is a professor emeritus of comparative literature and Slaviclanguages and literature at Stanford University and the author, mostrecently, of Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet (PrincetonUniversity Press).
An Infamous Past: E.M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania
By Marta Petreu
Translated by Bogdan Aldea
(Ivan R. Dee, 332 pp.,
In the aftermath of World War II, there was a great influx ofrefugees into the United States. Most came from countries wherepopulations had been uprooted by the course of battle, or wereescaping from a past that they were lucky to have survived. Some,however, were trying to put behind them a different kind ofpast--one in which they had collaborated with, or expressed sympathyfor, the Axis powers that had been defeated. A notable case of thiskind was that of Paul de Man, the distinguished professor ofcomparative literature at Yale University; another eminent instancewas Mircea Eliade, the much-admired historian of religion who waschairman of the department of religion at the University of Chicagofrom 1957 until his death in 1986. Eliade had been a strongsupporter of the Iron Guard movement, the Romanian equivalent ofthe Italian fascists and the German Nazis, but he attemptedthroughout his later career to conceal and deny his affiliationwith its ideas and his service in the pro-Axis Romanian governmentof Marshal Ion Antonescu during the war.
Although Eliade's history has attracted little attention in theUnited States, he appears, under a fictitious name, in SaulBellow's novel Ravelstein. It is well known that the characterRavelstein is a fictional portrait of the late Allan Bloom, amember of the faculty of the University of Chicago and the authorof the best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind. Anotherprofessor at the university is a Romanian-born historian ofreligion, Radu Grielescu, with an even greater internationalreputation than that of Ravelstein, and obviously based on Eliade.The narrator of the novel, who may be roughly identified with theauthor, is married to a Romanian woman. (One of Bellow's wives wasin fact a Romanian mathematician--in the novel she is anastronomer--and his earlier novel The Dean's December is set inBucharest.) The couple are flatteringly cultivated by the highlycivilized Grielescu, and a minor motif of the book is the futileprotest of Ravelstein against what he correctly divines as theefforts of Grielescu to ingratiate himself with the narrator.
Both Ravelstein and the narrator are Jewish, and the former hasgotten wind that Grielescu, during the 1930s and 1940s, had been afervent intellectual spokesman for the ferociously antiSemitic IronGuard movement. Indeed, he had "denounced the Jewish syphilis thathad infected the high civilization of the Balkans." During the warhe had served the pro-fascist Romanian government in its embassiesin England and Portugal; and he lived in fear that his previousIron Guard affiliations and sympathies would become known."Grielescu is using you," Ravelstein tells the narrator. "In hisown country he was a fascist, and he needs you to cover this uphere." The narrator admits that he had never posed a directquestion about his past to Grielescu, but refuses to believe thathe could ever have been a genuine Jew-hater.
This episode in Bellow's novel is cited in a recent French study,which has not yet appeared in English, titled Cioran, Eliade,Ionesco: L'oubli du fascisme, written by AlexandraLaignel-Lavastine, a historian of Eastern European history andculture. This revelatory book is an extremely erudite explorationof the careers of the three writers named in the title, basedlargely but far from exclusively on an analysis of the little-known(and, until fairly recently, mostly inaccessible) journalistic andperiodical literature in Romanian of the 1930s and 1940s. All thesemen were natives of that relatively obscure and distant land, andall performed the astonishing feat of becoming world-famousfigures.
Eliade's books on the history of religion elevated him to acommanding height in the field, and he attained fame as a novelistboth in his own country and in France. E.M. Cioran was widelyhailed for his brilliantly disillusioned reflections on history andculture, written first in Romanian and then in French, and he waspraised as one of the greatest contemporary stylists in his adoptedlanguage. Eugene Ionesco pioneered the vogue of the theater of theabsurd, and his comic but also symbolically tragic plays wereperformed everywhere; eventually he was elected to the AcademieFrancaise. All three had a past that they wished to hide (thoughIonesco's concealments did not arise from any sympathy with thefascist tendency that the two others fervently championed). The aimof Laignel-Lavastine's book is to investigate the truth about thispast so far as it can be ascertained from the surviving documentsand the testimony of contemporaries. It has now been supplemented bythe appearance in English of a work exclusively devoted to Cioran,An Infamous Past, by the Romanian scholar and poet Marta Petreu,which was originally published in 1999.
Laignel-Lavastine begins with a sweeping depiction of the politicaland cultural atmosphere of the late 1920s in Romania, the periodduring which the three men she deals with came to maturity. Theideological climate of the time was defined in a series of articlesby the twenty-year-old Eliade called "A Spiritual Itinerary"--awork that quickly became the lodestar of the new generation andpromoted the young Eliade to the position of its leader. Sweepingaside all the ideas of the past that had been destroyed in thecarnage of World War I, Eliade wrote: "The myth of indefiniteprogress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science andtechnology to establish widespread peace and social justice, theprimacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism, all thishas been shattered to pieces in every area in which it has beencontested." This criticism of rationalism, materialism, and loss ofreligious faith was accompanied by praise of the "life-force," andof the most extreme irrational experiences, as providing the sourceof a new realm of values.
All three men attended the University of Bucharest, the center ofRomania's cultural life, where they became acquainted and competedfor attention in the animated discussions that took place in thecafes of the Calei Victorei, the main artery of the city. Everyconversation there was a personal challenge, and in a volume ofcritical articles titled Non, Ionesco ironically depicts thevarious strategies employed to make an impression. A neophyte mightimitate Cioran and speak "in response to everything or withcomplete irrelevance," or "in a trembling voice, in which theemotion and acute interior tension were expressed as the phrasesinterrupted each other, cite a passage from Unamuno or Berdyaev."Matters were not so intellectually effervescent, however, forothers in the university, especially those of Jewish origin.
Of primary importance in this context is the endemic anti-Semitismof Romanian culture, which has deep historic roots. Encouraged bythe rise of Nazism during the 1930s, the indigenous anti-Semitismof the Iron Guard made life for Jewish students at the university acontinual torment. They were assigned special seats, continuallyinsulted verbally, and assaulted physically. Often it was necessaryfor police to be called in to protect them as they left the lecturehalls. There is a moving passage in a novel from 1934 by MihailSebastian, also a playwright and for a time a member of Eliade'sinner circle, in which the obviously autobiographical maincharacter, who has been slapped in the face, remonstrates withhimself: "Tell yourself that you are the son of a nation of martyrs... dash your head against the walls, but if you wish to be able tolook yourself in the face, if you don't wish to die of shame, donot weep."
The reigning academic figure at the university, or at least thefigure who exercised the most influence on the writers we areconcerned with, was a philosopher named Nae Ionescu. He possessed adoctorate in philosophy from the University of Munich, and he was acharismatic orator capable of producing an almost hypnoticinfluence in his lectures to packed auditoriums. Depicted byLaignel-Lavastine as more or less an intellectual charlatan whosebrilliant performances were cribbed and plagiarized from Germanphilosophical sources, Ionescu nonetheless succeeded in obtainingan indelible grip on the finest minds of the younger generation.His lectures, according to Cioran, were only half prepared, so that"we were present face to face with the working out of his thought.He communicated this effort to us, the tension working in areciprocal manner.... Such professors are rare."
What did students absorb from the teachings of this spellbindingprofessor? He traced the crisis of modern man, which culminated forhim in the emergence of the ideology of democracy, to the fusion ofthe philosophical subjectivism of Descartes with the mathematicalmethod and scientific uniformization imposed by the Renaissance. Tothis individualist perspective he opposed that of the submission ofthe individual to the national collectivity--not the legal nation,but the organic one, the community of blood and spirit, which was,according to him, the only living and creative reality. Up to 1933,such proto-fascist ideas, which formed the common coin of a gooddeal of the German philosophy of the time, were not given anypolitical application by Ionescu, who had been in favor of therestoration of King Carol II in 1930. But in 1933 he went toGermany and was much impressed by Hitler's rise to power. On hisreturn he protested, along with Eliade, the ban issued against theIron Guard, one of whose members had recently assassinated theliberal prime minister. It was in 1933 that the philosopher alsomade personal contact for the first time with C. Z. Codreanu, thefounder and leader of the Iron Guard, and apparently a powerfullyimpressive personality.
The Iron Guard was as vicious and brutal as other fascistformations-- perhaps even more than some when it came to murderousviolence against the Jews- -but it differed from the others bycontaining, along with a strong nationalistic component, areligious one as well. It combined, according to Laignel-Lavastine,"the Fuhrerprinzip [the cult of the Leader] with the Christianprototype of the apostle and the Balkan model of the haidouks,those who meted out justice on the highways, a type of Robin Hoodof the Carpathians. " Each member of the Iron Guard was supposed tosubmit himself to a discipline that would transform his character,and--at least in theory--the movement was closer to some sort ofreligious sect than to a customary political formation. This madeit much simpler in later years for Eliade, in his extremelyuntrustworthy memoirs, to sanitize his close association with theIron Guard by describing it as "having the structure and vocationof a mystical sect rather than of a political movement." In fact,the organization offered candidates for all the elections andparticipated in all the political campaigns. Still, as late as1980, Eliade stressed the religious component of its ideology,which glorified terrorism and assassination as examples of personalself-sacrifice. The Iron Guard, he wrote, was "the sole Romanianpolitical movement that took seriously Christianity and thechurch."
After sketching in this background, Laignel-Lavastine moves on tofollow the careers of her three protagonists during this period.Cioran was born of a clerical family in what had been part of theAustro-Hungarian Empire, and as a lycee student was one of the fewwho took advantage of the well-stocked German library. As hisnotebooks show, he imbibed the very best of both old and new Germanphilosophy, as well as Russians such as Dostoevsky and Shestov. In1933, at the age of twenty-two, he began to publish articles in theanti-Semitic weekly Vremea, in which Eliade also regularlyappeared. Cioran's contributions were distinguished by an extremecultural and ethical pessimism derived from Schopenhauer, as wellas by an antirationalism absorbed from Nietzsche, Simmel, andScheler. Petreu stresses the influence of Spengler, to whosethoughts on the decline of the West, she argues, Cioran remainedindebted all his life. His writings were also characterized by ananguished concern over the status of Romania on the world scene. Bywhat means could his country succeed in raising itself above themediocrity in which it seemed to stagnate? How could it "emergefrom a thousand years of sub-historical vegetative life," as hewrote in 1936?
Like other students of Nae Ionescu, Cioran had begun to sympathizewith the Iron Guard without accepting some of its ideologicalpresuppositions; and he always refused to affiliate completely witha political movement. But a decisive moment in his life was aHumboldt fellowship to Germany in 1933, where he lived until thesummer of 1935. He was tremendously impressed by the new dynamismthat Hitler had imparted to German life, and compared it sadly tothe inertia at home. "To tell the truth," he wrote to a friendshortly after arriving, "there are things here that please me, andI am convinced that a dictatorial regime would succeed inconquering our native morass." He admired Hitler more and more astime went on, and he expresses such admiration in no uncertainterms in the articles that he sent back for his Romanian readers."There is no contemporary political figure," he wrote, "for whom Ifeel a greater sympathy and admiration than for Hitler," who hadsucceeded in infusing "a messianic inspiration to a domain ofvalues that democratic rationalism had rendered banal and trivial."Along with many others, he attended the popular courses of thephilosopher Ludwig Klages, an antiSemitic Nazi sympathizer, whom hecompared to Ionescu, and placed on the same level as Heidegger.(Klages wrote a huge three-volume work to demonstrate that reasonhad always been a dissolving and corrupting force in human life.)
On returning home, Cioran performed his obligatory military servicein the army, and then, starting in 1936, taught philosophy for ayear in a lycee. During these years he published three books, twoon religion and the third--the most scandalously provocative workthat ever came from his pen--titled The Transfiguration of Romania.Here he raises the problem of the integration of minorities, andnot only defends Romanian xenophobia but also attempts to develop arigorously systematic and historical anti-Semitic argument to provethat the Jews are inassimilable. "The feeling of animosity towardstrangers," he declares, "is so characteristic of Romanian nationalsentiment that the two are forever indissoluble.... We have livedfor a thousand years under their domination [that of strangers],and not to hate them, not to get them out of the way, would beproof of a lack of national instinct."
As for the Jews, Cioran writes that "every time that a peoplebecomes conscious of itself, it fatally enters into conflict withthe Jews." One can learn to live with other minorities, such as theHungarians and the Saxon Germans, but this is impossible with theJews "by reason of the particular structure of their mentality andof their inherent political orientations." Cioran repeats the usuallitany of anti-Semitic charges, but attempts to give them a logicand consistency they would not otherwise possess, linking them toessential characteristics of the Jewish mentality. (His book waswritten after Hitler had passed the Nuremberg laws in Germany.)
Most of Petreu's book is devoted to a very thorough and quitecritical analysis of this work, the only purely political tractthat Cioran ever produced. His anti-Semitism and xenophobia werecommonplace in Romanian thought, but Petreu views his politicalideas as quite independent in the context of a period dominated bya conflict between "occidentalism" and "autochthony" (a reliance onnative traditions). Cioran rejected both: neither a capitalisttransformation along European democratic lines nor a re-affirmationof the national values embodied in rural life met with hisapproval.
Instead, he was in favor of increased industrialization andexpressed considerable admiration for Lenin and the RussianRevolution, though of course abhorring its materialist ideology.Moreover, the transformation of Romania could only be nationalist,and it was here that he coincided with the Iron Guard, proclaimingin 1937 his confidence in the group's "heroism which begins inbrutality and ends in sacrifice." He met Codreanu several times, butwrote to Eliade in 1935 that "no political doctrine receives myultimate approval." Cioran left Romania again in 1937, havingapplied for a study grant to Spain, the land of Unamuno. But thecivil war made that impossible, and so he spent three years inFrance instead.
Eliade, as already noted, found no difficulty at all in acceptingthe ideology of the Iron Guard, which he viewed in the light of hisown preoccupation with religion and spirituality. The differencebetween him and Cioran, whose book The Transfiguration of RomaniaEliade prepared for the press as a service to his friend, isclearly illustrated in a letter in which Eliade is full of praisefor the section on the Jews and other minorities, but objects toCioran's contemptuous remarks about the Romanian village ascontaining nothing but "a biological reserve." For Eliade, it wasthe source of national- religious values that had existed forcenturies--and were again being revived by the Iron Guard. In aseries of more than fifty articles between 1934 and 1938, hepraised "the Captain," as Codreanu was called, for inspiring such amovement and urged young intellectuals to join the cause. "Thesignificance of the revolution advanced by Corneliu Codreanu is soprofoundly mystical," he declared, "that its success woulddesignate the victory of the Christian spirit in Europe."
Eliade's adhesion to the cause, however, was by no meansinstantaneous. It was only in December 1935 that he decided that"the primacy of the spiritual does not imply the refusal ofaction." In 1936 he began openly to support the Iron Guard; but hisaim was "to provide its ideology with a more solid philosophicalfoundation." One is reminded of Heidegger's attempt to provideHitlerism with what the philosopher considered a worthierintellectual grounding. Eliade carries on a continual battleagainst the ideas of the Enlightenment and traces the degenerationof Romania to its attempt to adopt such alien notions: "Being aforeign importation, the democratic regime concerns itself withmatters that are not specifically Romanian--abstractions like therights of man, the rights of minorities, and the liberty ofconscience. " Far better a dictatorship like that of Mussolini,which is always preferable to a democracy because, if the lattergoes to pieces, it will "inevitably slide toward the left" and thustoward communism.
An important event of these years for Eliade was the return of thecoffins of two of his friends, both prominent Iron Guardists,killed fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. A hugesemiofficial demonstration was organized to honor their remains,and Eliade wrote three articles, one published in the journal ofthe Iron Guard itself, to consecrate the glory of their sacrifice.As usual, he endows this event with his own pseudo-religious aura."The voluntary death of Ion Mota and Vasile Marin," he wrote, "hasa mystic significance: the sacrifice for Christianity." By thistime he had become an active partisan of the Iron Guard; and whenthe Guard fell out of favor with the government in 1938, leading tothe arrest of Codreanu and several hundred of his most prominentfollowers, Mircea Eliade was among them.
The conditions of their detention in a camp, once an agriculturalschool, were far from onerous, and courses were organized byIonescu and Eliade, who also managed to write a novel there, calledMarriage in Heaven. His wife's uncle was a general close to KingCarol II, and since Eliade suffered from a tubercular condition, hewas soon allowed to move to a mountain village and returned homeearly in December. Later that month Codreanu was killed, presumablywhile attempting to escape, and the Iron Guard movement was sternlyrepressed. Eliade had lost his university post, but he confided toCioran that he "regretted nothing," and he wrote a play, Iphigenia,that exalted the ideas of sacrifice and death for one's country inwords literally reproducing those he had used about the two IronGuardists who had sacrificed themselves for Franco.
Life for Eliade in his native land was becoming difficult, and hiscorrespondence reveals that he was seeking to go elsewhere. He madeefforts in the direction of the United States and France with nosuccess, and finally had to settle for a post as cultural attachein London before Romania entered the war against the Allies. TheEnglish were quite well informed about his past, and classified himas "the most Nazified member of the legation," possibly a spy forGermany. When he was transferred to Portugal, there was somediscussion as to whether he should be allowed to leave the country,and he was filled with indignation at being stripped and searchedbefore his departure. He spent four years in Lisbon, where thedictatorship of Salazar, which he called "a Christian form oftotalitarianism," was much closer to his political tastes thananything he could find elsewhere. While performing his tasks in theembassy, he also wrote a hagiographical but scholarly biography ofSalazar, who deigned, much to his delight, to grant him anaudience, and then entrusted him with a message to deliver toGeneral Antonescu. Eliade's trip to Bucharest in July 1942 was thelast time he was to see his native land.
The third member of the trio was Eugene Ionesco, and the jacket ofLaignel- Lavastine's book contains a photograph taken in 1977 inParis at the charming and peaceful little Place Furstenberg, just afew steps away from the swarming crowd at St.-Germain-des-Pres. Thepicture captures the three exiles talking together in thefriendliest fashion, and has aroused a good deal of criticism,because it would appear that all three were guilty in a similarfashion of the "oubli du fascisme," the forgetfulness aboutfascism, indicated by the book's title. The text makes clear,however, that Ionesco's politics had always been fiercely hostileto the fascist temptation. Indeed, his famous play Rhinoceros(1959) is based on his horrified fascination with what he saw takingplace as the members of his generation each yielded to the fascistspell.
The play depicts a small provincial village where the inhabitantsgradually become transformed into rhinoceroses that destroyeverything in their path. Ionesco's journal records the process bywhich, as he wrote, "I saw how my brothers, my friends, graduallybecame strangers. I felt a new spirit germinating within them; howa new personality was substituted for theirs." These newpersonalities were those of "the ideologists andsemi-intellectuals" who mutated into "rhinoceroses"; a charactercalled "the Logician" in the play, presumably based on Nae Ionescu,precipitates this transformation.
But Ionesco, too, possessed a past that he wished to keep hidden,though it was relatively anodyne compared with that of the othertwo. For one thing, there was the question of his family. Ionesco'sfather was a Romanian lawyer with a French doctorate, and hismother was presumably French. But there appears to be some questionabout her origins: she may not have been a French citizen at all,and was probably of Jewish ancestry. None of this is mentioned inIonesco's autobiographical writings; but he spoke of his mother toMihail Sebastian, whose friendship, unlike that of all the others,he continued to cultivate, and who comments that "I had long knownthat his mother was Jewish from hearsay." This conversationoccurred in 1941, just fifteen days after an Iron Guardist pogrom,horrifying in its slaughter, had taken place in Bucharest.
Ionesco taught French literature at the University of Bucharest, andbecame well known in the 1930s when his book Non was given aprestigious literary award. In it, he scathingly attacked theeminences of Romanian literature for their "ethno-linguisticnationalism and historicism." Meanwhile, he was keeping a journalthat nourished much of his later work, in which we see himrejecting the collectivisms both of fascism and communism. In 1938he received a grant to study in Paris from the director of theFrench Cultural Institute who, a few months earlier, had given oneto Cioran; but though the two lived in the same section of Parisand had common Romanian friends, they carefully avoided eachother's company.
At this time Ionesco was much influenced by Emmanuel Mounier, thefounder of the journal Esprit, and a liberal Catholic who attemptedto steer a middle course between left and right and fathered adoctrine known as "personalism." It was anti-capitalist and highlycritical of the weaknesses of liberal democracy, but it alsostressed the importance of preserving the rights of the individualpersonality not as a political entity, but as a moral-spiritualone. Mounier has been sharply criticized for having contributed tothe undermining of the respect for democracy that marked the prewaryears in France; but what impressed Ionesco was his emphasis onsafeguarding the moral responsibility of the individual. BothCioran and Ionesco sent home articles describing their impressionsof Paris: the former depicted the city and France itself as "anation fatigued and worn-out, at the twilight of its history," whilethe latter spoke of them as "the ultimate refuge of humanity."
After the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Ionesco decided toreturn to Romania--a decision he bitterly regretted. He remainedthere until the summer of 1942, desperately trying to leave againwithout success. During this period the Romanian government wastaken over by General Antonescu, who for five months shared powerwith the Iron Guard. They instituted a reign of terror "of anindescribable savagery," particularly against the Jews, but alsomassacring other opponents and kidnapping former members of thegovernment and prominent intellectuals to be executed. Antonescu,disturbed by the chaos, finally suppressed the Iron Guard with thehelp of German troops. Meanwhile new laws against the Jews wereadded to those already in existence, and applied to "converts" ofthe past and present as well as those clinging to their faith; allwere excluded from teaching, as well as from any other professionaloffice or occupation, except those with special permission from thehead of state. Ionesco became frantic, as his notebooks reveal; andafter several futile efforts to obtain passports and visas, heappealed to friends in several ministries for help. As a lastresort, they arranged for him to become press attache at theRomanian embassy in Vichy (France by this time had been defeated).As he put it, "I am like an escaped prisoner who flees in theuniform of the jailer."
This is the second part of his Romanian past that Ionesco keptconcealed: these Vichy years are never mentioned in hisautobiographical writings. A full account of them is given inLaignel-Lavastine's book, using the documents now available fromhis dossier in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bucharest andreferences in his letters of the time. It is quite clear, to citethe text, that this "was a strategy of survival"; and though hehated every moment of his duties, he performed them conscientiouslyenough to receive a promotion to cultural secretary in the springof 1943.
Much of his time was given to encouraging the translation andpublication of Romanian writers, and to maneuvering among Frenchjournals in the complicated maze created by the collaborationist,semi-collaborationist, and purely literary publications. Ionescocarefully avoided the first and preferred those that attempted topreserve a literary autonomy, even if it was necessarily limited.He also secretly employed as a translator, using a pseudonym, aRomanian-Jewish poet whose works had been illustrated by Brancusiand Victor Brauner. Very far from being lenient toward hersubjects, Laignel-Lavastine does not omit other duties performed byIonesco that might be considered "compromising"; but she concludesthat his record is "in general quite honorable." Still, those wereyears that he wished to forget.
Cioran was also in Paris at the outbreak of the war and decided toreturn to Bucharest in the autumn of 1940, though he, too,eliminated these months from accounts of his life. The reason isquite simple: he arrived when the Iron Guard had practically takenover the government; and on the very day that it was committing theatrocities already mentioned, he spoke on the radio with ecstaticpraise for the "Legion" (as the movement was also called)."Codreanu," he said, had "instilled honor in a nation of slaves; hehas given a sense of pride to a spineless herd." He also publishedseveral articles along the same lines and, preparing his return toFrance, obtained an appointment as cultural attache to the Romanianembassy in Vichy. Cioran took up his new post in March 1941, butbroke all records for the brevity of his service, which lasted onlytwo and a half months. Meanwhile, he managed once again to obtain astudy grant with the help of his former benefactor, now at theCollege de France, and returned to live and write in occupiedParis.
During these years, he spent a good deal of time with anotherex-Romanian intellectual of Jewish origin, Benjamin Fondane(actually Vecsler), who had become a fairly well-known literarycritic and poet through his works in French. In a letter to hisparents in 1946, cited by Petreu, Cioran writes that "[Fondane]proved to be more gentle and more generous than all my `Christian'friends taken together.... In the long run, all ideas are absurd andfalse; only the people are there, regardless of their origin orreligion." When Fondane was finally denounced and arrested, Cioranwent with Jean Paulhan to plead for his release. Surprisinglyenough, they were successful in his case; but Fondane refused toleave without his sister, who had also been taken into custody, andthey both perished in Auschwitz.
There can be little doubt that, as Laignel-Lavastine notes, "thearrest of Fondane shook Cioran profoundly," and left an indelibleimpression on his ideas and his values. He later wrote an admiringessay about his friend, and in addition helped Fondane's wife tore-edit his works after the war as well as to complete an importantunfinished book on Baudelaire. He also wrote an article asking thatFondane's name be included among those deported writers whose nameswere inscribed in the Pantheon. Laignel-Lavastine criticizes him forhaving called Fondane "Moldavian" rather than Jewish (as if thiswere not understood), and because other phrases might beinterpreted as containing traces of his own previous anti-Semitism.But actions, such as his intervention for his friend's release,speak louder even than such words; and this is not the onlyinstance in which suspicion is cast on any genuine transformationof sentiment in Cioran.
No such problem arises with Eliade, because no transformation of anykind took place. Quite the contrary. Eliade kept a notebookthroughout the war that is now deposited in the University ofChicago library, and which, since it was never intended forpublication, he did not undertake to revise so as to blur anddistort his opinions and actions. It is an astonishing document,revealing a self-adulation merging on megalomania and a ferventcommitment to the triumph of Hitler, Mussolini, and Antonescu overthe "Anglo-Bolsheviks." Comparing himself with Goethe, whose geniushe admired, Eliade concludes: "My intellectual horizons arevaster." Despite the consolation of such reflections, he wasterribly depressed by the course of the war. After the defeat ofthe Germans and their Romanian allies at Stalingrad (which hecalled "a tragedy"), followed by the invasion of North Africa andthe British victory over Rommel, Eliade was upset to such an extentthat he notes: "Insomnias, nightmares, depression."
For him, the triumph of the Allies meant "the abandonment of Europeto the Asiatic hordes." Even though Jews were being slaughteredright and left in his homeland, not to mention elsewhere--andEliade's diplomatic position kept him perfectly well informed--nota word about any such events appears in his pages. As thehandwriting on the wall became more and more legible, he resolvednot to return home, but to take another tack. "I have decided to`penetrate' Europe more deeply and with more determination than Ihave done until now," he writes. Several months later, he seeshimself operating as "a Trojan horse within the scientific arena,"whose aim was "scientifically to validate the metaphysicalsignificance of prehistoric life." This is exactly how he behavedafter Antonescu was overthrown and he was discharged from hisposition at the Romanian embassy. He had influential scholarlyconnections in Paris, particularly the cultural historian GeorgesDumezil, and he used this influence as well as others to obtaintemporary teaching appointments. He had begun to write his Treatiseon the History of Religions in 1944 and his influential The Myth ofthe Eternal Return a year later; both appeared in French in theimmediate postwar years, and launched Eliade on his way tointernational fame and a permanent post in Chicago.
The great value of Laignel-Lavastine's book is her thoroughinvestigation of the Romanian background, and in a much largerframework than the one provided by Petreu. The chapters devoted tothe postwar years of her three protagonists, though of greatinterest in themselves and barely touched on by Petreu, deal withmore familiar and easily accessible material. A good deal ofcriticism has been leveled against her book, but none, to myknowledge, has really undermined the factual basis of herindictment, even though she may be faulted on matters of detail.
A different question arises when she discusses the issue of whetherEliade and Cioran ever underwent any sort of "true transformation"of their earlier views, or only engaged "in a secret game ofprojections, calculations, and concealments." This involves mattersof interpretation on which opinions may differ. Such a question, asshe concedes, applies only "very weakly" to Ionesco, who was more avictim of circumstances than of any ideological commitment he hadreason to regret. In later years the picture on the book jacket ofthe three men engaged in friendly conversation could create a wrongimpression, even though it approximates at least a modicum of thetruth of what became their relation.
In the immediate postwar years, many of the Romanian intellectualsin Paris (not all, to be sure) clustered around Eliade, whose hotelroom became "one of the principal rendezvous of the exile." Ionescoshowed up at such gatherings, as he told a friend, only in order"to escape from [his] undermining solitude," while at the same timedeclaiming against this group as "an affair of Legionnaires [IronGuardists] who have not repented." Moreover, aside from the need toovercome the "painful isolation" that he felt, the Romanianpolitical situation had changed entirely, and he now found himselfmore or less partially in agreement with his ancient enemies. Acommunist government had taken over Romania in 1947, and Ionescocould join the others in deploring this imposition of thecollectivism--of the right or the left--that he had alwaysabhorred.
All through his later life he actively supported democratic causes,affixing his name to petitions to support the Prague Spring, theAfghan resistance against Russia, and the right of Soviet Jews toemigrate, and joining movements such as Amnesty International. Hewas tireless in his support of Israel, thus bucking a strongcurrent of French gauchiste opinion. He joined Arthur Koestler,Leszek Kolakowski, and Czeslaw Milosz, among others, in hisanti-communism. He is depicted as thus "sliding to the right," butdoing so in defense of the values in which he had always believed:the liberty of man, humanism. As more or less of a gauchisteherself, however, Laignel-Lavastine cannot resist a dig at "therather reactionary side of the old academician, which sometimesbrings on a smile or a reaction of annoyance" when "hisanti-communism becomes in the end a little ridiculous." This is anasty thrust that does her little credit.
Eliade's remarkable career illustrates his skill and success atplaying "the secret game of projections, concealments andcalculations." Reference already has been made to the falsificationof the memoirs and journals that is illustrated all through thevolume; but his Iron Guard past nonetheless caught up with him fromtime to time. His application for appointment to the French Centerfor Scientific Research, though sponsored by a formidable array ofprominent scholars, was turned down because a renowned medievalhistorian of Romanian origin wrote a detailed letter about hisearly commitments. Similarly, safely installed in Chicago in 1973,Eliade was invited for a lecture in Israel by Gershom Scholem, whomhe had met at colloquiums in Ascona, Switzerland, initiallysponsored by Jung (whose political past is also very suspect). In1972 a small Israeli journal of the Romanian emigration hadpublished an article revealing part of Eliade's connection with theIron Guard, but without citing any written sources. Scholem wastroubled, but Eliade wrote a letter piling lie upon lie,indignantly denying that he had ever published a line in praise ofthe Iron Guard and relying on the inaccessibility of the Romanianmaterial at that time.
The invitation to Hebrew University was withdrawn, though Scholem,presumably incapable of believing in such duplicity, urged Eliade tovisit him personally and offered to arrange an interview with theauthor of the article to clear up matters of disagreement. ButEliade prudently cancelled the trip, and never visited Israel thenor later. Part of Eliade's strategy was to cultivate friendshipswith prominent Jewish scholars and intellectuals, asRavelstein/Bloom had rightly charged. Saul Bellow spoke at hisfuneral in 1986. His novel indicates that he may have had someregrets at having done so.
Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade's postwarwritings, but the prejudice is transposed into a much morescholarly key in his theory of religion. One of the cornerstones ofhis doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclicaltime, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind oranother in which "sacred time," the time of religious experience,was re-created. The modern world has largely lost this ability torelive "sacred time" because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them)broke with the cyclical time of "the eternal return" by linking Godwith linear time. "The Hebrews," he writes, "were the first todiscover the significance of history as the epiphany of God," andthis discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of themodern world. Daniel Dubuisson, a French analyst of Eliade's viewson mythology, concludes that this summary notion of history"especially invents a new accusation against the Jews, that of anontological crime, a capital crime and without doubt unpardonable."Eliade thus remained true to himself in this erudite disguiseduring his later years, when his worldwide fame reached its apogeeand his death was mourned with sanctimonious reverence.
The most complicated case of all was Cioran, whose later writingsare shot through with passages that may be read as implicitexpressions of regret for his earlier convictions, but who neverseemed able to repudiate them publicly. He was much more forthrightin his correspondence and in private conversation. In a letter to afriend, Cioran declared in 1971 that "when I contemplate certain ofmy past infatuations, I am brought up short: I don't understand.What madness!" This would certainly seem to indicate their rejectionon his part. In conversation with the author of a book about thecommandant of Auschwitz, he said: "What Germany did amounts to adamnation of mankind."
There can be no question that, unlike Eliade, the issue of hisprevious fascism and anti-Semitism tormented the complicated,involuted, self- questioning Cioran, whose thought was alwaysdirected toward undermining all of mankind's certainties, includinghis own. The analysis of the postwar Cioran given here is the mostcomplex and controversial in Laignel-Lavastine's book. He isdepicted as both evading any overt responsibility for his past andalso, "unlike Eliade," weighed down by feelings "inseparable from adesire for expiation and a sense of diffuse guilt ... [an]`oppressive sensation' with which he admits sometimes awakening inthe morning, `as if I bore the weight of a thousand crimes.'"
As in the case of Eliade, Cioran's past sometimes came back to haunthim. Paul Celan, the great German poet of Romanian origin whoseparents died in a Romanian camp and who had himself been deportedto a labor camp, was also living in Paris and translated one ofCioran's works, Precis de decomposition (A Short History of Decay),into German in 1953. The two saw each other from time to time, andCioran came to the poet's aid when Celan was fighting offaccusations of plagiarism. Yet when a Romanian critic on his waythrough Paris laid out the particulars of Cioran's past, Celanrefused to have anything more to do with him. Despite this break,Cioran was deeply disturbed when he heard of the poet's suicide. Itis suggested that this relationship with a Jewish writer may alsohave been meant as the same sort of "cover" that Eliade exploitedso successfully; but there is nothing to support such a suspicionexcept that, when Cioran was once asked whether he knew Celine, hementioned Celan instead. One has the feeling here that, despite herown evident intention to be as fair as possible in stressingCioran's "ambivalence," Laignel- Lavastine is pushing matters toofar.
The same problem arises when she comes to Cioran's attitude towardthe Jews. When, for example, a new edition of his most anti-Semiticbook, The Transfiguration of Romania, was published in Romania, heinsisted that the chapter on the Jews be eliminated, along with anumber of remarks about them scattered through the text: "Icompletely renounce a very large part [of the book] which stemsfrom the prejudices of the past, and I consider as inadmissiblecertain remarks about the Jews," he wrote to a friend. Nothingcould be more explicit. Even more, in one of his later French bookshe included a section on the Jews called "Un peuple de solitaires"("A Solitary People") that was hailed as philo-Semitic. ButLaignel-Lavastine believes this to be an illusion, because oncomparing this text with what Cioran had written years ago, shefinds that the image now given of the Jewish people and theirhistory is much the same as that provided earlier--except that whathad been evaluated negatively in the past is now given a glowinglypositive spin. Moreover, Cioran continually identifies his ownsituation with that of the Jews, writing that "their drama [that ofthe Jews] is mine." In 1970 he mused that "I lacked an essentialcondition fully to realize myself: to be Jewish."
This obsessive self-identification with the Jews is interpreted as"the reversed expression of the same psycho-pathologicalphenomenon" that had earlier led to Cioran's worst excesses.Perhaps so; but to glorify the Jews instead of vilifying themsurely indicates some sort of change. Also, the objection is madethat while Cioran often expresses regret about his errors of thepast, he never does so except in general terms, without attemptingto explain why they are now rejected. For Laignel-Lavastine,Cioran's tantalizingly ambiguous relation to his past is hardly agenuine attempt to come to terms with the practical consequences ofthe ideas he once espoused and still, on occasion, seemed to toywith in a rhetorically half-amused fashion. She wonders whether, aswas the case with Eliade, he was merely "translating into anacceptable language ideological motifs and attitudes [that are]ideologically disqualified in the West." Petreu is much moreaffirmative on this issue, and cites someone who visited Cioranduring his last days, when he was suffering from Alzheimer'sdisease: "From his hospital bed, desperately trying to overcome thesymptoms of his disease, Cioran stumblingly told his guest: `I ...am not ... an ... anti- ... Semite.'"
Let me add my personal testimony at this point. During my years inParis I met Cioran and saw him on a number of occasions, and we hada good many conversations (particularly but not exclusively aboutRussian literature, in which he took a passionate interest).Whatever the twists and turns of his troubled conscience, thebrilliantly sardonic, self-mocking, and fascinating personalitythat I knew could not have been a conscious manipulator who wouldset out deliberately to deceive.
If there is a general criticism to be made of Laignel-Lavastine'sexcellent book, it is that Cioran is pursued too relentlessly,perhaps in an effort to counteract his devoted admirers in Franceand elsewhere--the late Susan Sontag, for example, who introducedhim to the United States. A lack of knowledge of the Romanianbackground allowed him to be seen innocently and too exclusively inthe light of his soaring philosophical speculations. But if theseare now shadowed by the political commitments that he himself laterfound incomprehensible, the reliable evidence of his genuinestruggle to cope with his past deserves more sympathy. In Cioran'scase, compassion is not the enemy of truth.
By Joseph Frank