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  • From Split Hairs to Split Seconds
  • Călin-Andrei Mihăilescu

Matei Călinescu shared with his younger contemporaries wisdom’s joys and some conundra. The latter were not ways away from the former. At least in his world.

With me he shared, so that I share with him and others, a rough concern, which got refined by time: as modernity kept deepening its own splits and the century came to a whispering end, Călinescu was concerned with taming this split in understanding. His lot was not only the recent modernity but that which roughly covers the last two centuries: concerned by that which departs from itself, then turns back to watch the cracks in the subjects’, objects’ and shields’ armors, he, who has grown within the institution of literature, has warned and fought against its destitution.

For Călinescu, the split between the reread past and the moment of rereading takes hold of itself—a moment expeditiously called ‘present’—is such a conundrum. As is the real desert which separates the émigré’s self from its former self, the academic from the poet he once was, today’s phalange of footnotes from the old binges of sense and sensibility. As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Nichita Stănescu—the greatest Romanian poet of the after-war period—warned, one must be attentive, for when the split grows, they will come and stick a God, or a prophet,1 or a tyrant2 in the wound. It matters [End Page 117] little whether it’s a tree stump, a flesh wound, or a crack in the wall—it’s all the same: ‘God’ will get reborn ex machina to hold empire over what has been divided, and to spring forth as the world’s and the self’s binding velcro.

When you look into the splitting nature and denture of time, it is said that the split looks back into you. This abyss of reflection was Călinescu’s lot. He confronted it without pitying himself, without acting out his reflected inner splits, and without sentimentalizing, even if perchance agonizing, over his losses—of country, poetry, and son. To confront his modernity’s bottomless pit of splits deepening at the speed of dialectics, Călinescu had to add to his de facto exile the condition of his later years: that of commuting—geographically, linguistically, and temporally. More clearly said, to keep moving back and forth: back to taste, forth to decadence. He did resist this powerful pendulum modestly, decently, discreetly, yet powerfully.

He did not give up his lot, but defied instead the kitschy stitching of his own time’s splits for fear of death. That—Călinescu discreetly toyed with, as if to resist the band-aid labeled “eternity,” the band-aid which plays on, ever slower.

I have two stories to tell. The first circles around a memory lapse.

Borges’ memory was legendary. An American professor of Romanian origin reports that, during a chat with Borges in 1976 at the University of Indiana, the Argentine writer recited to him an eight-stanza Romanian poem which he had learned from its author, a young refugee, in Geneva in 1916. Borges did not know Romanian. The power of his memory was also peculiar in that he tended to remember words and works by others, while claiming to have completely forgotten texts that he himself had written.3

I wrote this note based on my recollection of the story Călinescu had told me a few years before, in Santiago de Compostela, perhaps. Upon reading Borges’s Craft…, Călinescu wrote an article in Romanian, “Borges and the Kobzar Songs,”4 where he pointed out the mistakes which pester this note, while delicately leaving out my name. The Romanian translation of the Craft…, which I reviewed in August 2002, altered the note following Călinescu’s article, thus: [End Page 118]

… Matei Călinescu tells that, upon meeting the Argentine writer at the University of Indiana in 1976, he heard him recite, in the French into which Hélène Vacaresco had translated it, a Romanian “kobzar song” that Borges had read sixty years before in Geneva!. …”5

It was atypical...


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