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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

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

The critical sprit in Romanian culture

Garabet Ibrăileanu
Translated by Mária Kovács

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1Title: Spiritul critic în cultura românească (The critical spirit in Romanian culture)

2Original published: Iaşi, Viaţa românească, 1909

3Language: Romanian

4The excerpts used are from Spiritul critic în cultura română (Bucharest: Minerva, 1979), pp. 11–13, 182–186.

About the author

5Garabet Ibrăileanu [1871, Târgu-Frumos (Moldavia) – 1936, Bucharest]: literary critic. Ibrăileanu was the son of a merchant. From 1883 to 1890, he received primary, secondary and high school education in his native town. In 1890, he enrolled in the University of Iaşi, from which he graduated in 1896. For the next decade, he was a substitute professor, first in Bacău (1896–1900) and then in Iaşi (1900–1908). In 1906, together with the social theorist Constantin Stere (1865–1936), he founded the Viaţa românească (Romanian life), which would become one of the most important journals of early twentieth-century Romania. Ideologically opposed to traditionalist Sămănătorul (The sower), Viaţa românească professed a form of leftist populism. It is in this journal that Stere published his study ‘Social Democracy or Poporanism?’ in 1907 and 1908, which is considered to be the programmatic document of Romanian populist thinking. In 1912, Ibrăileanu received his doctoral degree and became a full professor at the University of Iaşi, a position he held until 1933. In 1918, his candidacy for the ‘Romanian Academy’ was rejected. In 1920, the journal Viaţa românească resumed its publication, and in 1930 was moved from Iaşi to Bucharest. In 1933, Ibrăileanu left its editorial committee due to an illness. His health deteriorated in 1934 and he died in 1936. Together with Titu Maiorescu and Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea, Ibrăileanu became a central point of reference for Romanian literary criticism, while his Poporanist ideas influenced many of the economic theories of national development that emerged during the interwar period. As a promoter of the theory of ‘national specificity,’ following the tradition inaugurated by Mihail Kogălniceanu, Ibrăileanu was associated with various traditionalist ideas, both during the interwar period and after 1945. He became part of the national canon during the 1970s, when historians of culture and sociologists re-considered his theories and tailored them to fit their alternative interpretation of Romania’s protracted cultural development, and by extension, its intellectual trajectory.

6Main works: Spiritul critic în cultura română [The critical spirit in Romanian culture] (1909); Scriitori şi curente [Writers and currents] (1909); Note şi impresii [Notes and impressions] (1920); Cultură şi literatură [Culture and literature] (1921); Studii literare [Literary studies] (1931).


7At the beginning of the twentieth century, Romania was affected by a violent peasant revolt. Its origins, ways of manifestation, and most importantly, its brutal suppression by the government questioned both the content and the directions of Romania’s political and cultural development. One of the first cultural reactions to the new situation was the publication of Viaţa românească in March 1906. Some of the most influential Romanian writers of the time contributed to this new journal. A new intellectual current was thus born: Poporanism (from popor, ‘people’). Although it was a derivation of the Russian narodnichestvo, its adherents (particularly Constantin Stere) refused any identification with Russian populism, claiming that Poporanism was the result of particular Romanian conditions.

8The Poporanists shared with the Sămănătorists several assumptions about the character of Romanian society, including the praise of rural communities, organicism and limited state intervention. However, contrary to the Sămănătorist ideology, Poporanism manifested an open preference for the modernization of Romania. In ‘Social Democracy or Poporanism?,’ for example, Stere argued that Romania’s rural character should be preserved, and modernization should imply, first and foremost, the economic and social progress of the peasantry. Poporanism did not necessarily advocate the transformation of the peasantry, but specifically supported the improvement of small and medium peasant property. In other words, their main concern was the creation of a middle class between the peasantry and urban bourgeoisie. In many ways, the entire strategy pursued by ‘Romanian life’ implied a radical cultural and social program directed towards the autonomy of the cultural sphere. Consequently, culture and politics were to be separated and the intellectuals were to become the guardians of the nation’s morality, which had been abandoned by corrupt politicians.

9Ibrăileanu pursued this argument further in ‘The critical spirit in Romanian culture.’ He openly declared that Romanians, though a creative nation, did not contribute significantly to the formation of European civilization. In addition to their lack of creativity, Romanians uncritically adopted everything in uncritical fashion from Western Europe. The history of Romanian culture, claimed Ibrăileanu, was simply the history of assimilating ideas and intellectual models originating abroad. However, this process of complete imitation was beneficial to Romanian culture, which, as a result, became part of European civilization. By assessing the influence of these processes of imitation and appropriation, Ibrăileanu attempted to map out the so-called ‘critical spirit’ of Romanian culture, in other words, the cultural negotiation between Romanian intellectuals and the Western models they had emulated within the last two centuries.

10According to Ibrăileanu, this negotiation took two forms: one was innovative, the other was critical. In the nineteenth century, out of the principalities that would constitute the modern Romanian state, Wallachia represented the innovative and Moldavia the critical spirit. While Wallachia was characterized by revolutionary ideas, political action and radical attitudes, Moldavia was preoccupied with culture and the reception of Western ideas. This is why, explained Ibrăileanu, in 1848, there was a revolution in Wallachia while only an ill-prepared conspiracy took place in Moldavia. By persisting in charting the expressions of these two forms, Ibrăileanu suggested a cultural difference between Wallachia and Moldavia. The contemporary state of Romanian culture, he therefore claimed, was the result of a synthesis between Wallachia’s predilection for social and political action and Moldavia’s preference for reflexive activities, culture and literature. Both forms, innovative and critical, were important in defining modern Romanian culture. Wallachia (politics) and Moldavia (culture) were always in a symbiotic relationship. The reason why modern Romanian culture did not compare favorably to other European cultures was, according to Ibrăileanu, because the innovative and critical spirit did not support each other constructively.

11Ibrăileanu’s theories of symbolic geography were not particularly encouraged by the communist regime. During the 1970s and 1980s, when discussions about the national character again engaged Romanian intellectuals, there were few references to his assumptions about Romania’s contested cultural heritage. Not surprisingly, after 1989, Ibrăileanu did not enjoy a period of revival or re-adaptation to the new intellectual debates like other intellectuals of his generations, although some of those who had used his ideas during communism continued to argue for a much-needed reassessment of his theories.


The critical spirit in Romanian culture

13The Romanian nation has not had the luck and honor of contributing to the formation of European culture. For well-known historical reasons, it had to lose all cultural wealth brought here by the [Roman] colonists, and to live, for over a thousand years, a life of shepherding, while western peoples, heirs to the ancient culture, have been able to not only preserve the heritage, but also to enhance it. And both parts, European culture and the Romanian people, have suffered from this. European culture has also lost, because a string which might have been sonorous failed to vibrate.

14But if the Romanian nation did not participate directly in the development of European culture, it has had a significant indirect contribution. It was one of the cliffs in the east, into which the barbarian peoples came up against, expending their energy, and had they reached the west with all their initial momentum, these would have made civilization impossible. After the storm set—it has never died out altogether; it is still in a latent state—the Romanian people started to benefit from the culture accumulated in the west, and that benefit was not undeserved, for it had been paid and it is still paid for it dearly, but has had no right upon it, though, as I have said before, it has contributed indirectly to its formation.

15There is no nation that has not borrowed from others. From the very fact that European culture has been created by several peoples; it results that each owes something to the others. Germanic peoples borrowed from the Roman culture, and all modern peoples have done is to develop the ancient culture. Eighteenth century France borrowed from the English, eighteenth century Germany borrowed from the French, present-day France, in literature, has borrowed from the Scandinavians and the Russians, so-and-so literary school in one country is the follower of so-and-so literary school in another. There are borrowings in science, etc.

16The Romanians, who have produced almost nothing, have borrowed almost everything. The entire history of the Romanian culture, from the middle ages to this day, is the history of introduction of foreign culture to Romanian lands; and the entire history of the Romanian culture, since the sixteenth century, has been but the introduction of foreign culture to Romanian lands and its assimilation by the Romanians—with short obstacles during the Phanariot and Russian rule. […]

  • 1 The political regimes characterizing Moldavia and Wallachia between 1711 and 1822, when the ruling (...)

17Those who rose against the peoples of 1848, without rising against earlier foreign influences, are, even if unintentionally, defenders of Phanariotism1 and Russianism, for before the European influence at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the country was Phanariotized, and a nasty Russian influence was increasingly emerging. European influence of the seventeenth century had been annihilated. In fact, that influence of the seventeenth century would not have pleased them, either, for—just to speak about Moldavia—there was a western influence there: a Polish influence, and it is obvious that what our doctrinaire conservatives are scared by are the European influences, not the oriental ones, for “the old regime,” the oldest one, was the result of the Slavic-Bulgarian impact, and the newer one was of the Turkish- Byzantine. […]

18The Romanian nation, in the entire course of its history, up to the nineteenth century, underwent the cultural influence of the oriental currents, apart for small exceptions: Polish culture at the end of the seventeenth century, and the French culture of older France at the end of the eighteenth century.

19In the nineteenth century, history set the Romanians the following problem: will Romania continue to be an oriental, half-Asian country, or will it enter the ranks of the European peoples and European culture? This problem was also solved by history. For different reasons, Romania has not been able to escape European influences. European civilization, especially in its French form and influence, reached our lands. It reached us, as it has other European countries, through pressure, imitation and for reasons of need. Through pressure, because a European country cannot escape the invasion of a civilization which is superior and which tends to dictate to the entire continent—and indeed on the entire earth—the same political forms and the same culture. […]

20The need for the western civilization, and especially in its French form, is translated in the political-social order in two ideas or feelings, fecund and absolutely necessary to the ruined and subjugated Romanian countries: democracy and nationalism. Romanian lands were at the discretion of powerful neighbors, and those who have felt the shame and misfortune of this situation—people who wished to take the Romanian nation out of this yoke and make it a great successful people, with the right to make its voice heard—could not help being fascinated by the nationalist conception, thanks to revolutionary France.

21And if the country was subjugated by powerful neighbors, then the majority of the country, the living elements, which produced the wealth and preserved untouched the national spirit—wealth and spirit that were to make the future of the Romanian country—that element was subjugated to the class that was stifling it. The desire of the enlightened spirits to reveal and put to good use all that this element could give found its justification, and theory, a guiding star, in the concept called democracy spread by revolutionary France. Nationalism and democracy—and democracy especially as a means for nationalism—this is what made the enlightened people introduce into the Romanian countries western culture, the culture which would have reached us, even in the absence of all these, through pressure. […]

22All that could make this people a people of the future was necessary, and all that could stifle some fortunate, specifically national characteristics was unnecessary. Foreign culture was meant to use the energy of the people, and not to suppress any of these energies. To use a somewhat vulgar comparison, foreign culture was meant to feed the living organism of the Romanian people, making it robust and apt for creative work, and it was not meant to have the role of those substances which, instead of giving power to the organism, weaken it, predestine it to death, either by not satisfying the needs of the organism, or by overfeeding it.

23To know what and how to take from a foreign culture, we needed much clear thinking. We needed to understand the foreign culture and the social circumstances of the country and the soul of this people, and to possess a clear idea of the goal that was to be pursued. In other words, we needed an enlightened critical spirit, but at the same time something constructive to facilitate the introduction and assimilation of this culture.

24The definition of this critical spirit, its role and evolution are the subject of the preceding pages. We have seen in these pages that the influence of foreign cultures has been felt in all fields of Romanian life. We have focused more on those that we had found interesting: language, literature and social-political organization. We believe that by talking about these aspects of culture, we have implicitly talked about others, too, which are reduced all to what we call morals, the type of social life, etc.

25In the introduction of western culture it is obvious that only those people who started off on the right path and have indeed toiled for the genuine progress of the country have embodied in themselves the tendency to introduce western culture and critical spirit, the spirit to tell one thing from another, a clear vision of what was necessary and what was not.

26Limitless imitators of western culture, like those who have only been refractory critics of any innovative activity, must have been fatally wrong. They did not have the necessary, uniquely necessary attitude to make western culture bear the best fruit here. The former sought to introduce what was not needed, and the latter sought to stop the introduction of what was necessary. […]

27Afterwards, these two tendencies separate. Wallachian liberalism, in its extreme manifestations, remains the representative of innovative spirit; the Moldavian youth represents the critical, negative spirit. This gap has been a curse for Romania’s contemporary history. Some do not employ the necessary critical thinking; others deny ceaselessly the need of the former’s work. Some do not have any clear plan; others want us to stay where we are.

28And as we cannot remain where we are, as it can never be done, and as criticism is becoming passive and clearly negative, the introduction of western culture is short of the much needed assistance of the critical spirit. Junimea wants us to remain where we are, if not go back somehow. Eminescu wants us to return to where we have been. The socialists want us to jump who knows where, into the unknown.

29But we can neither stay where we are or go back, nor jump into the unknown and the impossible. Therefore, the preaching of those who wanted these things could only have been a preaching in the desert. The retreat in the critical mood of expectation of so many enlightened minds—the absence of so many enlightened minds from the work that would move us nicely and critically forward—has paid off. In this absence, among other things, we find the explanation of where we are today.


1 The political regimes characterizing Moldavia and Wallachia between 1711 and 1822, when the ruling princes were appointed by the Ottoman Sultan from the wealthy Greek community living in the Fener (Gr. Fanari) district of Istanbul.


Mária Kovács (Translator)

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