More on Mircea Eliade and Jews, from the Journal of Mihail Sebastian, from selections published in the New Yorker October 2, 2000:September 25, 1936
He [Eliade] is able to work comfortably with the anti-Semitic Vremea [a newspaper], as if there were nothing untoward about it. Nevertheless I shall do everything possible to keep him.
February 25, 1937
Yesterday evening, there was a little party at our place. Mircea, [his wife] Nina, Marietta, [her husband] Haig, Dinu [Noica].
I wonder if this won't be the last time I ask them round. I don't feel I can stand the duplicity that our friendship has required since they went over to the Iron Guard. Is friendship possible with people who have in common a whole set of alien ideas and feelings - so alien that I have only to walk in the door and they suddenly fall silent in shame and embarrassment?
September 20, 1939
Titel Comarnescu tells me of a political conversation he had recently with Mircea, who is more pro-German than ever, more anti-French and anti-Semitic.
"The Poles' resistance in Warsaw," says Mircea, "is a Jewish resistance. Only yids are capable of the blackmail of putting women and children in the front line, to take advantage of the Germans' sense of scruple. Rather than a Romania again invaded by kikes, it would be better to have a German protectorate."
Now I understand perfectly why he is so reticent with me when it is a question of politics, and why he appears to take refuge in metaphysics to escape "the horrors of politics."
Just look at what he thinks, your ex-friend Mircea Eliade.
The Great Work and the Compromised Man: An Interview with Norman Manea
Carla Baricz interviews Norman Manea
You say in your essay, “The Incompatibilities” that Sebastian’s Journal is an account of the “rhinocerization” of certain Romanian intellectuals, whom Sebastian counted among his friends. You discuss Mircea Eliade, E. M. Cioran and Constantin Noica. Can you elaborate on the term “rhinocerization?”
The word comes from one of Eugene Ionesco’s plays, and Ionesco is an interesting case. He was not very political. In fact, he was one of the very few intellectuals in this group who did not condone this sort of right-wing nationalism. He said somewhere that when he left Romania, around 1939, and reached the Hungarian border, he felt that he was finally saved. At the end of the war, in ’44, he wrote in his diary that he would never shake hands with Eliade, Ionescu, Cioran any of those people. Of course, later they became friends. That’s exile. In exile, they suddenly felt like Romanians in Paris. And they were reconciled, and they started talking again. But as I said before, Ionesco felt differently during and right after the war. He says in his diary that “I could have become anything — I could have become a legionary, I could have become a dog, I could have become a base beast in that atmosphere.” And then he wrote this play, Rhinoceros, which discusses the slow transformation of human beings into rhinoceros, meaning beasts. The only person who remains human is the guy who is not virtuous, who is a drunk, who is lazy, who doesn’t work. All these other guys who display great principles, moral principles, become rhinoceros. But this man, who is human in his defects, remains human. This is the metaphor of the play.
The play was presented in the late ’60s or early ’70s in Romania, in a wonderful production with [Radu] Beligan in the leading role. For us, of course, it was anti-totalitarian and anti-communist, but it applies to all totalitarian systems. It’s about the slow degradation and loss of real humanness. Up to the very end, the rhinoceros maintain that they are the very best, that they are patriots. It should be said that, in Romania, the right-wing movement that gained support in the ’30s was very different from Nazism and fascism. Nazism and Fascism were atheistic movements, movements against the church. The Legionary movement was religious — Christian Orthodox. It was a different thought process: “The Jews have to be eliminated because we have to have this pure life, the life God wants us to lead, or Jesus, or whatever.” In that way, it was similar to what the communist movement advocated. The communist utopian ideology was based on the idea of “the new man.” This was a very dangerous idea, because real life is imperfect, we are imperfect, and when you ask us to be perfect, well, that’s the first step towards terror and tyranny.
Of course, Eliade’s Hooligans is also all about creating the “new man.” That’s the goal of all the young people in the novel. They want to embody “the new man.” And to do that, they constantly refer to Nae Ionescu.
The Romanian extreme right emphasized the cult of death. Death was seen as man’s greatest achievement. The moment of culmination was death. All in all, this was very different from the hypocritical, humanist socialist ideology. The left borrowed its humanism from the French Revolution. The right was completely against it; they had a much darker view of things. The Legionaries were the only ones who resisted in the communist jails and didn’t compromise. Similarly, the communists were the only ones who survived the Nazi jails and didn’t compromise. Both the far left and the far right had beliefs to which they fully dedicated themselves, for better or for worse. We, in a democracy, are told every day to be pragmatic, to find a way to get by, to compromise between the Democrats and the Republicans. And now, when both parties have become extremely ideological, they cannot reach an agreement. That’s a problem. Nevertheless, even though democracy is not perfectly pure or moral, it is more human.
I want to broaden the scope a little and ask about the many intellectual figures that you name in your work, people who made terrible, unforgivable compromises. I’m thinking of the young Mircea Eliade, of Emil Cioran, of Constantin Noica, and under communism, of Paul Georgescu, “the flying elephant.” Do you think the work can stand independent of the writer? Or is aesthetic merit undermined by ideological compromise?
The work can and should stand independently, in my opinion. There are cases when the work still has merit, despite the shortcomings of its writer. Human beings are not perfect, and there is something redeeming in the human being who, imperfect as he or she is, nevertheless struggles for a perfect work and creates a masterpiece. In my opinion, this redeems the flawed person a little bit. I think that the work should be judged for itself, and the defects of the writer should never be ignored. We can think of the writer as a teaching example. He or she can help us understand difficult periods in human history; what the writer has to say should be dealt with, it should be debated. The great work and the compromised man are a human contradiction, and I am always for contradictions. They’re more interesting than coherences. Of course, sometimes, it’s very difficult to separate one from the other.
Does this view hold up when pressure is exerted by those in power? I am thinking of the physically and mentally tortured woman in your short story, “The Interrogation.” She agrees to the subject she is to paint because, otherwise, she will not be allowed to paint. Is this a different type of compromise?
There is a big difference, in my opinion, between the choices you make as a free man and the choices you make under a totalitarian system. Eliade made his choice freely. At that point, Romania was still governed by a parliamentary system, the liberal bourgeoisie parties still existed; you could be in the Liberal party, or in the Peasant party. Or you could still choose to be completely apolitical. Eliade had a choice. If you are living under a totalitarian system, the decision is different. Your hand is forced. This is why I don’t point fingers at people who were coopted by the communist government, because I can understand human weakness, and I can understand the difficulties of a human life in that type of system. What I cannot forgive or forget are the people who did terrible, horrifying things to other people. But if you compromised simply by going along, if you had a family, or sick brother, or mother, or a child, or you desperately needed a job, and you didn’t hurt anyone, then that’s something else. In my opinion, people are not destined to be heroes, and you should never force people to be heroes. We are human beings. Heroes make up a very small percentage of humanity, and even then, they’re not human, they’re one-dimensional. Not all people are courageous. I had this discussion a number of times in Romania. What do you ask of a poet? You ask him to write good poems. You don’t ask him if he’s betrayed his wife, or what political party he’s voting for, or where he’s having dinner. If he’s a good poet, that’s it. What do you ask of a human being? That’s a hard question.
If you live in that type of society, then your choices are limited. If you are in jail, if you are under interrogation, it’s very hard … I can tell you that I had a couple of meetings with the agents from the Securitate [the secret police], and they pressured me to collaborate, and I behaved well and resisted. But, when I went out into the street, I thought: “My God, if this would have gone on another 10 minutes, I would have broken down. I would have given them what they wanted.” As a frail human being, you don’t always know your limits. The main thing is not to put people in that kind of situation. Life is a continuous compromise, and when you impose rigid criteria, you cannot judge anything properly. There are some criteria that only computers can fulfill. In Romania, I heard the following definition of what a computer is: “A computer is that thing which cannot deal with vague ideas.” But we should deal with vague ideas and compromises. For better or worse, we are not computers, or we aren’t yet. Thank God, I won’t be around if and when that happens.
Can you tell me a little bit about the walking contradiction Paul Georgescu?
He was an extraordinary man, and we were close friends. He was a great gossiper, and he always told me, “Look, I’m going to be remembered in the history of Romanian letters for the nicknames I’ve given to people. This is my greatest achievement.” Of course, that’s not true. He wrote some great books. We were not of the same generation, and he called me “the British liberal.” We had wonderful discussions, and he was an extraordinary reader — a very sarcastic, cultivated man, who also happened to be genuinely funny. I met him through his wife, a truly beautiful woman. Their marriage was a contradiction in terms: she was this frigid, brilliant woman, and he was a complete hedonist. He liked to eat and to drink and to joke.
He was very fat, a kind of Falstaff, and he had a mistress, and he took a taxi to see her. His wife would order the taxi and help him down the stairs! He moved with great difficulty, so she would even have to put him in the car! And his mistress is still alive! You can find her in the Guinness Book of World Records. She is the oldest woman to have been artificially inseminated and to have given birth to a child at, I think, 61 or 62! She was in the papers two or three days ago; she lost her home and bank account. I have no idea why. All the papers sent out appeals for donations, because she is an octogenarian, and because she is this special case … She shared Paul Georgescu’s insane courage, and she did something special with her life.
I met Georgescu through his wife. I was in his wife’s literary circle, not in his (he had his literary salon at his mistress’ house). She read an article I wrote on Radu Petrescu, and then she called me. “I am Dina Georgescu, I read your article, you are a wonderful writer, I am a great admirer, etc. You should come over on Saturday evening, I usually have friends over.” I began to go over monthly, and it was awful. Mainly because of her mother. Her mother was a Jew, from Bessarabia, who spoke Romanian with a very thick accent. At every literary meeting, she would bring out this cake, and the cake was so sweet that you could faint.
Were you expected to eat it?!
Yes! She usually placed a glass of white wine before each of us — it was an extremely sweet white wine. When I went home, I always said: “Now, I’m in desperate need of an onion!” It was very difficult to bear. Her circle was totally apolitical, artistic. She was very beautiful, but very cold. A great reader. She told her husband about me. And then, one time, she invited me over when Paul was at home. She said: “He wants to meet you.” Later, I saw him from time to time, every month or so. From time to time, he would ask me to take him out of the city in my car, in my small Trabant. It was very hard to move him around.
I had long discussions with him about leaving or not leaving. He said, “Norman, yes, you were hurt terribly as a child, but don’t go, you won’t be happy. What will you do there, in that crazy American world?” He cursed me after I left, he said I was an American agent, but after a few years, he became sentimental and came around. He called my wife’s mother and asked about me in a very friendly manner. He became more compassionate over the years. He was a wonderful, extraordinary man, though a dogmatist. He always told me: “Norman, I am not a Stalinist, I am with Trotsky.” This was not better in my opinion; Trotsky was a bit more intelligent than Stalin, but that was about it. Anyway, his case is very different from Sebastian’s. Paul was completely Romanian, he was Orthodox, but almost all his friends were Jewish. That’s how he became a Communist! A wonderful character. He couldn’t drink, his health prevented it, especially in his last years, so he got drunk with coffee. He drank 10 to 20 cups of coffee a day, until he propelled himself into a state of mania. Politically we were complete adversaries, and we couldn’t talk about politics, he considered me a bourgeoisie, Liberal Democrat, but otherwise we were friends.
I remember that you told me once that you had some qualms about being included in that 1970 Hebrew anthology, Jewish Writers in Romanian. Do you see yourself as a Jewish Romanian writer? Or just as a Romanian writer? Or do the labels seem completely unhelpful?
When I came here I was shocked to see the bookstore shelves: women writers, gay writers, Jewish writers, Catholic writers, all the tags. In my opinion, a writer is defined by the language he or she uses. Language is the tool. This is what defines the writer. You are an American writer — gay, black, Hindu, whatever — if you write in English. The topic about which you write is your own business. So, in my opinion, I was a Romanian writer, and my ethnicity was my own business. Of course, it’s not an easy problem to deal with, but it’s my problem. Leave me alone with it. Even if I only write about Jews, as long as I write in English, I am still an American writer. I had this discussion at a conference in Brussels last year. The conference was entitled “How Do We Save Europe?” and I was on a literary panel. I said then what I am saying now. I am not a politician, but I think that, in order to give back to Europe its essence, you have to go back to the Napoleonic definition of citizenship. Napoleon was the first person to introduce the idea that you can be a citizen regardless of ethnicity or religion. This is also the American idea. The only thing that you are asked here is to respect the Constitution. Otherwise, nobody cares what you do, what you think. Everything else is your problem. Anyway, you can apply this to the writer. The writer’s citizenship is his or her language. So, my homeland is the Romanian language. Of course I live here, and we’re speaking in English, and I have an American passport, but I am still a Romanian writer. So, when I saw Jewish Writers in Romanian, I said, “What is this?! Did Moses send me here to write in Romanian? This is my home. I speak Romanian. I’ve never negated the fact that I am Jewish, but my writing belongs to the Romanian literary tradition.” Since then, I’ve grown older. I’ve begun to question myself. I’ve gone through a lot of unpleasant experiences in my life, and maybe there is a point to the tags after all. Maybe we can have sub-shelves within the main shelf of American literature, and that can be a way of sorting things, too. Now I have no idea what I think, and I am very pleased that I don’t know.
So, then, do we dismiss the idea that Jewish writers, writing in Romanian, are the inheritors of a “minor literature?” Does this term not apply?
It depends who they are. You need to think of specific cases. You can’t generalize. What’s Jewish about me? I’ve been asked this a number of times. I am not a religious person, and sometimes I really wish that I was, I think it might have helped me. There are, of course, a number of definitions: one is Jewish if one’s mother is Jewish — the father doesn’t matter, ever, because who knows anything about the father, really — and if one is circumcised. Well, I can say “yes,” on both counts. My mother was Jewish, and I apologize for confessing to the latter requirement as well. Anyway, does this make me a Jew? I grew up in a Jewish house, with certain Jewish habits. My parents were not very religious, but we went to the synagogue two times a year. I spoke Romanian with my parents and with my grandparents. So, am I a Jew? One definition of Jewishness that I do accept — and this is from the Talmud, as I’ve understood — is that a Jew is someone who is against idolatry. I accept this! And, I must say, I like it! I would like to be able to be in the category of people who have an ideal, but who do not become idolaters, who do not let their ideal become idolatry. So, perhaps, in this sense …
Mircea Eliade and Antisemitism: An Exchange
By Philip Ó Ceallaigh, Bryan Rennie
“Eliade’s relationship with the Romanian fascist movement, the Legion of the Archangel Michael, and its viciously antisemitic arm, the Iron Guard, has long been debated,” writes Professor Bryan Rennie.
Professor Rennie seems to misunderstand both the nature of the Iron Guard and Mircea Eliade’s relationship to it during the years of antisemitic psychosis.
Firstly, the Iron Guard was not a “wing” of The Legion of the Archangel Michael. The two terms refer to the same organization. The Legion of the Archangel Michael was established in 1927 and changed its name to the Iron Guard on April 12, 1930 (though it would continue be referred to as the Legion also). The Legion was not a solely anti-Marxist or nationalist (the Romanian Communist Party was then an insignificant force) or the result of territorial losses (the post–World War I treaties left Romania with its territory and population doubled). Professor Rennie’s contention that “there is a distinction between the prewar politics of the right and antisemitism” is true of Italy. It is certainly not true of Romania. Antisemitism was the very life-blood of Romanian fascism, taking as its starting point resentment of the Minorities Treaty of 1919, which obliged Romania to grant citizenship to its minorities, including Jews, in return for recognition by the major powers of a generous territorial settlement. In other words, if you want a country huge enough to encompass minorities, we require you to behave as a modern, democratic state where all are equal.
This unacceptable foreign interference in the Romanian way of doing things is the context for Mircea Eliade’s embrace of the Iron Guard. Romania at the time had the third largest Jewish population in Europe (after the Soviet Union and Poland). Though they made up only four percent of the country’s population, it was they — and not, say, the Bulgarian minority — who in the eyes of the Guard Jews were undermining the Romanian state from both within and without. For the fascists, democracy was the means by which the Jew exerted his influence and only by the violent overthrow of the liberal democratic state could the Jew be vanquished. “If there was ever a good idea that had fatal consequences for a nation, it is, in the case of Romania, democracy,” wrote Eliade in an article in 1937. And the same year: “Can the Romanian people end its days […] wasted by poverty and syphilis, invaded by Jews and torn apart by foreigners? […] The Legionary revolution has the people’s salvation as its supreme goal.”
Mac Linscott Ricketts, Eliade’s biographer, identifies as many as 14 explicitly pro-Legionary articles written by Eliade between January 1937 and February 1938. But it was at dinnertime that Mircea really let himself go. Mihail Sebastian dined with him in March 1937 and records some of the banter:I can’t deny that it was entertaining. In his opinion, the students who carved up Traian Bratu last night in Iasi weren’t Guardists […] As Regards Gogu Radulescu […] the liberal student who was beaten with wet ropes at the Iron Guard headquarters, that was all well and good. It’s what should be done to traitors. He, Mircea Eliade, would not have been content with that; he’d have pulled his eyes out as well. All who are not Iron Guardists, all who engage in any other kind of politics, are national traitors and deserve the same fate.
One day, I may reread these lines and feel unable to believe that they summarize [Mircea’s words]. So it is well if I say again that I have done no more than record his very words — so that they aren’t somehow forgotten.
Eliade was the acknowledged intellectual leader of his generation. Among the intellectuals who supported the Guard, he was the brightest star. By 1937, he was involved in the Guard at an organizational level.
Professor Rennie is incorrect in stating that Eliade’s passion for fascism had burned itself out by 1938. The tricky aspect of agitating for a Jew-crushing dictatorship is you might not get exactly the one you want, and Eliade’s spell of imprisonment in 1938 under the Royal dictatorship certainly cooled him down for a spell. But at that point the ideology he espoused had prevailed, and it was a question simply of which rightist faction would dominate; the repression of Jews was fully underway under Hitlerist-Guardist lines. Eliade was appointed cultural attaché to the Romanian Embassy in London in April 1940, a position he retained when the Guard came to power in September 1940 in alliance with the Romanian Army (the National Legionary State), and even after Antonescu repressed the Guard in January 1941. Eliade was transferred to the Romanian embassy in Lisbon in February 1941.
Romanian fascists shared the Nazi narrative that the war against the Soviet Union was a war against the Jews, who had succeeded in overturning the Russian Empire, just as they had succeeded in infesting the Hapsburg Empire (hollowing it out like termites, as Hitler would have it) and forcing its collapse. Nations, were they to have any hope of survival, would have to be as ruthless as the Jews/communists had been. Mihail Sebastian records on June 24, 1941 — the week of the outbreak of the war in the East — the appearance of propaganda posters in the capital that asked, “Who are the masters of Bolshevism?” above a cartoon of the guilty party: “[A] Jew in a red gown, with side curls, skull cap, and beard, holding a hammer in one hand and a sickle in the other. Concealed beneath his coat are three Soviet soldiers. I have heard that the posters were put up by police sergeants.” The presumption was that Romanian Jews were Soviet sympathizers and were treated accordingly. The war began with an order to “cleanse” the area behind the front. As many as 14,000 Jews were killed in the city of Iasi in the very first days of war. Legionary elements in Iasi — used as agitators by the Romanian secret services — had circulated rumors that Jews were signaling to the Soviet air force or staging attacks on the Romanian army. (Though Antonescu had suppressed the Iron Guard as an organization, many of its supporters had been absorbed into the state.)
Had there remained any doubt that war had been declared against the Jews, an official communiqué, reprinted in all the Bucharest newspapers on July 2, 1941, would have dispelled it:In recent days there have been incidents of hostile alien elements opposed to our interests opening fire on German and Romanian soldiers. Any attempt to repeat these vile attacks will be ruthlessly crushed. For each German or Romanian warrior, fifty Judeo-Communists will be executed.
It was a promise kept when the city of Odessa was taken in October 1941 when Antonescu retaliated for the stiff resistance by “Jewish commissars” by slaughtering the Jewish civilian population.
Eliade was not a minor diplomat. The purpose of his job was propaganda and he served as a personal contact between Portuguese dictator Salazar and the top reaches of the Romanian government. When he visited Bucharest in the summer of 1942 he met personally with Foreign Minister Mihai Antonescu (no relative of Ion Antonescu), the man who had proclaimed that his policy toward the Jews would be that of Titus, the Roman commander, later emperor, who subjugated Judea and destroyed the Second Temple. And there is little doubt, knowing Eliade’s support for political violence and his championing of a Romanian victim-narrative, that he thought Romania was fulfilling its destiny to save civilization. “Mircea Eliade wanted this war,” wrote Sebastian in his diary in December 1943. “He waited for it, wished for it, believed in it, still believes in it — but he is in Lisbon.” Indeed he was, and busy theorizing on the racial destiny of the Romanian people. Though Sebastian may not have been aware, Eliade had published a slim volume in Portuguese earlier that year in which he explained how Romania had performed an inestimable service to Europe by guarding the continent’s fringes for centuries against barbarian hordes. In the present war against Russia, he argued, Romania’s role was no different, and was in defense of “European Christian values.” There is nothing particularly extraordinary about this assertion, even as the regime was doing its best to kill 50 Jews for every Romanian soldier, and only failed because there were soon no Jews left in the area of Ukraine under its control — it was one of the banalities of the time. Back in Bucharest, patriarch Nicodim of the Romanian Orthodox Church put a more firmly theological spin on matters; he termed the war a “holy Crusade,” describing the Bolsheviks as “despicable lackeys of Satan, who are mainly […] the people that has brought a divine curse on itself ever since it crucified the son of God.”
From the time he settled in the United States in 1956 until his death 30 years later, Eliade was a philosopher and historian of religions. He had nothing to say about his fascist past. Silence meanwhile prevailed in communist Romania, where there was an official policy of Holocaust denial, or rather, Holocaust non-discussion. It was as though it had never happened. E. M. Cioran, who was every bit as compromised as Eliade, and living after the war in Paris, adopted a similar strategy of silence, and even claimed that Antonescu had “saved” Romania’s Jews from Hitler. In 1936, he had written “the Jew is not our fellow man, our kind,” and “if I were a Jew, I would instantly kill myself.” Yet his writings are suffused with remorse and attack the folly of belief in any ideology or system. Toward the end of his life, senile, he would revert to speaking Romanian and clutch at the sleeves of friends and protest: “I am not an antisemite!”
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