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 Monica Spiridon (University of Bucharest)
Published on H-Nationalism (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Cristian Cercel
Alex Drace-Francis’s The Traditions of Invention: Romanian Ethnic and Social Stereotypes in Historical Context looks at the representation of cultural identities, a scholarly area in which such terms as “invention” and “imagination” appear frequently. Its title is also a reference to the iconic anthology edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (1983). The author narrows his focus to the Romanian case study, which is, as we know, unusual: the Romanian national identity only became a public issue as late as around the 1848 revolutions à la française, and until 1918 the cultural nation was not endowed with the same common territory. In addition, the perception of Europe played a key part in the process of nation-building. In this context, the busy back-and-forth traffic of both gratifying and stigmatizing stereotypes of the self and the other took surprising turns.
Drace-Francis handles the category “invention” in his own way. Avoiding the usual approaches of postcolonial and orientalist scholarship, he looks for channels, frameworks, and patterns that can provide a cultural community with a set of formal traditions of expression and understanding, enduring if not always salient, manageable, and appealing. At the heart of his work is the umbrella concept of “historical context,” which covers mentalities, idea dynamics, thematic and discursive frameworks, rhetorical strategies, stereotypes, tropes, intertextual networks, or, in a nutshell, as the author puts it, a variety of “traditions of invention.”
Drace-Francis takes a particular interest in the reception of the texts he is looking at. In the section on foreign travelers to Romania and their travel writings, he uses the term “travelee” (the local receptor of travel writing about himself/herself and his/her group) coined by Marie Louise Pratt as an equivalent of “addressee.” The term helps him emphasize that some of the 1848 intellectuals (the so-called bonjouristes), such as Mihail Kogălniceanu, Alecu Russo, and Vasile Alecsandri, acted as a particular kind of travelee. In response to external representations of their group, they “developed a perhaps more complex approach to negotiating self-identity in the face of foreign frames, scripts and stereotypes and produced their own texts” (p. 117). This kind of intertextual echo is described by Drace-Francis as “re-addressing.” Specifically, the initial message generated new texts, redirected by the 1848 intellectual addressees to various audiences. In this way, the author argues, “Romanian travelees then ceased portraying themselves as helpless victims of a hegemonic discourse foisted on them from outside but as re-addressers of that discourse to different audiences, for different purposes, while maintaining some commonalities of subject matter” (p. 134, emphasis added).
As Drace-Francis warns, the relationships between wide-ranging categories of texts and their audiences are very often complicated and sometimes confusing, since we cannot be sure that the texts actually reached their target audiences. A good example in this regard is the Însemnare a călătoriei mele (Account of my travels) by Dinicu Golescu (1826), which engendered an established tradition of interpretation in Romanian school textbooks. This travel journal is credited with a strong impact on its contemporary audience, although, as Drace-Francis puts it, “few people appear to have read Golescu’s book at all in the seventy or eighty years since it was published” (p. 146). Work published by Romanian travelers abroad during Nicolae Ceaușescu’s era had a similarly dubious impact. Even if it is tempting for scholars to ascribe social significance to their reception, “it is of course hard to know whether the books were actually read, and if so how” (p. 263). Despite these practical impediments, the author argues that the relationships between this type of text and its potential audiences need to be axiomatically postulated, in order to keep the doors open for further research.
An issue that cuts across Drace-Francis’s work relates to the rhetorical strategies used by writers, allegedly well known to current audiences. This is the case with Golescu’s travel account, which, according to the author, sought to have a specific political impact on the audience: “I try to shed further light on the more particular framework of how Golescu used both publishing strategies and rhetoric about Europe to further certain political interests in 1920s Walachia” (p. 137). Drace-Francis’s reading of Însemnare a călătoriei mele deconstructs one of the established interpretive traditions of Golescu’s writing, the so-called Dinicu Golescu complex: the self-stigmatizing representation of the Romanian cultural identity—a category introduced by Adrian Marino and ossified into a popular cliché by Romanian school textbooks.
In a number of instances in the book, the process of representing identities is analyzed in relation to multilayered contextual structures that integrate “mentalities,” “dynamics of ideas,” “interpretive environments,” “history of discursive genres,” “thematic and stylistic prefab,” “formal expectations,” and so on. It is against this background that the enduring formal and thematic tradition of portraying the peasant as the genuine symbol of Romanianness and of linguistic purity is seen as the result of recycling old material in convenient ideological and sociocultural contexts. Rooted in Roman antiquity and feeding surprising modern interpretations, the old European topos known as Le paysan du Danube appears at the root of one of the basic representations of local ethnic identity. Unfortunately, Drace-Francis drops the issue at the very point (1880) when it has the potential to become an interesting case study for both ethnology and research on national identity.
Following the same line of argument, the most effective key to reading Ignaz von Born’s Account of Walachia (1774; 1779) is the “interpretive environment” before mass media and popular culture. These are, firstly, the formal devices of the German-language epistolary form, popular with current audiences and, secondly, the tension between province and empire. In this specific case, this involves the Habsburg efforts to equate eastern Europe with other colonies around the world, which was orchestrated through an abundant press discourse on barbarous, exotic, and remote peripheries, recently colonized by an imperial center. Here as well as in a number of other cases, one of Drace-Francis’s best strategies is what I would call “genre contextualization.” Texts are assigned illuminating genre labels, based on subtle details which are frequently overlooked by current reading inertia and which are sensitive to the conventions of their historical context.
Two other sections of the study are dedicated to a series of case studies, Mihai Eminescu, Ion Luca Caragiale, Herta Müller, and Eugen Ionescu, which are handled somewhat unequally by the author. Compared to the interesting chapter on Caragiale, the Eminescu interpretation misses the key point of the close structural convergence between his poetry and his journalism. Drace-Francis seems more familiar with various readings of Eminescu, spanning from Titu Maiorescu’s to today’s, than he is with the inner utopic frames of his writing, be it in his poetry, in his prose, or in his articles. As a result, he ignores the trope of the Golden Age which is central to Eminescu’s creative world, bypassing historic reality.
In the section dedicated to the Romanian diaspora, the study on Müller posits a structural equation between language and the world as the starting point for the approach to any bilingual identity. In contrast, the section on Ionescu is perhaps the least convincing of the study. Drace-Francis does not seem to be familiar with either Ionescu’s life or his work, and consequently tries to fit all his output under the same notional umbrella, relying mainly on assorted secondary interpretations.
Overall, Drace-Francis’s study stands out first and foremost through his ability to ask the most pressing questions on a subject, to single out the key dilemmas, and to open up relevant paths for future investigation. The author is successful throughout in deconstructing interpretive inertias, and in convincing us that fresh ideas and hypotheses emerge every time a researcher avoids the fallacies and pitfalls of the “traditions of invention” in the existing academic literature.
. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso Books, 1983); Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994); Murray G. H. Pittock, Inventing and Resisting Britain: Cultural Identities in Britain and Ireland, 1685-1789 (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1997); T. H. Breen, Imagining the Past: East Hampton Histories (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996); and Alain Dieckhoff, L’Invention d’une nation: Israël et la modernité politique (Paris: Gallimard, 1993), among others.
. In this respect, see the so-called imaginary self-colonization in relation to a center—in this case France and nineteenth-century Paris—which reverses the process analyzed by Vesna Goldsworthy and called imaginary colonization or “the imperialism of the imagination” (Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania). See Monica Spiridon, “Literature and the Symbolic Engineering of the European Self,” European Review 17 (2009): 149-159.
. See Monica Spiridon, Eminescu: Proza jurnalistică (Bucharest: Curtea Veche, 2003), 55-88.
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Monica Spiridon. Review of Drace-Francis, Alex, The Traditions of Invention: Romanian Ethnic and Social Stereotypes in Historical Context.
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