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August 9, 2022

An Apophatic Literary History

   By   Daniel Deleanu 


Mihai Iovănel is a truly gifted Romanian writer and a self-proclaimed “Post-Marxian” critic, although a more accurate designation would probably be “Neo-Marxian,” an appellation he might perhaps dislike. I hold no prejudice against Leftist intellectuals, for the gauchiste intelligentsia has given the world a plethora of great thinkers and artists, suffice it to mention the names of such heavyweights of the creative ring as Camus, Sartre, Breton, Brecht, Tzara and Istrati, or the Nobel laureates Neruda, Márquez and Saramago, who were also vocal supporters of the political Left.

Mihai Iovănel has been reproached that the political ideology that powers the engine of his conceptual vehicle is not Marxism, but wokeism, a purportedly cool progressivist platform based on the hazardous tenets of political correctness, imported into the Romanian cultural space for no other reason than its trendiness, just like the mall or rap, and hence as a by-product of American Neo-Liberalism and its globalist agenda (one must not believe in conspiracy theories in order to accept that, since the Americanization of the world is an undeniable fact – after all, as Rammstein’s Amerika song goes, “We’re all living in America,” aren’t we?).

People who have joined the “cult” of wokeism, both in North America and Europe, pride themselves on believing that they are more enlightened and compassionate than others, while also morally superior to most of their fellow human beings. It is subsequently no surprise that wokeism is at risk of morphing into totalitarianism. Woke intellectuals, or snowflakes as they are also called because of their whiney, fragile emotional constitution, have ravaged North-American intellectual life and have purged countless top professors from their academic posts, e.g. Jordan Peterson, a great mind and one of Canada’s most refined literati. And for this, you will have to take my word for granted, because I myself have taught for almost a quarter of a century, both in US and Canadian universities, and have, of late, slept with a police cruiser in front of my door for months – as Mircea Dinescu and Ana Blandiana had done, for even lengthier periods of time, in the Romania of the late 1980s – being “guilty” of having mocked in one of my novels (Animal Farm Revisited: A Fairy Story for the Posthuman Animal) the current Canadian premier, who has become notorious around the world because of his authoritarianism. History is circular, Hegel decried, and he, beyond any shadow of a doubt, was right. But can this characterization apply to Iovănel’s literary history too – or, to put it otherwise, is this book genuinely woke and its author a true snowflake critic?

In his book, Istoria literaturii române contemporane – 1990-2020 (A History of Contemporary Romanian Literature – 1990-2020, Jassy: Polirom Press, 2021), Mihai Iovănel analyzes the Post-Decembrist (Post-Revolutionary) Romanian literary scene via a dialectically materialist filter, which, quite surprisingly, proves to be neither a propagandistic platform nor an indoctrinatory tool, as one might perhaps expect. But how does contemporary Romanian literature look like when read from the left corner of one’s eye? First of all, Iovănel destroys all the fiction writers who have allegedly “unmasked” the evils of Communism in their books. Victims to the author’s wrath against these prose writers fall, one by one, Dan Lungu, Filip Florian, Radu Aldulescu, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, etc. Curiously enough, Alina Nelega’s 2019 novel, ca și cum nimic nu s-ar fi întîmplat (as if nothing had happened), though it belongs to the same category of books that ostensibly expose the malevolence of Communism, has been spared the guillotine of the critic’s pen.

The dialectical nature of Mihai Iovănel’s critique is salient throughout his literary history, and this is one of the merits of his book. The critic opens doors that others are afraid to even mention, and this approach is ultimately conducive to conversations that must be had and debates that must be publically held. He debunks what he considers to be false literary merits and topples down statues, shaping new hierarchies, according to an axiological axis whence the aesthetic criteria are not utterly excluded, but, undeniably, no longer bear the same teleological weight as they do in other literary histories. As expected, Iovănel gives high marks, or at least passing grades, to the authors who tend to be more progressive in their attitudes, both within and without the literary arena. Yet, the aesthetic criterion is not entirely flouted by the critic, and proof stands the repeated use of the word “capodoperă” (“masterpiece”) to describe those literary works that axiologically fit in the Procrustean bed delineated by his hermeneutical approaches. From this perspective, Iovănel, unlike Harold Bloom, does not forge a canon, but rather fires a cannon, with which he shoots in order to shatter to smithereens the hierarchical structures established by other critics, based on axiological criteria with which he disapproves. By borrowing a term from negative theology, which points out what God is not, rather than what He is, one might argue that Iovănel employs apophatism as the main methodology of his critical discourse, which makes his literary history unique, and not only within the space of Romanian letters (who knows, maybe in the future Iovănel’s critical method will become a standard analytical approach to a literary text!). Thus, among the names of the prose writers who do not dwell on the literary atoll whose presiding god of criticism is Iovănel, one can discover those of Radu Aldulescu, whose fiction is almost entirely disregarded, O. Nimigean  Daniel Vighi, Dan Perșa, Radu Mareș, Octavian Soviany, Dora Pavel, Varujan Vosganian, Simona Sora, Cristian Fulaș and Ioana Nicolaie. From the older generations of writers who published books after 1989, Breban, who has been recently nominated for the Nobel Prize, curiously does not make Iovănel’s list, as for D. R. Popescu and Gabriela Adameșteanu, they are hardly tackled. Augustin Buzura and Matei Vișniec are ignored, too. Among the poets who are overlooked by the critic one can find the names of Nichita Danilov, Mariana Codruț and Radu Andriescu; nevertheless, Iovănel praises Ion Gheorghe, and with this appreciation I highly agree, since I, too, consider him an extraordinary poet. I am also on the same wavelength with Iovănel when it comes to his evaluation of the critics active during this period, since, just like him, I consider Costi Rogozanu one of the best critics who have emerged on the Romanian literary scene since 1990.

Another novelty in Mihai Iovănel’s literary history is the insertion of “paraliterature” in his exegesis, a term I am not very fond of, since to me, even at the risk of being accused of committing a Manichean oversimplification, all literature is ultimately reducible to “good” and “bad” texts, and any taxology which is not grounded in this axiological terrain cannot stand the test of time. The critic, who professes his love for SF and detective fiction – including Haralamb Zincă’s 1967 sleuth novel Moartea vine pe bandă de magnetofon (Death Shall Come from a Reel-to-Reel Recorder), which is also a favourite of mine, has words of praise for Florin Chirculescu (alias Sebastian A. Corn). The critic’s stars also gleam auspiciously, and rightly so, above the literary output of Adrian Schiop and Lavinia Braniște.

It has been said of Iovănel’s literary history that it is biased. But bias is part and parcel of any hermeneutical act. In other words, favouritism and preference cannot be excluded from a critical discourse, lest it end up bland and unpalatable. After all, what adds colour to the greatest histories of Romanian literature – the one penned by George Călinescu and that written by Eugen Lovinescu – is exactly this savoury impartiality, which makes them stand out. Bias may thus become a quality, even if we often fail to admit it.

Romanian poet and critic Radu Vancu has written in the prestigious cultural journal Transilvania that Mihai Iovănel’s literary history, though controversial, “has done a great service to contemporary Romanian literature.” I perfectly agree with Vancu. Mihai Iovănel’s book, which cannot be accused of wokeism, is an example of incontrovertible erudition mixed with a great passion for literature. That is why I am absolutely certain that, from now on, the discussions about contemporary Romanian literature will commence with “before Iovănel” and “after Iovănel.” As for his apophatic literary history, I have no doubts that it will not miss from the required reading list of tomorrow’s students.


About the author:


Daniel Deleanu is a Romanian-Canadian writer and academic who sways between Toronto and his native town of Sibiu.

He has published articles, reviews and critical studies in cultural journals and academic journals from Romania and abroad (USA, Canada and Great Britain).

He has also published more than 1,300 academic books (critical studies of universal and comparative literature, studies of philosophy of literature, theory of literature, etc.) in English language, most of them in Canada.


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