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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. Literary representations of the “national character”

The national character of donkeys

Ştefan Zeletin
Traduction de Mária Kovács

Texte intégral

1Title: Caracterul naţional al măgarilor (The national character of donkeys)

2Originally published: Din Ţara Măgarilor. Însemnări, Bucharest, Agenţia I. Brănişteanu, 1916

3Language: Romanian.

4The excerpts used are from Cristian Preda, ed., Din Ţara Măgarilor. Însemnări, (Bucharest: Nemira, 1998), pp. 46–51.

About the author

5Ştefan M. Zeletin (born Ştefan Motaş) [1882, Burdusaci (Bacău county) – 1934, Bucharest]: economist and political theorist. His family belonged to the local freepeasantry. He studied at the lyceum in Bârlad and at the theological seminary in Roman. After graduating, he went on to study philosophy at the University of Iaşi (1906), and then continued his studies in Berlin (1907–1908), Sorbonne (1909– 1910), Leipzig (1910) and, finally, Erlangen. In 1914 he received his doctorate in philosophy. He then returned to Romania and taught German at the lyceum in Bârlad. It was in this period that he published his first philosophical and literary works. In 1915, the first volume of Evanghelia naturii (The gospel of nature) was published in Iaşi, followed in 1916 by Din ţara măgarilor (From the country of donkeys). The latter was only meant to be a chapter in a larger literary work, tentatively entitled Metafizica dosului (The metaphysics of the bottom), which was never accomplished. In 1920, Zeletin moved to Bucharest and worked as a German teacher. In 1925, he published his most important sociological work Burghezia română (Romanian bourgeoisie). In 1927, he became professor of philosophy at the University of Iaşi. Although politically Zeletin sympathized with the liberals (Vintilă Brătianu, preeminent member of the National Liberal Party, was a supporter of his theories), he became a member of the People’s Party led by Marshal Averescu (1859–1938). In 1930 he became seriously ill and died shortly afterwards in 1934. Zeletin’s theories of neoliberalism were greatly appreciated during the 1930s and 1940s, but were completely marginalized after 1945. During the 1970s, Romanian sociology re-evaluated his contributions to theories of social development, by including him in various anthologies. It was, however, only after 1989 that his works were properly re-edited and his ideas gradually reintroduced in intellectual debates about political ideologies and national identity.

6Main works: Evanghelia naturii [The gospel of nature] (1915); Din ţara măgarilor. Însemnări [From the country of donkeys. Travel notes] (1916); Burghezia română [Romanian bourgeoisie] (1925); Neoliberalismul [Neo-liberalism] (1927); Nirvana. Gînduri despre lume şi viaţă [Nirvana. Thoughts on the world and life] (1928).


7The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 brought the countries of Southeast Europe, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece into direct contact, and not only militarily. It was also for the first time that territorial expansionism and the nation’s ethnic boundaries were defined with respect to regional similarity and common historical past. One discipline in particular benefited from this new political development: the emerging discipline of ethnography, which actively engaged in producing narratives of belonging according to which the fluctuating ethnic loyalty of the region’s heterogeneous population could be drawn into one national space to the detriment of others. If ethnography offered the necessary ingredients for an articulated discourse on the nation’s neighbors to emerge, other forms of knowledge reversed the meaning of these cultural encounters in order to project new introspective analyses of one’s national character. This is the strategy which Zeletin chose for his representation of the nature of the fictitious ‘donkeys’, a population living in the Balkans and bordering the Bulgarians.

8When published in 1915, Din Ţara măgarilor generated violent reactions. In a small note signed ‘Someone who is not a Donkey’, the historian Nicolae Iorga reacted angrily, if unfairly, to this little pamphlet. However, positive reactions existed as well. The book was rightfully praised as one of the most insightful analyses of Romanian society. In this respect, Zeletin was often compared to Ion L. Caragiale. Not only is their ironic, metaphorical style compatible, but Zeletin’s book also follows, to some degree, Caragiale’s reflections on Romanian society in general as well as its national characterology in particular. Yet, what makes Zeletin’s text different from other texts on national identity is the allegoric form in which it portrays the Romanians. Allegory was a genre with a long political tradition in Romania. From this perspective, Zeletin is not a singular case. For example, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Dimitrie Cantemir, the enlightened prince of Moldavia, extensively used allegory to express his political views. If Zeletin’s use of allegoric description and the tendency towards irony is comparable to that of Cantemir and Caragiale, his critique of Romanian society resembles the classical theory of ‘forms without substance’ of Maiorescu.

9Din Ţara măgarilor is a daring attempt to construct a national imagery that combines spatial and geographical references to the Balkans and its peoples with a Romanian cultural identity. Zeletin’s analysis is both social and psychological, aiming not only to unveil the specificity of Romanians, but also to integrate them in a regional, if stereotypical, Balkan context. The parable is presented as follows. Disturbed by the tragic situation of the populations inhabiting the region between the Dniester and the Black Sea, the mighty gods of Olympus decided to intervene in favor of those mortals. One wise human, native of that ‘doomed place’, was sent to gather information about the situation, which he then presented to the Gods. They thus found out that those creatures populating that hopeless part of the world were very much like the ‘noble creatures’ known as Donkeys. The country of the Donkeys was barely known in the world, and it was mainly due to a ‘social earthquake’ (the peasant revolt of 1907) that gods and humans became aware of its existence.

10There were donkeys living in the village and, naturally, there were donkeys living in the city. Then, the Donkeys’ culture was presented, together with its constitutive elements. One of the pillars of Donkey culture was patriotism. It was crucial to understand the national character of the Donkeys in order to get a perfect sense of the particularities of these creatures. Zeletin ascribed two contradictory components to the Donkeys’ ‘highly-praised’ character: one was humanity; the other their animal nature. In this context, Zeletin integrated the description of the Second Balkan War, especially the part involving Romania and Bulgaria. In one of the most interesting and humorous parts of the book, the Balkan Wars were presented as a fight between two communities of Donkeys disagreeing about a tip (the symbol of greed, avarice and depravity).

11Ultimately, what Zeletin described in this text was that Romanian society was marred by ideological divisions and was consequently unable to fulfill its destiny in Europe, both individually as a nation and regionally, as part of the Balkans. To achieve this, he urged the Romanians to accept their condition, their ‘donkeyhood’, so that they could participate in the process of modernity by creating forms with historical and cultural substance. What was imperative, Zeletin insinuated, was that Romanian cultural and political elites evaluate critically their role in creating a dysfunctional country rather than pointing at the negative behavior of its neighbors. To this end, Zeletin assumed an intermediary position between the westernizers and the autochthonists, criticizing the cultural and civilizational divide they had created in a country which they both claimed to represent. He was equally critical of the idealist patriotism extolled by the liberals and of pretentious traditionalism appealed to by the conservatives. Before becoming the theoretician of neoliberalism, Zeletin absorbed different intellectual currents, and internalized many critical attitudes characterizing Romanian cultural establishment before the First World War. It was this ambivalent position that eventually infused his discussion of the Romanian national character with the indispensable empathy toward his subject, and allowed him to offer a cultural diagnosis to the problems of Romanian society at the time.

12During the 1970s, Romanian sociology revived Zeletin as one of the most important social thinkers of the interwar period, although he was exclusively discussed as the theoretician of ‘neo-liberalism’. It was only after 1990 that ‘From the country of donkeys’ was invoked as a text accurately describing Romanian identity dilemmas, while at the same time synthesizing much of the internal conflict between westernizers and autochthonists.


The national character of donkeys

14It is worth seeing what a wonderful national character has been developed by donkeys since the fruit of culture invaded their ancient land, like a heavenly manna. A genuinely new soul has been born under this welcome divine downpour, lying upon the old one, and pushing it more and more backward in the dark. There are two layers that make up the much-praised character that emerged and has reached a prolific stage under the bright rays of donkey culture. One is at the surface: it is the human layer under which the cultivated donkey hides; the other lies at the bottom of the heart, and it is the realm of dirt by which such an long-eared creature shines among the other beings. Out of the human surface come the donkey’s words; out of the inner donkeyness spring its deeds. They speak nicely in the land of donkeys.

15There are some—not few—of them whose lips pour words sweeter than honey. It gives you pleasure to hear them utter words of supreme wisdom and accuracy: how they caress your ears, comfort your thoughts, thrill your imagination and—swinging you on the light wings of their skilful words—lift you above your own self, above the everyday banal to a new and wonderful world. They lift you to those spheres of unmarred blue, where virtue reigns, even-handedness is employed, truth is sought and the enthralling rays of beauty quench your thirst. You return from their gatherings a new person: somewhat purer and with a more elevated soul. Indeed, when it comes to handling words so that they sound beautiful and sweet, the donkey is hard to equal. But why should we still call it by this name? For in those grand moments when it dwells in the charmed garden where word flowers blossom, far from looking like a quadruped, it floats, surrounded by the purest and most genuine humanness, as if there were no creature as perfect as it in the world.

16It is true, without being a great patriot and a fiery lover of donkey-kind, one’s heart is filled with endless sorrow to see these wonderful masters of words renouncing with so much apparent ease their inner donkey-like reality. One wonders rightfully if, in their soul, the flicker of national conscience is so pale that they can deny with such insincerity the deepest features of their kind. Overlooking this pitiful meandering in words, one jumps with joy to see that at least in deeds they awaken from the dizziness of self-denial and reveal themselves in the full glory of their naked donkeyness. At such times, indeed, when confronted with the honest zeal of reaching the stage nature reserved for them, one can say with absolute moral content: ecce asinus!

17Poor donkeys are unworthy, not interested in doing things, in chivalry and bravery, in valor for the sheer sake of it. In brief, they are not capable of making beauty for the sake of beauty. Between heaven and earth, there has been no animal as ill fitted to be the preacher of Ideas, to conduct divine sermons in the temple of the Ideal. Cowardly, uncaring, with a rotten conscience, the donkey needs a strong lever to pull him out of its insensitivity to all that is beautiful and noble and to set it in motion. What could be the charmed pearl whose magic spark can take even the donkey out of its innate cowardice and make it act? It is called a tip.

18Indeed, without a tip there is no way to take one step in the long-eared creatures’ realm. Thus, it has come to be known to foreigners by the nickname Tip-land. All donkeys take a tip, whether they need it or not, from the poorest little donkey to the richest big donkey. Common sense has it that the bigger the donkey, the fatter the tip. Whereas it is enough to tip a little donkey only a few shillings in order for it to see to what in its country is called a whim, a big donkey can only be enticed with hundreds of thousands, if not even more. However, it is not only gold and silver that are considered tips. Praise in the press—for the donkeys have their own donkey-like press; praise in meetings; somewhat less directly, an untouched young lady-donkey—such tips touch right upon the heart of a donkey.

19When a donkey does not get a tip from others, it takes the tip by itself. This is why foreigners that know little of the donkey traditions are wrong. In this country, they say, everyone steals, regardless of who they are. It seems that its leaders compete against each other as to who steals the most. Thus, thieving has become a genuine skill and the most skilled at it is, at the same time, the most respected among donkeys. Foreigners are badly mistaken! Donkeys do not steal, but in full awareness of their merit, each of them takes out of the community chest what they think they deserve. It is only natural that the bigger the donkey, the more outstanding its achievements, the fatter the tip it takes as a reward from the community. […]

20A few years ago, the donkeys had a fight with another kind of creature, known as the Bulgarians. Of course, the whole business revolved around a tip that the donkeys, as always, considered they had the right to ask. However, the Bulgarians, another rare species of donkeys, would not hear about it. Things were getting so serious that they were ready to move from words to hooves. And this was the thick of the problem. For, as they had not tried their hooves for a long time, the poor donkeys were at a loss: should they give up the tip that had caused so much anger, and live in peace? Should they get it at the expense of their dear blood? This dilemma was unresolved for close to half a year, when, in order to stop the torture of indecision, the poor quadrupeds banished the thought of any tip from their mind, and under the threat of death penalty, they forbade anyone to fume about it.

21There was grief in the donkey nation, silent, stifled mourning. One of their ancient traditions, the oldest and the dearest, was threatened by extinction. It so happened that one of the most remarkable sons of the nation, the one who led the group of royal councilors, surpassed itself and engraved its name in the minds of its kind. Like Solon of Athens in the past, in similar circumstances, he grew mad and came to the country council, staring into space, and mumbling words about the Bulgarians and the tip. Those who attended felt unimaginable sorrow. So one misfortune is always followed by the next. Merciless destiny had robbed the country of this bright son exactly when he was needed most. But what wonder was this? For, while more and more painful eyes were looking upon him, like upon one who is lost forever, the head of the councilors swiftly climbed up on the tribune and said in a stentorian voice:

We want a tip!
Look here, dirty Bulgarian,
Don’t you dare laugh at us again!
In place of all that you had to gain
As we were restful at our place,
While you fought the great fights,
We want a tip!
Our laziness had paid you off
While you climbed up
Destiny’s slope
To fight the pagan peoples
And now, when we would like a bone,
You kick us and leave us alone?
We want a tip!
All foreigners will learn of us
For what we say is sacred stuff
Our customs are too dear to us!
We can stand curses of any kind
We stand the yoke and harness, all
But want a tip!
To God you should pray loud and hard,
That we stay patient and just want
A tip and not your blood!
For if we did, then you could be
The Mighty God himself, and still
You will not get rid of us!
We will make ready our hooves
And meet its keen edge with your head
We will kick and kick and kick again
Until your right brain does come back
To tell you it is not a game
To give a tip!

22All the donkey-kind stirred as though they had been electrocuted and, having sharpened their hooves for fight, they went against the tradition-destroyers, invading their battle-haunted country like waves of flood. And then the donkeys performed acts of bravery in the deserted valley of the enemy, their blood flowed in streams like never before. This battle will be marked as unique in the annals of the donkeys, a reason for permanent pride and nobleness for the generations to come. For of the donkey deeds that they engraved with golden letters in the nation’s big book, this is for sure the most telling of donkeys.

23The Bulgarians were shaken to the bottom of their heart, and they gave the tip! […] Nowadays, the donkeys are faced with bitter hardships, as their ancestors never were, and their descendants will never be. The quake that overcame all the enlightened nations managed to shake even their secular donkeyness. Now and then, a keen thrill of nobleness pervades everyone in the country, a longing for bravery, for deeds on the altar of the Ideal. All of them, young and old, cross villages and towns, and their united voices cry out powerfully: To arms! Come, oh, thou brave ones, let us conquer what is to be conquered!

24At such times, any truly donkey heart is broken and bleeding. It seems that only a small step is needed for those beings to impiously give up their nation and traditions, to be purged in the nobleness of valiant deeds, and to become truly entirely human. Repeatedly, as if lifted above them, overcome by a mad desire to clean their soul of mud in the foamy waves of bravery, the donkeys cry out in a coarse voice, “To arms!”

25“Be at peace, brothers in donkeyness!”—top leader donkeys tell them at such times. Do you not see that the manger is not filled yet? Wait until our tip is complete, then we will set off to war like decent people. All the donkeys are convinced by this argument, which is per excellentiam donkey-like. And they wait. But the manger does not get filled, and the tip does not grow; the fire of chivalry that sparkled for one moment in their hairy chest goes out, and—thank God—they remain donkeys.


Mária Kovács (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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