Alex Drace-Francis. The Traditions of Invention: Romanian Ethnic and Social Stereotypes in Historical Context. Balkan Studies Library Series. Leiden: Brill, 2013. 310 pp. $149.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-21617-4.
Reviewed by Călin Cotoi (University of Bucharest)
Published on H-Romania (April, 2016)
Commissioned by R. Chris Davis
Inside Romanian historiography there was--and still is--a strong current that deals with “images,” “mentalities,” and “representations.” Influenced by the Annales school or by comparative literary studies, and impervious to the criticism leveled against the unreflexive usage of “mentalities,” this tradition is empirically rich but theoretically poor.
This kind of discourse is centered on the contemplation, from various standpoints, of discovering oneself through the “objective” or “distorted” image produced by others, usually travelers. The attempts to understand and consume “images” about oneself produced by “others” induce a complex voyeuristic thrill. One’s writing (and reading) of this kind of historiographical and imagological production is situated, safely, in a position that gives oneself access both to local truth, as part of the “self” described by foreign travelers, and to the alleged objectivity gained by inhabiting, vicariously, the travelers’ slot.
Alex Drace-Francis’s book breaks sharply with this representational apparatus by bringing together a series of case studies centered on a theoretical and historical investigation of the politics of language, collective representations, and discourses. One of the most important parts of Drace-Francis’s analyses consists in recovering the intimate dynamic and recursivity of “othering discourses.” The game of self and other becomes more balanced--becoming an element of circuits, alliances, and fractures that an alert and theoretically informed historian can unveil and describe.
Part 1, “Social Representations,” disentangles the processes through which the image of the Romanian peasant emerged in the nineteenth century through interactions, translations, and reactions to older imperial discourses. The imagining of the peasant--as the foundation of Romania and Romanianess--was still unclear at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Even the Transylvanian compilers of the first published Romanian dictionary, the Lexicon Valacho-Latino-Hungarico-Germanum (1825), were significantly ambiguous about the meaning of the word “peasant.” The discovery of the peasant was not purely a local one, as it was mediated by discursive traditions starting with the classical Roman legacy of Virgil and Horace, moving to the Princely Mirrors of the Renaissance, and appearing thereafter in the writings of Enlightenment and Romantic travelers and historians. For Drace-Francis, “the nineteenth-century Romanian writers’ discovery of the peasant went hand in hand with their discovery of ‘Europe’; and their encounter with the latter … decisively influenced their conceptualization of the former” (p. 16).
A decisive moment in the political and cultural creation of the peasants was the period around the 1848 revolutions in Europe. The context was the articulation of ethnographic and folkloristic interest in peasant songs, poems, and cultural creations with the political-economy ideal of peasant emancipation. The “people” spoke directly through the voices of the revolutionaries, and revolutionary discourses went directly into the hearts of the villagers. The peasants and the land they inhabited became symbols and carriers of the revolutionary nation, and part of new, capitalist processes of commercialization. The poet and nobleman Vasile Alecsandri reassembled and framed in a folkloristic way the still-dangerous images and discourses of the half-peasant Tudor Vladimirescu uprising of 1821. The “Dragon” and the “snakes” that represented the boyars who were to be fought and destroyed became “superstitions concerning snakes,” ones that emerged not from a dangerous and violent people but from a treasure trove of folklore, opened up by the sympathetic intervention of an ethnographer–poet (p. 52).
In his landmark history The Romanians under Prince Michael the Great (1852), Nicolae Bălcescu, one of the most important Romanian revolutionaries and historians to emerge from the 1848 revolutionary period, switched from a generally accepted but diffuse use of terms like muncitor (worker), plugar (ploughman), or lăcuitor (inhabitant) to refer to the peasantry, to a consistent use of ţăran (peasant). The political and linguistic creation of the “peasant” was based on Bălcescu’s attempt to use literary archaisms, to eliminate neologisms, and to search for old Romanian words in order to create a historically deep national language. Drace-Francis remarks that in the “peasant” case “the anachronism works the other way around: he is applying not an archaic meaning of the word ţăran, but a new one, which looks timeless but is in fact relatively recent” (p. 54). A true tradition of invention.
Part 2, “Travel and Alterity,” is based on travel texts from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. The travel text of Ignaz von Born (1742–91) was part of a series of works written in the late eighteenth century about the population living on the southeastern frontier of the Habsburg Monarchy, in a colonial-like endeavor to map and use newly acquired or acquirable territories. A Saxon from Transylvania and a mineralogist, freemason, and traveler, Born was the author of writings about Romanians from Banat that first appeared in the literary genre of letters between scientists, and then morphed into a book and a variety of texts including an Italian journal, an English translation, newspaper extracts, popular brochures, and French translations. Drace-Francis explains, puts into perspective, deconstructs, and contextualizes Born’s travel accounts, showing us how, why, and for whom they were written, how various publics might have read them, and what kind of mechanisms of representation can be seen by following the discourses and travels of these texts.
Born was part of a colonial mechanism, “one of a number of scientist-bureaucrat-travelers who were to prove immensely influential in creating administrative systems and textual machinery for recording observations of Russian and east European peoples” (p. 87). The discourses of savagery and barbarism that captured populations at the fringes of European empires in Asia, America, and Africa were also deployed inside Europe, sometimes not as a preparation for colonizing but as “refusal to colonize.” Born’s discourse emerged from this context. The Wallachians he presented/invented were a symbolical other and, simultaneously, “a link in the chain of transformable human and natural resources” (p. 90).
Chapter 3 focuses on the transformation, found in travel narratives and rhetoric, from the description of the world to the meditation on the self, by counterpoising two literary/travel traditions that were not in direct contact with one another: the British and the Romanian ones. Against the background of the British travel literature from 1750 to 1840, which established norms for travel accounts throughout Europe, the Romanian travelers’ attempts to pack the world into words appear more clearly. From Hegumen Venedikt’s report of his long trip to Saint Petersburg in the 1770s, pursued as a mixture of religious pilgrimage and political and personal impressions; to Teodor Codrescu’s description of his travel to Constantinopole in 1839, as part of the modernizing Moldavia’s new civil officialdom; to the accounts of Romania’s thoroughly Romantic travelers, the Romanian travel narratives spanning this era seem to substantiate a massive historical switch from “tradition” to “modernity.” This transformation is not, in Drace-Francis’s view, a simple and homogeneous one. The Romantic discovery of Moldavia’s landscapes, evident in Alecu Russo’s writings, “does indeed accompany and metonymies a fascination with the self, but it is a discovery mediated and overshadowed by the encounter with the other” (p. 112). The nature, the people, and the land are rediscovered from self-perceived uncanny historical positions, situated in an inadequate symbolic geography, through continuous, tensioned detours via Romantic “European” traditions of seeing and writing about landscapes.
Romanian travelers’ narratives and rhetoric were not only circuitous comments on self and other but also comments on foreign travelers’ accounts of the Romanian lands. Drace-Francis succeeds in telling this story outside the simplifying but alluring schematic of Saidian Orientalism, as he sees the Romanian “travelees” in the process of reorganizing “the relationship between traveler/travelee and addresser/addressee” (p. 118). Between 1702 and 1858, Romanian authors reacted, in various and complex ways, to British and French travelers and their stories. Jean-Louis Carra, a mesmerist and political agitator of sorts, was harshly criticized for his “assemblage of gross errors for which one would not even excuse a schoolboy.” The author of this scathing critique of Carra’s Histoire de la Moldavie et de la Valachie: avec une dissertation sur l’état actuel de ces deux provinces (1777) remains a mystery. It could have been Gheorge Saul, a Moldavian courtier of Albanian-Greek origins, or Ignaz Raicevich, a Dalmatian who was the secretary of the prince of Wallachia, Alexandru Ipsilanti. Bishop Chesarie of Râmnic was also interested in correcting the errors from Carra’s book, and the Swiss Franz Sulzer might have written a second reply in 1779. The debate was not a simple orientalizing discourse connecting mute and objectified Romanians with powerful metropolitan descriptions but rather a “many-sided skirmish in which provincial French, Swiss German, Dalmatian and possibly Greco-Albanian authors all jostle and position themselves as the detainers of truer information concerning the state of the Principalities” (p. 125). From the beginning of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, the perception of the foreign (usually “European”) traveler in the Romanian lands morphed into a classic trope, as Romanian “travelees” reflected and diffracted the Western travel discourse for different audiences--some local, some not--and for various purposes (p. 134).
Chapter 5 frames the story of one of the most famous Romanian travelers and his travel book, the Russophile boyar Dinicu Golescu and his Însemnare a călătoriei mele (Account of my travels), first published in 1826. In present-day Romanian cultural discourses, Golescu’s text is usually seen as the template for and origin of the reform movement for local modernization, resulting from the simultaneous discovery of the European model, on the one hand, and the incoherencies and backwardness of the Romanian lands, on the other. A detailed analysis of the purposes of his book and of the political debates and dilemmas gives us “not some unworldly middle-aged Oriental gentleman who suddenly took upon himself to have a look at life in the West, but an astute and active political strategist pursuing a clear oppositional line to a hesitant and fragile regime” (p. 156). The prevailing view that sees Golescu as embodying a “split consciousness,” one that was opened by the crisis created by the discovery of European modernity, lacks clarity and fails to explain adequately Golescu’s political and cultural position. From Drace-Francis’s presentation, by contrast, Golescu’s text and rhetoric emerge not as the result of the cultural colonization of western European subjectivities and forms of self-expression but as the outcome of a “double-consciousness” that served both “cosmopolitan patriotism and personal ambition” (p. 158).
Part 3, “Myths and Discourses of the Nation,” switches the focus from traveling, travelers, and travelees to discourses about and of the Romanian nation. Mihai Eminescu, the most famous nineteenth-century Romanian poet, is briefly contextualized in the articulation of German philosophy, politics, and literary form as a main contributor to fin-de-siècle and twentieth-century nationalism in Romania. Eminescu’s metaphysical framing of the nation, based on a reinterpretation of Schopenhauer’s dichotomy of intellect and will, involved ideas of individual and collective reincarnation that gave birth to attempts to understand historical configuration as both ethnic and timeless. He harshly criticized “superficial” modern forms and modernization, and, more generally, rejected any developmental interpretation of history (p. 183). By adding the case of the dramatist and novelist Ion Luca Caragiale, Drace-Francis opens his initial investigation of Eminescu’s literary, political, and philosophical creation of the Romanian language and Romanian nationalism to the heterogeneities and different literary positions inside what was still an uncodified literary language in 1870s and 1880s Romania. Caragiale balances Eminescu’s case, as Caragiale represents another pathway for the establishment of the Romanian literary language because he “recognised and reconciled the diversity of the Romanian language, and saw the way that heterogeneity can produce uniqueness in a language” (p. 192).
Part 4, “At the Verbal Frontiers of Identity,” reframes the politics of language of a very different time and geography than was explored in the previous chapters. With Eugen Ionescu and Herta Müller we are, apparently, at the borders of Romanian language and culture, as both authors belong, almost exclusively, to the French and German language, respectively. Drace-Francis brings forth their Romanianess but avoids the simplifying “Romanian roots” narrative. Ionescu’s famous play Rhinocéros (1959) is usually seen as the synthesis of, and the final gaze back on, a completed, past, and, thus, neutralized Romanian experience. Actually, Ionescu’s Rhinocéros was a more ambiguous statement in which Ionescu’s experience of the fascistization of Romanian interwar intellectuals mingles with his critique of the conformism of the Left, of the “boulevard dramatists” Arthur Miller, Jean Paul Sartre, and John Osborne. Given his presumed Jewish ancestry and radical critique of Romanianess, Ionescu’s “Romanian roots” become rhizomes, potentially crisscrossing his oeuvre.
After decades of political oppression and waves of deportations, in the 1960s the German-language culture of the Banat was revived in local cultural groups and publications closely controlled by the official structures of the Romanian state and the Romanian Communist Party. Herta Müller and her work are situated inside the first generation of German Schwaben ready “to accept the existence of the Romanian state for the foreseeable future” (p. 218). This literary generation engaged in a fight against local Heimatdorf literature, positioned itself inside the late 1960s Socialist Realist literature, and suffered consequent disenchantment. For Drace-Francis, “Müller’s glosses on the ‘local’ question of relations between two linguistic and cultural groups assumed to be at odds with one another, become an important bridge to larger ones such as the relation between words and things, language and place, the present and the past, personal experience and collective identities” (p. 229).
The chapters in the last part of the book, “East-Westism in the Cold War Age,” document the “literaturization” of Romania in works from the mainstream British book market, from 1945 to 2000, and in the ambiguity of travel writing in Ceauşescu’s Romania. Most analyses of ideology under the Ceauşescu regime consider pro-European positions to be synonymous with opposition to the regime. Drace-Francis chooses a more nuanced position, as he considers that the emergence of a strong national-communist ideology in the 1970s and 1980s “was not necessarily incompatible with writing extensively about western Europe or even with the production of pro-European discourse, often by the same writers” (p. 251).
The Traditions of Invention spans a long historical period, from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. It has detours, forward marches, retreats, and comebacks. It is as if a traveler shifts back and forth from a multitude of maps to a shifting landscape, often challenging the map details and sometimes even the map-like character of traveling. As the author makes his way, picking up various routes, he transforms the landscape we were accustomed to by debunking simplistic perspectives and carefully framing new understandings of old maps and landscapes. Alex Drace-Francis might be one of the best travelers the Romanian travelees could hope for.
. Petru Maior et al., Lexicon Valacho-Latino-Hungarico-Germanum (Buda: Typis Typographiae Regiae Universitatis Hungaricae, 1825).
. In June 1848, following an unsuccessful revolt in the Principality of Moldova, liberal Romanian intellectuals and military officers in the Principality of Wallachia sparked an uprising against the Imperial Russian authorities, seeking, among other reforms, an end to boyar dominance. The ill-fated Hungarian Revolution of 1848 sparked political and ethnic turmoil in the adjacent multiethnic Principality of Transylvania, a crown land of the Kingdom of Hungary, under Habsburg rule. The Hungarian revolutionaries called for the abolition of serfdom and the reunification of Transylvania with Hungary. Transylvania’s numerically superior but politically marginalized Romanian population largely opposed reunification.
. See Lettre à Messieurs les auteurs du Journal de Bouillon sur le compte qu’ils ont rendu d’une livre intitulé Histoire de la Moldavie (Vienna, 1779), 50. Cited in Drace-Francis, 124.
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Călin Cotoi. Review of Drace-Francis, Alex, The Traditions of Invention: Romanian Ethnic and Social Stereotypes in Historical Context.
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