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  • Et in inferno ego… Matei Călinescu’s Political Reflections1
  • Aurelian Crăiuţu (bio)

I would like to begin my essay with a caveat: the primary topics of most of Matei Călinescu’s books, articles, and reviews are not political. As he acknowledged in a 2005 interview, he always considered himself a writer rather than an erudite scholar2 and his preferred authors were figures such as Marcel Proust or Jorge Luis Borges, who believed that literature should have little or no direct connection with politics. Călinescu’s works published in English after his relocation to the United States in 1973, Faces of Modernity (1977; 2nd ed. Five Faces of Modernity, 1987), and Rereading (1993) offer no systematic reflection on politics. In Fives Faces of Modernity, Călinescu analyzed the aesthetic idea of modernity through the lenses of five related concepts: modernism, avant-garde, decadence, kitsch, and post-modernism. [End Page 51] As he acknowledged in the introduction to this book, his concern with modernity and the other notions analyzed there was primarily cultural, even though Călinescu believed, much like Baudelaire, that modernity cannot be reduced to art and literature, but presupposes a comprehensive view of man and society which must be duly understood.

Nonetheless, a closer look at Călinescu’s writings shows that he was not indifferent to the political and that, far from being absent from his works, the latter appears there in different forms. In Fives Faces of Modernity, Călinescu wrote about modernity, the death of God, and Nietzsche’s critique of modernity, and devoted a significant number of pages to exploring the concept of decadence in Marxist criticism. After the publication of the first edition of his book in 1977, Călinescu proceeded to explore in further detail various aspects of modernity, and focused increasingly on the relationship between modernism, ideology, and politics. Writing about the metaphor of the end of man in literature and philosophy, he noted that it is typical of certain deeper trends of modernity itself to define modernity “as a secularized form of eschatology, constitutively polemical, … ruthless critical, radically skeptical.” In Călinescu’s view, “this radical skepticism has paved the way for the gloomiest futurologies as well as for the most poignantly (and dangerously) naïve utopian fantasies,”3 among them communism.

In this short essay, I will try to shed light on the political dimension of some of Călinescu’s writings by starting from his experience of communism in Romania and then considering his reflections on exile. I shall end by making a few remarks on the political reflections that can be found in Călinescu’s English writings over the last three decades of his life.4

Escape from Inferno

As a member of the so-called “1960s generation,” Matei Călinescu could have considered himself lucky for the fact that he came of age at the very moment when Romania experienced a much-needed, if brief, period of liberalization, after a decade and a half of relentless political repression. The few years separating the political amnesty of 1964 from the beginning of Ceauşescu’s own “cultural revolution” in July 1971 were, all things considered, a fertile period for Romanian writers and artists. During [End Page 52] this time, Călinescu published several major books of literary criticism (among them the path-breaking Conceptul modern de poezie) and poetry and had a promising academic career at the University of Bucharest. There he mentored many talented young scholars such as Ioan P. Culianu who subsequently became a renowned historian of religions and professor at the University of Chicago.

Although Matei Călinescu was not, properly speaking, a political dissident in communist Romania prior to his decision to leave the country in 1973, his literary publications in Romanian showed an independence of spirit that sooner or later was bound to clash with the official ideology of the Communist Party. In particular, the publication of what many (including myself) still consider as Călinescu’s most original work, Viaţa şi opiniile lui Zacharias Lichter (The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, 1969)5 should have worried the censors because it...


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