Reilluminations IV – Lucian Blaga
[ poetry - november 10 ]
"I take off my body like a coat cast by the roadside"
Though the history of Romanian poetry in the last hundred years can arguably be defined by figures that appear as mystics, or prophets, it is when we encounter the legacy of Lucian Blaga we see how the intellectual and the poet can come to take on this role in the collective literary memory first and foremost. Blaga is an unbounded figure in Romanian cultural reminiscence, one of the many to burst from a modernist tradition as powerful, per head, as any in the world (the list would feature EM Cioran, Eugene Ionesco, Mircea Eliade, Mihai Eminescu, Dan Pagis, Isodore Isou and continue on, incredibly, to feature Paul Celan and Tristan Tzara). In their inscrutability as much as their work, they have come to represent the idea of a Romanian soul or an essential poetic vernacular lying above and below their zeitgeist and, nostalgically perhaps, in the case of Blaga, as a reconstitution. In his remembrance there is a nod toward apology, toward reparation and repair. He is talked about as a mild soul amongst the turmoil of his time, almost feminine in his introspection and poise. His legacy is as much a forgetting and forgiving of something much larger than the acts of the man himself.
Blaga did not die appreciated. In 1956, when he was nominated for the Nobel prize, the Romanian Communist government sent two emissaries to Sweden to protest the nomination; Blaga was considered an idealist and a philosopher whose views were against the interests of the people. His poems were banned from publication. The year following his death, and his complete subsumation into the silence he craved and sought to shape his poetry about and around, the ban was lifted and so Blaga began to command his inheritance, one returned to him in a silence which continues to speak volumes about 20th century Romanian letters. Born in 1895 into a family of priests near Alba Iulia in central Romania, it is said he did not utter his first word until the age of four. Whether this most likely self-admitted piece of biography is apocryphal or not, it comes to stand for the dedicated theme of Blaga's work and poetic persona: silence. From his birth until his death, he pursued a form of expression intimately related to a refusal to live beneath the auspice of words. Every utterance is examined, every expression resisted and while still spoken, given life, his poetry only ever comes into being with a proviso that it might not and that it perhaps should not, and this tension then forms the very act of its reading and reception. It speaks of its own tenuousness, of the unlikelihood of its being there at all. The suggestion is made by the words when read that they are harming the only valuable realisation, which by its very nature eschews dialogue or awareness, that is the blanket of non-communication, of non-reasoning, of silence which will follow our expiry as it contextualised our lives before birth.
It is no great surprise that Blaga was one of the most commanding philosophers of the inter-war period in Romania. Indicative of the time, he, like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bloch, Spengler, Barth, studied theology before graduating from the hotbed of the University of Vienna in philosophy in 1920. Upon returning to the re-unified Romania, he contributed to the Romanian press in Transylvania, editing iconoclastic magazines in Lugoj and Cluj. As well as poet, philosopher, essayist, editor and reclaimant of myths and tales, he became a diplomat, posted in some of Europe's most culturally exciting cities through the late 1920s and 1930s: Warsaw, Prague, Lisbon, Bern, Vienna.
Yet the plethora of modernist experimentation, of which he was such a vital part, seems to have defined his work in reverse. Not a critic of sibilant modernism, rather it was his mode to be defined by the excess into a dumb caution, so redolent that it burned with an originality many others couldn't match or justify. Blaga is the poet who undercut's traditionalism, rather than overcoming it. In fact, his work is more traditional than any tradition for it returns to the beginnings of form, it seeks the primitive in language. It ties up the process of overcoming silence and reminds that once language fought this battle against blindness and nothingness. That it was once a choice, that the spoken word was not compelled but sought. He doubts that end while giving in to the need of poetry, to speak and to write.
On the eve of the Second World War he became professor of philosophy at the University of Cluj. He continued to support the best of his generation and the new voices coming to the fore in Romania poetry and philosophy through magazine publications, this time, beginning in 1943, with the publication Saeculum. He was fired from the University in 1948 and worked consequently, in a quietude he seemed to expect and never rail against, as a librarian. He was silenced from then on, allowed only to publish translations. He continued to write for the desk drawer, for friends, in clandestine volumes. His final poems, written before his rehabilitation in death, before the neatness of his return loomed on the horizon, feature a different voice. Blaga, cancer-ridden, knowing death was soon to come, seems to have returned to seeking language, like a child discovering words, he appears once again to not surrender to the silence he knows will overwhelm him but to try, at the last, to grope blindly, without justification for something wordless, outside of language, to overcome the endlessness of nothing. It is light he speaks of in his final works. He died of cancer on May 6, 1961.