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A Romanian Jew's Private Judgment of a World Bent on Condemning Him

In brilliantly charting the psychological effects of anti-Semitism on both its perpetrators and its victims, a newly translated 1934 novel outdoes even such master analysts as Freud and Proust.

From the cover of Mihail Sebastian’s For Two-Thousand Years.

From the cover of Mihail Sebastian’s For Two-Thousand Years.

Observation
Oct. 18 2017
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


Had my parents read Mihail Sebastian’s novel For Two-Thousand Years when it was published in Romania in 1934, they would have been mad to conceive a Jewish child there two years later.

The novel, only now translated from Romanian into English, is a close-up view of anti-Semitism overtaking a country not from the depths, not through vulgar populism, but through the ideas of its leading intellectuals. Who would be equipped to write such a book, and why? Only a Jewish intellectual himself, one intimate enough with his antagonists to know them as they actually were and artistically brilliant enough, and bold enough, to register exactly how and why they despised him.

Until now I was unaware that such a book existed, and since I am that improbable Jewish child, I must also be thankful that my parents did not know any Romanian intellectuals when they lived there.

 

Mihail Sebastian was born Iosif Mendel Hechter in 1907 to traditional Jewish parents in the Romanian town of Brăila on the Danube. As a boy (and for the rest of his life) he felt at once rooted in the river landscape and respectful of his Jewish ancestry, but, with limited education in Jewish sources or Jewish languages, he was much more at home in the Romanian culture of his formal schooling. Once he began studying law in Bucharest, and simultaneously took up writing, he adopted a Romanian pen name and drew close to the local literary-intellectual elite.

Plus or minus the assumed name, the same path was taken by many of Sebastian’s Jewish contemporaries in France, Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere. In each case, their literary prospects were conditioned by the linguistic community they aspired to join. For Sebastian, an additional constraint was the open anti-Semitism that accompanied Romania’s heightened nationalism after World War I and that to a greater or lesser degree infected the country’s finest minds. It was his genius not to be deterred by the hostility but to train his eye on what Jews and others tried to ignore.

He did this by keeping a diary: a well-proved means of maintaining one’s intellectual independence. In this medium, even while pursuing a career in law and while pouring out a succession of books, plays, and essays, Sebastian made a habit of recording his private judgment of the world that was bent on condemning him. Indeed, the first of his works to attract international notice, a full half-century after his death, was a portion of his diary encompassing the years leading up to and through World War II. (The English translation, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, was released in 2000.)

As for the book before us, published in Romania in 1934, it is, to repeat, a work of fiction—but one that itself purports to have been composed out of diary selections tracking the narrator’s development through the prior, eventful decade of 1923-33. Both works richly repay reading, but the fictional form of the latter makes for a tighter and more consciously developed story—and a more mesmerizing one.

At the outset, our fictional diarist declares an obsessive fidelity to his own mind and imagination, an intent signaled by his epigraph from Montaigne: “I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing but myself.” Although so constricted a focus would seem ill-suited for capturing the essence of an era of political upheaval, the narrator’s rigorous self-scrutiny, which extends to what he is up against, yields page after page of coruscating political reportage. Our solipsist becomes a masterful witness to his times.

As the book opens, the Jewish students of Bucharest are under harassment and physical attack by their Gentile classmates. Some resist as best they can, but the unnamed diarist—shall we call him Iosif?—will not be goaded into action. His reason: “I don’t have that kind of vanity.” (Sensing suspect motives in others, he imputes them to himself as well.) When a single Jewish student in a large class rises to protest gross mistreatment, Iosif rails not at the school but at him:

What absurd need to denounce injustice inspires you to cry out? From what ancestral education in humiliation and revolt? . . . I’m furious with you because I can’t hate you enough and because I, along with you, belong to a race that can’t accept things and shut up.

But just as he shrinks from manifestations of Jewish collective pride or courage, so does he recoil from manifestations of Jewish collective timorousness:

If I cry, I’m lost. Clench your fists, you fool, if necessary, believe yourself a hero, pray to God, tell yourself you’re the son of a race of martyrs, yes, yes, tell yourself that, knock your head against the wall, but if you want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and not die of shame, don’t cry.

By the time Sebastian composed this book in the early 1930s, the tortured psychological effects of anti-Semitism on Jews had already been variously charted by the likes of Sigmund Freud, Max Nordau, Otto Weininger, and Marcel Proust—the last of whom our narrator has read with admiration. His own dissection of the phenomenon exceeds them all. “Let’s presume that the hostility of anti-Semites is, in the end, endurable,” he writes. “How do we proceed with our own, internal, conflict?” Intent on not becoming “a fellow sufferer and sympathizer,” he declaims, a little too defiantly, that he—not yet twenty years old and just beginning to experience himself as an individual—will not be typecast as the member of a group on any terms other than his own. “Jewish fellow feeling—I hate it.”

Still, even while deploring that he is “at two removes from the active game of existence, firstly as an intellectual and secondly as a Jew,” Iosif is not too removed to study everyone around him, including his own kind, in his search to “overcome 2,000 years of talmudism and melancholy and to recover—supposing one of my race has ever had it—the clear joy of life.” That search leads him to three of the leading Jewish ideologies of the period, which he presents to us through the characters who espouse them.

The first of these characters is Abraham Sulitzer, a book distributor whom Iosif meets on a train and who introduces him both to the modern literature that Jews are creating in Yiddish and to the idea that Yiddish culture in itself can inspire and sustain a diaspora Jewish community. Iosif purchases from Sulitzer an “illustrated Bible”—no doubt the popular Yiddish Tsena Urena —and enjoys having it read aloud to him by his grandmother. But by now he regards himself as too old to be drafted into the suffocating ethnic solidarity supposedly demanded by this variety of Jewishness.

Two law-school friends, S.T. Haim and Sami Winkler, become the backboard against which Iosif tests his resistance to the other two ideologies on offer: respectively, Communism and Zionism.

Haim, “an incurable Marxist,” mocks the very notion of Jewish solidarity:

Jewish national unity is an absurdity. I don’t know any Jews: I know workers and the bourgeoisie. I don’t know of a national problem in Palestine. I know about a practical economic problem involving Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, which is not any more interesting than the problems of Cuba, Indochina, and Eastern Rumelia. The rest is a myth, an idyll, a chimera.

In dismissing all national categories, Haim theoretically offers an escape from both anti-Semitism and his own Jewishness. Iosif, however, even putting aside his disbelief in the Communist utopia, is also nowhere near so ready to deny or relinquish his Jewishness.

Winkler, for his part, takes Iosif to hear the Zionist exhortations of Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the hope that “he can clear things up for you.” Although things remain unclear, Zionism does come close to satisfying Iosif’s search for “the clear joy of life” in a Jewish form. He appreciates almost everything he hears from Winkler, a true believer for whom the question “isn’t whether Jews can create a Palestinian state, but whether they can do anything but.” Urgency makes counter-arguments pointless: Winkler will live and labor in the land of Israel. “I listen and work” is his version of the biblical “We will do and we will listen.”

But although Iosif desperately longs for the sense of existential purpose that Zionism provides, he is convinced that the movement cannot succeed. The Diaspora has worn away the Jews’ capacity for a healthful national life, rendering this Johnny-come-lately attempt at self-liberation “a revolt against destiny” on the part of hapless “intellectuals who want to escape their solitude.” Even if Zionism should succeed in establishing a Jewish state, moreover, that accomplishment would surely be washed away by the ingrained force of Jewish despair; the eternity of the Jewish people, Iosif is persuaded, is bound to be overtaken by the eternity of anti-Semitism. That eternal hatred is the ultimate meaning of the 2,000 years in the novel’s title.

 

This second section of the book, devoted to diverse explorations of Jewish experience, also introduces us to a girlfriend, a talented musician who will not surrender her virginity to Iosif outside of marriage—a social convention he never follows, then or later. Over the remainder of the book, he has another serious love affair, switches from the study of law to architecture, enjoys a productive apprenticeship that includes a year in Paris, and becomes involved in an experiment in urban planning that supplies a tutorial in the violent impetuousness of the progressive mentality. All this he does while joining—as Sebastian did in real life—the emerging young Romanian intelligentsia, with complications that hound and torment him throughout.

Other European Jewish intellectuals at the receiving end of anti-Jewish politics in the early 20th century either loved their antagonists too much to expose them (Hannah Arendt) or, like Jean Améry (né Hans Meyer), focused on the experience of persecution rather than on the ideas and emotions of the persecutors. Sebastian is different. Without ever denying his Jewishness, he became and, until it turned impossible, remained an intimate of the writers and thinkers who supplied Romania’s fascist Iron Guard with ideological justifications for getting rid of the Jews.

Some of these writers and thinkers figure, thinly disguised, in the story as told by our fictional diarist/insider. At the time of the book’s publication in 1934, its most developed character, Ghita Blidaru, was easily identifiable as the philosopher-intellectual Nae Ionescu (not the playwright Ionesco), a professor who greatly influenced Sebastian and his contemporaries. When in his otherwise dreary studies Iosif discovers Blidaru, he is moved to transcribe into his diary whole pages of the charismatic professor’s lectures:

We live with too many abstractions, too many illusions. We’ve lost the ground beneath our feet. It’s not only the gold standard that has been lost, but any fixed relationship between our symbols and ourselves. There’s a gulf between man and his context. These expressions that you see have become dehumanized. Or, perhaps more accurately, they have become inhuman.

After World War I, Blidaru was hardly alone in declaring his disillusionment with abstractions. The American Ernest Hemingway, who had been at the front, wrote: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” But whereas many felt similarly betrayed, Blidaru set out to find “the truth that returns us to the soil, simplifying everything and installing a new order” (emphasis added throughout). In the Romanian context, these cleansing words—truth, soil, simplify, new order—coalesced into plans for cleansing the country of its Jews, just as, in the German context, they would do for those inspired by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The common denominator of this political struggle is the single cry “Death to the Yids,” a sentiment that by the end of the book has become so natural that Iosif has to remind himself that he is its real-life target. As his friends and acquaintances reduce the Jew to caricature, he ever more deliberately records the complex nuances of their anti-Semitism. Thus, when he first approaches Blidaru to complain about students who had thrown him out of class, his teacher coldly responds, “What do you want me to do about it?,” and refuses to apologize for this offense even later when the two strike up a friendship. Nonetheless, it is Blidaru who advises Iosif to switch from law to architecture, who godfathers his professional advancement, and who, in an apparently ideal outgrowth of the teacher-student relationship, commissions and gives Iosif free rein to design and build a house for him.

Thus, depending on how he wants to use the Jews, Blidaru either exploits their demonstrable talents or, once he aligns himself with the Iron Guard, offers the evidence of those talents as proof that the Jews aim to conquer Romania from within. Meanwhile Iosif records how the Jew is being used. One by one, he uncovers the same political poison in even the most apparently “decent” of his friends, and answers each according to his merit. To try and rebut a confirmed anti-Jewish ideologue, he declares, would be “as mad as conversing with a block of stone,” yet he does engage with a self-professed anti-Semite who insists that Jewish writers’ dreaminess and emotional agitation spoil his need for clarity. (When Iosif suggests that the clarity of a poet may differ from that of a notary, the anti-Semite replies that he’ll take the clarity of the notary.)

In the best tradition of satire, although this is not a satire, each of these antagonists ultimately condemns himself. Iosif suffers most acutely when the master architect who employs him, the most liberal and thoughtful of men, betrays exactly the same simpleminded anti-Jewish bias as does the “block of stone.”

 

About halfway through the book Iosif thinks, “Perhaps the time has come to write the history of the anti-Semitic movement.” If he does not quite accomplish that, he does contribute an incomparable chapter to such a fuller account, devoted largely to the character of those who populate the movement; for good measure, he also includes a self-portrait of their Jewish diarist in his struggle “to comprehend the knot of adversity and conflict with which I am bound up in Romanian life.”

Does Iosif then confirm Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea that the anti-Semite creates the Jew by obliging him to respond existentially, as a Jew, to the hatred directed against him? Is he instead a case study for Kurt Lewin’s theory of “Jewish self-hatred”—the reflex of Jews who detest themselves and their fellow Jews for whatever presumably triggers the anti-Semite’s hatred?

Through his observations of others and of himself, Iosif provides plenty of raw evidence for both of these theorists, but I believe that ultimately he transcends their categories, and that he does so through his fearless intelligence and through writing that itself becomes a source of power, trapping others in his judgment without ever falling prey to theirs. His is the morally confident voice of a uniquely besieged but resilient Jew-and-Romanian who will not excuse himself in the course of becoming himself. A rare cultural warrior, he to the end refuses to surrender his right of stubborn self-definition.

This same investment in truth-telling also helps to explain the notorious episode surrounding the book’s publication. It may have seemed stupidly self-destructive of Mihail Sebastian to ask Nae Ionescu to contribute an introduction to the novel in which Ionescu himself appears as Blidaru—and then to include the professor’s predictably scathing response in the published book. But, precisely in this way, Sebastian allowed his teacher both to reveal himself in historical life and to incriminate himself in historical afterlife.

Had Sebastian, like the Yiddish-speaking children of Poland, Russia, or nearby Transylvania, been raised in Jewish languages, exposed to Jewish sources, and imbued with an unfulfilled Jewish longing for the land of Israel, he might have developed a talent for the familiar kind of bicultural irony that savors the incongruities of exile. Instead, he was raised on two negatives—the absence of a foundational Jewish upbringing and rejection by Romanians in the grip of the doctrine that their country and their culture were theirs alone.

Declining to retreat into “mere” Jewishness, insisting on his equal and decidedly non-abstract right to his country, he asks, at the close of the book, “Has anybody had greater need [than he] of a fatherland, a soil, a horizon with plants and animals?” But then, as if anticipating the objection that this fatherland awaits him in the Middle East, he adds, stubbornly and immediately: “Everything abstract in me has been corrected and, for the most part, cured by a simple view of the Danube.”

 

Sebastian survived the war, only to be killed in a road accident in 1945 at the age of thirty-eight. But this novel and his posthumously published diary are enough in themselves to secure his place as one of Romania’s greatest writers. He is important, as well, to a Jewish culture that is deficient in portraits of those anti-Semites whose shining intelligence perversely renders them both stupid and dangerous, evangelists for totalizing theories and rotten ideas of the kind that normal intelligence should disdain and repudiate. This is an aspect of the human comedy that would be better played for laughs were it not so ruinous to intelligence and human life alike.

As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking of Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein (2002), another intellectual roman à clef whose narrator, Chick (based recognizably on the author) is chastised by his friend Ravelstein (based recognizably on Bellow’s friend and colleague Allan Bloom) for being too soft on former anti-Semites. The object of their quarrel is a fictional stand-in for the Romanian-born philosopher and historian Mircea Eliade—as it happens, a real-life friend of Mihail Sebastian, one who in the 1930s had been part of the same circle around Nae Ionescu in Bucharest and, as it further happens, would later become a real-life colleague of Bellow and Bloom at the University of Chicago. Appearing in Bellow’s novel as Radu Grielescu, this sophisticated and brainy former fascist is eager to ingratiate himself with Jews—or, as Ravelstein sees it, to use their friendship as his cover.

Ravelstein reminds the polite and amiable Chick that members of the Iron Guard hung Jews on meat hooks and skinned them alive. Chick knows this well enough but, plaintively, remonstrates with his friend:

[W]hat is one to do about the learned people from the Balkans who have such an endless diversity of interests and talents—who are scientists and philosophers and also historians and poets, who have studied Sanskrit and Tamil and lectured in the Sorbonne on mythology; who could, if closely questioned, tell you also about persons they had “known slightly” in the paramilitary Jew-hating Iron Guard?

Chick, in short, enjoys watching Grielescu just as Sebastian enjoyed watching his anti-Semitic Romanian compatriots, and Saul Bellow would surely have appreciated Sebastian’s writerly impulse to record these types in the round, in all of their mentally impressive, humanly bewitching, and morally vicious actuality. I regret that Bellow did not live to read For Two-Thousand Years, even as I’m relieved that my parents could not have read it, either.

More about: Arts & Culture, East European Jewry, History & Ideas, Literature, Romania