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.