The Romanian philosopher Constantin Noica was born on July 12, 1909. In 1958, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison by the communist regime for planning against the social order: distributing the book of a fellow forbidden philosopher, Emil Cioran. Noica was released after 6 years, in 1964.
This is a fragment from his Pray for Brother Alexander (Rugati-va pentru fratele Alexandru © Humanitas, 1990) that I translated. I use it here with permission from the publishing house (Humanitas). The translation will come out soon @Punctum Books.
Two of his other books have appeared in English: Becoming Within Being, and Six Maladies of the Contemporary Spirit.
In this fragment, he recounts one day in prison. His cellmate is a young man, confused about Noica’s reaction to the brutality of the investigation. It is a story about the absurdity of a regime.
|Constantin Noica in Paltinis, the place where he spent the last years of his life.
“It is of no importance,” I tell him.
“For you, perhaps,” he bursts out, “who are more than 50 years old. But for me! You see that ‘this thing’ puts you in prison. And then you say that it is of no importance?”
“It is very serious, but of no importance.”
“Look, you kind of bore me, Sir! According to you…”
The door’s latch is moving. “Take this and come,” the guard tells me while entering.
He gives me opaque glasses, made out of metal, that we must wear any time we come out of the cell. The bloke takes you by arm and, at times, seeing that you wobble, makes fun of you: “Careful, don’t step into water.” You hesitate to put your foot down, and he laughs. But what a gentle thing to walk like that, guided in the unknown! It is like in a ritual of initiation or like a dream…
I return after two hours. The guard takes off my opaque glasses and closes the door loudly, locking it up. For a moment, I remain confused in the middle of the cell. I feel my cheeks slightly swollen, and my young man must have seen something as well, since he asks me, “They have beaten you, haven’t they?”
“Yes,” I finally consent after a hesitation, “but…”
“But it is of no importance, I know,” he completes the sentence.
“Nevertheless, why did they beat you?”
“That’s what I wanted to say: they beat me without reason.”
“How so, without a reason? That’s what they do?”
My young man is worried. The idea of being hit without being able to react probably offended his pride of a sportsman. Or perhaps he would react… I have to better explain to him the non-sense of everything that happens in our case.
“I was beaten because I did not want to take a cigarette.”
“Are you mocking me?”
“But I assure you it was because of this. The guy who was interrogating me started by asking me to whom I gave a book that I had received from abroad. I replied that the work had nothing problematic for the regime. ‘Scoundrel,’ he said, ‘you will see how things are with this book. Now tell me to whom you lent it.’ ‘I am not obligated to tell you,’ I said, ‘since this cannot be a criminal charge.’”
The young man interrupted my story: “This is the moment when he hit you.”
“No,” I answer, “the guy was more skillful. He took from his pocket the list with the names of five of the six friends who really had the book in their hands (the denunciator whom I feared had worked fairly well). Then all of a sudden I had the idea that I could save my friends by paralyzing my interrogators with a cloud of names. ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘you talked about these people? But there are tens of other people to whom I could have lent the book, or to whom I actually lent it.’ I was reckoning that they could not arrest eighty or one hundred people who had a perfectly innocent book in their hands. So I say: ‘You have taken my agenda with addresses and phone numbers. Give it to me for a moment, please, so that I could remember.’
“They give me the agenda and I read absolutely all names from it. From time to time, the interrogator stops and says with satisfaction the first name of the person is mentioned; at other times, he asks me who that person is. I follow him how he puts down on paper methodically name after name, for around 45 minutes (They have a good stomach, I tell myself; they can handle any quantities). At the end, he offers me a cigarette.
“At that moment I realized what an idiot I had been, perhaps even criminal, for I had put under his eyes so many names from which he could have chosen whomever he wanted. I refused the cigarette. ‘Take it,’ he said. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘Take the cigarette!’ he shouted. ‘I won’t.’ ‘Take it or I’ll move your jaws out of place!’ he yelled, as if peeved.
“I was afraid, of course, but a kind of ‘no’ came out from my lips. The next moment, I woke up with a strong blow on the neck, with the side of the right palm (I had not known of such special blows), and then some slaps that shook my head quite seriously. I felt how my left eye was trying to come out of its place. I thought of two things at the same time. First: so there is a concrete meaning of the expression ‘he hit him so hard that his eyes came out.’ The second thought was totally different in kind: he hits me—I told myself—in order to check what strength I have in resisting. He probably wants to be sure that he can obtain from me whatever he wants, and in any case that I am not able to hide anything from him. The pretext with the cigarette is as good as any other; or, precisely because he has no other occasion to verify how things are concerning my capacity to hide something, he uses this one. It is a simple question of a technical kind or virtuosity—from my part or his part. What if I gave up, all of a sudden? It would be the best assurance for him that he dominates me totally, while for me it would be a chance to hide him something another time…
“‘Take the cigarette,’ he shouts after he hits me.
“I take it.”
“Oh,” my young cellmate sighs.
“You see,” I try to explain to him or to justify myself, “it can be a tactic to show that you are weak…”
“But I would have never done this,” he exclaims disapprovingly. “After he hit me? Never…”
He looks at me. I probably have an uneasy air, in my incapacity to clarify the subtleties of my game, and after all I am not certain about it either. His indignation stops all of a sudden, and the young man turns things around, changing his tone. He does not want to offend me, at least not entirely, in the conditions in which we find ourselves.
“You know why you took the cigarette?” he asks me.
“Because you felt like smoking,” he said.
My young sportsman is not stupid at all. In a way, he was right. The slaps I got had brought me to reality: nothing made sense in that moment. I could smoke a cigarette.