Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Romanians entertain a unique relationship to failure


From The Philosopher of Failure: Emil Cioran’s Heights of Despair by Costica Bradatan, The Los Angeles Review of Books, November 28, 2016
But when Cioran went to college in Bucharest, the country’s southern capital, he stepped into a whole new cultural universe. Here the winning skills were different: the art of doing nothing, sophistry (from slightly playful to plainly cynical) trumping intellectual soundness, procrastination as métier, wasting one’s life as vocation. As an undergraduate philosophy student, Cioran came in touch with some of Bucharest’s best performers in this respect. The mix of intellectual brilliance and a striking sense of personal failure that some of them exhibited gained his unconditional, perpetual admiration:

In Bucharest I met lots of people, many interesting people, especially losers, who would show up at the cafe, talking endlessly and doing nothing. I have to say that, for me, these were the most interesting people there. People who did nothing all their lives, but who otherwise were brilliant.
For the rest of his life Cioran would remain secretly indebted to that land of failure that was his country. And he was right to do so. For Romanians entertain a unique relationship to failure; just as the Eskimos have countless words for snow, the Romanian language seems to have just as many associated with failure. One of the verbal constructions most often used in Romanian, which Cioran cherished, is n-a fost să fie (literally, “it wasn’t to be,” but with strong predestination undertones). The country is truly a goldmine.

Cioran was famously a misanthrope, but if there was one human type for which he had understanding and compassion, it was le raté, the failure. In 1941, already in Paris, he confesses to a Romanian friend: “I would like to write a Philosophy of Failure, with the subtitle For the Exclusive Use of the Romanian People, but I don’t think I will be able to do it.” Whenever Cioran looked back to his youth, he would always remember, with a mix of fascination, tenderness, and admiration, the great losers and the endless spectacle of failure he encountered in Bucharest. As an emerging writer, the country’s literary scene surely attracted him, but not nearly as much as its failure scene: “My best friends in Romania were not at all writers, but failures.”
Failures still exist of course and Bucharest is still full of them, but the world is now so dominated by the idea of a career and a steady income, even in Romania. And unlike Cioran people read so little these days, unless as part of a course. Even successful literary men or actors or artists require more courage than in the 1930s. The haute bourgeois, with their grand houses and servants and sometimes some culture, were destroyed by the Communists and will not be replaced for many decades, but the graduate petite bourgeoisie are everywhere, churned out by public and private universities.

Failure does not matter in Bucharest. R.G. Waldeck was a Jewish American journalist who was in Bucharest until Romania and the USA went to war.  She wrote about the city in a good book called 'Athene Palace' (1943), in which she said this.
The Romanians possess to the highest degree the capacity of receiving the blows of fate while relaxed. They fall artfully, soft and loose in every joint and muscle as only those trained in falling can be. The secret of the art of falling is, of course, not to be afraid of falling and the Romanians are not afraid, as Western people are. Long experience has taught them that each fall may result in unforeseen opportunities and that somehow they always get on their feet again. 


  1. I disagree. I think the assertion is too abstract and suffers from generalisations. What is "failure"? Who are "the Romanians"? Much of the post is based on Cioran's assertions made some 90 years ago and based on his observation of a certain small circle of Bucharestan Bohemians. I suppose his observations regard a kind of "metaphysical" failure, if I may abuse such a vague term, and can be interpreted in any way.

    If I'm to generalise too, I think "Romanians" are equally frustrated by failure as any other nation. Just that there is a certain fatality in their outlook. I think the attitude can be summarised thus: "things can always turn out catastrophically and well, they did so this time." There's no relaxation here, no equanimity, the suffering is there. It is just awareness of the non-predictibility of life.

    Compare Romanian and Protestant funerals. There are no "artful falls" at Romanian funerals, there's hideous suffering and discomposure.

    1. Douglas Murray quotes a Frenchwoman who said, quoting Unamuno, that Eastern Europe still has a tragic sense of life. This is a very good thing - part of why I love it here - and saves them from being optimists. Romanian liberals are at most liberals in the sense of wanting a small state and free market economic, but not in the sense of thinking people are more good than bad or come into the world as blank sheets of paper. Romanians are theologians who believe in original sin. Romanian religion is much deeper than Protestantism.

  2. Sorry to disagree again. My opinion is that you idealise the faith of "Romanians". (I'm putting quotes because I think there are many different types of Romanians, from the educated, English-speaking urbanites, through craftsmen shuttling between Western Europe and small-town Romania, to rural subsistence farmers or barely literate gypsies.)

    I'm rather inclined to believe that religion in Romania is a kind of mix between Christianity and ancient pagan superstitions. For Romanians theology reduces to the concept of God as a rather simple and omnipotent automaton: push this button, get that response. God has to be pleased in order for us to get a reward. Make the sign of the cross when you pass before a church. Pray, light candles and your child will pass the exam. The child failed? Well, you didn't do something right, you had too many sins, or all in all, impenetrable are the ways of God.

    Please also note that there was no equivalent of the Catholic Sunday school in Romania, at least since 1947 and probably before neither. There is no Confirmation at 12-13, so children are never really taught the Catechism. All religious education would have been transmitted in the family before the 1990s, and actually it has not been done. Either because of indifference or because the parents themselves are religiously, dogmatically ignorant. Now there's more or less compulsory religious education in schools. In my "bubble" though nobody seems to like it, they complain that fundamentalist priests shove prayers down the throat of the children. Which underlines my thesis: what you need to know is the ritual to perform to please God for getting His protection.

    Ask people why Jesus was crucified and I think you'll get the answer "for the forgiveness of our sins". But if you ask them which are those sins I doubt that you'll hear the original sin mentioned. I suppose it'll be a mix of the transgressions of the ten commandments. My paternal grandfather was an Orthodox priest like his father-in-law. However I don't think that my father has the concept of original sin, at least I've never heard him talking about it.

    Don't you have the impression that Romanian society is aggressive? impatient, uncurteous, selfish? No christian virtues in it. I agree with Unamuno though that it still has a tragic sense of life. It's a mix of Kusturica's Balcanic lust of life (quite pagan, I would say) fed by that vague "tragic sense of life" that simmers underneath.

  3. I think you are onto something Paul. We do have a deeply ingrained sense of failure, but when you went through the history of Communism and a brutal dictatorship, such states of mind are not uncommon, particularly with those who lived a good part of their lives in that regime. You are romanticizing a little bit the whole thing, but I think there is a lot of truth in the gloomy vision of life most Eastern Europeans have. I personally think it developed as a defense mechanism.

  4. I think this gloomy outlook is due to the extreme climate (very cold for human habitation, in comparison to most of the world) and very high alcohol consumption.