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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter I. Cultural modernization: Institutionalization of “national sciences”

The history of modern Romanian civilization

Eugen Lovinescu
Traduction de Mária Kovács

Texte intégral

1Title: Istoria civilizaţiei române moderne (The history of modern Romanian civilization)

2Originally published: vol. I Forţele revoluţionare, vol. II Forţele reacţionare, Bucharest, Ancora, 1924, vol. III Legile formaţiei civilizaţiei române, Bucharest, Ancora, 1925

3Language: Romanian

4The excerpts used are from Eugen Lovinescu, Istoria civilizaţiei române moderne, Zigu Ornea ed. (Bucharest: Minerva, 1997), pp. 5–6, 10–13, 352–354.

About the author

5Eugen Lovinescu [1881, Fălticeni (Moldavia) – 1943, Bucharest]: literary critic and historian of literature. Lovinescu completed his primary and secondary education in Fălticeni, where his father was a professor of history, and Iaşi. From 1900 to 1902, Lovinescu was a student in classical philology at the University of Bucharest. He studied with the historians Grigore Tocilescu and Nicolae Iorga, and the literary critic Titu Maiorescu. In 1903, after having graduated, he became a professor of Latin in Ploieşti. It was during this period that Lovinescu began contributing to various newspapers, including the conservative Epoca (The epoch). In 1904, he went to Germany with the intention of studying archaeology, but in 1906 he decided against this and moved to Paris instead. In 1909, Lovinescu submitted his doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne. During his studies in France, Lovinescu contributed to various journals with articles that were later collected in his Critice (Critiques). In 1912, he was refused the chair of modern Romanian literature at the University of Iaşi. During the First World War, Lovinescu stayed in Bucharest, but after the German occupation of the capital in 1916, he moved to Moldavia. In 1918, he returned to Bucharest, where in 1919 he established the modernist journal Sburătorul (The winged one) and formed a literary circle which remained active until 1947. Important Romanian modernist authors like the mathematician and poet Ion Barbu (1895–1961), the novelist and playwright Camil Petrescu (1894–1957), and the Romanian-born essayist and avant-garde poet Ilarie Voronca (1903–1946) benefited from Lovinescu’s support to launch their careers. Between 1920 and 1924, Lovinescu published various monographs and completed his ‘Critiques.’ In 1924 he published the first volume of ‘The history of modern Romanian civilization.’ Despite his repeated attempts, Lovinescu did not manage to become a university professor and remained a high school teacher until 1938, when he retired. Moreover, in 1936, his candidacy for admission into the ‘Romanian Academy’ was refused (Nicolae Iorga accused him of denigrating Mihai Eminescu’s legacy). In the interwar period, Lovinescu’s impact on cultural debates was restricted to his literary circle and the journal he edited. Although he was integrated to the national canon after 1945, and became a key reference in the debates on the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere in the 1960–70s, Lovinescu’s ideas came under criticism during the 1980s, when autochthonist authors accused him of undermining Romanian creative originality and asserting instead the cultural superiority of the West.

6Main works: Critice, 9 vols. [Critiques] (1910–1923); Istoria civilizaţiei române moderne, 3 vols. [The history of modern Romanian civilization] (1924–1925); Istoria literaturii române contemporane, 6 vols. [The history of contemporary Romanian literature] (1926–1929); Antologia ideologiei junimiste [An anthology of Junimist ideology] (1942).


7The creation of Greater Romania in 1918 had a powerful impact on the development of Romanian culture. The task of reorganizing political parties, public administration and the economy was paralleled by a series of debates on the role of culture in the new state. Although the responses to these challenges of political and cultural integration were diverse, two main currents were discernable: the Europeanist and the traditionalist (or the autochthonist). The former considered Romanian culture in a larger European context. As such, it advocated immediate modernization as the only way to bridge the gap between Romania and Western Europe. The latter trend was rather critical of rapid modernization. Its supporters suggested that Romania was an agrarian country, whose model of development should be based on her rural cultural heritage. The debate between Europeanists and traditionalists reached new dimensions in the 1930s. Among the Europeanists, two authors achieved prominent status: the liberal theorist and economist Ştefan Zeletin and Eugen Lovinescu. Both authors connected Romania’s political and economic progress to the changes brought about by the 1848 Revolution and the instauration of the constitutional monarchy (1866). However, while Zeletin described economic and social causes, Lovinescu emphasized the transformation of ideas and cultural trends.

8‘The history of modern Romanian civilization’ represents Lovinescu’s most elaborate analysis of the formation of modern Romanian culture. Essentially, Lovinescu argued that modern Romanian civilization emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was with the generation of 1848, however, that Romania was systematically and extensively exposed to Western European ideas. This generation undertook the task of importing and imitating Western institutions and methods. Nevertheless, Lovinescu further claimed, the imitation was not pursued uncritically, as these intellectuals hoped to achieve a ‘synchronic’ balance between Western ideas and Romanian realities. ‘Imitation’ and ‘synchronism’ are the two principles dominating Lovinescu’s sociology of culture. Imitation, as an explanatory sociological mechanism in the formation of societies, was a very fashionable concept at the time, particularly in France, as illustrated by French sociologist and social psychologist Gabriel Tarde’s Les Lois de l’imitation (1890). Following Tarde, Lovinescu assumed that human psychology was the only modality to grasp social mechanisms whereby society functioned as a cohesive entity. According to Tarde, ‘imitation’ and ‘innovation’ were the two guiding forces of society, controlling and shaping social activities.

9The interplay between imitation and innovation not only regulated the functioning of society but also generated a new cultural condition, one which Lovinescu named synchronism. This phenomenon explained the ways in which Western ideas were imitated and appropriated by Romanian intellectual and political elites. Lovinescu subsequently enunciated seven phases of imitation, each governed by its own sociological laws. During the first phase, Romanian elites used imitation as the main means of introducing Western ideas into Romanian culture. This imitation occurred without Romanians questioning the nature of things they adopted, as evidenced by the second phase of cultural development. However, in the third phase a ‘critical spirit’ also emerged, becoming active during the fourth phase. The presence of the critical spirit did not stop the ‘process of imitation’; instead it questioned its validity. According to the law of innovation, a nation’s originality was not the result of spontaneous creativity (as traditionalist authors claimed), but the effect of adaptation and relocation of ideas and cultural models. Any imitation eventually took a specific national form. During the fifth phase, imitation occurred, albeit according to a different mechanism than the one described by Tarde. For Lovinescu, the substance (Romanian culture) imitated the form (the West). In this way, Lovinescu described the sixth phase, when it became clear that imitation was not only confined to the present time; it could be projected into the past as well. In the case of nations without a cultural past (like Romania), traditional ideas were “sociologically impossible” as they were largely the consequence of cultural developments elsewhere. Nevertheless—as the seventh phase demonstrated—the lack of this normative cultural past created, essentially, the propitious conditions for modern Romanian civilization to emerge. In conclusion, Lovinescu believed that due to its synchronic nature (the result of both processes of imitation and innovation) Romanian culture was inevitably moving towards the West, and the Romanians would at some point become ‘true Europeans.’ Generally described as one of the most outspoken of the Romanian modernists, Eugen Lovinescu played a rather atypical role in the debate between the Europeanists and the anti-Western traditionalists during the interwar period. He framed his vision about cultural modernization and the role of the state differently than his contemporaries. In the debate on Romania’s cultural role in Europe, Lovinescu’s suggestion of adopting Western European values in their entirety as well as his unflagging critique of Slavic influences and implicitly of Orthodox Christianity were met with reticence even by some of the pro-Europeanists. Although invoked during the 1980s, when Romanian national communism orchestrated a general appropriation of traditional currents within Romanian culture, it was during the 1990s that Lovinescu and his program of cultural transformation were integrated within a proper framework of discussion about European modernity in Romania.


The history of modern Romanian civilization

  • 1 Paul Anton de Lagarde (1827–1891): German biblical scholar and orientalist, attempted at creating (...)

11Both by ethnic composition and geographic position, the Romanian nation is at the boundary of two worlds: the East and the West. Of course there are no pure races, only historical races; they are the expression of a common ideal rather than of unaltered blood. “Das Deutschtum,” said Paul de Lagarde,1liegt nicht im Geblüte, sondern im Gemüte” (The German nation does not lie in blood, but in spirit); Latinity does not represent a somatic formula, but a mental structure. Whatever the mixture of blood that went into the composition of our race, the Latin mentality configures it characteristically and definitively. If tragic historical circumstances had not pinned us down for too long in the moral atmosphere of oriental life—Roman soul in a sound Illyro-Thracian body—we could have entered, from the beginning, like other Latin peoples, into the orbit of Western civilization. However, historical conditions orientalized us; through the Slavs south of the Danube, we received the spiritual forms of the Byzantine civilization. […]

12The most active ferment of orientalization was Orthodoxy. At a time when differences between people were made mostly in terms of religion rather than race, it placed us in danger of melting into the large mass of southern and then eastern Slavs. Behind the cross, Cervantes said, hides the devil; behind the Byzantine cross the Russians were hidden. Connecting us spiritually to an obscurantist religion, stiffened in its patterns and formalism, Orthodoxy imposed on us a foreign liturgical language and a foreign alphabet (Latin thoughts expressed in Cyrillic print!), failing to help us create a national culture and art. […]

  • 2 Grigore Ureche (c. 1590–1647): Romanian chronicler from Moldavia.
  • 3 Simon Dascălul: teacher at the ‘Trei Ierarhi’ School in Iaşi.
  • 4 Miron Costin (1633–1691) and Nicolae Costin (c. 1660–1712): Romanian chroniclers and humanists fro (...)
  • 5 Ion Neculce (c. 1672–1745): Romanian chronicler and politician from Moldavia; Dimitrie Cantemir (1 (...)

13We not only owe to western influence the first Romanian translations and printings, and therefore the very formation of our literary language, but also the creation of our national historiography and of the true Romanian literature. Moldavia’s cultural contact with Poland, the time spent by the boyars’ sons or the boyars themselves traveling in Poland, had a significant impact on the national language, culture and even conscience. The appearance of Grigore Ureche2 and his compiler, Simion Dascălul (Simion the Teacher),3 Miron and Neculae Costin,4 Ion Neculce and later Dimitrie Cantemir,5 some of whom had been to Polish schools, almost all of whom knew Latin, aware and proud of their Roman origin, some erudite, others with an important literary talent, made seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Moldavia, under the influence of western culture filtered through Catholic Poland, the real starting point not only of a superior culture, but also of the dissemination of Romanian language in the darkness of Slavic and Greek Orthodoxy. Polish influence was not confined to contributing only to the creation of a national historiography, but it was also a principle which helped the dissemination of the Romanian language into the organism of state life. […]

  • 6 Gheorghe Asachi (1788–1869): writer, educator, and founder of Academia Mihăileană in Iaşi in 1835. (...)

14It is almost redundant to mention that, from the cultural point of view, the entire eighteenth century was dominated by the unification of some of the Transylvanian Romanians with the Latin Church. However disappointed in their political expectations they might have been as a result of this event and whatever the diplomatic game of Austria in Transylvania, its cultural importance dominates the entire business of unification: through contact with the very source of our nation, Rome, our national conscience was strengthened. In defense of their race, the “three knights of the national ideal,” Samuel Micu, Gheorghe Şincai and Petru Maior, worked hard to produce numerous historical and philological papers. With the Latin print, they also brought the exclusive principle of Latinism. From the vision of the eternal city, therefore, started the Latinist current which fecundated science, and especially the conscience of the Romanian nation, just as from the schools of Rome and Vienna came Asachi and Lazăr6 to prepare the souls of the Romanians in the Principalities for the great changes of the nineteenth century.

15So far, the contact with the West had been accidental and indirect through the Hussites, the Lutheran Saxons, by means of religious propaganda, through the Poles, by cultural means, and finally through Rome, that is by religious and cultural means. Through the Treaty of Adrianople (1829), through the exile of the Romanian youth especially to Paris, the nineteenth century established direct and fruitful contact with the social ideology of the French revolution; through the interdependence of contemporary cultural and economic life we suddenly escaped from the yoke of eastern cultural forms, to enter in the circuit of the western material and moral life. With its help, we created the national unity in the form of a state of western civilization.

16Since the West was a genuine environment of development for the new Romanian spirit, through the identification of race and mentality, in judging it, we cannot agree with some traditionalist historians who hold that “however much we may love it for its courageous and rich culture, our life and our ancestors’ life links us to the East. Our roots and all our merits are here. Our mission is indicated by these, by their age and greatness: undeniably, the first.” The East is, undoubtedly, a force of the past, not of the present. […] The ancient civilizations appeared in the East; hence: ex oriente lux! When on the ruins of the “ethnic chaos” of the Roman decadence there appeared the German blond as a configuring principle of new nationalities and civilizations, the light came from the north: ex septentrione lux! From the perspective of our century and our place, the light comes from the West: ex occidente lux! […]

17At the end of all these developments, it is the place to sum up in a few words our findings. Latin and therefore with the spiritual virtues of all Latin peoples the Romanian people, by its geographical position, its historical conditions, and by religion, was fixed from the beginning in an eastern environment, altogether opposed to its intimate structure, and the major moments of its cultural and national development, throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was determined by intermittent western influences. The history of modern Romanian civilization started in the nineteenth century, that is with the integration of our contact with the West and with the change of our environment of formation; the revolution of 1848 represents, symbolically speaking, the major moment of this new intellectual, economic and political orientation. […]

18This process of importation of all forms of Western civilization, with the corollary of the contrast between form and essence, noted by all researchers of our civilization, was criticized by the Junimists, too, who set it from the perspective of evolutionary development, and was also raised by the Marxists who, looking upon any political-social structure as a creation of an economic structure, are in fact also evolutionists. In reality, however, the process of formation of our civilization—like of all states that suddenly encountered a much more advanced life—is not evolutionary, but revolutionary. Without doubt, and whatever the reserves we employ in looking upon it, it results from a sociological necessity that we have proven with sufficient developments: if in the course of past centuries with so few means of inter-penetration, the forms of intellectual and social life can be reduced to a unitary spirit, the process of unification through leveling has become the characteristic of modern civilization. The principle can be fixed in the formula of synchronism of contemporary life, which despite all apparent differences, is reality itself, while the belief in the possibility of development contrary to the spirit of the age is merely the starting point of some temporary perturbations. Like with other underdeveloped nations (and I studied the cases of Russia and Japan), our civilization can only develop revolutionarily, i.e. suddenly, through integral importation and without the reconstruction of all stages of evolution of the developed peoples’ civilization by means of organic growth.

19Starting from the point of synchronism which dominates my entire work, the Romanian civilization developed after the laws of imitation, namely:

20Moving from top to bottom, imitation found in the superior layers the element through which the ideas of the West were disseminated even when they were in opposition to class interests.

21Keeping in mind the revolutionary nature of our formation, through sudden contact and difference in level, imitation took in our case a new integrative character; we thus borrowed the forms of the west without distinction, in mass, and not in the deliberative light of the “critical spirit.”

22This integrative character is perceived, of course, only in the first purely revolutionary phase of imitation; in the second phase, in which we had entered a long time before, the role of the “critical spirit” is uncontested.

23As the number of “inventions” or “original ideas” of a people is very limited, it can be stated without exaggeration that imitation is the first form of originality in the sense that through adaptation to the temperamental unity of the race, any imitation, in time, gains a specific character. The originality of our civilization, like the civilization of most people, does not rely, therefore, in “elaboration,” but in adaptation and processing.

24Imitation does not act, as Tarde sustained, from the inside, but from the outside, in other words, from form and with a likely tendency toward essence. The first part of this statement is obvious and therefore void of any appreciation; the second, however, as it regards us, is a truth on the go, and the unique possibility for the development of young civilizations. Imitation is not only in the present, but it can be focused on the past as well, thus constituting traditionalism, which in its strict sense is impossible unless it can be related to an epoch of integral national expansion.


1 Paul Anton de Lagarde (1827–1891): German biblical scholar and orientalist, attempted at creating the national German religion based on radical nationalism and antisemitism.

2 Grigore Ureche (c. 1590–1647): Romanian chronicler from Moldavia.

3 Simon Dascălul: teacher at the ‘Trei Ierarhi’ School in Iaşi.

4 Miron Costin (1633–1691) and Nicolae Costin (c. 1660–1712): Romanian chroniclers and humanists from Moldavia.

5 Ion Neculce (c. 1672–1745): Romanian chronicler and politician from Moldavia; Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723): Romanian philosopher, geographer and historian, as well as twice the ruling prince of Moldavia.

6 Gheorghe Asachi (1788–1869): writer, educator, and founder of Academia Mihăileană in Iaşi in 1835. Gheorghe Lazăr (1779–1821): writer, educator and founder of the first Romanian language school in Bucharest in 1818.


Mária Kovács (Traducteur)

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