N.Steinhardt belongs to a remarkable generation of Romanian essayists and philosophers (Generation ‘27) whose intellectual journey began in the late 1920s and first peaked in the 1930s. Among Steinhardt’s friends at the time were Mircea Eliade, Eugène Ionesco, and E.M.Cioran, who later made brilliant careers abroad. Influenced by the predominant existentialist Zeitgeist, these young Romanian intellectuals were obsessed with authenticity, saw culture and life as indissolubly linked, and were familiar with the main intellectual debates of the time. Steinhardt’s friendship with other distinguished essayists and philosophers who remained in Romania—Constantin Noica, Alexandru Paleologu, Mihai Sora, Sergiu Al. George, Dinu Pillat—had a lasting influence on his intellectual and spiritual life.
These similarities notwithstanding, Steinhardt’s own destiny was a singular one, in many respects a coincidence of opposites. A Jew who converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, a writer and monk dividing his time between the cultural attractions of Bucharest and the contemplative atmosphere of Rohia monastery, an enlightened “nationalist” who loved the traditions of his country but also felt comfortable on the streets of London or in the gardens of Chevotogne monastery, Steinhardt considered himself a franc-tireur, a “liberal conservative,” and a “dilettante.” In his essays he mixed moral and aesthetic considerations and ignored the often rigid canons of academic literary criticism and philosophy. His works—published in the most distinguished Romanian journals such as Revista Fundaţiilor Regale (The journal of royal foundations), Viaţa Românească (Romanian life), Secolul 20 (The 20th century), Steaua (The star), Familia (The family), and Vatra (The hearth)—range from theological essays to nonacademic literary criticism. Among his most beloved authors were G.K.Chesterton, Charles Dickens, Nikolai Berdiaev, Charles Péguy, and Mircea Eliade; his admiration was for the France of Blaise Pascal, Simone Weil, and Léon Bloy rather than that of René Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault.
A lover of liberty and an opponent of unconditional obedience and dogmatism, Steinhardt was rightly called by one of his fellows “the samurai of Romanian literary criticism.” His eccentric profile stirred controversy and admiration; after the Revolution of 1989 he became almost a cult figure. Unexpected associations of ideas, the propensity to reconsider unduly ignored writers, the rejection of the ethics/aesthetics dichotomy— these were among the characteristics that formed the core of his personality as an essayist. The aim of art, Steinhardt once wrote (echoing Andrei Tarkovskii), is to prepare humans for death; culture cannot be separated from ethics simply because there is no hiatus between life and books. Furtbermore, he believed that the key to understanding art and literature is to cherish all their forms and manifestations. The more one admires and loves, Steinhardt once wrote, the happier one is. Admiring, however, requires understanding otherness, overcoming one’s own solitude, and sharing in the communion with others. The intellectual knows how to go beyond himself and is fascinated with human diversity. An intellectual, Steinhardt claims, does not read what interests him, he is simply interested in anything he reads.
Steinhardt’s iconoclastic nature was powerfully conveyed in his first book, In genul tinerilor (1934; In the manner of youngsters), a collection of highly entertaining essayspastiches published under the pseudonym Antisthius (taken from La Bruyère’s Caractères), in which he mocks the verbosity and style of his friends’ writings.
Steinhardt’s later essays were deeply influenced by an experience he had at a critical moment in his life. During his imprisonment for political reasons (1959–64), he converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Entering this new world, he discovered joy as the eternal theme of Christianity and came to learn the value of courage and inner liberty. The book that would bring him posthumous fame, Jurnalul fericirii (1991; The diary of happiness), describes Steinhardt’s saison en enfer and was unanimously hailed as a revelation, combining irony and wit, vernacular language and sophisticated philosophical and theological references. The Jurnalul, along with the seminal essay “Secretul ‘Scrisorii pierdute’” (1975; The secret of “The lost letter”) and the posthumously edited sermons (which are, in fact, brilliant oral essays full of theological insight and persuasion), can be considered the most refined literary expressions of Steinhardt’s outlook, with forays into literature, ethics, religion, politics, and the philosophy of culture. His important essay-manifesto on liberty, “Taina libertăţii” (1987; The mystery of liberty), is a momentous apology of political courage and a firm denunciation of voluntary servitude.
The fascination with Steinhardt’s essays comes not only from his ideas, but also from his profoundly original and persuasive style. His is a fröhliche Wissenschaft (gay science) aiming at a wide audience with an appetite for wisdom rather than entertainment.
Provocative ideas, rhetorical twists, and a ludic style captivate his readers, while skillful paradoxes and a nondidactic, nonsystematic approach couched in a peculiar, sometimes archaic vocabulary convey puzzling ideas and connections worthy of any great French moralist. Steinhardt’s writings are always warm and joyful, pathetic and enthusiastic, never formal or dry; an “ideal reader” himself interested in philosophy and thrillers, theology and physics, literature and history, Steinhardt was driven by the concupiscence of knowledge, yet he never forgot that all systems and theories are relative, partial, questionable, and uncertain. The breadth and variety of his interdisciplinary interests are indeed astonishing: he cherished classical as well as contemporary authors and had a special predilection for unduly forgotten—it is tempting to say second-rank—authors.
His topics range from liberty to false idealism, from exile to physics experiments, from contemplation to the new French quantitative historiography. He wrote with equal interest, competence, and sympathy on Michelangelo Antonioni and Voltaire, Dickens and Barbusse, Eliade and Beaumarchais, Daudet and Aitmatov, Maria Callas and Dostoevskii, Kurt Gödel and Thomas Mann, Mateiu Caragiale and Marshall McLuhan.
Writing on Chesterton, he celebrated the mystery of life and the value of fidelity. From Marcel Jouhandeau he learned the joy of life, while Péguy and Henry de Montherlant taught him the value of courage. Reading Cervantes, Dickens, and John Galsworthy was for Steinhardt an occasion to note that writing a novel is a happening in itself in which authors themselves gradually discover their characters. Milton reinforced one of his older beliefs that the writer must not be detached from history and contingency. Finally, writing on Sinclair Lewis was an opportunity to meditate, in the wake of Alexis de Tocqueville, on democratic conformity and the need to swim against the current.
To account for the puzzling breadth of Steinhardt’s writings, one should bear in mind that in his view the essay is much more than literary criticism or learned scholarship: it is a “happening,” a sophisticated and subtle form of commentary and meditation aiming at a “second creation.” Steinhardt preferred what he called a “field analysis” to a more detailed exegesis focusing exclusively on the text. He believed that every work of art is surrounded by a halo similar to that found around everyone; the essayist must study this halo and attempt to translate its aura into words. In Steinhardt’s view, to be an essayist one must learn the “art of admiration”; writing an essay amounts to composing a hymn in praise of the original work. This requires much more than hermeneutic skills: a calling is needed that combines attention to detail with synthetic intuition and empathy. Steinhardt was never wary of quoting Werner Heisenberg to the effect that the observer always influences the observed phenomenon; in a similar manner, the essayist interferes with the works he admires, thus creating new meanings. He cannot limit his interests, for he is “condemned” to universalism and an unending quest. The essayist is expected to be cultivated and intelligent, attentive and moderate, enthusiastic and capable of admiration, ambitious and daring.
Born in 1912 in Bucharest. Studied law at the University of Bucharest, law degree, 1934, Ph.D., 1936. Visited France and England, 1937–39. Contributor to various journals, including Revista Fundaţiilor Regale, 1940s. Imprisoned for political reasons, 1959–64.
Began to publish again, 1976. Entered the Rohia monastery, Maramures (northern Romania), 1980, but continued to be active in literary circles. Died March 1989.
Essays and Related Prose
In genul tinerilor (as Antisthius), 1934
Essai sur une conception catholique du judaisme, with E.Neuman, 1935
Illusions et réalités juives, with E.Neuman, 1936
Între viaţă si cărţă 1976
Incertitudini literare, 1980
Geo Bogza: Un Poet al efectelor, Exaltării, Grandiosului, Solemnitătii, Exuberanţei şi Pateticului, 1980
Critică la persoana întîi, 1983
Escale în timp şi spaţiu, 1987
Prin alţii spre sine: Eseuri vechi si noi, 1988
Jurnalul fericirii, edited by V.Ciomoş, 1991
Monologul polifonic, edited by V.Bulat, 1991
Daruind vei dobîdi (sermons), 1992; enlarged edition, 1994
Primejdia mărturisirii, edited by I.Pintea, 1993
Cartea impărtăşirii, edited by I.Vartic, 1995
Alexandru, loan, “Elogiu simplităţii,” Flacăra, 3 April 1980
lerunca, Virgil, “N.Steinhardt şi ‘dreapta socotinţă’,” in his Subiect şi predicat, Bucharest: Humanitas, 1993
Lovinescu, Monica, “N.Steinhardt la 70 ani,” in her Unde scurte III, Bucharest: Humanitas, 1994:342–44
Lovinescu, Monica, “Escale in timp si spatiu,” in her Unde scurte IV, Bucharest: Humanitas, 1995:356–61
Grigurcu, Gheorghe, “N.Steinhardt ori samuraiul critic,” in his Între critici, Cluj: Dacia, 1983:140–43
Grigurcu, Gheorghe, “Creştinismul în tratare liberă,” Viaţa Romănească 9 (1991):93–99
Mecu, Nicolae, “Portret al artistului la bătrîneţe,” Revista de Istorie si Teorie Literară 40, nos. 1–2 (1992): 57–69
Negoiţescu, Ion, “Predicile lui N.Steinhardt,” Transilvania 1–2. (1993):113–14
Negoiţescu, Ion, “N.Steinhardt, escale în timp şi spaţiu,” in his Scriitori contemporani, Cluj: Dacia, 1994:413–16
Simuţ, Ion, “Destinul unei cărţi, cartea unui destin,” in his Incursiuni în literature actuală, Oradea: Cogito, 1994:306–13
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