“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

Memory, Forgetting, and the Bluest Kind of Blue: Bucharest Reflections on the 20th Century

I am writing this while drinking my second cup of strong cappuccino on the veranda of Bon Pain, a wonderful small French patisserie in the heart of downtown Bucharest, one block from Piața Revoluției (Revolution Square), where Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was forced from power in December 1989.

I’ve been sitting here, on a beautiful morning, pursuing my latest obsession — the Jewish-Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian, a profound chronicler of interwar Europe (my friends young and less young: I used to be able to confidently speak of “interwar” with the presumption that readers would understand the reference, to the time, in the early decades of the last century, between World War I and World War II; I now fear that this presumption can no longer maintained; but I digress). In recent days I have voraciously read his semi-autobiographical novel, For Two Thousand Years, about the years between 1923 and 1933, when the author and his anonymous fictional counterpart lived through anti-Semitic pogroms, the rise of the fascist Iron Guard, and the rise to power of Hitler in Germany. In the past two days I’ve read six hundred pages of his Journal, 1935-1944, a brilliant and riveting day-by-day account of the war years, in Romania, Europe, and indeed the world.

This is my ninth visit to Bucharest, and the first time that Sebastian — a fascinating individual who survived the murderous war only to be killed by an onrushing automobile on the streets of Bucharest in 1945, at the age of 38 — is my guide. And I am glad I found him, because his writing is so rich, in conveying a sense of Bucharest then (and even now by contrast), and in furnishing insights into both “the century of total war” (Raymond Aron) and the human condition.

Every single passage in his Journal is worthy of reflection. And one of the many extraordinary features of this text is the way it articulates, in the honest and personal way that only diaries can do, the ongoing experience of the war years, as they unfolded, day to day, with all the reversals and perplexities and confusions that characterize daily life.

From Friday, February 7, 1941:

Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica, has fallen. A very large town for Africa; 65,000 in habitants. After Bardia, Tobruk, and Derna, I think this will be the end of the [British] Cyrenaica operation … The Italian empire is coming apart at the seams. But it goes without saying that the whole of the war in Africa (however interesting and dramatic) is only a sideshow. The struggle between the British and the Germans; that is where everything will be decided…

The observation is offered entirely in passing; and in its relative detachment, it stands in marked contrast to Sebastian’s constantly vivid account of his daily experiences in his vicinity — Romania, Europe — thrown into chaos and doubt by war. And yet as I read it now, in hindsight, it speaks volumes, precisely in its detachment and understatement. There is Benghazi — lightening rod of recent controversy — the center of Cyrenaica, the eastern administrative region of the area known then as Italian North Africa and now as Libya. There is the recent entry of Italy (in June of 1940) into the war as an ally of Hitler, and the intensifying war in North Africa pitting mainly British forces against mainly Italian forces. There is no mention of Germany in this particular passage, though Germany was on the march, and within days of Sebastian’s journal entry the German Afrika Corps under the leadership of legendary Field Marshal General Erwin Rommel was dispatched to the region (and in the weeks and months ahead Sebastian offers running commentary on the dramatic military conflict in North Africa). There is no mention of the United States, which had not yet entered the war and which, by page 321 of the Journal, has not yet even made an appearance in Sebastian’s diary (this eventually changes). And there is no mention of Russia — the Soviet Union — which to this point plays only a minor role in Sebastian’s account, though this too would very soon change. Sebastian’s sense that the real core of the conflict was in Europe, and centered on the fight between Germany and Britain, was no doubt a reflection of the fact that by 1941 virtually all of Europe, eastern and western, was in the hands of fascists, and Hitler’s armies were ascendant, and only the British remained “free.” Sebastian was no doubt correct, to a point, even as the language of Africa as a “sideshow” engenders a wince in my post-colonialist bones. At the same time, what Sebastian could not know was that the war would soon become truly global with the entry of Japan on the side of Hitler, and that the real heart of the conflict would become the joint assault on Hitler’s European power, from the west (not yet “the West”) by the U.S. and from the east (not yet “the East”) by the Soviet Union. Nor could he know that the defeat of fascism would lead, in short order, to a new division of Europe, and a nuclear-inflected Cold War, and anti-colonial and post-colonial struggles, and petroleum-driven economic growth that would contribute to the region of the Middle East and North Africa becoming much more than a “sideshow.” And here we are, today, embroiled in “low intensity” wars, and facing crises in Syria, and Iraq, and Yemen, and Iran, and Israel/Palestine. And a refugee crisis in Europe. And the rise of right-wing, xenophobic populism, and the resurgence of genuine forms of neo-fascism, in Europe and in the U.S.

It’s interesting to reflect on what Sebastian couldn’t know, given the fury and unpredictability of unfolding events; the relentless and disorienting cruelties and deprivations inflicted daily by Romania’s fascist government on its Jewish citizens; and the fact that he was regularly deprived of radio and newspaper reporting about the progress of the war, and forced to rely on a combination of German propaganda communiques and incessantly circulating and often unreliable rumors.

It’s also interesting to reflect on what Sebastian could and did know, as a sharp observer of events living in constant disorientation and fear. He was not a serious political thinker, and his writing conveys no sense of viable political alternatives. His novel For Two Thousand Years does brilliantly recount interwar ideological debates between his Zionist or Communist friends; the hypocrisy and barely concealed anti-Semitism of many Romanian liberals; and of course the ascendancy of the neo-fascist, pro-Iron Guard thinking that was promoted by his mentor Nae Ionescu and his friends Mercia Eliade, Constantin Noica and E.M. Cioran. But Sebastian, though revolted by ideological certitude and by anti-Semitism, identifies with no politics. This stance continues in his Journal, until the outbreak of war in Europe, when it becomes clear to him that only an Allied defeat of Hitler, Antonescu, and the Axis powers can end the bestiality and restore a sense of normality. He then becomes a careful chronicler of military and political events, without being a politically committed writer.

His Journal starkly conveys the sense that the writer is caught in a suffocating vice from which no escape seems possible. From Tuesday, January 14, 1941:

I had a restless evening, without knowing exactly why. I feel obscure threats — as if the door were not shut properly, as if the window shutters were transparent, as if the very walls could be seen through. From anywhere, at any moment, it is possible that some unspecified dangers will rush in — dangers I have always known to be present, but to which I have grown so used that I no longer feel them. Then suddenly everything becomes overwhelming, suffocating. You’d like to shout for help — but from whom? With what voice? With what words?

It also conveys a subtle appreciation for the dynamic relationship between “perpetrators,” and “bystanders” of atrocity, and of the complex ways that even well-meaning “friends” can contribute to atrocity while simultaneously deluding themselves with thoughts of their own nobility or enlightenment (the Journal is full of stories, many of them jarringly matter-of-fact, of Sebastian’s many non-Jewish “friends” expressing casual anti-Semitism, extolling the Iron Guard or Hitler; the most notorious of these friends was Mircea Eliade, with whom Sebastian strangely continued to consort, just as he had earlier remained close to their common mentor, philosophic fascist Nae Ionescu).

From Tuesday, August 5, 1941:

The tragedy is that no one has anything to do with it. Everyone disapproves and feels indignant — but at the same time everyone is a cog in the huge anti-Semitic factory that is the Romanian state, with all of its offices, authorities, press institutions, laws, and procedures. I don’t know if I should laugh when Vivi or Braniste assures me that General Mazarini or General Nicolescu is “staggered” and “disgusted” at what is happening. But whether or not they are staggered or disgusted, they and tens of thousands like them sign, endorse, and acquiesce, not only tacitly or passively, but through direct participation. As for the mass of people, they are jubilant. The bloodying and mocking of Jews have been public entertainment par excellence.

Sebastian’s world is not a world of civic agency; it is a world of individual and collective powerlessness in the face of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and global war. At the same time, his sensibility is not that far removed from that of that most political of thinkers, Hannah Arendt, who prefaced her classic 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism with these famous words:

Two world wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining world powers. This moment of anticipation is like the calm that settles after all hopes have died. We no longer hope for an eventual restoration of the old world order with all its traditions, or for the reintegration of the masses of five continents who have been thrown into a chaos produced by the violence of wars and revolutions and the growing decay of all that has still been spared. Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena – homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.

Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest – forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries. It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.

On the level of historical insight and political thought there prevails an ill-defined, general agreement that the essential structure of all civilizations is at the breaking point. Although it may seem better preserved in some parts of the world than in others, it can nowhere provide the guidance to the possibilities of the century, or an adequate response to its horrors. Desperate hope and desperate fear often seem closer to the center of such events than balanced judgment and measured insight. The central events of our time are not less effectively forgotten by those committed to a belief in an unavoidable doom, than by those who have given themselves up to reckless optimism.

These words, or at least a great many of them, still resonate today, as we face multiple crises and a lack of political will and creativity to address them constructively. As we do our best to look to the future, we would do well to also remember those relatively recent experiences of which Sebastian, and Arendt, write.

I am thinking about this as I sit here on the veranda of the very chic Bon Pain, reading Sebastian’s Journal. A mere 80 years ago the horrors Sebastian describes took place on this very street, not that long before I was born — and yet in a time and place, across the ocean, that could not be more different than the time and place of my childhood in Flushing, Queens. Around 30 years ago this same street was the site of a (chaotic and violent) liberation from a particularly austere and patrimonial form of Communism. And now I sit here sipping cappuccino, a Jewish-American who regularly visits the very part of the world that some of my ancestors were fortunate enough to flee before others were gassed, incinerated, and subjected to the barbarities that Sebastian describes.

I wonder: has this history — of fascism and the liberation from it, of communism and the liberation from it — been remembered with sufficient nuance and care? Does the remembrance of this history — Sebastian’s history, Arendt’s history, our history — serve the cause of human freedom and democracy, or is it continually being instrumentalized by opportunistic elites or, even worse, simply forgotten?

As I sit here this question is forced upon me by the loud music I can hear, and by the large public gathering I can see across the street, on Piața Revoluției. A festival, a celebration: of the Romanian police and military forces. Every kind of police and military unit seems to be represented. Special forces. SWAT teams. Helicopter forces and their helicopters. Marine forces and their patrol boats. A canine unit and its dogs. Humvees. Automatic assault rifles. Artillery. Flags. A “patriotic” display. Throngs of people enjoying the displays and booths and the popcorn. On the elevated balcony of the Interior Ministry — on the very same site where Ceaucescu delivered his final speech on December 21, 1989, before being whisked away from Bucharest by helicopter, only to be captured and summarily executed four days later along with his much-reviled wife Elena — military officials and citizens mix, gleefully enjoying a beautiful May morning.

Across the street from them, a mere hundred yards away, stands the towering Memorialul Renaşterii (Memorial of Rebirth), initially dedicated to “Eternal Glory to the Heroes and the Romanian Revolution of December 1989.” Inaugurated in 2005, the monument has long been controversial on aesthetic and political grounds (see here and here). It has also been repeatedly vandalized. The site today is both ugly and defaced. And it has been this way for years. Today I see no one there. Because everyone is across the street, enjoying the military circus. And I wonder: how many of the young parents understand the history that unfolded on this very spot in the last century? And how many of their children will understand? How many of our children will understand?

“The struggle of man against power is a struggle of memory against forgetting.” Milan Kundera penned these famous words decades ago in his classic novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, written in exile in 1978, published in French in 1979, English in 1980, and in Czech by Josef Skvorecky’s Toronto-based 68 Publishers in 1981. The words remain true. The novel bears re-reading, along with Sebastian’s Journal, and Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, a book of both historical and contemporary relevance.

Sebastian’s Journal offers a riveting narrative of the experience of fascism and world war. It also offers compelling testimony to the power of music to inspire, to convey meaning, and to sustain hope in a time of great horror. Sebastian loved European classical music, and the Journal is laced with extended discussions of his effort to listen to radio shows, attend concerts, and obtain recordings of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Debussy. Sebastian does not mention Django Reinhardt. But as I read him, my thoughts returned repeatedly to this brilliant Romani-French musician and guitarist of the interwar period and founder of “Gypsy Jazz.” Reinhardt’s famous tune “Nuages” was first recorded in 1939 in wartime France. The title translated into English is “Clouds,” but the adaptation with lyrics is often called “It’s the Bluest Kind of Blues.” Reinhardt’s biographer, Michael Dregni, has observed that: “‘Nuages’ struck a chord throughout France. This soft, bittersweet tune was easy to whistle, speaking to Parisians in these gray days of ration cards, curfews, and blackouts. The melody was laconic, at once sad and mournful, yet also evoking a dreamy nostalgia for the way things were, a mnemonic password inspiring a remembrance of things past as real as Proust’s madeleine.” Dregni continues:

The French national anthem — “La Marseillaise”-was of course banned by the Germans. Then along came this song by Django, which is really an antithesis of an anthem — it is not rousing, patriotic music normally associated with anthems. Instead, “Nuages” is a melancholy, bittersweet song that is filled with a nostalgic tone the people of Paris responded to. It became the stand-in for their national anthem. When Django first performed this song in concert in 1940, the audience went crazy. When he finished, he started playing another song but the crowd stopped him and made him play it over and over. It became his best-selling record of all time.

Here is a 1940 recording of Django playing the tune:

Here is a more modern version of the tune, from Oscar Peterson’s 1979 album Skol, featuring Joe Pass on guitar and Stephane Grappelli — who with Reinhardt founded the “Hot Club Quintet” in Paris — on violin.

Having survived the war, Reinhardt visited the U.S. in 1946 at the invitation of Duke Ellington. It would appear that, like Ellington, instead of pouting he played the blues. Here he is, playing Fats Waller’s famous tune “Honeysuckle Rose” with the Ellington Orchestra.