Frandsen, Naomi

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					                              Frandsen, Naomi
     Dincolo de Cenzura: Romanian Poetry under Communism
                    Faculty Mentor: Anca Mitroi Sprenger, French and Italian

In 1971, Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s secretary-general of the Communist party, ended almost
a decade of relative freedom of expression by issuing the July Theses. Similar to the cultural
revolutions initiated in China and North Korea, the July Theses changed the landscape of the
literary world for nearly 20 years. Books were removed from libraries and stores, young writers
were only allowed to publish in anthologies compiled from the winners of government-
administered “contests,” organizations such as the Writers’ Union and other literary circles were
threatened or dismantled, Romanian intellectuals were isolated from the rest of academic Europe,
and propagandistic literature filled state-owned newspapers and journals (Negrici 80-81).
Perhaps most insidious of all, official government censorship bureaus were publicly
“discontinued” and instead officials embedded themselves in individual publishing houses and
editorial boards, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and uncertainty. No longer able to combat a
centralized, identifiable bureau, Romanian writers had to be wary of all editors and publishers.
Literary techniques became not just instruments of artistic expression but survival strategies for
writers whose careers depended on being able to fool or avoid censors. The 1970s and 1980s
were an interesting period for literature from a demographic perspective as well. Until then,
Romanian writers came from a generation which could remember life before communism. In the
1970s and 1980s, a generation of poets came of age which had been born, raised, and educated
entirely under communism. Under the new constraints of isolation and censorship, Romanian
literature became, as one poet described, an experiment conducted in a laboratory in outer
space—the ideal research environment for the effects of communism and censorship on poetic
expression and literary culture.

 Twenty-eight years later, I visited Romania for the first time, then just ten years removed from
Ceausescu’s communism. I was fascinated by pervasive evidence of a vital, pre-revolution
literary culture. Apartments were crammed with books, and I was told that volumes of poetry
and even literary criticism went through several editions in just a few years. With only two hours
of state-sponsored television a day, many Romanians read voraciously and participated in a
dangerous subterfuge to decode “messages” concealed in the words and parables of resistant
writers. Censors kept long lists of words that had been discovered to have double meanings:
writers couldn’t use words like black, dark, elevator, even cat. In the post-1989 absence of
censorship, belletristic literary production flagged, and the Romanian literary world began
producing more articles and essays. Television became the chief form of media entertainment,
and books became more expensive. Romanian writers coined a new term for the current
constraints upon literature: “economic censorship.” As I thought about Romanian literature (and
tried to read a little), I began wondering if perhaps communist censorship had the unintended
consequence of stimulating and strengthening Romanian poetics. Could the blindly laudatory
propaganda on the one hand be balanced by a creatively resistant, nuanced literature on the

With funding from ORCA, invaluable mentorship from Anca Sprenger, BYU’s Romanian
scholar-in-residence, and the generosity of friends in Bucharest, I spent May 2003 in Romania’s
capital city analyzing the effects of censorship on Romanian poetry. For three months previous, I
had gathered as much pertinent material as possible (resources outside of Romania are very
limited) and entered into correspondence with some professors from the University of Bucharest,
including Dr. Monica Spiridon, professor of Comparative Literature at the College of Letters
who became a tremendous resource in Romania. With several letters of introduction, tape-
recording equipment, an old laptop computer, and the addresses of Bucharest’s major research
libraries, I set about my one-month trial as a novice scholar. Over the course of five weeks and
over 200 hours, I compiled an annotated bibliography of the major works of literature and
scholarship relevant to communist censorship, analyzed issues of four major literary periodicals
during the 1970s and 1980s, conducted 9 interviews with prominent literary figures, attended a
seminar at the University of Bucharest, and gathered over 30 volumes of contemporary
Romanian literature and criticism. I left with 50 pages of detailed notes and a long list of thank-
you cards to write.

However, I didn’t experience unmixed success. I discovered that academic writing is much more
difficult than conversational speaking, and I spent many hours bent over a dictionary in the
Central University Library and the Academic Library. I also found that although being a young
American female opened doors, I also had to deal with significant language barriers when
interviewing, incomplete knowledge about Romanian culture and history, and occasional
advances from male security guards or fellow scholars. I frequently found myself wondering if
an inexperienced American student could do any valuable work in the Romanian academy, and I
worried that ORCA’s funds were being used to produce a second-rate scholar instead of first-rate
scholarship. There were, however, many thrilling moments. I had the opportunity to meet the
president of the Writers’ Union and interview Calin Vlasie, director of a major publishing house
for contemporary poetry, Mircea Cartarescu, one of the foremost “optzecist” poets (poets of the
‘80s), Ana Blandiana, Romania’s premiere female poet and winner of the prestigious Herder
Prize, and Eugen Simion, president of the Romanian Academy. Brief though my interactions
were, I hope I have formed beneficial relationships for future BYU students or classes. In
retrospect, I wish I had been able to give something more than just thanks in return for the
generous help of the many writers, scholars, and administrators who took me under their
collective wing. Whether it is mementoes from BYU or service, I intend to offer something in
return when I visit next. I also had moments of academic excitement, particularly as I became
aware of the curious mixing of political and literary genres that I found in periodicals like
Amfiteatru, Orizont, and even Romania Literara—a problem of genres unaddressed by the
research I’d read. Further research projects might include a rhetorical analysis of the “official”
language of propaganda and the “unofficial” or “genuine” language of non-propaganda. My most
thrilling experiences, however, were the moments of spiritual insight that came from studying a
country that has sacrificed so much for freedom. One poet described being watched by secret
police and going without food and heat because of her refusal to write for the Communist party,
and another described his constant efforts to create a place inside his mind free from censorship
and party politics where he could write “truth.” The role of non-complicit literature under
communism becomes a metaphor for the broader value of literature in communities large and
small. Literature, wrote Ana Blandiana, “este o oglinda incoruptibila, un portret al lui Dorian
Gray, in care realitatea este obligata sa se recunoasca in toata monstruozitatea ei. De altfel, sunt
convinsa ca realitatea ultimelor decenii, ani si luni este atat de complexa incat numai literature va
reusi s-o patrunda si s-o analizeze cu adevarat. Acesta este sarcina viitoarelor capodopere, a caror
contributie va fi astfel insumata nu numai artei, ci si istoriei noastre” (160). [Literature is an
incorruptible mirror, a portrait of Dorian Gray, in which reality is obliged to recognize itself in
all of its monstrosity. Moreover, I’m conviced that the reality of the last decades, years and
months, is so complex that only literature will succeed in actually understanding and analyzing
it. This is the burden of future masterpieces, whose contribution will thus be counted not only
toward art but also toward our history.]

For most of the poets, however, their efforts and desires were focused on writing "true" poetry--
separating themselves from the restrictions of censorship enough to be able to create art that had
no connection with their political surroundings. When they attempted to create critiques of the
communist regime, they did so in an "aesopic language" (until the 1980s)--a language thick in
metaphor, double-sense, and alusion. Writing and reading poetry became a game between the
writers and the readers to figure out the encoded message or to attain artistic freedom in the
midst of political oppression. As a result, the literary culture of the communist period was
actually quite vibrant. Since television was only on for two hours a day throughout the entire
country, reading was a national pasttime, and books of poetry and even criticism generally went
through several editions. Since communism, the literary culture has stagnated--an experience of
"economic censorship," as it is called. My next project is to closely analyze the poetry of this
period in the light of the interviews I've performed and start to theorize on the "new poetics" that
have resulted from communism.

Works Cited
Blandiana, Ana. Cine Sunt Eu? Editura Dacia: Cluj-Napoca, 2001.
Negrici, Eugen. Literature and Propaganda in Communist Romania. The Romanian Cultural
Foundation Publishing House: Bucharest, 1999.