- The Stranger’s VirtueIdentity in Matei Călinescu’s Later Work
We are only beginning to see how seminal a thinkerthis modest and soft spoken professor really was.Marjorie Perloff
In the opening statement of a public lecture delivered in Bucharest in 2000 on a topic provocatively and allusively phrased as “How can one be Romanian,” Matei Călinescu warned that, “when it comes to identity, one should specify the sense of the term.” This seemingly obvious, almost unremarkable observation is not only a good fit for my own opening, but also a necessary starting point for any reflection on identity. What can one hope to accomplish, by using a concept as fraught and conceptually muddled as “identity” has become lately, in response to an oeuvre as erudite and multifaceted as Matei Călinescu’s, and ultimately in response to an individual destiny as complicated as his? What I propose here is a theory of identity “in fragments,” reconstituted from Călinescu’s journal, memoir, poems, and scholarly work. My goal is two-fold: first, I simply want to know more about Matei Călinescu’s own identity than I was able to find out during our brief acquaintance, and I hope to present his life story as an exemplary tale for the fate of a whole generation of Romanian intellectuals who lived during the Cold War. Călinescu’s biography, as it was uniquely shaped by his trajectory [End Page 65] as a writer of an essentially modernist sensibility living in the political climate of communist Romania and later in American exile, defined his identity and influenced his conceptual views of identity. To learn more about how his own identity was constituted is to understand what he thought about identity. Intellectual biography, in this case, is not a mere academic convention but a necessary step in the argumentation.
I met Matei Călinescu in the autumn of 2005, when I invited him to give a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where I teach. He agreed, and spoke on the topic of identity in Romanian exiles, focusing on the classic cases—likely to interest an American audience—of Eugen Ionesco, Emil Cioran, and Mircea Eliade. Even though he only spent two days visiting Pittsburgh, a sense of closeness and even complicity developed quickly and naturally between us. We spoke English when others were present and Romanian in asides, and there was always a shared cultural subtext that made me feel like an old acquaintance of this “soft-spoken professor,” as Perloff pertinently called him. He gave a lecture to a large audience of students and faculty and then spoke to my colleagues in the Literary Studies program in the English department. Most of them had studied or taught at some point either Rereading or Five Faces of Modernism. They knew his work well, and the discussion was focused and intense, dealing with specific nuances and distinctions in his work. It was a technical session among experts. Yet Călinescu was different from this group of fairly typical American academics. Everyone in that room knew it, though perhaps we would not have agreed on the source of this difference: for my colleagues, he was the erudite European (the “Eastern” tag less important here), somewhat quirky, old-school, polite, and charming. This is a convenient but unsatisfying way to explain Călinescu’s uniqueness, who was not that of an immigrant (even a Nabokov-style one, as I will argue later), but of a stranger in the strong sense of the term, the sense developed by sociologists, as someone who assumes a position of marginality and exteriority and takes advantage of it to survey better the world around him.
Insofar as I explore Călinescu’s explicit conceptualization of identity, I do it not only because I think it is an important and original one, but also because it is one that reflects a significant turn in identity studies. Much work on personal identity starts with a disarmingly simple question: how does the raw material of a life, those events, circumstances and occurrences a person cannot control, come to shape a distinct, hopefully unique...