Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Introductory Words

Just below, you can find a lengthier interview with Sorin Antohi in which twelve larger questions are discussed. It was originally conducted in English, and this is its typed version. Subsequently, it appeared in Hungarian translation, in the journal Szabad Változók: Filozófia és Tudomány.

Online access to this published version:

Memories, Blueprints, Utopias
Interview with Sorin Antohi

Conducted on October 21, 2005 by Ferenc Laczó
Revised and updated in December 2006 by Sorin Antohi

Part I

Memories, Blueprints, Utopias
Interview with Sorin Antohi

Conducted on October 21, 2005 by Ferenc Laczó
Revised and updated in December 2006 by Sorin Antohi

Ferenc Laczó: Would you be so kind as to say a few words about your family background and the formative experiences of your youth?

Sorin Antohi: I come from a family with intellectual traditions. This was a fortunate circumstance of my life, though I was born in 1957, which – to say the least – was not a particularly great time for my family. Many of its men were in prisons, but the memory of those traditions was still lingering. Libraries that had survived wars and earthquakes were being dismantled by the new regime, some confiscated by the police, some lost in the devastation of country manors, town houses, and other residences attacked during ‘spontaneous popular uprisings’ (actually well orchestrated by the Party-state), some sold on the cheap by their owners to buy bread. However, some of the books were still around and while the number of volumes was not great and the selection was arbitrary, I developed a taste for reading and re-reading, irrespective of what I was able to understand. Soon, the pure act of re-reading became a kind of second nature. Next to this was the living memory of those in my milieu who were familiar with a number of languages, cultures and professions (some of them had had the chance of traveling extensively and studying abroad). This background of a déclassé middle and upper middle class surrounded by (lumpen)proletarians provided me access to a wide spectrum of social, political, and cultural positions, identities, values, lived experiences.

As long as you are illiterate you do not bother about books. This was the case for me until 1961: I learned to read at around four and I could read fluently at four years and a half. These years are also worth referring to because soon thereafter a certain regime relaxation occurred in Romania; in 1963-1964, most political prisoners, including people in my family who had survived, came back from the ‘penitentiary colony.’ Around my seventh year of age, when I could already understand more things around me, this constituted a second formative encounter. These people, some of whom lived until my teenage years, influenced me continuously. I was able to get this new input at an age when I could profit from it. I need to add that I was allowed by my parents to do anything I wanted to do; there was no pressure or imposition. I benefited greatly from the extraordinary warmth and understanding bestowed on me by my parents, my three surviving grandparents, and my maternal grand grandparents (my grand grandfather, born in 1878, died in 1963; my grand grandmother, born in 1888, lived until much later; her first geography schoolbook, magnificently illustrated, might have been my first introduction to foreign lands and civilizations). I could talk about anything with them and this helped me a lot, starting with their reminiscences on their “lost time,” on a past that seemed like a foreign country indeed. Then of course there was school, which we may discuss later.

Laczó: Perhaps we should continue talking about your disciplinary socialization or intellectual socialization in general. In your answer could you also mention certain trends and schools or single authors who exerted a decisive influence on you?

Antohi: I am naturally rebellious and I have always had troubles with my socialization. These troubles were initially social and later political in nature when I was coming of age, which happened precociously around age fifteen, and became even more noticeable around seventeen. So I look back at thirty odd years of rather conscious and progressively intractable rebellion, starting from very modest beginnings. In these thirty years I experienced a variety of influences, itineraries and choices (some of them forced on me). My problem, as with many children and teenagers with my kind of background and intellectual curiosity, was that I could do many things; choosing between them proved to be very difficult all my life. Occasionally I had to make very painful choices, for instance when I had to get rid of my passion for the visual arts, from drawing and art history to architecture, which was and still is one of my secret hobbies. It was a sacrifice I had to make in order to concentrate on the sciences. Only now can I hope to go back to drawing one day, once some of my bigger projects will have been carried out or definitively abandoned to those more able than me.

Towards the end of my gymnasium years I came closer to the sciences, especially to physics. I attended a very competitive high school in Iasi, Liceul Internat Costache Negruzzi, established in 1895 as one of the country’s model high schools, with a special program that included at some point eleven weekly hours of physics, seven of mathematics and six of electronics and computer science. Most of my colleagues were bright and motivated, also in terms of learning foreign languages, reading curiosities and so forth. During this very important formative period my most important ‘discovery’ was interwar Romanian culture. This occurred already around age thirteen-fourteen, both by means of family memory and through my own readings of books that could be rescued from Communist autodafés, because much of this stuff had not yet been republished or had been only partly republished (with significant omissions) at the time, around 1970. This discovery was another watershed for me, since while I have never lost my interest in the sciences, I was progressively drawn towards the humanities and the social sciences. This at the time included for me philosophy, of course, theology, literary theory, history, ethnology, geography, etc. Slightly earlier, around eleven and twelve, I had become excited by the possibility of engaging in an intellectual adventure that would encompass the entire world, from atoms to galaxies, and for this reason geography seemed crucial, as it appeared to me as a regina scientiarum, blending everything from cosmology and astronomy to civilizations and cultures. I was reading books on von Humboldt’s travels on Orinoco and in the Andes, travel books by La Pérouse, Captain Cook, or by the great Russian explorers (frequently of German origin), and a formidable series of books on various civilizations, that kind of popular science translated from Russian in the fifties throughout the entire Soviet bloc (my interest in physics had much to do with the similar series in the sciences, including the magnificent handbooks by Landau, Lifshitz, Kitaigorodski; George Gamow and Carl Sagan, their more journalistic Western counterparts, came later); for me, all these added up and formed the fantasy of a quasi-Humboldtian project, which appeared to me as what we call today the ‘science of everything.’ This encyclopedic program appealed to me tremendously, and stayed with me, as a horizon, all my life. But then, as I said, I got increasingly interested in physics, in experimental physics and slowly in theoretical physics, as far as I could understand it. I gave up the project of attending a Bucharest high school specializing in atomic physics only at the last minute, and decided for the one I mentioned, which seemed to be less specialized, and thus more plausible as a site of interdisciplinary learning. I think I was right. All these disciplines, ideas and interests should be taken in proportion with the age I am talking about, since I was growing up more or less with my age group, if close to its top. I do not even dream of representing myself making discoveries at two or imagining the entire world at seven, rather I am trying to say that this horizon was there, and my ambitions, propensities, curiosities were emerging and shaping up very early. The late sixties and early seventies in Romania, as in other Communist countries, were replete with talk about the future, a future that was predicated on infinite scientific and technological progress, and less and less on ideological and political conflict. In 1970, everybody was talking about the year 2000. Not in the silly way the ‘Y2K’ was construed by the media in the very late 1990s – a mindless version of consumer apocalypticism –, but rather along the lines of a global, posthistorical human society entering the Space Age and finding solutions to all its sublunar problems on the Moon and in the stars (‘the death of ideologies,’ ‘the convergence of systems’ were the sound bites of the day). For the young generation, it would be very instructive to read at least the reports of the then famous Club of Rome, or some of the science fiction and popular science of that period. And the tabloids, the popular press in general, where the social imaginary expresses itself so candidly. Hegel, who thought one gets in touch with the Weltgeist by reading the newspapers, would have recommended the tabloids as well...

The real point of no return was my encounter during high school with the work of Mircea Eliade; this included his fiction and some of his scholarship, as well as some of his diaries and memoirs, which were published abroad in Romanian and, from 1973 on, in French and other languages. Eliade was not a great writer of fiction, but his diaries and memoirs, albeit fragmentary and frequently cryptic (not only for me), were fascinating. Later, at the end of the 1980s, when Eliade’s previously unpublished pseudo-diary called The Novel of a Myopic Teenager came out in Romania, I discovered in it what I had always expected to find: a Papinian élan towards self-realization, fame, and success, but also mystagogy (to the point of continuously rewriting and unwriting one’s pasts, both real and imaginary); on a more humble level, mutatis mutandis, this was my horizon as a teenager. Against all odds. One might find my claim delirious, not merely self-aggrandizing. Nonetheless, this was a more frequent experience in Romania than one thinks. With so little else to do and enjoy, and so much to escape from, reading and dreaming up alternative universes or ‘just’ histories and biographies were almost inevitable... By the way, there is a similar document from one of the intellectual luminaries of my generation, Horia-Roman Patapievici; the book was translated into English at CEU Press with the title Flying against the Arrow. The author was born the same year as I, 1957. He went through a comparable Bildungsroman, which was typical for the top of our cohort, especially for those who could be open to both the sciences and the humanities. Those of us who had at least interests and curiosities spanning all fields, even if only at a modest level, had such ambitions: I thought from a very young age, as I mentioned before, that my intellectual agenda was coextensive with the world. This is immodest, to be sure, but – again – I am not talking about real achievements here, rather about ambitions, dreams, fantasies, propensities. They were universalistic, infinite, cosmic, metaphysical, transhistorical.

To get back to the story of my formal education, as I said I focused on the sciences in my teenage years. This was taking a lot of my energy until I realized that I would always have to compete with others in the developed countries, who would have all the computing power, experimental apparatuses and labs that I would never have. Unless I would emigrate I would be relegated to being a second-rate scientist. My ambition to succeed could not be reconciled with this sobering realization, and thus I abruptly switched to the only thing that could be done at the university by someone who did not want to be bothered, was inclined to talk back to teachers, engaged in controversies, and was rather unable or maybe only unwilling to relate to a system of disciplinary socialization. This is how I got to English and French at the University of Iasi. This did not prevent me from reading all kinds of other things as well. By the time I was finishing high school, I was more than persuaded that narrow specialization was not meant for me, and formal education was only a fraction of my intellectual development. The least formative fraction, in fact. ‘Extramural’ education was a lot more significant, appealing, and rewarding.

I was perceived by many as a rather bizarre character, I guess, but that did not worry me. There were people I admired who accepted me as I was and started to influence me directly and heavily. Among my mentors were Alexandru Zub, born in 1934, whom I was seeing almost on a daily basis; he is a historian of historiography, a historian of ideas and of culture, with a splendid theoretical background and a wide intellectual and cultural horizon. Then the philosopher Mihai Şora, born in 1916, who was my closest direct connection with that interwar generation, since he had been a student of Mircea Eliade’s and Nae Ionescu’s (the mentor of the so called Generation ’27), and friends with the likes of Eugène Ionesco and Cioran. Later on, literary scholar and historian of ideas Adrian Marino, born in 1921, became very important for me. In 2001-2002, to pay tribute to their mentorship and support, and help disseminate their thinking on maters of public interest, I have published books of conversations with each of them. These were people in my immediate horizon. I was learning from them and exchanging ideas with them quite intensively. I had other models as well, including all those one picks up from books. Fortunately, I could also follow the international academic, cultural, ideological, and political scene ‘in real time’ by means of books and periodicals that were smuggled into the country by people who could travel, by foreign lecturers and friends. This was an extraordinary luxury for someone living in Romania’s airtight isolation, especially if you combine it with a good university library that covered most disciplines, more systematically up to 1948, and less so from the mid sixties to the late seventies, before the final intellectual curfew introduced by late Communism in my country. Add to this the altruistic bibliographical assistance I received from various people, especially from my mentor Alexandru Zub, who could travel abroad almost annually as a former Humboldt Fellow (a meager ‘compensation’ for his six years in harsh political prisons and forced labor camps), and for many years was bringing back, alongside books and periodicals, (photocopies of) specific publications that were most difficult to acquire, due to political censorship or lack of money to order them. I was frequently the only reader of some of these publications, which brings Alexandru Zub’s assistance quite close to self-sacrifice – he was locating them in libraries, buying/photocopying them (paying from his meager stipends), carrying them back to Romania, etc.

I equally (at least!) benefited from the extraordinary formative influence of my circle of friends. This aspect is mentioned by Patapievici in his book as his most crucial experience, and I tend to think he is right. Ours, in many ways, was a kind of Lancasterian education--as it was known in the 19th century--, an informal tutorial system, based on the principle “I teach you something, you teach me something”. Luckily, I was the second youngest in a group that emerged in Iasi in the eighties as an alternative cultural, ideological, political milieu, with people who were at least ten to fifteen years my seniors. I was attracted to the topics they were debating fiercely, and to their intellectual-existential style. I cannot remember any other similar social environment in which I would be as stimulated and challenged as in this informal group which is loosely called in Romania ‘the Iasi Group.’ A circle of individuals of incredibly vibrant and diverse intellectual, social, ideological persuasions and backgrounds – by any standards.

To sum up, I enjoyed a multitude of influences, mainly outside—frequently in spite of and against the spirit of--the formal education system. However, unlike most top intellectuals in Romania (and Eastern Europe in general), I do not believe that formal education is of secondary importance. Actually I was among the very few members of my group who decided to engage in the reform of education. For this reason, I joined the Ministry of Education and Science for about a year immediately after the ‘revolution’ of December 1989, when Mihai Şora was appointed Minister. Even if you are tempted to challenge and even reject whatever the institutional system is doing to you, for you or with you, the system ought to be there. Ideally, it should be articulate, ambitious, comprehensive and sophisticated.

Laczó: Why are you showing an interest in history, and how would you define your conception of the historical? How do you evaluate the present relations between the field of history and other disciplines? In relation to this, could you also describe your vision of the ideal historian?

Antohi: This is a huge agenda! Such topics would require elaboration in several books. I will do my best to provide brief answers. My interest in history emerged naturally from my upbringing. My family was quite hard hit by history, as I mentioned. Thus, history was coming upon us, and could not be ignored. There were basically three options for someone with my kind of background. The first, used by many, was to ignore history entirely, go into science, technology or into other fields without much connection, if at all, with history. Secondly, there was a tendency by some to boycott history and go consciously against its grain, even de-historicize everything, although they stayed in the humanities and the social sciences. I did not have a theory of history at twelve, and I do not have a grand theory now, but there was a third possibility, which developed gradually: it was an attempt to see everything always in connection with historical experience--my own, that of my family and that of the country as far as I could know it. I was blessed by the Communist system, rather counter-intuitively and obviously unintendedly, with the chance of getting to know several social milieus: the small backward village during land collectivization and thereafter; the larger village and the small borough in the process of Soviet-styled urbanization and industrialization; the middle-size university town, whose heyday had ended half a century earlier; the capital city, and so on. Consequently, I had a variety of experiences which started to make their impact on me, first ‘objectively, then ‘subjectively’ as well. All these were in many ways laboratories, testing grounds. I was one of the human guinea pigs, who developed a certain early awareness and later reactions that were not part of the original script. (Aleksandr Zinoviev used the rat, rather than the more endearing guinea pig, as the animal metaphor for the homo sovieticus; Orwell was closer to the tradition of the fable in his Animal Farm, insisting on animal, i.e., human diversity. I think Zinoviev was closer to the truth of the Communist anthropology, as nobody could really be different at all times in the Soviet bestiarium.)

In the beginning I was not sure at all that this would become my profession eventually, but I was always interested in history, society, ideology, culture. Whatever scholarly goals or intellectual curiosities I have pursued, history remained the basso continuo, that is to say I would understand that everything happened historically, in history, in a specific articulation of space, time and temporality, agency. When I had to make more serious choices, I decided to work in a way that would integrate historical experience with the reflection on history. This has gradually become my main theoretical stance regarding historical studies as an academic discipline. Also, as I was emerging in Romania as a spectateur engagé, I wanted to see what was going on in a long-term perspective, thus I was keen on historicizing my experience and understanding of the present.

My approach to history is based on an attempt to connect all areas of human activity with all their ‘readings’. In most of the projects I am working on, I try to connect empirical research with historical theory, as well as with reflections and influences from other fields. History, in my opinion, is an interdisciplinary science and, even more, a certain epistemological and metaphysical modality. It is not rigorous in the way philosophy was once considered to be a strenge Wissenschaft, nor exact as natural sciences were at some point thought to be, but it is a complex interdisciplinary program, both laboriously empirical and systematically theoretical. It is (or should be) connected to theology, philosophy, especially metaphysics, but also logic and epistemology, to all the neighboring disciplines and to other disciplines further afield. The overarching horizon of all these fields and sub-fields, disciplines and interdisciplinary blendings is a connection between historical experience and reflection, centered on the core concept of historicity. Unfortunately, at most universities and research institutes around the world, this is not always the case. I frequently have to mediate or translate in categorical terms between two, and sometimes three or more different ‘crowds’; the first two are the theorists and the ‘true historians’, the ‘empiricists.’ There is a third category in between, to which I have a very deep connection, maybe the deepest of all, as it is also most directly related to my family experience. This is the category some call (Carol Gluck seems to have coined the term) ‘memorians.’ They are the activists of memory, those who want to interfere with the way societies remember. That was part of my civic and political engagement quite early, taking the form of (mainly passive, but strong) resistance to the Orwellian rewriting of history, and to the large-scale fabrication of a ‘new man’ endowed with a fictitious memory – a process I would call, paraphrasing Popper, historical engineering.

Having said this, I have sketched my vision of the ideal historian. He or she has to remain connected to the world in which he/she now lives, and to all its pasts. I cannot trust someone who writes about the Aztecs or Mesopotamia when he/she makes totally silly pronouncements about the world out there, which he/she would be better placed to understand. There is an old epistemological imperative, which St. Thomas Aquinas proposed as the definition of truth: adequatio intellectus ad rem. This adequatio is particularly difficult when one moves between different worlds in time, and between what among Reinhart Koselleck and more recently Francois Hartog have called ‘regimes of historicity’, i.e., specific modalities of articulating the three categories historians work with (past, present, future). I do not think one can specialize in only one of them, although it takes a lot of work to be proficient in just one intellectual idiom, let alone the sources, facts, and interpretations of a mere decade in one’ family history. If you want to push the argument further, the exhaustive examination of ten seconds one’s your own life is an almost infinite scholarly program. The smallest time-space-agency unit one can imagine is thus extraordinarily difficult to ‘crack’, to ‘unpack.’ Things are becoming virtually hopeless when you expand time to a decade or a century, space to a region or a country, agency to a multitude of interactive actors. A great number of theoretical and empirical skills, of diverse backgrounds, wide intellectual horizons, a critical mind, the ambition and the courage to ask and answer big questions--these are other elements of my definition of the ideal historian. I do not think anyone can reach this ideal. Concentrating on a smaller topic, dealing with one and the same corpus of sources for decades, occasionally achieving notable results in some specific field are far more common achievements. Such achievements are to be praised, of course. But I am more akin to those who want more and take risks, to the Faustian unhappy few who want to know ever more about ever more. I see all this more as a kind of mental, psychological propensity than as a concrete program. But this ‘cosmic’ horizon (in Alexander von Humboldt’s sense I mentioned) is crucial. Our lives proceed in a linear way, and we move from one topic to another. But our brain does not function in a linear way. It is capable of lateral computing, of engaging in simultaneous processes that interact. So we should do justice to our very capable brain and allow it to function accordingly.

Part II

Laczó: I would like to address the topic of your experience as an intellectual in politics. How and why did you decide to enter politics and what made you leave it? How do you look back on the political experience you gathered over the years?

Antohi: The first connection between me as an intellectual and the realm of politics emerged by default in the family milieu. My first serious civic-political act was when I initiated a samizdat publication, a rather innocent magazine for teenagers, written by hand on A4 paper. It was related our experiences as students in an elite high school. Between eleven and fifteen I had been drawing cartoons, usually to make fun of our teachers, and at fifteen I had collected such cartoons in a kind of ephemeral ‘publication,’ Bulevardul. Not all the teachers who found themselves caricatured appreciated my cartoons but otherwise I didn’t get into trouble. I came back to the same spirit of irony and sarcasm when I was seventeen, and added fully conscious, more radical, already political nuances. In April 1974 a new law of the press was adopted in Romania. I read it very carefully to find a possibility of doing something against or at least outside it. I could not do much. The law was supposedly abolishing censorship but in fact it was re-instituting it, not only in the minds of the authors (self-censorship had existed before), but also by distributing it ubiquitously, delegating it to all editorial offices. The law was a fake sign of liberalization. It was the final act in the process of deliberalization that had started in 1971, after the brief period of relative regime relaxation initiated in the mid 1960s.

I figured out that the Party-state had not thought of one thing, namely that you could write something by hand in one copy, and then circulate it from hand to hand. Ours was a magazine for the smart, curious adolescents of the 1970s, covering philosophy, poetry, music (Yes and Pink Floyd, jazz and all that, classical, etc.), sports, and so on. While there were several contributors, and three editors-in-chief, I was the mastermind and the scribe: I copied everything by hand. The magazine, Major (the title indicated both our age—we were seventeen or eighteen—and our ambition), was appreciated by teachers and even the school principal, who liked us a lot. But it also attracted the attention of the secret police. They came when Xerox copies of the magazine surfaced in high schools and at the university. It had been photocopied and disseminated by people whom we did not know. Typewriters were under control, later they had to be registered with the police, but Xerox machines were not policed similarly. There was an exclusivity contract between Xerox and Communist Romania, such machines existed in R&D institutes, large factories, etc. One of the unintended consequences was that people with access to such equipment would photocopy stuff for their own personal use, and for the thriving black market (from elite items such as forbidden books, foreign or pre-Communist, to porn calendars and popular literature). This Xerox monopoly, known to other ‘people’s democracies’, was similar to the quasi-monopoly of a certain brand of whisky, which Ceauşescu’s son Nicu was drinking: you could find any number of bottles of it, and no other type of whisky in mid to late 1980s Romania.

The samizdat prompted the intervention of the secret police. They came to our school and started a series of interrogations, intimidation, blackmail and pressure. This is how, by the end of February 1976, I was forced to write reports for the dreaded Securitate.[1] Roughly between 1974 and the end of 1989 I lived under permanent surveillance (even when I was writing reports on others, since my reports were considered “insincere”, according to preserved Securitate documents) and constant pressure, which moved up significantly in May 1983. It was again about a publication. Since 1982 I was the editor-in-chief of my university journal, Dialog, a task I was undertaking as a civic-political-intellectual form of disobedience. As a result, Dialog acquired the reputation of a forum of (relatively) free thought, was enthusiastically reviewed by the Romanian service of Radio Free Europe (the single most important source of cultural-ideological credibility for many intellectuals and readers making up the ‘silent civil society’ under Communism). Some of the members of the Dialog circle (roughly coextensive with what in Romania is known as the Iasi Group, centered around Dialog and another student journal, Opinia studenteasca) were more diplomatic, more prudent, functioning as a counterweight and to a certain extent securing a niche for the more radical wing. There were two absolutely radical characters among us, Luca Pitu and Dan Petrescu; later, they became outspoken dissidents, especially Dan, whose book-length dialogue on the current situation of Romania with another member of the circle, Liviu Cangeopol, smuggled out of the country in 1988, was only published in 1990 (published earlier, it would have become one of the few pieces of evidence supporting the claim that even Romania had its dissident intellectuals). They were formulating, also on our behalf, an anticommunist platform, a radical critique of the regime, a call for it abolishment.

We did a series of other things. For example, we started to write a novel, a postmodern parody on collectivization. I suggested the title, a pun on the title of a Stalinist novel on collectivization, and added “revisited”, in the spirit of Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited or Samuel Butler’s Erehwon Revisited. The four of us were taking turns to write the chapters. I wrote the first one, setting the stage and much of the tone. In December 1982, at a national conference of young writers, Dan Petrescu and I were asked to read out loud some of our essays. We decided to read excerpts from our novel. I read, among others, passages taken verbatim from a speech by Gheorghiu-Dej (Romania’s Stalinist leader), but imitating the peculiar voice of Ceauşescu. One could call this a postmodern anachronism. This was an experiment, after all. There were numerous quotations, allusions, allegories and other such rhetorical tricks in the text, amounting simultaneously to an aesthetic and a (subversive) political metatext. There were also many cryptic, (self-)ironical, parodic references to major texts of literary theory, philosophy, etc., although the story was about peasants in a village and about the collective farm, tractors, etc. The Securitate did not appreciate our postmodern experiments, however. They could only read literally... So text was confiscated during by the police searches of May 1983, and never found again. It was typed, but (again!) in only one copy. We hope to find it whenever all the Securitate archives will be truly open.

The ‘group’ (like all groups, it looked more coherent to outsiders) was emerging as something dangerous in the eyes of the authorities. It had to be dismantled, and we were waiting for this to happen. We were demoted as editors of the journal, and there was serious pressure on us; two show trials were organized at our university after the interrogatories and several months of harassment. The show trials were seemingly separate, but they happened according to the exact same rules. One was ‘featuring’ the chairman of the editorial board, Alexandru Calinescu, the other was ‘featuring’ me, the chief editor. We were rescued basically by the quick and vocal intervention of Radio Free Europe’s Romanian section, which started to mobilize public opinion in the West in our support. Of course, we were no heroes. In any case, I wasn’t. I didn’t have the guts to rebel and break free. Our ‘group’ was far from the point of no return reached by the few real heroes, like writer Paul Goma, a former political prisoner, who had joined Charter 77 and had tried to put together an alliance of workers and intellectuals. Dan Petrescu reached that level later on, especially after 1987. This was the climate of my youth, in a nutshell. To this day, I believe that intellectuals ought to become public intellectuals and fully engage in the discussion (if not always in the solution) of current affairs in their countries. I continue to do so, even from a distance.

I also need to tell you that at the time I did not know that most of the intellectuals in Eastern Europe would be a disappointment when reaching public offices after the fall of communism. When as an intellectual or as an academic you are in such a position, you simply have to shelve for a while your intellectual projects, and concentrate on the job: become a bureaucrat, routinize your charisma, forget about other things! As it turned out, most intellectuals were unable to do this. Psychologically, structurally, due to their formation, education, training, I am not exactly sure why, but this certainly was a very serious shortcoming. When there was a chance for me to work for the Government in December 1989, I agreed without hesitation to serve under my mentor Şora. We were daydreaming reforms of education prior to 1989, we were forming ideal governments, etc. As you know, there was no negotiated transition in Romania, no handshakes were involved, like in Hungary, and nobody could foresee such a turn of events, but some of us were nevertheless developing practical ideas for the uncertain post-communist future. I jumped at the opportunity and I joined the Ministry of Education and Science and stayed in office for almost a year, working on the management of the national school system (which includes the schools for ethnic minorities, especially for the Hungarian minority) and on the reform of education. I was doing my job against all odds, learning my trade by doing and by means of avid readings in the field. I think I learned it quite well. This is how I came to work with the World Bank as a consultant for the reform of education and science in Eastern Europe, an experience that taught me a lot. When the post-communist power consolidated itself, partly because some of my intellectual fellows deserted the stage, or never appeared on it in the first place, I decided to move on with my academic career. I found myself in an increasingly quixotic position. I was forced to take political sides. The moment was not revolutionary any longer, but more one of management and slowly of restoration; I had to subscribe to a number of projects and actions I couldn’t agree with; I would have had to accept more and more political and clientalistic pressures. I refused several offers to be promoted, and when my presence in the Ministry seemed to become useless from my viewpoint, I left.

I decided, as I said, to go on with my academic projects. But, to this day, I know pretty well what is going on in Romania, and I am still involved civically and politically as a public intellectual. This was the case even when I was away in France, Germany or the USA, and especially when I was spending most of my time in Budapest, an overnight train ride away from Bucharest. The best patriotic investment of my time and energy resources, I thought, involved a topographical separation from my country. This has enabled me to develop my academic career and at the same time be more efficient as a public intellectual. For half a generation, until October 2006, this was my life.

Laczó: Knowing how difficult it is to map the relations between intellectuals of countries you do not know so well and taking into account the level of ignorance about Romanian cultural phenomena Romania here in Hungary, could I ask you to describe the way you see your place within the Romanian community of intellectuals? What are the major fault lines, be they of a cultural, disciplinary, or political nature? Who are the groups or individuals you appreciate greatly, and with whom are you in disagreement or debate with?

Antohi: As I mentioned, in the 1980s I was member of this ‘group’ in Iasi, and we had a truly intensive socialization. We had limited opportunities, we could not travel or do much. Prior to 1989, I was a radical, but not brave enough to take action, especially because I was under the continuous surveillance and pressure I mentioned. Already before 1989 I started to suspect that many who were against the then current political situation were ready to accept other arrangements, provided they would be given a little bit of exposure, some privileges and so on. In communist countries, there is a fine line between the aura of the saint/dissident and the privileges of the opportunist--the person who plays by the rules. Some of us had the courage to dissent openly and got punished. I was at the lower end of this social segment, who accepted to lose, even lose a lot at given moments. (PS, December 2006: Reporting occasionally to the Securitate between 1976 and 1982 did not improve my condition in any way, this ‘pact with the devil’ did not function in my case. I lost my moral self, not merely my self-esteem, for nothing! But I thought I had no choice, as I couldn’t count on the help of anyone in the establishment in case the threats --expulsion from schools, prison, etc.--were to be enacted.) Otherwise, I had a rather unambiguous political-historical-ideological position; it was not an ‘organic’ drive to class struggle (I do not believe such concepts), but I shared the antipathy of my milieu towards communism. All these factors remained relevant after 1989, when I discovered that those who were opposing communism were doing that for a number of reasons. Simply put, some cannot adjust to any system, to any type of order. They are permanent revolutionaries, rebels with or without a cause who readjust, rearrange and reposition their dissidence, or rather cognitive dissonance in every system. This reminds us of those over-privileged and self-righteous Western intellectuals who take up some good cause from time to time. While this is morally and ethically laudable, it remains relatively suspicious anthropologically. Some privileged people can and do have genuine moral concerns. But they seem to be the exception to the rule.

I was longing for some form of freedom. My differentia specifica was that I was systematically reading political philosophy, political science, social sciences in general, in order to understand what was going on in the real world. I developed a competent and even professional reflection on politics while going through history, engaging in politics and getting out of it. This singles me out, alongside very few other Romanian intellectuals. Most of our colleagues were, many of them still are, like many Eastern Europeans, to be understood along the lines of what Alexis de Tocqueville called “abstract and literary politics”, which is created and disseminated by the literati, by philosophers, etc. Of course, there were no such disciplinary boundaries in the early post-1789 days or in the 1830s, when Tocqueville was writing Democracy in America. He noticed that the entire French nation was formatted, their minds were shaped by the literati, by means of visions, vocabularies, understandings of history, which went from the top down to the lowest strata of society. Thus, rather than debating about and changing the realities of politics, people were entangled in a discursive maze of principles, fantasies, images, representations. This was the case and still is the case seventeen years after 1989 with some Eastern European intellectuals. I differ from them. My intellectual development substantiates this claim, starting with my program of reading about utopianism since the mid 1970s and writing critically about utopias since the early 1980s. The books and most of the articles I have written before 1989 were on utopianism. I thought I was living in Utopia (to me, there is no distinction between utopia and dystopia). I hoped I would add something to the critique on utopianism from within, and thus put to good use my own (miserable) lived experience, not just my readings.

Consequently, I was more experienced and competent in dealing with all the new things coming upon us after 1989. If one merely looks at the index of my writings from before 1989, some of which were only published after 1990, when censorship was abolished, one notices the highly political nature of my readings under Communism. Most of these readings were absent from the horizon of most Romanian intellectuals. Their scholarly references were mainly “abstract and literary”, and their social experiences were relatively limited. Many if not most of them were coming from an urban priviligentsia background, they were people who one way or other lead better lives than I did. This is one of the reasons of my work in the Ministry of Education and Science: I wanted to give children from all strata of our society a better access to quality schools and to books in general, I knew the underprivileged groups will become even more so if abandoned by the new political establishment. And I wanted to undo the legacy of Communist Romania by starting from its dystopian core—education and ideology.

For my position to be understood outside Romania I would have to refer to my adherence to a form of qualified liberalism in which there are some conservative components. This goes back to Tocqueville, if I have to name any intellectual ancestry, and definitely goes through Raymond Aron and his ‘school’ in France. So while I was trying to challenge left-wing illiberalisms, especially the national-communists and the rare Marxists in Romania when I was coming of age, I could use references from the inter-war Romanian canon, because of their anticommunism. But when there was a chance, i.e., when the Communist system was no longer around, and post-communist national-communists were taking a resolute right-wing turn, I challenged the other (symmetric) illiberalisms as well, the right-wing ones. Thus I would place myself in the tradition of liberalism from Tocqueville to Aron and on, with an added emphasis on historicity, i.e., on changing time-space-agency constellations. This emphasis on historicity is another significant point on which I differ from many of my Romanian peers. Perhaps my deepest connection to historical studies is my horror of anachronism. I am keen on keeping track of historical developments and of the various regimes of historicity (which only exist as blends, hybrids, composites). I am looking for ways to recontextualize, reposition principles that can also be construed as atemporal, but in my opinion can only be properly deployed and understood in connection with time and temporality, with history and historicity.

I think I see my country better than many of my countrymen who live there full time. I frequently say this in my public interventions, and some people agree. Others do not. They would cast me as a traveler who occasionally passes by and teaches lessons to the natives. Some of the public intellectuals, academics, and spin doctors who remained in Romania were blinded by their own growing privileges, supported for ten to fifteen years by generous Western organizations, including the Soros Foundation. These people, usually called ‘political analysts’, were able to reach a high level of material comfort, more recently from their publications and presence in the media, especially electronic (some TV talk-show hosts are now paid ten to twenty thousand euros per month); they have simply forgotten about the bulk and bottom of Romanian society. Many problems of public interest do not get discussed the way they should, while there is a heavy emphasis on politicking and scandals. This is also why I have trouble relating to Western intellectuals and politicians. I think I have a critical mind and a certain experience with politics and history, with thinking about them. I am not easily won over by any kind of ideological offer. I am always trying to understand with all the tools available; sometimes I might pick up a tool from Marx or from a conservative or from a ‘paleoliberal.’ This happens rarely, but if there is something worth considering, revising, not using automatically, then why not? This is the way I read Tocqueville and Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Ludwig von Mises or Karl Popper and so on. I read critically and historically, not with the ahistorical, dogmatic passion of the neophyte, of the convert.

Maybe this has to do with my being a rather skeptical person. I am pessimistic, maybe by nature but definitely by experience and reflection. But I am an active pessimist. Historicizing skepticism has eventually become my take on life. This is not relativism, far from it, nor a traditional form of conservatism, with an analytical matrix under it. It is not logical sophistry, nor a formal analysis of the world. It is rather a position based on the awareness of the multiplicity of possibilities and of how they get narrowed down or mutated according to contexts. So I am frequently in disagreement with just about everybody in Romania, and this is fine by me. Still, some take some interest in what I say. Any of my books of conversations, of which I have published four, gets reviewed by ca. fifty different authors, and is referred to years later. This is an indication that I might strike a chord, or several. When I used to publish my long annual interviews on ‘the state of the nation’, they were carried by the weekly 22 in two consecutive issues, were triggering many letters to the editor, and were further discussed in the media. Sometimes, much of what I say ought to be obvious to everybody. Much to my dismay, such ‘banalities’ are hardly ever discussed, never seriously studied by social scientists. More recently, there appeared some empirical research along the lines I hoped for. But these research projects are not carried out by people who belong to the highest stratum of intellectuals, but rather by people who are still struggling, usually young scholars who have studied abroad. I have a profound ‘elective affinities’ with such people. They are not free of biases either, they have to find orientation, which is exceptionally difficult in this post-communist chaos that has lasted for seventeen years and does not seem to be over. But at least they tackle the most crucial issues of our time.

Laczó: What are the topics you are currently working on and what kind of plans do you have for the future?

Antohi: I have about 14 book manuscripts on this table [the interview took place in Antohi’s office], some are edited or co-edited volumes, some are my own. Some went to the press already, others are on their way. Do not wait for my complete works, they are going to be published only after my death! These undertakings keep me busy, they motivate me. The topics I am addressing range from more technical studies on the symbolic foundations of nationalism, on what I call ethnic ontologies, these idiosyncratic worldviews that high cultural milieus develop to collections of articles, interviews, collective volumes, etc.
A very important part of my work comes down to a mediation between Western intellectual and academic circles and Romania. I am trying to push forth the translation of books I think are fundamental for the understanding of the world, and I work various publishers in Romania. I suggest titles and whenever I can I write introductions or afterwords. Sometimes these end up being very long, and maybe didactic if not pedantic. But I think it is important for the Romanian reader to have a thorough introduction to a book written in a completely different context, almost impossible to understand without painstaking footnoting and critical commentary. I hope my work in this direction serves a larger audience. This I see as a very important part of what I do, and I collect such intercultural mediations in volumes.

[1] PS. December 2006: I told the full story in a text first published by Romanian newspaper Cotidianul on September 4 and 5, 2006; an edited version appeared in a collective volume, also in Romanian; full German and English translations are under way. A book-length memoir is among my ongoing projects, pending further access to the former Securitate archives.

Part III

Laczó: You are the founding director of Pasts Inc. Institute of Historical Studies and recently you became head of the History Department of Central European University. What are your ambitions for these positions? What kind of work is being done currently, what are the projects you or others working with you have in mind?

Antohi: My biggest ambition is to turn this department of history and the institute of historical studies into a relatively visible site of learning, research, publications and academic encounters. The conferences I have organized with my collaborators are good evidence that something is going on, and we are emerging as such a place. These recent events did not go unnoticed, and we have exceptional echoes from around the world. In October 2004 we held the biggest conference ever on the theory and history of historiography, and brought people from all continents where historical studies exist, the top of the crop. This will result in three collective volumes that will become a reference work for years to come in the field, we hope. I am also part of various networks and associations, such as the International Commission for the History and Theory of Historiography, where I am Secretary General, and to the International Committee of Historical Sciences where I am a member of the Board. Our networking could hardly be better.

My attempt as department head is to turn all these network into a very stable institutional organization. This is a small department. My ambition is to make it bigger, by introducing a number of options that were never formally or seriously pursued. This includes a more professional, vocational specialization (Archive and Museum Studies), undertaken with the Open Society Archives, one of the most exciting archival centers of the world. In cooperation with Medieval Studies and the Institute (i.e., Pasts, Inc.) we are getting more and more in touch with historians from our area. For instance, in 2005-2006 we featured a series of lectures on Hungarian historiography named in the memory of our late colleague István György Tóth, and we will continuously feature historiographies from other countries of the area in the future (e.g., ex-Yugoslavia in 2006-2007).

We need to make choices, to specialize, while staying on a certain level of theoretical and methodological generality, and keeping a wide geographical coverage; we ought to find those things we can do best, since we are competing for students with other universities, locally, regionally, and internationally. We want to attract the best students, and so we need to have an identifiable, uniquely attractive academic and educational offer; otherwise we remain at the level of an introductory comparative effort, which is salutary, but might remain more civic than academic if not pursued on the highest academic level. It is good to know something about others, and not only contemplate yourself in the mirror, but we are here to do scholarship, and it is not enough to have a cursory knowledge of everybody else, which would be provided in the short year of our MA course, and in another brief year of doctoral level classes (what we currently have).

Central European University is a small university associated by some with ideological positions they may not share, or they may even reject. It is a university that strives to become a research-focused graduate school, truly transnational, while keeping a certain level of quality, and aiming at ever higher levels of competence. In a small department these are not easy to achieve. This is why I want to rely on visiting professors more and more, and I am trying to establish better contacts with Hungarian universities, not only from Budapest, and offer this university as a regional forum. I am less interested at this point in inviting American or Chinese scholars, I am more focused on grounding this department in its area, without making it provincial nonetheless.

Laczó: How do you see the potential of teaching history for an international audience? What does such teaching have to focus on?

Antohi: This question is music to my ears, since I am working on reforming the curriculum of this department. We thought we could cover comparatively the three regions of Europe closer to us, that is Eastern Europe, Central Europe and South-Eastern Europe, and do implicit or sometimes explicit comparisons to Western Europe or other areas. My sense is that comparisons on such a huge scale are technically almost impossible. I know how difficult it is to compare even two cultures that are quite similar, or two cities in the same country, two writers in the same culture. Among many difficulties, one needs to crack a number of cultural codes to do comparative work, and one needs to rely very heavily on the expertise of others. Even though intelligent research is possible this way, one sometimes feels at a loss when one’s own intellectual tools are not helping enough. Most students and faculty coming to this place are polyglot--a great advantage. It is different from what happens at the typical university in Western Europe or North America, where the same ambition of comparative research is entertained by people who do not speak so many languages. This is of course changing there as well, especially due to the inclusion of immigrant academics, but we are still better placed here, and I think we have a comparative advantage through knowing more languages and being closer to the sources, closer to the cultures, and the spirit of these places.

The other possibility of integrating this diversity of academic cultures, historiographical canons, and traditions, is by engaging in very thorough theoretical, methodological exchange and work. This is my priority. I can do comparisons to a certain extent, mainly between Romania and the West European cultures whose languages and cultures I know best. In the interest of this university, while learning all the time from the comparative exercises of our students and faculty, I am trying to connect this diversity of empirical research and academic vocabularies by means of a theoretical, methodological reflection. I am still working on how to do this but I have already developed some ideas that I have introduced in my classes. This might eventually materialize in a synthesis on historical theory, but I need more preparation for it. I have no interest in repeating what famous people have already stated. If you write reference works, most of it comes down to repetition. Professors do write such works, but I am not interested in doing the same. Nor do I believe in the perfectly rounded, definitive and irreplaceable monograph. That ideal synthesis would have to rely on teamwork, on a variety of skills that very few separate individuals possess in our time. I stem from a tradition of classical erudition (this is in fact my conservative part): I ask for good knowledge of disciplinary canons. If you know them inside out and only if, you are free to deconstruct, to smash them as you please. I am an iconoclast, but study the icons first. If you want to be against the ‘idols of the tribe’, you need to know them very, very well.

Laczó: How do you see yourself as a Romanian intellectual living in Hungary? Does this make any difference for you? Would you say you have developed a special relation to Hungary? How do you see recent trends in the relation between the two countries? Here I am referring to cultural connections and cooperation in the first place, especially here at Central European University.

Antohi: My presence in Hungary is that of a cosmopolitan, of a citizen of the world. I feel absolutely at home here. I love Budapest, I know it better now than I know Bucharest. I am not from Bucharest, as I said in the beginning of our conversation; right now, even statistically (days spent in one location) I am more of a Budapester. I do not follow the fineprints of intellectual life here, since my Hungarian is rudimentary. Unfortunately I did not have the chance to develop it up to the point of being really proficient in it. I have been in and out for eleven years, away for longer periods on several occasions (in the US, Germany, Romania), or walled in my office, because I need to work all the time. I had very little leisure to do anything else but work, and I am still lagging behind on all counts in terms of whatever other passions or hobbies I might have had. What brings me very close to Budapest is the fact that it is a world to which I can connect very easily. For all the differences between Hungary and Romania, which are mitigated by their defining overlapping in Transylvania, I think they are the two closest cultures in the entire area. Even though reading sophisticated Hungarian texts remains impossible for me, and so I rely on secondary literature and translations, I detect important affinities. This would sound as an insult to some Hungarians, I imagine, and would sound scandalous to certain Romanian circles, too. For some Hungarians my claim would be unacceptable, because they see themselves as the civilizing heroes in the Carpathian basin. For some Romanians, my claim would sound like high treason. But, leaving such prejudices aside, there is a commonality between Hungary and Romania for which there is ample empirical evidence. One only needs to take stock of this commonality and embrace it, rather than (almost psychoanalytically) repress it. Romanians and Hungarians are more than neighbors, which is a formula I frequently use.

One of the important successes of this department has to do with the fact that at a certain point a Hungarian-Romanian connection was established. This was possible thanks to the providential presence of a Hungarian from Budapest who decided to learn Romanian in order to read Romanian texts in the original. This man is Balázs Trencsényi, whom I met in France, in 1995, just prior to my first term as a visiting associate professor at Central European University. Balázs became the mediator between the students I was bringing over from Bucharest, Hungarian students from Hungary and from Transylvania (the latter two groups would not easily interact, while the Hungarians and Romanians from Romania were strangers to each other, due to the relative cultural isolation of these two groups). So there was a chance for these two (or three!) cultures to meet, and especially a chance for Transylvanian Hungarians to finally locate themselves symbolically. They were doubly excluded previously or at least felt that way, and it was impossible without this triangulation via Balázs and a couple of their teachers to establish a durable link between them all. This is might be considered the most important achievement of our department, as the common socialization of these three groups paved the way for a transnational and intercultural socialization which encompassed most students, irrespective of their background. I played a certain role in this and I am very proud about it.

Laczó: Can one legitimately talk of the philosophical background of contemporary historians? Would you say that current historical works in our region express discernable philosophical views? After the collapse of the overarching framework of Marxism-Leninism, in which directions did historiography move in this new pluralistic and confusing age? Are we basically back to neo-positivism, or can the field of history claim to offer something more exciting and intellectually stimulating even to philosophers?

Antohi: Some of these questions were explored during the conference I was referring to earlier, Historical Studies: Disciplines and Discourses, held at CEU in October 2004. We wanted to have an exchange on a large scale, with parallel events and ‘off Broadway’ activities, and we had ca. 120 people with us at any given moment over a week. So it was something massive, almost a congress. As many conferences, it did not automatically yield proceedings ready to be published within a few months. We have been working with Jörn Rüsen, Chris Lorenz and Hayden White on the editing of this material, but the project is far from being ready to go the press. Exploring these questions is also the job of the Commission on the History and Theory of Historiography, and a major part of the task of the International Committee of Historical Sciences. Many publications, from periodicals to monographs, tackle such issues as well, although they are not widely read by historians and philosophers. Historical theory is a very small field, statistically speaking.

As to the other questions you asked, I cannot provide more than brief answers here. First of all, not all historians can read and understand philosophy. This is a fact of life. Another fact of life is that most philosophers do not read books of history at all. This would leave us with only those among historians who are capable – clinically, psychologically, academically – to read philosophy, or more philosophical, abstract texts. This leaves us with few of the ‘armies’ of historians working all over the world, and with the rare birds among philosophers who can relate to history, debase themselves enough to read history, and can think historically. Evidently, there is a clash of paradigms, intellectual styles, of epistemological foundations and assumptions, intellectual origins, instruments, aspirations, and itineraries. To give you one example, until 1989 in Romania the departments of philosophy and those of history were combined by force. You would major in one and do your minor in the other. One would expect a thriving communication between the fields in such a situation, right? In actual fact, there was very little of it. Both parties perceived this juxtaposition as a Party imposition (which it ultimately was). Scholars would never consider working under the same roof and so in 1990, when given the administrative chance, they split up, and have lived happily ever after. (I find little solace in the equally sad lack of communication between history and literary studies, history and anthropology, history and sociology, etc.)

Whenever I talk to philosophers, I have to struggle with their hubris, their superiority complex. They think that what historians write is undertheorized and pedestrian, antiquarisch (in case they read Nietzsche). They are right in a certain sense, because most historians are at best neo-positivists, many are paleo-positivists (i.e., first-degree, ‘innocent’ positivists, who know of no other approach to historical materials). Even more of them are neither of the two. They are rather unreflexive practitioners of a trade which has separated itself from more abstract reflection and culture in general a good generation ago, maybe even more. This was not the case prior to the Second World War, and not yet dramatically the case up to the 1960s, but since that time the separation is clear. It became possible for all kinds of people to turn back the wheel, and reintroduce into history elements of various disciplines--from ethnology, cultural anthropology, social sciences of all sorts to the arts and philosophy. These are still so unusual that when they occur they are singled out in the profession at best as an innovation, or at worst as a non-historical, irrelevant development, as if philosophy, literature, political science or logic had nothing to do with history. I myself have problems with being labeled a non-historian by people in the profession.

On the other hand, philosophy also went through a difficult phase of redefinition and self-scrutiny. Choices needed to be made between a number of philosophies. I don’t mean between philosophical doctrines, which has always been the case, but rather between dramatically different styles of reasoning, some of them brand new. At some point it seemed that analytical philosophy would simply replace everything else, all traditional fields such as metaphysics or moral philosophy. By now all the traditional sub-disciplines of philosophy have been recast in the categorical system of analytical philosophy, which I think has run its course. It did not deliver on its original promise. Linking the two fields now, I can safely say that the analytical philosophy of history is dead. Arthur C. Danto, in a memorable article, claims exactly about this and I was glad to see that one of the tenors of this field came to this conclusion.[1]

If we talk of the year 2005, the following picture emerges: there is a total disaffection with any form of grand theory. Coming up with such a theory is so risky that nobody dares do it. You have to go to Russia to find the specialists in kulturologia who still propose a historiosophy or historiology, quasi-mystical forms of historical theory. Jutta Scherer has published a very instructive book on this topic. Speculative theories of history survive only on the outskirts of the Western world, or in eccentric and marginal circles within its core. Elsewhere, in the mainstream, such theories tend to be discarded as pure speculation or reactionary rubbish. The problem is that big questions are still there to be asked and answered, and it is a very sad development of the last decades that they were left outside what is perceived as a legitimate part of the mainstream in the humanities and the social sciences.

Once the figure of authority was exposed, first by psychoanalysis, and once this culture of anti-authoritarian hubris spread within every discipline, for better and for worse, there was no way back. We nonetheless need to find a way back, albeit not to ex-cathedra pronouncements of the academic mandarins like in the 19th century or in the 1930s. I am not pleading for the relinking of historical studies and of the reflection upon the writing of and the research in historical studies with any of the grand theories and ideologies of the past. I am not interested in seeing a new Marxian, Spenglerian, Collingwoodian, Lovejovian, not even Aronian synthesis. (As a philosopher of history, Aron had a mutant contribution to the field. When he was working on the history of historical thought in Germany he was at his best, but his own introduction to the field was rather delirious). Without advocating such a revival, I still believe that new connections need to be established between reflection in every other field about the world and our experiences of historical research, the types of historical writing we are practicing today. Aristotle’s Physics was separated by readers from his Metaphysics arbitrarily; in their author’s project the two were parts of a continuum.
I know that it is currently impossible to integrate the vast multitude of disciplines, since we are going through a crisis of communication between even neighboring subfields. This has to be corrected by an indication that there is some commonality between different fields. I advocate the reconnection at every moment of reflection and empirical research, of theory and practice, as Marxists would put it. This connection is problematic and rare, even in the work of the greatest authors. Here I can mention with all due respect and warm nostalgia one of the persons from whom I learned most in my life, Paul Ricoeur. He was not reading many historical works. If you look at his indexes and footnotes, he is talking about 20 to 25 books at most. He is quoting and referring to approximately ten authors, such as Carlo Ginzburg, historians of the Annales School or Saul Friedlander, but he is not concerned with mainstream historical research. So the complaint of some ‘real’ historians is somewhat justified: they do not feel represented and discussed by people who formulate general theoretical statements about history. These worlds have to be brought together. This is the topic of the next decade or more, and in the process we have to remain open to the current concerns of our societies, not forgetting about the use and abuse of history. Knowingly or unknowingly, we all live in very pervasive historical cultures: even Hollywood movies, cartoons, political discourse, advertisements and so on are full of historical references. This present-day historical culture, whose very regime of historicity seems to challenge the very idea of history, needs to be analyzed in connection with the current concerns of our academic field. This connectedness is very important, just as it is indispensable to relate our historical reflection to different non-European theories, worldviews and traditions. In this respect I would first turn to our colleagues from China, Japan, and India, because articulate visions of history and alternative historiographies were developed there. For instance, there is a high culture based on the Buddhist and Confucianist worldviews that Europeans have to engage. I am a modest participant in this process, especially in terms of preparing systematic and synthetic scholarly treatments of such central notions as Utopianism and nationalism for publication in China. I am not competent enough to relate to the details of what our Chinese, Japanese, and Indian colleagues tell us, but I am genuinely committed to the making of a truly global, intercultural historical culture. Such exchanges, when they go beyond the protocolary surface and address the most challenging issues and our disagreements upfront, can help us immensely, even practically, for our own orientation in the world. We cannot experiment in history, or at least we shouldn’t, but there is a huge repository of successful and failed experiments out there in other cultures, times and places. Whether or not we believe in historia magistra vitae, even if we are skeptical about the possibility of transcultural and transthistorical learning, we might still try. This is not about generating paradigms or models that can be applied in different settings, such as those developed by the more vocal political scientists (I still have to be persuaded that mantras such as ‘conflict resolution’ really yield practical results). But the mere knowledge of alternatives might help historical actors in their effort of making sense of their worlds. And this is not trivial.

I would argue that the huge discrepancy that has emerged over the last decades between speculative and non-speculative theories of history, between the analytical and the narrativistic and similar theoretical positions, need to be studied together as alternative visions of history, and checked against each other and against other forms of reflection on history, including the theological, the metaphysical, the discursive, the logical, the epistemological, etc. This would include the study of various ‘meta-‘ approaches closely linked to historical research and writing, the various ‘discourses of a practice’, to use the ‘proto-postmodernist’ French formula. Writing historiography ‘innocently’ in the 2000s, when every other field has introduced elements of meta-disciplinary reflection strikes me as very sad and counterproductive. Among others, this theoretical poverty drives intelligent, theoretically-minded people out of historical studies; isolates historians from the main debates in the humanities and social sciences; and prevents scholars from other disciplines to take any serious interest in ours. This has less to do with the sheer difficulty of theorizing history, which certainly exists, but is present in other disciplines as well, but rather with the status and the location of theory on the ‘Mendeleevian table’ of historical studies. (By the way: most historians have no idea of this ‘table’, i.e. of the system of historical studies; they only know a fragment, usually just one box. With the demise of comprehensive, systematic curricula, this system is not properly taught in most universities around the world.) Theory belongs to the core of historical studies, and should not be (perceived as) a specialized, marginal thing. While political science, even in its most dogmatic form--is rational choice theory--, managed to locate theory at its center; social scientists in general boast their systematic use of social scientific models, while historians tend to move away from anything remotely linked to theory. We need to critically learn from experiments such as the Gesellschaftsgeschichte of the Bielefeld School, microstoria, etc. Sometimes, we need to contribute serious reflection on these trends or fashions or intellectual styles of historical writing, as their practitioners frequently theorizing only by request, after the fact, when their approach was already going downhill after its period or moment of fame. This is also true of the Annales School. We need to bring such styles of historical research and writing back into the general discussion. This way we might come up with something smarter than neo-positivism or blasé post-post-postmodernism...

Laczó: I am aware that it would be impossible to provide a fully rounded answer to this last question of mine, but I would like to ask about some of your impressions concerning the past fifteen years, and how you would evaluate the cultural and intellectual developments you have been witnessing. What do you see as the great achievements, and what have been the sour disappointments of these recent years?

Antohi: This is another monumental challenge. By now we are talking about half a generation of historical change since the fall of Communism. With my colleagues we have been exploring the developments in the historiography of Central and Eastern Europe for the first ten years after 1989. These explorations resulted in two forthcoming collective volumes: Narratives Unbound: Historical Studies in Post-Communist Eastern Europe and Pasts Continuous: Writing recent History in Post-Communist Eastern Europe, both with CEU Press.

Several years ago I was asked to report on ten years of changes in the social sciences and the humanities in our entire region. I tried to refuse this surreal assignment, but was told that there was somebody, namely Paul Baltes from Berlin, presenting the same evolution in Western Europe. And so I came up with a sketchy tableau. I stated that the 1990s in Eastern Europe had been basically about reconnecting, readjusting, and ultimately returning to Western European trends and developments. During the Cold War, there were scholars in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere, who were participating in the all-European debates in historiography, but their voices remained marginal. The fact that Jacques le Goff came to Budapest does not mean that Béla Köpeczi would elicit the same attention when going to Paris. The attempt by Jerzy Topolski, somewhat in the spirit of a venerable Polish tradition, to reconcile analytical philosophy and Marxism in a new methodology of history, or the work on the theory and history of nationalism by Miroslav Hroch, had a certain global impact, of course, just like some of the more empirically-oriented publications emerging from our region. But such exceptions could not amount to a Eastern European contribution to the main international debates in historical studies. Let’s not kid ourselves! Under Communism, Eastern European historians never reached the level of visibility they had enjoyed between the end of the 19th century and World War Two. Still, there were some exchanges and some generous Westerners would allow some heroic Easterners to speak their minds, especially when they were saying yes. This situation has not changed enough until now. Eastern Europeans need to assert themselves more in order to capture and retain the attention of their Western colleagues. This process will take time. At this point we can only report about some successes and some failures, we can salute some ambitious (and usually failed) East-West comparative projects, but we cannot speak of a truly pan-European process of integration in historical studies. Historians lag behind literary scholars, for instance: comparative literary studies of European trends have started to appear in the 1970s, peaking in the 1980s. The Budapest-based Akadémiai Kiadó, for instance, has published one of those pioneering projects. So the recent multi-volume, collective work on the history of European literatures, edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer, builds on the work of the previous generation. In historical studies, only the 1990s and the 2000s have seen the first systematic European histories of historiography or comparative histories of particular topics, such as the one (still in progress) funded by the European Science Foundation. Before such major descriptive and analytical tools are available, the connection between empirical historical research and historical theory will remain very superficial.

Overall I see our situation as historians as part of a general crisis in the humanities and the social sciences that has started in the 1960s. My sense is that we are still looking for ways out of this enormous confusion. To youngsters, and even more to sixty-eighters, this sounds like a very conservative statement. I do not think it is so because the result I see, and I have much evidence for this, is the unprecedented fragmentation of intellectual and academic, disciplinary or transdisciplinary idioms. This resulted in a major crisis of communication between even the various sub-fields of the same field. There are enormous difficulties of communication between people who belong to the same clearly defined sub-discipline. What can we expect from well-intended discussions between philosophers, musicologists, writers, historians, natural scientists, and so on, taking place in some secluded quarters? You really have to wonder what is going on under the aegis of inter-, trans-, meta-, and multidisciplinarity at lower levels. I survived two years in two of the top three institutes of advanced study in the world, the Stanford-based Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1999-2000) and the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (2004-2005). I visited and spent shorter periods in other such places, attended many disciplinary and interdisciplinary conferences, for many years, so I know rather well what is going on. Consequently, I can state with some certainty that the epistemological promises of the 1960s and 1970s, generally iconoclastic, over(self-)critical, deconstructionist, and so on, have not materialized. The hope was that we would reach a certain level of critical expertise in our playing with all these notions, topics, theories grand or small, paradigms and models. This way it would become a natural thing for all of us to relate to anybody else conducting research anywhere else, even to those working in other fields. In a way this was the promise of a universal language in the ‘anything goes’ world of self-assertive particularisms, of unintelligibility, after meaning had been exposed as a tyrannical illusion or worse. The idea was relocated from the arcane sphere of a universal language as understood by Leibniz and others to the still ambitious project of global communication among scholars who otherwise do not share anything else, and are very happy and proud about it. What we have now is the opposite of a mathesis universalis: ever greater difficulties in understanding each other. This is a major disappointment to me.

How then to make sure that without resorting to a very rudimentary common language, that of ideology, a global discussion would still be possible? Not only am I disappointed with the failure, our common failure, to design an intelligent, overarching, inter-, trans-, or postdisciplinary communication, but I am also disappointed with the shape a new commonality has started to take, that is the form of ideology. Rudimentary ideologies are being encoded these days around the world in the various forms of ‘political correctness’. There are several versions of it, both on the left and on the right. They are competing, but they are quite similar in the sense that they offer preformatted ideological answers to all problems--epistemological, civic, moral, ethical, etc. As I indicated I my égo histoire exercises earlier, I am rather suspicious of ideologies and as a matter of fact I am quite virulently against them. When I mention liberalism, please understand this as a critical reading of this tradition, always in combination with other ideas! I would not subscribe to a liberal party wholesale. I support some of their political agendas and policies, but I would never subscribe to their ideology across the board. The question is how to make sure that we reach a certain level of commonality and mutual intelligibility without resorting to this rudimentary tool that is ideology?

When I was living in Romania in relative isolation, and I only had the chance of listening to foreign radios, of reading books and articles, but hardly ever going places and visiting Western universities (einmal ist keinmal, or almost: I had a chance to spend twenty days in Germany, mainly in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, in June 1989), I was still entertaining the illusion that in places I would never be able to see some smart people were working at developing that new universal language. This turned out not to be the case, not even in the major centers of scholarship in the world. There is nothing of this sort besides the claims of cognitive scientists. Theirs is a sort of reduction of everything to a paradigm that can seem sophisticated to some, but not to me. Technically, especially in terms of its jargon, cognitive science is rather sophisticated, but it is not nearly as complex as it would need to be for it to play any role in the recomposition of a long-lost unity of knowledge. In any case, cognitive science did not manage to replace traditional analytical procedures and concepts with its own based on the vision of the mind based on the solitary, asocial brain.

Aside from this, we are left with purely ideological positions, and that is very worrisome because it raises the issue of conformity and opportunism. People do not always resist such temptations. Historically, when given the chance people are opportunistic and can engage in the worst intellectual, ethical, moral, political exercises. With this dissatisfaction I feel, I somehow draw the lines of a dream: that of participating in the redefinition of the humanities and the social sciences in light of the current challenges of the world we live in, without sacrificing the traditions that made us who we are. This can only be done as a huge international team effort. In fact I am participating in such a project as well, in order to relaunch, revisit, rediscuss some of the basic tenets of the humanities. Whenever necessary, we ought to go back as far as the pre-Socratics and see what went wrong there and then, or “just” to the 19th century, or to specific authors! This is not a modest undertaking, but this is the framework in which I inscribe my entire life. Whatever is left of it, I see it against this background, modestly integrated in this effort of discussing critically and going beyond these traditions. No single person can make this happen in the world. But by joining forces, we may have the chance of coming up with something more intelligent than what we have now, something that would not be merely ideological. It would integrate rather than reject, purge, censor, and label the achievements, values, and principles on the basis of which entire cultures and civilizations (for centuries, sometimes for millennia) seem to be functioning. I do not need to add that they did not function perfectly, no culture or civilization does. Nonetheless, the study of fallible, imperfect pasts is the only resource historians have at their disposal, it is their only meaningful contribution to the endeavors of their societies.

Post Scriptum by Sorin Antohi, December 2006

When this interview is published, in January 2007, I am not affiliated with Central European University anymore. On October 20, 2006, as it emerged that I wasn’t holding a PhD despite my claims to the contrary, I have resigned from all my academic positions, as well as from most of my various offices in various associations and organizations. Under the circumstances, many of the blueprints and utopias I was describing in a 2005 interview (somewhat anachronistically edited in 2006) acquire an additional dimension: they become uchronies, or counterfactual history. But not all those projects and visions will be lost, I hope. Some of them have been already taken over by others, some of them will remain my debt to the scholarly community, and especially to my mentors, colleagues, and students.

Postscript of the Editorial Board, January 2007

As indicated, this interview was originally conducted in late 2005, and was edited and partly rewritten by Sorin Antohi in late 2006. This took place after the revelations of his connection to the Securitate and of the fact that he did not receive his PhD at the University of Iasi, and his subsequent resignation from all his positions at CEU.

Our journal does not publish this interview to express its support or approval of Antohi. We believe that the interview is an interesting document, and can also contribute to a more complex understanding of the events of last year. It is our hope that it can be illuminating to see how Antohi perceived and perceives his career.