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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical

An Infamous Past

Marta Petreu

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase An Infamous Past

Title: An Infamous Past
Author: Marta Petreu
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 271 pages
Original in: Romanian
Availability: An Infamous Past - US
An Infamous Past - UK
An Infamous Past - Canada
  • E.M.Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania
  • Romanian title: Un trecut deocheat sau "Schimbarea la faţă a Romāniei"
  • Translated by Bogdan Aldea
  • Foreword by Norman Manea (translated by Patrick Camiller)

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Our Assessment:

A- : well-researched and presented, and a fascinating bit of intellectual history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Foreign Affairs . 1-2/2006 Robert Legvold
The New Republic . 20/11/2006 Joseph Frank
TLS . 13/10/2006 Lesley Chamberlain

  From the Reviews:
  • "Petreu, a historian of Romanian philosophy, is a sure and unobtrusive guide to the fevered, alienated milieu that turned Cioran, an apolitical philosopher of history and culture, into a passionate partisan of Hitler, Mussolini, and Lenin, filled with contempt for the lassitude and failings of Romania's crippled democracy and enraptured by the creative potential of the irrational, the unconstrained, and the ruthless." - Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs

  • "Petreu stresses the influence of Spengler, to whose thoughts on the decline of the West, she argues, Cioran remained indebted all his life. (...) Most of Petreu's book is devoted to a very thorough and quite critical analysis of this work, the only purely political tract that Cioran ever produced. His anti-Semitism and xenophobia were commonplace in Romanian thought, but Petreu views his political ideas as quite independent in the context of a period dominated by a conflict between "occidentalism" and "autochthony" (a reliance on native traditions)." - Joseph Frank, The New Republic

  • "Petreu's fine and important book (.....) Petreu, a distinguished writer and professor of Romanian philosophy at Cluj University, amply explains the broader Romanian milieu which helped educate Cioran into the frightful outpourings of The Transfiguration of Romania. Her parting concern, however, is to stop neo-fascist elements in today's Romania trying to ride on the philosopher's fame and claim him as one of their own." - Lesley Chamberlain, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In An Infamous Past Marta Petreu turns to a book and a side of E.M.Cioran that are not so well known. The book is Schimbarea la faţă a Romāniei ('The Transfiguration of Romania'; not available in English translation), first published in December, 1936, and the side is Cioran's fascist leanings in 1930s Romania. Petreu describes Schimbarea la faţă a Romāniei as: "the only systematic book Cioran will ever publish", and:

A book about the philosophy of history, culture, and politics, focusing on Romania as a case study, The Transfiguration advocates the radical transformation of the country through totalitarian political methods.
       Offering a close reading of Cioran's life and work in the 1930s, and a solid overview of the Romanian (and European) circumstances of the time, Petreu presents a fascinating look at small-time national politics gone awry -- and, for Cioran, a misguided wrong turn that was also, in its way, lastingly devastating.
       Cioran had a peculiar inferiority complex about Romania, utterly distraught that -- as he saw it -- the nation had not played some glorious (or other) role in history:
Lord ! What have we been doing for the past thousand years ?! ... A thousand years in which history was made without our involvement; a thousand years of subhistory.... Historically speaking, we have wasted a thousand years .... Romania is geography, not history.
       Many of his notions were disturbing:
Let us think about the wars we fought. Alas, all we ever did was defend ourselves; we merely opposed the invaders. So incomplete were we that we never felt the slightest aggressive, imperialist drive.
       A tradition which he should have been proud of he instead saw as shameful.
       One reason he didn't like what he saw was, apparently, that he had seen something much better: in the fall of 1933 Cioran came to Berlin on a Humboldt doctoral grant. He was in Germany through the summer of 1935, and he was very, very impressed: "I am absolutely enthralled by the political order they've set up here" he wrote to Mircea Eliade (another receptive young Romanian intellectual who leaned the wrong way).
       Perhaps in the first flush of excitement one can excuse a statement like:
Of all politicians today, Hitler is the one I like and admire most.
       But as late as 1937 Cioran would write on the record in Romania:
I believe that few people today -- even in Germany -- admire Hitler more than I do.
       What the hell was he thinking ? Well, Petreu does offer considerable context, and certainly the context of Romania at that time, and the rise of the Legionnaires (the Legion of the Archangel Michael) put things in some perspective. Cioran's odd historical philosophy -- visions of grandeur, the influence of Spengler and the like -- made him receptive to the perverted fascist leanings of the Legionnaires. The masses had let him down -- he saw them as feeble followers -- and so the only hope lay in a strong hand -- or an iron fist. As he wrote to Eliade in 1937:
Romania can only rise in the eyes of the West by way of a right-wing revolution. More than ever, I have come to believe that the Iron Guard is Romania's last chance. Democracy turned France into a society and a state, into a collectivity, but not into a nation. Any initiative meant to undermine Romanian democracy is an act of creation.
       Petreu offers a good overview of the relevant Romanian politics of the time, and the success (and failures) of the Legionnaires, certainly to the extent it is relevant for considering Cioran's misguided turn. While far from an excuse, it does offer an explanation why Cioran -- and so many others, especially of that 1927-generation (as they were called) -- might embrace such terrible ideas (and did so with such fervour). The appeal of totalitarianism is shown -- even if its foundations, both in (Romanian) history and the philosophy Cioran read remains feeble.
       Ironically, as Petreu notes, the disaster of the Ceausescu-regime in a sense was the realiszation of part of his vision -- a perverted realisation, but then it was a pretty perverted vision from which one could hardly expect better. Of course, he wasn't pleased with the way things turned out: as Cioran would note in the early 1980s:
What happens in Romania defies all understanding: at least, after so many pathetic failures, this country finally has the opportunity to experience the ultimate, utter failure. An improvement on Orwell !
       Cioran recognised his misstep and it haunted him for the rest of his life; certainly it was something he preferred to keep rather quiet, where possible. Petreu notes that after World War II he was a changed man:
He rejected his former convictions while admitting he once had them, claiming they no longer reflected his beliefs. Still, the most troubling thing about A Short History of Decay is the fact that Cioran condemned and refuted his former beliefs not on behalf of new ideas and convictions -- for he no longer had any -- but because of the absence of an ideal. A Short History of Decay is the book of an author who has moved from total commitment to the nihilism of the great sophists.
       It's a fascinating shift, and the background Petreu fills in with this book puts much of Cioran's work in a (for most readers) new perspective.
       Petreu presents the material well, making the Romanian situation in the 1930s fairly accessible and following Cioran's writing and thought closely without it becoming tedious. It's a small part of a larger story, but a fascinating one, and it is very well related.
       Worthwhile, and a must-read for anyone interested in Cioran or Romanian (intellectual) history of the 20th century.

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An Infamous Past: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Romanian author Marta Petreu was born in 1955.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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