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Truth, Memory, Dignity: Why Does Monica Lovinescu Matter?

Posted By Vladimir Tismaneanu On May 20, 2013 @ 12:46 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 11 Comments

We tend to forget the immense political and moral stakes of the Cold War era. Essential publications, initially supported by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, such as “Encounter,” “Preuves,” “Der Monat,” and “Quadrant,” are now almost forgotten. But these journals and the authors associated with them (from Arthur Koestler to Czeslaw Milosz), as well as the Western radio stations, allowed the denizens of the Soviet Bloc to breathe under the ice. They also fought to expose what the great French sociologist Raymond Aron called the “opium of the intellectuals,” the readiness of many intellectuals to embrace the Utopian, millenarian, eschatological promises of Marxism.

Monica Lovinescu, a Paris-based literary critic and journalist who encouraged intellectual resistance to Romania’s communist regime from the microphone of Radio Free Europe from 1964-92, passed away five years ago, on April 21,  at the age of 85.

The daughter of influential interwar academic Eugen Lovinescu, and a mother who was to die in a communist prison, Monica Lovinescu enjoyed tremendous prestige and influence in her native Romania. She was considered a moral and intellectual model in arguing that communist crimes were equal to those of the Nazis, and her work angered dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to the point that he ordered the beating in 1977 that left her in a coma. She recovered to return to her seat behind the microphone, where she observed the downfall of Ceausescu’s regime in 1989. I started listening to her broadcasting as a teenager. For me and many other Romanian intellectuals, Monica Lovinescu and her husband, philosopher Virguil Ierunca, were the voices of moral clarity. They still are.

Monica Lovinescu matters because she was one of the most important figures of the Eastern and Central European anti-totalitarian thought. Her passing away is a major loss for all the friends of an open society. My personal indebtedness to her — like that of many Romanian intellectuals — is immense. As a member of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania (which I chaired), Lovinescu participated, even during the most painful moments of physical suffering, in the condemnation of communist totalitarianism. Her solidarity was unswerving, both morally and intellectually.Monica Lovinescu’s crucial impact on Romania’s culture is inextricably linked to her major role as a cultural commentator for Radio Free Europe (RFE). There is no exaggeration in saying that no other RFE broadcast was more execrated, abhorred, and feared by Ceausescu and the communist nomenklatura than those undertaken by Lovinescu and her husband, Virgil Ierunca.For decades, Lovinescu fought against terrorist collectivisms, the regimentation of the mind, and moral capitulation. Her patriotism was enlightened and generous. Thanks to her, Romanian intellectuals were able to internalize the great messages from the writings of Camus, Arendt, Kolakowski, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Koestler, Cioran, Milosz, Revel, Aron, and the list is fatally too short. A spirit totally dedicated to modernity, open to the crucial polemics of the 20th century, Lovinescu wrote poignant essays on the what American critic Lionel Trilling called “the bloody crossroads, where literature and politics meet.”For years, her outspoken positions in defense of dissident writers and moral resistance to totalitarianism provoked the ire of the party hacks and their Securitate associates. Starting in 1967 and continuing today, publications associated with the most vicious, ultranationalist, and anti-Semitic circles among Romania’s Stalinists have targeted Monica Lovinescu. On several occasions, in the 1970s-80s, attempts were made on her life.For Ceausescu and his sycophants (many of whom are still thriving in the Social Democratic and Romania Mare parties), Lovinescu symbolizes all they love to hate: pluralism, tolerance, hostility to xenophobia, compassion for victims of both totalitarianisms (fascist and communist), and a commitment to what we can call an “ethics of forgetlessness.” On the other hand, democratic intellectuals (Gabriel Liiceanu, Andrei Plesu, N. Manolescu, H.R. Patapievici, Andrei Cornea, Dorin Tudoran, Cristian Teodorescu, Sorin Alexandrescu, Mircea Mihaies, to name just a few) learned from her that “memory is indispensable to freedom.”Monica Lovinescu matters because she knew how to maintain the unity between ethics and aesthetics. In 1963, she wrote: “We live in an age in which impostures abound. They should not conceal however the other voices — those of the victims.” Her RFE broadcasts were precisely an antidote to the official mendacity, a voice of truth speaking for those condemned to silence.Especially during the watershed year 1968, Lovinescu paid close attention to the ideological crisis of world communism and the importance of disenchantment among ex-Marxist intellectuals. At a historical juncture when Ceausescu masqueraded as a de-Stalinizer, Lovinescu exposed the tyrant’s imposture and appealed to Romanian writers to emulate the ethical audacity of Czech and Slovak intellectuals such as Ludvik Vaculik, Vaclav Havel, Ivan Svitak, Ladislav Mnacko, Eduard Goldstuecker, Antonin Liehm, Pavel Kohout, and Ivan Klima. Thanks to Radio Free Europe and to Monica Lovinescu, Romanians had direct access to the iconoclastic pages of “Literarny listy.”At a time when many thought disparagingly about anything smacking of neo-Marxism, Lovinescu and her husband Ierunca highlighted the significance of revisionism for the destruction of communist pseudo-legitimacy. She wrote extensively about the importance of apostasy, which she described as the “voie royale” toward the awakening from what Immanuel Kant coined “the dogmatic sleep.” Furthermore, while emphasizing the need for Romanian culture to avoid autarky, she proposed remarkable guidelines that decisively influenced the intellectual cannon in the country.

Lovinescu’s writings have come out after 1990 from the prestigious publishing house Humanitas. A few weeks before her passing away, I reread her essays from 1968. They strike me as extraordinarily timely, insightful, and prescient. She understood before many others that communism was irretrievably sick, and she insisted on the role of intellectuals in the insurrectionary saga of Eastern Europe’s opposition to Sovietism.

After 1990, Lovinescu and Ierunca saw many of their predictions (including the dire ones) come true. The legacies of national-Stalinism continue to haunt Romania’s fragile pluralism. The lackeys of the ancien regime made it politically and financially. Dissidents were exhausted, marginalized, slandered.

Things changed, however, after 1996 and especially after 2004. The initiation by Traian Basescu of the Presidential Commission unleashed a national conversation along the lines of historical truth and moral justice. Immediately after President Basescu’s official and unequivocal condemnation of the communist regime as illegitimate and criminal, on December 18, 2006, I called from Bucharest and told Monica Lovinescu what happened. I mentioned the hysterical sabotaging of the president’s speech by extremist,  xenophobic, “Romania Mare” Party leader, and former Ceausescu bootlicker, Corneliu Vadim Tudor. Her answer was short and encapsulated the meaning of paradigmatic intellectual and moral itinerary dedicated to the defense of liberty, honor, and dignity: “The noise doesn’t matter. Truth was said. We won!”

PS: I would like to mention that there is a most moving book about the relationship between Monica Lovinescu and her mother. Written by Romanian essayist and journalist Doina Jela, it is titled “This Love that Binds Us” and came out from Humanitas Publishing House in Bucharest when Monica Lovinescu was still alive. It should be considered for an English laguage translation. I regard it as one of the most important testimonies about the survival of love and honor in times of moral turpitude.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss Vladimir Tismaneanu’s interview at Frontpage about his new book, The Devil in History, here.

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