May 26, 2016 by Jessica Palmer
Dept. of Comparative Literature, University of Bucharest
Throughout the 19th and the 20th centuries, debates concerning Romania’s national identity focused repeatedly on the cultural heritage of the Roman Empire and the Romance origins of the Romanian language. Membership in the club of Romance languages was considered irrefutable proof of a western European identity and allegiance. Eventually, for most Romanians, Romance came to mean French and France was regarded as the most dignified heir of the late Roman Empire, not only economically and politically, but especially culturally. As a consequence, France and its capital city became (and has remained) a Mecca for young Romanian intellectuals seeking a Western European education. Their fascination with Paris and French cultural models, as well as their effort to transplant French culture in Bucharest (and Romanian culture in Paris), has taken many different forms from the Romantic period to the present: it has been a place of nostalgia, a place of the stolen memory, and after the Soviet takeover of Romania, the French capital became a mythical space situated somewhere between fiction and reality.
In the following I will explore some of the modalities of Romania’s obsession with Paris as a space of cultural identification.
The 1848 Model
Let us begin with the first generation of Romanian intellectuals who traveled on the eve of the 1848 revolution in search of higher education and professional training. For several reasons that I explain below, this early Romanian francophilia should be viewed as an elitist, anti-Russian, and political option.
In the early to mid-nineteenth century, Paris was a primarily an elitist option, insofar as only the socially and economically privileged could afford to study in Paris (Roman 76). This generation enrolled in universities, kept abreast of politics, frequented literary salons and even built family alliances (Edgar Quinet’s second wife, for example, was Romanian). French-Romanian relations often took a personalized and even affectionate form. Thus C.A. Rosetti (1816–1885) and Ion C. Bratianu (1821–1891) urged Edgar Quinet in a letter published by the Courrier Français: “Help France remember that we are her sons and that we have fought for her in the streets. Add to this that everything we have done, we have done following her example” (Anghelescu 49).
But this French orientation was also essentially anti-Russian since, after the treaty of Andrianople, Romania was placed under the double control of Turkey and Russia. Russia, whose power at this time was on the rise, acted aggressively toward Romania. At about the same time, France’s Marquis de Custine made stark revelations about Russia, which generated an anti-Russian romanticism that opposed the religious and communitarian spirit of Russia. Consequently, Romanians quite naturally considered France a welcome cultural alternative to the encroaching political and cultural power of Russia.
On a political level, France’s revolution of 1848 was perceived in Bucharest as the beginning of a mythical construction of an imaginary France, a Jerusalem of liberty and eternal revolution. While lecturing at the College de France, Jules Michelet, for example, chose “revolution” as the defining feature of French identity, and of the very name of France (Roman 76–79). Paris, the capital of this mythical realm, also seemed to be “the stuff that dreams are of.” Paris emerged as an atemporal icon of western culture and mentality. From all points of view, France and Paris were the ideal models.
Romanian intellectuals of the period tried to assimilate the romantic Herderian ideas, then fashionable in Paris. This led to a Romanian revival of the vernacular and of oral culture, a focus on national history, local color and exoticism, and the rural tradition. Subsequent writers like Mihai Eminescu (1850–1889) viewed this period somewhat more critically, detecting a certain naiveté in the ideological and revolutionary discourse of the 1848 generation.
After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions in the Romanian Principalities, many liberal “westernizers” were forced into exile, the majority to Paris. Among the exiles were important writers and political leaders, including C.A. Rosetti, Ion C. Bratianu, Vasile Alecsandri (1818–1890), A. Russo (1918–1859), Mihail Kogašlniceanu (1817–1891), Cezar Bolliac (1813–1881), Ion Ghica (1816–1897), and Ioan Heliade Radulescu (1802–1871). The latter, whose exile lasted the longest – nine years – had a very significant evolution, revelatory for the Messianic rhetoric of the 1848 Romanian intellectuals and for their fascination with the Christian-socialist political models offered by Felicité Robert de Lamennais, Pierre Leroux, François Marie Charles Fourier, and others (Zamfir: 84–5, 110–111).
Paradoxically, Paris, which was considered by Romanian intellectuals as the cradle of romance culture and the symbol of the memory and continuity of Romania’s Latin heritage, became among post-1848 exiles the subject of nostalgic literature following the well known “down the rivers of Babylon” model of the Jewish Diaspora.
It was also during this period that the tradition of French-language Romanian literature, or “Romanian francophonie,” began. The 1848 generation were pioneers in this respect, especially in the epistolary genre. During his exile in Paris, Heliade wrote Souvenirs et impressions d’un proscrit (1850; Recollections and Impressions of an Outcast) and Memoires sur l’histoire de la regénération roumaine (1851; Memoirs on the History of Romanian Regeneration). Simultaneously, Alecu Russo composed the first version of his prose poem “Cântarea României” (“Song of Romania”) in French, although this work described a mythic rather than a real Romanian homeland.
In the aftermath of the 1848 exile, the use of French became significant in certain circles in Bucharest, playing the role of a cultural idiom. After his studies in Paris, Alexandru Macedonski (1854–1920), founder of the Romanian symbolist movement, published poetry in Romanian and French in Bucharest as well as French-language prose poems in Paris, some of which were occasionally reviewed in French literary journals. In the early 20th century, Romanian symbolist poets were quite familiar with the Parisian artistic milieu. Overall, the recollection of this particular experience on the banks of Seine stimulated the modernization of Romanian poetic expression and enhanced the Romania’s national self-awareness.
Close scrutiny of this poetic production would detect melancholy nourished by displacement: the melancholy of Romanian writers lusting after the Paris of the flâneur and displaying the symptoms of marginality. They were uncomfortable in both Bucharest and Paris, which now came to be perceived as a “Bucharest-on-the-Seine.”
Two distinct aspects of the “Bucharest on the Seine” are visible in the 20th century– an aulic and an insurgent one. Several Romanian aristocratic families had settled on the Seine and entered mixed marriages. Among them, the princely families Brancovan-Bibesco deserve special attention. Anna-Elisabeta Brâncoveanu, married as Countess de Noailles (1876–1933), produced writing that was totally assimilated into French literature. Princess Martha Bibescu (Marthe Bibesco, 1889–1973), wife of Anna de Noailles’ cousin, had also published by the end of her life more than 30 volumes in Paris and Bucharest, some of which were prize-winners of the French Academy.
In an insightful essay published in Paris, Mircea Eliade draws attention to Bibesco’s importance, insisting on her role as a cultural mediator: “Just before her death, the princess Martha Bibesco was perceived as the last witness of an earlier Europe. The fact of the matter was that she had been an acquaintance of the last Tzar and of all the European sovereigns; among her closest friends she could count King Ferdinand and Queen Maria of Romania, as well as Marcel Proust, Paul Claudel and Father Mugnier; she frequented not only the Parisian literary salons and writers, but also politicians, military leaders, artists, scientists, and priests, from all over Europe” (Eliade, “Marthe Bibesco…” 67; my trans.)
As a written testimony of her distinguished Parisian friendships, we could mention her published epistolary exchange with Paul Claudel, and the her well-known book Au bal avec Marcel Proust (In the Ballroom with Marcel Proust). Another family member, Antoine Bibesco, wrote a play performed in Paris, Le Jaloux (The Jealous Man), which Proust himself reviewed in “Le Figaro.”
For these Romanian aristocrats who easily assimilated into French culture, Paris was somehow a second Bucharest: “Rien ne pourra faire de moi une exilée en France!” (“Nothing could make me feel exiled in France”), Bibesco used to say (cited in Eliade 76). The continuity between the Romanian “Little Paris” (Bucharest) and the French capital-city was almost seamless. Regarding the double identity of Marthe Bibesco, Eliade reports that her close friends saw her as another goddess Proserpine, living six months of the year above the earth and the other six underground, which meant that she usually spent half of her life in Paris and the other on her properties in Romania (Eliade 72). Under the circumstances it is worth noting that she worshipped both places as imaginary “lieux de memoire” while being far away from them. In any case, all of these princely Romanian intellectuals were bilingual and bi-cultural, perceiving their mother culture as a dialect and continuation of their adopted one.
The other distinct aspect of “Bucharest-on-the-Seine” was the rebellious facet of “Romanian Paris” associated with the early 20th-century avant-garde movements. Avant-garde Romanian writers saw Paris as a stage upon which they could present their programs regardless of whether they settled there or continued to commute between Paris and Bucharest. According to Marcel Cornis-Pop (97), the Romanian avant-garde tried to engage the Western art scene dialogically, thereby combating a Romanian time-lag complex and a perpetual sense of cultural marginality. Gherasim Luca (1913–1994), the founder of the Romanian surrealist group, sent the French surrealists an uplifting manifesto (cf. Luca 1945), trying to revitalize a movement on the wane. In 1952, after the communist takeover of Romania, Gherasim Luca went into exile in Paris, becoming part of a later wave of the post-war, anti-Communist Romanian Diaspora.
Some Romanian writers managed not only to participate in, but also to anticipate, some of the West European avant-garde moments. Tristan Tzara (Samuel Rosenstock, 1896–1963), for example, left Romania in 1915, after publishing ironic poems that mocked both traditional and symbolistic poetry (cf. Tzara 1976). His presence in Zurich, and later in Paris, created a revolution in western poetry with the launching of the Dadaist and Surrealist experiments.
Ilarie Voronca (1903–1946) had a similarly interesting evolution. After contributing in the 1920s to the modernist circles in Bucharest, he left for Paris to study for a doctoral degree in law. Infected with the experimental virus he picked up in Parisian artistic circles, he returned frequently to Bucharest, acting as a catalyst for a new wave of artistic experimentation. For example, in 1926 he founded “75HP,” a dadaist-constructivist literary magazine, with painter Victor Brauner (1903–1966). After migrating from one editorial board to another, he finally settled down in Paris, producing dozens of volumes and short stories which were introduced to the public by Eugene Ionesco.
The most interesting and dramatic career was that of Benjamin Fundoianu (1898–1944). The Introduction to his controversial volume, Imagini si carti din Franta (Images and Books from France), described Romanian literature as a poor imitation of French literature and Romania as a mere cultural colony of France (Fundoianu 1911). Consequently, totally deprived of a cultural memory of its own, Romania would have produced an artificial tradition relying on France and on Paris as lieu de memoire.
Later the author permanently established himself in Paris and was naturalized under the name Benjamin Fondane. He became a specialist of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, a contributor to Les Cahiers du Sud and Les Nouvelles Litteraires, and the author of numerous philosophical essays. Like in the case of Ilarie Voronca, Martha Bibescu, Anna de Noailles, Eugene Ionesco, or Emil Cioran, Fondane’s accomplishments in Paris testified to the fact that a Romanian author could be integrated into western European circles, not in spite of, but because of, exotic national origins that provided a familiar yet unique critical voice. It is true, however, that Fundoianu paid dearly for his dream of European integration, being denounced by his new French neighbors as a Jew and deported to Auschwitz.
In addition to writers, several painters and sculptors emigrated to Paris and other Western European cities. Chief among them was Constantin Brâncusi (1876–1957), whose position within the Western avant-garde is still a matter of debate. While some interpreters have emphasized the dependence of Brâncusi’s production upon French modernist models, Mircea Eliade has argued that, in pursuing African models, Brâncusi actually recuperated his own archaic Romanian roots (cf. Eliade, “Brancusi et les mythologies”).
In short, perhaps the most impressive characteristic of this early 20th-century phenomenon of “Bucharest-on-the-Seine” is the reciprocal exchange of cultural artifacts and the cross-cultural circulation of memories, forms nostalgia and creative melancholy. Some Romanians started by writing in French while still in Romania. Others left for Paris to produce literature in an adopted language. Some resided in both two cities, like Ilarie Voronca and Martha Bibescu. All of them mediated a cultural dialogue between French models and the local, Romanian forms of modernism.
Such cross-fertilization extended to the interwar period. Literary experimentation inspired representatives of the visual arts such as Brâncusi, Victor Brauner, Marcel Iancu (1895–1979), Natalia Dumitrescu, Horia Damian (b. 1922), and George Apostu (1934–1980). All were members of the Romanian community on the banks of the Seine. Benjamin Fondane, for example, worked for the Paramount movie studios and published a volume of scripts, called Trois scénarios: Ciné-Poèmes (Three Scripts: Cine-Poems). Interwar Paris was no longer the model of revolution, civic consciousness and of democracy; it had become primarily a cosmopolis and a cultural interface.
The Anti-Communist Exile
In the second half of the twentieth century, the Soviet takeover of Romania and the imposition of communism pushed a new generation of Romanian intellectuals into exile. Paris became the center of the Romanian Diaspora, organized around a nucleus of distinguished writers such as Eugene Ionescu (1909–1994), Emil Cioran (1911–1995), and Mircea Eliade (1907–1986), who became its symbolic figureheads. Several other writers were associated with this group, such as Horia Stamatu (1912–1989), Gherasim Luca (1913–1994), and Virgil Gheorghiu (b. 1905), who founded publishing houses, literary magazines, and cultural societies such as the “Leonard Arcade Mamaliga” circle.
Although the three undisputed leaders of the Romanian Diaspora in Paris – Ionescu, Eliade, and Cioran – have often been perceived as a team, in reality they followed rather divergent paths. Ionescu integrated himself completely into his adopted culture, becoming a member of the French Academy and the unanimously recognized founder of Absurdist Theater. In one of his diary entries he ironically states that since culture is a matter of self-estrangement – “the Romanians [who] want to do literary criticism […] must become French.” (Ionesco 150).
Cioran was also totally assimilated as a French philosopher and essay-writer, and acclaimed as one the most accomplished postwar stylists in the French language. This kind of “over-integration” can be viewed as a response to the perceived marginality of his native culture. His essays, echoing Montesquieu’s famous “Comment peut-on être persan?”, obsessively raise this question: “Comment peut-on être Roumain” (How can one be Romanian?). The answer suggested by his career is that one can be a Romanian precisely by choosing self-exile in Paris.
Mircea Eliade chose a peculiar type of exile. After crossing the Atlantic to found a school in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, he regularly returned to his apartment in Paris where he published essays and books (in both French and Romanian), participated in the life of the Romanian Diaspora, and frequented the fashionable intellectual circles. Over several decades, his small apartment at the Place Charles Dulin became a place of cherished memories. So too did the Sorbonne, which honored him with a Doctor Honoris Causa.
The political diaspora in Paris clustered around the Romanian department of Radio Free Europe. This is where, for more than 40 years, Monica Lovinescu (b. 1923) and Virgil Ierunca (b. 1920) spread the principles of intellectual and spiritual liberty. Beginning in the early 1950s, their radio essays presented under the title “Teze si antiteze la Paris” (“Theses and Antitheses in Paris”) engaged both Romanian and French cultural phenomena, validating non-dogmatic aesthetic standards. Their talk shows managed to energize the Romanian community; they also managed to integrate it into French cultural life. Paris represented for them a political and cultural alternative to totalitarianism, an option for intellectual survival. Thanks to Virgil Ierunca’s airing of the forgotten or the censured pages of Romania’s cultural heritage, Paris became the unique and precious repository of the Romanian exiled memory.
Paris as an Imaginary Projection
Imaginary cities are built using the most sophisticated symbolic means. In certain contexts, the mental resonance associated by individuals and groups with real as well as imaginary cities can be regarded as relatively stable. The verisimilitude of these symbolic models becomes rhetorically validated through education and travel writings. Today, mass media play an important part in such symbolic constructions. The equation Paris = Bucharest, and the representations of Paris subsequently generated by it, originated with French travelers to Romania such as Raymond Poincaré, Jules Michelet, Lucien Romier, and Paul Morand, and were continued by the Romanians themselves. This imaginary equivalence produced a fascinating mixture of emotionally-charged clichés and stereotypes, as well as a number of purely fictitious projections.
To take just one example, in Alexandru Paleologu’s Sfidarea memoriei (The Challenge of Memory) a collection of periphatetical dialogues with Stelian Tanase, the author projects onto Paris recollections of a Paris-like Bucharest prior to its depressing destruction during the communist era: “You can still discover everywhere the melancholic residues of the so-called Parisian style of former Bucharest, where the rhythm of the streets, the cafés, the tradition of cooking, of haute couture but also the pret-à-porter, high art and the discourse of colloquial and frivolous chat had found their models on the two banks of the Seine ” (Paleologu and Tanase 84).
Nevertheless, there is something that the two interlocutors never assert, although such a conclusion emerges from between the lines of their book: the idea of Paris as a Romanian lieu de mémoire. These dialogs, wittingly or unwittingly, participate in a myth of Paris (of France and of French culture) as the place for a Romanian cultural vocation.
In the fashionable circles of Bucharest, French literature and culture was read and discussed in the original, and even transplanted directly into the street. Cafés, cuisine, haute couture and casual fashion were indelibly marked by Parisian models. Even the lower but upwardly-mobile middle-class living on the outskirts read Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris and Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, which were featured in ladies’ magazines. In both cases, the impact of a “Frenchification” of Romanian culture and daily life was unmistakable, unparalleled by any other influence. Hence, I. L. Caragiale’s ironic treatment of bovarisme in Zita or Veta (two well-known Romanian literary characters), who lust after the romantic settings of a totally unknown Paris.
In conclusion, I would raise these questions: to what extent does Paris as a “real” city figure in Romanian culture? Is there a significant difference between the Romanian versions of Paris and any fictitional topography? In practical terms, I would argue that there is in fact no noticeable difference: Romanians have constructed and reconstructed Paris as an imaginary Eastern European city for over two centuries.
Talking about a Romanian Paris thus is hardly irrelevant. We must admit, however, that there are several versions of a Romanian Paris, totally non-coincident, heterogeneous and discontinuous, regardless of their topographical starting point. Almost every generation and every group of Romanians – exiled, displaced, travelling, writing fiction, diaries or memoirs – has had a Paris of his own, complete with a unique historic narrative, nostalgic sentiments and recollections. Consequently, as a “Bucharest-on-the-Seine,” Paris seems to be a typical non-lieu and in this respect a typical lieu de mémoire as well.
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