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The Fifth Impossibility

The Fifth Impossibility: Essays on Exile and Language

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Fifth Impossibility
    Book Description:

    Deported to a concentration camp from 1941 until the end of the war, Norman Manea again left his native Romania in 1986 to escape the Ceausescu regime. He now lives in New York. In this selection of essays, he explores the language and psyche of the exiled writer.

    Among pieces on the cultural-political landscape of Eastern Europe and on the North America of today, there are astute critiques of fellow Romanian and American writers. Manea answers essential questions on censorship and on linguistic roots. He unravels the relationship of the mother tongue to the difficulties of translation. Above all, he describes what homelessness means for the writer.

    These essays-many translated here for the first time-are passionate, lucid, and enriching, conveying a profound perspective on our troubled society.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18487-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. PART I

    • EXILE
      (pp. 3-10)

      The increased nationalism and religious fundamentalism all around the world, the dangerous conflicts between minorities in Eastern Europe, and a growing xenophobia emphasize one of the main contradictions of our time: between centrifugal, cosmopolitan modernity and the centripetal need (or at least nostalgia) for belonging. We are reminded again and again of the ancient yet constant predicament of theforeigner, thestranger.

      It seems that although he is taught to love his neighbor, man fails to love his neighbor as he loves himself, and fails also to love a stranger like a neighbor. The stranger has always been perceived as...

  5. PART II: From One Shore to Another

      (pp. 13-24)

      In the morning, when my gaze meets a new day, I am welcomed by the tree’s crown of leaves. Its harmonious connection with time. I watch it, I remember the lesson it offers me. Stability, the everlasting harmony emanated by nature’s inner nature.

      I look at my watch, I wait. An annoying dependency, maybe, a subterfuge. One should probably depend only on oneself. Never wait for anything, be self-sufficient. Or else, be content with each morning ’s silent message, the sky, the sparrows, the tree in the ourtyard. … In front of the window, a solid tree with many rich...

      (pp. 25-31)

      Following a lengthy decomposition, the communist system in Eastern Europe collapsed, but the collapse failed to bring about an equally sudden democratic and prosperous normality. After the decades-long confinement by totalitarianism, why can’t people, and East Europeans in particular, grasp the true dimension of freedom, why can’t their actions reflect the demands of this great moment? Why are honesty, courage, tolerance, and cooperation stifled by demagogy, cynicism, and brutality? The simplest answer, as Thomas Mann put it, is that freedom is something more complex and delicate than force.

      After their flight from Egypt, the ancient Jews needed to wander through...

      (pp. 32-43)

      As it rushes to an end, this century, more than any other, could be called the century of the intellectuals. When its beginning and end are compared, whether on a mundane or a fundamental level, pivotal developments are immediately obvious; the mind’s achievements in science and technology; the deep schism in art; and the radical upheaval that has shaken the individual and society.

      Spectacular accomplishments and extreme dangers have accompanied the dramatic worldwide expansion of uncertainty in this new era. The year 2000 approaches replete with all the manmade means of planetary catastrophe. Although the macabre play of man’s imagination...

      (pp. 44-62)

      In the rough transition to democracy, the countries of Eastern Europe are going simultaneously forward and backward. The “forward” movement concerns their contract with the future: their adaptation to the social and economic requirements of the capitalist world, and the international accreditation that this will bring them. The “backward” movement is owing to their fragmented and incomplete evaluation of their history before and during the era of communism, a history that was manipulated and falsified by the ideology and the interests of the single Party of the totalitarian state.

      Since 1989, this tension has often made itself felt in the...

      (pp. 63-91)

      The year 1989 marked not only the bicentennial of the French Revolution, but also the centennials of two figures who—each in his own way—knew how to exploit the hunger of the masses and their vulnerability and gullibility.

      He was a tramp in the big city, using a park bench for a bed. He wore a weathered black derby and a frock coat askew on his shoulders—both tragicomic attempts at respectability. He drifted along the sidewalks, without family. He had no friends. Acquaintances saw him go into strange fits and thought him a clown. But he was a...

      (pp. 92-118)

      When he died in 1986, in Chicago, at the age of 79, Mircea Eliade was a famous scholar of religion, the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School and professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and a well-known writer. He was the author of some fifty books, including short stories, novels, plays, essays, studies on philosophy and religion, and of countless articles.A History of Religious Ideas, in four volumes, is probably his most famous work.

      Eliade’s rate of intellectual production was, from his youth, extraordinary. His work is extensive and...

      (pp. 119-140)

      In 1970, Emil Cioran, the iconoclastic philosopher who had left Romania three decades before and won postwar fame in Paris, wrote in a letter to a friend from his youth about his nostalgia for the illusions of those who stayed behind. “I never cease to wonder that after so many trials you have managed to keep such evident composure. Nor is yours a unique case. I can guess the secret of so much vitality. Without hell, no illusions.”

      After so many years in the West, and despite the glory he achieved, Cioran felt old and worn out. “We pay dearly...

    • CIORAN
      (pp. 141-149)

      In the spring of 1990, I was invited to attend the Salon du Livre in Paris, on the occasion of Albin Michel’s publication of my first volume in French,Le thé de Proust.

      The year before my trip there, I had got to know a friend of Cioran’s, Edouard Roditi, a fabled pilgrim of letters. It seems he had written to Cioran about me. One day he showed me a surprising message that had come from Cioran, in French, dated September 25, 1989.

      Mon cher ami,

      Thank you for your letter, which has come at just a few days ago...

      (pp. 150-156)

      When the Romanian poet Benjamin Fondane left Romania for France in 1929 he did so, as he himself declared, because “he couldn’t bear living in a backwater French cultural colony any longer”; he wanted the Center.

      The witticism gives a sense of the prestige that theNouvelle Revue Française(NRF) held in Romanian cultural circles at the time, a prestige that remained intact even after the imposition of a communist dictatorship in Romania by its victorious neighbor to the east. By then, however, the prestige was measured in absence. The famous journal was no longer available outside of a few...

      (pp. 157-175)

      In the fall of 1989, at Bard College, New York State, I started a course entitled “Eastern European Writers.” I had selected mostly authors who, like me, were exiles: Milosz, Koestler, Kundera, Danilo Kiš, Ionescu. I was thus trying to liberate myself from the confusion of the oriental-communist degeneracy (whose imminent implosion I, in fact, did not foresee) and still remain connected to my distant homeland.

      The besieged man had finally escaped from the Colony of Rhino. He had got tired of shouting by himself, crouched in the cell of his room and deafened by the trampling of the street...

      (pp. 176-186)

      The last time I saw Saul Steinberg was a year ago, in February. I had invited him and his friend Prudence to dinner, along with two women friends of mine from Milan, a city to which he felt close. A few days later, to thank us, he sent my wife, Cella, and me a copy of a map of interwar Bucharest that Prudence had found in the New York Public Library.

      The communication, as so often before, bore his unmistakable mark: the large white rectangular envelope had been folded in half, into a square; at the top left, into a...

      (pp. 187-192)

      That morning I was at Bard College, about one and a half hours from New York City. I was preparing my afternoon seminar, “Exile and Estrangement in Modern Fiction.” I only heard about the brutal attack on America towards noon. Most professors canceled their classes. I asked my students whether we should go ahead as planned with Nabokov’s novelPnin, call off the class, or discuss the event rather than the book. Their presence showed that they didn’t want to be alone, and I assumed that the theme of exile would allow for a wide-ranging discussion of today’s world—a...

      (pp. 193-201)

      Of course, the Holocaust is not exclusively a German problem. While it was a crime perpetuated by the National Socialists, it has a significance that goes beyond geographical boundaries and historical fact. The question of German guilt, especially now, after unification, remains a moral obligation for this country, whose current and future generations have a right to learn about what happened in the past, but also to be assured that they themselves bear no direct responsibility for it.

      Every four or five years, I offer a seminar at Bard College entitled “Literature and the Holocaust.” I don’t teach the course...

      (pp. 202-233)

      One evening when the sun and not only the sun had set, there went out of his little hut the Yid, and off he went-a Yid and the son of a Yid-and with him went his name, his unutterable name, it went, traipsing along, suffered itself to be heard, leaning on a staff he came over boulder and stone, hearest thou me, thou dost, it’s me, me, me and him, the one thou hearest or appearest to hear, me and the other, off he went therefore, as one could well hear, when certain things had set, as is their wont,...

      (pp. 234-246)

      Often novels provoke readers to believe that they can best be understood as thinly veiled arguments, responses to topical, controversial issues. Reviewers “translate” fictional events into their “reallife” foundations and unmask characters by identifying the actual “models” on whom they are based. Some years ago, when Saul Bellow’s final novel, Ravelstein, appeared, I was shocked at the book’s reception, not only in the United States, but in my native country, Romania, where reviewers prattled incessantly about issues such as “political correctness” and “the Holocaust industry” as if Bellow’s novel had been written mainly to instruct us on such matters. And...

      (pp. 247-252)

      The last time I met Nathan Zuckerman was July 2006, when he came to Bard College for the birthday party celebrating the end of my puberty.

      That evening I found myself reflecting upon our nearly twenty years of friendship, during which Nathan has served as an unconventional and invaluable guide to American life, psyche, and art.

      And I was struck yet again by what a privilege it has been, as a newcomer to this country, to have someone like Nathan decoding for me this unknown, new territory. We live today in a time when nothing is seen, heard, or read...

      (pp. 253-273)

      In the beginning was the Word, the ancients told us. In the beginning for me, the word was Romanian. The doctor and all those who assisted at my difficult birth spoke Romanian. Romanian was spoken in my home, where I spent most of my time with Maria, the lovely young peasant woman who took care of me and spoiled me, in Romanian. Of course these were not the only sounds around me. German, Yiddish, Ukrainian, and Polish were spoken in Bukovina, as was a peculiar dialect, a Slavic mixture typical of the Ruthenians. It is notable that the family quarrel...

      (pp. 274-279)

      “The besieged man had finally escaped from the Colony of Rhino.” Those were the words I used in my 1999 essay on Eugen Ionescu, entitled “Berenger at Bard” (see pp. 157—75). The Rhino colony, of course, stands for the penal colony of socialism administered by the ultimate Rhino leader: president Nicolae Ceau?sescu. July 9, 1989 was another crucial watermark in the life of the wanderer I had since become. Now at Bard, an American college, I found myself right in the middle of Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead game, transposed to the end-of-the-twentieth-century New World.

      I began my life at...

      (pp. 280-292)

      When asked to evaluate the French Revolution, a Chinese dignitary famously said: “it’s too early to judge.” Twenty years may be a much shorter period in history but I don’t think we risk sounding presumptuous if we deem the events of 1989 the crossroads in the development of contemporary Europe.

      Some historians consider the year 1989 as the de facto end of World War II; others see the events of that year as actually marking the end of the twentieth century, with our twenty-first century starting out, in fact, on September 11, 2001. If the bleak and bloody twentieth century...

      (pp. 293-318)

      In the sound and fury unleashed worldwide by the Rushdie affair, we might take note of a significant silence from the Socialist East. I do not refer only to the authorities’ “tactical” silence, to those always in search of advantage in the game of power, I refer also to the silence of the organized groups of artists, writers, and intellectuals, and, above all, to the absent voices of individuals, for whom it is impossible to speak out.

      I am saddened but not surprised by this silence. I know the complexities of the process of regeneration and social normalization now under...

      (pp. 319-324)

      I am looking down on Central Park and recall from half a century ago in a small town in northern Romania a tall, white-haired man proclaiming his poem, “The Colors Red and Black.” Gazing over the park, I remember those Stalinist-era verses:

      In New York, everything is beautiful.

      Heroes come, heroes go.

      Children, born for Sing Sing,

      Cover the streets like pellagra.

      Yellow karate-blood

      Pulses through each building.

      In the harbor the Statue of Liberty!

      Behind her elevated falsehood

      Yankee ghosts howl at the moon

      Tormented as if from pellagra

      By the colors red and black.

      The red of the...


      (pp. 327-350)

      Like Kafka’s own life, his works explore both an individuality, and simultaneously, the essential territory belonging to no one. To no one, and to anyone, and to each one, but above all, and after all, they explore the territory belonging to Kafka himself: the vast territory of uncertainty and of questioning. This space—time of existence and of writing becomes increasingly dramatic as it comes to be claimed by the obsession and by the sign … of the impossible. The geography, the psychology, the therapy, even the theology of the impossible?

      Kafka was greatly concerned with the impossible. He considered...

  7. INDEX
    (pp. 351-360)