Smiles in an absurd world

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In Pray for Brother Alexander, which recently came out in English (see here from Punctum Books), philosopher Constantin Noica recounts one of the irrational moments that took place while he was imprisoned. He was around 50 years old, sharing the cell with a young man, Alec, an athlete, who was part of the national volleyball team. While Alec was in East Berlin for a tournament, a friend told him to go to the other side. He didn’t like it, so he came back. Received well at the beginning, he finally ended up in prison, something that the young man could not make sense of. “It is of no importance” (23), Noica says. The conversation ends between them because Noica is taken to interrogations. He returns to the cell obviously beaten. The young man asks him, “They have beaten you, haven’t they?” (24). Noica confirms, and the young man says, “But it is of no importance, I know” (24). “That’s what I wanted to say: they beat me without a reason.”

The idea of being beaten without reason is scary. It goes against any notion of justice we may have, but it also places you at the mercy of forces over which you have no control, and this must produce fear. Indeed, the young man in the cell gets worried—perhaps his pride of a sportsman, as Noica suggests, is offended by the idea of being hit without being able to react, but it may also be a natural reaction when faced with the irrationality of beings who have power over you. Noica tries to clarify the situation and he says, “I was beaten because I did no want to take a cigarette” (24).

Of course, there is nothing logical about this either, and the young man responds naturally, “are you mocking me?” In fact, Noica was not mocking him. The interrogators wanted to know to whom he gave a book he received from the West—if I am not mistaken, it was Emil Cioran’s Histoire et Utopie, History and Utopia. Believing that if he gives them “a cloud of names” (24), as he says, he would confuse them, he writes down on paper 80-100 names. Noica then realizes his mistake: he assumed rationality from the part of his interrogators. Who would pay attention to so many names that have seen a book, he asked? The communists, apparently, would, and his interrogator writes down carefully all the names he had mentioned. And then he offers Noica a cigarette. Perhaps out of self-disappointment, perhaps because he wanted to show himself and to the investigator that he is not completely defeated and that he is not someone who just gives up his friends because of pressure, he refuses the cigarette.

“Take it or I dislocate you jaw” (25) the officer yells at him. Noica refuses, and the blow comes. To the young man’s surprise, this is when Noica took the cigarette. “But I would have never done this… After he hit me? Never….” (26).

The young man does not accept giving in when faced with lack of rationality. Any kind of craziness in the world must be rejected, he seems to believe, because it is just subhuman to accept it—one would give up one’s own moral dignity. This attitude is shared by many at the beginning of their incarceration. They keep themselves proud before their accusers; it is important for them to show that they have not been broken. They find in this the remaining of their human dignity. With time, many came to believe that this attitude is childish, stemming from innocence. We may liken this difference to the one between the attitudes young and older people have at times toward morality. For the young, things are often black and white. The old see this as resulting from their innocence: when you are young, untried by the sufferings of life, and unconnected with people for whom you feel responsible, you afford to be an idealist. Slowly, you start asking yourself whether your actions make sense in a world in which the suffering of those close to you makes no sense.

Coming back to Alec, the young man in the cell, he changes his tone, perhaps wanting to avoid offending Noica: “You know why you took the cigarette? Because you felt like smoking.” (26).

And Noica says, “My young sportsman is not stupid at all. In a way, he was right. The slaps I god had brought me to reality: nothing made any sense in that moment. I could smoke a cigarette” (26). Nothing has any importance in an absurd story. As Samuel Beckett may say, there is no point to wait for Godot. Within an absurd story, the question whether it is rational or not to oppose communism does no longer make sense. Should one then be pragmatic and follow one’s own interest, giving up one’s ideals? If we answer this way, we reject the line of dissidents who, often sacrificing their lives, opposed the regime. If we go the other way, we claim that we somehow can fix the world, and that there is an importance in refusing an absurd world.

*

The day of “liberation”:

“With the coat on my arm and with a small bundle of laundry, I come before the commander, who hands me a banknote, the equivalent of around ten bus tickets. I look at the prison commander before I come out of the door. We are both caught in a smile, and I remember William Blake’s verses:

There is a smile of Love

And there is a smile of Deceit,

And there is a smile of smiles

In which these two smiles meet.”

 

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"There was no other choice"

Coming back from a conference at #BASEES (http://www.baseesconference.org.uk/programme.pdf). Part of one of the talks was based on this story.

Tavi's Corner

Eugenia and Gheorghe Hasu. Photo from Ioana Hasu’s collection, used with permission.

Let me tell you a story. After fighting as a soldier for his own country, a young man returns home. There is nothing special about him; he did what was required of him, like many others who lived through or died in WWII. He was wounded and decorated–again, like many others. When he comes back home, he wants to establish a family, so he goes from village to village thinking that he may fall in love. And he does. One of his friends recounts, “he chose as wife a 16 years old girl, small, who just entered the traditional winter meetings. She was happy, so happy that she forgot to cry when the wedding chariot took her to his place.”

It is a love story: the two young people build together a life, they have a first child, and…

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Noica’s Pray for Brother Alexander

 

 

This is just a short note to let everyone know that Constantin Noica’s Pray for Brother Alexander came out today. To my mind, it is a wonderful book in which you discover a kind spirit. On the publisher’s website, you can read an excerpt from the book.  You can also find the book on Amazon (see link here).

Here’s the description of the book from the publisher’s website (see link here):

Constantin Noica’s (1909–1987) Pray for Brother Alexander is a meditation on responsibility, freedom, and forgiveness. On the surface, the book describes events and people from Noica’s life during his time in a political communist prison in Romania. However, the volume is not a historical account only, but rather an honest introspection into how a human being may keep sanity when everything around him makes no sense.

Unlike his famous Romanian contemporaries, scholar Mircea Eliade, dramatist Eugène Ionescu, and philosopher Emil Cioran, who lived abroad, Constantin Noica did not leave communist Romania. Considered an “anti-revolutionary” thinker, Noica was placed under house arrest in Câmpulung-Muscel between 1949 and 1958. In 1958, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was released after 6 years, and Pray for Brother Alexander covers his experiences during this time. In his writings, Noica rekindles universal themes of philosophy, but he deals with them in a profoundly original manner, based on the culture in which he lived and for which he also suffered persecution.

The volume will be of great of interest to scholars and students in history of philosophy and continental philosophy, but also to people interested in the recent history of Eastern Europe and the political persecution that took place after WWII in those countries.

 

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Knowledge of a culture through dancing

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.

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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.

 

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Come and see "indescribable beauty"

Tavi's Corner

It is Holy Week for Orthodox Christians–a week of indescribable beauty. A week of sadness, but also of incredible joy. For the entire week, every day, every hour, and every minute are governed by the Sunday of the Resurrection. Betrayal, despair, weakness, cross, but Resurrection! In fact, betrayal, despair, weakness, cross, and Resurrection!
Fr. George Calciu, in his sixth homily to the youth:
I speak to you about death as your single possibility to be victorious. For without resurrection both life and death become nonsense, absurd. The love of God, however, is the guarantee of our resurrection; and the Resurrection is the foundation of our faith in God and in Jesus Christ, His Son. It is the sublime and glorious occasion of a vital affirmation, an invitation to an amnesty of the past, as one French journalist has said; it is an invitation to a commitment in the future.
 

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Angels and birthgivers

Tomorrow is the Annunciation.

Tavi's Corner

 
The Mother of the Lord and Jesus in prison cloths. The painting is done by Fr. Arsenie Boca, who was imprisoned during communism. The Church Elefterie in Bucharest.

Regardless of where I am, I always try to call my mom on March 25. It is the Annunciation, and I know she has always loved this day. I don’t often have something to tell her. There is nothing spectacular in my life. However, being at that moment together, something is said. The “she and I” is being said. When calling other people, the “they and I” is being said.

Regardless of the words used, the being together is “love” in all of these situations.  What if I respond to it with the words of the Virgin: “Be it done unto me according to Thy word!”

The Annunciation… Giving yourself up in the arms of love, regardless of perils, of shame…

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Places of regeneration

Tavi's Corner

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The Holy Dormition Monastery in Michigan, one of my places of regeneration

There are certain places in this world which have healing power. Some of them are spatial; others are temporal. Alyosha Karamazov was remembering his mother’s face, praying: that is also a place of healing, even if it is about a face–or rather about a relationship. Remembering it, being in its presence, does not allow you to think bad things. The embrace of my grandma. I cannot judge people while I remember her embrace. A monastery: peace penetrating your bones.

In my experience, all of these places have one feature in common: you are loved.

Preserve the places of regeneration of this world. Which may also mean, “become a place of regeneration for others.” And this may mean: “embrace whoever is in your presence.”

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Moments of life with Neil Diamond

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I have the feeling I forgot something in the hotel room. And I am bothered by the fact that I couldn’t check in for my flight. “We could not reserve seats for all passengers. You need to check in at the airport.” Bummer! I need to get to the airport fast, to solve the problem, so a little bit of stress takes a hold of me.

“Good morning!” The driver of the shuttle is in his 70s, the age of my dad. I’m not good enough with accents to realize which part of the US he is from, but there’s something warm in the song of his voice. “Sunday morning!” he says. “Easy drive today, we’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

“Did I really forget something in the hotel room?”

There are no other passengers in the shuttle. We make a U-turn, and the driver starts a CD. And my life changes:

Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing
But then I know it’s growing strong

His voice is really warm, and he sings along the CD. There’s a force pulling me, too, and I can no longer hold it. Two strangers singing together in an airport shuttle:

Hands, touching hands
Reaching out, touching me, touching you

I forget that I forgot something in the hotel room:

Sweet Caroline
Good times never seemed so good

“Do you like singing?” I ask him. “Oh, yeah! I used to run the corporate parties. I did the 45 minutes Elvis routine. I had a ball doing that.” He had some problems a few years ago with his vocal chord, and he had to stop.

Sweet Caroline
Good times never seemed so good

I don’t know his name. He probably knows mine from the ticket. Still, it’s brother’s love.

It’s love, Brother Love say
Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show
Pack up the babies
And grab the old ladies
And everyone goes
‘Cause everyone knows
Brother Love’s show

We arrived at the airport, and I haven’t checked the time once. “A good day sir!” he says. “It’s Sunday.”

I forgot my phone charger in the hotel room.

Let’s fly! It’s a good day to die.

 

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Can I choose God?

 

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I have a certain difficulty to say that I believe in God. For the people who know me, this may come as a surprise: I go to church to the majority of services and I act, at least outwardly, as a Christian. Still, I think it is meaningless to claim that I believe in God or that I have chosen Christ. Perhaps even more than meaningless: dangerous. It is one other temptation.

To say that I believe in God implies a choice: I, the mighty human being that I am, has chosen God. This is problematic on various levels, but I only mention three here. First, because it places God and the devil on the same level; second, because, as choice, has me as principle; third, because it is a crazy choice (and in this craziness we find the solution).

  1. How can I choose between God and the devil? In what sense is there a choice? You can choose between two options if they are equal opportunities, similar paths. But a choice between God and the devil takes place outside of freedom. If the only freedom is found in Christ, then I can no longer choose God freely  in the space of disease in which I find myself. The “freedom to choose” that we have in the state of bondage is a pseudo-freedom. Paradoxically, I choose only in the absence of freedom, and I am free when there is no choice to be made.
  2. If I choose, I posit myself as the center of the universe. It is perhaps the highest arrogance, and I make it right at the moment when I perceive myself as the most faithful human being. I have chosen God. Behold, the mightiest being of all, one who can choose God for himself.
  3. Can I choose the cross? No. I do it only if I’m a crazy man. Tell me how many parents would want their children to end up on the cross–the promise of Christianity. Perhaps there are some who say, “go to the cross, because you will receive rewards in eternity.” It’s just a way to make the cross more appealing, one more version of a failed theodicy that explains evil by the promise of a good in the afterlife. But the cross is not to be chosen. It only is the expression of love, the opening of the arms in a universal embrace, in which all are welcome. The cross is not a choice. If I do choose it, I am a crazy man, and not a fool for Christ. But can I so “no” to the cross while being in love? Refusing the cross means rejecting my being, the possibility of love.

It seems to me that there is only one moment in which I can meaningfully say that I believe in God: when I am menaced with death if I claim it.

 

 

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Beyond morality

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The iconostas of the chapel in the former communist prison in Pitesti.

Christianity is often misconstrued as a religion about the good and the bad, about the righteous and the unrighteous. Do this, and you will be saved. Do that, and you will be damned. Described in these terms, it remains a religion of separation. How is this consistent with the image of Christ, who opens His arms on the cross as the beginning of an embrace for all?

Of course, we have the Gospel of Judgment. “Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me’” (Matthew 25:34-36). And such texts may give us justification to judge, to divide the world into righteous and unrighteous. But perhaps even this reminds us that we may believe we live, while in fact we are dead, embracing no one else other than ourselves, oblivious to the wounds of the others.

I think you find the essence of Christianity if you behold the two main icons of an iconostas. They guard the royal door, the entrance in the altar. On the right side, it is Christ, the God-man by nature, who has become man so that man can become God (St. Athanasius). On the left side, it is Mary, the Mother of the Lord, the human being par excellence in Christianity. The human who has become god by grace, by taking upon herself giving birth to Christ.

The iconostas is the story of humanity: to love the God-man is to be a god-man, and to be a god-man is to give birth to God in you, so to decrease in order for Him to increase, to die in order to live.

Some believe that to be a supra-human you must will to become one with the God-head. Idolatry understood as faith. A Raskolnikov. But the god-man by excellence, Mary, says simply: “Be it done unto me according to Thy word.”

Christianity is not about being unrighteous or righteous. It is about being dead or alive.

*

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World:

The ‘original’ sin is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. The sin was not that man neglected his religious duties. The sin was that he thought of God in terms of religion, i.e., opposing Him to life. The only real fall of man is his noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world. The fall is not that he preferred world to God, distorted the balance between the spiritual and material, but that he made the world material, whereas he was to have transformed it into ‘life in God,’ filled with meaning and spirit.”

 

 

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