Monica Spiridon

The "Imperial Eyes" and the Borderland Issue*

 

Abstract: The article discusses the Romanian geopolitical position between three political powers, the Ottoman Empire, the imperial Russia and the Habsburg Empire, in the late 19th century.

Keywords: Romania; imperialism; political border

 

Paul Morand, a French traveler of the XIXth century, author of a book about the Romanian capital-city, used to say that more than a city, Bucharest was a meeting point. [Morand:1935]. Although he meant the city, his remark recommends itself as metonimic. From a purely geopolitical point of view, Morand's statement also points towards the interstitial [Bhabha, 1990a; 1990b] placement of Romania as a whole, between three greedy imperial powers (the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, the imperial Russia).
As an outcome of this borderland position, one Empire or another has been a permanent presence in Romania's political, historical and cultural destiny and no less in structuring the local mentality as well as collective perceptions. The extreme closeness of the Empires and the position of a small country, conscious of a permanent threat of being engulfed, have been decisive in influencing the national identity and its legitimizing devices. This very fact resulted in a series of consequences that deserve careful consideration, before any further debate (on such issues as post-colonialism or the post-soviet era) is entered into.
One of the very few foreign researchers specializing in Romanian history and working in the field of mentalities, Catherine Durandin, maintains that the Romanians never grew tired of defining their identity as a consequence, on every possible level, of the gap between themselves and an idealized Western Europe. [Durandin: 1995]. In this respect, the French historian fails to draw the full necessary conclusion: the proximity of Russia, with all its implications, has been the main measure in direct proportion with this gap.
How was this national identity conceived and represented before, during and after the imposed communist influence as a consequence of Romania's position at the crossroads of the Empires? This is the point I am going to deal with here. My approach will be fairly general and will only point to a few relevant issues in this matter.

* * *

The Romanian self-exiled writer Emil Cioran has placed the key issue regarding the debatable - and highly debated - condition of Romanian identity in an outstanding interrogation. Paraphrasing Montesquieu, his question sounds like this: "Comment peut-on etre Roumain?" Unfortunately, as Matei Calinescu points out later, Montesquieu does not also consider the case of a Persian asking himself: How can one be a Persian? [Calinescu.1983: 21]. In order to touch the sore spot of the Romanian national idea, we should lay a strong emphasis on its status as an emotional Counter-reaction. In Romania, national identity emerged by way of compensation, as retaliation to the unhappy consciousness of being a Romanian, epitomized by Cioran's question.
In coping with this collective insecurity - at the same time desire and doubt - one cannot ignore the mixed cultural heredity of Romanianness. The Western Roman linguistic legacy, on one side, and the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, on the other, have been the torn halves of the Romanian cultural identity.
In the Romanian culture, the paradigmatic anxiety brought about by the obsession with identity can be tracked down in various areas of reference. The collective perceptions of the national idea fostered conflicting ideologies, rhetorical devices and topoi of the social imaginary; fashioned literary programs; forged symbolic topographies and sites of memory.
During the first half of our century, the Romanian culture fostered various narrative scenarios relying on a total overlapping of history and collective memory, in the evocation of deep, sacred national origins: the holy memory of the holy nation [Norra.1989: 11]. On the agenda of the Romanian intellectual elites, genetic anxieties such as: Where are we coming from? And where is our symbolic cradle in Europe? Completely overshadowed the basic question: Who are we? On the level of mainstream perceptions, the epitome of the relationship oneself /the other was the implicit dictum: "Tell me where you are coming from, and I will tell you who you are."
Especially after the first World War, when The Greater Romania was born, the process of nation building and the intellectual arguments about identity had come to dominate the academic curricula at almost every level and in every particular discipline: history, philosophy, ethnography, literary history, art and so on.
This is why in the Romanian literature prestigious places, worshipped by the popular memory, have been shaped as national moulds. The Master tropes of nationalist literature were imperial spaces like Rome - the Western cradle of the Romanian Latinity - or Byzantium - the eastern mould of the Romanian orthodox Christianity. In the wake of a growing anxiety about national identity, literature has persistently built heterotopias [Foucault: 1986] prestigious models - as a Post-Byzantine Byzantium, the Forth Rome - , able to meet the requirements of legitimacy and to compensate for the discomfort of being a Romanian. It is also noteworthy that this persistent topographical leaning had been closely intertwined with an obsessive public concern about Orient and Occident, as alternative geopolitical and cultural horizons of the Romanian identity.

* * *

The 20 years between 1944 - the Soviet take over of Romania - and 1964 - Ceausescu' s advent - can be seen as a tireless battle of Nationalism against Marxism. [Vederey, 1991:11]. Nationalism eventually emerged the winner and National identity became the master cultural symbol, displaying highly structural properties. In this lapse of time, literature, history, collective memory had performed their converging parts in an overarching explanatory scenario. A discourse about unity and continuity (The Nation) had overcome the one about differentiation and change (Marxism).
During Ceausescu's dictatorship, the virtually hegemonic force of national ideology ended up as an aggressive complex of superiority called Protochronism. Its main cultural statement was a boastful rejection of any sources, models or forerunners, in almost all-intellectual areas, in favour of a paradoxical theory of local priority, allegedly ignored, because of the marginal status of Romania.
It is important to note that the same distressing question: How can one be a Romanian? Should be posited as the ultimate source of Protochronism. This time by way of compensation, being a Romanian becomes a privilege, a miracle and bliss. In Ceausescu's Romania, the "pride of being born Romanian" was the obsessive keynote of all official discourses
In attempting to identify the first roots of Protochronism it is probably necessary to go as far back as the decades between the two world wars and focus on Mircea Eliade, another displaced Romanian.
From this point of view, the Protochronist reaction is therefore ambiguous and double-edged. On the one hand, it is a clear statement of a deeply felt inferiority complex to the advanced Western Europe. On the other hand, it is a proud rejection of the imperial model of the Soviet occupant. In this case, the barbarity is that of the conqueror, the latter becoming from the carrier of civilization to be exact opposite. This is the explanation for the various elite intellectuals' (the prestigious Edgar Papu, for instance) brush with Protochronism.
To find the key to this delicate issue it is necessary to find appropriate codes to interpret Alterity, to be more specific the Western versus the Eastern Alterity. The relationship with the Soviet occupant needs explaining in the context of the equation between the civilizing West versus the aggressive East, barbarian, domineering so much so that it threatened to sever the umbilical cord connected to the European matrix. This perspective must be kept in mind when attempting to retroactively analyze the great diversity of the cultural output during the communist era.
In the second age of the national idea (Ceausescu's nationalist dictatorship), the previous cultural harmony and unity collapsed. History and memory fell apart. The official national history was relying on an integrated, dictatorial memory. A memory without a past - as Nora notices. [Norra.1989: 8]. An unbridgeable gulf was growing deeper and deeper between it and the living literary memory. The previous memory-nation, building sites of memory - lieux de mémoire - was the last occurrence of the joint venture memory / history.
As far as, for instance, the fictional output of the period is concerned, especially during the eighties, the youngest generation of Romanian authors tried by all available means to counteract the take over of memory by the official political and historical discourse. They set out on a spontaneous criticism of nationalist paradigms, undermining their ideological and aesthetic foundations as well as their rhetorical devices. Along with the authors' growing scepticism concerning older national representations, fictional topographies became more contradictory tot he points of confusion. Romanian writers move from the urban novel to the travel epic, which, in the European literature, had previously offered generous opportunities for the teaming-up of fiction and meta-literature.
The title of an original novel by Ioan Grosan: A Hundred Years at the Gates of the Orient mixes a twist on Gabriel García Márques's Cien anos de soledad and one Raymond Poincaré's famous remarks on the subject of Romania's borderland position: "Que voulez vous, nous sommes ici aux portes de l'Orient, ou tout est pris a la légere?" (What do you expect? We are here at the gates of the Orient, where everything is easy-going). Moreover, in contemporary Romania, this remark grew to become a stereotype excuse for various civic, moral and political deficiencies.
The chronicle of a return-trip from Romania to the pontifical Rome, in the early seventeenth century, is a mere excuse to playfully re-read, re-write and re-live a hundred years of traditional literary stereotypes and of collective perceptions in national identity. Highly emotional clichés of the inter-war discourses - such as "We, the Romanians, we are the descendants of Rome." are being turned upside down or simply ignored.
Authors like Grosan redefine previous identity hypotheses as obsolete scenarios of cultural memory. They grasp an essential process-taking place in the contemporary Romanian literature: the progressive retreat of identity paradigms into discourse. And, at the same time, they capture the passage of the arrogant national models and of their products into literary assets to be recycled.
From a different point of view, the literature of the eighties pays a special attention to the virtual ghetto-structure imposed by the Bolshevik occupation on Romania. Novelist, memoirist, historian, journalist (and, after 1989, political analyst and member of the senate) Stelian Tanase is the keen chronicler of a Bucharest that communism expelled out of history into a state of day to day survival routine: a place where any model degenerates, and where even deliberate imitation miserably fails. Corpuri de iluminat (Lighting Devices) 1990 is the anthology of the malformations, anomalies, left overs of both the people and the city. As suggested by the metaphor in the title of one of his novels - Playback -, the imaginary topography created by the novelist is a space of mystification and of perversion, where the technical method alluded to (a "playback") passes from the screen to real life. A city whose history has been forged, whose face has been disfigured by the shallow pharaonic models of the Ceausescu's era, the Bucharest described by Stelian Tanase is a version of the 30ties Moscow not unlike the Moscow imagined by Bulgakov.
For Tanase, due to Romania's position at the meeting point of several agonising empires, Romanian identity is to be found in the interstitial spaces between different ends. And this is strikingly obvious in Bucharest: "In Bucharest - Tanase stubbornly maintains - the end of several great empires meet. The histories of the Byzantine Empire, of the Ottoman Empire as well that of the Russian Empire virtually ended in Bucharest."[Paleologu, Tanase, 1996: 430].
Over the last couple of years, Tanase has been working on a massive novel (to average about 1000 pages) set in Bucharest. As the writer explains in his diary - Ora oficiala de iarna (The Official WinterTime) 1995 - the starting point of the book is 1683, the year of the first printing of the Bible in Romanian (the so-called Bible of Bucharest). The end of the story is set exactly three hundred years later, in 1983. (1983 is usually seen as the most radical turning point of Ceausescu's cultural policy: The ideological conference of Neptun-Mangalia) These dates are highly significant in themselves - both 1683 and 1983 simultaneously signify a beginning as well as an end.

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Catherine Durandin is right reaching the conclusion that the Roman conquest of Dacia triggered a persistent axiological tension, later enhanced by various circumstances and in various contexts. Nevertheless, among those circumstances not listed, it is worth mentioning the assimilation of Romania's administrative and political structures by one Empire after another, from Turkey to the later Soviet Russia. In today's postcommunist era, Durandin believes this tension can be identified in an overemphasized collective aspiration towards the process of Euro-Atlantic integration.
Worth mentioning in passing is that the French historian chooses to go against the mainstream opinion in including Russia on equal footing with the Ottoman Empire among the pro-oriental Balkan pressures to which the Romanian culture was intensely subjected. In doing so, she ignores the essentially opposite nature of the Romanian historical reaction to the Turkish and respectively the Russian occupation. To mention only one of many, Eminescu in his articles displays a profound understanding of the issue, in preferring the former to the latter. Time doesn't permit here a detail analysis of his main arguments, however well founded. Enough evidence to support the above can be found in a few historical facts: the Turkish Empire never fully occupied Romania, neither did the Turks transform cities in Soviet raions, did they not impose repeated censorship on the local religions and they were never given the right to naturalize and to own land or properties in Romania. The Ottoman neighbours confined themselves to initially only confirming and they're nominating the princes of local extraction, and subsequently to nominating Fanariot (e.g. Greek) rulers.)
However, Durandin is correct in identifying a few of the main symptoms of a malady she never names nor examines closely and systematically. In my analyses I will call it "the imperial syndrome", accompanied as it was by interesting expressions in the Romanian cultural zone over decades, including the post-soviet era.
A nation surrounded on all sides by arrogant empires strategically organizes its identity-related history and ideology in the framework of secure stereotypes that would legitimate its right to existence and to public recognition. In Romania this strategy frequently became part of the more general Orient versus Occident antinomy [Spiridon: 2000b]. Such a process of authoritarian semantic structuring of the identity space evolved on several stages.
To pick one example of many available, a clear line can be drawn between the pre-soviet feverish quest for arrogant domineering models - inevitable creating an identity confusion and a creation pathos of identity debate, collective emotions, clichés and especially generating fierce polarization's - and the post-soviet occupation situation. During the communist period to follow, the identity, be it underground or officially accepted, failed to claim any models. The latter due to conscious rejection of any paradigmatic patronage and to the attempt to affirm an absolute national priority legitimized by the Protochronist dogma. As far as the underground is concerned, the cause is to be found in the purposeful deconstruction of the literary tradition displaying proud imperial models. See for instance Banulescu's - Cartea de la Metopolis (The Book of Metopolis) - or Sorescu's Raceala (A Cold) - parodies of the Post- Byzantine imperial arrogance in the Southern Romanian area.
At this point, I find it necessary to underline that my study is restricted to cultural projections, and namely to literary representation. On the ideological level, it is essential to distinguish between the two, because (and this is particularly true for the Romanian cultural environment) they have operated on parallel levels if not in totally opposite ways. [Spiridon: 2000a]. Apart from that, literature plays a key role in any society, a role transmitting network, irreplaceable and constantly used by ideologies. [Nemoianu: 1996].

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A few concluding remarks.

The paragraphs above have the role of merely providing a general framework for an ongoing analysis [Spiridon: 2000c]. In as little detail as possible, I have tried to point out that imperial apprehensions followed by various types of the " post-imperial syndrome" are part of a complex series of identity phenomena present in the Romanian cultural history.
The imperial anxiety has been present more or less at all points in the Romanian history, as Catherine Durandin is very quick to notice. Post-imperial reactions however have been extremely diverse, if not contrasting.
I won't go into details here, but the mark left by imperial Rome has been gradually included and assimilated in the Romanian legacy and tradition, becoming one of the deepest and furthest reaching roots of the national identity.
The Byzantine legacy has been equally incorporated within the eastern branch of Christianity. Both have attracted a pronounced sense of pride, promptly illustrated in literature, which was also quick to come up with a parody of each, once the respective tradition grew obsolete.
Post-Habsburg Transilvania features a productive process of reanalysis of the crossroads hybrid that is Central European legacy.
As far as the traces of Turkish domination are concerned, they are subject to an extensive debate trenching on the issue of the Orient, of the Balkans etc. In any case, theorists such as Edward Said [Said: 1979] or Mary Louise Pratt [Pratt: 1992] are methodologically irrelevant in this respect, seeing as the Romanian Eastern dimension was one that took particular pride in itself. Moreover, this kind of orientalism only stretches as far as Greece, becoming a particular European orientalism.
Last but not least, the relationship with the Soviet Union can only be analyzed within the guidelines of this post-imperial framework, a topic that I don't intend to dwell on but to which the analysis I have attempted can be useful as a starting point.
Trying to force these distinctive details into the tight conceptual framework of post colonialism is, in conclusion, a sterile error of method.
 

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