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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter II. The “Critical turns”: Subverting the Romantic narratives

Against the contemporary direction in Romanian culture

Titu Maiorescu
Traduction de Mária Kovács

Texte intégral

1Title: În contra direcţiei de astăzi în cultura română (Against the contemporary direction in Romanian culture)

2Originally published: Convoribiri literare II, no. 19 (1 December 1868), pp. 301–307.

3Language: Romanian

4The excerpts used are from Titu Maiorescu, Opere, vol. I (Bucharest: Minerva, 1978), pp. 147–149, 150–154.

About the author

5Titu Maiorescu [1840, Craiova – 1917, Bucharest]: literary critic and politician. His father was a well-known writer and Transylvanian Romanian political activist. In 1851, Maiorescu enrolled in the famous Theresianum Academy in Vienna. In 1854, he began publishing short poems and stories. In 1858, after graduating from the Theresianum, he continued his studies in Berlin and Gießen, where he submitted his doctoral dissertation. In 1861, Maiorescu returned to Romania. In 1863, he was appointed director of the ‘National College’ and professor at the University of Iaşi. In 1864, the literary group Junimea (The youth) was founded and in 1867, one of the most important journals of nineteenth-century Romania, Convorbiri literare (Literary conversations) was established. Although Junimea was not a political organization, its members were involved in politics. Maiorescu would soon become the spiritus rector of Junimea and of the cultural and political current known as Junimism. In 1866, Maiorescu published ‘On the writing of Romanian language,’ in which he proposed the establishment of the phonetic principle in Romanian spelling. His linguistic proposals were adopted in 1880. In 1867, Maiorescu published his first study of literary criticism, ‘Romanian poetry,’ which signaled the formation of a new style of critical analysis of Romanian literature. In 1872, he published ‘The new direction in Romanian prose and poetry,’ in which the critique of ‘Latinism’ of Romanian authors, namely their excess of Latin terminology, was explicitly formulated. After 1870, Maiorescu became more active in politics. Already in 1866, he had turned towards the Conservative Party and its leaders, politicians and literary critics Petre P. Carp (1837–1919) and Vasile Pogor (1833–1906). In 1871, Maiorescu became a member of Parliament. From 1884 to 1909, he taught at the University of Bucharest. In 1913, Maiorescu was the president of the conference that ended the Second Balkan War and led to the Peace of Bucharest. During the First World War, being pro- German, he refused to abandon the capital and stayed in Bucharest during the German occupation. In his position as party leader, minister, prime minister, and political journalist, Maiorescu succeeded in alerting his contemporaries to the malfunction of modern Romanian institutions. His critical observations of Romanian literature and culture have been constantly evoked in all major debates on Romanian national identity since the late nineteenth century. After his death, Maiorescu was recognized as one of the important literary critics of modern Romanian culture, a position which remained unchallenged both during communism and after 1989.

6Main works: Contra şcoalei Bărnuţiu [Against the Bărnuţiu school] (1868); Direcţia nouă în poezia şi proza română [The new direction in Romanian prose and poetry] (1872); Critice [Critiques] (1874); Literatura română şi străinătatea [Romanian literature and foreign countries] (1882); Istoria contemporană a României [The contemporary history of Romania] (1895); Discursuri parlamentare, 5 vols. [Parliamentary speeches] (1897–1915).


7The first organized criticism of the direction Romanian society had taken since late eighteenth century came from a group of young men in Iaşi who studied in Western universities, particularly in Austria and Germany. The group named itself Junimea and expressed their opinions in a journal they began publishing in 1867 under the name Convorbiri literare. The social and political philosophy of the group was very much indebted to conservative and evolutionist theories about social change and the gradual course of development (Edmund Burke, H. T. Buckle and Herbert Spencer). At the beginning of its activity, the society organized public lectures in which various foreign and domestic cultural and political ideas were discussed and criticized. The lectures were a great success and soon Junimea became the barometer of the intellectual life of Romania. The founding members of Junimea—with the exception of Titu Maiorescu—came from the aristocratic families of Moldavian society. Theodor Rosseti, for example, was the brother-in-law of Alexandru Cuza, the first prince of the united Danubian Principalities, while Petre Carp and Vasile Pogor were the scions of old boyar families. Junimea would soon attract other famous Romanian intellectuals. Among them, one should mention the historian Alexandru D. Xenopol, the philosopher Vasile Conta, the poet Mihai Eminescu, the novelist Ion Creangă and the playwright Ion Luca Caragiale.

8‘Against the contemporary direction in Romanian culture’ became one of the crucial texts of modern Romanian cultural criticism. Maiorescu’s critique of political modernity was largely derived from his philosophy of culture, which fused a form of Hegelian aestheticism with the principles of l’art pour l’art. Romanian culture was totally vitiated by uncritical imitation and appropriation, Maiorescu believed. He also directly accused the generation of 1848 of having completely and uncritically absorbed modern Western culture and for politicizing the aesthetic sphere. In Maiorescu’s opinion, this generation ignored the local historical conditions and adopted political and cultural forms that had no foundations in Romanian society. He mercilessly demolished this façade: before having a political party and a public interested in learning, he argued, political journals and literary reviews were founded; before having teachers, schools were founded; and before having a cultural life, cultural societies were established. Maiorescu therefore maintained that Romanian politics and culture were nothing but “phantoms without bodies,” “forms without substance.” Furthermore, Maiorescu believed that there was a gap between the institutions and the social structure of contemporary Romania. He further argued that Romania still lacked a bourgeoisie, so it possessed only two social classes: proprietors and peasants. Maiorescu, like other Junimists, considered the ‘Liberal Party’ as an ‘artificial’ creation, representing a social category not existing in Romania, namely the middle-class. This approach was in contradiction with that of his liberal contemporaries who were convinced that it was enough to formally implement democratic institutions in order to obtain a functioning democratic and modern society. Maiorescu also pointed out that in advanced countries of Western Europe the category of state functionaries was composed of middle-class entrepreneurs who acquired political prominence only after proving their personal wealth and contributing to the general welfare of society. By comparison, Romanian bureaucracy resembled more a class of social parasites, whose material wealth was the result of, and not the precondition for, their political position. However, Maiorescu believed that Romania would eventually experience cultural and political modernization, and suggested that the country would evolve into a modern civilization, without having to eliminate its native traditions. Modernization, according to Maiorescu, had to be implemented in the field of institutions first, before transforming society at large; hence his criticism of the 1866 constitution, considered a ‘form’ alien to the body of society. The relationship between European forms of constitutionalism and a traditional Romanian society was illustrative, claimed Maiorescu, of the internal contradictions of Romanian modernity. Ultimately, what was needed was to carefully adjust the western principles and institutional models to the specific conditions of Romanian society.

9Although some of the judgments Maiorescu bestowed upon contemporary Romanian culture were exaggerated, the effect of his critique was durable. He not only influenced many important Romanian intellectuals of the early twentieth century and the interwar period, but also established a new pattern of conceptualizing culture and politics in Romania. During the right-wing regimes of the interwar period, Maiorescu was often used as a symbol by those resisting the political appropriation of cultural values and the subordination of the esthetic criteria for political propaganda. Yet, during the communist period, many of his ideas were manipulated by nationalists and autochthonists alike who adopted Maiorescu’s critique of standardized modernity in order to launch their attack on Western influences on Romanian culture. In the last two decades, a proper critical evaluation of his work has finally been produced, paralleled by a broad dissemination of his ideas to the general public.


Against the contemporary direction in Romanian culture

11Sunk in Oriental barbarity until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Romanian society began, around 1820, to awaken from its lethargy, touched only then by the contagious movement by which the ideas of the French revolution crossed the entirety of Europe. Attracted by light, our youth started that extraordinary migration to the fountains of science in France and Germany, which to this day has been intensifying gradually, and which has given, especially to the free Romania, some of the gloss of foreign societies. Unfortunately, only the superficial gloss! For as unprepared as they were and are, our youths, stunned by the great phenomena of modern culture, were penetrated only by the effects, they did not reach the causes and saw only the superficial forms of civilization, but did not see the more profound historical fundaments which necessarily produced those forms, and without whose preexistence they could not have existed. And thus, limited in a fatal superficiality, with their mind and heart touched by the same fire, the Romanian youth returned and still return to their country with the determination to imitate and reproduce the appearances of western culture, trusting that in the most rapid way they will accomplish the entire literature, science, fine arts and, above all, the liberty of a modern state. And these juvenile illusions have been repeated so often that by now they have achieved a genuine intellectual atmosphere in Romanian society, a powerful trend which has fascinated the young and the old equally, both those who have gone there to study, and those who have come back to apply what they have learnt. […]

12Only this can explain the vice that contaminated our public life, which is the lack of any sound fundament for the superficial forms that we keep receiving. What is dangerous in this respect is not so much the absence of the fundament itself, but the lack of any sense of need for this fundament in the public, the self-sufficiency with which our people believe and are believed to have done a deed when they produced or translated only an empty form of the foreigners. This total wandering of judgment is the most significant phenomenon in our intellectual situation, such a serious phenomenon that we think it is the duty of each honest intelligent person to study it, follow it from its first showing in Romanian culture and denouncing it everywhere to the young spirits so that they understand and accept the task of combating it and annihilating it without mercy, unless they themselves want to be crushed by its burden.

  • 1 Flavius Eutropius (c. fourth century): Roman historian and the court historian for the Roman Emper (...)
  • 2 Flavius Claudius Iulianus: Roman Emperor (r. 331–363).

13In 1812, Petru Maior—not to mention the compilation of quotations made uncritically by Şincai—wrote his history about the beginnings of the Romanians in Dacia. In his tendency to prove that we are the Romans’ uncorrupted descendants, Maior writes in paragraph four that the Dacians were totally exterminated by the Romans, so that there was no mixture between the two peoples. To prove such an improbable hypothesis, our historian relies on a doubtful passage in Eutropius1 and a passage in Julian,2 to which he gives an interpretation that is impossible for anyone in their right mind to accept, and thus the historical demonstration of our Romanity begins with the falsification of history. […]

14We repeat: what is surprising and saddening about these products is not their erroneous nature, for this can be explained and sometimes justified by the circumstances of the time, but the error in our judgment of them today, the praise and satisfaction with which they are regarded by Romanian intelligentsia as valid scholarly achievements, the blindness that prevents us from seeing that the building of Romanian nationality cannot be based on a foundation at the center of which lies untruth. […]

15Once the false direction was taken up by the three works at the beginning of our modern culture, the Romanian intelligentsia moved ahead easily along the indicated path, and with the same untruth in the inside, and the same claim in the outside, all the forms of modern civilization were imitated and modified. Before having a political party, which could feel the need for an organism, and a public that cares for science, who needed readings, we established political journals and literary reviews, and falsified and disregarded journalism. Before we had any village teachers, we created village schools, and before we had any professors, we opened universities, and [thus] we falsified public instruction. Before we had a culture outside of the schools, we created the Romanian Athenaeum and cultural associations, and we despised the spirit of the literary societies. Before we had even a shade of original scientific activity, we created the Romanian Academic Society, with departments of philology, historical-archeology and natural sciences, and we falsified the idea of an Academy. Before we had any notable artists, we created the Music Conservatory; before we had a single worthy painter, we created fine art schools; before we had a single valuable play, we founded the National Theatre, and we devalued and falsified all these forms of culture.

16Apparently, judging by the statistics of outside forms, the Romanians have now almost the entire western civilization. We have politics and science, journals and academies, schools and literature, museums, conservatories, theatres and we even have a constitution. But in reality all these are dead productions, pretensions without a fundament, ghosts without a body, illusions without a grain of truth, and thus the culture of the Romanian high classes is null and worthless, and the abyss that separates us from the people in the lower classes is becoming deeper and deeper every day. The only genuine class in our case is the Romanian peasant, in his reality is his suffering, which he endures the phantasmagoria of the higher classes. For his daily sweat produces the material means that support the fictitious edifice we call the Romanian culture, and with our last might we force him to pay for our painters and musicians, our academics and Athenians in Bucharest, the literary and scientific prizes all over the country, and out of gratefulness, we fail to produce at least one work that might please his heart and make him forget for a moment his everyday misery.

17It is impossible to live like this any longer. The complaints of the low classes and the ridicule of the high classes have reached a climax. On the other hand, by facilitating communication, western culture comes to us now, because we did not know how to go to meet it. Under its victorious light all the artifice and caricature of our “civilization” will be manifest, all the empty forms that we have boasted with so far will take their revenge, attracting greedily the solid fund of the foreign heart.

18Is there time for escape? Is it still possible for an energetic reaction to appear in the minds of the Romanian youth, who—despising the untruthfulness so far—would awaken the will to lay the true foundation where there are only illusory pretensions today? Maybe fate will give us time to regenerate the public spirit, and before we allow deadly indifference to creep into hearts, it is still the duty of each amongst the intelligentsia who sees the danger to fight until the last moment against it. […]

19From here we should learn the great truth—mediocrity must be discouraged in the public life of a people, and the less cultivated the people is, the more so, because it is dangerous. What has genuine value can be seen at first sight and does not need indulgence, for it is not only good for us and for the time being, but for everyone and always.

20The second truth, and the more significant one, which we have to understand is: form without substance not only fails to bring any benefits, but it is downright damaging, because it destroys a powerful means of culture. Therefore, we shall say: it is better not to start any school than start a bad school, it is better not to have painting galleries than have one which has no fine art; we’d better not have bylaws, organization, honorary members and plain members of an association than to have them without having had the associative spirit show in the persons that constitute it; we’d better not have an academy with its sections, solemn meetings, speeches with receptions, with academic journals for publications, than to have all these without the scientific maturity that is the only reason for its existence.

21For if we do this, then we produce a line of forms that are forced to exist for a period of time without their own substance. But as long as an academy is forced to exist without the existence of science, and association without the associative spirit, a painting gallery without art and a school without good instruction, the forms are discredited in the eyes of the public opinion and postpone the formation of the essence, which—independent from the form— could come into being in the future, and which then would be ashamed to put on their despised garments. […] For a people can live without culture, hoping that at the right time of its development this blessed form of human life will emerge; but a people cannot live with a fake culture, and if it persists in it, then it sets an example for the old law of history; in the fight between genuine civilization and a resisting nation, the nation is crushed, but the truth is never lost.


1 Flavius Eutropius (c. fourth century): Roman historian and the court historian for the Roman Emperor Valens (364–378).

2 Flavius Claudius Iulianus: Roman Emperor (r. 331–363).


Mária Kovács (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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