The Gulag and the failure of reason


I read an article yesterday about how the gulag is perceived today in the Russian society (see here). I still do not know what to make of it. “Many Russians regard the horrors of the forced labour camps as a necessary evil during a difficult period of Soviet history.” After all, “People fell in love in the camps, people got pregnant; it wasn’t all bad,” as one person said. But didn’t people fall in love and get pregnant during slavery? Can we say that slavery “wasn’t all bad” just because of this?

Perhaps it is just about what society accepts today, and I am not talking about the Russian society, but about all of us. Certain things were pure evil because it is unacceptable to say today that they were not “all bad”; nobody would justify slavery, for example. Apparently, the gulag is not one of these things. We are not appalled when a teacher says, “Was there a military threat from Germany? There was. Were there spies in the country? There were. There was no time to decide who was guilty and who wasn’t. We should remember the innocent victims but I think it was all necessary.” The gulag is acceptable even if it is a form of slavery because the society of the world does not openly condemn it. And how would it condemn it when the country which implemented it does not fully do so? Wouldn’t we hurt their “feelings”? And nobody wants to hurt the feelings of someone like Russia.

I heard one person say once something along these lines, “well, don’t understand me wrongly, I do not justify what they did during the holocaust, but we must agree that medical experiments done by someone like Mengele benefited the human race.” All the people in the group were appalled, and rightly so. Would they have the same immediate reaction with the gulag?

This is not about comparing communist persecution with the holocaust or with slavery because they are not comparable. Evil is evil. It is rather about how easy it is for us, human beings, to fail in using reason. It is “reasonable” to say that we can sacrifice some persons for the good of the many. It is “reasonable” to say that taking entire families (including a few days old children), treating them as cattle and throwing them into train cars, keeping them locked, without water, for days, and then working them to exhaustion and death because this was the only way to have “military and industrial achievements.”

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, La Vita e bella, in which a teacher explains a mathematical problem. I’ll simplify it: the state pays 4 German marks per day for a crazy person and the same for an epileptic. Taking into consideration that there 300.000 people like this, how much would the state save if these people were eliminated? Can we resolve this mathematical problem? Only if we give up our humanity; we see in this movie (and we see in life) how often we do so…





To my mind, if one can justify the gulag (allow me to emphasize: I am talking about justifying the gulag, not about describing its social and historical contexts), then one can justify anything, and this is scary. It is scary because it says something about us, about our capacity to give up our humanity.

A Day in a Communist Prison for the Philosopher Constantin Noica


 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.

“Why?”

“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.
 

"I came out of the gulag without being bitter and vengeful"

The book Do Not Avenge Us is soon to be published by Reflection Publishing. Before that moment, here is a beautiful testimony to forgiveness. This testimony belongs to Nicolae Istrate.

Now, I am joyful for one thing: I came out of the gulag and these prisons without being bitter and vengeful. I even met the one who tortured me badly, and I did not tell him anything. I did not reproach him anything. I thought about my sins, and I remembered how many times God saved me. So I thought I have to forgive as well, and I tried to find excuses for him: this is how the times were… I tried to put myself in his place, and I managed to forgive him.

I used to meet with many of the survivors who stayed in prison with me. We used to talk. They were surprised that I could forgive, because not all forgave. I used to tell them even when we were in prison:

“We must forgive, so that we don’t come out from here with this hatred, so that we do not go out to get revenge.”

It was not difficult for me to forgive those who wronged me, but it was very difficult to convince my comrades, those who were together with me. After they came back, they thought about revenge with hatred. They really considered getting revenge. There are so many methods; we could have had revenge and no one would have found out. But I did not agree to it, and they began to blame me and wonder whether I was a traitor. They were amazed: “How can you pray for these people who did so much evil?”

I explained to them that I pray for those people so that God would illumine their minds and they would see that they were doing evil. If they had understood, they would have immediately stopped doing evil, torturing so much. This is what we have to do; otherwise, we would remain bitter, and evil immediately is formed within our souls and attacks us first of all. This stain of sin is developed within the soul. This is what I told them.

Later, when some of my comrades from prison began to die, I told those who were still alive that they had to prepare so that they would not leave this world being bitter, but rather peaceful. I used to tell them that we had to prepare to have a peaceful death. You must conquer this peaceful death; otherwise, evilness harms us badly. I am glad I could do this, and I did not find any of them to leave this world in a bitter state.

If I look back, I can say that the prison helped me to get closer to God. All tortures, all atrocities made me understand my only escape was from God. How much they wanted to destroy me, to murder me during investigations! But God helped me and I resisted. I went through all this, and I was freed from prison. Who helped me? Nobody helped in the gulag; God helped me.

I do not regret that I went through this experience of the prison. If I did not go through it, I may have been a totally different man. I may have become a communist, or who knows what other things I may have done. How can I know what I could have done… Who knows what may have happened to me if I did not go to prison? If I think about my situation before the first prison, when I was a school principal, I may have gotten married, joined the communist party…

When I came back, I found that all my colleagues who were like me, teachers, professors, those of the same age with me who had not been to prison—they were all directors. They were already heroes of the socialist work, had cars and all kinds of things. I may have been the same way if I did not go to prison. Now, see, God helped me; I am healthy and I can help one or the other. I thank God for the help He gave me. Each evening, before going to sleep, I pray to God and ask Him for forgiveness for every evil I may have done, and I forgive all who wronged me.

Below, you can see Nicolae Istrate’s testimonies. The interview is in Romanian.

 

Words in the flesh: on the possibility of witnessing

 

Photo by Alin Mesaros Photography (http://alinmesaros.com/)

Philosophers usually speak of propositional knowledge. Briefly, this is about whether a certain proposition is known to be true. In this sense, propositional knowledge does not lead to a beyond but rather remains within the framework offered by the sentence itself. It remains in concepts. However, as Gregory of Nyssa said, “concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.”[1]

If we want to grasp things, then, we seem to be encouraged to reject philosophy. Still, as Vladimir Lossky points out as well, suspending all kinds of judgment and, more, ceasing any attempt to express oneself in words may not imply the departure from “philosophy” but still remaining within such a system because we would believe that words are merely concepts without flesh. Denying words presupposes a certain view about them. Lossky believes, I think, that there is another option: theology. Incarnation made theology possible. The Word incarnate allows us to use language to point toward that which is beyond language, and the icons offer an opening towards divinity in a similar fashion. “Since the Word has incarnated Himself, the Word can be thought and taught—and in the same way the Word can be painted” (Orthodox Theology 13). To use an expression from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it seems as if theology (and iconography as well) is a good manifestation of the infinite within the finite.

The germs of the idea of the infinite within the finite are found even in Greek philosophy. One can see as early as Heraclitus the awareness of the conflict between that which statements say and the reality which the statements need to comprise. B50, for example, says, “Listening not to me, but to the Logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one.” The interesting feature about Heraclitus is that he does not completely reject the possibility of expressing oneself in language, but he shows that the use of this language points to that which (the Logos) language cannot comprise.

But let me return to orthodox gnosiology. It does not deal with essences, with substances clearly defined in concepts. Such concepts create limits and separation, but orthodox gnosiology searches for union. This gnosiology is phenomenal—it develops in the manifestation of divinity in our life.  It is an existential relationship—we situate ourselves towards God in praise, and so “theology must be praise and must dispose us to praise God” (Lossky 14). If gnosis, as Lossky says, “implies encounter, reciprocity, faith as a personal adherence to the personal presence of God Who reveals Himself” (13), then it has nothing to do with episteme understood as science and reasoning.

 Allow me to give an example, the knowledge a child has of his mother. How do we know a person? And if we know a person, can we communicate this knowledge to someone else? Consider asking a child to tell who his mother is. Would he ever be able to express a definition of his mother? And even if he were, would he be able to communicate it to anyone else? I am bringing together these two questions here because if indeed gnosiology is phenomenological, existential, ontological, personal and mystical, the knowledgea child has of a mother can be counted as an example of this. One cannot learn at school who his mother is, but rather what it is to be a mother. But any conceptual knowledge of what it is to be a mother will not allow the child to know his mother, to communicate with her, to love her, and to feel her absence. In order to know his mother (and any person, after all), a child needs to have a relationship with her, a personal relationship with her. Perhaps the child needs to make his mom part of his soul. A child knows his mother (and all of us know those we love) by taking the object of knowledge into his soul. He cannot describe “who mom is,” but has a knowledge of her that is genuine, immediate, and without fault. He may be able to describe his mom, but any description would never encapsulate the knowledge he has of her. He lives mom and is nourished by mom, and thus he knows her through this living and being nourished.

 

One may say that if we understand gnosiology in this way—and perhaps in here we can see the limits of this example—we would be in danger to fall into some sort of relativism, especially if we consider that it is personal. A personal knowledge, if understood incorrectly, may suggest that each individual has his or her understanding of God and that a personal relationship with Him is in no need of validation from any possible “authority.” But this would be a departure from the meaning of personal and indeed a falling away from gnosiology to a pseudo-epistemology. It would mean a knowledge of God that is different in each individual, and not indeed a giving birth to God, which I think gnosiology presupposes. And I consider here the call that perhaps all Christians have, to be birth-givers of Christ, in themselves and in others. A Romanian priest, Father Arsenie Boca, once said something along these lines[2]: “We know from Jesus that we will have the image He showed us in His Transfiguration. This will take place only when Jesus will be born in us as well, as he was born in the Holy Virgin” (121). In this sense, gnosiology is personal for it gives rise to knowledge of God that would result in theosis.

But in this sense the origin of this relationship is God, not us—as Lossky says, “theology… is located in a relationship of revelation where the initiative belongs to God, while implying a human response, the free response of faith and love” (16). It is not a mere feeling, a personal relationship with something that is outside of you, but indeed it is with something that is already in you. And so the teaching is already found in you, for otherwise, as Lossky says, you would hear nothing (18). One may say that the hearing of the teaching presupposes allowing that which is in you to respond to the teaching—and it is so that Orthodoxy talks about kenosis, emptying.

The ontological relationship between man and God is not then a relationship between objects, but a true communion that has God always as source. It is in the refusal of such connection that we establish separation and, perhaps, objective knowledge, in the sense of knowledge of objects, of concepts, of idols. Theology, in order not to become mere philosophy, needs to see that concepts themselves are witnesses. One may say, using the Greek terminology, that concepts in any theology are martyrs: they witness for God’s existence and doing so they die to themselves. It is not in the accuracy of concepts that theology finds its worth, but in their ability to witness to God.


[1] I read this quote in several sources, some of them giving mentioning The Life of Moses as the work in which it appears.
[2]  Cuvinte Vii (Living Words).  It was also published in English by Charisma Publishing House in Deva, Romania.

Laughter, Levinas, and the Otherwise than Being

Levinas suggests that the otherwise than being is to be understood in being, but differs absolutely from essence (see Otherwise than Being, p. 16). It “has no genus in common with essence, and is said only in the breathlessness that pronounces the extra-ordinary word beyond. Alterity figures in it outside any qualification of the other for the ontological order and outside any attribute.”  

What is there to understand about the otherwise than being? (Isn’t this a funny question, one may say?…) Here is a possibility: imagine Abraham bursting into laughter the moment he receives the commandment to kill his son, his only one, the one he loves, Isaac (Genesis 22). There are at least three possible ways to interpret this laughter:

 1. Abraham becomes crazy (after all, totally understandable, giving that he’ll likely lose his son);
2. Abraham thinks God is crazy and laughs in the face of this creature that calls himself God;
3. Abraham is at a loss, is silent, and this silence is expressed in laughter.
There might be something in the first laughter that avoids philosophy, being. Crazy persons talk but don’t really say something; at the same time, there is something said. But what is said seems to be outside of our power of comprehension. Nevertheless, we understand what is said as being something else than the normal discourse, as not being something. If this is so, then maybe we should call this laughter the laughter of the non-being.

However, the laughter of the insane, as much as it may be otherwise than the being defined by others, is still some being; we can make it familiar. It does not escape philosophy.

Can Abraham’s second kind of laughter escape being? Abraham thinks God has lost his mind and laughs in the face of this creature that calls himself God. It is probably Nietzsche’s laughter that Levinas mentions in the text quoted above. In a sense, this kind of laughter seems to be close to Kundera’s devilish laughter, or even the Socratic irony. Realizing he has engaged in some kind of rituals that became his God, believing in a God that now does not make any sense to him, Abraham laughs. He laughs and rejects everything that proposes itself as a possible solution to how to live his life. This laughter comes with a feeling of non-belongingness and falling out of the realm of the others. Kundera says in his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
I wandered through the streets of Prague, rings of laughing, dancing Czechs swirled around me, and I knew that I did not belong to them but belonged to Kalandra, who had also come loose from the circular trajectory and had fallen, fallen, to end his fall in a condemned man’s coffin, but even though I did not belong to them, I nonetheless watched the dancing with envy and yearning, unable to take my eyes off them (93-4).
A laughter that comes with the sense of a loss. Kundera has lost something that was familiar to him, has lost what he has called being, but he is still not in a realm totally different, in a realm that could not lack what he had had. Since the place where he is lacks something that is, something defined by ontology, this place too is part of ontology. We can imagine Abraham himself yearning for the faith he enjoyed having, for the assurance that the appurtenance in the circle gave him. Now, laughing at all the nonsense around him, he does not find anything to grasp. In a way, he even lost his son, Isaac, the laughter and the promise that God gave him that there would be a great nation coming from his seed. But this sense of a loss is powerful and brings fear. Rejecting everything, one like Abraham finds oneself in a space where the only thing present is fear of death. 
Bringing the presence of death, this laughter might be what we are looking for, for death itself seems in a way beyond being. But death is part of being precisely by being non-being, so maybe this is still not the laughter we are searching. In fact, it would be enough to see that the devilish laughter, this laughter that rejects all possible theories, all possible circles, becomes itself a circle, a theory.

Consider, for instance, Socratic irony, itself a laughter in the face of a god – our opinions, our truths. As Bakhtin says in the Dialogical Imagination, “it is precisely laughter that destroys the epic, and in general destroys any hierarchical (distancing and valorized) distance” (23). Socratic laughter seems to have a cleansing function: it rejects all opinions that one has.

But there is a danger here too. On one hand, this space of freedom, of inconclusiveness, might become itself the new king. “I only know I don’t know anything, and I am proud of it.” I only know that I do not know anything has the problem of still knowing something, perhaps that there is nothing to know. In other words, you laugh at everything and your laughter becomes your ideology. So this option still leaves us with the question whether there is any possibility to refuse idolatry without becoming idolatrous. Or, in other words, whether there is any possibility for a genuine moral ethical attitude, one that would avoid any ideology.

On the other hand, the second danger comes from the nothingness itself that the ironical laughter produces. Surrounded by the nothingness that he himself created around him by laughing in the face of God, Abraham becomes indeed insane or feels he is dead. He is outside the circle, as Kundera puts it, but he is still craving for one.

We are then still at a loss. It might be that, as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, we find out that there is nowhere to go. But what if we do not go and, more, don’t even try to go? What if the third kind of laughter, if we can still name it this way, or maybe that kind of attitude, whatever it may be, when Abraham is at a loss, silent, a silence that is laughter and is not laughter at the same time, is that thing beyond any comprehension, but which is, if we can still use “is” here, the genuine understanding itself? An attitude that does not have cause and does not presents itself as a cause of something else. An attitude that we cannot say that it is, an attitude that cannot be included in our categories of being and non-being. An attitude purely and simply other. An attitude that cannot be named and about which we talk only saying that it is like… Like laughter, or maybe like silence. Or maybe like responsibility. But it is neither of them really.
 

There is no solution to Abraham’s dilemma. Can there be more of a solution than this answer, that there is no solution, one might ask? And one is right, but only in a sense. For indeed if we see this “solution” as a solution, as an answer to a problem, then we fell again from a circle to another. We might say that this circle is superior for it understands the difficulties of the first one, where we were still looking for solutions. There are people who live in a circle, and there are people who live in a circle and realize it, are aware of the fact that they cannot escape it. The latter seem superior. But this second circle is still not superior for, as the previous one, still does not see its own problems. We would still be imitations of faces of Vladimir and Estragon, maybe more aware that there is nothing to be done, but still trapped within the play of waiting for something. 

 In the face of the incomprehensible commandment, Abraham laughs. Or he suspends judgment – he becomes silent. His laughter itself is a way of not saying anything. It is not that he makes a conscientious decision in the face of the evidence that there is no decision to be made, whether he must kill his son or not. If laughter is a choice, then laughter becomes idolatrous. Abraham’s laughter now is the realization itself that no judgment can be made, and not the result of that. Laughter, or silence, for there is no difference between the two now, is the activity in which Abraham engages when he realizes that the kind of knowledge required from him is too powerful to be known, is a knowledge that shatters the individual and takes him out of his world. God’s command to Abraham throws him in darkness expressed in laughter. But in this darkness, something else appears: “there is no judgment.” Abraham knows that he cannot say that he must not offer his son as an offering up, and that he cannot say that he must kill his son. And he laughs. His laughter now cannot follow a decision. If it were a decision, then it would be nothing else than an idolatrous movement, one that replaces an idolatrous love – as long as love for anything other than God, so love for the son who ensures that his seed will give birth to a mighty nation is idolatrous – with another idolatrous love. Abraham does not start mounting on Moriah after taking the decision to obey God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. The Abraham of this third laughter cannot decide to obey any command. He does not decide to do anything – he just presents himself, “here I am,” and the decision is already comprised in this attitude. His action is determined by the genuinely ethical attitude of presenting oneself as the first and most responsible individual. If Abraham says that God will see to the offering-up, he expresses his genuine attitude of trusting his fate in the hands of God. I would say that the absence of any kind of judgment is the apparition of what Levinas calls responsibility. Or maybe it is the attitude of giving death to oneself, as Derrida might call it, or loving one’s life so much as to be able to renounce it.
This death resides in the incomprehensibility itself – things can no longer have logos and thus cannot participate into Being. In this incomprehensibility Abraham holds nothing, not even the incomprehensibility itself for it cannot be held. This other death is the laughter beyond life and death, beyond day and night, beyond being and non-being. It is rather the realization that being cannot be but intertwined with non-being, that any authentic belief cannot be but embodied with ideology, and this realization becomes laughter. Or silence.

The third kind of laughter means becoming silent. It opens the possibility of acting ethically – it orients us differently in life. In a sense, we could say that laughter helps us to avoid making any totaling claim. And it does, as long as we think about laughter as Socratic irony. But this kind of laughter opens the possibility of the third kind which is not an answer to anything, but rather is the only thing one can do the moment one is about to see the Good beyond being. And is the only thing that one can do in the sense that one cannot not do it. That moment, laughter seems to equate silence and it stands for the genuine ethical moment. 

Carmen and Octav


I first heard of Mrs. Carmen Bjoza and her story a couple of months ago, when I visited Fort 13 Jilava Prison in Romania with some of my students. Mr. Octav Bjoza, her husband, who had been imprisoned by the communist regime for four years, accompanied us along the cold, dark walls of Jilava (I wrote about it here: A Plea to heal Jilava in my body). At the end of our visit, Mr. Bjoza came into our bus and, standing with playful eyes, like a young adolescent, told us: “I have to tell you another story.” [1]

He started telling us about Carmen, the love of his life, whose memory kept him alive during his four years in prison.

 

The young Tavi (in Romanian, the nickname for Octav or Octavian is Tavi) had fallen in love with Carmen when he was 16. She was only 13 years old. He was taken to prison three years later. It was a young love, but they had already started exchanging love notes. For four years and four months, he rarely heard from her. Those were the times when prisoners were not allowed to communicate at all with people from outside of the prison. But then, after three years, when they were taken to forced labor, they were allowed to receive some packages from home if they did their norm. The young worked for the old people, who could no longer accomplish their norm, so the young always fell short. For the very weak older political inmates, a package from home could represent a chance of survival. As the other young men, Mr. Bjoza worked for the weaker among them, so he could not receive what his family sent him. When he finally was allowed to get one,  his package contained one soap called “Carmen.” It was the sign that Carmen was waiting for him.

“You receive unbelievable powers when you receive such a message. The soap exists even today, in my small exposition in Brasov.” Brasov is the town where Mr. Bjoza presently lives.

Our bus was at the gate of the prison, so we could not stay there for a long time. A large part of the prison is still functioning today; it is only the former political section that is no longer holding detainees. Our host, the officer who arranged our visit, politely invited us to leave. But Mr. Bjoza said, “Wait, I did not finish.” “One day, in those conditions of terrible hunger, I saw that my colleagues, the inmates, put some small pieces of bread on the window, to dry them. ‘How could they do it?’ I thought. I was dying of hunger and they had more bread than they needed! Then, one morning, while I was marching toward our assigned work place, I saw a bouquet of lilies of the valley, just two yards away, under a willow in the Danube Delta. Instinctively, I went there and grabbed them. I continued to march, holding them in my hand. The lilies of the valley bloom early in the spring…” In an interview to NewsBV.ro, which I cited above, Octav Bjoza mentioned that it was already autumn when he saw the lilies of the valley. It was, as he called it, “an anomaly of nature.” And he continued. “I was a skeleton with some lilies of the valley in my hand, in the midst of other skeletons.”

“After a few more steps, I realized that it was the birthday of my girlfriend, who remained home. She was 20 years old. I hid those lilies in the ground, then in the hay from our mattresses, wherever I could, and you can still see them today, after 54 years, in the exhibit I have.

 

 

“That day, when I returned to the camp, my colleagues called me aside. In conditions of total clandestinity, they had crushed the bread crumbs in a small bowl and mixed them with some jam, making a small cake, 2 centimeters thick, on which they wrote, ‘At 20 years old, for Carmen from Tavi.’ I began crying incessantly, making a pool at my feet, and I ran someplace at the end of the concentration camp, to hide. In three-four minutes, I was back, though, and I thanked them. I have not shed one tear since then, even though my parents and my only son died. I have not shed one tear since then… It’s not good… The guards made a machine out of me.”

One more quote, from an interview Mr. Bjoza offered to NewsBV.ro (http://newsbv.ro/2011/12/14/exista-iubire-adevarata-octav-bjoza-cunoscut/):

“During winter, they kept us in some holes in the ground, one meter (one yard) deep, with some hay on top. I survived keeping my eyes on Carmen’s name, which I had scratched on a beam.”

Today, Mrs. Carmen Bjoza fell asleep. Memory eternal!


[1]Mrs. Annette Müller, a journalist who was writing about communist persecution, accompanied us during the visit. She kindly shared the audio files with me, and the quotes follow those files—of course, translated from Romanian to English. For those of you who speak Romanian, here is an article about the love story between Carmen and Octav Bjoza: http://newsbv.ro/2011/12/14/exista-iubire-adevarata-octav-bjoza-cunoscut. The picture of Carmen Bjoza comes from this article. You can also see there a picture with Octav Bjoza when he was 19, the age of the arrest. The pictures in Jilava were taken by Ioana Hasu.
 

Just three thoughts on Orthodoxy

I sometimes talk about a version of Christianity, Orthodoxy, that is not well known in the West; whenever I say that I am Orthodox, people usually think I am an Orthodox Jew. Western and Eastern Christianity may be divided by many things, and I will not go into details here. However, I will mention three aspects especially because I think that sometimes they are not associated with what people call Christianity in the public sphere.

First of all, in Orthodoxy we do not encounter the idea of the two worlds that comes from Greek philosophy. In this sense, Christianity is not Platonism. At least it is not Platonism as it has been traditionally understood, that is the idea that we live here in a world only to wait for a future, better world. I tend to think that Plato himself did not hold this belief since for him philosophy was preparation for death and dying. The last part, dying, suggests an activity of every moment in which the self disappears in order to make place to something that is inside of me. But this is not about Plato, so let me not get into details. Platonism, though, with clearly separated two worlds, suggests that we live in this world with a view towards the other, completely future world. Thus, one often hears people say that the only genuine life is the one after the biological death. In Orthodoxy, life on this earth, here and now, is important for any future life because we live here in whatever kingdom we may be living in the future. Christ has not said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is coming,” but rather “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17); it is ready to be grasped. The Kingdom is at hand, close to us, not temporally, but near us, in our presence, in our midst; it is graspable now. As Fr. Arsenie Boca, a Romanian priest who, as many others, suffered communist persecution, used to say, “do not expect to live, after death, in a different world than the one in which you have lived during life.” This emphasis on the Kingdom present here, emphasis that was witnessed throughout Christendom at its beginning, can be seen in the way in which the Liturgy begins, with the priest’s greeting of the kingdom: Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (see Fr. Alexander Schmemann). The coming together of the people in Liturgy takes place in the Kingdom.

Second, the East is not interested in arguments for God’s existence. Anselm’s or Aquinas’ fine arguments would be considered, perhaps, nice intellectual endeavors, but not really theological pursuits (and I always enjoy discussing Anselm from a philosophical perspective). In the East, the only argument for God’s existence is the life of a good human being. One lives one’s life such that the presence of God cannot be denied. In fact, if you think about the problem of evil as it is approached in one of the most famous Orthodox writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky, even Ivan, one of the Karamazov Brothers, does not say that the amount of evil in the world shows that God does not exist, but rather that if God created such a world he respectfully returns the ticket. I take this as claiming something along these lines: “My dear God, be that as it may, I don’t want to do anything with Your world.” I take it that Dostoevsky’s point is that any theodicy is already doomed because it connects suffering to a possible reward in the afterlife, and from here two problems ensue. One, we justify suffering and so we give it being. Two, we posit two separate different worlds, and we return to Platonism. Such a view is presented in the novel by Ivan, the one who loves humanity in the abstract. There is another lover of humanity in the abstract: Satan. Both of them reject the world as means of communion between people, on the one hand, and between people and good, on the other, while claiming that they refuse this world in the name of their love for humanity.

Third, let me quote Vladimir Lossky who says that Orthodoxy “is not limited by any particular type of culture, by the legacy of any civilization (Hellenistic or otherwise), or by strictly eastern cultural forms… What have Hellenism and Russian culture in common…? Orthodoxy has been the leaven in too many different cultures to be itself considered a cultural form of eastern Christianity. The forms are different; the faith is one” (Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church 17). I wanted to mention this third final point because it gives an idea about communion in difference, one of the features of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church does not have a head among the Bishops; it recognizes no Pope as the head of the Church. The only head the Orthodox Church is Christ. While one has different approaches in manifesting faith (and if you go to a Greek, a Romanian, an Antiochian, or a Russian church, you will perceive differences), the communion remains valid. A theologian (and I don’t remember who) said once that the loaf of bread is given to the church, then it is divided in pieces to be used for communion, but only to become one again in the coming together of the people in communion.

 

Football, Soccer, and Heraclitus

 

After writing about experiencing reality through art, I talked to a friend of mine about common emotions. She thought that it was not important how I made sense intellectually of an emotion, but rather that through my questioning I sent this emotion her way, making her present in the moment, experiencing that which I experienced. “It is more than a madeleine,” she said. I answered saying something along these lines: perhaps what was there gave birth in me to an emotion; in fact, it somehow brought to surface that with which I was already pregnant; her witnessing to this birth occasioned her own giving birth to that with which she was already pregnant. Being there (in this town at that hour of the morning) was not required for this; the only thing that was required was presence, genuine presence, which connects one with oneself, for in oneself one already has the beauty of the entire world. I wrote more about this in Pregnant with the Beautiful.

My friend and I continued to discuss whether we needed a common language in order to have thiscommon” experience. In a sense, I think we do not. In another sense, we do. And I think Heraclitus has already told us about this.

In B107, he says,  κακοὶμάρτυρες ἀνθρώποισιν ὀφθαλμοὶ καὶ ὦτα βαρβάρους ψυχὰς ἐχόντων: poor witnesses for people are the eyes and ears of those who have barbarian souls. I will not proceed to an exhaustive analysis of the paragraph, but I will say a few things that have to do with soccer and football.

B107 says something about the fact that experience does not inform us; it must be something beyond that, a deep structure of the world—let’s call this structure logos, since we discuss Heraclitus, but I would name it Beauty—which speaks to us by means of all the things we experience with our senses. People with barbarian souls (Martha Nussbaum says that Heraclitus means here non-speakers of Greek), although they see and hear, do not understand this deep structure; there is something that these souls lack, perhaps some training, and that causes them to have private understandings. What they perceive are private things, the happenings in the world. They are like children who do not understand the jokes of their parents even if they understand the phrases. Barbarous souls perceive phrases (the events they experience), but only in a private manner, without understanding the meaning.

Consider two people, John and Peter, watching a football game together. John was brought up in the US, and so he grew up playing and watching football. He knows the rules of the game and judges each play according to these laws. Peter just arrived in the US from Europe. His whole life he played and watched what he has also called football—John calls this game soccer. For Peter, it is his first time watching a “football” game. He sees the same game John sees, but the events on the screen do not make sense to him. The moving of the ball does not seem to have a purpose. Peter’s untrained psychē (soul) makes his eyes and ears poor witnesses. He does not react to John’s moments of joy, nor to his despairs. He is absent, although his body is present (those who know Heraclitus will recognize the allusions to other fragments). John explains to Peter the rules, and little by little he begins to make sense of what he sees on the field. Of course, he still does not understand everything, and many of the players’ decisions do not make sense, although he has listened to John’s explanation. But John’s speech itself has not yet sunk in. He heard John, but he has not heard yet the rule of the game. In other words, he has not listened to the deep structure of the game, to its logos, to its beauty. It may be that, little by little, after experiencing several games, Peter begins to understand what these different utterings (the games) express—the rule of the game. At the end, he succeeds in distinguishing each play according to its nature (fragment B1, of course) precisely because they are what they are according to the rule of the game.

 

Heraclitus’ logos is certainly much more than the rules of a game. But for him, a barbarian soul is one that cannot connect with this logos that it should find within. Because of this inability, a barbarian soul perceives particular events and interprets them in a particular fashion, as if it had a private understanding. Such a thing takes place when there is no connection between this soul and the logos. But only a soul which has connection with the logos can read each event according to its nature. There is just one step from this yet unqualified connection between psychē and logos to the idea that the forms must be present within psychē in order for there to be genuine understanding. And maybe just another one to saying that people do not need a common language in order to communicate to one another, even if they still need a common Language: Beauty.

Eminescu’s Ode

Mihai Eminescu is considered a Romanian national poet. I translated one of his poems in English:


Ode (in ancient meter)
                                          by Mihai Eminescu


I could not imagine ever learn to die;

Always youthful, fully wrapped in my mantle,

I directed my dreaming eyes always up

To solitude’s star.

When suddenly you sprang out onto my way,

Oh, you, suffering, you, so painfully sweet…

I drank the full glass of death’s voluptuousness…

Unmerciful death.

Woe, I burn alive, tormented like Nessus,

Or like Hercules, poisoned in his mantle;

I can’t extinguish my fire even with

All the sea’s waters.

Due to my own dream, I lament, all finished;

On my very own stake, I’m melting in flames

Can I ever come up, rise again brightly,

Just like the Phoenix?

May distracting eyes vanish out from my sight,

Come back to my bosom, sad indifference;

So that I can peacefully die, my own self

To me give it back!

The morning fog and reality mediated by art



As I was driving with my son to school yesterday morning, we could see on the fields just a thin line of fog, that was mixing quite beautifully with the colors of fall. My son got his phone and took some pictures immediately. Both of us were quite joyful in contemplating the beauty of the scenery.

This morning, there was some fog again, which prompted us to talk about yesterday. “The pictures did not look that good,” my son said. And I surprised myself with this reply, “Yes, they did not show the beauty of it. Yesterday, it was as beautiful as a painting.”

There were three levels in our discussion: reality, reality captured improperly in one form of art (photography), and art (painting) according to which one could judge the value of reality itself. I could translate what I said to my son with something along these lines: “Your picture would have been valuable as long as it reached the standard set by paintings; yesterday’s scenery did this.”

The bottom line was this: the standard of beauty is given by art. If the morning fog on our way to school was beautiful, it was because it resembled art.  

And I have to wonder: what does this say about me? Do I need to be told what beauty is in order to be able to perceive it? Is there an incapacity of direct communion with reality (perhaps due to an incapacity of genuine communion with the inner human)? Do I, in my humanness, need mediation in order to understand whether a scenery, a book, an action, or a human are beautiful? Do I need mediation in order to rejoice? Was my enjoyment of the morning fog already mediated by my previous contemplation of “morning fogs” in pictures and paintings?

I guess Plato may have something to say about it.