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May 16, 2021

The Priesthood of Culture

At the end of his term, Traian Basescu has offered awards to several “public intellectuals”. I am talking about a special category of intellectuals, those very involved in public debates, capable of imposing issues on the wider agenda that has political stakes, listened to and at the same time feared, holders of a veritable “spiritual” authority. “Spiritual” is an ambiguous term in this case and deserves closer scrutiny because it explains much of the dynamic of today’s Romanian society.
What is certain is that the said intellectuals are traditional guests on TV talk-shows, they fill up conference rooms throughout the country, libraries during book launches, they are at the top sales-wise, they have regular columns in the press. They are, consequently, very visible, and especially very influential. But how did they manage to build their authority and on what bases? Not through their intellectual specialization, even though it offered meritorious fruits.

Gabriel Liiceanu for example long ago left behind systematic philosophy or history of philosophy research (which he taught at the Bucharest University), launching himself in writing essays with different stakes. The writing of essays whose theme was, in a way or another, precisely the public space and the fight for influence. Despite his training, he is neither an aesthetician per se, nor a sociologist of knowledge, nor a philosopher of history, but solely a polemicist with allies and enemies, preoccupied with the analysis of the impact of ideas on social hierarchies. After all, after the decline of the dominant ideology that came along with communism, another space of forceful ideas appeared, ideas capable of conquering popular adhesions and of influencing politics. One could even say that although post-communist Romanian politics was dominated by the left wing, the right wing culturally asserted itself. Excluding those too old to reinvent themselves and those that obtained concrete benefits through collaboration, few intellectuals of note lent themselves to intellectually supporting the left wing. Solely in recent years has a young generation that did not experience at an adult age the former regime asserted itself, a generation that is formed in contact with similar movements throughout the world, antiglobalist, green and far left movements. On the other hand, to support the right wing conferred a prestige almost in itself. However, what does this right wing mean, culturally speaking?
First of all – anticommunism. After 1989 anticommunism had a political stake, just like in the other former socialist countries. From a certain point of view the results were limited, because few politicians stepped down on account that they were allegedly compromised by their old “collaborationism” and almost none of the representatives of the old regime were criminally convicted. But, at the same time, apart from Ion Iliescu’s initial outburst, no left wing politician expressed real sympathies for any new form of communism. Against this backdrop, anticommunism blossomed. On the one hand, it was fed by the frustration of indifference in relation to the injustices and crimes committed by the former regime. But on the other hand it also became a way of delegitimizing opponents, albeit only culturally. The perverse effect was that this anticommunist initiative, being nevertheless anachronistic (perfectly justified while the regime was alive but overwrought now that it is dead), inhibited more fertile debates in what concerns the current situation, which is not solely the effect of a certain past. The regime’s crimes and abuses do not explain the current reality, many other phenomena being decisive. Paradoxically, even a serious meditation on communism as a moral experience is absent, which makes many of the debates about it sterile. It’s easy to punish a torturer (morally, because mostly nothing happened from a penal point of view), but solely this is of no use for the construction of a more just society. In brief, the anticommunism mentioned above only managed to keep certain politicians in power and to invade the public space like a smokescreen that covers more serious and significant issues.
Secondly, these “public intellectuals” managed to assert themselves in the name of a debatable “spiritual” authority model. What mattered was the success registered in the 1980s by the so-called School from Paltinis (imposed precisely by Liiceanu’s contemporary journal) dominated by Constantin Noica, a philosopher that had a hard time escaping the inferno of communist jails and who secluded himself in a small mountain resort like a monk in his cell. It’s worth pointing out that Noica’s philosophical themes were not the ones important for his legacy, but the model of the intellectual as “priest”, the one who serves the cult of an elite Culture. Thus born was the idea, very appealing to many, of a cultural aristocracy invested with a special authority, the only one who can intermediate the access of the “masses” to superior knowledge. It’s a special view on cultural dynamics, influenced by the religious model. Which, after all, is restrictive when it comes to critique, as if the said “aristocrats” of culture are invested from above, not from below. It’s not by chance that most of them even declare special passion for the religious, such as Andrei Plesu and H.R. Patapievici. A priest cannot truly be contested, because he is the agent of divine grace, chosen by God, not by people. These intellectuals want to be the priesthood of culture. The problem is the pedagogical effect. What background influence do they have on those that participate in the cult they officiate? Just like in the religious case, the effects can be surprisingly superficial.

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