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February 1, 2023
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Vignettes of a Meaningful Existence: A Preamble to The Diary of Happiness

By Daniel Deleanu

Nicolae Steinhardt’s Corespondenţă (Letters), recently published by Polirom Press in Jassy, is a beautifully crafted book which incorporates circa 700 of the 1200 letters hitherto identified, mailed by the monk-writer mostly to his friends and acquaintances, among them many fellow-authors. George Ardeleanu, the editor of this wonderful volume, opted for a selection from Nicolae Steinhardt’s correspondence based on the chronological criterion, a choice that gives coherence to the collection and offers an unprecedented glimpse into the monastic writer’s life, evincing new biographical facets and episodes till now virtually unknown. A further volume will include another 500 epistles, including 150 letters seized by the Securitate.

The material included in this volume includes letters from several periods of Steinhardt’s life. Thus, there are epistles from his youth, which abound in details on French and English cultural life, but also the last letters, sent from the Rohia Monastery, days before his passing. Among the addressees are Nicolae Iorga, Geo Bogza, Perpessicius, Charles Gruber, Virgil Nemoianu, Ion Caraion, Alexandru Ciorănescu, Ion Negoițescu, Virgil Ierunca, Monica Pillat, Toma Pavel, Nicolae Manolescu, etc. Many of these letters are either mini-autobiographies or mini-treatises of philosophy, and should subsequently be read from a dual perspective, namely as memorialist literature of a high literary quality, and as a skeleton key to the secret door to Steinhardt’s oeuvre, including his masterpiece, The Diary of Happiness, which was finally published in an English translation last year. The letters can thereby be read as two distinct sections that ultimately converge towards a unique literary corpus which again brings to light Steinhardt-the-writer, who pens his epistles in the style of a truly great essayist. In this respect, the author employs an even panel layout for most of his letters, sticking to an unsophisticated epistolary grid, and gaining as such the confidence of his interlocutors. In this way, the letters feel somewhat extemporaneous, more “in the moment,” so to say. After all, the urgency of the epistolary genre only requires pen to paper, that is, one’s existence boiled down in the Manichean plainness of black and white. From this angle, what emerges after more passes through the letters is Steinhardt’s impressive ability at dialogue, even though this information flow is rendered on paper, not spoken. The letters leave you the impression that their author always has an interlocutor in flesh and blood before him. Steinhardt therefore does not convey thoughts to a one-dimensional, paper-based addressee – he exchanges ideas with a genuine converser, whom he always regards as a fellow human being, equal to him in the Spirit. Steinhardt, as such, delivers at times wry observations, occasionally even with deadpan punchlines at the end of an episode, especially in the early epistles. But if the letters from his youth also contain a crass mundane element, then those from his senior years – especially the epistles from the period immediately following his release from prison – portray a man with a heart of gold, who loved people nearly as much as he loved God. These letters are thus composed with great affection, displaying their author’s warmth and, not once, sympathy towards the addressee. These letters, however, are not devoid of the cultural notes and references which flood the earlier epistles. They in fact counterpoint each and every epistolary text, regardless of the period when it was put on paper: Steinhardt is observant and exuberantly writes about his readings or the various cultural encounters he had experienced, each time with the purity, candour and genuine wonder of a child.

But the innocent inner child who dwells within the monk-writer’s heart becomes a spirit full of indignation vis-à-vis certain political conjunctures. Steinhardt is unapologetic in his condemnation of totalitarianism and definitely unhappy, but buoyed by the everyday interactions of his life, both monastic and mundane. Nonetheless, he never loathes anyone, without exception, being crossed by a proverbial kindness and constant references to the Divine. Some of these letters also contain political messages, and Steinhardt’s standing up against the dictatorship and its propagandists is uncompromising. Steinhardt is a harsh and fearless critic of the regime, and, unlike some of his fellow writers, immune to its beckoning. The model for his resistance is Solzhenitsyn, whose name appears repeatedly in the letters, an act of great courage should we consider that had one of these letters been intercepted by the Securitate he, beyond any shadow of a doubt, would have been arrested (once more). Bravery is also evinced by Steinhardt when he unswervingly expresses his disapproval of the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968.

Another attention-grabbing topic that can be read in the letters collected in this volume is Steinhardt’s conversion to Eastern-Orthodox Christianity. Concerning this, we find in the letters an honest confession about his conversion, which proves to be a personal decision that occurred more or less spontaneously, and indubitably without anyone’s persuasion. Captivating are also the letters wherein Steinhardt tackles sundry theological subjects, which he humbly explicates, with andragogic tact and infinite patience, to his epistolary partners.

In his letters, Nicolae Steinhardt delineates an existence which is filled with earnestness, a life which pulses with moments of delight and crossness. These diametrically opposed feelings may feel familiar in their commonness, but also specific to the author. His personality is thus revealed through ostensibly inconspicuous interactions, but the narrative line of these letters, without exception, comprises an inflaming, unless outright seditious, biographical episode with its own climax and resolution, just as in a story. So, we get glimpses of Steinhardt’s life as a reputed author, venerated monastic figure, and last, but not least, upright human being. Yet, none of these identities prevails, for Steinhardt’s personality was far too complex. Unsurprisingly idealistic as a young man and agedly wise, the Steinhardt evoked by these letters is always spontaneous and genuine. Despite the countless obstacles he had to overcome and the gloom that oftentimes permeated his existence, the monk-writer never gave up, so the life he led now seems to mostly be a fulfilling experience. That is why Nicolae Steinhardt’s letters may be thought of as vignettes of a meaningful life, whose experiences ultimately make mountains out of molehills. From this perspective, perhaps it would not be too far-fetched to consider Nicolae Steinhardt’s letters a veritable prequel to The Diary of Happiness.

 

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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