build a more comprehensive frame of reference within which their rejection of modernism could be favorably perceived” (298). Here the evolution and ramifications of the postmodernist sociolect is seen as the work of identifiable individuals, whose psychological intentions and social position could be studied by using the sophisticated instruments of other disciplines—a study that would go beyond the confines of describing what supposedly had happened and attempt to achieve the aim of all sciences, viz. explanation of the change that had occurred.

Calinescu opened the way to reception...


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