The Romanian Cultural Debate of the Summer: Romanian Intellectuals and Their Status Groups. A Few Notes on an Absolutely Normal Book


                                                            Dr. Mona Momescu



Who’s Who in the Debate of the summer and Why He Got There?


Sorin Adam Matei teaches sociology at Purdue University at West Lafayette, IN. He graduated from history at the University of Bucharest and left Romania more than ten years ago. Anyone can access his personal page at, or at

 There we find a smiling young academic, caught in the middle of his professional endeavors or enjoying some spare time with his family. It may seem that he is one of the many Romanian intellectuals (the reader will later see why the word is in italics) who shaped a new life in the American academia. He may be one of the many Romanians of his age who share a somehow similar life. I know many excellent mathematicians, physicians and specialists in aeronautical engineering who now run a successful academic life at various US universities or research institutes. Nevertheless, as sentimental as it may sound, they are proud of being Romanian intellectuals who made a career abroad. There are many of these in European universities, as well.

In the summer of 2004, Compania Publishing House issued a book by Sorin Matei which the author himself advertised on his web page: Boierii minţii. Intelectualli români între grupurile de prestigiu şi piaţa liberă a ideilor [The Mind Boyars. Status Groups and Classical Liberal Elitism in Modern Romania]. Why an archaic word in combination with concepts from sociology or political sciences? Is it possible to quantify the intellectual? And, above all, how can one define “the intellectual” as a concept?

I may say that I asked myself all the aforementioned questions before reading the book. When I opened it, the joy of rediscovering familiar ages, names, controversies in modern Romanian culture and history assured me that the author was perfectly comfortable with an epoch of the Romanian history, which, although approached relentlessly, has not been depleted yet.

Very soon after Sorin Matei’s book was published, it triggered a number of unexpectedly violent, I would say, reactions from the part of those who believed they were treated with disrespect. As Horia Roman Patapievici, one of the leading voices of the public intellectual life in Romania today, appeared as a case study for the ascension of intellectuals on the market of ideas (or on what is offered under the guise of a free market of ideas), many intellectuals considered S. Matei’s approach as an intolerable attack on what the intellectual opposition in Romania before and after 1990 promoted as its most exquisite representative. As many of the readers know, Horia Roman Patapievici is a physicist who shifted towards philosophy and who enjoys a central position in Romanian public life. Apart from being one of the leading members of New Europe College (together with Andrei Plesu and Gabriel Liiceanu), he works with Gabriel Liiceanu at Humanitas Publ. House, airs a cultural  show on TVR Cultural and is a member of the National College for the Study of the Romanian Secret Service Archives (CNSAS). He is only one of the many public figures that were mentioned in Sorin Matei’s book. His name and mostly, the typology he happens to illustrate, appear for a number of times in the book, in the chapter on The Secret of Social Health, which deals with the role of Romanian intellectuals in public life in the modern age, starting with the 1848 social movement. As I said, the research tackles nothing that was or is either unusual or offensive. The main theme of the collections of essays that make the book is how intellectuals had their role in public life, gained prestige and an unquestionable status whose validity was impossible to investigate for fear one would be labeled as anti-intellectual or suspected to have something against a certain public figure. This is what Sorin Matei analyzes, starting with relevant moments in modern Romanian history. His book was meant (I suppose) as an invitation to rational approach and professional discussions on the status of intellectuals in Central and Eastern European countries. The fact that it pushed the author in the middle of a misinterpreting community demonstrates that the intellectuals themselves discriminated little between the human passions and the rational analysis.


Some History Wouldn’t Harm Any Reader

  The revival of the role of the post-1848 social transformations in the shaping of modern Romania has recently made the object of many Ph.D. dissertations in history, political sciences and literature. The fact that a declared conservative like Titu Maiorescu (the most important figure of the Junimea[The Youth] movement between 1867 and 1885) practiced a liberal program while declared liberals were attracted towards a more conservative agenda proves that the role of the ideologies and doctrines was more one of satisfying immediate needs and purposes and less one of setting a definite “tradition” of a certain orientation. This mentality never ceased to shape Romanian public life, S. Matei believes, irrespective of the visible social order. This is why he is convinced that “the health of social life” cannot ignore a rational analysis of the phenomenon. What is role of intellectuals in this ever-roving ideological landscape, one may ask? Modern Romanian ideologies were imported, adapted and practiced mostly by educated young Romanians who, after completing their studies abroad returned to their homeland. The situation was common to most of the newly created nation-states in Central and South-Eastern Europe, where a number of educated people became public figures and leading political personalities in most of the cases. Adopting modern doctrines and shaping them according to a Romanian “reality”(the post-1848 slogan) did not elude the more traditional structures, that of prestige or status gained for a lifetime, based on the feudal-type privileges. It mattered less whether the promoters of modern ideologies were educated in Western Europe, whether they had a feudal/aristocratic background or they were self-made persons, they all reveled in the old privileges that opposed permanence, fixedness, immutability to the natural mobility and fragmentarism of modernity. In a world whose keywords were more and more frequently the transitory, the futile, the ever-changing, Romanian modernism perpetuated a traditional, post-feudal mentality. This is the main thesis in Sorin Matei’s book, this is the concept that he calls “paramodernity”[paramodernitate]; a type of mentality that does not ignore modernity, but eludes it from time to time. I would say that this “periodically suspended modernity” fueled the confrontations between the radical traditionalists (event the extreme right) and the radical modernists who realized that the sense of modernization was neither complete, nor entirely compatible with the Romanian society. Probably most of the readers are aware about these confrontations during the interwar period and long after, as the equation traditionalism-modernism has not been solved even in Western societies, if we think of the neo-Conservative groups and the contemporary relativists/multiculturalists etc.


What Makes a Sociology Book Outrageous. Going Public and Beyond

Then, what is it that makes Sorin Matei’s book so outrageous for some of the  today’s Romanian writers, editors, public figures? Why so many angry voices and why an entire issue of Dilema Veche [Old Dilemma], one of the best Romanian cultural reviews of the moment, dedicated to a debate that according to common sense should not have existed in the first place. The most valuable intellectuals enrolled in this war. I should say that I was very surprised to see little (if any) of a normal book analysis or presentation. The intellectuals (three philosophers, a number of editors and academics) avoided a critical approach of the study (are the concepts that Matei theorized valid, does the arguments sustain the author’s thesis?) and they threw their entire rage against the author. Who were the public figures that turned a book into a reason for an extended vendetta? Andrei Pleşu, Gabriel Liiceanu, Horia-Roman Patapievici, a number of other intellectuals who gained status during the last decade of the Communist era and who became symbolic figures of resistance through culture, one of the civic myths in the former central and Eastern European countries. I guess that everyone remembers the regret of Romanian public figures in the first year after 1989 frequently expressed: “It’s a pity we don’t have a Havel; we need a Havel”; in the name of the already discussed tradition, the intellectuals who had accumulated a “trust capital” before, either because they had been subjected to persecution (like Andrei Pleşu, for example, or like many others who were prevented from exercising their profession because they looked dangerous to the Communist régime), or because of the unquestionable value of their work, gained a public position after 1990, they found themselves in the position of “multiplied Havels”, at least for a certain part of Romanians. For the sake of social health (to use S. Matei’s words), I wouldn’t imagine that 100% of the Checks fell madly and irremediably in love with Waclaw Havel and his political decisions!

The rather violent reaction of these cultural publications proves that it is not the status-gaining mechanism what bothered those who reacted, but the very fact they were the eternal candidates for this immutable status. Or at least for a part of Romanians, the very educated ones. Although S. Matei briefly analyzes other cases of public status (populist politicians, sport stars, TV figures), there is no “negative” approach that whispers a word about this.  Which brings us to S. Matei’s thesis and proves the validity of his demonstration. As I want to understand what inflamed the spirits, I should probably remember ordinary episodes of public life in the latest fourteen-fifteen years.

 I cannot ignore two episodes in the turmoil after 1989: one of the greatest joy of the young (and mature) educated Romanians was to enjoy freely books that had been previously listed under the “S” code in all the public libraries (and which we read with the complicity of library custodians). M. Eliade, Constantin Noica, Emil Cioran, the literature of the Romanian diaspora and the memoirs of those who had suffered gruesome persecutions in the fifties and after were now available, in an effort to balance our recent memory and to contribute to social health. For this, the Romanian readers should thank mostly Humanitas Publ. House, whose general manager is Gabriel Liiceanu, one of the two most important members (together with Andrei Pleşu) of the Păltiniş Group[1]. For a numebr of years, this publishing house was the symbol (again we come to public symbols) of resistance through culture, of first-quality books, of nereadings that were absolutely necessary to an intellectual. In short, it was the aristocratic sign of an élite. We all bought what it published and along with classic readings in philosophy, history, political sciences, it began to publish contemporary books, either translations or to promote Romanian authors who worked in the field of political studies, history, and sometimes fiction. Horia Roman Patapievici was a very interesting young author who had recently published a collection of essays at Nemira Publ. House but who was promoted as a public figure by the general manager G. Liiceanu, as S. Matei demonstrates.

  In 1995, after a scandal of illegal surveillance by the reformed Romanian secret service, H.R. Patapievici came on public stage and the same year he published two books of essays, some of which are attentive, excellently documented studies on Romanian mentality. H.R. Patapievici never denied a certain sympathy for the right and also a profound love for the perennial values of the pre-modernity. This fed his later published extended essay, The Recent Man, an essay on modern world comparable to those documented and written by the neo-Conservative philosopher Allan Bloom, for example. As I mentioned before, he gradually gained a number of public and political dignities. This is why Sorin Matei thought his case would be the most appropriate to support his thesis. He saw this as a neo-tradition in the group that gained a certain status and discussed the relation between master and disciples, after the Păltiniş group model without making any inadequate comments on the work of H.R. Patapievici. He only wanted to dismantle the mechanism of the group status in contemporary Romania.  This is when the members of the status group felt attacked and overreacted.


The Need for Social Sanctification


The fact that the author of this book had to publish an article meant to interpret his own book, and to explain that he never mentioned words like “Mafia group”(which G. Liiceanu attributed to him), but only “status group” proves a different thing: that there is still a need for symbolically sanctified figures and that any normal, critical approach to the status of this figures as typologies generates reactions and debates like this recent one. (I strongly doubt that S. Matei has something personal against the members of the group as individuals, as I strongly doubt that themselves, in their critique of Communism, hated everyone who ever joined this ideology group).

Many times after 1989 I wondered whether the collective energies (genuine or socially provoked) that had been previously required by the imposed adoration of the symbolic figures of Communism would not be geared towards the service of newly appointed public idols. It seems that it happened. And, while my hypothesis is still a hypothesis, S. Matei demonstrated it with the instruments of sociology and the arguments of history. The interwar period has been recovered, in the name of cultural restoration, as the golden age of modern Romania. It is true that many wonderful things happened then, but it is equally true that, if one reads the daily press of the two decades, there are also many unpleasant situations. As in any other time or place, there was also poverty, corruption, bad manners, bad education. There was also a vivid social life, there was the highest national income and there was a modern kingdom that shared a partnership with the “great” nations of Europe. Many years after 1990, a rational analysis was absent. Public and political performances referred to the “golden age” and sometimes recommended we should do the journey back to that time, at least in behavior, tastes, education, public life. Given the actual international context, this is somehow suicidal, to my mind.

 The fact that all the energies should be channeled only to one direction, while other options seemed inappropriate or at least incompatible with the “European values” which we once enjoyed during the interwar age (another big issue of Romanian public life), meant that what preceded 1990 should have been approached only in an overly critical manner or not approached at all. I suppose this is normal after so many years of totalitarianism; if it persists, as the responses to S. Matei’s book proved, then it needs a special attention as a mentality issue. In 1990, for a very short time, I taught Romanian literature and culture at a high school. I wouldn’t imagine I could teach the liberal-conservative direction theorized by Titu Maiorescu without giving the students the entire picture of the confrontation between Maiorescu and Contimporanul[The Contemporary], run by C.Dobrogeanu-Gherea. My colleagues were outraged and told me that the new syllabi banned Dobrogeanu-Gherea because he was a “communist”. Poor Gherea! At the end of the nineteenth century, Gherea was a socialist; in many ways, he was more conservative that Maiorescu himself; he too, had been flawed by the “evil spirit” of ideological indecisiveness. Why the group he represented was banned, it was difficult for me to understand, as I figured that 1990 was a moment of objectivity, no matter what we spoke about. I was wrong, and it was proven by the social conflicts in the first two years after 1992. It was also proven by the unexpectedly mannichean polarization of certain intellectual groups. I find it hard to understand why one should be for or against a group or its members, or for or against a certain representative of a certain trend, a personality etc. To my mind, this attitude is profoundly primitive, and when I write primitive I think of the a-historical societies for which everything went according to an irreconcilable “either/or”. Probably my Ph.D dissertation and S. Matei’s book are two of the very few academic “papers” that approached C. Dobrogeanu-Gherea lately. I suppose we can hardly be called iconoclasts. As all humans, we have our secret idols in their secret caves. It is a matter of how “public” you go, I believe…


Other Unpleasant Books or the Mechanism of Being in the Limelight

This summer I have tried to explain this prolonged debate to myself. This book is not The Archives of the Secret Service, or something of the kind. The public intellectuals who believed that this book somehow menaced or undermined their authority simply mixed the criteria. Is this book a “Cervantesque” Giant, with which they have restlessly fought? I now remember another debate, which took place a couple of years ago. Polirom Publ. House offered the Romanian version of Ravelstein, one of Saul Bellow’s recent novels. As we all know, the “main character” in this novel is “the last months” in the life of Ravelstein, the philosopher in which it is simple to recognize Allan Bloom. It is easy, but it is of little use, as we all agree that Bellow wrote a piece of fiction. Ravelstein is no more Allan Bloom than Herzog is Bellow himself in the homonymous novel. In Ravelstein there appears a certain Radu Grielescu, a colleague of the philosopher at the U. of Chicago. It is easy to recognize Mircea Eliade, especially if you are a Romanian. The narrator commented upon Grielescu’s rightist sympathies in the thirties and little after, as well as on some of his personal “shortcomings”. Immediately after the novel appeared in Romanian, there were two “teams”: one that felt outraged that the scientific contribution of Mircea Eliade and his status were questioned by a novelist, and the second offered extra arguments to support some of the opinions on Radu Grielescu. Both the supporters and the “opponents” forgot they were treating a fiction with inadequate instruments. The very existence of such a debate not only proved the misreading of a novel, but turned Mircea Eliade(or Radu Grielescu, I guess it is of little importance how we call him in this context) into the main character of the novel. Which is not true, but I guess it may offer Sorin Matei an extra argument: when it comes to a public figure, this should always be the “main character”, no matter what the text is about.

 What would we do if all fiction would be read as a “reality”? What kind of reading “fallacies” should then literary criticism define in order to prevent the readers from becoming ridicule? I suspect that if the character had been an anonymous Romanian, there wouldn’t have been any debate, no confession would have been made, no memoirs investigated attentively. Mircea Eliade was one of the “underground” readings before 1990, it was an honor to be the happy possessor of his very few books published in Romania after 1945 or to be the happy disciple who had access to his photocopied fiction published in Romanian by the wonderful editor Ioan Cuşa in Paris. I was a fact and it came with the cultural resistance or resistance through culture that characterized all the countries in our region.

What seems less explainable to me is the persistence in this group idolatry, or status idolatry that generated the reactions and situations I discussed before. Would the status of the public intellectual be tainted in any way if there were a sound critique of his/her work? Is Mircea Eliade less of an international scientific figure if he had certain sympathies or preferences? Is a research on intellectual status as a sociological phenomenon to be disregarded or misinterpreted if it analyzes, without any sign of pathos, a situation that may be the case of many other countries?

I believe that it is not the status of intellectuals that triggered this artificial confrontation, but the more profoundly rooted mechanisms of symbolic group idolatry. Or the need of it, for that matter.





[1] For those who are not familiar with the activity of the group, I should say that this philosophical group, organized by Constantin Noica, a post-Heidegger philosopher who greatly contributed to contemporary Romanian philosophy was organized as a philosophical group of the ancient Greece. The disciples were supposed to do readings, then comment them in group, with the master and the other members. Many Romanian intellectuals joined the group, an attitude that was not only a way to escape ugly reality, but also a means of a different education, unavailable to most of the others. I would say that being a member of this group was a form of intellectual otherness and elite mark.