|Andrei Codrescu's Mioritic Space|
|Wednesday, 11 October 2006 06:00|
published in MELUS 23:3
It's through that hole, I thought,
that I am returning to my birthplace.
-- Andrei Codrescu, The Hole in the Flag
In the Romanian folk poem Miorita, a shepherd boy is warned by his beloved ewe, Miorita, that his fellow shepherds plan to murder him and take his flock. Instead of resisting, he accepts his fate, asking only that Miorita go in search of his mother and tell her the story not of how he was betrayed, but of how he was married to the daughter of a powerful King. Thereafter, wherever the ewe wanders, she tells the story -- not the true, unadorned facts of death and betrayal, but a beautiful fiction of a transcendent wedding.
This simple story, told and retold in countless versions, is Romania’s most enduring cultural text. The popularity of the Miorita can be attributed to the power and simplicity of its poetry, but even more to its mythic structure. The myth has been used to define the Romanian character by several authors, including Mircea Eliade, who has called the "cosmic marriage" of the Miorita an example of "cosmic Christianity" -- part pagan, part Christian, but in any case wholly Romanian -- "dominated by a nostalgia for nature sanctified by the presence of Jesus." But the most controversial concept of Romanian identity to be derived from the poem is the concept of "mioritic space" defined by the Transylvanian poet and philosopher Lucian Blaga.
For Blaga, the path of Miorita’s wandering delineates what he calls "mioritic space," a geography of the Romanian poetic imagination, or, as one recent historian of the Romanians describes it, "a philosophical attempt to explain the Romanian spirit through the Romanian landscape, which [Blaga] saw as the stylistic matrix of Romanian culture" (Georgescu 205). Blaga’s critics have charged that this concept has become a liability, nationalistic, escapist and fatalistic. For political analysts, Blaga has been criticized as a romantic aesthete, self-absorbed and disengaged from political realities, while pursuing a mystical communion with nature. In this view, mioritic space is an escapist dream of a romantic nationalist that encourages political apathy. For ethnographers, it is a romantic distortion of the Romanian peasantry’s connection to the land that ignores political and historical reality. These critics suggest that it may even account for the tendency of the Romanian people to suffer oppression passively: "one ‘cause’ of the seeming passivity of the Romanian population may be the fatalistic Weltanschaaung implicit in the Miorita" (Kligman 356). But to Blaga, mioritic space was simply a way of locating the Romanian poetic spirit.
All these theories and criticisms may seem like much ado about a boy and his sheep, but the story has great resonance to a country long troubled by internal conflicts and external conquerors. It has often been noted that Romania is, geographically, "inside-out," its mountains in the interior, its plains on the borders, leaving it vulnerable to invasion. More than once has the Romanian spirit had to take refuge from the threats presented to its exposed borders by escaping to the mountains and forests of its interior. When the threat was institutionalized within its own borders during the Turkish or Communist regimes, the Romanian spirit could survive only by going into physical (usually political) or metaphysical exile.
One such exile, both physical and metaphysical, is the Romanian-born American poet and translator of Blaga, Andrei Codrescu. Having fled the Stalinist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in the mid-1960s, Codrescu traveled to a number of European countries before embracing America, then in the throes of a mostly benevolent revolution, as the country most likely to listen to what he had to say, in the language that he was most likely to say it in. Since then, he has published twenty volumes of poetry (including translations of Max Jacob and Lucian Blaga), four volumes of fiction (including the recent bestseller, The Blood Countess), several collections of his commentaries for National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered" program, and four volumes of memoirs. He has also starred in the documentary cult classic film, Road Scholar, in which he wanders across America in search of alternative lifestyles, appeared on the Nightline and David Letterman shows, and become a Professor of English at Louisiana State University, where he edits the lively literary magazine, Exquisite Corpse. Throughout Codrescu’s various travels and adventures, and his accounts of them, it is clear that Blaga’s concept of mioritic space has sustained him in exile: "I left the country and changed languages but have not stopped telling Mioritza's tale" (Outside 5).
Codrescu begins The Disappearance of the Outside, his "manifesto for escape," with his own version of the Miorita, not as a philosophical idea but as a vivid childhood experience, when it was told to him at age ten by "a thousand-year-old shepherd wrapped in a cloak of smoke." True to the oral tradition of the poem, Codrescu improvises on its details, but the changes are enough for him to have added an apology to Romanian readers "pentru modul oarecum aproximativ in care am repovestit mitul Mioritei" [for the somewhat approximate manner in which I’ve retold the myth of Miorita] when the book was translated into Romanian.
Actually, Codrescu's version differs from the original only at a few points. First, Codrescu describes the shepherds as "three brothers"; in the original, the shepherd protagonist is from Moldavia (considered the "true" Romanian heartland), while the other shepherds are from Vrancea and Transylvania. In his own telling, Codrescu would have us identify the shepherd boy with himself (a Transylvanian Jew), and the others with his Romanian countrymen (Communists) who stole his heritage and inheritance. Second, in Codrescu's version the shepherd boy is also a poet, "a dreamer, whose 'head is always in the stars.'" This allows us, again, to sympathize with the visionary who has a connection to nature against the (dialectical) materialist brothers, for whom the fair Miorita is only property, so much mutton and wool to be sheared, divided and shared; for the poet-shepherd she is the voice of nature, his confidante and chronicler. Third, Codrescu’s poet-shepherd is "married to the moon," while in earlier versions the shepherd boy marries the daughter of a King at the entrance to a mountain (or, gura de rai, literally "the mouth of heaven," but actually a beautiful natural setting, like paradise), the sun and moon acting as godparents. The significance of these variants will become clear later, but what is certain is that Codrescu is making the poem his own, through these variants, for purposes of his thesis about the poet's role in the modern world. In either case, however, there is "no attempt to resist, no counterplot, no new deviousness. Fate unfolds as foretold."
How would such a "nationalist," "escapist" and "fatalistic" tale empower an exiled Romanian writer like Codrescu to create work that displays a power that is active, even activist, both poetically and politically beyond the borders of his native country? I will argue that Blaga's mioritic space not only sustained Codrescu in physical exile but, in forming the basis of his poetic identity within a community of metaphysical exiles, allowed him to return to Romania first in spirit and, eventually, in the flesh. The narrative of escape and return is variously told and retold in his several memoirs -- The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius (1975), In America's Shoes (1983), The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape (1990), and The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution (1991). In each of these, Codrescu returns almost obsessively to the Romania of his youth. While the first two volumes are concerned with Codrescu’s assimilation into American culture (In America’s Shoes concludes with his becoming a U.S. citizen), the latter two volumes, as indicated by their subtitles, form a set of companion volumes that might be called "Escape and Return." In these books, Codrescu more or less consciously sets out to redeem the concept of mioritic space by showing how escape (from the Inside of any limitation or border of imagination, including ideologies such as communism and capitalism) can actually facilitate a return (to an engagement with the reality of the Outside, where the threat of originality resides as a check and challenge to the ideology of the Inside). As Codrescu explains in a "note to the Romanian reader" in the Romanian translation of The Disappearance of the Outside, however, he is actually looking for a "treia cale," a tertium quid, or third path: "Aceasta carte pune fata in fata doua puncte de vedere asupra lumii, si le critica pe amindoua. Se va discerne, fara indoiala, o perspectiva ‘romaneasca’ in efortul de a gasi o ‘a treia cale,’ un act de disperare de inteles, dar si o solutie poetica" (Disparitia 206). ["This book juxtaposes two world views, and critiques both of them. What we discern is, no doubt, a ‘Romanian’ perspective in the effort to discover a ‘third path,’ an act of dispersing meaning, but also a poetic solution."]
When Codrescu left Romania at age nineteen, he by no means left his birthplace behind. Along with "the sensual pleasure of the sounds" of the Romanian language (Hole 86), Codrescu also internalized Romanian literary culture, both ancient and modern. Aside from his claim that he has not stopped telling the tale of Miorita, we may see in his chosen name of Codrescu (he was born Andrei Perlmutter) the trace of another traditional Romanian verse form, the doina, which begins by addressing the forest [codrul] in the absence of other kinship. We might say that by the time Codrescu left Romania, his poetic sensibility (if not his distinctive American voice and style) was already largely formed in part by these traditional poems, but also by the modern Romanian writers. He pays homage to those writers, exiled like himself and well-known in the West, like Eliade, Eugene Ionesco and Emil Cioran, or Tristan Tzara and Urmuz, the founder and presiding spirit of Dada, and to the Romanian surrealists Gherasim Luca and Ion Vinea. Yet in a way, more important than these were "the invisible writers" banned by the state and still virtually unknown in the West, such as Ion Barbu and Matei Caragiale, whose work disclosed to him that the "secret of modern literature, and the reason why it was forbidden, was its autonomy" (Outside 18). Codrescu’s first escape, then, was metaphysical, into the invisible underground of literature. He tells of entering the house of a Dr. M., and finding a new world of books and ideas. "The entrance was unprepossessing and humble, covered with a trellis of dying roses. But the inside!" Inside, he finds the books of "the invisible writers," but above all "the poetry and philosophy of Lucian Blaga," which made him feel "suddenly transported to another world, compared to which the shabby one we lived in was but two-dimensional bleakness [....] Here once more was a sacred realm like Mioritza's, which made no bargains with the profane" (Outside 17-18). Thus Codrescu's first escape was into Romania, into a timeless realm linking the autonomy of modern literature with the community and ecology of the ancient Miorita.
To be effective, escape -- inward or outward -- had to be not merely from an oppressive regime, but from all oppressive authority, and to autonomy and self-determination. So when Codrescu left Romania in 1966, just four years after Blaga was allowed to publish again briefly before his death, one piece of the cultural patrimony that he smuggled into America was Blaga’s notion of "mioritic space." Exile is a great preservative. Cut off from their native soil, cultural customs, rituals, myths and even dialects often develop very differently for exiles than they do for those who remain behind. This applies to art forms and philosophical notions, as well, whose glory may fade in the place of origin, but when transplanted may take on an added splendor. Certainly, for Codrescu in America, mioritic space was not subject to the ideological weather of a changing Romania. What became there a "fatalistic Weltanschauung" reflecting passivity and defeat, in America became Codrescu’s special brand of poetic activism, a poetic project without national boundaries. Perhaps the notion of mioritic space could be preserved and developed only in this way -- by a Romanian writer in exile, whom it in turn sustained.
As he refashioned his identity into that of an American poet, Codrescu cherished Blaga’s interpretation of the ancient poem, transplanting this seed into the soil of American poetry and translating the myth into his new idiom. As a political exile, Codrescu rejects the authority of government and police, but as a latter-day surrealist he also rejects the authority of history and fact, even in the events of his personal history. The "deimiurge" of Codrescu’s creative identity is Lucian Blaga, whose purpose was "the enlargement of mystery." In Blaga’s poetry Codrescu sees "constructs for the transport of seeds" (Yearning xv), and these continue to blossom in Codrescu's poetic myth-making long after his arrival in America.
Several philosophers and ethnographers have linked the "mioritic marriage" of the folk poem with the Transylvanian nunta mortului, or death-wedding. According to Gail Kligman in The Wedding of the Dead: Ritual, Poetics and Popular Culture in Transylvania (1988), "Both of these cultural texts -- the death-wedding and the Miorita -- offer a dramatic resolution to threatening circumstances [....] Temporarily disordered relations between the living and the dead, and between culture and nature, as well as between the sexes, are reordered [....] The Miorita encourages an imaginative, philosophical approach to the comprehension of paradox, notably that of sexuality and mortality united. By the conclusion of each of these symbolic expressive forms, an 'other' is incorporated into the realm of the familiar" (Kligman 245). For the immigrant leaving behind one culture for another, the importance of ritual and myth as a symbolic "resolution to threatening circumstances" should be readily apparent. For the immigrant Romanian writer, the Miorita takes on particular significance since it speaks directly to the business of storytelling.
For Codrescu, Miorita’s wandering "causes geography to spring from myth" as she tells her story to everyone along the way. In the progress of her narrative, Miorita takes the center with her to the circumference, "the moving border of a storytelling nation, a storytelling border whose story is borderless and cosmic," calling into being "a place and a people that she circumscribes with narrative." In the same way, Codrescu takes the center of his origin with him into the "storytelling nation" of metaphysical exile. In exile, however, the necessity for escape is not resolved. On the contrary, the freedom of exile becomes another sort of limiting enclosure to escape from. The only solution, for Codrescu, was to forge a kind of metaphysical passport that would allow him to return to his homeland at will, to come and go, so to speak, through the window of imagination, to the (mioritic) space of his enchained homeland, which is metaphysically exiled from itself. It is not that freedom is illusory, but that the basis of freedom is not to be found in any actual country, but in the "geography of the poetic imagination."
This brings into focus one of the curious characteristics of Codrescu's harkening back to his Romanian poetic identity. It is almost entirely devoid of nostalgia, or the Romanian dor. For the modern Greek wanderers Seferis, Elytis and Kazantzakis, the Odyssey serves a centering function similar to the Romanian's Miorita, with this difference: the locus for the Greek writer's homesickness is a geographical nostalgia. Nothing less than a physical return to the landscape will do. For the Alexandrian Cavafy, alienation is inherent in the Greek city on Egyptian soil; return is necessarily ahistorical and metaphorical. In this way, Blaga resembles Cavafy, for as Codrescu has said, "Blaga’s exile consisted in an acute yearning for the very place where he was" (Yearning xvi). But the Greek Odysseus is a hero, almost superhuman, while Miorita and her master are defenseless fatalists -- poets, in short. In the transcendental mythology of the Romanian Miorita, the poet-shepherd marries out of this world, he does not return to the nostos. He is the emigre par excellence, leaving the world without nostalgia, accepting alienation as his fate, and creating a new nostos in the margin between inside and outside. Miorita herself is confined to the border, a marginalized and mobile center, whose center is defined by the circumference, that is from the outside, or from the dual identity conferred by the line separating inside from outside.
Codrescu's memory of the tale of Miorita becomes the point of departure for the narrative of his life, the inscribed line of memory, a memory all the more deeply ingrained for his absence from the Romanian landscape. Near the end of his first autobiography, The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius (1975), Codrescu leaves New York for California on an impulse, with his wife Alice who is pregnant with their first child, and a German named Erhard. On the way, they compose a poem together, a collaborative poem that echoes Whitman, called "a song for the Average Joe":
The poem demonizes the furniture of domesticity, humanizes the ultra-American appliances, brings the Outside inside and turns the Inside out, as though Codrescu has struck a pact with his memory of Romania and the immediacy of the American landscape in the same way that the mioritic marriage strikes a pact with nature, sex and death. Here is the internalized guilt of the Old World married to the horror of the Modern, evoked in the image of the Holocaust: "the stove smells like hair" (an ironic image, since the Romanian Jew and his American wife are collaborating on a poem with a German). When the Outside is revealed to be a domestic American interior furnished with appliances of the Old World, the window of escape becomes "unbearably" attractive and beckons to him to jump; this is the interior call of memory, for "The memory of the outside is also a form of interiority: the outside resides in memory" (Outside 198). The play on words in "The sofa does nothing except / Hold a dead yew" suggests a lost identity (a dead you), or a lost heritage (a dead Jew), each associated with the storytelling sheep who preserves identity (a dead ewe), while also conjuring up a lost but remembered tradition in Romanian poetry in which the poet addresses the wood, codrul (a dead yew), in absence of other kinship. All of these rhymes, moreover, echo the name Codrescu (a dead Stiu, his first nom de plume).
Immediately after composing this poem, Alice and Andrei and Erhard cross the Sierra Nevadas into California, which Andrei notes is "as mythical [...] as New York is to the Rumanians, as mythical as Transylvania." As if to identify the myth more specifically as mioritic, they pick up a hitchhiker who takes them to a "moon feast," actually a pagan orgy for "the last virgin moon before they send their man up." Like the mioritic marriage that reconciles man and nature, sexuality and death, time and eternity, this orgy in the name of technology results in a kind of transcendence: "Time had disappeared. They were suspended. California had a feeling of [...] well, postmortem peace" (Life & Times 184-5). This spontaneous pagan ritual abolishes time, just as the death-wedding, in Kligman’s view, abolishes time through a symbolization of the symbol, which is in the telling of the story. "The old story," Codrescu writes of the Miorita, "was a time machine that abolished time," a "mythic" machine "that erased the borders between man and what created him" (Outside 5).
The next and penultimate section of Life and Times contains a revealing passage on translation. In a pyrotechnic display of free association, Codrescu defines translation as "an instinct not an interrogation." After a poetry reading for the inmates at Folsom Prison, "he knew that only one translation was possible: freedom." This instinctual freedom buries itself within in the products of invention, of creation, and of procreation, since "contrary to [the] expectations" of "the political barbed wire of his times, the revolutions, etc., [...] Alice carried inside her a fantastic translation. Codrescu had translated himself already into a version of America. His body had grown larger. His memory was a blur" (Life & Times 189). The coherence of Codrescu’s vision -- if not, indeed, his prophecy -- is extraordinary. For this passage connects his past and future in a "high moment" of autobiographical revelation. Miorita expanded the poetic geography of the Romanian imagination, Blaga sought "the enlargement of mystery," and Codrescu’s "body had grown larger," as though in sympathy with his wife’s procreative translation, who would be born Lucian Codrescu. Fifteen years after the birth of Lucian, that "fantastic translation," Codrescu fulfilled the metaphor by translating the poetry of his own literary father, Lucian Blaga.
Before leaving Bucharest, Codrescu had drunkenly orated to his fellow students how the curves of wandering could never be closed to make circles: "Listen to me, all you carnivorous, hell-bound idiots! Whoever it was who told you about curves becoming circles, lied, and the lie, er, becomes, burp, a lot more trivial when one, er, looks, burp, at Communism, this terrific, er, burp, idea, burp, moving to the beat of a great human, burp sweat puddle...." The speech sputters into incoherence and maudlin sentimentality, ending on a note of lost identity: "I had no father, burp, and no one here did...where is the gold?" (Life & Times 97). Where, in one sense, is his father who gave him the name of Goldmutter? Where, in another sense, is the alchemical transformation of the given thing, identical with itself, into the valuable stuff of created identity?
By the time they get to San Francisco, however, "Everything came in circles," including his pregnant wife Alice. He has a dream, and he is pregnant too, and "inside him there is a big empty bus driven by his father," which stops and picks up various people, "fictions he had created" (Life & Times 188). In the dream, life and literature merge. The empty bus that picks up "created" passengers is an apt figure for the various poetic personae he had created for himself in New York, and for the endless collaborations with others he had practiced, "incessantly, obsessively, losing themselves in the new human combinations they invented" as they "yielded their identities in favor of their creations" (Life & Times 178). The driver of this dream bus is his father, but which father? The father of "where is the gold?" It seems clear that the bus is a literary bus, and the driver is not his biological father, who is lost to him, but his literary father, Lucian Blaga, after whom he will name his own son. Blaga drives the magic bus, Mioritza, into new territory for Codrescu to explore, the boundaries of his Romanian-American poetic landscape.
Thus, the effect of Blaga’s mioritic space for the Romanian writer in exile is to expand the mystery. Codrescu's mioritic space rejects all nationalistic, political or ideological interpretations of it. As it is nurtured in the early picaresque autobiography Life and Times, and developed in the memoir-essay The Disappearance of the Outside, not as a philosophical idea, but as a manifesto for escape, mioritic space describes an autonomous realm of individual and communal freedom. Codrescu's view is not fatalistic in the least, perhaps because he treats Blaga’s idea not as theory but as a survival tactic. The Disappearance of the Outside might have been subtitled a Guidebook to Mioritic Space. Codrescu exchanges the passivity of the poet-shepherd for the traveling clothes of Miorita herself, the boy’s confidante and confederate. More importantly, Miorita is his creation who continues to recreate him with each telling of the tale. Just as poems are the disguise of the poet, so the sheep is the disguise of the shepherd. Thus Codrescu, "the sonofabitch from the woods" becomes a wolf in sheep's clothing, telling the story of the fatalist who allowed himself to be killed only to be immortalized in the story.
The choice between poetics and politics, visionary escape versus realistic engagement, sets up a false dichotomy. For Codrescu it is simply a matter of translating romantic self-absorption and aesthetic detachment into the political arena of the imagination, changing the world not by providing a vision for those without vision (politics, essentially), but by providing a space in which everyone is encouraged to provide his own vision. To do this, one must be willing to give up one life, one land, and to go underground, or abroad. It may be a symbolic death, like Codrescu's, or literal, like the shepherd-boy who must die for the story to be told. The shepherd becomes a poet in sheep's clothing to keep the wolves of coercion and conformity at bay. In short, poetic activism in the form of a metaphysical liberation front, a resistance movement of the imagination.
It might be argued that Codrescu's most significant creation along these lines is his long-running magazine, Exquisite Corpse, a "journal of books and ideas." Named for the surrealist method of artistic collaboration, cadavre exquis, popular with the Romanian surrealists Gherasim Luca, Gellu Naum, Virgil Teodorescu and Paul Paun, Exquisite Corpse is a combination of communal expression and personal signature. Indeed, it is a unique combination of ancient and modern Romanian influences, combining the oral tradition of the Miorita along with the printed tradition of the Dada, Surrealist, and Modernist movements. The oral tale’s power resides in the communal recognition of its value, its repetition denying the value of mere romantic self-absorption, while individual variations on the original text encourage creativity within the formal or narrative boundaries. An underground magazine, Exquisite Corpse welcomes the voices of the dispossessed, and its popularity and perpetuation depends on word-of-mouth advertisement. (Below its copyright notice, for example, is the statement: "We forbid reproduction but authorize memorization"-- appropriate for a magazine with aspirations to oral immortality.) In fact, Exquisite Corpse is more "mioritic" than surrealist in that the collaborative method of the surrealists is put to use less as an example of individual psychic automatism than as a professed "collaboration with culture." In printed form, and for Western eyes, the communal alternative culture of Exquisite Corpse converts the oral tradition of Codrescu’s native Romania into the printed currency of Western intellectual and cultural exchange, and its popularity proves that word-of-mouth still has a value that approximates that of oral culture.
The appearance of Exquisite Corpse in 1983 signaled a new forum for an alternative communal utterance. Its format, in the distinctive shape of a coffin, seemed suitable for an "underground" magazine with the name of a cadaver. On one level, this was an accession to the most popular Western myth about Romania, Dracula. "By naming our baby a 'corpse,’" writes Codrescu, "we had created something that was generically incapable of dying." But the magazine owes its shape less to the portable flowerbed of Transylvanian soil that Dracula dreamed on, than to the Romanian Modernist poet Tudor Arghezi and his "long skinny newspaper," Bilete de Papagal, "whose mixture of muckraking and high tone bohemianism had brought down two governments" (Stiffest 1).
Within this ironic format Codrescu created his own mioritic space, "a moving border of a nation, a storytelling border whose story is borderless and cosmic," each contributor calling into being "a place and a people that she circumscribes with narrative," causing "geography to spring from myth," while containing "within her space-bound body the infinity of the cosmos." In the maiden issue Codrescu declared: "We collaborate with culture" (Stiffest 3). Here, at last, was a suitably metaphysical forum where everyone’s story could be told, and so "a Corpse community came into being" (Stiffest 3). To these writers of the metaphysical diaspora, "The issues were not personal; culture was at stake" (Stiffest 1). Thus the oral and metaphysical concerns of the Romanian folk tale were successfully transplanted into the American grain and given an American texture. Each issue of the magazine is a chorus of voices from the grave by those who, like the poet-shepherd who is translated into the sheep’s tale, have been translated into a state of expressive marginality.
What Exquisite Corpse is, then, is a cultural collaboration, a communal alternative culture, an on-going anthology of metaphysical exiles, a flock of voluble mioritic sheep. In one sense, this has been the real work of Codrescu’s life, creating a community of expression in which everyone is his own Miorita, providing a space for the narrative construction of a communal alternative utterance. In a way, Codrescu’s collaborative method is a postmodern revival of the oral tradition, a hip marriage between the surrealist method and the mioritic myth with the intent of reuniting the estranged brothers of the myth within a narrative universe created in absentia by the exiled young brother, the dreamer with his head in the stars.
In America in the 1980s, Codrescu sensed a sort of metaphysical diaspora, and he was right. After the communal orgy of the Sixties came the retrenchment of the Seventies and Eighties. As he puts it in In America’s Shoes, the crack in the cosmic egg had closed up, cutting off another channel of freedom. In Pe Culmile Disperarii [On the Peaks of Despair], published in 1934, Emil Cioran had described himself as a "metaphysical exile." Codrescu describes America in the 1980s as a place of "metaphorical exiles": "Times of great freedom breed metaphorical exiles, while times of repression breed literal exiles" (Outside 47). There was now a general sense of metaphorical and metaphysical exile, and his magazine became a place where contributors could voice their cultural alienation and their longing for "inner emigration" (William Levy, in Stiffest 123), a place where one might even fashion "a weapon of acute discontinuity" (Robert Kelly, in Stiffest 236). From such a position of armed marginality, it might be possible to erode the center and thereby "short-circuit the imaginary globe," which is, as Codrescu concludes in his manifesto of escape, the poet's "job" (Outside 207).
Exiles like Codrescu, Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie know that poetry and narrative are not just aesthetic pastimes. All art -- but especially art created in exile -- is inherently political because the imagination recognizes no boundaries and allows everyone’s story to be told. The imaginative reconstruction of the world is ultimately a poetic feat beyond politics. Both politics and art have an aesthetic dimension that also engages the arena of social and political action. Neither art nor politics adequates reality, each being a competing medium for visions of what is real. Whereas politics tends to close off avenues of escape and return, however, art tends to open them. Codrescu’s escape from Romania was aesthetic and political, metaphorical as well as metaphysical, through an imagined hole in the flag. His return was simply through the actual hole that he on the outside, along with other Romanians on the inside, had imagined into being.
The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution (1990) was commissioned to take advantage of the events and aftermath of the sensational fall of Ceausescu. Codrescu was rushed to Romania and wrote the book at white heat during and immediately after the December Revolution of 1989, in which he was able to play a small part. But it is more than an "instant book," like those devoted to Patty Hearst, Saddam Hussein or O.J. Simpson, bundled to market while they were still news. Codrescu’s book is an extended, if somewhat hurried, reflection of his entire life as a Romanian in exile. As James McNeill Whistler said at the famous art libel trial of 1878, his paintings were not the product of a few hours labor, pots of paint flung at the canvas, as Ruskin had claimed, but contained "the knowledge of a lifetime."
While the book was generally well received in America, negative reactions to The Hole in the Flag in Romania come from two groups, American scholars or diplomats who fault the book for certain historical and sometimes geographical inaccuracies (since corrected in the paperback edition), and Romanian intellectuals who fault the book for a certain sentimentality in Codrescu’s perception of their country. But The Hole in the Flag does not pose as an authoritative history of the Romanian Revolution. The book was not meant as either politics or journalism. As the subtitle suggests, it is one of Codrescu’s several autobiographies, "A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution." His impressions are of a country that is only partly historical or geographical, and largely, as Codrescu confesses, a mythical creation of his own mind in exile. Codrescu is a poet, first and always, whether delivering a commentary on National Public Radio, taking us on a tour of Bathory’s castle in The Blood Countess (1995), or reporting the Romanian Revolution. He never pretends to stick to the facts, even when they are the "facts" of his life.
The title refers to the space left in the Romanian flag after the Communist Party emblem was cut out, first in protest, then in confirmation of the fall of Ceausescu, but Codrescu sees the hole in the flag with the eyes of a poet. The political gesture is translated into a poetic symbol: an emblem for his escapes and returns. Codrescu had been fond of saying that after he left Romania, he was banned from re-entering the country even through the squares in crossword puzzles, so his return through the hole in the flag has a certain symmetry: "It's through that hole, I thought, that I am returning to my birthplace" (Hole 67). The avenue of his escape was as metaphysical as his return was literal. So when the new Romanian flags began to appear of whole cloth, without the hole as a reminder, Codrescu was troubled. Twenty years after he had escaped, he was now able to return, and his countrymen were already trying to close up that symbolic space. Knowing how fleeting rebellion can be, how short-lived independence, and how fragile memory, Codrescu wondered how they would be reminded of what they had literally and figuratively gone through? Once they closed the aperture of vision, what visible symbol would there be to remind them to keep open the avenue of visionary escape, the mioritic space, which is also the aperture of reconciliation and return?
Codrescu prefaced his anthology of contemporary American poetry, American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late, with a poem by Kay Boyle that begins:
The shepherd-boy in Miorita, who Codrescu insists is a poet, is described as similarly slender:
"Who knows, / Who has seen / A proud shepherd boy / Slender enough to slip through a ring?" Boyle's poem ends with an admonition to poets, but it might be to all exiles, metaphysical, metaphorical, or literal. Codrescu seems to have taken Boyle’s admonition to heart in all his work, in all his manifestoes for escape and memoirs of return, as well as in his roles as editor of Exquisite Corpse, and as geographer of mioritic space: "Poets, remember your skeletons. / In youth or dotage, remain light as ashes."
The combination of memory and loss, in which the outside is internalized to make it portable, is an absolute value for the exile and a dominant motif in Codrescu’s memoirs. The past is sacred, but it is also gone. Only narrative brings it back into being.
‘Childhood is over,’ said God, looking at him through his
mother’s eyes, through the eye of a building he passed on his way
home and through an eye in the sky.
‘The hell it is,’ said the Devil. ‘For the sake of prose, some
eyes must be mercifully removed’ (Life & Times 83).
This parable shows us the dialogue between the cosmic transcendence in the myth of Miorita and the communist interdiction against full consciousness. The vision of the young poet passes through a window of escape, "through an eye in the sky." But poetry and transcendence are not enough, and may even result in exile. Every avenue of escape should be thrown open wide. The Devil of the prosaic would have us close up avenues of escape; the poet Codrescu wants them left open, if only to remind us to stay slender enough to slip through them.
Codrescu’s status as a popular commentator and best-selling novelist in the Gothic tradition should not prevent us from grasping the importance of his contribution as an activist in the ongoing process of cultural politics. Addressing different (if often over-lapping) audiences in each of the media and genres he works in, Codrescu remains a delightfully subversive influence in American culture. Like other immigrant exiles, from the Marx brothers to Nabokov, Codrescu is not only careful not to forget where he came from, he is incapable of doing so. Haunted by a notion of freedom that was born in the mists of Transylvania and bred in the specific milieu of an underground literary community in Communist Romania, he has taken the myth of Miorita and Blaga’s reading of it and retold it along every avenue of the American media. In doing so, he enacts the redefinition of the Romanian cultural space, which now overlaps that of America. Like so many other valuable contributions to the multi-ethnic mix of America, Andrei Codrescu’s mioritic space reminds us of the essential value of freedom, the necessity to constantly reaffirm it, and, whenever and wherever necessary, to recreate it.
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