LIDIA VIANU -- EUGEN SIMION
The critic can be a Desperado too
Interview with EUGEN SIMION (25 May 1933), Romanian critic, President of the Romanian Academy
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: Literary criticism has become more technical and specialized. What do you think of its present language, which no longer quotes ideas at times, but a great critic’s terms, which are used like figures in mathematics by other critics? How do you appreciate this new, busy criticism which dislocates language and forbids students – forbids even critics, if they are too weak to object – to think of themselves as creative? You were saying two decades ago that criticism was creation. Is this still your opinion?
EUGEN SIMION: Criticism operates with a large number of concepts and creates new ones (new criticism and newer new criticism have been very productive), but the mechanical language you are talking about is ridiculous. It implies an unbearable theoretical ignorance. Structuralism and post-structuralism have been reduced to a senseless terminology. The first person to realize semiotics was becoming a kind of ‘local imperialism’, of academic jargon, with limited circulation, was the very creator of semiotics, Roland Barthes. After The Pleasures of the Text he changed his view on language. Fragments from a Discourse in Love is a splendid book, totally readable, with a narrative of its own (a narrative of ideas, of course). I could even call it a sentimental novel about the patterns (fantasies) of the sentimental fictional discourse... Who reads today Jean Ricardou, the man who terrified academic conferences in the ‘70s?.. Jean Starobinsky, from the Geneva critical school, was another great critic after Roland Barthes, who realized we could not change criticism into a code of what it had just decoded (the work). In the early ‘70s he wrote a wonderful book (The Critical Relationship) in which he offered a new critical synthesis, on the basis of new methods for analysis and of a return to creation. He was right. This was the direction literary criticism followed. The exiled author was brought back into the critical text. ‘The return of the author’, a phenomenon I foretold in a book of essays in 1980, is today unanimously accepted. The proof, among others, is the biographical interest (diaries, biographical essays, memoirs, biographies as such) in Western criticism.
I am today, as I was before, all for a complex, creative criticism, readable, with a narrative vein (to help understanding, even to seduce the reader), a literary criticism which has come to know the new methods and has recuperated its old authority and broad mindedness. By ‘broadmindedness’ I mean the ability of criticism to view the work at all levels. And, besides, I do not think a literary critic must be absent from his own text. Not that he can, anyway...
LV. While trying to teach my students thematic criticism as a good beginning for someone apprenticed to writing and interpretation, I was told I was not a pro. How do you react when faced with the intransigence of all those who turn the critical jargon into an indispensable foreign language, without which – not good, right now, politically speaking – we will join neither Europe nor NATO?
ES. I leave them alone. You must beware of the one-method man and the man who has only read one book. He is obstinate, intractable, allergic to dialogue. Genuine criticism is a dialogue: with the work, with others, with your predecessors, with the author of the book, who may have wanted one thing and saw the book slowly becoming another, etc. Those who read all books with the same pattern in mind will always end up with one and the same result. They bore me because their analysis does not enrich the work, it makes it poorer... Thematic criticism? A great school of criticism. Of all new methods, this one appealed to me most because it managed to get where traditional criticism never did: the cellars of the text. It sees what a positivist critic is blind to: the inside, the shades, the details, the objects as such, the obscure choices of the spirit. Jean-Pierre Richard, whom I knew well during my stay in Paris, gave thematic criticism complexity and efficiency. He called his method plurithematism. Jean Rousset and, to some extent, Jean Starobinsky went the same way. The latter is also a good stylistics specialist. I remember a study by Richard on the gourmet discourse of 19th century prose writers. Wonderful. I followed his suggestion and wrote about the gourmet discourse in the work of I.L. Caragiale (the Romanian playwright). I found out unsuspected truths. Good food and good beer (two basic prerequisites of Caragiale’s heroes) combine with politics. In other words, people eat much and drink much, they talk politics a lot in Mitică’s imaginary land (well-known hero in Caragiale’s work). The political discourse is bad in the absence of hors d’oeuvres (gourmet discourse) and of beer (stimulating drink).
Those who deny such trips into the cellar of the text, to quote Caragiale, are afraid of the opposition (Conu Leonida) and want two pensions... (read grants), they want to eat their cake and have it. In the meantime, criticism goes about its business.
LV. You write with elegance, you are an aristocrat of the critical style. I think you have never put down to paper a statement that was not your own. You never fool around with other critics’ terms, unless you first explain their meaning in the initial context and in your own. You focus on ideas, not automatic critical language. Is commonsensical criticism outmoded? The criticism of the mind and the feelings? The educated yet understandable criticism? What is the cause of this intelligibility-phobia?
ES. I am not sure how much I succeed, but I do try to make myself understood. Even more, to please my readers. The critic has this ambition of being himself, not just a satellite (or not only) of the analysed work. Some examples would be: Maiorescu, Lovinescu, G. Călinescu (Romanian critics). They wrote a good prose of ideas and it can still be read. Even if their aesthetic verdicts are old-fashioned. This is the critic’s stake, first of all. In the late ‘70s I challenged myself: I decided to write a book about some unpleasant authors, exhausted by the school syllabus, often quoted and hardly ever read with real pleasure: the Văcărescu poets, Conachi, Cârlova, Heliade Rădulescu, etc. They made my adolescence a living hell. What did Ienăchiţă Văcărescu write? – the teacher would ask. Ienăchiţă Văcărescu wrote the testament-poem To My Văcărescu Descendants, I would answer automatically. What more did Ienăchiţă write? – the teacher asked me with sadism. Well, I would answer, he wrote the lines ‘Tell me heart of mine/ What pain is thine? All right, the teacher would go on, but what about Alecu Văcărescu?.. It was all a mess by now. Was it ‘little canary’? I was not at all sure, It could be ‘poor life I am in/ It is Hell not Heaven’, but, no, that was Nicolae Văcărescu, the Christian spirit of the family. In short, I was ignorant about Alecu... So, many decades later, to get my revenge on these petty noblemen who sighed in poems, I decided to write a book. I told myself I must see if I could write a likable, ironical and readable book about these unbearable authors. I wrote a kind of Gourmet Discourse, stimulated by Barthes, and a kind of Walachian reply to his famous study. Something unexpected came out: not an ironical discourse, but a book of (almost) love, intellectual love, for these first poets who, with the art of loving, invented Romanian poetry. I found so much pleasure in detecting the parasol as an erotic object, symbol of great passion... The book was entitled Poets’ Dawn and was successful. I reconsidered my attitude to the Văcărescu poets, Conachi... I am no longer at a loss when asked what they wrote. I know well what Alecu wrote, he was a fabulous person... He died pen in hand, killed out of jealousy it would seem... He died like a romantic hero, screaming: ‘Ah, my Lord, my inkstand is being taken away, have pity on me, save me for God’s sake. Ah...’ He was killed by Moruzi’s men when he was thirty. How could one fail to love Alecu Văcărescu? My Romanian teacher had forgotten (or had no idea) to tell us what had happened to Ienăchiţă Văcărescu’s first son. What a pity!..
I do not take pains to write elegantly. I am trying my best to be precise. I have often said this: the beauty of style comes from its precision. I hate the style strangled by concepts, the so-called specialized language. The true specialty of criticism is to notice and convey the essence and details of the work. How could one be understood, persuasive and followed if one fails to communicate?.. As far as methods are concerned, any method is good as long as it is not boring. The method has the value of its user.
LV. Eliot began his critical essays with the examination of his terms (Valéry, too, advised critics to operate le nettoyage de la situation verbale); he explained his words and very often stopped there. He explained the meanings of a word until he was certain he had mastered it, he never took anything for granted. The verbal reticence of his approach made his criticism creative. How do you view the post-isms of all kinds? Are they right? Have you ever tried to be a mimetic critic?
ES. Eliot is very rigorous when he writes, just like Valéry, who is a fanatic of precision. Valéry’s Notebooks are so close to what I think. He is undoubtedly a great theoretician/ aesthetician of 20th century literature... I am curious to see the new, post-structuralist methods, but I think the time of theory (and methods) in literary criticism is gone. In the ‘70s you either had a method or had nothing, as far as literary criticism was concerned. Either you were a theoretician or nobody paid any attention. The demon of theory is tired today. Terrorism in literary criticism and theory is also gone. Only academics, professors and their assistants, obstinately support the ‘small local imperialisms’. Towards the end of his life, Barthes headed for philosophy. Our contemporaries still count syllables and draw the pipes of a poem, without any curiosity at all for the intellectual blood in it. Literary criticism is in crisis. Here its institution is almost abolished. We shall have to reinvent it, to the welfare of literature, which will otherwise lose its standards.
LV. Criticism no longer has in Romania the status it had under communism, when Eugen Simion’s column in Literary Romania was breathlessly expected, because it could make or mar the destiny of a book, of an author. The same as we have today a Desperado literature, which, after the stream of consciousness (the denial of two thousand years of literary conventions), is a denial of another denial, a desperate alchemy of devices and all kinds of conventions of all times, we ought to be able to talk about a Desperado criticism, another approach to these works which are unlike whatever came before, and also unlike other works by the very same writer. What is the position of criticism at this particular moment, faced with a formless, contradictory and – unfortunately – elitist literature?
ES. I have partly answered this question. Yes, for forty years I wrote week in, week out. Too much. I am sometimes sick of literature, of reviews. But this is soon forgotten. I have focussed on diaries lately, which are a nonfictional kind of literature, unacceptable to literature as literature. My ambition has been to prove that this nonfiction which programmatically rejects all literary conventions becomes, at a certain level of depth in terms of expression, genuine literature. The fiction of the nonfictional. I have read hundreds, thousands of diaries, essays... and I have tried to define a poetics of spontaneity. I have not written reviews. I must have been prompted by our literary life, dominated by pamphlets, aggressivity, angry attacks, merry debunkings, etc... Elitism? Nonsense. A society must have an elite (in culture as well), but elitism is the philosophy of a local mayor who thinks he is the best in his village. So what.
Reinstating criticism as an institution is complicated. It is connected to synchronization. We live in the age of internet. Unfortunately, I am still in the age of the ball point pen. I still write pen in hand, on my knees. And read pen in hand. I read slowly and think it over at ease. I have noticed my style has changed in this last decade. The first person in the singular is very much present. This means subjectivity. The literary critic no longer accepts a position in the margin of literature... He wants to be part of the text.
LV. In the interviews I have taken so far – British and American novelists and poets – I have learned to be very cautious about the label ‘Desperado’. Most of them hate being pigeon-holed. Each writer thinks he is one of a kind and states that his relationship with his reader is all that matters. Critics are out of the picture altogether. These writers inform me that all they want is to amuse the reader, which, frankly speaking, they fail to do, because contemporary literature is anything but fun, despite its desperate recourse to irony. It is a complicated literature, requiring rereadings, hiding under the apparent simplicity of style a huge pride (that of creating the perfect work, containing all the devices ever used in the history of literature). The stream of consciousness was above all a denial of two millennia of literature (chronological causality, ‘realism’, love interest). I think Desperadoes deny this very denial: they use anything that comes in handy and hope to strike gold by means of this alchemy. Can literary criticism take a stand, guide this literary age, which is neither the first, nor the last, neither new, nor old, which is just another convention, no more?
ES. Everything is a convention, even if the writer deliberately, programmatically rejects convention. Is the present age different, complicated, as you say? Maybe. I was hoping postmodernism would be a return to the narrative. It was not, it is not now. It is a self-referentiality which complicates endlessly. Because of this, the novel has lost its audience. It is an obvious truth. When you step into a French bookshop, you realize the novel does not get all the attention (as it used to), but the literature of information: dictionaries, histories of literature, biographies, classics in selected editions, etc. France has no important prose writer today. On the whole, the myth of the great writer has vanished. Barthes noticed this tendency as far back as the ‘70s. The great writer was replaced by the theoretician, the professor. Then those myths died too. What is in store? A return of the novel. The condition is that, after the experience of postmodernism, the novel should return to the narrative. I do not mean realism, the 19th century pattern for the narrative, but human condition. I am fervently waiting for a novel which will start with the sentence: On the fifth of May 2003, at five in the afternoon, the marchioness went out... The marchioness is a career woman (she is a specialist in foreign affairs or computers)... The author must tell us whom she will meet and how she will spend her evening... The novel as essay, the meta-novel have been exhausted...
The novelist may ignore criticism, but criticism – reinstated – must not ignore the novel.
LV. In your case, literary criticism has a didactic side too. I cannot help thinking of those who supervise diploma or PhD papers. Many academics, also critics or only scholars, require the candidates to use an approach, identify a great critic’s terms, know the history of the term, the year it was coined, its changes in subsequent contexts... They require critical jargon, without the candidate’s ideas. Complicated language alone – repelling, very often – appeases them. What is your reaction when faced with a book of criticism which is faithful to one approach programmatically, forcing it on a decent text? And the reverse: what do you think of a dissertation which is not unaware of recent scholarly criticism, but chooses a more personal interpretation, aiming at creating its own language, its own terms? I am asking this because, as I said before, you only use other people’s terms after a very careful explanation of the meaning.
ES. I would not like to go into that aspect here. I discourage those who come with Rom-English to me. I follow G. Călinescu here: he compelled students or PhD candidates to write papers about mediocre or minor writers, not great writers. An effort of information. Write about Octav Şuluţiu first and then try the fantastic in Mircea Eliade... Some agree, others do not. It is a good, efficient didactic method... If the student is uncommonly intelligent (rare case), I change the strategy... When I see them abusing the concepts, I punish them, I ask them to explain. That is really painful... I do not want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I have noticed that the girls (well, young ladies) are uncommonly eager to use these pirate-concepts, which they find everywhere and use upside down. Sorry to say, it is not a sign of intellectuality. It is like a case of measles that heals...
LV. I have noticed that in England criticism has two major directions: academic criticism (scholarly and remarkable) on the one hand (I will not comment on its accessibility or the reader’s pleasure when faced with it), and reviewing criticism on the other. Reviewing criticism, which you were talking about thirty years ago, is now a pariah, used by literary reviews and papers as advertisement. I am thinking of the wonderful thematic criticism, refused by so many contemporary academics. Why this hatred of common sense? Are critics and academics fighting a war today? Can the conflict be mediated?
ES. This is an old dissociation. Reviewing criticism has almost died. We have today the service de presse criticism. And, moreover, TV cultural criticism. That is the main attraction. Academic criticism has lost the prestige it had in the ‘70s and ‘80s...
Academics and literary critics need not fight, there is no bone of contention. Both families lost the war long ago. They must use the media and adapt. The destiny of a book is made now by Bernard Pivot (or whoever took his place at Apostrophe), not by the reviewer at Mercure de France. Times have changed.
Works without themes, characters, narrative, ideas, philosophy, punctuation? That can be. Philippe Solers wrote a novel which was one long sentence from beginning to end, no punctuation, of course! Anything can be. The question is who will publish it and if they do, who will read it. Fifteen or twenty years ago, I had an interesting experience: I was preparing the fourth volume of Romanian Writers of Today and, as I wanted to write about a novel Mircea Horia Simionescu published while I was in Paris, I borrowed it from the library of the Department of Philology. I think it was The General Library. When I opened it, I realized the pages had never been cut. It had been deposited in the library of philology for over ten years and none of the students had had the curiosity to read it. It cannot have been the author’s fault, but the fault of the students who had no desire to read... This is what I can say about reading and the message of literature... If there is a war on, it is the general war of literature (literary criticism included) against the consumer aggression, which generates lack of education and spiritual laziness.
LV. What kind of a critic are you? What is Eugen Simion’s lesson?
ES. A critic who programmatically places himself at the back of literary avant-garde. My lesson is: be national while facing universality (Maiorescu’s words), follow great values, never imagine literature can die, never be sick of life (though life can often be hated), never be sick of literature, wake up every morning hoping today you will begin a masterpiece, put into practice the wisest advice I have ever read: Act as if you lived for ever, pray as if you were to die tomorrow... Good advice, as you can see. Do not ask me if I have taken it, though...
LV. What are the fundamental features of contemporary literature? Is Desperado a label you could accept?
ES. Literature is of course in a crisis. Has it eve been different?.. It is, in fact, man’s moral crisis, transferred to literature. A crisis of understanding, one of image. Man has realized he is no longer what he had learned he was. Humanistic sciences offer various definitions (‘man is a sum of complexes’, ‘man is a sum of social relationships’, etc.), but none is sufficient. Great poetry can come out of this despair. Great fiction, too, because man is the only being who can use his failures.
LV. What do you expect from a book of criticism? I know you enjoy reading Barthes and Jean-Pierre Richard (thematic critic, to some critics’ horror), the same as many others. You are aware of everything that is going on in criticism today. When you open a new book, what is your feeling: one of joy, apprehension, curiosity, need?
ES. I expect to read something interesting. No prejudices. I even read my enemies. If they write a good book, we bury the hatchet. If they do not, never mind... What depresses me (see, the critic can be a Desperado too) is bantering and aggressivity. Two contemporary fortes...
LV. Do you read literature – at this point of your life – for the pleasure of reading or mainly for the pleasure of writing about it?
ES. During the last few years I have read mainly subjective literature. I enjoy reading the classics. I love the 19th century and the former half of the 20th more and more. I have recently written about Eminescu, Creangă, Arghezi, Ion Barbu, Bacovia, Goga... What delight. What joy of rereading and what (rediscovered) joy of writing!
LV. What kind of texts do you promote in your weekly reviews? Do you compromise with the post-postmodernist fashions? Could you foretell the road of literature from now on, the path of criticism? What is the direction Eugen Simion, the clear critic and the opinion leader will take?
ES. I do not dare foretell anything, either about literature or about myself. Critics do not make good prophets. I can only say postmodernism is dead (unfortunately before giving us masterpieces), we live in post-postmodernism, and the critic you are interviewing is ready to welcome life with peace of mind, though not with resignation...
4 May 2003, Bucharest