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 Quinets
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
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:
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
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 dun proscrit (1850; Recollections
and Impressions of an Outcast) and Memoires sur lhistoire
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
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
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
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 Brâncusis 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
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
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 Ieruncas
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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