One of the chapters of Inner Lives of Cultures, mentioned in the last post, is “Surrealism and Survival in Romania” by Carmen Fimen (at pp 177-193) and is worth quoting at length -
The symbol of Romania is the peasant. Looking old and wise, or just tired, dressed in a long fur coat, a shepherd scrutinizing the horizon, or just searching for his magical ewe or lamb, he represented the essence of this place – agrarian by excellence, resilient over time, the iconic image of stability and persistence. One of the dramatic consequences of the Communist ideology in Romania was the destruction of the villages along with their traditions and customs, and the humiliation of the peasant torn from his natural surroundings, forced to leave his land, his church and his belief and to move to the outskirts of the big cities, in order to work in socialist mammoth factories, where he lost his ancestral identity, where he felt depersonalised and estranged from his native environment........Romania can be described as a country rich in ethnic diversity striving to preserve its uniqueness at the crossroads between the East and the West, between the Balkans and the Orient, with a people that displays a Mediterranean temper in the South combined with Balkan customs, a Slavic pace in the Northeast, or a rigorous diligence in Transylvania.
The inter-bellum period - The period of glory for Romania is considered by many to be the era between the two World Wars.After the unification of all its territories in 1918, Romania looked like a fairly large and prosperous state, going through a time of important reforms, a time of economic and cultural flourishing, development of its industrial sector, and it became one of the most important exporters of oil and wheat. Bucharest, nicknamed ‘little Paris’, as rumours have it, could stand next to any major European metropolis. .....A new artistic movement emerged, the Romanian avant-garde, which eventually conquered Europe and contributed to the birth of surrealism in visual art, literature and cinema.......Between the two World Wars, Romanian culture was for the first time in sync with the latest Western trends in Paris or London, becoming a strong participant in the international dialogue of values. Remarkable avant-garde and surrealist talents emerged in Romania, featuring a cosmopolitan cultural attitude. In 1916, Tristan Tzara, a Romanian émigré to Zurich, invented Dadaism. There were three distinctive groups of artists: modernist – focused on Western, urban and intellectual culture; traditionalist – oriented towards the religious orthodoxy of the rural world; and the third, proclaiming the birth of the national character, situated at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. But even this time of prosperity had its paradoxes: except for a few big cities and the wealthy elite, the rest of the country was still impoverished and illiterate and there was no time left for profound changes.
Fifty Years of Isolation - Romania entered the harshest dictatorship in Europe, weakened and humiliated by the Fascist regime and the Iron Guard that compromised the country’s prestige during the Second World War. Years of terror followed. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist gulag continued the Fascist horrors. For almost 50 years, Romania experienced isolation and was cut off from the West.The local Communist leaders annihilated any trace of intellectual opposition.
Between 1948 and 1964, one Romanian out of nine (meaning about two million people) was sent into a Communist concentration camp. The official literature, or so-called socialist realism, glorified Stalin, his politics and the new proletarian class.
Despite all the official oppression, intellectuals gathered in informal discussion groups to keep their sanity and, slowly, a counterculture was born. Several groups of artists rejected the aggressive intrusion of the Communist propaganda, bringing along a fresh, nonconformist subversive voice, opposed to the official ideology. Although Romania didn’t have an organised Samizdat, individual voices of courage made themselves heard, like the political dissident Paul Goma in 1977 or, later, the ‘Blue Jeans generation of writers’. Over the years, Romanians were perceived through various stereotypes, more or less warranted: a people hesitating between excessive praise and self-disparagement, between laments or victimisation and an ostentatious superiority; coming up with dark plots and conspiracies to explain historical events, but also with an interesting, rich culture and a lively artistic life, with sophisticated intellectuals; xenophobic, nationalistic, but still tolerant in many respects; hospitable, enthusiastic, genuine and warm; inclined towards constant ridicule, with a predisposition to mock everything.
Ways of Coping....We lived under one of the toughest dictatorships in Europe, watched by the secret police, and isolated from the rest of the world. We did our best to survive within a closed society. One way was to get together in groups selected on the basis of affinities which had to do with art, literature, philosophy or simply a few common tastes.
Our lives were simple. We didn’t care about cholesterol, pollution or the negative effects of smoking; nor did we worry about the dangers of obesity, drug addiction or violence. We didn’t need anti-depressants, although we had good reasons to take Prozac. No one sought psychoanalysis, therapists or shrinks, although we had good reason to be depressed. When you live in a cave, with few choices, all sorts of self-defence mechanisms spring into action. One is interpersonal communication. In a society like ours, communication involved sincerity and spontaneity. People talked loudly, gesticulated profusely and even cursed often; they lived and hated passionately. They used to make grandiose plans in the evening, over many glasses of alcohol, only to discard them as impossible to achieve the next morning. And yet these people were authentic in their despair and passionate in their fantasies.
Paradoxically, in such an abnormal and repressive society, they were anything but alienated. In fact, they practiced a type of group therapy, unorganised and without clear goals. In that Balkan atmosphere, their conversations in the shadow of ruined ‘little Paris’ were delightful, a never-ending chatter, spectacular and useless, over full ashtrays and cheap alcohol, all-night-long discussions and hung-over mornings. They weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. They had no place to go.In the opaque world of Communism, time meant nothing. The dictatorship seemed permanent. To keep our sanity, we had only the refuge of books and an inner language of freedom, parallel to the official one. Words had no power to change our destiny, but they could keep us sane. And our soul? Nobody mentioned it, but it was there all along, in the arabesques of our lamentations, in the last cigarette butts crushed at sunrise against the background of a hideous smoking factory at the outskirts of the city.
People learned not to trust the official language in the press, in schools, and at work. Most of them doubted any official political speech and cultivated disbelief and irony as part of their self-defence mechanism.Everybody was aware of living in a ‘make-believe’ world, fully aware of its duplicity.As writers, the metaphor was our main weapon to evade political censorship.
Although biographies and memoirs were almost impossible to squeeze through the tight net of censorship, poetry and prose could be enveloped in a protective shell of metaphor and allegory, esoteric enough to get the forbidden truth out regardless of whether it was about political or social reality. Communism disregarded metaphors. It identified the soul as its main enemy. Demolishing churches and synagogues was not enough. That merely eliminated places of worship, but they also got to destroy the metaphors of spirituality, making them appear weak and misleading.
Another source of refuge was humour, carelessness or frivolity. In spite of our bad times, we managed to maintain our sense of humour. There was no shortage of jokes in those days, which acted like some sort of a safety valve. We seemed to be a surreal people who could not stop laughing, even while we were slowly dying! We were like patients in a militarised hospital, subjected to a utopian treatment for an imaginary disease, feeling both guilt and absolution. Guilt, because of the cowardice each one of us had to practice; absolution, because the collective farce so perfectly played on us.
After Communism.......After the fall of Communism, other clichés became associated with Romania, describing a country still haunted by the ghosts of the Communist nomenclature which was soon back in power, by stray dogs, orphans, AIDS victims infected by contaminated blood which they had received in hospitals, human traffic, impoverished Roma population, pickpockets and thieves making headlines in the Western media. I’m not fighting against clichés. They are based, after all, on reality, however exaggerated or generalised it might be. But Romania, despite all its problems, continued to produce an intense cultural life. Even during the totalitarian era, culture had symbolised resistance within the Communist censorship, defence from the absurdity of the system and an underground form of freedom. In the late 1980s, a visitor from England remarked in awe: ‘This country looks surreal to me. You have nothing to eat but wait in line for hours to buy theatre tickets and books…’ It was our form of survival, sanity and refusal to submit to alienation.