Matei Calinescu - A literary jewel of eccentricity seen as an ethical provocation, which created an unforgettable shock at a time when the mental stereotype imposed by the dictatorship was dimly trying to find the first slits for a breakthrough

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter
Matei Calinescu, The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter,  Trans. by Adriana Calinescu and  Breon Mitchell, NYRB Classics, 2018. [1969.]


Ugly, unkempt, a haunter of low dives who begs for a living and lives on the street, Zacharias Lichter exists for all that in a state of unlikely rapture. After being engulfed by a divine flame as a teenager, Zacharias has devoted his days to doing nothing at all—apart, that is, from composing the odd poem he immediately throws away and consorting with a handful of stray friends: Poldy, for example, the catatonic alcoholic whom Zacharias considers a brilliant philosopher, or another more vigorous barfly whose prolific output of pornographic verses has won him the nickname of the Poet. Zacharias is a kind of holy fool, but one whose foolery calls in question both social convention and conventional wisdom. He is as much skeptic as ecstatic, affirming above all the truth of perplexity. This of course is what makes him a permanent outrage to the powers that be, be they reactionary or revolutionary, and to all other self-appointed champions of morality who are blind to their own absurdity. The only thing that scares Zacharias is that all-purpose servant of conformity, the psychiatrist.
This Romanian classic, originally published under the brutally dictatorial Ceauşescu regime, whose censors initially let it pass because they couldn’t make head or tail of it, is as delicious and telling an assault on the modern world order as ever. calinescu 


A literary jewel of eccentricity seen as an ethical provocation, which created an unforgettable shock at a time when the mental stereotype imposed by the dictatorship was dimly trying to find the first slits for a breakthrough....The writer summons, in an artistic undertaking that is ever vigorous and vibrant, the fundamental questions of existence, the ephemeral and the transcendent stimulating each other in a dynamic exchange of energy, with original and seductive accords of lasting resonance.
Norman Manea


A Baal Shem Tov imagined by Sterne.—Emil Cioran


A once-subversive, picaresque life of an imagined philosopher who speaks in torrents and trades in absurdity.
Given history, it’s unfortunate that Calinescu, a Romanian novelist who published this book in 1969 and then spent his later years as an expatriate in Indiana, should have decided that his Romanian-German-Jewish protagonist, Zacharias Lichter, be “so ludicrously ugly he produces a strong impression on even the indifferent observer”—and with a “peerless Semitic nose” to boot. Lichter may be hideous and ill-dressed (to convey, Calinescu ventures, the Platonic ideal of poverty), but he is also exuberant and irrepressible, given to waving his hands around wildly while putting the finer points on arguments that are blunt-force weapons. Where Kierkegaard spoke of the elevated triad of the aesthetic, ethical, and religious spheres, for instance, Lichter intones that the proper hierarchy for our day is “circusmadnessperplexity.” That fits because, he adds, all people are clowns, if delayed in their recognition of their essential clownness; moreover, he later holds, “words no longer mean anything,” they “are mere vehicles of a reality beyond signifiers.” Lichter would be as goofy as Vonnegut’s Bokonon, a kind of pastiche Žižek, if Calinescu did not invest in his philosophy a commitment to human freedom, and for this reason it’s easy to see why the book should have been a favorite of Romanian dissidents on its publication in 1969, a dozen or so years after Calinescu began writing the tales of his antiheroical philosopher. Sometimes Calinescu/Lichter is wonderfully prescient, prefiguring Susan Sontag when he writes that in our era “a kind of a debased religion of health, of ‘normality,’ has been created, obsessed with the problem of illness.” Mostly, though, the free-wheeling Lichter, who sometimes delivers his pronouncements in indifferent poetry, lives up to what an acolyte and apprentice of his calls “a pedagogy of beguilement.”
For students of Iron Curtain–era Eastern European letters, a lost treasure. —Kirkus Reviews


The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter is presented as a sort of collection of biographical sketches of its titular hero, a shopkeeper's son who was a promising scholar -- "He graduated with an outstanding dissertation on the Enneads of Plotinus" -- who not only abandoned the academy but any sort of role in traditional bourgeois society. He haunts the city's street and parks, "clothed in squalid beggar's rags", and he does occasionally go around actually begging -- his appearance, surely, rather than his line ("Help a poor metaphysician"), apparently convincing enough that he can collect enough to sustain himself. Lichter is a wandering, public philosopher -- with disciples, as in ancient Athens (though they are not a major presence here) --, and not one given to quiet reflection: "Words burst from his mouth in torrents". He is very much the kind of word-person who believes in speech over writing. Only rarely does he write anything down -- often a poem, which he then often tosses aside as soon as he's put it down on paper.
       A shadow(y)-biographer collects and presents this material on Leader: the novel is presented in short chapters of only a few pages each, each focused on a different aspect or opinion of the strange man. Many describe Lichter's attitude and opinion on specific subjects -- 'On Courage', 'On Women', 'On Poetry', 'On Mirrors', 'On Self-Indulgence' --, making for a collection that captures much of the breadth of Lichter's personal philosophy. A few of Lichter's poems -- some rescued by his biographer from the trash -- are also interspersed in the text; Lichter's attitude towards poetry is ambivalent: on the one hand he wants to distance himself from it, casting aside his own poetry as soon as he's set it down; on the other, he wonders (and shudders): "am I myself anything other than a poet ?"
       An Epilogue-chapter has Lichter confront his (would-be) biographer -- denouncing the project, and arguing that: "you are writing about yourself, not me". Not that he wants the biographer to write about him, either -- or, if so, at least have it be a "fictional life"; instead, he finds himself annoyed by the biographer's "serious-mindedness".
       (Still, he annoyance about this project is less than in that of analyst Doctor S., who also "shows an interest in all that Lichter says and does", much to Lichter's chagrin: Lichter is not only suspicious of the processes and methods of analysis but considers them misguided and downright dangerous: understanding, especially of man and his essence, can only be found differently.)
       For all the serious-mindedness he accuses his biographer of, Lichter nevertheless is presented, and comes across, as a larger (and louder) than life figure, and even if he's not quite the: "combination of Diogenes, Nasreddin, and a Jewish prophet" that some eventually begin to see him as in their tall tales about the picaresque figure, one can see where they're coming from. Lichter is on board, too: "Haven't I tried to be a clown to the very end, unto madness ?" The serious biographer won't go quite that far -- the Lichter that comes across in this portrait is neither sad nor ridiculous clown-figure, but rather only clownish in his extremes. The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter is a portrait and exploration of a man living true to his searching philosophy, not an entertainer -- though there's an undeniable showmanship element to how he presents and conducts himself.
       There are few individuals in Lichter's world, with much that the biographer describes a world of 'him' versus and/or in contrast to 'them' (and, often, 'us'); even the biographer is just one more awe-struck follower among presumably many. Lichter does engage with some individuals however, from regularly reading the Bible to an old woman to spending time with his one close friend, the hard-drinking and almost entirely wordless Leopold 'Poldy' Nacht, whom the teetotaler Lichter considers: "one of the great philosophers of contemporary Europe". Lichter is in awe of and aspires to Poldy's thinking, "free of all signification".
       A comic contrast is a professor of English phonetics, Adrian Leonescu, whose: "complete lack of interest in ideas is compensated for by his remarkable ability to pronounce words" -- a void of meaning that is the antithesis of Lichter's constant (but presumably not quite so well-pronounced) meaning-full spouting. Here, as in much of the story, there is -- notwithstanding Lichter's concluding complaints -- actually quite a bit of humor, tending nicely to the absurd.
       Calinescu's unusual novel quite impressively presents this figure, and a life lived according to specific ideas and ideals that stand in contrast to the bourgeois society around him. Lichter isn't simply a critical outsider, but manages to almost inhabit a parallel world, going his own way with little concern for the conventions that he nevertheless is familiar and occasionally prods and teases. He is very much a 'character', but the narrator-as-biographer reveals more of the depth to his thinking and actions -- profound reflection couched in the presentation of this colorful character.
       The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter is also about how to capture and convey thought and experience (and 'truth'); the question of language extends to, for example, a chapter: 'On Mathematical Language', while the ridiculous phonetic-man Adrian Leonescu is another (extreme) manifestation. Meanwhile, Lichter's speech and accompanying wild gesticulations are described early on already as if: "his entire being is partaking in the violent effor of expression, as if imbued with the necessity of saying". Appropriately, Calinescu pays close attention to form and expression in his writing, and much of the novel is quite stylized, the sentences and descriptions carefully phrased; so too, there's much concision -- all in contrast to what is described (but never presented) as Lichter's torrents of words, or the long time-spans of much of his (in)activity. The question of speech -- embraced by Lichter -- versus the written word -- chosen by his biographer -- is also one brought up repeatedly over the course of the novel.
       As Norman Manea notes in his Introduction to The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, it's: "surprising that such an unusual book should have come out at all under the repressive Ceaușescu regime", but it did, in 1969 -- during: "a brief period of relative liberalization". Certainly it helped that the novel is not overtly political (or even time-specific), but rather more subtly subversive. Manea notes that in a preface to a new, 1995 (i.e. post-Ceaușescu) edition, Calinescu mentioned setting the novel in the 1930s as: "dodge to mislead the censors", but one of the reasons The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter holds up so well is because of the lack of specificity as to time and place. While perhaps obviously a product and reflection of Romanian conditions, most of the larger issues addressed -- and, as a philosophical work, it deals with a lot of larger issues -- tend to the universal, and can be appreciated as such. It is a welcome (re)discovery, and even now an impressive work. - M.A.Orthofer


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Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism, Duke University Press Books; 2 ed., 1987.


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Five Faces of Modernity is a series of semantic and cultural biographies of words that have taken on special significance in the last century and a half or so: modernity, avant-garde, decadence, kitsch, and postmodernism. The concept of modernity—the notion that we, the living, are different and somehow superior to our predecessors and that our civilization is likely to be succeeded by one even superior to ours—is a relatively recent Western invention and one whose time may already have passed, if we believe its postmodern challengers. Calinescu documents the rise of cultural modernity and, in tracing the shifting senses of the five terms under scrutiny, illustrates the intricate value judgments, conflicting orientations, and intellectual paradoxes to which it has given rise.
Five Faces of Modernity attempts to do for the foundations of the modernist critical lexicon what earlier terminological studies have done for such complex categories as classicism, baroque, romanticism, realism, or symbolism and thereby fill a gap in literary scholarship. On another, more ambitious level, Calinescu deals at length with the larger issues, dilemmas, ideological tensions, and perplexities brought about by the assertion of modernity.
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Matei Calinescu, Rereading, Yale University Press, 1993.

What motivates us to reread literary works? How is our pleasure, interpretation, involvement, and evaluation different when we read a literary work and when we reread it? This fascinating book by Matei Calinescu is the first to focus on the implications of rereading for critical understanding. Drawing on literary theory, cultural anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and previous theories of reading, Calinescu describes the dynamics of rereading and explores the sometimes complementary, sometimes sharply conflicting relationships between reading and rereading.
Calinescu analyzes fictional works by Borges, Nabokov, Proust, Robbe-Grillet, and Henry James, among others, explaining how reading texts is related both to symbolic play or make-believe and to games with rules. He reviews the history of reading in modern times, discussing, for example, how the Reformation led to rereadings of Scripture and how the proliferation of books during the Enlightenment led to a shift from "intensive reading" to "extensive reading." Calinescu looks at the distinctions between reading and rereading from the perspectives of the age, situation, and gender of the individual reader. He discusses the problems raised by secret or oblique languages and codes - devised to evade censors, communicate with a select audience of "secret sharers," or play games of hide-and-seek with the reader - and shows that they naturally lead to rereading a text. Calinescu argues persuasively that an understanding of rereading is useful in formulating both analytic strategies of practical criticism and a poetics of reading.

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