The Local vs. the Others:

I.L. Caragiale’s Work as an Internal Use Identity Marker


                                                                                                    de Mona Momescu


 The process of modern nation-state formation involved, apart from the political and the social, an important contribution of what was then known as the “national specificity”; if we are to admit that the nation-state itself is a mental construct, an artifex whose main function was to define, unify and interpret the communities that had just come into being as autonomous entities after the dismemberment of the former multi-ethnic empires, then it is obvious that there was a strong and legitimate need for what I call “cultural markers”. One should not ignore the fact that not only the folklore[1] falls into the aforementioned category. The “authored” literature performed the same function in an age when most of the recently proclaimed nation-states were still in quest of the best ways of self-representation. At the time, the image of the successful writer was that of the representative, in that the writer’s work was a representation of the most endeared moments in remote and recent history of the country and yet it cultivated an idiosyncratic view on the world and the writer’s peers. The Romantic myth of the genius had its share in this complex status of the representative writer, although, in the process of making a national literature, this type suffered of what I would call “bad timing”; his work was not received as representative when it was produced, as it went farther beyond the momentary. Also, the positivist approach which paralleled the last decades of Romanticism brought to attention the biography of the writer as the source of the literary work. In this rather concoction of sometimes contradictory views, the literature of the new nation-states gained this second function of identity marker.

If the process is common to all modern cultures, it developed a special set of characteristic traits in the case of the so-called “small cultures”, among which the Romanian culture is usually numbered. During the modern nation-state formation, these cultures appeared as doubly articulated: they searched a model among the “great” European cultures, such as the French, the German etc., and they had to deal with a regional context, which I call “the local”. It is well known that the modern Romanian culture was French-oriented. This served as an acknowledgement of the fact that Romanians spoke a Romance language and that they were part of a European tradition. Apart from this, Romania was, and still is, associated with the Balkans, not only from objective reasons (the geopolitical factor, a common regional history) but mainly with regard to the “negative” stereotypes about “Balkanism”. This view has been equally shared by representatives of the “European”, “western”, “great” cultures and by representatives of Romanian culture who could not surpass a certain inferiority complex. It is thus interesting to see how the internalization of these two opposing types of representation may develop into a universal and national type of literature and/or into an “internal-use only” type, sometimes highly untranslatable, due to the frequency of puns, allusions to “local” events, behaviors and reference that finds little, if any equivalence, anywhere else. Consequently, a non-Romanian subject finds it difficult to understand the allusions and references when encountering with Romanian society in terms of a literary represented reality.

The foregoing type of representation can be exemplified with the status of two representative Romanian writers: Mihai Eminescu and Ion Luca Caragiale. Both were active in the same period, the second half of the nineteenth century. Both were sensitive to the political situation, with Eminescu the more involved, as a columnist of the conservative newspaper Timpul [The Time]. Both were “legitimated” by the authority of the same literary group, Junimea [The Youth]. M. Eminescu produced a complex work whose most detectable characteristic is its Romanticism, although it does not lack in “infusions” of early modernism, while I.L. Caragiale was prone to realism and the so-called “minor genres”, such as the literary sketch that tackled the ephemeral (domestic conflicts, political conflicts discussed and solved at the pub) and reduced the “serious” issues to the pettiness of everyday life of middle class or lower class. If Eminescu produced the literary representation in its canonic characteristics, I.L. Caragiale’s literary work transcended the literary and gradually turned into a diagnosis of the Romanian society in its both “negative” and “picturesque” stereotypes. Along time, his literature has been the epitome of Romanian-ness as part of a regional identity (the “Balkan” Romanian-ness, with all its highs and lows) and as a counter-discourse that opposed or at least critically interpreted the “European” models.

We face one of the very few cases of productive contamination between literary and social representation: Caragiale’s literature accounts for a type of behavior – known as Caragiale’s world, it has induced a certain method of evaluation of the genuine Romanian-ness and it even promoted a certain critical political attitude in the parliament of Romania immediately after 1989. As I will later comment, it may be a unique case of the birth of a political party that was based on a literary work, a party that counted active and convinced members and managed to obtain representation in the Romanian parliament immediately after 1989.

Thus, I will not analyze or evaluate the literary work of I.L. Caragiale, but try to exemplify some of the mechanisms of this border-crossing between literature and society, as well as the unquestioned success of a literary work in fields very different from would be usually expected.

What seems more striking is that after the writer published his works, the Romanian society of each and every period following this fitted into this literary representation. It was as if the sketches and plays of the writers had been the Book of Romanian national identity. More than a literary work, written in a certain period and marked by it, Caragiale’s literature was the repository of all the behaviors, the historical and the political events ever to be performed in the space of Romanian culture. Caragiale’s work functioned with the same effectiveness during various historical epochs: it was a mordant satire during the interwar period, when it supported the critique of the political life; it was taken into possession by the early communist rulers, who “forgave” its author for being a “bourgeois” and “reeducated” him as an unforgiving enemy of the political and social abuses of the decadent…bourgeoisie. His literary work also contributed to a number of important careers in the field of literary history and criticism, from already known critics and editors, such as Serban Cioculescu, to the younger Stefan Cazimir, Alexandru Calinescu, Florin Manolescu, Mircea Iorgulescu and recently Liviu Papadima, to quote only very few of the scholars whose names are somehow connected to Caragiale’s literary work.

 After 1989, this literary work with a universal applicability finally attained the peak of its influence: it became the model of the political party which was most invoked in the short stories and plays of the writer. This was probably the only political party ever to be shaped of a literary work, to gain popularity and quite a number of members and sustainers. As a result, the Free-Exchange Party won a place in the Romanian parliament between 1990 and 1992, and did not cease to exist (in spite of a declining interest for it) until the mid-nineties. The motto of the party and the type of mentality it disseminated among its sustainers were: ”Caragiale is with us!”

Thus, a part of the educated population of Romania, together with those for whom I.L. Caragiale and his work were associated with popular jokes and a wittiness characteristic to the habitués of beerhouses and pubs, seemed to find explanations of the negative and positive characteristics of Romanian mentality alike in this literary work; Caragiale (who ceased to be perceived as the ‘author’ and gradually “melted” into this always boiling pot of his literature) also stood for personal and collective failures, as he and his work were indelibly related to a sort of Balkan fatalism that could only be avoided by humor. His biography, characterized by a series of successes and failures, by periods of poverty followed by the unexpected inheritance of a fabulous fortune had all the features that could make it the ideal biography of both the average and educated Romanians[2].

  The beginning of the nineties created the premises for the revival of the endless discussions on national specificity from the perspective of literarily mediated behaviors. The transgression of the boundary between the literary and the non-literary, which marked the “fate” of this literary case, was characteristic for various revisionist cultural/literary opinions. All of these examined the so-called classical Romanian literary works in terms of their influence on ordinary behavior rather than in terms of their esthetic validity. In fact, the beginning of the nineties opened the confrontation of two cultural/literary exemplary “figures”: the elitist model of the literary work and personality of Mihai Eminescu’s, a symbol of social failure and posthumous success and that of I.L. Caragiale’s, the symbol of mundane, yet steady success. In this respect, mention should be made of the famous iconoclastic issue of Dilema (Dilemma)[3], May 1996, where the national literary symbol, Mihai Eminescu was questioned in a rather violent manner, irritating for the defenders of the immutability of esthetic/cultural values. Apart from legitimate questions about the perpetuation of literary hierarchies set at the beginning of twentieth century, the debate focused on the influence of Mihai Eminescu’s work and personality (as transmitted by his biographers) in Romanian contemporary society. While Caragiale seems to be a kind of universal answer to all the problems of the Romanians, Eminescu is a drawback, because of the lack of dynamism and adaptability and of the preference for abstract ideas, as his work and personality proved. In the still turmoiled atmosphere of the mid-nineties, Caragiale won again. The polemics between the two types of representations, artificially expanded to behavioral patterns, marks the clash of two opposing attitudes specific to modern Romanian culture: the Balkan, quasi-oriental type of mentality (the flimsy and humorous world of Caragiale’s) and the “serious” type of mentality, preoccupied by the relation between the humane and the cosmic, the society and the history (Eminescu’s romantic, pessimistic “world”). The confrontation, insubstantial in itself, has proved that contemporary Romania finds itself caught by the dilemma that preoccupied the mentors of modern Romanian culture in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Was the southern, humorous, flimsy spirit represented in I.L. Caragiale’s literary work our cultural “marker”, or the marker should have been searched elsewhere, in the “serious”, “important” European cultures, as the northern (Moldavian and Transylvanian) writers opted in their works? Most of all, was such a geo-cultural distinction between the south and the north, the oriental and the occidental to permanently “shape” the mentality differences, with all their outcomes in social life? In short, did the misuse of Caragiale’s literature worked like a debauchee for the complexes and fears of Romanians who had thus found an explanation of the less pleasant events in their history and everyday life? Did it also provide a kind of “reversed mirroring” at the level of collective psychology, in that it served for the shaping of an internal other which was conceived as the will of “blind fate”? It is interesting to notice how most of the subjects, irrespective of their level of education, admit that Caragiale’s literature best portrayed the modern Romanian society and it acquired a universal validity that goes beyond the esthetic; yet they tend to say that the absurdly “logocentric world”[4] is always the world of a collective and indistinct other which excludes the speaker by the very reason that the speaker acknowledges its existence and thus places him/herself in a position of “role-distance”. Other times, “Caragiale’s world” includes the speaker, but it is then perceived in its fatalistic determinations (“there seem to be no way out, we are irremediably part of Caragiale’s world”). In this case, the very name of the writer functions as a synecdoche, being a fragment, a “marker” of a “real” world, of an everlasting and most of the time hopeless behavioral pattern.

This is one of the reasons why the analysis of the influence of I.L. Caragiale’s work nowadays is a complex issue that involves a simultaneous approach of the literary and of the social. It is also worth analyzing the way in which, similar to other states in the central and Eastern Europe, literary people (critics, writers) became influential using a work of fiction. A mentality process, whose goal was to create correspondent charismatic figures meant to parallel the political icon of Waclaw Havel’s enabled a number of writers, critics, theatre directors to have leading roles and a certain influence at the beginning of the nineties. The revival and success of a literary work was supported by this mentality. It erased the differences between fiction and reality and it concocted politics with literary criticism.

 It has thus become a commonplace to associate the contemporary Romanian political arena with Caragiale’s world. It is also a commonplace to compare everyday life in contemporary Romania to the narrative situations in the literary work of the same writer. It seems rewarding, after facing daily routine and various unpleasant events to read Catavencu, the mordant weekly magazine that offers (with more or less humor) political, social, lurid and sensational comments in the tradition of Caragiale’s work. The magazine, conceived much in the shape and purpose of a popular political magazine, provides an apparently complete critique of everyday Romania. It cultivates grinning humor, sometimes cracking gross jokes that satisfy even the readers who are not particularly interested in political comments or high life events, and a number of possible answers to the most controversial issues “of the week”. The journalists do not fail to remind their readers that we are the inheritors of Caragiale’s world and this, combined with a tinge of Balkan violence and a flavor of laziness, makes us unique. It is the unique combination that has made us Romanians, that has kept us alive during various forms of dictatorship and that represents our glory and our decay, alike. However pathetical such a coinage would seem, it represents the message transmitted incessantly by this magazine, sought and read by a large array of Romanians, from the less instructed to the middle class and refined intellectuals. It is odd to a subject of a different culture to understand the uninterrupted success of this literary work, which has almost become image schemata of Romanian-ness. The reversal literature-reality verifies the hypothesis of the preexistence of a number of stereotypical images and verbal representations of the way in which a group “conceives” reality. The usual metaphoric mechanisms are activated, and the literary experience of a group, (i.e. Romanians) is endowed with the general value of metaphors that are universal. If one were to dismantle this mechanism, one would observe that this inventory of images and linguistic structures is well known to the majority of Romanians but hard to understand for outsiders functions; as I mentioned earlier, the allusions to the reality of the bourgeois Romania at the end of the 19th century and especially the puns make Caragiale’s work hard to translate.[5] Thus, due to a reactive mechanism, this literary work has become representative and “locally-universal” by its very obscure characteristics. The process was facilitated by I.L. Caragiale’s plea for realism and rejection of the descriptive discourse[6]. The mundane convention of the realist discourse has been gradually turned into a real set of behaviors and rules. This is the point where literature and existence begin to share the same ground. As a result, the image schemata generated by literature should be assimilated by ”life”. The literary work functions as a repertoire of solutions and predictions and its author turns into a political and social prophet. He looses his social identity and, while his literature becomes the most relevant cultural “marker”, he himself becomes an icon of a nation. “Caragiale is with us” is a logical consequence of this attitude.

The literary work turned into world should provide all the elements that contribute to the identity construct. As it is known, the literary contributed to a great extent to the construction of modern identities across Europe. The case of Caragiale illustrates an internal conflict: Romanians wanted to give up the label of idyllic, folklore-dominated culture and thus, this invented mentality repertoire – which was written, unlike most of the traditional cultural inventory – satisfied the desire for modernity. This way of representation contained the critique of the other cultural inventory and it gave the illusion of a self-reflective and autotelic model. It contained its own otherness in the critique of the idyllic and in the critique of the very schemata it proposed. It was citadine, yet it contested the authenticity of the city, namely Bucharest at the beginning of the twentieth century. Bucharest is mostly a conglomerate of outskirts (mahalale) that display the oriental dirt and laziness and the image of the traditional village squeezed into a social pattern which will never assimilate it properly. Its inhabitants, ranging from the high aristocracy to the humble and uneducated, display the same behavioral patterns encountered in the representation of Romanian society in Caragiale’s work. This endless critique and tiring complaining about the poor quality of the people, of the city, about the false aristocracy, the irony targeted to the most important institutions of the modern nation – the monarchy, the universities, the public and administrative system recommended this literary work as the perfect representation of the proneness to complain, so often showed by Romanians. Another characteristic, the tendency to accumulate, tends to create the logocentric world mentioned before. The correspondence between accumulation and verbal plethora can be best observed in one of the most typical sketches of I.L. Caragiale’s, Table of Contents (La Mosi) which is nothing else but an enumeration of items having little or no logical connection to one another (small objects, food, popular culture characters, popular culture songs, samples of social behavior at the beginning of the 20th century). The short story displays a world of useless and concocted items:

“Ginger bread – tableaux vivants – banners – balloons- soldiers – lamps – lemonade – tuxedos – decorations – people dressed up to the nines – menageries – provincials – whistles – beggars – nannies – couches – music – fireworks – instantaneous photos – Moftul roman, no.8 – pots – vanilla ice cream – sirloins – cheap fabric – cups – the latest invention that could also be seen at the American exhibition – bicycles – horses – cattle – nieces – aunts – older sisters – older brothers – cousins – widows – orphans – the portrait of the Czar – icons – soap – wax candles – ribbons – butchers – corn-on-the-cob – drunkards – oxen(…) – pillows – flowers – chairs – beds – tables – remedies for callous feet – English needles – stain-removing soap – apples – oranges – popcorn – La Marseillese – figs – the child with three legs – the American fun – beer – crosses – Gods – roasted peanuts – pistachio – maimed people – government officials – representatives of the opposition – The Dream of the Holy Virgin – smoked eel – sardines – lemon – cottage cheese – pressed cheese – “Here I am with Auntie Lina: the authentic Romanian pie and Moldavian Christmas bread” – pretzels – wagons – Turkish delight – saddles – bells – bonbons – music – doughnuts – hats – priests – ladies – clerks – retired people – unemployed people – dames – their royal majesties, their royal highnesses – countrymen – intellectuals – artists – poets – novelists – literary critics – bourgeoisie – trams – burned hats – lost children – drunken parents – disconsolate mothers – street louts – dust – mud – dirt – infection – nice weather – world, world, world – A terrible crisis, mon cher!”  (translation mine, M.M.).

This fragment stands for a world functioning beyond any criteria of selection and in the absence of a certain system of values. The key word is crisis, a label that can be applied to all the periods in the history of modern Romania. In terms of identity representation, crisis means the tendency to opt for two variants: an external model, usually a verified successful one and an internal model, meant as a mode of communication inside the group. The latter is usually a paradoxical form of excess of representation: it is self-ironical, but can hardly be understood by other cultural subjects apart from those belonging to the group itself. In terms of communication, it functions as a jargon and as a form of protection from the pressure of the external models. This mechanism that can be easily understood using a colonial/postcolonial discourse functions in a special mode in the case of I.L. Caragiale’s literary work. The author has been acknowledged as a harsh critic of the Romanian city life at the rise of modernity; among the critical/theoretical clichés that can be found in all the accounts on his work are “the criticism of the typical inhabitant of Bucharest”, the presence of Mitica[7], the typical Bucharest-inhabitant turned into the typical city-dweller Romanian, the ironical representation of the bourgeoisie and the new money makers, etc. As early as the first decades of the 20th century, Caragiale’s work began to draw the attention of the literary critics who did not fail to mix biography and literature in order to recapture “the atmosphere”. The majority of the accounts envisage the character types in Caragiale’s work, finding correspondences in everyday life. For example, the famous study on Names in I.L. Caragiale’s Works, written by G. Ibraileanu tackle the relation between onomastics and behavior, an approach that has little to do with literature. This is only one example; many more can be excerpted from various anecdotes about the writer himself, a habitué of the most frequented pubs in Bucharest, a mordant presence in the press, a first class polemist. All these create the premises of this concoction of life and literature, of literary representation and social representation. I.L. Caragiale operated with an excess of representation under the guise of harsh social critique. One should not ignore that, writing to his friends from Berlin[8], he used a neutral, only at times critical tone, surprising for a person who acted so critical about his own country. Reading the letters he sent from Berlin, we notice that he seemed proud to be a Romanian, although he did not fail to criticize the excessively idyllic and nostalgic attitude of one of his friends.

Maybe this perpetual interplay of excess and scarcity made this literary work to function as a measure of Romanian national specificity. The excess Caragiale reproved was perpetuated by the exegetes who added new functions to his literary work. With some notable exceptions, the critics and literary historians distorted the goal of their activity: they no longer identified meanings of this literary work, but assigned new and heterogeneous functions to it. This is another reason why it has been turned into an “internal use” model, into a lingua franca of the modern Romanians, a general answer to all the problems, the repository of all the identity patterns.

If one were to select a limited number of accounts on Caragiale’s work, one would easily notice that the most spectacular and fashionable are accounts on Romanian mentality, under the guise of literary criticism. Mircea Iorgulescu, the author of The Big Chatter (Marea trancaneala) even opted for the subtitle An Essay on Caragiale’s World; it is useless to add any comment to this, as it is obvious that the critic turned the literary work into a pretext for considerations on behavioral patterns:

“The most usual trade in Caragiale’s work is the chatting. With or without purpose, these people (italics mine) are permanently looking forward to getting a reason for a ”discussion”, usually a “very animated” one and most of the times prolonged to the wee hours. As a matter of fact, they do not have another activity. Talking is the reason of their lives. However, they do not live only to talk; they are not consumed by the passion of oratory, although they enjoy endless and intricate discourses. They are not attracted by debates or by amicable verbal disputes, either. And yet, they are seized by an insatiable lust for “conversation”; nevertheless, they cannot afford to have different opinions; they are far from what we may call communicative persons. On the whole, they are far from passionate natures: they can be easily inflamed, but they calm down easily, as if overwhelmed by a heavy indolence, sometimes quaked by epileptic seizures. Nevertheless, there are moments when they imitate and stage passions, taking after abstract models in their minds, adapted to their power of understanding. (…) From a social point of view, they are characterized by a number of skills and trades. The skills are deeply rooted in their minds, almost instinctively; they seem the result of a historical process turned into a biological one. The skills are handed down from one generation to the coming ones, like a heritage whose chain nothing could ever destroy. The trades are ephemeral, transient, momentary; they reflect the numerous metamorphoses involved by a continuous adaptation to reality; mere chattering is their only and most absorbing preoccupation”(translation mine)[9]

It is obvious that this examination of Caragiale’s work is far from respecting the elementary rules of literary analysis. Similarly to the world of the writer, it concocts literature with psychological profiles, subjective accounts with arguments supplied by the examined author. Iorgulescu’s essay reduced the literary work to an endless carnival, a perpetual fair of the heterogeneous space of the outskirts. He chose the sketches that focused on the marginal, the poor, the hysterical, in order to support the idea of a disoriented and senseless world. The confusions were criticized by Al. George in an article from 1990, I.L. Caragiale under the Sign of Reductive Readings[10]. It was one of the very few objective accounts on I.L. Caragiale immediately after 1990, as he and his work had gained a prophetic position in Romanian society. Al. George noticed that this type of readings, which he considered to be lacking in elementary insight, could not contribute to the understanding of a certain literary work. They are nothing but unnecessarily excessive simplification of a literary work.

During 1990, almost all the literary magazines published at least one article or study on I.L. Caragiale’s work, although nobody could say that he was any kind of a dissident or a writer who had not been liked by the former government. As I mentioned before, his work was then assigned new social functions: one of these was the explanatory function: it motivated all the failures and misbehaviors in the first year of the revolution. The new world was as new as Caragiale’s at his time. Like it, this new one endlessly talked[11], debated something, and seemed to enjoy confrontations. All the sketches in Moments, the most famous volume of Caragiale’s, were invoked to depict a new reality for the understanding of which people had very few criteria. I will analyze only an example: in 1990, Romania literara published only one article of pure literary criticism on Caragiale, out of five. The rest of four tried to find explanations for the relation between literature and life; all the articles assigned Caragiale a prophetic role, even a role of “universal” model. For example, an article on the written press in 1990 reads: “Phoenix, another independent magazine is written under the sign of Caragiale. Less humorous than Catavencu, it tackles a wider range of subjects. The political preoccupations, well documented and serious, the useful ideas on restructuring the education system go together with articles paranormal subjects, on science fiction, sex and fashion.”[12]      

Again, “the sign of Caragiale” is the accumulation of incompatible subjects, approached with universal competence. More than the world itself, dominated by the icon of the capital, the center of this world, his literature becomes a solution for what happens on the political arena. It has the advantage of being unchangeable (its author is dead and he cannot interfere with the exegetes in any way) and widely known by all the Romanians, irrespective of their level of education. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that literary critics, journalists, even politicians tried and managed to invent and negotiate a Caragiale for each social group in Romania. Reducing the literary work to its so-called functions, they opened the gates for a more complex career of this literary work, which has become an internal-use emblem of national specificity. It satisfied the criticism of intellectuals, as well as the proneness to wait for things to be solved by officials of the low and middle classes. It attenuated the differences between the intellectuals and the others at the beginning of the nineties, as it generated a form of group identity that went beyond influences, beyond the continuously sought favorable “nodding” of the international agencies, etc. The most important function this literary discourse had was that it unified the local and the universal in an artificial attempt of converting the local into the universal. Caragiale’s literary work was used to argument the common reaction to two problems of that had long animated the cultural confrontation during the modern period of Romania, namely the problem of the specific and that of the other. It seemed to function “against” foreign models by imposing an internal-use model with a pretense of universality. In fact universality has no longer been the corollary of the negotiation between those who shared a compatible esthetic, social and historical experience. It started to signify the capacity of reducing the other to the common, the familiar, the “cultural self”. The rapid spread of the Caragiale “spirit”, “model”, “world” has also generated an extreme reaction in the form of a political party, entirely based on I.L. Caragiale’s literary work. It is not unimportant that the president of the party was one of the most authorized exegetes of Caragiale, professor, Ph.D. advisor, member of various associations of humoristic literature. At the beginning of 1990, on February, 6, a well-known journalist, Octavian Andronic, suggested[13] that a party based on Caragiale’s plays and sketches should be founded. The absurd daily confrontations at the time might have been solved with a dose of humor. The party was to be the party in Caragiale’s work, the famous Free-Exchange Party. Although the doctrine on which this party was structured had been real (the economical doctrine of free-exchange, theorized by Richard Cobden), Caragiale distorted its meaning, considering that free-exchange meant also the freedom to change everything at random, to forget about promises, to abandon projects, as most of the characters in his sketches did. He created a fictitious political doctrine, valid only for literature. Together with the famous one-day republic from Ploiesti, the Free-Exchage Party represented the harshest forms of irony against his contemporaries.

Nevertheless, this fiction crossed the border of reality and, on March, 1, 1990, the Court House of Bucharest registered the birth of the Free-Exchage Party, as his former president recalls in a booklet dedicated to this matter[14]. The “founding fathers” of the party were artists, stage directors and intellectuals from various fields of activity. The logo of the party was a smiling baby face with a flower between its teeth and the symbol of the party was Bubico, a poodle that revived the image of the spoiled dog from one of the widely read sketch of I.L. Caragiale. In the coming months, the party gained an important number of adepts, most of which were attracted by their familiarity with the party in its literary form; the humorous way in which the doctrine of this party was presented had its contribution, too. If one were to examine the program of this party (after all, all the parties aspired to run the country), one would be easily disappointed and confused: the essence of the doctrine was the humor, the joke, the irony:

“The originality of our party can be easily observed in Chapter 4 of the program, Principles of political activity:

  • Political life should abandon any behavior that proves nervousness, tension and violence
  • The authority of arguments should not be replaced by authority as an argument.
  • The only chance of finding out the truth is to exchange opinions, by means of a sincere dialogue
  • Politics without courtesy ends up by discrediting itself. A political party that proves no sense of humor offends our nation.
  • Conflicts are not irreducible: times solves, laugh absolves.

(…) Unlike its program, the statute of the Free-Exchange Party is a genuine parody, which is visible in the so-called serious tone of the wording: (…) The party reserves the right to be absolutely independent.(…) The party acknowledges the right of other parties to make alliances against it.(…)”- translation mine[15]

Although the party looked like a joke for intellectuals, although his president and members seemed to realize the self-irony that must accompany such an initiative, they went on and even gained a position of deputy for St. Cazimir, the president of the party and the exegete of Caragiale’s. He did not assume an open political position; instead, he preferred to be an observer, ready to take sides with those who proved wit and sense of humor and who showed proneness for mobility, thus illustrating the acceptation of “free-exchange” as the literary work of I.L. Caragiale consecrated it. For any person who has an idea about authentic political life, the very existence (not to mention the relative success) of a “literary” party seems unbelievable. The permanent invocation of Caragiale’s literary work and mostly, of Caragiale’s world, made this party a fiction that came into being. The attitude towards Caragiale’s literature had already erased the limits between literature and everyday life. In terms of literary criticism, it meant a reductive and inappropriate way of interpreting a literary work, by turning it into a cultural myth. In terms of mentality, it generated a number of cultural patterns that invaded everyday life, functioning both as explanation and as solution. The Free-Exchange Party falls into the latter category. It was conceived as a form if motivating and explaining failures and successes and as a form of extreme relativism (“anything is possible in Caragiale’s world”). The goal of the party mentors was attained: their party was the most representative and appropriate to Romanians, because it was only for Romanians. The doctrine was a literary work, read or rather transmitted via various anecdotes; it multiplied the image of its author, the immortal “uncle Iancu”(nenea Iancu). The need of a father figure immediately after 1989 is perfectly understandable. There had to be a paternalist impersonation of a principle of authority that should have met the immense desire for freedom Romanians felt at the time. This trustworthy and jaunty figure of the writer satisfied the desire for familiarity and understanding. It would be also interesting to speculate a little on the logo of the Free-Exchange Party, the image of the smiling baby face. The innocence of this figure, combined with the stereotypical photo of “uncle Iancu” gives one the perfect double image of cleverness and innocence that describe the identity patterns of the Romanians. At the same time, as in young children conversations, where the participants invent a language of their own, the allusions to Caragiale’s work in the political life invented a way of communication that could only be understood inside the community.[16]    

One can say that the “literary party” represented the consecration of I.L. Caragiale’s work as an internal use cultural marker. The first issue of Catavencu, the magazine “baptized” after one of the least moral characters in Caragiale’s work marked the same attitude of “writing a magazine of our own”.

This internal use pattern, as I called the transformation of Caragiale and his literary work into a way of communication in and a diagnosis of Romanian society along its modern history had also been acknowledged as a universal value in a rather unusual way: in 1988, Laurentiu Ulici published an anthology[17] that questioned the choices of the Nobel board by proposing other writers that deserved to have been designated as Nobel laureates. Among writers from very different literatures, I.L. Caragiale stood against Paul von Heyse, the German laureate in 1910. The samples from his work are sketches that prove the most local patterns of Romanian-ness, very difficult to understand from the point of view of a foreign subject. As it is known, the usual plea when Nobel Prize is awarded is the universal value of the literary work thus appreciated.  By converting the universal into the local in order to assign a universal value to the local, the value of “universality” gave the envisaged group the idea of its importance among the “great” cultures.

To conclude, we may say that the literary work of I.L. Caragiale moves from the literary to the social by means of a set of functions that vary according to the position of the subjects who assign them to the literary work. The success of this literary work as a cultural and identity marker has been facilitated by ignoring the natural mechanism of role-distance in the process of reception of a work of art. The local and the universal are interchangeable not because of some hidden hints provided by the author himself, but because of a misinterpretation that verifies the permanent readjusting of the esthetic and the social in constructing modern Romanian identity. The identity pattern developed from the literary work of I.L. Caragiale is one of local use: no non-Romanian subject completely understands or finds any use for the literary allusions and their turning into explanations for everyday events. The “marginal” complex of the Romanian culture is thus solved by this constant misuse of literature, by ignoring the differences between literary interpretation and social function.      


[1] In its modern acceptation, folklore is the creation of the European Romanticism; its definition as a reflex of the Romantic sense of wholeness helps us understand its role in the shaping of modern national identities across Europe.

[2] The unexpected fortune the writer inherited from his aunt satisfies the desire of the Romanians to be the subjects of a fabulous strike of fortune. If we are only to consider the enthusiasm people(of various cultural backgrounds) show when it comes to TV games whose winners can get important sums of money, as well as for other masked forms of gambling, we can understand why the biography of the writer crossed the border of his literary work.

[3] Dilema (Dilemma) is one of the most elitist weekly cultural magazines. From 1993, when it appeared, it has approached a number of essential problems of Romanian cultural identity. I mention here the discussions on Balkan mentality, national specificity, ordinary behaviors in community, etc. It may be considered the publication most finely tuned to contemporary Romanian mentality.

[4] The terms were coined by Mircea Iorgulescu in a famous essay that argued the “explanatory” function of Caragiale’s literature: Marea trancaneala[ The Big Chatter], Cartea Romaneasca, 1988

[5] An English version of I.L. Caragiale’s work, Sketches and Stories, translated by professor E.D. Tappe, Dacia Publ. House, 1979, shows that the translator selected the sketches and short stories that display characteristics easily recognizable by a foreign reader: the fantastic, the fabulous and the anecdote a preferred to the local, the political allusion, the puns. In the preface of this volume, written by Sever Trifu, analogies with E.A. Poe and Mark Twain are discovered. Although these similarities are questionable, it is worth noticing that the critic chose two extreme cases to compare I.L. Caragiale’s work with: the unusual, the eccentric and the ordinary. To a non-Romanian reader, this literary work can be efficient only if is familiar(satisfying the esthetic experience of the readers who are subjects of a certain culture), or unusual (promoting a sense of originality that can operate a difference)

[6] see I.L. Caragiale – Scrisori si acte (Letters and Documents), Bucuresti, EPL, 1963. It is worth mentioning that the editor of this volume, Serban Cioculescu, a well-known exegete of Caragiale’s work wrote a preface of the volume in which he stressed the exotic origin of the writer: he had Oriental ascendants and he impersonated the concocted (half-Oriental, half-European) identity of the modern Romanian culture. The same issue is discussed in G. Calinescu’s Istoria literaturii romane…[The History of Romanian Literature]

[7] Mention should be made of the fact that Mitica, as a prototype of the superficial, verbose, yet kind-hearted humble clerk turned into a literary model inside Romanian modernism: Camil Petrescu’s play Mitica Popescu reinterprets Caragiale’s behavioral pattern. 

[8] See the letter to Dr. Alceu Urechia, an authentic sketch whose main character is B. Stefanescu-Delavrancea, an incorrigible traditionalist, in Scrisori si acte{Letters and Documents], op.cit.

[9] Mircea Iorgulescu – The Big Chatter (Marea trancaneala), Bucuresti, Editura Fundatiei Culturale Romane, 1994, pp. 11-12.

[10] Al. George, “I.L. Caragiale sub zodia interpretarilor reductioniste”, in: Romania literara, XXII, no.11, 1990, p.14.

[11] Everybody should remember the primitive political talk shows in 1990, the filmed sessions of the provisory parliament, which lasted until very late into the night, the filmed civic confrontations, the filmed “life of the political parties”. All these took up the “conversations” in Caragiale’s literature. 

[12] Unsigned in Romania literara, XXII, 6/1990, p.2

[13] in Adevarul, 6.II.1990

[14] St. Cazimir – Caragiale e cu noi, Garamond, 1997.

[15] Ibid., pp.14-15.

[16] St. Cazimir and his team wrote an anthem of the party, a combination of sentimental tune and patriotic song. It was this combination that created a kitsch effect, based on accumulation and relativism. We should probably mention that in 1988 St. Cazimir published Caragiale fata cu kitschul[Caragiale Facing Kitsch], in which he demonstrated the way in which Caragiale’s reacted to kitsch by the very use of it in his work. The book is less on the work of Caragiale’s and more on the Romanian society at the end of the 19th century. Cazimir introduces the notion of entropic world to designate the fictional world of Caragiale’s. As we can see, he cannot avoid the temptation of crossing the border between literature and society.     

[17] Nobel contra Nobel [Nobel vs. Nobel], selectie, antologie si note de Laurentiu Ulici, Bucuresti, Cartea Romaneasca, 1988




respiro@2000-2004 All rights reserved