Pictured: Comarnescu (on the right) in 1931 at his graduation from the University of Southern California in the US
At my recent virtual book launch with Cărturești bookshop I was asked by University of Bucharest Professor Camelia Crăciun which member of the Criterion Association was my favorite and why. The launch was for my history book that was published by Palgrave Macmillan last year, a biography of the association. I told her that that answer was easy. “Petru Comarnescu!” I cried. She seemed surprised by my instantaneous and enthusiastic answer. I told her it is because he and I have so much in common, and that ultimately each day he serves as my inspiration. He was a Renaissance man, a cultural diplomat, an advocate for optimism: a human bridge between the United States of America and Romania. Let me explain.
The works of Romania’s famed “Young Generation” have had a resurgence since the 1989 fall of communism. We all know the names of the big players: Mircea Eliade, Mihail Sebastian, Eugen Ionescu, Constantin Noica, even Mircea Vulcanescu. But Petru Comarnescu? How come his name never makes the cut? Now is precisely the time to look back and celebrate why he deserves a central seat at our cultural table in 2020. Simply put – he was a man way ahead of his time. And this is largely due to the fact that he lived and studied in the US. From 1929 – 1931, Comarnescu completed a PhD at the University of Southern California – he studied aesthetic philosophy and passed with flying colors with a dissertation entitled “The Nature of Beauty and its Relation to Goodness.” Comarnescu was captivated by the constant California sunshine and the radiating optimism of the Americans he met. He wanted to bring this positive attitude back to Romania, feeling that his fellow countrymen so often fell into pessimism and despair.
But there was another part of his American experience that he wanted to bring back – and it went hand-in-hand with optimism. That was faith in democratic political systems and (now, this truly sets Comarnescu apart from his generation) a firm belief in racial equality and tolerance. Comarnescu wrote two autobiographical books based on his time in the US (autobiography and experiential literature was the style of the day – inspired by the en vogue philosophy of experience – experiența). Titled Homo Americanus (1933) and America vâzută de un tânăr de azi (America Seen by a Youth of Today, 1934), both books adopted an anthropological and sociological approach to his temporarily adopted country and the American people. For many Comarnescu was the Romanian de Tocqueville.
Homo Americanus was the more “scientific” book in that each chapter examined a “type” of American citizen. These types ranged from Businessman, Student, and Professor. The final chapter was devoted to the Jew, the Black American, and the Immigrant. Notice how Comarnescu included these minority groups in his investigation without thinking twice – for him each archetypal type was equally American. And his further observations about racial coexistence and equality are captured in America vâzută de un tânăr de azi as he documents his journey stop by stop from East Coast to West on his way to USC for his studies. He describes in detail Manhattan, the city of giant buildings and giant people; and DC the untouchable city; and Chicago the workers’ blue collar city covered in black soot. And in this journey he encounters all kinds of people and portrays them with equal humanity and dignity. I know that I did not imagine his racial activism from reading these books. Comarnescu himself writes in his journal how he was inspired by his time in the States, when he embarked on work with the Gusti School of sociological research. In Transylvania the team was conducting research in villages of different ethnic and linguistic populations and at that time in his diary Comarnescu observes that they (researchers and subjects) were all, despite their differences, human beings.
After Comarnescu returned to Romania in 1931, he started the Criterion Association – a platform for debate, discussion, culture, and arts. His creation was directly inspired by his time in America. Each political event was set up like a democratic debate about controversial topics of the times – with a pro speaker, contra speaker, and neutral party to moderate the discussion. Criterion served as an apolitical intellectual community and platform for writers and artists from 1932-1934. Sadly with the rise of the extreme right, extremism infiltrated the initially apolitical and harmonious world of the Criterionists. This, and a scandal accusing Comarnescu and key Criterionists of homosexuality, put an end to the vibrant and path-breaking organization. With communism came a need for Comarnescu – like so many of his compatriots – to survive, and he became an informant for the Securitate named “Anton.” This moral compromise was also tied to his LGBTQ+ identity, in the later years of communism homosexuality became a criminal offense.
In my Cărturești book launch, I joked that Comarnescu was my intellectual partner in crime until I met my real life partner, I spent so much time reading and thinking about the latter. And still I think of Comarnescu as I start each day. He was a cultural innovator, “who ultimately had no on left to innovate” (an approximate quote from Eliade here) – but those glory years of Criterion were something else. Bucharest playwright and anthropologist Rucsandra Pop and I co-founded Bucharest Inside the Beltway in 2013 to be just such a cultural platform inspired by Criterion – to showcase local and international artists, and provide a forum for discussion about difficult topics from racism to sexism, and more. BiB has always been a bridge between the USA and Romania – just like Comarnescu was. Each day when I hit my computer in the morning, I think, “What would Petru Comarnescu do?” And I passionately dive into Bucharest Inside the Beltway creation and promotion. I hope he is looking down with a smile. And I hope that he finally takes the seat at the table in our cultural memory that he deserves. I like Eliade obviously, but was he promoting racial equality and democracy in the 1930s? I think not.
Guest contributor: CRISTINA A. BEJAN