NICOLAE STEINHARDT – THE DIARY OF HAPPINESS
Motto: “Envy is a incomparably more active passion than selfishness, which is a benign sickness. And the virus of equality urges us to wish for each other’s harm with obstinacy. The hate for the others can be more powerful than the love for oneself” (N. Steinhardt, 98)
Although literature has a powerful fictional component, being part of the artistic genre, it brings to surface relevant episodes of a political or ideological system, even more convincingly than the mechanisms of historical analysis, which more often than not are cold and unconvincing. Literary confessions, though, lose a part of their fictionality, as they may become a true historical document. As Mircea Eliade put it: “A personal diary has for me a more universal human value than a novel with masses, with tens of thousands of people”1, and Eugen Ionescu gives the same trustful credit to this type of literatyre, considering the diary “preferable to the novel, the tragedy, the poem and the other literary genres, as it is more complete[…] and more true”2. Such is The Diary of Anna Frank, a testimony about the waiting room of the Nazi extermination camp, and The Diary of Happiness, by Nicolae Steinhardt, a testimony about the communist camps and prisons. The literature of confession mediates art with the historical document, and the truth of emotion is more persuasive than that of any scientific recording of the same facts.
A highly cultivated man, of Jewish origin, converted to Greek Orthodoxy, Nicolae Steinhardt was born in 1912, near Bucharest, and died in 1989, near Baia Mare, as a consequence of a crisis of angina. He was a B.A. in Law, and Letters, and held a PhD in Constitutional Law. His destiny was marked by a double persecution: between 1940-1944 he was persecuted on grounds of ethnic origin (his Jewish origin), and between 1947-1958 he was persecuted on political grounds (the ideea of social discrimination, which lies at the basis of political discrimination in communism, is identified in the Diary as a sourse of the evil), along with other Romanian educated men, simply because he refused to acknowledge the false values of communism, especially as the regime allowed him, as well as they allowed Kafka, to work only in domains which were much lower than his degree of education and professional capability. In 1959 he was imprisoned by communists, after a brief investigation at the Securitate, becase he refused to be a witness in the law-suite opened by the communist state against the “lot of mystical-legionary intellectuals”, (legionaries were adherents to extreme nationalism), and convicted to 13 years of hard labour in prison, under the accusation of “crimes of plotting against social order”. Courage is the constant value which he proved to have during his entire life. His father supported him in his decision of not betraying his friends, by disclosing to the Securitate the conversation they had at their meetings; we may say that even from the very beginning of his detention, he was a winner: “It is true, father said, that you will have very difficult days. But your nights will be peaceful […], you will sleep well. While if you accept to be a witness for the prosecution you will have rather good days, to tell the truth, but your nights will be terrible.”3 In 1960, at the Jilava prison, he is converted to Greek Orthodoxy, within an ecumenical ceremonial, a gesture inspired by the Orthodox spirituality which dominated among inmates in the prisons of the communist terror. The very idea of ecumenism is a hypostasis of tolerance, which, in Steinhardt’s vision can beat the evil. In 1964 he was released from prison, as a consequence of a general release act of the political inmates. Since 1978 to his death, he was a librarian at the Rohia Monastery, in Maramures County, where, in 1980 he also becomes a monk.
His book The Diary of Happiness, which was released posthumously in 1991, is – as the author himself names it – a literary testament, but it is part of the so-called literature of the drawer (along other books like Fenomenul Piteşti [The Pitesti Phenomenon] , by Virgil Ierunca, Mărturisiri din mlaştina disperării [Confessions from the Swamp of Dispair], by Dumitru Bordeianu), which contain unpleasant revealings about a period of terror, which some wanted to erase from the collective memory – a form of Romanian anti-communist resistence. The main themes of meditation of the memoirs of the terror camps are related to the continuous degradation of human condition, the undermining of value under the pressure of the forces of evil specific for the totalitarian regimes: psychological and physical torture, the absence of the freedom of speech (which is fundamental especially for the educated people), denouncement as a way of life, aggressive sufficiency, and, above everything, the expanding of the concentration system at the level of the whole country, which becomes a vast prison, as the brave father of the author noticed on the occasion of his son’s getting arrested: “do not be sad, you are leaving a vast prison for a smaller one, and when you get out, do not be too happy, as you will be passing from a small prison in a larger one”4. The first version of the Dairy, unfinished, was confiscated by the Securitate in 1972, but it was given back to him in 1975. In just a short while the only copy of it was confiscated again, and so he had to re-write it from his memory. The memoirs have a documentary importance whose value depends largely on the observing quality of the author. The echo of the phenomena he recorded and evoked shape, without any doubt, the very idea of evil in the communist concentration system. Being a book of mystic initiation, an expression of a Christian existentialism, The Diary of Happiness speaks about the condition of the human being in an extreme moment (the prisons he went through, and the torture he had to suffer), the confrontation with the evil and the modalities to defeat it, as Nicolae Steinhardt was a winner. Fundamentalist ideologies – Communism and Nazism – do not only want to annihilate religious belief, but also to substitute themselves in its place. Both extreme ideologies met initially with success with the masses, as they constituted illusory forms of bringing myth in everyday life. The communist utopia of equality, of the perfect good which can be brought to life through social and community projects stirred the collective imaginary, which had always dreamed of a going back to the paradisiac space, only towards a technological one – that is an imitation of Paradise, of a very poor quality, but the more shiny and noisy, the easier it was to manipulate masses. While capitalism established inequalities, and pointed them out, communism, on the contrary, set out to homogenize everything. On a communist planet, there would exist no single corner forgotten by the technological civilization5. Being more than a political programme, a political myth, communism calls for the times of mythical memory,
which, unconsciously, refuse the practice of history. As anyone could see, the endeavour to bring myth into history and to give it functional values failed.
A purification of the evil of history, of the vices of other social organizations by means of violence, class hate (social racism the author makes so often reference to as to a catalyser for human hate, paradoxically, in the name of good) only managed to suspend values which had been considered commonly good for centuries, without being able to put anything instead. A source of the communist evil was the lack of capacity of discernement when it came to the society it wanted to replace. This endeavour to find an agreement between the archaic paradisiac myth and the modern, political one was done through modalities which did not ensure a continuity of myth to pragmatism; and, moreover, a refusal to see nuances which would endanger the idea of equality became fatal. Individual salvation from a real and mental concentration system can be done by detecting the sources of the evil, by an inner eliberation, as “one cannot remain intelligent under the empire of ideology”6. The Diary of Happiness is a cultural-mystical introspection of this undertaking by a human being who refuses to be deceived; if you cannot oppose to physical abuse, courage is the main modality through which one can oppose to emotional abuse, to the penetration of evil beyond the material body of man.
The flashes, the fragments the book is made up from reveal the adventure of a tough conscience, who considered that to give in means a humility, and this is a form of diabolic evil. The form of torture that communism brought aobut was the undermining of trust in the people close to a person; if until then when one wanted to destroy somebody they would appeal to his/her enemies, now fundamental needs of the human being were compromised: affection and trust: “the contribution of the new, the most valuable innovation, is that in order to destroy a person they do not go to his enemies, but to his friends, his wife, his children, his mistresses, the ones he loves and in which he humanly, foolishly, has put his trust and his thirst of affection”7. Thus, he is confronted at the Securitate with his lady friend, whom he discreetly calls T., who betrays him with a demeaning zeal, typical for what the human being had become (it is not by chance that
6 Besançon, Alain, Nenorocirea secolului. Despre comunism, nazism şi unicitatea „şoah”-ului,
Ed. Humanitas, Bucureşti, 1999, p. 23
Dante places the traitors in the toughest and straightest circle of the Inferno). Even technically, the investigation wipes out any progress mankind has made from the Middle Ages to the modern period: “The Securitate, once with the new, has come back to the inquisitional system; the answers were not recorded by typing, but by writing down by the investigators, as they did in the case of Joan of d’Arc”8 The answers were distorted by adding to them, or reducing them, in the sense the investigators wanted, creating by these actions instances of guilt out of nothing. The goodness of the world, as the communist ideology self-illusionary claimed to look for, cannot be re-established by any form of terror. The premises were wrong, the falling down of the entire scaffold was predictable. Suspicion inseminated in the entire society, in the name of a utopian good, was the very first phase of refined terror (which still lingers on in post-communist societies). The enemy, usually an imaginary one, could be spotted anywhere, and once the paranoia installed, it affected the inner equilibrium of the individuals, and alienated an entire society. Not only the starting point was destructive, but the entire approach proved to be ceaselessly aggressive: “Mistrust is killing […] it demolishes the one it is targeted to as a human being.”9 There is no specific ethnical group, race, social category which is threatened and put under surveillance, but susceptibility, fear of treason (for they, themselves built the entire regime on treason) was expanded upon the entire society. Nothing can be built on hate, and the violence of the ascending and descending of the “new man” has proven this fully. But, as I have already shown, the models of terror which are applied inside the prison were reflected outside it, too, and vice versa.
If the macro-social environment was marked by suspicion, which was deliberately instilled in people (in fact, it was an even more diabolical enforcement of the Latin saying Divide et impera), neither was the world of the prison saved from this falsehood of “the easily seen through plan of the administration to incite controversies, arguments, by putting in the same room people who had dissimilar political, social, or ethnical values”10. Discord was the natural consequence of suspicion, and it was doomed to provoke at a certain point the destruction of a system which lacked the basic layer of unity. As in Orwell’s Animal Farm, or in E.Ionescu’s play The Rhinoceroses, contamination was fatal. The type of mass contamination in this case was not that with the ideology, be it Communist or Nazi, which can be mimed, can be a mask that may help one survive, but a contamination which operates structurally: “ This is how the terrorized and re-educated (those who had the experience of the communist prisons, those who were under surveillance, or investigated) got to talk to each other, as if there had always been an agent of the Securitate present among them. Then, there is neither need for a traitor, nor for self-censoring: each of them goes on assuming that role, instinctively, automatically. The Pavlovian reflex is obtained.”11Only when the inner freedom is lost, the entire meaning of the world is endangered. Thus, post-communist countries are still suffering, and they should be regarded with more empathy.
The space of the prison, of the investigation room, and that of the court-house seem to be fragments from a labyrinth whose end cannot be even inferred: “Cell 34 is a kind of a long, dark tunnel, endowed with many and powerful elements coming from a nightmare. It is a cave, a sewage canal, it is an under-earth bowl, cold and profoundly hostile, it is a barren mine, a crater belonging to an extinguished volcano, it is a rather well-shaped image of a bleached hell.”12 The tomb-space in which “everything can be soiled; here even light is mean and evil”13, the prison reduces to the essence the dramas that happen in the larger circle outside – the world plagued by fear becomes a huge tomb, because fear is the main source of evil. Next on line is human weakness. The threats they were making against the security of the family that remained in a supervised freedom were part of the arsenal of psychic terror (reflexes that have been preserved in the post-communist society, but in a diluted form). The author experimented both over-crowded cells, in which privacy was an illusion, and the “torture without tools, by placing face to face, in plain vacuum two entities: man and pure time.”14 In the investigation room an entire comedy follows: curtains are drawn (they are made of velvet and of a dark colour) in order to create an atmosphere of panic. Tensioned pauses. The investigators go out and come back in. These are false exists, as in theatre: they stop in the threshold, as if wanting to go out, change their minds and come back.[…] My father’s old age is evoked in detail, and I cannot let him die, you see, of course, like a dog.”15 – a phrase that would frequently recur, threateningly, in the words of the investigators. Interior panic is transmitted to the exterior as well, to those who remained in a false and temporary state of freedom. One could never tell who came next. The court-house was just a simulacrum of solemnity, big and empty, threatening – vacuum itself as the entire system it served: “In the big, empty hall four compact groups of human being will appear, separated one from the other by vacuum-spaces which remind one of the fathomless distances between the swarms of universes.”16
The hardest moments Steinhardt lived in prison were two: the confrontation with the philosopher Constantin Noica, the mentor of the group that was arrested, and the second confrontation with T., his old lady friend. The philosopher was wearing dar glasses int he investigation room, so that he could not see who was present. The long period of torture (horrifying beatings, disease, starvation) had made him give in; not even a shadow of human dignity had remained: “He does not contest anything, he confirms everything, he pronounces my name carelessly, in an enumeration. […] The exam is short and the candidate has given quick and correct answers. The candidate even bows a few times. The balck glasses give the candidate an air as of a cadger, an obeying, sorrowful poor man, exactly like beggars and paupers…”17 A highly educated man, a model of an intellectual, used to subtle argumenting the meanings of existence had been transformed (temporarily, as after his being released from prison he was able to find his se
lf again) in what Hannah Arendt calls the mass man: “The main characteristic of the mass man is not brutality, or presenting a type of retard, but isolation and a lack of normal social relations.”18 Incarceration is the placing in the abyss of any previously known mechanisms regarding social relations – it was abnormality itself. The same thing happened outside prisons, but using less harsh ferocious methods, since the resistance they had to overcome was weaker. T. had become a “professional accuser” of the simulacra trials conducted by the communists. Their wish to destroy social resistance invented political adversaries ceaselessly, and courts had become accusation factories, in which the new order was created and supported.
Although apparently benign, ignorance is a source that generates evil in totalitarian regimes; as in the case of the Nazi system, the free world (be it only apparently free) observed for a long time everything, pretending not to know what was going on. A spirit of self-preservation took the place of the wish for inner liberation: “Ignorance, stupidity, a blind passing through life and among things, or a careless living, all come from the devil. The Samaritan was not only good, he was also attentive: he knew how to see.”19 Commitment, activism, which a privileged social position owes humanity, are methods of annihilation of evil. Forgiveness ought not to be mistaken with complicity: “Man […], even if he has an important position, or is placed somewhere in the lead of public affairs does not have the right to appeal to the principle of forgiveness in order to remain distant and cold in the presence of evil, and to let innocent people be victims of the villains.”20 Or “by becoming identical with great evil, weakness shown towards stupidity is the same with letting criminals go wild.”21 Silence, submission do not re-activate, revaluate, or give back meaning to the old values of humanity, but, on the contrary, they let these dissolve. Harsh experiences in prison, in the presence of so various types of people, will make him draw the conclusion that social origin has no importance in life, nor do political, or religious beliefs, or philosophical options – the mark of the fundamental attitude of man when faced with extreme moments at a certain moment is given by character.
The mystical experiences he underwent identified as sources of evil the devil himself – which meant the loss of harmony with the self and with the others, the breaking of world’s mysterious balance; evil is an active principle whom one must answer to by activism as well: “The introduction of evil in the world, as an active principle, is an act of creation, analogous with the divine act. Satan was tempting Adam whispering: <you will be like God>. Talking this way, Satan did not lie entirely: the being, for one minute, became divine; he created in parallel with divinity: he created evil. Which contaminated the world.”22 Or “In the light drizzle along the street, I understand that it is not proper for us to harm anyone, since any act of disorder, rudeness, brutality, quarrel, anger, contempt, offence comes from the devil.”23 Evil is a malady whose impersonal character has to be exorcised in order to find human authenticity. But this is possible only by becoming aware of this malady, by being brave enough to look it in the eye, in the mirror. Atararxia as a philosophical form of indifference favours the dissemination of evil in the world. Nicolae Steinhardt succeeds in contradicting Alain Besançon de facto. The latter draws in his book a comparison between communism and Nazism, which has allegedly a model value: “Christians have not freed themselves totally from communist ideas, which are mixed in their minds with humanitarian ideas introduced by the latter among believers and clergy.”24 Nevertheless, Steinhardt was a convinced anti-communist, affirming that communist ideology does not have a principle – “as many heads, as many principles”25- cut loose and dismembered to alienation from the divine essence of the universe. Besançon’s affirmation would be much more suitable to mediocre psychologies, ready to attach themselves, brainlessly, to ideologies that just sound will, without trying their applicability, or their real interest for humanity. After he x-rayed mercilessly the environment he lived in even after coming out of prison, he arrived at a relentless diagnostic, crashing the aura of idealism that communism usually tries to put on: “This is him, not another. Vengeful. Small. Stinky. Vulgar. Envious. A believer in the trinity: hate, suspicion, envy. Foul-mouthed like a dowdy, and hateful like a flunkey.”26 Frustration, social complexes that are violently manifested is everything that remains from a society that exiled its humane traditional values. The dislocation of the elites, and the invasion of the barbarians, that is the stupid, the uneducated who cease power and act destructively. Communism taught them only to deny, only later to build, but without a sane base. Misunderstood tolerance, which can be assimilated to cowardice, manifested by decent people, facilitated the access of violent ignorant people who think they are the owners of the unique formula of happiness. It is a world that does not ask for the effort to construct the self, but only for the exacerbation of primary instincts: “Evil can be done by anyone, no matter how wimpish he may be. Good, though, is only meant for tough souls, for tempered characters. Evil: milk for children; good: meat for adults.”27 Courage, heroism, even ability sometimes, are forms to defeat weakness, fear, egocentrism – facile, but devastating sources of evil. Love for the self, when in excess, can hardly bear failures, which make the egocentric fall apart when faced with serious problems of life.
Very quickly, paradisiac utopia becomes a bloody one. The interior of the prison was the reflex of the evil in its exterior, reduced to the essence, but the torturers could not suspect the powerful resources the human being had stored during millennia, in direct relation with the traditional values of humanity, which had been filtered, and verified by time. The new man, the communist, like Nietzsche’s superman, failed. A new system fo values, which proposed itself, cannot ignore the experience of humanity. Artistic avant-garde is one thing, human reality another; it does not allow the same experiments that annihilate the mechanisms for inner adjusting.
Ph.D. Carmen Dărăbuş, North University, Roumania
1 Eliade, Mircea , Originalitate şi autenticitate în Oceanografie, Ed. Humanitas, Bucureşti, 1991, p. 126
2 Ionescu, Eugen , Nu, Ed. Vremea, Bucureşti, 1934, p. 279
3 Steinhardt, Nicolae , Jurnalul fericirii, Ed. Dacia, Cluj-Napoca,, 1992, p. 23
4 Steinhardt, Nicolae , Jurnalul fericirii, Ed. Dacia, Cluj-Napoca, 1992, p. 88
5 Boia, Lucian , Mitologia ştiinţifică a comunismului, Ed. humanitas, Bucureşti, 2005, p. 109
7 Steinhardt, N. , ibidem, p. 16
8 Steinhardt, N. , ibidem, p. 16
9 Steinhardt, N., ibidem, p. 103
10 Steinhardt, N., ibidem, p. 164
11 Steinhardt, N. , idem, p 192
12 Steinhardt, N. , ibidem, p. 30
13 Steinhardt, N. , ibidem, p. 30
14 Steinhardt, N., p. 253
15 Steinhardt, N. , ibidem, p. 46
16 Steinhardt, N. , ibidem, p. 46
17 Steinhardt, N. , ibidem, p. 26
18 Arendt, Hannah , Originile totalitarismului, Ed. Humanitas, Bucureşti, 1994, p. 416
19 Steinhardt, N. , ibidem, p. 52
20 Steinhardt, N. , ibidem, p. 52
21 Steinhardt, N. , ibidem, p. 52
22 Steinhardt, N., idem, p. 185
23 Steinhardt, N., idem, p. 185
24 Steinhardt, N., idem, p. 185
25 Besançon, Alain, Nenorocirea secolului…, idem, p. 113
26 Steinhardt, N., idem, p. 151
27 Steinhardt, N., idem, p. 152