- Five Faces as a Historical Synthesis
As he was leaving Romania in 1973, Matei Călinescu was also leaving behind an important corpus and an intellectual and literary reputation of the highest rank. A poet, prose writer, essayist, critic, literary historian, and university professor, he was promising to reiterate the manifold-creator experience of George Călinescu,1 on whose work he also wrote with insightful sympathy.2 In fact, his first publication was a book about Eminescu.3 Even from this first book, one noticed that Matei Călinescu’s own manner of conceiving the process of exegesis differed from that of his distinguished namesake. He preferred to remain in the immediate proximity of the texts, to avoid the blaze of any haphazard analogies and especially the seductions of the artistic style. Other volumes of his work would confirm and even theorize this attitude. The “rigor” and “poetics” of criticism are defined in memorable words, which would have surely been cited countless times in our literary journals had the author’s works not fallen prey, after his departure, to communist censorship: “If the poet has wings, which he flutters marvelously, crossing broad spaces, the true critic, stepping solemnly on the geometrical boulevards of science, has, keeping with his apparent humility, [End Page 105] ingrown wings: wings that open in a world of ideas and that allow him to recreate, in another plane, the poet’s mysterious itinerary.”4
No doubt Călinescu learned the lesson of rigor, of statistical sobriety and of dissociative passion for ideas, from Tudor Vianu, whom he had known since adolescence and whose assistant he was during the last years of Vianu’s career. In Memories in Dialogue,5 a book written in collaboration with Ion Vianu, the author acknowledges the process of spiritual refinement he underwent during that period. The young critic and researcher’s interest in the elucidation of some major concepts of literary history is linked to the example and encouragement of Vianu, a foremost scholar of aesthetics. Similar to this is Călinescu’s habit of drawing, each time, a history of the theme at hand, as well as his pleasure, doubled by competence in refining the literary analysis towards the detection and formation of a problem. Matei Călinescu reconstructs the history of his concepts and produces innovative conceptualizations with similar dexterity.
He abandoned literary criticism at an early age, yet kept contributing sporadically—and decisively—to the launching and establishment of important writers of Romanian literature during the 1960s. M. Ivănescu, Nichita Stănescu, Cezar Baltag and Nicolae Breban are only a few of the authors in whom the young critic invested his critical acumen. In addition to Călinescu’s critical commentaries on his contemporaries, his comparative work and exegeses of classical and modern Romanian literature gave him a central spot of our literary scene in the 1960s. Călinescu enjoyed authentic prestige amongst Romanian writers.
In his late thirties, when he was starting as a Lecturer in Romanian at Indiana University in Bloomington, Călinescu was already a fully formed intellectual: learned, even erudite, multilingual, and, toute proportion gardée, cosmopolitan (he traveled to London and Paris, where he was able to further his studies on a UNESCO fellowship). He had developed a life ethos and a personal apprehension of literature, both marked by a sense of grandeur. Given both his superior detachment from all ideology and his ironic reserve when it came to dogmas, I have little doubt that Călinescu had difficulties in adapting to the American life style, academic or not.
In fact, after a few years, he became a tenured professor and a literary and cultural comparatist, whose competency was beginning to be recognized internationally. The invitations to other universities, the study scholarships, his participation in different colloquies and congresses, being chosen by the committees of specialty publications—all of these confirmed his happy integration into the academic and scientific American community, as well as the beginning of his international notoriety.
Would all of these have been possible if Matei Călinescu had stayed in Romania? [End Page 106] How would his oeuvre...