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Friendship: The Brain (Of a Fascist) & The Heart (Of a Jew): Mircea Eliade & Mihail Sebastian PDF E-mail

In Sebastian’s defense (1934-1935)Active Image

In 1934, following the publication of the novel De două mii de ani…, [For Two Thousand Years] with the infamous foreword signed by Nae Ionescu, Mircea Eliade publicly defended his friend Sebastian, polemizing with their common mentor. Among other things, in his article Eliade raised against the “certitude of Jewish damnation”, and Nae Ionescu’s opinion that Jews had irremediably lost their access to redemption. Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, in Origen’s formulation. To judge this way, wrote Eliade, meant “to intervene in God’s free will”, who “could redeem anyone, by any means”. In two other articles, Eliade continued this controversy with theologian Gheorghe Racoveanu, fellow contributor to Cuvântul and a friend of both Eliade and Sebastian. There are “certain Jews”, Eliade would nevertheless admit, who “are Devil’s sons”. These Jews “shall not find redemption” .
Eliade’s jump to the public defense of his friend Sebastian was obviously a laudable and courageous act. Sebastian fully appreciated it. In august 1934 he wrote him the following in a letter: “Your answer [to Racoveanu’s article], dear Mircea, [was] excellent. You could not put it better. I am deeply sorry you were dragged into this mess, in a way because of me.” This was the time when Sebastian was attacked from all directions, from the right and from the left, by the legionnaires and by the communists, by friends and by enemies, by Romanians and by Jews. For the Romanian P. Nicanor, for instance, “[Sebastian’s] intellectual profile is primarily hooliganic”, while for the Jew Isaac Ludo, Sebastian is a “dramatic bone rodent”, a “lowlife”, a “scoundrel”, a “dejection of the Jewish ghetto.”  In short, Sebastian was too Jewish for the Romanian nationalists and too Romanian for the Jewish nationalists.  

But Mircea Eliade approached the issue of Judeophobia from a somewhat too “cold”, too “technical”, strictly theological perspective. Consciously or not, he largely ignored the political perspective (not to speak of the moral one) of anti-Semitism. At that moment, in the mid ’30s, the Romanian (and European) Jews were in need of physical, not metaphysical, salvation. They needed redemption on the earth, while still living, rather than in heavens, after death. In fact, Sebastian himself sarcastically amended this theological controversy in his book Cum am devenit huligan [How I Became a Hooligan]: “I do not claim any right to have a say in this debate [between Eliade and Racoveanu], which, moreover, in its depth, is profoundly and totally indifferent to me. I have a vague impression that after my death I shall not be judged by Mr. Racoveanu’s texts. And if I am wrong, let God’s will prevail”.

Still, Sebastian fully appreciated the fact that his friend Eliade was one of the few who jumped to his defense. On the cover page of his volume Cum am devenit huligan, Sebastian inserted a dedication showing his gratitude: “To Mircea, who did not let me despair while standing the miseries related here [in the book] – which will only survive, if they do, because he had a say – the most beautiful (Mihai, 1935).”  

Sliding towards the far right. First signs (1935-1936)

In the fall of 1935, Sebastian started to notice “that he [Mircea] is sliding ever more clearly to the right.” “When we are alone together we understand each other reasonably well. In public, however, his right-wing position becomes extreme and categorical. He said one simply shocking thing to me, with a kind of direct aggressiveness: «All great creators are on the right». Just like that” (27 November 1935). 

Everything still seemed remediable. Sebastian’s decision was firm – to avoid at any cost the breaking up of their friendship. He was convinced he had even found the appropriate strategy: “I shan’t allow such discussions to cast the slightest shadow over my affection for him. In the future I shall try to avoid «political arguments» with him” (27 November 1935).

In less than a year, however, this strategy would be proven wrong. Or in any case, impossible to apply: “I should like to eliminate any political reference from our discussions. But is that possible? Street life impinges on us whether we like it or not, and in the most trivial reflection I can feel the breach widening between us.” (25 September 1936).

In the fall of 1936, the “painful political arguments” between the two friends seemed harder and harder to avoid, leading to “irreparable discords” (see 25 September 1936, 18 October 1936 etc.). “He [Mircea Eliade] is a man of the right, with everything that implies – Sebastian noted in his journal on 25 September 1936. In Abyssinia he was on the side of Italy. In Spain, on the side of Franco. Here [in Romania] he is for Codreanu. He just makes an effort – how awkwardly? – to cover this up, at least when he is with me. But sometimes he can’t stop himself and then he starts shouting, as he did yesterday.  […] Will I lose Mircea for no more reason than that? Can I forget everything about him that is exceptional, his generosity, his vital strength, his humanity, his affectionate disposition, all that is youthful, childlike, and sincere in him? I don’t know. I feel awkward silences between us which only half shroud the explanations we avoid, because we each probably feel them. And I keep having more and more disillusions, not least because he is able to work comfortably with the anti-Semitic Vremea, as if there were nothing untoward about it.” Nevertheless, Sebastian concluded on a still hopeful tone: “I shall do everything possible to keep him [Mircea]” (25 September 1936).

Mihail Sebastian didn’t know what to choose between the intellectual value of his friends and colleagues and the moral one. He didn’t know whether  to adopt a position of political tolerance or of ethical intransigence. For example, his reaction of embarrassement at the contact with Dragoş Protopopescu, who became “an Iron Guardist” (journalist at Porunca Vremii and coeditor at Buna Vestire), is symptomatic: “There should be – and it’s not the first time I say this to myself – there should be more intransigence, more rigidity even, in my life, notes Sebastian in his diary. I am too «souple» – and I utter this word with a touch of scorn for everything in me is too accommodating” (15 June 1936).

Between love and hate (1937-1939)

But things developed speedily. By 1937-39, Sebastian’s friends were disturbed by his presence. They would change the subject or keep silent whenever Sebastian stepped into the room. Only their dog Joyce – uninfected by the microbe – “shouted with joy” at his sight. “Only Joyce reminded me of the time when I felt somehow at home in that house” (30 August 1938) “Our friendship is rapidly breaking up”, Sebastian noted in his diary about his relationship with Eliade. “We don’t see each other for days at a time – and when we do, we no longer have anything to say” (25 March 1937). Subjects were changed in Sebastian’s presence. At times, in despair, Sebastian himself would ask Eliade to change the subject. “But is friendship possible under such circumstances?”, he wrote in his journal on 4 April 1937.

In December 1937, Sebastian felt he was about to loose all his friends, including “the closest friend of all, Mircea” (19 December 1937). Indeed, it was then, few days before the elections of 20 December 1937, that the famous ill fated text “Why I Believe in the Victory of the Legionary Movement”, signed by Eliade appeared in the far right publication Buna Vestire. “Can the Romanian people end its days… wasted by poverty and syphilis, invaded by Jews and torn apart by foreigners…?” Sebastian transcribed, stupefied, in his journal, a fragment from the text published by Eliade (17 December 1937). The long and vivid political disputes they had along 1937 did not manage to clarify things. “He’s neither a charlatan nor a madman. He’s just naive. But there are such catastrophic forms of naiveté”, concluded Sebastian (2 March 1937).

The two friends’ encounters were rarer and rarer, until they ceased completely: “It’s nearly two months since I last saw Mircea”, wrote Sebastian in his journal at the beginning of 1938. “Should I let things unravel by themselves? Should I wrap it all up with a final explanation? I feel such revulsion that I would prefer us both to stop speaking once and for all. I have nothing to ask him, and he certainly has nothing to say to me. On the other hand, our friendship lasted for years, and perhaps I owed it one harsh hour of parting” (13 January 1938).

When, half a year later, they eventually met again, Sebastian did not know how to manage his relation with Eliade. Out of control, his feelings oscillated between sympathy and antipathy, between love and hate. “Dinner at Mircea’s on Sunday evening. It was a long time since I had seen him. He’s unchanged. I looked at him and listened with great curiosity to what he said. The gestures I had forgotten, his nervous volubility, a thousand things thrown together – always congenial, straight-forward, captivating. It’s hard not to be found of him. But I have so much to say to him about Cuvântul, about the Iron Guard, about himself and his unforgivable compromises. There can be no excuse for the way he caved in politically. I had decided not to mince my words with him. In any case, there’s not much left to mince. Even if we meet again like this, our friendship is at an end…” (12 April 1938).

The relation between the two friends was oscillating. Sebastian constantly felt he was loosing Eliade and then finding him again. On 6 March 1939, he offered to Nina and Mircea Eliade, as a gift, his new volume, Corespondenţa lui Marcel Proust [Marcel Proust’s Correspondence], with the following short but meaningful dedication: “To Nina and Mircea, found again”. On July 22 of the same year Sebastian joyfully commented in his journal “a meal in a garden restaurant” with Nina and Mircea, where they felt “like in the best times of old”. Everything seemed to be mendable.

But, on 1 September 1939, Hitler waged war. Mircea Eliade was, as Sebastian noted in his journal, “more pro-German than ever, more anti-French and anti-Semitic”. “What is happening on the frontier with Bukovina is a scandal – Eliade told Petru Comarnescu –, because new waves of Jews are flooding into the country. Rather than a Romania again invaded by kikes, it would be better to have a German protectorate.” Eliade was having the same problem as in December 1937, when he had written the text “Why I Believe in the Victory of the Legionary Movement”, – an obsession with “the invasion of Romania by kikes”. From “the closest friend of all, Mircea”, as Sebastian still thought of Eliade in December 1937, in less than two years Eliade was degraded to “my ex-friend Mircea Eliade” (20 September 1939).

“Iphigenia, or the Legionary Sacrifice” (1939-1941)

In December 1939, following his liberation from the Miercurea Ciuc camp, Mircea Eliade wrote the play Iphigenia. In Eliade’s view, king Agamemnon’s daughter not only did not oppose her being sacrificed, but even made the eulogy of self-sacrifice, of the offering “for the redemption of the others”. She could have avoided the oracular decision (by marrying Achilles), but preferred to “throw herself in the arms of death” (“marry death”, as Eliade would put it) instead, to allow the Greek army to leave for the Trojan War. The references to Legenda Meşterului Manole [Master Manole’s Legend] were obvious in the play: “I shall not be built in – Iphigenia motivated her sacrifice – at the foundation of a grandiose construction, to give it breath and life”, but at the foundation of Greek victory over Troy.

The choice of the martial subject and the play’s meanings were transparent. “In this tragedy in three parts – notes Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine – one can find all the ideological topics that remained dear to him [Eliade] – particularly the exaltation of sacrifice, and of death for the motherland –, skillfully integrated in an a priori dramatic script, with no direct connection to the Romanian and European political actuality. Numerous passages are in fact almost word by word reproductions of the articles devoted by Eliade, in 1937, to the Frankist «sacrifice» of Ion Moţa and Vasile Marin.”

The play had its opening night on 12 February 1941, 18 days after the legionary rebellion. A fragment of Sebastian’s Journal explains everything: “The premiere of Mircea Eliade’s Iphigenia at the National Theatre. Of course, I didn’t go. It would be impossible for me to show myself at any premiere, let alone at one which (because of the author, the actors, the theme, and the audience) was bound to be a kind of Legionary reunion. I’d have felt I was at a meeting in their «den». […] The text is full of allusions and ambiguities (which I already noticed when I read it last year). […] The symbol does strike me as rather crude: the play might be called «Iphigenia, or the Legionary Sacrifice». Now, after five months of being at the helm and three days of revolt, after so much killing, arson and pillage, you can’t say it is not relevant” (12 February 1941). About one month later, Sebastian eventually went to see the play. His comments in the Journal were less radical. Still, he noted “only here and there were there annoying Legionary allusions” (6 March 1941).

 It has been said that at the time Mihail Sebastian was particularly sensitive, suspicious and subjective. He was, supposedly, an obsessed man who saw “Legionary allusions” everywhere, even where they were not present. But the play’s message was “deciphered” in a similar way four decades later in Italy, in an entirely different social, cultural and political context, by the young scholar Ioan Petru Culianu. Reading the script of Iphigenia in 1977, Culianu discovered “with a certain amazement and sadness” his master’s association with the ideology of the Legionary Movement. This was an embarrassing “ideological position”, which – concluded Culianu – “seems to us today entirely impossible to understand.”  

Not by chance in 1951, in Argentine, a few Romanian legionnaires published the script of the Iphigenia tragedy. Eliade himself operated several changes. He even added a brief foreword: “I publish with joy, but also with sadness, this play of my youth, which was so loved, at the time of its writing, by my friends Haig Acterian, Mihail Sebastian, Constantin Noica and Emil Cioran”. In fact, he dedicated to Haig Acterian and Mihail Sebastian – “two of my best friends” –, “this text, which we all loved at the dusk of our youth.”  In 1951, when these lines were being printed, Mihail Sebastian could no longer express his reserve towards such a statement. Nevertheless he admitted in his journal that, feeling embarrassed to tell his friend the truth, he mimed some appreciation of the play’s script: “After [reading] Iphigenia […] I use a few admiring declarations to cover my real sense of dissatisfaction” (28 February 1940).

A failed encounter (1942)

In the summer of 1942 Mircea Eliade came from Lisbon to Bucharest, with a message from Salazar to Antonescu. This was to be his last trip home. Eliade met with his “legionnaire friends” and “all the friends at Criterion,”  less Mihail Sebastian. Overwhelmed, the latter noted in his journal: “I heard a while ago – but omitted to mention it in this journal (is it becoming so unimportant to me?) – that Mircea Eliade is in Bucharest. He did not try to get hold of me, of course, or show any sign of life. Once that would have seemed odious to me – even impossible, absurd. Now it seems natural. Like that, things are simpler and clearer. I really no longer have anything at all to say to him or ask him.” (23 July 1942). It is significant that neither Eliade’s wife, Nina (an old friend of Sebastian’s) attempted to see him while in Bucharest, either in 1942, or in 1943 (see Sebastian’s Journal, 27 May 1942).

There have been many speculations as to the reasons for which Eliade avoided Sebastian in the summer of 1942. In the “Mircea Eliade File”, published in 1972 in the Israeli journal Toladot (no. I, 1972, pp. 21-26), the author advanced a cynical motive: “As a diplomat Mircea Eliade was of course aware of the fate awaiting the Jews. Why, then, should he have seen his ex friend, who was doomed to death?” It was indeed that summer, that Ion Antonescu and Gustav Richter (Adolf Eichman’s representative in Romania) signed an agreement for the deportation of the Jews to the extermination camps in Poland. Sebastian himself quoted in his journal an article from Bukarester Tageblat, which gave an extensive description of the plan to transform Romania into a country free of Jews (Judenfrei) by the fall of 1943 (8 August 1942). But this explanation for Eliade’s avoidance of Sebastian is too morbid to be considered true.

In this respect, Eliade had his own motivation. In a letter of 6 June 1972, the Israeli professor Gershom Scholem asked Eliade for explanations in these (and other) regards: “Ever since I met you, I have had no reason to believe that you were an anti-Semite, all the less a leader of anti-Semitism. I consider you a sincere and just man, for whom I have great respect, and that is why I find it natural to ask you to tell me the truth. If there is anything to be said about this, let it be said, and let the atmosphere be cleared of general or specific accusations.” Eliade answered Scholem that in Bucharest, in the summer of 1942, he felt he was watched by Gestapo or State Security agents and did not want to direct them towards Sebastian, thus provoking him additional trouble.  This was a clumsy attempt to relativize the truth. The same justification of little credibility can be found in Eliade’s Memorii [Memoirs], also written in the ’70s, but not in the journal he kept in Portugal.  

In October 1946, while in Paris, Eliade wrote in his journal about his relation with Sebastian and the reason for which he had avoided Sebastian in Bucharest in the summer of 1942: “I shall never find consolation for the fact that I did not see him in August [actually July] 1942, when I went back to Bucharest for a week. I was ashamed, at the time, ashamed of myself – cultural counselor in Lisbon – and of the humiliations he had to stand, because he had been born, and had chosen to remain, Iosif Hechter. Now I am uselessly struggling amidst the irreparable.”  I think it was only here, in the fragment of his journal quoted above, that Eliade confessed to the truth. In fact, Mircea Eliade felt ashamed and responsible, as a member of a regime that was discriminating and civically annihilating his friend Mihail Sebastian.

Post-mortem (1945-1980)

In December 1944, Sebastian made a nostalgic retrospective of his relation with Mircea Eliade in his journal: “Our walks in the mountains, the summers in Breaza, the games in Floria’s [Capsali] yard at Strada Nerva Traian; our years of fraternal friendship – and then the years of confusion and growing apart, until it all broke down in hostility and oblivion” (13 December 1944). This was one of the last entries in Sebastian’s journal. A few months later, on 29 May 1945, the writer died, run down by a mysterious truck.  

Upon hearing of Sebastian’s death, Eliade was overwhelmed. Still in Lisbon, he noted in his journal on the very date of 29 May 1945: “The news touches me through its very absurdity. Mihai undoubtedly has lived the life of a dog during these last five years. He escaped the massacres of the January 1941 rebellion, Antonescu’s camps, the American bombardments, everything that followed the coup of 23 August. He saw the fall of Hitler’s Germany. And he died in a car accident, at 38!... I recall our friendship. In my dreams, [Mihai] was one of the two-three people who would have made Bucharest bearable to me. Even in my legionnaire climax, I felt him close. I gained a lot from his friendship. I counted on this friendship, in a possible attempt to return in Romanian life and culture. And now – he is gone, run down by a car! With him goes another big and very beautiful piece of my youth. I feel even lonelier than before. Most of the people I loved are now on the other side… Good bye, Mihai!”

When, 35 years later, in 1980, he had the chance to meet, in Paris, with Beno, Mihail Sebastian’s brother, Mircea Eliade exulted: “Your letter touched me greatly – and it also touched Christinel, who knows all the three of you [the Hechter brothers], from the stories I have told her in the 31 years of our marriage. It is futile to try and tell you more; I would need tens, hundreds of pages […]. I am looking forward to hearing your voice, to listening to you speak about De două mii de ani, to finding Mihai again […]. I embrace you with old friendship, Mircea.”

In Romanian culture there are many great personalities, but not many great friendships between them. The relation between Sebastian and Eliade, although broken, was, in my view, a great friendship.


* Paper delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (24 October 2007) and at UNESCO, Paris (24 November 2007) on the centennial celebration of Mihail Sebastian’s birth.
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