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  • Five Faces of the Late Twentieth-Century Transcultural WriterMatei Călinescu and the Drama of Modernity
  • Marcel Cornis-Pope (bio)

[A]esthetic modernity [is …] a crisis concept involved in a threefold dialectical opposition to tradition, to the modernity of bourgeios civilization (with its ideals of rationality, utility, progress), and, finally, to itself insofar as it perceives itself as a new tradition or form of authority.

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 Călinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, 49-50.

When Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism Avant-Garde Decadence Kitsch Postmodernism was published in 1987, readers familiar with Călinescu’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 Călinescu’s Romanian publications before his 1973 emigration to the United States, including 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 retroactively the previous sections on modernism, decadence, avant-garde, and kitsch, Călinescu produced in 1987 a new book. The underlying schema of the 1972 edition, which opposed the avant-garde (including postmodernism as a belated avatar) to modernism, was modified [End Page 35] “to accommodate the much sharper recent opposition between modernism (including the avant-garde) and postmodernism” (Five Faces of Modernity 278). This shift, promoting postmodernism to the oppositional locus previously occupied by the avant-garde, may appear as a concession made to the “Anglo-American tendency to collapse” modernism and the avant-garde (278) in order to create a more assailable adversary for postmodernism. But it also represents correctly a complex reshuffling of forces within the modern episteme.

A similar impulse for revision and amplification underlies Călinescu’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, a poet, and a novelist. In his “adventure” and “drama” of reinvention, that retraces the ethos of modernism, Călinescu’s faithful ally was his own prodigious imagination.

Facet 1:

Chronologically, the first facet of Călinescu’s impulse to (self-)reinvention can be found in his literary criticism published in his native Romania, in 1960s and early 1970s. Călinescu played a significant role in the process of cultural de-Stalinization and the emergence of a new literature by pitting mythopoetic fantasy and experiential subjectivity against the outworn doctrine of “socialist realism.” Building on interwar aesthetic criticism (especially Eugen Lovinescu’s emphasis on aesthetics as an alternative mode of cultural construction and on the recreative role of critical subjectivity), Călinescu’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 I have mentioned, Călinescu’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 new emerging writers. His critical columns were an important locus of revision and reformulation. The critic’s self-assumed role was to redraw cultural maps, fill in gaps, and discover models for the new course of Romanian literature, not in Soviet but in Romanian and Western traditions. At their best, Călinescu’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...


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pp. 35-42
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