Claudia Moscovici

Confessions of A Would-be Salonnière: My Favorite Twenty-first Century Salons

When I openened a twitter account a few months ago, it wasn’t difficult to find the phrase that best captures me: “Born in the wrong century, a would-be salonnière.” Ever since college, when I first learned about Marquise de Rambouillet–the refined hostess who led the most talented artists and writers of her day in scintillating intellectual discussions in the elegant alcove of her drawing room–I knew that I had missed my opportunity and true calling in life. Sure, women may be able to be and do whatever they want today. Society is less sexist, more democratic. But in an era when entertainment news outdoes even socio-political news in popularity and readership, what hope is there for placing art, literature and philosophy at the center of public attention again?

The main problem I encountered in being a contemporary salonnière was: Where are the salons? Most academic discourse struck me as too technical and specialized to draw a large audience. Fortunately, while an undergraduate at Princeton University, I had the enormous privilege to study with scholars who epitomized the salon tradition of worldly intellectuals: Professor Robert Fagles, translator of Homer’s epic poems, and Professor Victor Brombert,  a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, who encouraged my love for world literature and culture to the point where I decided to pursue Comparative Literature for both my undergraduate and graduate studies. Many years later, I discovered quite a number of online salons, where writers, artists and intellectuals converge to discuss their works, in a clear, interesting and sophisticated fashion. I’d like to share with you some of my favorite contemporary salons. 

Litkicks.com. I discovered Litkicks ( http://www.litkicks.com/) in October 2009, when I found on the internet an article about a fellow Romanian-born writer, Herta Müller. The article was called “Herta Who?” by Dedi Felman and it was about the dissident writer’s recently awarded Nobel Prize in Literature. At that point, the founder of Litkicks, Levi Asher, also wrote a brief note on the blog about my recently published novel on similar themes, Velvet Totalitarianism, 2009/Intre Doua Lumi, 2011. We got in touch by email and I became a regular reader and occasional contributor on the blog. Litkicks features articles on literature, poetry, art, philosophy, music, cinema and politics.

Levi was a software developer (and culture lover) on Wall Street when he started Litkicks.com in 1994, which became, along with Salon.com, a pioneer culture blog. The website was originally launched to support Beat Generation poetry and experimental fiction. Over the years, it has expanded its scope to include contemporary literature in general, essays on nineteenth and twentieth-century French poetry and fiction (including Michael Norris‘s excellent essays on Proust), lively political articles, and Levi’s top-notch Philosophy Series. Litkicks includes articles on established authors published by the big publishing houses as well as reviews about talented independent writers published by smaller presses. The blog has thousands of readers a day, but thanks to a loyal following of regular contributors and commentators, it retains the intimate feel of a community of friends engaged in intellectual discussions and debates.

Catchy.ro. Founded in 2010 by the Romanian journalist Mihaela Carlan, Catchy.ro (http://www.catchy.ro/) is quickly catching on as Romania’s premier blog. Discussing all aspects of art, entertainment, politics and culture, Catchy.ro is inspired by the highly successful The Huffington Post, founded by Arianna Huffington in 2005 and recently acquired by AOL for a whopping 315 million dollars. Part of The Huffington Post‘s enormous success stems from Arianna Huffington’s pull and connections with wealthy investors. To offer just one notable example, in August 2006, SoftBank Capital invested 5 milliion dollars in the company. However, its success can also be attributed to the high quality of its articles and the popularity of its over 9000 contributors. Without question, The Huffington Post gathered some of the best bloggers in every field it features. Moreover, the blog has not merely adapted, but also stayed one step ahead of the curve in its use of technology, recently introducing “vlogging“–or video blogging–which is taking off and making journalism even more multimedia and interactive.

If I mention Catchy’s precursor in some detail, it’s because I believe these are also some of the features that have helped the Romanian blog grow so quickly during the past year, since its inception. Catchy “like a woman” targets primarily a female audience. But ultimately its panel of excellent journalists–with expertise ranging from art, to literature, to philosophy, to music, to fashion to pop culture and, above all, to the most fundamental aspects of human life itself, like health, love and marriage–draws a much broader audience of both genders and every age group. Like The Huffington Post, Catchy.ro also treads perfectly the line between intellectual writing and pop culture, providing intelligently written articles for a general audience. As some of the more traditional Romanian newspapers have struggled and a few even collapsed, the up-and-coming blog Catchy.ro shows that in every country adaptation is the key to success.

Agonia.net.  Started by the technology expert and culture promoter Radu Herinean in 2010, Agonia.net (http://english.agonia.net/index.php) is a rapidly expanding international literary blog. It includes sections on prose, screenplays, poetry, criticism and essays. Agonia.net has the following assets: a) it publishes well-regarded writers and intellectuals, b) it’s contributor-run so that it can grow exponentially and internationally (with sections in English, French, Spanish, Romanian and several other languages in the works) and c) it has a team of great editors that monitor its posts and maintain high quality standards. Agonia. net improves upon the model of online creative writing publishing pioneered by websites like Wattpad.com, which are contributor-run but have no editorial monitoring. Because of lack of editorial control, Wattpad.com has not been taken seriously by readers and publishers despite its vast popularity with contributors. Any literary blog that has a chance at being successful has to have the capacity for handling a large number of incoming contributions while also maintaining reliable editorial standards. Agonia.net seems to have mastered this delicate balance.

In participating in these exciting artistic, literary and intellectual forums, I’m starting to feel like my calling as a 21st century salonnière might not be an anachronism after all. I invite you to explore each of them and see which ones fit your talents and interests best. 

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

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November 9, 2011 Posted by | Agonia.net, Agonia.ro, Arianna Huffington, book review, catchy.ro, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, Confessions of A Would-be Salonnière: My Favorite Twenty-first Century Salons, contemporary fiction, culture blogs, Diana Evantia Barca, fiction, Intre Doua Lumi, Levi Asher, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, litkicks.com, Mihaela Carlan, Princeton University, Radu Herinean, salon, salonnière, salons, The Huffington Post, Velvet Totalitarianism, Victor Brombert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Romanian Contemporary Fiction by Dumitru Radu Popa

I have just written a post about Proust and his biographers, who attempt to render this classic 20th-century writer palatable and relevant to 21st-century readers. Proust stands the test of time partly because he delves into the depths of our dreams, desires, fears and all the hidden regions of our subconscious, which seem to have their own logic and are perennial. He also puts a writer’s magnifying glass on the world of 20th-century French aristocracy–studying them as an entomologist would insects–to magnify the neuroses, deviancy  and intrigue that lie beneath a thin veneer of worldliness and respectability.

Today I’d like to present the works of a Romanian-American fiction writer and literary critic, Dumitru Radu Popa, who continues the genre of psychological fiction in our times. Psychological fiction is, in many respects, timeless. As much as our social and political institutions may change, arguably the basics of human nature remain more or less the same. However, the challenge for a fiction writer remains to render basic human fears, emotions, obsessions and desires interesting and engaging for a contemporary audience. Dumitru Radu Popa relies upon his broad cultural training in literature, philosophy, philology and law–as well as his keen artistic sensibility–to accomplish this task, in his short stories, novellas and novels that have won critical acclaim both in his native Romania and in the United States.

 

As a writer, literary critic and intellectual, Dumitru Radu Popa has been well-known since the 1970’s. His works in Romanian include a book of literary criticism about Saint-Exupery, several collections of short stories (Calatoria, 1982; Fisura, 1985 and Panic Syndrome! 1997), the anthologies Skenzemon! (2005) and Lady V. and Other Stories (2006) as well as two novels, one of which–Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions–has been recently translated into English (Outskirts Press, 2011) and the second of which, Traversind Washington Square (Crossing Washington Square), I’m currently translating into English.

One of my favorite books, Lady V. and Other Stories harks back to the talent of exquisite, well-crafted psychological fiction  reminiscent of the modernist style of Henry James and Marcel Proust. This beautifully written  collection of short stories is universal in its appeal. It is subtle, even exquisite in the way physical descriptions and details (of gestures and movements) speak volumes about the characters’ states of mind and feelings. The narrative, fluid and delicate in style, places itself in the tradition of literary fiction without being in any way arcane or pretentious. Moreover, Dumitru Radu Popa’s ironic touches are incisive and honest, without ever becoming brutal. They are  similar in tone to Chekhov’s fiction, which depicts human beings as they are–flaws and all–without hating us for our foibles and fallibility.

Dumitru Radu Popa’s newest novel, Traversind Washington Square (Crossing Washington Square) is, in my opinion, the closest in style and introspective bent to Proust’s La Recherche. On the surface this is the story–or, more like it, fantasy–of an illicit love affair between a professor and his graduate student. When one delves deeper into the text, however, one discovers a meditation on the nature of time, about how the ingrained memories of childhood infiltrate our memory in unexpected ways and shape our identities as adults as well as lyrical analysis of human mortality itself. To give you a feel for the narrative, I’m including below the first chapter of this intriguing novel.

Crossing Washington Square, by Dumitru Radu Popa

(Tr. Claudia Moscovici)

Swedish Hood

I.

Like every morning, crossing Washington Square from University Place towards 4th Street, losing myself in the anonymity of the red building, with the brick facade, of the Philosophy Building–a perfect edifice made to reduce everything to the absence of worries and metaphysical torments–I thought that time materialized, gaining a consistency difficult to pinpoint yet lacking, at core, any ambiguity.  It could be the beggar on the other side of the fence, exhibiting malodorous wounds or urinating, through his pants, on the bench where he slept all night, covered by newspapers, with a stitched together rag, or sometimes even with a torn American flag, left by God knows what Puerto Rican parade that transformed for an evening the whole neighborhood into a deplorable trash bin:  beer cans and Pepsi tumbling with an irritating noise; left-over junk food; packages and trampled cigarettes.

Or perhaps it could be the policeman with a Hispanic name, moving back and forth, on his electric scooter or astride a horse—as useless as it is traditional in the municipal annals of the institution—with a tattered leather agenda peeking from his back pocket, indifferent to the industrious marijuana vendors, who, unperturbed, accost you with the question, whistled through their teeth “Smoke? Smoke?”, but always ready to give a blistering ticket for a car parked unknowingly or carelessly in an illegal spot. Or it could be people with somber demeanors—always the same ones!—walking their dogs on the grass, with a resigned air to their daily punishment, so freely accepted. Not to mention the joggers that gallop with a regular stride, sweating in their plastic jogging suits, old or young, almost all of them with a walkman on their ears, breathing in deeply the most polluted air in New York, yet convinced, in spite of that, that they’re ameliorating their health, as if health, like time itself in a way, had become, all of a sudden, something tangible, perfectly quantifiable and, consequently, susceptible to being altered… Or, finally, it could be the hyper-realist anomaly of the landscape: the minuscule Arch of Triumph, mounted upon Fifth Avenue, the most famous street in New York,  a dwarf or an aborted child of its richer cousin from Etoile de la Paris, which the Japanese tourists, like stuffed pheasants, photograph from summer to winter, from all angles, so as not to miss its specificity.

Yes, indeed! Bucharest was dying, or was already dead within me, slowly and gradually, I can’t recall exactly which year, month or day since in such cases one no longer knows how many grains make a pile… And all this bazaar (to say bizarre would be too facile), surrounding me, neither friend nor foe, but pure and simple like a fact. All this probably gave time its material consistency, especially crossing the square, every weekday, today being no different from every other day.

Yet time, this unflappable and intangible flow from nothing to nothing, or from nowhere to nowhere, however it was—the beggar, the policeman, the jogger, the derisory Arch of Triumph, perhaps even the empty, abandoned cigarette packs, and the left-over junk food on the ground—it all seemed to me, in the final analysis, an immense embodiment of the urgency with a raised right hand, the pointer finger itself an exclamation point trying to deny access to the impersonally soothing building where I’d spend the next eight hours of the day in the library, in an office, or in classrooms. And the message of this exclamation could have been something like: “Cave! Remember, I go over each detail and each discrepancy of the landscape, but this doesn’t mean anything!” Perhaps not quite as dramatic and rhetorical, but in any case, something similar.

I’m speaking now of the mixed sensations, not even clear to me: someone with more common sense could have easily concluded that, in fact, I was doing nothing more than becoming aware that I was getting old. But it’s one thing to notice that, with the same naiveté—so delectable!—that leads adolescents to see in a thirty year old a “finished man”, and another to approach 50: then, probably, the only chance of avoiding a psychic depression is contemplating time, as if this could somehow save the individual from a personal acceptance of this flow that leads to the ugly words “old age”,  ascribing it all to an immanent and incontestable general paradigm.

As mentioned, recently Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, a political thriller and love story, was published in English translation by Outskirts Press. This novel, like the author himself, straddles two worlds. Part of the plot takes place in post-revolutionary Romania, while the other is set in the United States. Far from being an idyllic place of newly gained democratic freedom, the Romania depicted in the novel is filled with practical problems and mutual suspicions. Although the Securitate (or Romanian Secret Police) has been officially abolished, spying still continues as usual: without, however, the same devastating impact as during the communist era. The oppression that used to be the subject of dystopic fiction (such as Orwell‘s 1984) is now better described, by Popa’s novel, in an ironic and cynical vein. In the confusing post-revolutionary political context, the love between Sabrina and Vlad faces many challenges. Yet this is also the plot element that gives the novel a very human touch and captures the readers’ interest and emotions. Several stylistic elements–including love story, philosophical dialogue and political intrigue–all work together to create an irresistible fiction. I’m including below an excerpt of the English translation of  Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, which appeared online in Levurelitteraire.com, Numero 2, below:

“Come on, Plato.  Let’s go home.  Iphigenia’s waiting for you.”

“I can’t right now, woman!  Leave me alone.  Can’t you see I’m playing backgammon with Homer?  And he’s got some luck today.  It’s like he stepped in you know what: I clearly mean … or maybe he just didn’t wash his hands after you know what.”

“Stop being such an ass, Plato!  You’re only saying that because you’re losing.  If you smell anything here it’s not me.  It must be Idomeneo’s shad; he’s dried them out like hell and they’re so hard they’re going to break my dentures…”

“Shad always needs dill,” blubbered one of the old man onlookers known as Menny, though his paperwork clearly stated that his name was Menelaus Kakanis.

The roll of the dice drew a cry of joy from Plato while he utterly ignores Iphigenia’s emissary who is standing by the door with her hand to her mouth.

“Aha!  There you are!  This is the end of you!  Briseis, hand me one of Idomeneo’s dry shad.  I’ll tenderize it with this pot… too bad I don’t have a bust of Cicero…”

“Well, Cicero is out buying new tires,” Menny tried to intervene but he was quickly stifled as usually happens to those in his position.

“Iphigenia said to come home right away to wash up and get ready for Aristotle, Penelope and Orpheus, not to mention his cross-eyed sister Cassandra, who are coming over tonight.  And then we’re all going to go to St. Basil’s Church.  Herostratus is coming too, you know, the one who just opened that big grocery near Ditmars.”

“Oh alright, I’m coming.  Just let me finish up with this coward.  Homer’s coming to church too with Aphrodite and Hecuba.  But we have plenty of time, my clothes aren’t even ready.  The guys at the cleaners on Hoyt Avenue said five o’clock.  Catharsis, you know the place.  It’s the best one, doesn’t even compare with those lousy Chinese at French Cleaners.”

“Aha, did you hear that? Catharsis!” said in Romanian a guy with the beginnings of a belly, maybe even a full gut, who spoke while holding a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.

It was bright as day, Colonel Munteanu.

He and his companion had sat at a table in the back, near the bathrooms that smelled strongly of disinfectant, and this combination of chlorine and dried fish was enough to turn your stomach.

“Since when do you understand Greek?” asked his associate.  He was much younger, thin, with prominent cheekbones and an unusually conspicuous Adam’s apple, so that the shadow he cast on the wall looked like nothing as much as a cartoon from the Sunday funnies.

“Shut up and listen!  Or are you playing the fool?  You don’t need to speak Greek to know he said Catharsis: those Greek dry cleaners where that big cheese, your godfather, sended his clothes.  Don’t you remember from the file?  It seems that he used to bring in his clothes with blood stains every night.  He’d pick them up clean in the morning, but the stains always returned in the exact same spots.  Totally absurd!”

“It’s not absurd at all! There’s clearly some dough involved, if only we could find its traces…  But I don’t think it’s here…  Anyway, I was just saying,” whinged the other, code name Lazar. “I’ve seen backgammon before and I don’t really like this Greek food, either.  I’ve gotten more used to Chinese, especially since it’s also cheaper!”

“We’re not talking about what you may or may not like!,” chastised a resentful Munteanu.  “We have to start somewhere…”

With these words he approached, somewhat shyly, the table of the more or less ancient Greeks who lived in the picturesque neighborhood of Astoria, with all of their glorious history of which, it seemed, they weren’t too much aware.  Then, as if he had changed his mind, he returned and prodded his companion, “Listen… my English is, how should I say, kind of passive.  I understand, but I can’t really express myself clearly.”

“I see,” answered Lazar, with a touch of irony that did not escape the attention of the older man.  “It’s like with those engineers.  They look intelligent enough but, when they try to express themselves, just can’t be done!”

He winked jokingly as to erase any misunderstanding, and then went up to the ad-hoc Agora where English wasn’t anything to emulate Shakespeare or Milton.  Munteanu, aka the Sphinx, did not appreciate the joke and threw a suspicious look at the young man as he was walking away.  He found his apprentice a little too full of himself, especially in front of a superior!  “It would not hurt him to be a bit more careful!”

After a short moment of confusion, the steady clicking of the dice resumed.

“Do you speak Romanian?” all of a sudden a man asked the colonel. He had been sitting near the greasy window, so dirty that the man could not have really been looking through it, but rather into himself, lost in God knows what thoughts.

Sure, people come to taverns to socialize, but also to possibly come to terms with themselves.  Or maybe just to eavesdrop on others.

“Yeah I do speak Romanian?  Isn’t that clear?  So what?  It’s none of your business!” growled Colonel Munteanu who would have preferred that his young apprentice hurried up and talked to those Greeks about Catharsis.

“Well it may not be a big deal,” said the dirty window watcher, “but anyway, if you want any information about… how should I put it… the Romanian community here, you’d do best to ask me.”

The guy was somehow “clean-cut”, he didn’t look like a beggar, and the colonel signaled to Blossom, alias Lazar, as if to say “Hold on a second!  Let’s see what this guy has to say.”  So the latter gave up any attempt to speak about the Iliad, the Odyssey and any other epic that might have grown in the tavern, and came back to the table.

“Pour, Blossom!” the colonel said gesturing toward a bottle and the young man immediately obliged pouring out two full glasses of ouzo for his table mates, but only a drop for himself, because he could not stand this perfumed liquor with oily texture.

Silence fell over the room again so that the only sound was the jangling of the dice, a background possibly replacing the typical chorus of ancient Greek tragedy.  Everything was as ridiculous and derivative as the illuminatiliving in this small community in Astoria, Queens.

The man who had joined them at the table was massive, with a bald spot that threatened to spread shortly from his forehead to the rest of his head which still spotted some remnants of stringy, greasy hair that had resisted the miraculous cures promised by all sorts of shampoos and conditioners.  However, below this, there were a pair of lively eyes; he wasn’t stupid by any means, and was not intimidated by the colonel’s authoritarian bearing.

“Now it’s your turn to pour, you know what I mean!  And you’d better tell us everything exactly as it happened if you want to get out of here alive,” declared the colonel harshly, despite his apprentice’s generous gaze meant to convey something along the lines of: “Why don’t you just leave him alone?  Maybe he’s just some poor fool who knows nothing of our business.  What if he speaks Romanian, does that mean we have to harass him?  We’d be better off going after the big wigs.”

“First of all, I’d like to introduce myself,” said the man.  “I am, together with my associates, in charge of everything that happens in Romanian business here… I hope you understand what I mean: a deal, some legal matter, or when someone needs to keep their mouth shut…”

And here he made a deft gesture with his hand miming the path of a zipper that starts at the left-most corner of one’s mouth and ends over the tightly closed lips of the right-most corner.

“As for other things,” he added, “like, for example, the Greek dry cleaners, Catharsis, I’m still the right person to ask.  They are the best, if that’s what you’re interested in, by the way.  When I gave my hat to those morons at French Cleaners, the place it is run by the Chinese you know, they shrunk it so bad that I can’t wear it anymore.  My associates had to bid on e-bay to try to get me a similar one…  But if you really want to talk about all these we should probably go to Melon Head’s pub.  It’s the only place around here with real food.  Plus I’m getting special treatment…

“Yes, yes!” ventured code name Lazar.  “Let’s go there!”

In the meantime, Munteanu’s mood had been growing worse. The source of his anger was, on one hand, the arrogance of his young subordinate who had begun to give himself airs and to make decisions without even consulting him; and on the other hand, the fact that they were about to leave behind informants that could turn out to be essential to this whole mess that the guys in Bucharest had handed him. Just imagine: people who disappear in dreams, send their clothes to cleaners that make it so that the blood stains reappear the next day. Or, even worse, the task to follow an individual who had run to the other side with the institution’s money.  What’s more to be said, he was simply tired and… overwhelmed by the situation!

                                                           II        

Once closed the trunk of the giant Chrysler that she hated so much (and whose  disappearance after their vacation, or rather their stop in Los Angeles, she had every reason to look forward to!), Meg sat down in the passenger seat, buckled her seatbelt, and, even before Bob started the car, opened the book she was holding on her knees.    Throwing the car in reverse, Bob could not help but grumble, “I see, I’m going to be doing all the driving for days on end, but you could at least help me navigate until we get out of the city.”

Meg gave him an amused look.  Bob’s personality tics no longer bothered her nor made her suspicious as they had when the two were first married.  She understood that his inability to take control during their intimate moments had nothing to do with an overwhelming wish to show her, right then, some important paper they had received from the bank; or with a sudden migraine that sent him running to the bathroom where he tarried long enough for her to fall asleep.  No!  It was a physiological problem, a pretty ordinary one for a couple their age. Sensitive and understanding, she always gave him the impression that everything was alright, that he himself controlled the situation, as, in his mind, it had to be for things to be truly alright.  It should be said, however, that Bob too was an active participant in this game, often feigning distress or misunderstandings, as if to test her, to prove to himself that she had figured out what was going on and had no objections.  This unspoken agreement, a delicate chess game that kept everything in balance, made their life together not only bearable, but downright happyto the extent that this word can be applied to those who are married.

“Oh honey, I’m sorry not to be more helpful.  But knowing you’re such a good driver, I thought my inability to read those maps would only irritate you further more!”  She was lying shamelessly, of course.  We know how carefully she planned every detail of the trip – and please note that we didn’t even mention it at the time so that we won’t bore the reader – not only every stop and hotel, but also every road and exit that would save them the most time and gas.  Despite all of these, she lied graciously and suddenly they found themselves in a shared good mood: he would grumble and drive; she would continue her reading uninterrupted.  What could be a better omen for a long trip than such a beginning?

“Ok, Ok,” replied Bob satisfied.  “It doesn’t matter now anyway, I’ve already merged onto the Maddox Turnpike.  But I’m very curious what book has caught your attention so much that last night you fell asleep with the light on.”

Meg had begun reading the book the day before the trip, but she had not realized that she fell asleep reading the night before.

“It’s a book,” she answered, “recommended as summer reading by the company that sent me the tourist information.  I don’t know how interesting you’d find it… the beginning is pretty boring and it doesn’t have anything to do with the title.  But what can you do, that’s how literature is nowadays.”

“Got it!” snorted Bob.  “Really Meg, this is so typical of you, and probably that’s why I love you so much.  You take everything so seriously, like you didn’t know that everything is just a trick to make you buy things.”

But before Bob had a chance to really get going on with the critique of government manipulation, the IRS, and everything else, Meg cut him off: “I think it’s a very good book, but don’t ask me why.”

“That sounds a little ominous,” murmured Bob, sticking his left hand out the window, middle finger upraised, in the direction of the blue Chevy he had just passed.

Meg did not want to leave him completely in the dark, nor did she want him to think that she was talking nonsense.

“I mean that it’s strange.  It’s a translation and the action is multilayered.  I’m just a few pages into it, but I’m sure it will go on like this.  It’s the author’s style…”

“Or the translator’s,” answered Bob sharply.  “What’s left of the author’s style when you’re talking about a translation?”

This threw Meg off a bit.  She suddenly became suspicious. What did Bob know about books?  But she stopped frowning and rephrased the question. Did she really know everything about Bob?  “Yeah, maybe that’s it!  It seems that the translation is very good, that’s probably why the book is so easy to read…”

“And from whence came this author to enlighten us with his multilayered book?” asked Bob his voice dripping with irony.

“The cover says he’s Romanian, but I didn’t want to read too much.  You know how it is.  The blurb gives away the whole story and there’s no joy left in reading the book.”

“Oh that’s just what we needed,” exhaled Bob.  “For Romanians to come and teach us!”

“It’s not about teaching,” answered Meg, “it’s just a novel, something made up.  But maybe not completely…”

“I bet it was translated from the Russian,” posited Bob.

“You think?” exclaimed a puzzled Meg.  “I would have thought that they spoke Hungarian over there.  I remember reading something in The New York Times Magazine…”

“Nonsense!  This Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union,” replied Bob completely sure of himself.  “There was some big scandal with their KGB about ten years ago, I remember well…  It’s translated from Russian, I’m sure.  Check it out!  It’s gotta say somewhere in there.”

“Probably,” acknowledged Meg, but was unable to completely stifle a stray thought of how much Bob knew about geography and geopolitics.  “Ah, here it is!” she went on.  “Oh well.  It says right here that it was translated from Romanian!”  And all of a sudden she grew much less worried about her familiarity with Bob’s knowledge.  “It’s obvious!  Since the author is Romanian, of course the book was also written in Romanian!”

“Didn’t I tell you!” answered Bob triumphantly.

“No,” Meg said dryly.  “You were just explaining how it was translated from the Russian.”

“But I told you that Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union, that’s why I thought it was Russian.  Of course, after the Berlin Wall fell, all those little countries that were held together by the KGB started reusing their own languages…”

Meg wanted to mention something about the fact that all those countries did not go off in their own direction after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but only several years later, and Romania was not even among them. But she decided not to insist.  “Anyway, I like this book!  I don’t care if it’s translated from Russian, Hungarian, or Romanian.  I’ll read about that afterwards!”

Hearing her say afterwards in that tone, Bob’s eyes shot open and he almost lost control of the steering wheel, a move that frightened Meg.  She reminded herself she should stand to be a little more careful not to let herself get so riled up with these conversations because you never know where they’ll lead…

“After I finish the novel, I mean,” she clarified ready to resume her reading.

“Hmm… Ok,” muttered Bob. “And what did you say was the title of this very special book?”

Meg ignored the sarcasm in his question. “I Haven’t said yet!  In translation it’s Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, but I don’t think the title is very important.  So far there haven’t even been any characters named Sabrina, just a couple of Romanian spies and (you’ll be shocked when I tell you!) a couple just like us that are getting ready to go on vacation.  But I think I’m going to skip over the sections about them.”

Turning towards Walhalla Circle, Bob added, “Sounds like some great summer reading! Not that American literature is any better, but at least it has clear titles: Tom Sawyer is a story about Tom Sawyer.  Sabrina: that’s a name that could come from anywhere!  And to make it worse, she doesn’t even come up in the beginning of the book…”

Meg totally ignored the rest of the diatribe, returning to her book and picking up exactly where she had left off.

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

October 5, 2011 Posted by | book review, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Crossing Washington Square, D. R. Popa, Dumitru Radu Popa, Dumitru Radu Popa's fiction, fiction, Henry James, Lady V. and Other Stories, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Marcel Proust, Outskirts Press, psychological fiction, Romanian Contemporary Fiction by Dumitru Radu Popa, Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Romanian Contemporary Fiction by Dumitru Radu Popa

Dystopic Utopias in Speculative Fiction and Art

 

There are several great novels associated with the dystopic utopia tradition, but without a doubt four of the most notable are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Such novels distinguish themselves from both fantasy and science fiction. In an interview, Atwood stated that she prefers the name “speculative fiction,” a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein, to describe A Handmaid’s Tale (NY: First Anchor Books Edition, 1998): “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships. Speculative fiction could really happen.” (“Aliens have taken the place of angels: Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction,” The Guardian, June 2005). Speculative fiction has become an umbrella term that includes utopian and dystopic fiction as well as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, some of which may also be considered to be science fiction or fantasy. The best speculative fiction, I believe, reveals what has already begun to happen and extrapolates with amazing lucidity how social and political ideals can turn into our worst nightmares. Every utopic ideology, from Marxism to eugenics and from primitivism to technocracy, has within it the seeds of its own dystopic undoing. Each one shows part of what has happened in our cultures and how things could get a lot worse.

 

Margaret Atwood’s novel illustrates what could take place in any culture or society where the women’s movement joins forces with the radical right to create a “purer” society.  In such a world, “freedom to” (dress as one wants, choose one’s profession and life partner) becomes “freedom from” (being a sex object, having too many choices of partners, location or profession). But “freedom from” is only a euphemism for lack of civil rights, for constraint, for invisibility itself (as women are enshrouded in a veil and even wear blinders on top of their heads, so they can’t see or be seen). It is a dystopic utopia; a contradiction in terms. Some societies have already implemented such a “freedom from” in the name of various religious or political ideologies. However, as Atwood underscores, no society—even the most seemingly open-minded and liberal–is immune to it. Totalitarian constraints can happen anywhere, even in the U.S, which, in fact, is the setting for her novel.

 

While Margaret Atwood envisions a danger that could happen, George Orwell describes a social experiment that did happen.  To many who have lived through the totalitarian phase of communism in Eastern Europe, as I have, Orwell’s 1984 is, in many respects, a historical novel: one that goes hand in hand with Robert Conquest’s monumental history, The Great Terror.  Newspeak, thought police, brainwashing; the physical and psychological torture of political prisoners to confess to nonexistent crimes and the show trials were all part and parcel of how the NKVD and other Secret Police organizations ruled  with an iron fist during communist dictatorships. O’Brien, the Thought Police agent in the novel, states the open secret of totalitarian regimes: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” (1984, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949,  p. 272)

Perhaps the only speculative aspect of Orwell’s utopic dystopia is, as O’Brien himself points out, that those put on show trials die purified of their thought crimes and convinced of the righteousness of the new regime. They often are not, as were the victims of Stalinist purges, the embittered martyrs of a lost freedom. O’Brien promises Winston: “I shall save you, I shall make you perfect” (251). Perfection in 1984 is a world with no objective parameters of truth and falsehood or of right and wrong. It is a world in which the past is a convenient fiction for the present; a world where the difference between fear and blind trust is obliterated.  The Thought Police aims not merely to oppress man, but also to gaslight him: to get him to accept relativism without question. “We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him,” states O’Brian (263). He pursues: “We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him…. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him… Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation” (263).

 

By their very nature, utopias are ideological and dogmatic. They often represent a reaction to one form of constraint or dogmatism with an equally strong reaction in the opposite direction.   Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (NY: HarperCollins, 1932) probes another aspect of ideological dreams that could easily turn into nightmares: the social experiments of eugenics and the supposed biological justifications for social hierarchies and castes. Written during a time when the Nazi party was already starting to implement eugenic policies—described, in some ways, in the novel–Brave New World doesn’t spare democratic societies its sharp social critiques either.   Huxley describes the dangers that capitalism and industrialization, if left unchecked, can pose for humanity. Human beings are reduced to little more than automatons, consuming mood altering drugs and engaging in ritualistic sexual activities to compensate for lack of thought and the superficial and impersonal nature of their emotional ties.

 

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (NY: Random House, 1953) issues a powerful warning against censorship: books are burned because of their dangerous, potentially conflagrating ideological effects. However, as the author states in an interview in the late 1950’s, the novel also touches upon the alienation among people caused by an excess of information and too much exposure to the mass media: “But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog… The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. … There she was, oblivious to the man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction” (quoted by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, NY: Ayer Co. Publishing, 1975). Obviously, the author’s critique can be exponentially multiplied today, when most of our human contacts are mediated by ipods, computers, twittering, Facebook and other technological gadgets and social/mass media networks.  The future is already here. Each of these speculative novels not only predicted it, but also critiqued it in a way that remains very current.

Why are these speculative novels still relevant and important today? I’d like to explore this question by using as my point of departure a few famous quotes by leading writers and intellectuals.

1.“Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world.” H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia

Any society is flawed; any political institution, no matter how inclusive or democratic, has some corruption, inequality and unfairness in it. Utopian visions hone in on those weaknesses and injustices to imagine a better world, a world without these flaws. They function, in some ways, as a magnifying glass that allows us to see better the problems with our societies and institutions and as a mirror to imagine their obverse side.

2. “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Almost every speculative novel is, in many respects, more multidimensional and more lucid than any political ideology was or ever could be. It captures both sides of the coin: the utopic vision and its dystopic, more realistic downsides. As Hawthorne puts it: both the ground you build a better society upon and the place you segregate its outlaws and its casualties.

3. “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Toni Morrison, Online NewsHour interview, March 9, 1998

Utopic visions offer the best vantage point for social critiques. As Morrison points out, they are almost always correctives for hierarchies and injustices in the real world of the have’s from the perspective of the have not’s.  Since each society has so many distinctions and hierarchies, the have’s and the have not’s are not a binary dichotomy (between races or classes), but more of a fractal of many social and cultural dichotomies.

4. “Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache… Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” George Orwell, Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun

Utopic visions will always exist because nothing in our world can ever be perfect. We will always suffer from the “toothaches” Orwell alludes to. There will always be something wrong with our social and political institutions, no matter what they are. The need to imagine a world without whatever specific flaws we choose to focus on in our societies is therefore also inevitable. We will temporarily see in those utopic visions a better society. However, as Orwell points out, in reality, we might only be exchanging a toothache for a headache, or one problem for another.

5. “In the next few years the struggle will not be between utopia and reality, but between different utopias, each trying to impose itself on reality… We can no longer hope to save everything, but… we can at least try to save lives, so that some kind of future, if perhaps not the ideal one, will remain possible.” (Albert Camus, Between Hell and Reason)

As a counterpoint to Orwell’s cynicism, we can safely say that not all utopias (or dystopias, depending upon your perspective) are equal. Some hells are hotter than others; some political and social structures worse than the next. Utopic visions offer a horizon of possibility. They enable human beings to at least try to aspire to creating better social institutions and governments.

6. “Life without utopia is suffocating, for the multitude at least: threatened otherwise with petrifaction, the world must have a new madness.” E. M. Cioran, History and Utopia

A world without utopic visions is a world deprived of imagination, where one only sees what is and remains blind to what could be. Utopias enable us to dream and envision another way of life, perhaps a better world. They are healthy fantasies and necessary regulative ideals: as long as we remember their dangers and undersides, as each of these great writers reminds us.

 Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

 

July 21, 2011 Posted by | 1984, Aldous Huxley, Alex Bustillo, Alex M. Bustillo, Bataille, book review, book reviews, Brave New World, Claudia Moscovici, communism, controlling women's bodies, controlling women's sexuality, critiques of the veil, Dan St. Andrei, dystopic utopias, Eastern Europe, Eroticism, Fahrenheit 451, fantasy, fiction, George Orwell, historical fiction, history, Holocaust, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, mainstream fiction, Margaret Atwood, Myopia, photographer Alex Bustillo, photographer Dan St. Andrei, Ray Bradbury, Romanticism and Postromanticism, science fiction, speculative fiction, Story of the Eye, The Handmaid's Tale, utopia, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature

 

 

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini mandated that all Iranian women must observe an Islamic dress code, which included wearing the veil, under the threat of death for those who refused to abide by these laws. This happened at about the same time that the totalitarian leader of my own country, Nicolae Ceausescu, was starting to impose draconian measures on Romanian women. Between the years 1979 and 1989, Ceausescu instituted a series of laws that controlled women’s sexuality and reproduction by banning birth control and abortion. This was part of his narcissistic fantasy of doubling the population of the country, so that he could have more power. Eventually, as I described in my novel Velvet Totalitarianism, such measures lead to tens of thousands of unwanted children, many of which were placed in unimaginably bad conditions in the infamous Romanian orphanages. To my mind, both measures—in Iran and in Romania–represented a way of establishing power over women rather than being a reflection of religious or ideological (communist) values.

Having been sensitized early in life to these displays of totalitarian power, many years later, when I read Azar Nafisi‘s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), I was especially moved by the author’s critique of the uses of the veil to control Iranian women’s bodies. I was also very impressed by her creative allusions to Anglo-American literary history—the book is divided into four sections–Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen–to launch her compelling cultural critiques. Many of you have probably already read this book, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, about a sociopathic sexual predator whose fetish is prepubescent girls functions as Nafisi’s main metaphor for Iranian laws, which, she states, imposed “a dream upon our reality, turning us into figments of imagination.” These female figments are objects of simultaneous control and temptation: temptation through prohibition by hiding the female body.

Recently, I ran across the images of an artist who, I believe, launches an equally powerful and creative critique of the veil by unveiling women. Majeed Benteeha is an Iranian-born photographer, poet and aspiring film producer. Moving back and forth between Tehran and New York City, he simultaneously combines and clashes both worlds, in a spectacular mix that challenges cultural assumptions on both fronts. His images often feature veiled women posing nude in an iconic fashion that seems more sacred than profane. Benteenha’s strikingly original photography violates religious orthodoxies–about feminine modesty, about the religious and social connotations of the veil–only to show us another way to respect women and all that they represent: love, maternity, sensuality, desire, intelligence.

His images are simple, beautiful, erotic and dramatic. They include symbols associated with the Muslim faith, but also seem very European in many respects. Perhaps unwittingly, Beenteha’s photography alludes to works like L’Erotisme, by the French anthropologist and philosopher Georges Bataille, which presents the sacred as inextricably related to the profane: not just for Muslim societies, but for all cultures in general. Bataille famously states: “The essence of morality is a questioning about morality and the decisive move of human life is to use ceaselessly all light to look for the origin of the opposition between good and evil.” It seems that is precisely what Beenteha’s artistic short film below underscores, in its mirroring and contrast between a universal modernity and Muslim tradition; between light and dark; between masculine and feminine; between tenderness and predation; between desire and contempt. You can view his photography and artistic films on the links below.

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici#p/a/f/0/Mv3P-3kPfzo

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com


June 3, 2011 Posted by | Ayatollah Khomeini, Azar Nafisi, book review, book reviews, books, Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, controlling women's bodies, controlling women's sexuality, critiques of the veil, Iran, Islamic dress code, literary criticism, literature, Lolita, Majeed Benteeha, Majeed Benteeha photography, Nicolae Ceausescu, Photographer Majeed Beenteeha, photography, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Romania, Romanian orphanages, sensual photography, sociopath, sociopathy, Surrealism, the veil, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature

Levi Asher’s Why Ayn Rand Was Wrong: A Strong Case for a New Humanism

 

The name Ayn Rand is well-known in our culture largely for being unpopular, or, at best, popular with unpopular people. And yet, argues writer, philosopher and literary critic Levi Asher in his new book, Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (And Why It Matters), her legacy is being short-changed. Not that Asher agrees with Rand’s defense of egoism. Yet he believes that her philosophical argument is important enough to be taken into account and given a proper refutation.

Why is it important? For two main reasons: first, because the moral debates between altruism and egoism are as old as humanity yet also very current. They’re central to philosophical discussions about economics (implicit in the debates between libertarianism versus socialism), moral frameworks (be they individualist or altruist) and politics (is the state’s role to protect only individual liberties or the collective welfare?). Second, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is important because… Ayn Rand herself is an important cultural figure. Born Alisa Rosenbaum, the daughter of Russian immigrants, Rand was a big success as a fiction writer (her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were best-sellers), as the proponent of Objectivism and even as a playwright. Few American intellectuals have had as widespread a cultural impact as she did.

Having established the relevance of his chosen subject, Asher zeroes in on his main goal, which is offer a multidimensional refutation of Rand’s basic philosophical tenet of egoism, or “the belief that humans are ultimately self-interested at a basic scientific level”. Being a thorough philosopher, Asher follows Rand’s own advice to “check her premises.” He begins by unraveling the first premise of Rand’s argument for egoism: namely, that the “self” is clearly defined and distinct from other individuals. He shows how our sense of self is based on our interactions with others, our love for our families, our collective and national identities. The self, in other words, is not an individual unit living in a social vacuum. Ontologically, ethically and epistemologically, we’re connected to others. Therefore, Asher argues, even a philosophy that begins with the self will end up considering others.

Moreover, he pursues, the self is naturally empathetic. Just as we see and feel our own pain, if our brain wiring works correctly and we’re not sociopathic, we see and to some extent can identify with the pain of others. Because of this we suffer when we see our children hurt, or when we witness crimes against humanity. Any philosophy of the self will therefore end up considering the family and the group, which are inextricably related to and shape our identities.

In his eloquent, clear and impeccably argued book on Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, Levi Asher not only does justice to her arguments and persuasively refutes them, but also makes a compelling case for an ethics of empathy, based on an understanding of the self that is complex and intersubjective. This book presents the foundations of a new humanism.  Original, impassioned, rigorously argued and touchingly eloquent, Why Ayn Rand is Wrong is a must-read not only for fans and antagonists of Ayn Rand, but also for all those who love a good philosophical debate about moral and social issues of the utmost importance.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

May 13, 2011 Posted by | Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, egoism, ethics, humanism, individualism, Levi Asher, Litkicks, moral philosophy, Objectivism, philosophy, refutation of egoism, The Fountainhead, the self, Why Ayn Rand Was Wrong (And Why It Matters) | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Levi Asher’s Why Ayn Rand Was Wrong: A Strong Case for a New Humanism