Clown and Metaphysician: On Matei Calinescu’s “The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter”

FROM A CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE, life in a totalitarian country like Romania of the 1950s and 1960s offered certain benefits. All over Europe, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, a flow of cultural activities tried to heal the traumas of the World War II. City and country dwellers, workers, farmers, and students were invited to discover great artists and writers of the past, read their books, attend their plays in old as well as in newly built theaters, watch film adaptations of their works, visit museums, listen to classical music, both serious and light, and thus realize that humankind is — or can be — a peaceful, hard-working, progressive species. A. S. Byatt’s novel The Virgin in the Garden (1978), whose action takes place in 1953, admirably captures this love for culture, past and present, that young people felt at that time, notwithstanding the still shocking inequality between men and women.

Moreover, and specifically for Romania and other East Europe countries where, under Soviet rule, private business was virtually nonexistent, political activities were tightly controlled, and social mobility had little to do with personal worth, a large number of capable people had an excess of free time at their disposal. Good books, on the other hand, were plenty. People’s homes were full of works published before the division of Europe that had just taken place in the late 1940s. Those considered harmless could still be sold and bought in the state-owned used-book stores. Underground used-book sellers (of the kind George Orwell describes in 1984) were still around, although by the late 1950s many had ended up in prison. The rare, lucky travelers allowed to go abroad sometimes brought home one book or another just published in the West by a famous author. Lent to friends, the book soon had tens, hundreds of fast, voracious readers. Equally important, according to the Marxist theory that governed Eastern Europe, many of the great books of the past belonged to the long “progressive march” of humanity toward its present glorious achievements, and their reading was allowed or even encouraged. The works of Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Balzac, and Dickens were therefore translated and published in huge print-runs. Reading, discovering the past, and realizing that the totalitarian system was not the only possible world gave people patience and courage.

Past culture was so important because new, original writing was subjected to strict control. On the one hand, under the communist regime, officially sanctioned writers and artists enjoyed generous financial support; on the other, censorship carefully prevented ideological “errors,” not to speak of the quick repression of any opposition, real or imaginary. As a result, with a few notable exceptions, Romania’s literary output in the 1950s was way below its prewar quality standards. With the new literary works expecting to reflect the “great victories” of the regime, the result was literary conformism and perpetual untruth.

Untruth went far beyond literature: fake news, imaginary statistics, references to nonexistent historical facts, wild accusations of the West, and equally wild glorifications of the Soviet world created a sense that nothing in the public discourse was truly reliable or could be taken seriously. Disbelief and its ally, humor, were the answers, and new political jokes were invented every day and confidentially spread around. The regime, most people thought, was both pathetic and hilarious: pathetic because of the ruthless, deceitful use of a noble ideal — equality and prosperity for all — and hilarious because of the sharp, permanent contrast between this ideal and the everyday life.

In the early to mid-1960s, however, things began to change, and the old Party rule that “whoever is not with us is against us” was replaced by the more cunning and inclusive “whoever is not against us is with us.” Non-adherence to the communist creed ceased to be a crime, and repression was reserved only to overt opposition. In order for a new literary work to be published it was henceforth enough that it refrained from explicitly denouncing the regime. As a result, literary and artistic life rapidly blossomed; creators and critics previously silenced were now eager to make themselves heard, while a younger generation of artists and intellectuals followed their example. Originality and innovation were permitted, as were new attempts to rethink the public role of literature and art. Among the rich harvest of vibrant poetry, fiction, and nonfiction published during this period, Matei Calinescu’s The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter (1969) — a dizzying half-parody, half-vindication of mystic/existential thought — was the most striking. Today, almost half a century later, it remains one of the most memorable testimonies of that time.

This narrative admirably captures the crucial features of the period, the strange unreality of the world, and the sad humor it generated, but at the same time it offers a much more encompassing image of the human condition. To preempt the possible objections of the censorship, milder but still in place, Calinescu avoided adherence to a definite literary genre: his book evokes and at the same time parodies the fictional “life of a saint,” his deeds and great sayings; it offers essay-like reflections on the weirdness of human life; it includes poems, mini-sermons, short stories, and aphorisms; and, quite remarkably, it does all this in a quick, gripping style.

A most implausible figure, Zacharias Lichter, the main character, is an aging Romanian Jew who seems to come from one of Martin Buber’s Hassidic stories and lives the life of an eccentric beggar in a Bucharest untouched by history or politics. Lichter spends his time in the city’s parks and taverns, preaching to friends and acquaintances, among whom the most important are the always silent, half-asleep drunkard Leopold Nacht, considered by Lichter to be the deepest philosopher around, and the practical, helpful Dr. S., whose competence and skills in matters of psychology make Lichter call him a true demon. Zacharias Lichter’s mission in life has been defined by an earth-shaking mystic experience during which, fallen on the ground in a public garden and surrounded by giggling passers-by, Lichter realizes that God’s flame struck him. “Its flash had blinded me,” he testifies, “striking me like a stone, deafening me with its roar, parching my mouth with heat, and leaving behind a terrible thrust.” Strange visions, humans with heads of eagles, frogs, and rats, some showing forked tongues of snakes, surround him. When at last things return to normal, God’s flame continues to burn from afar, in silence.

Once he’s been cut off from the surrounding ordinary world, Lichter’s speeches and actions emphasize the difference between the life of the elect and the trivial existence of the rest of humanity. For the elect (he being one of them), existence has three stages: the circus (in his case, his clownish fall in the public garden), madness (his subsequent strange visions), and perplexity (the arrival of the silent flame of God). Circus begins as funny nonsense, moves toward tears and tragedy, soon reaching loneliness, silence, and lack of communication. At this stage, madness unifies the mind, liberates it from the oppression of language, leads it to myth and chaos. Perplexity, the last stage of the journey, is the realm of darkness and silence, reminding one of how God, as in negative theology, is beyond language, beyond being and non-being.

Lichter’s odd experiences and reflections are caricatures of religious thought and meant to make the reader smile. At the same time, they are reminders of human enigmas. The reader clearly sees that Lichter is a nonsense bubbling fool, yet we wonder whether he isn’t also a visionary with a point to make: a troubling, devastating one, expressed in a multitude of scandalous statements, all contradicting common sense, and yet each having an unexpected kind of plausibility.

Thus, Lichter, who as a Jew regularly reads the Hebrew Bible, states that Job was the first tragic hero who understood that suffering was both absurd and necessary. How could God, Lichter asks, make a bet with Satan, a bet that required the persecution of innocent Job? Why doesn’t Job revolt, why doesn’t he curse God? Because, Lichter answers, Job, being a pure soul and wanting to remain so, knows that without God’s absurd persecution, “purity dies, revolt gives way to disgust, truth to lies, and repentance — that miracle — to boundless boredom.” From the Book of Job one learns that the price of purity is renunciation, withdrawal, obedience.

Up to a point, this conclusion converges with the moral philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of Calinescu’s favorite thinkers, according to whom egotism is the channel of evil — an evil always cleverly disguised in moral gear. Genuine, non-egotistic morality, the German philosopher thought, consists in being aware of one’s links with the world of suffering. Job’s withdrawal and his obedience, however, don’t just respond to the world’s suffering, but also to the absurdity of God’s bet with Satan. The Biblical story retold by Lichter throws light on Romania’s moral dead-end at a time when its political system, claiming to offer the final salvation of humanity, bets that its subjects would reach paradise by accepting absurd, unmotivated suffering. Resistance, Lichter implies, is impossible, silence and obedience being the only answers. Not unlike Samuel Beckett’s Molloy (1951) and Eugène Ionesco’s Exit the King (1962), Calinescu’s book builds a parable that distantly, yet no less vividly, resembles a multitude of possible situations, including, precisely, that of the Bucharest of the 1960s.

And, again, like Molloy, Beckett’s character, and, to some extent, like Bérenger in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959), Zacharias Lichter has nothing in common with the non-elect, and their ordinary human interactions. For him, they belong to the “Realm of Stupidity,” whose major feature is universal dependence on possessing. On this issue, Lichter is more in line with the Marxist doctrine that considers private property the source of human injustice. Rejecting property, Lichter aspires to be a bearer of poverty, and argues that destitution is the privilege of the elect. “An angel of fire came,” he claims, freeing him from the “secretly poisoned tentacles of possession.” Going farther than Marxism, he also rejects employment, not because he is against work (he is not), but because employment encloses humans hierarchically in the sphere of having, far from their being. Capitalism, infected by the virus of ownership, should be overthrown, Lichter argues, and be replaced by a religious-anarchic society in which millions of workers would be converted to begging. To make the nonsense of his preaching even more striking, Lichter also praises stealing as a revolt against having, and considers it, under certain conditions, an important existential act.

Lichter highlights the evil nature of the Realm of Stupidity, of having as opposed to being, by arguing that it was founded by none else that the Devil himself, who tried to avenge “his own non-being.” The Devil’s specialty is to put things in practice, the practical spirit revealing, in Lichter’s opinion, “the very essence of stupidity,” which explains why he detests the ever-competent Dr. S. The practical spirit requires a sense of the possible, but not necessarily the sense of truth, given that, as Lichter adds, “the application of a false idea may yield more practical results than the application of a true one.” Consequently, lying proliferates in countless ways in all areas of action and knowledge.

Such statements resonate with major philosophical positions admired at that time, including the distinction between to have and to be, promoted by several existentialist thinkers, in particular Gabriel Marcel in France and Mihai Şora in Romania, as well as the proliferation of lying, visible in the rise of propaganda and its power over the crowds, which Gustave Le Bon, José Ortega y Gasset, and Elias Canetti analyzed from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. Calinescu listens to these thinkers, looks at the surrounding world, most probably agrees with their descriptions, but presents everything sarcastically, as though this might as well be the mad projection of his strange character.

The statements of beggar-prophet, moreover, are never definitive. Having claimed that lying is the work of the Devil, Lichter later revisits the topic, declaring that lies are part of the “mendacious nature of language.” He certainly doesn’t adhere to the conviction, expressed in St. John’s Gospel, that “in the beginning was the Word.” By contrast, for Zacharias Lichter, “[o]ne and indivisible, truth is silent.” And, jumping, as usual, beyond the limits of logic, he concludes not only that everything that can be said about anything is a lie, but also that “I, Zacharias Lichter, am the greatest lie of all.” And, alluding to Descartes, he declares in his usual histrionic tone: “I lie, therefore I do not exist. […] What saves me, in the end, is nostalgia for truth,” a divine feeling that grants him timeless peace. Thus, he acknowledges his belief in the double nature of reality, the divine good always being supplemented by the devil’s lies and nonexistence.

It is worth mentioning that Lichter launches a tricky attack against writing and its links to truth and lies: writing is responsible, he claims, for the corruption of human memory and for deepening “the resources of oppression and exploitation.” A victory for having, the rise of writing was a tragic event, which shows that freedom on the social plane “can only be defined as an exit from history and as forgetting.

Zacharias Lichter acknowledges his guilt of existing, as any gentle disciple of Schopenhauer would be ready to do. Turning, however, into a negative, monstrous Bérenger (Ionesco’s character), Lichter confesses being guilty of all wars, massacres, injustices, tortures, death sentences, by hanging, immolation, on the wheel, by flaying, drowning, poisoning. He wishes to be punished, but knowing that it won’t happen, he concludes, again against any plausibility, that “Hell is the absence of punishment, the yearning for chastisement; and responsibility is the hell of conscience.” Only Lichter could imagine and formulate such an insolent rejection of both human and divine justice. Most probably, this rejection has something to do with Calinescu’s own sense that the wrongs of history and the virtual absence of retribution are very difficult to accept.

Zacharias Lichter’s clownish rejection of society and his preposterous mysticism don’t argue against ideologies that claim to have found the road to universal happiness and feel justified to take over our world. Calinescu’s character simply shows something extraordinarily precious, namely that exceptions are conceivable, that lonely paths leading beyond the limits of conventional wisdom can always be imagined, and that adventurous refusals of conformity cannot be completely abolished. Today, long after it was written, and far away from its place of origin, this book offers its readers a welcome breath of fresh wind.

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When he wrote The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, Calinescu, in his mid-30s, was one of the most respected young critics and literary scholars in Romania. Had the liberalization of the 1960s lasted, he would have certainly continued his successful career in his native country. However, the crackdowns began again, and in the early 1970s Calinescu left Romania. Other writers chose to stay, at least for a while, as did Norman Manea, whose great prose realistically portrayed everyday life in Romania and was eventually published, not without long, energetic struggles with the censors. But by the mid-’80s Manea also had to leave. He joined Calinescu in the United States, and the two became friends.

The scholarly books Calinescu published in English (such as Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism and Rereading) are important achievements, and it is a true joy for world literature that his best work, the imaginary biography Zacharias Lichter, is finally available in English in the excellent translation by his widow, Adriana Calinescu, and by his former colleague, Breon Mitchell. It is equally touching that his friend Norman Manea was able to write the book’s admirable preface.

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Thomas Pavel, born in Romania, is professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago. His works include Fictional Worlds (Harvard University Press, 1986), The Spell of Language: Post-structuralism and speculation (University of Chicago Press, 2001), and The Lives of the Novel (Princeton University Press, 2013).

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