Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Puterea fragilitatii" / "The Power of Fragility", by Doina Cornea: Beyond Ideology and Towards Attitude

The texts of the Romanian professor Doina Cornea, one of the strongest promoters of individual and spiritual freedom during the communist regime, have been reprinted under the title Puterea fragilităţii / The Power of Fragility. These texts are set in two parts: one vividly confessional, a chronology interview taken by the Frenchman Michel Combes, recalling the time between 1945 and 1990 (the power shift time all over eastern Europe), and another one made up of Mrs. Cornea’s various manifestos and open letters sent to different local or European authorities of that time (including to Pope John Paul II or the European Council).

What immediately strikes the reader from the very first page is the high impact figure of Mrs. Cornea with her strong gentility and deeply rooted principles and convictions. But, as she herself states at one point, “ if you don’t have roots, how do you know where to go?”

A literature tutor from the city of Cluj, close to retirement age, Doina Cornea is dismissed from the university in 1983 after sending an open letter to Free Europe Radio expressing her views on the importance of spiritual regeneration and creativity and of placing moral values much higher than the material ones like money, status, relations, seen as advocates for fear and greed. After this first letter is radio broadcast, Mrs Cornea starts working on various translations of banned books, founds a cultural magazine and distributes texts in ‘samizdat’. Thus, at the age of 54, she starts her work on what she calls “unmasking reality” and struggles “to make people think”, in a regime where people are looked upon as equal instruments. In 1987 she is arrested with her son as a consequence of refusing the compulsory communist vote and showing solidarity with the Braşov workers’ revolt while supporting it with street manifestos and continuing writing open letters. For more than one year she remains under brutal home arrest. Luckily, the communism collapse takes place in due time.

What is truly remarkable in this book, I reckon, is Doina Cornea’s belief in the power of the spirit, as opposed to the power of terror. Fundamentally, she constructs her own life paradigm: terror, in this case the communist one, is meant to suppress the individual but the spirit, once recognized and activated, both individually and inside community, can transcend the evil itself. Accordingly, she is an individual fighting against ‘Securitate’, the terror institution at that time, and bets all her cards on the spirit. And she wins, as history proved.

Another interesting fact is that Doina Cornea considers her approach more than just political action, looking thus beyond the ideology of power, she considers it a “political attitude” in a larger sense, which involves the individual capacity to choose in every second of ones existence - “to choose oneself”. For a person on whom so much evil was imposed from outside, the only salvation comes from a constant attitude of reevaluating and improving the self. It is most stirring the fragment in which she recounts the imprisonment time as a source for knowing true solidarity and fighting the hate complex. Her means is the “spiritual exercise of ordinary things”, i.e. perseverance, the courage of humiliation, the courage of hope and justice in apparently minor daily acts.

“The spirit is something alive and extremely powerful, if you possess it…When you don’t possess it, you turn to the body, physical force, to violence”, she says.

Hence, it is understandable why for Doina Cornea “the ethical dimension should be essential in any society, the only one capable of making a society flourish spiritually.” For her, ethics is directly linked with Christian faith, the latter helping her “relativize political domination”, “protect the spirit against totalitarianism” and protect the individual “to remain oneself”. Accordingly, it is impossible to live without a moral attitude.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"The Lure of the East" - British Orientalist Paintings - Exploring Self-reflection

The painting exhibition at Tate Britain London this summer, significantly titled "The Lure of the East. British Orientalist Painting" (4 June - 31 August) is an art collection that should not be missed - by those interested in Orientalism but, moreover, by the general public, with a view to bridging the gap between western and eastern cultures in order to understand better the global society we live in.

The main highlights of the exhibition are:

- the mashrabiya woodwork in the Harem section - which is the very heart of the exhibition. You can feel priviledged to see and feel the atmosphere created by mashrabiya, especuially if this is your first time.

- the painting titled Arab Interior, by Arthur Melville in 1881 - which is also the herald of the whole exhibition and which accurately illustrates a great sense of the eastern culture, in nuce;

- the famous portrait of Lord Byron, by Thomas Phillips in 1814: the mix of the two cultures is striking;

- the video projections, which tell the story of the travelling;

- the many eastern life instances, including the beautiful camel eyes (which you can feel for real if you look closer) in the desert or the charm of the eastern storyteller in the public market corner or the mystery and wisdom of the Kuran reader and the tranquility of the carpet seller. In this respect, all explanations of the paintings are very useful to read.

But I think primarily, this art show can give us the opportunity to understand the cultural gap that exists between the two parts of the world, largely due to miscommunication, false identities and enforcement of self-perception on the others. Personally, I tried to perceive this event critically regarding the artists who travelled to the east in the 18th, 19th and 20th century - I could appreciate their great effort of depicting eastern instances of daily life, the desert, the markets and public places, etc. However, many mistakes, inaccuracies and even biast self-reflections are more than obvious. One painting that illustrates this shows a Muslim man praying on the carpet with his shoes on. The image is painfully close to a sacrilege and revolt is unavoidable even for Christian eyes...Other too mnay instances depict Arab women who look too much like European fantasies - hence the misconstruction of reality, which is laughable but sad and disheartening at the same time.

These facts raise, in my opinion, the question of objectivity, of real communication between the two worlds, ultimately of respect and communion. All these issues seem even more present in our century, too, ironically or not. I found it very interesting to see the roots of this struggling dialogue of today in the mistaken depictions of the past...

What ways are there for people to bring authentic cultural communication between the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, etc worlds, I wonder? Who can make a difference in all this struggle?