Maciej Bielawski – „Nicolae Steinhardt and his “Journal of Happiness””

15 ian.

Maciej Bielawski – „Nicolae Steinhardt and his “Journal of Happiness””

Nicu Steinhardt (1912-1988) was one of the most interesting, significant and representative persons of twentieth-century European culture. Born in Bucharest at the turn of the century in a Jewish family, he was educated in law and became a gifted literary critique. Moved by his natural intellectual openness, he proved himself to be a profound thinker and erudite, writer and philosopher between the two wars. During the totalitarian regime in Rumania, he spent four years in communist prisons, a turning point for him as an important experience linked him with the Christian faith. In the time after his release from prison, he deepened this experience both existentially and verbalized in various writings. Steinhardt spent the last ten years of his life as a monk in an Orthodox monastery in Rohia, in northern Rumania. He died there in 1989 leaving a rich literary patrimony which has yet to be completely published, known and studied.[1] Just this brief biographical outline alone is enough to justify – if necessary – writing about him.

I have even thought of an appropriate title for someone who would oneday want to write a book about Nicu Steinhardt: “The Last European”. His life and way of thinking and being embraced some of the most characteristic dimensions of the European culture and its values. He belongs to the generation which in its actual form is going to change a lot; a generation which is passing away, yet, still is present. He represents a world of values which should be taken into consideration especially in this time of changes. On the other hand, I would not want to exaggerate his importance nor to imply an absolute necessity to know Steinhardt and his „message”. He is also just one among others, unique but representative of a certain group of people. Hence to talk about him is to talk about a human being and about the theological mystery lived in a specific context where words were and still are important, such as: reading, writing, literature from Homer to Joyce, the Bible, Jewish and Christian tradition, Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy, conversion, baptism, monastery, life and death, philosophy and theology, joy and Christ, etc. In fact, to talk about or with N. Steinhardt is to talk and think about all of that – and much more.

The following pages are an attempt to provide an introduction to the world of Nicu Steinhardt by exploring his main work, The Journal of Happiness.

The Journal of happiness – its redactions and publication

Steinhardt’s Journal was in a certain way concluded in 1972, signed with the pseudonym Nicu Niculescu and directed to be circulated among some of his friends. In this same year the text was confiscated by secret police, a fact that motivated the Author to re-write or re-construct it all from the beginning. In 1975, after the intervention of some Rumanian authorities of literary world, the confiscated text was returned to him. So, during the following years, he worked on correcting both the first and the second version. In 1984, the texts – not hidden – were once again confiscated by secret police and placed in the State Archive. In effect, after of all these editions, confiscations and re-writings, there are four versions of The Journal of Happiness: (1) the original completed in 1972; (2) the original that was revised after 1975; (3) the one re-written after 1972; (4) the second redaction of the second version made after 1975. The original text, from the very first version of Nicu Steinhardt, was used to publish The Journal of Happiness in Rumanian in 1991, 1992, 1993 and in 1997[2], and also for translations in Italian and French (Polish – in preparation).

Some problems with the structure

Even in its exterior form, the work is immense: 500 pages which upon first glance seem to be a chaotic mass of written notes randomly pieced together. Reading the first pages can give the same impression that even though there are often „good and profound” reflections in the book, chaos seems to prevail. Nonetheless, a persevering and patient read, spending time with the text, reveals that not only is there a structure in the chaos, but also that the Author has profound reasons for his method. As the reader moves through the book, it becomes more and more evident that there is something behind the chaos and that the Author uses the form itself to communicate something important.

Reflecting on Steinhardt’s life does generate some questions and the need for further inquiry. How is it possible that such a subtle erudite and professional critique of literature, a passionate reader and investigator of writers of all epochs and cultures, could not think profoundly about the structure of his own main work? Is it even conceivable for someone who was the disciple of Eliade and Noica, having analyzed the structure of language and thought, and who has studied the compositions of such refined writers as Joyce, Proust, Kafka and Kippling, would actually write a text without thinking about its form and composition? Could Steinhardt have written something so personal as The Journal of Happiness without seriously accounting for his method?

Of course, there is an element of spontaneity involved, like in every artistic work, as an inner movement which simply pushes the authors to express himself and give everything he has accumulated and carried in himself throughout the years. In the case of Steinhardt’s Journal, this aspect alone is important not to reject. However, the work in itself is something more than the simple „testimonies” or „memories” written in the twentieth century by authors describing their experiences of totalitarian horror. Though definitely a dimension and contributing cause of some of the chaos of his „notes”, it is not a sufficient explanation, according to me, of Steinhardt’s book. Another insufficient theory to account for its chaos seeks to classify his Journal as a paper written in the process of therapy, as the fruit of subconscious inspiration. All the above-mentioned possible explanations should be taken into consideration as „useful” yet „lacking”. In my opinion, this external chaos has a structure which hides within its depth an important message. I would like to offer some approaches which could reveal not only the reasons behind the Journal’s structure, but also some of the ideas contained therein as conscientiously constructed by Steinhardt.


The Journal has neither a table of contents nor an index of names, places or subjects – items which in the future could be added by editors to facilitate studies. The only indications that are clearly noted are dates, usually the year but sometimes also the specific month and day, a definite sign that for Steinhardt time is important. But what kind of time? One would expect the various events, memories and thoughts to be presented in chronological order, yet such is not the case: for example, a paragraph dated „May 1950” is followed by „September 1963”, „November 1955”, and then by the years 1937 and 1959, etc. The dates seem to be mixed together without any order or logic, or at least without any chrono-logic. Why? Perhaps there is another kind of logic behind these dates.

Thus, the Journal embraces almost half a century (48 years) with its dates ranging from the years 1924-1925[3] to 1972[4]. The earliest dates indicated by Steinhardt refer to the time when he was a twelve-year old boy, while the most recent ones are about when he was a sixty-year old man. Between these two extremities are notes dating from the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and early seventies, arranged – as was already mentioned – without any chronological order. Yet the majority of these dates are from the years 1960 to 1964, the time in which he was in prison. It is also important to note that the whole Journal starts with January 1960, when he was arrested, and despite the subsequent inconsistency in indicating the different years, moves slowly to conclude with the Fall of 1964 when he left the prison. This overall movement that begins in 1960 and ends in 1964 does not exclude but actually provokes a certain going back and forth in time. A possible analogy can help imagine such a thought process: on board a train a person moves physically in time with the movement of the train, yet the main activity occurs in his mind as he thinks and remembers during the course of the journey. In the case of The Journal of Happiness, the time in prison (1960-1964) is that of the train, and the rest of the time (before and after prison) is thought about and remembered along the way. Of course, the redaction itself adds a third level to be considered: Steinhardt is thinking about what he was thinking during the time of his imprisonment and about the experience of the prison itself. He is like a person who is remembering the train trip and the thoughts he had during the trip, all the while adding comments from the time in which he was actually writing.

The book begins with the themes and memories associated with the moment of Steinhardt’s arrest and subsequent law-suit, where a key figure in his condemnation appears, Constantin Noica. This philosopher, remembered from time to time in the pages of the Journal, returns with a strong and meaningful presence at the end of the book. No longer in the context of the tragic lawsuit of 1960, they appear together in an atmosphere of renewed freedom immediately after prison and in the years which follow. Of course, other themes and memories emerge around these events, yet the ones associated with Noica are of qualitative importance and determine a certain chronological progression.

Also to be noted is how the beginning of the book is closely related to Steinhardt’s moment of conversion and baptism. Though a constant theme throughout the book, it later takes on a different perspective as the Author reflects deeply upon and questions the problem of his attitude as a Christian facing the „new” world that confronts him after prison. Various observations made about his own time of baptism occur occasionally, becoming more developed only at the end of the book. Meanwhile, other dimensions that are stressed more in the beginning become less important in the end. Despite these variations, however, the Journal does seem to have an overall structure of time.

Yet, the order, or lack thereof, in which Steinhardt places the dates still remains to be explained. It seems that the dated passages are sometimes placed one after another randomly and without a reciprocal relations. Yet there is clearly a link, though subtle, that connects the dates: for example, the whole narration about the beginning of Steinhardt’s stay in the prison of Jilava which culminates with his baptism is preceded by some memories about his time in England and his contacts there with some groups of Christians.[5] Moreover, the fragment about baptism is followed by descriptions of the first moments after his imprisonment. Thus, in Steinhardt’s mind, the gift of baptismal freedom is related to his historical freedom which, in turn, becomes a „parabola” of the first one. As the narration continues, the theme of conversion reappears as he discovers other events in his history linked with Christ. The subject of freedom also returns even more profoundly related to the whole inner attitude of being a Christian.

Although similar interesting and revealing examples could easily be multiplied, it seems more important at this point to examine the general messages or thoughts that result from their analyses. The first to note how the time associated with Steinhardt’s imprisonment and baptism provide the foundation for interpreting the other events in his life, whether they occurred before or after these essential years. He pivots from them back and forth in time as he tries to explain his own life. On the other hand, it is also time itself, and the events associated with it, that allows him to understand the foundational events of prison and baptism. The years connected with his baptism became the basis for the unity of Steinhardt’s entire life. To understand and construct this unity required a work of reflection extending in time and penetrating human existence and history: hence, a „chaotic” movement. It was impossible to comprehend, let alone to explain, all at once the tremendous experience of baptismal grace in the hell of prison. How could he express the experience of Light which shines in the darkness? One of the purposes of Steinhardt’s Journal was to communicate this paradox; and the structure of the book, as seen from the dimension of time, was constructed to achieve that purpose.


Some similar observations should be made from the perspective of space, in terms of the locations mentioned in the book. A brief study of the places named leads to analogous conclusions, which reveal yet another dimension of Steinhardt and his message. Only sometimes, and in the beginning of certain paragraphs, do the names of places occur. They are the places where Steinhardt had been and which left a deep impression in him. The book starts and ends in Bucharest. In the interim, however, the Author refers to such locations as: England and London; France with its Paris and Chartres; Switzerland and Lucern; Austria and Vienna; and Romania and its Bucharest, Sibiu, Cluj, Brasov, Aiud, Gherla, Jilava, Cernica, Vartec, and Funderi. Every now and then, the indication of place is much more precise – many, of course, are cell related with the names of prisons in which Steinhardt was, like Jilava (cell 13, 24) or Malmaison (cell 12). The majority of the references in the Journal are, in fact, from the prisons and their cells. Thus, there is an overall expansion of space from Rumania with its Bucharest towards other European cities; and at the same time, an atrophy or narrowing of space limited to one prison cell or another. The most important experiences and profound thoughts, however, are shown to have occurred in the specific, limited spaces. For Steinhardt, the spacial center of the world is in the prison’s cell, which serves as the reference point for all other places. Yet, it is the structure of time, as described above, which helps to organize and understand Steinhardt’s places and their importance in his Journal.

An icon?

These reflections about time and space in Steinhardt’s Journal can be seen as an icon, especially one that portrays transfigured time and space. In fact, in an icon, time depends on and is in function of eternity. Thus, the mortal face of man receives an immortal ray of eternal light, and its chronology is subordinated to eternity such that it can present together in one scene different events that occurred separately in time.

There is a certain kind of icon in which Christ is presented in the center, surrounded by various events from His Life, almost as a frame. The same is sometimes done for the lives of saints. Anyone gazing on the icon looks all over it, from the corner to the center and then to another corner, etc. The different events are related one to another and rooted in the central representation. Something similar happens in the Journal of Nicu Steinhardt. The central event is his conversion, baptism and his years in the prisons of Jilava, Gherla and Aiud. All other events which occurred earlier or later and in many different places are profoundly related to this special, unique time and space. Everything is seen and understood in the light of this space/time experience. Because of this dynamic, it should be said that the hidden structure of Journal, the structure which shines forth from what seems to be a chaos of notes, is existential, theological and christologic or even christocentric. In fact, this christocentrism is something essential for the person of Nicolae Steinhardt. His life, rich and fascinating that it was, passed through many different experiences, all the while very theological and centered in a mysterious way on Christ. The Journal of Happiness teaches us to look with the same perspective not only on the life of Steinhardt, but also on our own.

Maciej Bielawski


[1] Among the most important of Stenhardt’s writings are: În generul lui Cioran, Noica, Eliade… (1934), Essai sur une conception catholique du Judaisme (1935), Illusions et réalités juives (1936), Între viaţă şi cărţi (1976), Incertitudini literere (1980), Geo Bogza (1982), Critică la persoana întâi (1983), Escale în spaţiu şi timp (1987), Prin alţii spre sine. Eseuri vechi şi noi (1988), Monologul polifonic (1991), Primejdea mărturisirii. Convorbiri cu Ioan Pintea (1993), Dăruind vei dobândi (1994), Cartea împărtăşirii (1994), Drumul către isihie (1999). He also translated into Rumanian the literary works of J. Barlow, D. Storez, M.O. Lacamp, R. Kipling, G. Boissier and R. Graves.

[2] Cf. N. Steinhardt, Jurnalul fericirii, Dacia, Cluj-Napoca 1997.

[3] Cf. N. Steinhardt, Diario della felicità, Il Mulino, Bologna 1995, 282.

[4] Cf. ibid., 422 and 434.

[5] Cf. ibid., 104-121.

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