In the Rhino Colony

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BOOKS JUNE 7, 2012

In the Rhino Colony

The Fifth Impossibility: Essays on Exile and Language
by Norman Manea
Yale University Press, 368 pp., $15

WHEN SUSAN SONTAG announced in 1982 that “communism is fascism,” her statement seemed to many glibly self-exculpatory, a belated effort to wipe away her guilt over having been, a decade and a half earlier, a champion of North Vietnam. But as the twentieth century recedes ever further from us and perspectives become clearer, the affinities between communism and fascism become clearer as well. (They had been noticed by certain astute commentators many decades before Sontag’s melodramatic declaration.) Both systems insisted that the state has no choice except to murder and imprison, to infiltrate daily life completely, to impose a reimagined history on the masses.

But there was a significant difference between communism and German fascism: communism replaced the ruthless energies of the Nazi cult with apathetic obedience. Norman Manea, the Romanian writer and essayist, reminds us that Wilhelm Reich defined fascism as “an amalgam between rebellious emotions and reactionary social ideas”; but communism was about submissiveness, not rebellion. A poisoned utopia, it demanded what Manea calls “a compulsory totalitarian happiness”: each citizen had to pretend to be contented with an utter lack of freedom. 

In postwar Romania, Manea asserts, fascism married Stalinism. There was, in effect, no private property and no private time; the leader owned the nation so that he could magnify its glory. The regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu stressed Romanian ethnic superiority. (Ceauşescu outlawed birth control in his effort to boost the ranks of the Romanian people; tragically, infant mortality rose even higher than the birthrate, since Romania lacked sufficient postnatal care facilities.) Ceauşescu adopted the extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism promoted by the Fascist Iron Guard, which had gone on a murderous rampage in 1940 and 1941 before being suppressed by Ion Antonescu, Hitler’s wartime ally. After Antonescu seized power, he sent many of the country’s Jews to concentration camps in Transnistria, the area of Ukraine that Hitler had recently awarded to Romania. Among them was the five-year-old Manea, who left for Transnistria in 1941. That early experience, and its aftermath in Communist Romania, is reflected in Manea’s fascinating memoir The Hooligan’s Return, as well as his short stories in October, Eight O’Clock.

In The Fifth Impossibility, his new collection of essays, Manea demonstrates that he is an indispensable analyst of what it means to be a Romanian, and a Romanian Jew, and a writer, under fascism and communism. The book considers Manea’s famous countrymen Mircea Eliade, Paul Celan, Emil Cioran, Saul Steinberg, and Eugen Ionesco, as well as lesser known compatriots like Mihail Sebastian and Benjamin Fundoianu. Manea includes sensitive, affectionate essays on Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. He meditates as well on American democracy, on Islamic fundamentalism, and on Kafka, whose exploration of the impossibilities of the writer’s existence provides the book’s title.

The Fifth Impossibility portrays Manea’s embattled life in the Ceauşescu years, in which, like all Romania’s people, he suffered from a lack of heat and from food shortages, and felt the omnipresent hand of the Securitate, Ceauşescu’s secret police. Manea flew to Berlin in December 1986 and did not return. A few years later he was transplanted to Bard College, where he still teaches literature. Settled in his idyllic Hudson Valley landscape, Manea watched the epochal revolutions of 1989 from a new American distance; he aptly compares himself, with his then-imperfect English, to Nabokov’s charming bumbler Pnin.

At Bard, Manea leads a reclusive life, ensconced in a house in the woods (the “Unabomber House,” his friends joke), but he is no railing misanthrope. Rather, he modestly celebrates the incoherence of American democracy, since, as he says, incoherence is “a form of freedom, probably.” When he names his favorite thing about America—the lack of an identity card—Manea most resembles his admired friend Ionesco. Unlike so many Romanian intellectuals, Ionesco consistently opposed the totalitarianism of both the right and the left. Like Manea, he was a yearner, ambivalent, wanting. The lovable loser Ionesco, with his sad-sack Zero Mostel eyes and his alcoholism, depicted himself in his play Rhinoceros as Berenger, who refuses to become one of the rhinoceros herd. (In Ionesco’s allegory of totalitarianism, everyone else has become a rhino, trampling the old ways, overrunning scruples.) “I can’t get used to life,” the rumpled, misplaced Berenger laments. In one of his volume’s most memorable essays, Manea explores his Bard students’ varied reactions to Berenger and, by implication, to himself; he tries out the experience of a survivor of East European Communism against the sometimes facile, sometimes insightful freedom of college-age America.

In tribute to Ionesco’s wild invention, Manea calls communist Romania “the Rhino colony,” a deformed circus presided over by its owner and master of ceremonies, the clown Ceauşescu. In Ceauşescu’s Romania “the indoctrination of duplicity began in the cradle,” Manea writes. In 1933, long before communism, Manea notes, Mihail Sebastian, a Jewish writer who was friends with the right-leaning Mircea Eliade, had remarked on the strange complicity of Romanian life, the unexpected intimacy of Marxists and fascists “caught in the act of intellectual tenderness” with one another. Incompatibility was an unknown concept, Manea remarks; both fascist and communist Romania consisted of a series of “stupefying mélanges and metamorphoses” (human becomes rhino; rhino claims he is the true representative of a new humanness).

In his most pressured, paradoxical moments, Manea owes something stylistically to his countryman Emil Cioran, the subject of one of his finely balanced assessments. But he lacks the fierceness of Cioran, who chanted, “I have no ideas, only obsessions. Anybody can have ideas. Ideas have never caused anybody’s downfall.” Manea also lacks the radical urges of Cioran, his drive. (The radicalism was a fiction: in real life, Manea reveals, Cioran was a connoisseur of the Parisian good life, happily enjoying what he scorned in his prose.) Cioran risks the glitz of theatrical overstatement; he makes himself an outrageous, finely barbed character. Manea, by contrast, is a sober, melancholy liberal.

The troubled heart of Manea’s book is his well-known essay “Happy Guilt” (first published in The New Republic in 1991), an examination of the pro-fascist sympathies of the great religious scholar, fiction-writer and memoirist Mircea Eliade. Although Eliade disdained Hitler’s anti-Semitism in 1934, by 1937 he had changed his tune, asking, “Can the Romanian nation end its life … ravaged by poverty and syphilis, overrun by Jews and torn apart by foreigners?” In 1939 he wrote that “The Poles’ resistance in Warsaw is Jewish resistance. Only yids are capable of blackmail by putting women and children in the front line”; and he concluded that “rather than a Romania again invaded by kikes, it would be better to have a German protectorate.” Eliade went from village to village campaigning for the Iron Guard; during the war he spent much of his time in Portugal, where he became an admirer of the right-wing dictator Salazar. After 1945, Eliade was clear in his disapproval of both Marxism and Fascism, but he avoided the details of his own past complicity (as did Cioran, who once wrote that if he had been a Jew he would have committed suicide).

Manea rightly points out the shocking contrast between Eliade’s violent fascist prejudices and “the free play and dreamy compassion of his writing.” The genial, open-minded professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago, where Eliade taught from the 1960s on, was hard to reconcile with the champion of the Iron Guard. But there were also reasons why Eliade, given his mystical bent, might have been attracted to fascism’s promise of “sudden and magical history” (in the words of Robert Ellwood, Eliade’s student). Eliade was attuned to the appearance of the sacred within the profane, seemingly secular modern world; fascism, he seems to have thought, was a potential source of sacredness. Mihail Sebastian loved and admired Eliade in the 1930s (along with Eliade’s teacher, the die-hard anti-Semite Nae Ionesco—no relation to the playwright). But Sebastian was bewildered by the gulf between himself and Eliade: the fearful Jew faced with an anti-Semitic tidal wave and the exultant advocate of a new, Christian-fascist Romania. Manea writes that Eliade’s attraction to men in uniform, to “the compensations of vitality, mystification, martyrdom, and all manner of excess,” baffled Sebastian. 

When Manea’s essay about Eliade’s fascism was published in Romania in 1992, it sparked a campaign of hatred against Manea. Eliade, whose rehabilitation began during the latter half of the Ceauşescu era, had become a hero to Romanians, an intellectual saint. Interviewed on Romanian television programs, Manea was asked about the “Jewish cultural mafia”; he was called a fundamentalist, a witch-hunter. The grotesque nationalism and anti-Semitism that has sometimes sprouted in post-Communist Romania, visible in the Eliade affair, the official honoring of Antonescu, and elsewhere, is a grab for identity in the confusion and the loneliness of the newly chaotic, newly capitalist era. Romania’s people, who had been guarded and commanded like children by Ceauşescu, were suddenly set adrift. Manea suggests no answer for the crisis of the post-Berlin Wall, post 9/11, financially collapsed world, in which so many are “obsessively looking for a lost center,” but he is profoundly disquieted by the radical impulses of nationalism and of Islamism, which seek, with violent efficiency, to supply this answer.

Manea addresses another cause célèbre in The Fifth Impossibility: the case of the German writer Martin Walser, who complained that the Holocaust was being used as a “moral cudgel” against Germany, and who objected to the constant repetition of the shameful atrocities, so many decades after the fact. The Holocaust, Walser implied, should be allowed to fade as a fact about Germany. Walser criticized, among others, the German intellectuals who recite their knowledge of the Holocaust in, he said, an attempt to get closer to the victims than the perpetrators.

Manea writes that Walser left it unclear “whether it is the horror itself he is unable to bear or the manipulation of the horror…”—the Shoah or the popular representations of it, with their emphasis on German guilt. But Manea insists that Walser’s emphasis is misplaced. Like so many recently, Walser is more interested in talking about how the Holocaust is represented than the Holocaust itself. This is dangerous, for an objection to the representation may conceal a desire to ward off the historical fact. If Walser wants to shield his eyes from the awful reality of mass murder, Manea argues, this is an impulse shared by all of us (and to be resisted by all of us). The impulse should not be confused with a protest against “Miss Media, this frivolous, cynical, omnipresent concubine of modernity.” We must not identify the truth of the world-historical catastrophe, which tells us something not just about Jews and Germans, but about all humanity, with the media’s trivial, banal version of it. Equally, we must not use the media as an excuse to turn away from the truth: after all, what historical truth has not been trivialized? “The aftermath of the truth is, after all, nothing compared to the horrible truth itself—a fact which, I hope, is news to no one,” Manea writes.

Manea cites Fellini’s remarks on the exquisite compatibility of Chaplin and Hitler, as revealed in The Great Dictator: both dictator and clown tap into the outsider’s need to be let in; both show an infant’s desperate drive for attention, “the tyrant’s infantile schizophrenia” as he juggles his balloon-globe. There may be “an unconscious reciprocal stimulation” between the tyrant and the oppressed masses, Manea suggests. He asks, painfully, “Is it a feeling of humiliation to have lived so many years terrorized by a caricature—or is it grief for the human species in general?” Totalitarianism, terrible and ridiculous, “can be detected in the family, in schools, at work”; otherwise it wouldn’t have become the basis of a social system. We are all implicated by the bleak collective obedience that was Eastern Europe in the Cold War; we know too well what made the system work, just as we know how Assad, Chavez, and Castro cruelly make their peoples into their partners. But the system breaks sooner than one might think, though that is little consolation to its victims; and one must cultivate hope, not just ironic realism, to see how the breaking begins.

The writer under totalitarianism, Manea comments, might feel like another mere fool, the impotent counterpart of the ruling clown—but he can learn to know his true perspective and with it, his true power: “his weakness suddenly may be seen as an unconventional and devious strength, his solitude as a deeper kind of solidarity; his imagination becomes a shortcut to reality. One might say that his face is reflected in all the images of the circus that surrounds him, and the mirror turns faster, faster.” Manea’s own strength as a writer resides less in his circus-like efforts to write a kaleidoscopic, shape-bending novel (such as The Lair, just published by Yale) than in his focused, lucid short stories, which often capture the point of view of the child that Manea was in Transnistria and newly Communist Romania.

In one of the best of those stories, “The Instructor,” Manea recounts the child’s resistance to the bar mitzvah lessons given him by an observant Jew, enlisted for the task by his parents. The child prefers Marx to the Torah. Parrying him, the instructor cites the capacity of Jewish tradition for rebellious thinking, notably in the sayings of the Kotzker rebbe, who cannot wait to accuse God face to face, and who says that prayers in gehinnom (the rather vague rabbinical equivalent of hell) are more sincere than those in heaven. Romania was Manea’s gehinnom; in valuing the works of Cioran, Celan, and Ionesco, those unblessed Romanian spirits, he acknowledges the rebbe’s wisdom. But he also looks toward the opportunistic scramble that is America, the half-cocked promised land, which might be both hell and heaven. Manea is just as unsettled here as he was over there; yet he recognizes that democracy offers what a closed society never could.

In The Fifth Impossibility, Manea remembers escorting Saul Bellow, recently awarded the Nobel Prize, through Romania. Bellow’s Romanian publisher, Manea writes, “rose with the joyous energy of a man half his age to resurrect the ancient topic: ‘Who is behind you, Mr. Bellow?’” To the returning darkness that whispers of Jewish conspiracy, Bellow responded courteously, evasively, with American assurance. Manea, in his tribute to Bellow, lauds that great writer’s place in America, where “the Jewish spirit” shrugs off the darkness, “finds its new, free, American voice, its new serenity and its new restlessness, a new humor, and a new sadness, and finally, an unprecedented way of posing life’s unanswerable questions.” Manea remains poised between the new-world freedom of Bellow and the shock of the old, the grimly frozen panorama that was Romania in the twentieth century. It is his gift and his burden that he knows himself to be part of both worlds, and it is our advantage that we can read, in The Fifth Impossibility, such an ample offering of his work, his memories, his wise and acute challenges.

David Mikics is, most recently, editor of The Annotated Emerson and author of A New Handbook of Literary Terms; The Art of the Sonnet (with Stephen Burt); and Who Was Jacques Derrida?

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