Paul Goma: “Who am I?”

Paul Goma died last week in France of coronavirus. For those who do now know about him, read the short article about his works and about his activities as a dissident to the communist regime in Romania. Below, you can find a text about himself but also about how people tend to place others (and most often themselves) into categories. It is my translation of the introduction of his The Colors of the Rainbow ’77 (Humanitas 1990). His words speak of freedom.

Photo from: https://www.romaniajournal.ro/society-people/romanian-dissident-writer-paul-goma-dies-of-coronavirus-in-france-media-report/

There have been many years since I approach a mirror, unless I shave. Even then, I don’t do it to see myself–I know me to the point thatI’m indifferent to myself–but rather to avoid cutting me.

However, since I arrived in the West, I surprise myself before a mirror, even without intending to shave. I know me, and I don’t really care for the face across the path; however, I repeat others’ questions:

What are you, Paul Goma? Are you a dissident? An opponent? A communist, a fascist? An anarcho-syndicalist, a free-tradist? Are you on the right, on the left? Are you on the center-three-quarters-toward-the-north-east-faced-to-south-south? What are you?”

Knowing me to the point of indifference, I don’t answer. If I were asked–even through me–“Who are you?”, I would have answered, “I don’t know,” but this would have been an answer. However, “What are you?” is not a question, but an aggression. A violation. An insolent, imbecile summation, as any summation, which does not require an answer but only requires of me to “choose” a certain group, a certain rubric, to choose, I, a numbered cell.

Since I came in the West, I have been always asked:

What was the movement for human rights in Romania, in 1977? A reformist movement? A movement of opposition? Possibly free-tradist? An annex to Charter 77? A nationalist spurt? Was it a soviet diversion? A version à la roumaine of Trotsky-socialisant euro-communism? What was it?”

Since it was no longer about me (even doubled in the mirror), I was forced to answer, to explain not what it was, but what it was not; questions vitiated answers.

Incidentally, I am a writer. By structure, education, formation, incidentally I think and I act according to a moral code. All the political Talmuds scare and sicken me. At home, I learned to be for good and against evil–any color it may have, regardless of whether it has the swastika or the hammer and sickle on the forehead, regardless of whether it dictates in the name of nationalism of internationalism.

[…]

Incidentally, I am a writer: that animal who narrates that which he knows, even if, at times, he does not know what he narrates.

Love in isolation

Photo by David Smith.

I am in isolation for 14 days. No virus problems, but we switched to online work and encouraged to stay home. I’m almost thankful for it. I was increasingly worried that I may become the one through whom others would get the disease. Now, with the isolation, it feels as if I were given the gift of the freedom to not get others sick.

This makes me wonder about my other problems: the “viruses” that I often carry with me into the world. My anger, my judgments, my lack of patience, my passions… Those aspects about me get others sick, often without me knowing. Words that I carelessly say, phrases expressed in anger or out of a perceived harm, eat at the goodness and positivity of others. Contrary to Corona or other viruses, these other “spiritual” viruses don’t murder people physically, but don’t they contribute to their spiritual death?

Still, I am given the freedom to carry them with me into the world. I, part of God’s creation, am placed within His larger creation with the power to murder it. Terrible situation: to be called to love the world while being allowed to uglify it. This seems to mean that if I truly love this world, if I am called to love God’s creation by affirming its beauty within me, I am called to personal purification not for my sake, but for the sake of Beauty: creation itself. I need to work towards curing my “viruses” not for my sake, but for the sake of the constellations in which I participate.

So I am thankful for isolation. But even in this isolation, I am not isolated: I can harm the ones I love the most: those who are isolated together with me, my family. Isolation is not then a break, but a reminder of how I need to change for the sake of everyone in my life, and thus for the sake of the beauty of God’s creation.

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In the Orthodox Church, we are during Great Lent, a period in which one is faced with one’s own shortcomings. It is a period of renewal of the entire creation, for it ends on the Sunday of the Resurrection. We are required to separate a bit from the world, so that we can remember we have the power to harm it without even realizing and also the responsibility to love its beauty. And we look into ourselves so that we can fully and authentically be with all others.

The Friday of the Crucifixion and the Sunday of the Resurrection: there is no one without the other.

We are all to blame…

“We’re all to blame, all of us… if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

These words are uttered by another character in Dostoevsky’s Devils, Shatov. If you are familiar with other works, such as Crime and Punishment or Brothers Karamazov, the idea that we are all responsible for the sins of others is not a novelty. Let me mention only Zosima here, or even Mitya, the eldest or the Karamazov brothers, who says, “We are all cruel, we are all monsters, we all cause suffering to people… but… I’m worse than anyone.”

You may also be familiar with one of the prayers before the Eucharist, which is said by all people participating in the sacrament together, at the same time: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

All of these words, including Shatov’s, bring forth the same idea, that we all have responsibility for the suffering of the others. However, if Zosima’s and Mitya’s words seem to emphasize the responsibility that one accepts–a responsibility that precedes him–Shatov’s expression has a different flavor: “if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

Shatov utters these words after he finds out that his wife, whom he hasn’t seen in three years, is pregnant and is about to deliver a baby. With no questions, no judgments, no .accusations, he runs to find a midwife. In a moment in which he could feel that he has been wronged, he says, “We’re all to blame, all of us…” It is, I take it, a description of the human condition: we are born into this world, we participate into it, and so we must acknowledge that its scars are manifestations of our own behaviors.

Still, in the midst of this pure feeling, Shatov says, “if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

This is such a human reaction, and, at the same time, the seed of our judgment for our brethren… The desire to have the others see that they are just like you, responsible for their and your suffering, is one of the most understandable desires one could have, be it in interpersonal relations or in society.

Consider a married couple as an example for the former. You feel your spouse has harmed you, and your suffering may blind you first. But then you may still realize that you are to be blamed, for in this world of sinners “I am the first.” You see her absence or her blow as manifestations of your own lack of presence, of your own inadequacy, and so your perceived suffering is transformed in love. Still, a thought creeps into your heart, “if only she could be convinced that she also is to blame…” And this is not because you consider that she has any guilt, but rather because we are all made out of the same mud, we live in the same world, and thus we are touched by all of its impurities. And just this little thought brings your defeat… For you no longer say, “I am the first sinner, I am first responsible for all,” but rather that she is the first one, even if you don’t realize it.

Societies… When the third comes in, and so the political, Shatov’s words become even more dangerous. “If only everyone could see how they are responsible for the lives of the others…” Of course, I am responsible as well, but they must see it, too. They must see that this world depends on them. There is one step from the beauty of Shatov’s words to ugliness and death. These words are the creed of any totalitarian communist society, which comes to claim that we are all responsible and equal in that responsibility. And those who do not see it are “enemies of the people,” individuals who must be eliminated, sent to Siberia or executed in dungeons.

“We’re all to blame, all of us… if only everyone could be convinced of that…” Of course, if everyone could be convinced of that, then there would be no suffering. Shatov may not have to face a group of people dedicated to causes. Still, even so, Shatov’s words invite us to vigilance against our own hearts: the demons never leave us alone, even in moments of beauty.

An athlete for all

6:00 am. I’ve been awake for a while, but I feel like going back to bed, to linger there for 5 more minutes. My wife senses me and says, “What did Simona do?”

“She lost,” I reply. “I’m so sorry,” my wife says.

I had waken up at 4:00 am, and the first thing I did was to check Simona Halep’s result in the semifinal at the Australian Open.

We live in the US, and still, the first thought we had in the morning was about Simona, a Romanian who plays tennis for herself, but who brings together many hearts while doing so.

There is something about these athletes, who are able to produce such emotion by hitting a ball with a tennis racket or by throwing a ball into a basketball hoop. We can discuss notions of identity, belonging… We can engage in moralizing arguments about the intrinsic importance (or lack of importance) of the ability to run on a court or on a football pitch… We can analyze the social impact of sports…

But how is it that the successes of someone I have never met are so important to me that they are the first thing on my mind when I wake up in the morning? Of course, one may say that it is about my own successes, that somehow the successes of people who belong to the same nation with me are experienced as my own. But there seems to be more than that: it is about Simona’s sadness when she loses, and Simona’s joy when she wins. Her feelings (or what I imagine them to be) touch me.

Imagine the many cries for joy that accompany a successful backhand; imagine all the sighs that are buried together with the ball into a net… And imagine living the life of an athlete who takes together with her the energy of millions of people. There is a certain freedom in this: the energy is not mandatory, but it is offered freely, in love.

Can each of us become an athlete for those who share our lives, so that we redeem the world that is touched by us in our dedication to whatever talents each one of us may have? A world full of athletes, each dedicated to his or her talent and thus to all around them. Perhaps this is what it means to be part of a body: to be a limb that attempts to live virtuously (in the Greek sense of excellence, arete) and who rejoices in the excellence of all other limbs. A Body: a Kantian Kingdom of Ends. A Kingdom of Athletes.

The temptation to change the suffering in the world

There is one aspect of human life that we cannot change: death. In a world of uncertainty, one thing is certain, that there will be a time when we will no longer be here. But before that time, there are many aspects of human life that we feel we can change, and one such aspect is as universal as death is: suffering. Anyone of us has experienced suffering and has desired in one moment or another to do something about it, to act in way that would eradicate or, at least, diminish it. This is especially the case when we see people dear to us go through terrible psychological or physical pain.

Perhaps we can call this desire to eliminate suffering a desire to beautify the world. Exhausted by the ugliness that surrounds us, by innumerable instances of violence, treason, or boorishness, we want to change our reality and the people belonging to it in the name of the good. It is the simple desire of improving our world.

Of course, I can simply say, as I’ve done before, that this is how many murderers begin, with good intentions. We’ve heard that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We know that that communists, for example, justify torture, deportations, and killings by claiming that they eliminate the bad elements of the society and that suffering of some is justified by the subsequent creation a perfect society. But saying all of this is not sufficient, and this is mainly because speaking against the attempt to beautify the world by changing your surroundings and the people around you seems to sound as a call to passivity. Someone on this blog called me on this (see the comments on Dostoevsky and various solar systems), and I often wonder about it myself. The temptation to change the ugliness around you and to “repair” those people you believe are repairable is, in my experience at least, one of the most powerful forces of existence.

But I am not talking about a passivity that is opposed to action. In fact, I believe that this temptation to act, to do something about the ugliness of the world, can stem only out of passivity, out of a state in which I don’t do anything for it, out of a state of complacency in which I allowed myself to forget about that ugliness and to forget that it is somehow manifested in me as well, for I am part of this world.

It all begins with the self, with the focus I have on the self. I have said it here before, I think. There is one way of looking at the world as if it were a nice soup that I am having for dinner. I taste of it, and I make a judgment: it is too salty, too sour, or too sweet. The temptation to “repair” it comes only from that position, that of an objective outsider. But there is another way of looking at the world. In this other way, I realize that the taste of this soup is the way it is because I am also part of it and that I cannot taste of it without, at the same time, tasting of myself. This realization takes place beyond the choice between passivity and action. Passivity and action take place when I judge something from the outside and try to decide what to do about it or whether I should do anything. I can feel “responsible” for the world or I can believe that the only responsibility I have is for my life only. If I see myself as part of the soup, my responsibility is not a choice, but it is a way of being and it precedes me and it also precedes any choice I have. And so I need to work on my “taste,” to let it help the taste of this soup, trusting that somehow all the other vegetables and seasons and ingredients of this soup will be touched by it. This is the only kind of healing responsibility that I can imagine.

Eucharistia: an all embracing thanksgiving

Photo by Vlad Dumitrescu (http://www.vladdumitrescu.ro)

“Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World).

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“The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God–and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World).

*

Perhaps the first “missing of the mark” is eating without being thankful, and so without becoming myself nourishment for those around me.

And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Bethlehem: “Bayit lehem,” the house of bread.

It is rather beautiful that the feast of Thanksgiving takes place at the beginning of the fast that prepares us for Bethlehem.

Radical diversity and C.S. Lewis

In his wonderful introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis says something that we often forget in our discussions about diversity: read old books, because these writers are much more diverse in thinking than any of our contemporary opponents. I’m copying a quote here. If you read nothing from this blog, read at least this. It is more important than anything I could ever say:

“Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook–even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united–united with each other and against earlier and later ages–by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century–the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’–lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt, or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against if, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them”

Whenever I read this passage, I feel as someone reminds me to be humble, especially if I think I am right about something. This happens often–as I think to many of us–especially because humanity tends to think in binary terms: a life before death, and a life after, good and bad people, or us and them.

In fact, we no longer know how to think except in binary terms. If you are a capitalist, you must be against socialism. If you are not a capitalist, then you must be a socialist. If you’re not a democrat, you must be a republican, and if you’re not a republican, then you must be a democrat.

How can you keep yourself from falling into categories in this life? Of course, you can read the ancients and challenge your views (and, implicitly, your age’s view) with their own, but then you return here, in this reality, and anytime you open your mouth people will place you into a category or another. Regardless of how you may be and what you may think, people will always use it and place it into the categories that they understand: the categories that form their reality. Since you utter something, you are already part of their world, and so they must make sense of your account and place it in whatever category is appropriate, in their mind, for your thought.

One possible way to react to categorization is to respond by making all sorts of distinctions: “this is not what I said,” and “it is rather this than this.” But anytime such attempts are done, others still will reshape you into something that you’re not, burying you into the dark forest of the sophist (see Plato’s Sophist as reference). This is just because we, people, cannot handle that which we do not understand and we transform what we don’t understand into something that is perceivable to us.

One such example recently happened to me. I showed a summary of a documentary in class, Lady in No. 6 (see it below–it’s worth it). Alice Herz Sommer, Holocaust survivor, says, “Every day in life is beautiful… Even the bad is beautiful… It has to be.” I showed this movie so that students could see an example of what I think Kierkegaard means by a knight of faith. But what Mrs. Sommer says is incomprehensible: saying that every day in life is beautiful even after you spent numberless days in a concentration camp does not make sense. And so one of my students explained it in a most sensible way (and I often get similar comments when I show the movie in class): “It was her coping mechanism; she needed to think this way.”

“Every day in life is beautiful” makes no sense, so we “explain” it; we reduce the ineffability of life to our own limited capacity of understanding. It is our way to explain that which we don’t understand by a psychological claim that is irrefutable: “it’s a coping mechanism.”

Of course, I am not claiming that this takes away your responsibility and that it’s only the others who do this and that you are absolved of your contribution to the world. After all, you already participate in it–“in sins my mother conceived me,” as Psalm 50 says–and so your own body manifests its problems. But I think this also requires of you to continue to testify to what you take truth to be, as absurd as it may sound, regardless of how this “witnessing” to truth is used and interpreted. C.S. Lewis’s call is one to radical diversity: read the ancients. Read also the medievalists, and even the moderns. And especially read C.S. Lewis.

The video with Lady in Number 6:

For those who read Romanian, some verses from Lucian Blaga:

Eu nu strivesc corola de minuni a lumii

şi nu ucid

cu mintea tainele, ce le-ntâlnesc

în calea mea

în flori, în ochi, pe buze ori morminte.

Failure and success: two sides of the same coin

There are two great dangers for human beings, especially when they go from childhood to adulthood: the inability to deal with one’s failures and successes and the temptation to define oneself. The two of them are connected. It is easy to think you are on top of the world when you accomplish something, but it is as easy, if not even easier, to consider that you are worthless if you fail doing what you planned. In fact, we define ourselves especially during these moments, when we either love or hate where we are in life.

Perhaps one of the problems of our world today is that, in our despair to define ourselves, to find our places in this world from where we can affirm our individuality, we have forgotten to teach children how to deal with their failures and successes. Instead of doing so, we seem to enjoy living in a world that is deprived of freedom, deprived of the freedom of being fine with who I am because I want to either run away from the “I” that I don’t want to be (so the “I” defined by failure) or to run towards the “I” that I want to be (so the “I” defined by success).

Do not accept “the advice of those who say, ‘Human you are, think human thoughts,’ and ‘Mortals you are, think mortal ones,'” Aristotle says. Instead, you should, as far as possible, “assimilate to the immortals and do everything with the aim of living in accordance with what is highest of the things in us; for even if it is small in bulk, the degree to which it surpasses everything in power and dignity is far greater. And each of us would seem actually to be this, given that each is his authoritative and better element; it would be a strange thing, then, if one chose, not one’s own life, but that of something else.”

There’s a lot of freedom in this thought, because it tells me that I can become that which I am potentially by nature: divine. Two options for Aristotle, then: I can be human, and be governed by my successes and failures and so by the judgment I receive from my fellow humans, or I can be divine, and so free, beyond any temptations of self-defining. I don’t need to do anything to become so: I “only” need to know myself.


Parenting, Socrates, and the self

Toward the end of Socrates’ speech during his trial, he addresses his accusers saying,

this much I ask from them: when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody…”

This is a model of parenting that is very foreign to our day and age. Socrates asks his accusers to treat his children the way he has treated them. He ended up in prison mainly because of the way in which he treated his accusers, making them feel embarrassed in public, often before their own students. Socrates says something even more outrageous to our modern sensibilities: tell your students that they are nobody, especially when they think they are somebody.

Imagine a parent telling his or her children that they are nobody. In today’s world, this is easily interpreted as psychological abuse; we would say that the parent does not allow his or her children to be themselves. In fact, Socrates’ attitude seems to be completely opposed to the desire to manifest one’s own individuality.

There’s a beautiful song in what I thought a beautiful movie, The Greatest Showman, that speaks of manifesting one’s individuality. The following video is quite moving, for it shows someone who feels as if she came out of the oppression you experience when you don’t feel welcome for who you are.

The shout, “THIS IS ME,” and Socrates’ “my children are nobody” seem to be so foreign. But this is so only at a superficial level. Socrates wants his children to be reminded that they are nobody whenever they believe they are somebody. For human beings, this usually happens when we fall in love with what the world has made us to be and we consider this product of our era as our true self. In fact, Socrates’ philosophy is a call for each one of us to find ourselves: our true selves. For this, one needs to be reminded first that whatever he considers himself to be is a nobody created by the world around him: the ideas he has ingurgitated, the fears that formed him, the praises that he received. Socrates only says that we need to remember that all of those things are not us, but are the nobodies that they created. Give them up, and the true self will shine, he seems to say. It is most likely that we would not need to shout to the world that “this is me” when we truly find it.

Moments of travel with Dostoevsky and Elder Cleopa

I left home to go home.

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There are so many cemeteries on the way from Fagaras to the airport. In the speed of the car, I think I see one with soldiers fallen during WWI. So many young people who could not be mourned by their unborn children… Still, they are my “parents.” I can mourn them. Or I can rejoice in them. I carry them with me, whether I want it or not. And I am most aware of it when I see the cross from my own tomb before my eyes. “The highest wisdom of human beings?” asked Elder Cleopa. He answered, “Death! Death! Death!”

*

“Only in the light of Dostoevsky’s fundamental artistic task […] can one begin to understand the profound organic cohesion, consistency and wholeness of Dostoevsky’s poetics.” Bakhtin is correct: there is consistency and wholeness in Dostoevsky’s work. Perhaps because of his dialogism as well, but for sure for one other reason: death is the one that gives consistency to his world. Everything in Dostoevsky’s writings can be understood as long as we begin with the end, the inevitable end of all of his characters; the inevitable end of all human beings. Dostoevsky’s world is cohesive inasmuch as it is governed by death. Paradoxically, some may say, but most naturally, I would say, it is this death that gives light, brilliance, to all human beings.

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I got on the plane. There’s a lady next to me. She has two toddlers. “She will cry,” she says, pointing to her daughter. She’s probably one year old, and she’s so full of life. She has no inhibitions and makes sure that everyone around her is aware of her presence. Two seats in front of me, a young adult is playing on his phone. His earbuds in his ears, he’s completely closed to everyone around him. How many prayers does he carry with him? Do his parents’ thoughts embrace him on his journey?

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A few years ago, I went to Fr. Roman Braga’s funeral. The day before the entombment, the church at the Dormition Monastery was full: clergy and people, all brought together by their love for Fr. Roman. His corps was laying in the middle of the church, facing the altar, and we were all singing: “Christ is Risen from the death, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”

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The little girl fell asleep, and so my seat neighbor enjoys some peace and quiet. We all do.

We can be so separated, and still so united. Flying together to various “homes,” flying together to personal deaths. Still, each one of us is embraced by so many angels. Just like this girl, whose mother keeps her in her arms, without complaining for one moment, although she could not move for an hour. She only smiles, looking at her girl. Blessed are those whose arms are other people’s seatbelts. And blessed are those who have their seatbelts on for the moment of landing.