I recently participated in a Round Table on Cultural Discourse(s), Romania, and Eastern Europe Paradigm. The event was organized by the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies at the University of Chicago. This is part of my contribution.
A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine, Dana Munteanu, and I had an idea: to translate Constantin Noica’s The Romanian Sense of Being into English. Since Noica is “guilty” for my life—I wanted to study philosophy after I began reading his work—I found this idea particularly appealing, so I contacted Gabriel Liiceanu, the director of Humanitas Press, which has published Noica’s work in Romanian. Liiceanu gave us his agreement, but he also warned us with these words: “The project has a courage that borders craziness; one cannot imagine something more difficult, something that is almost untranslatable. How do you want to translate into English the inner depths of the Romanian language?”
Two years have passed since that conversation, and I have to say that Liiceanu was right. The project of translating into English a wok that attempts to explore the sense of being of a people does indeed border craziness. But this also raises some questions: is there something that Romanian studies can offer to the world? If indeed it can offer something, and I believe so, how is this communicable?
Certainly, these questions can be asked about any translation project, regardless of the language of origin (in the meantime, another work written by Noica, Pray for Brother Alexander, has been published at punctum books). However, this particular work raises deeper problems because it is not directly about universal philosophical problems, which would offer a common philosophical language, but it is rather about knowing the Romanian soul itself, the Romanian expression of being in the world. Implicitly, the question becomes, how can one know the soul of a people?
It is still philosophy that offers us two paths of knowledge. In Plato, for example, one has two attitudes. One of them seems to be objective and claims to provide definitions. To know something, one must be able to define it, to extract its essence which applies to all other things belonging to the same “genre” as the one thing that is defined. But in the Meno, a dialogue that Noica loves, Plato suggests that there is also a different type of knowledge, which takes place in relationships.
Allow me to give you an example that has to do with the Romanian culture. A few years ago, I heard Ion Ungureanu, a former minister of culture of the Republic of Moldova, speak about Eminescu, perhaps the most important Romanian poet. Ungureanu said that Eminescu is loved in Bessarabia with the love that a mother has for her child, a love that cannot understand when someone says that the child is evil or that the child is dead because the connection between her and her child goes beyond any characteristics that may be attributed to him. It is not that these things are true or false; rather, this love does not work with such notions. Love itself is the truth, and the only thing the mother can understand is that the child is hers and that her life is essentially connected with his. She cannot be without him. Bessarabians love Eminescu with the same love a mother has, Ungureanu said. Bessarabians cannot consider whether Eminescu died of a sexual disease or whether he lost his mind during the late years of his life. Eminescu is one due to whom we have remained who we are, and we would not be ourselves without him.
The distinction between the two types of knowledge that I attempted to describe here stems from the difference between the two objects of knowledge. In the first case, knowledge was expressible in propositions and knew individuals as members of their species. In the second case, knowledge is the expression of a relationship, and such relationships one has with a person.
It seems to me that working in Romanian studies presupposes a dialogue between these two types of knowledge. We often begin with propositional knowledge. We discover trends and features of culture, changes in behaviors, modifications in discourses that have to do with different rapports that people have to a political power etc. But then we also need to see that there is a Romanian soul, a complicated one, like any other soul, with many aspects and faces, a soul that can never be known propositionally. To allow others to have a relationship with it, we need to bring it forward. I believe that Cristian Mungiu’s movie that we will watch later today is such an attempt. Bringing forward Romanian music is another example. Translations of the work of Romanian writers and philosophers contribute to this as well, regardless of their difficulty and, at times, of their mistakes. What they bring is the possibility of beginning a relationship, and when one begins this relationship, one will want to know more and more about the person they love.
I will just say a few more words about this second knowledge, the personal one. I believe that knowledge of a people begins with assuming who we are. I don’t think that one has to be Romanian to know a Romanian, just as I don’t think that one must be Russian to understand Dostoevsky. I am not saying, however, that my knowledge of Dostoevsky is the same with the knowledge a Russian or someone else may have of him. But this is perfectly fine. It is my personal knowledge of him—not in a relativist sense, but rather in a truly personal one—just as no one else will know my mother the way I know her. This means to me that one can know the Romanian “soul” by accepting who one is, a unique person that belongs to a unique people. Once I know where I come from—once I know what type of person I am—I can have a relationship and know in relationship who someone else is.
I am fully aware that such knowledge is difficult to express. But this is precisely the point, since it takes place outside definitions. Knowing the way of being in the world of another is dancing with him or her. To me, Romanian studies is an invitation to dance. It is often a painful experience (and if you knew me, you’d known what I’m talking about). Nevertheless, this dance will bring you closer to the soul of the person you are dancing with, and, paradoxically, to your own soul. Romanian studies, East-European studies, or any studies that have to do with the culture of a people is such a dance that brings you closer to the soul of another and, implicitly, to your own soul.