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Tell Them They’re Not Trees

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For Two Thousand Years
By Mihail Sebastian, Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Other Press, 2017

“I was born in Romania, and I am Jewish. That makes me a Jew, and a Romanian.” This might seem a straightforward, even self-evident claim. But for Mihail Sebastian—whose brilliant novel For Two Thousand Years, first published in 1934, is now available in a sparkling translation by the Romanian-based Irish short story writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh—this assertion of identity names a problem rather than a tautology. To be a Jew and to be Romanian: the impossibility of this “and” is Sebastian’s great subject.

Born Iosif Hechter to a Jewish family in the Danubian port city of Brâila in 1907, Sebastian studied law in Bucharest and Paris in the late 1920s and early 30s. After returning to Romania he turned increasingly to literature, drawn to a group called Criterion, which included the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, the philosopher E. M. Cioran, and the playwright Eugen (later Eugène) Ionesco. Although at first apolitical, the group became increasingly fascistic and anti-Semitic; Sebastian found himself marginalized by his former colleagues.

Sebastian turned this hostility into art. Taking the form of the notebooks of an unnamed protagonist closely modeled on Sebastian himself, For Two Thousand Years documents the struggle of an introspective young Jewish man intent on making his way in a profoundly anti-Semitic society. (Romania granted legal equality to Jews only in 1923.) The narrator is subject to hate from his earliest days, pelted by stones and assaulted by shouts of “Cowardly Jew!”: “I grew up with that shout, spat at me from behind.”

The vitriol directed at the narrator is shocking. But his response to it is almost as surprising: he refuses to avow specifically Jewish or even universal human identity. The novel’s unwillingness to have its narrator take an easily identifiable ideological position made it—and its author—a cause célèbre. Sebastian was called self-hating, even anti-Semitic, by some, and a Zionist provocateur by others. Matters were exacerbated by the book’s introduction, written by a noted intellectual and former mentor of Sebastian’s, Nae Ionescu. Instead of turning in the expected encomium, Ionescu produced a viciously anti-Semitic screed that referenced the hoariest calumny against the Jewish people: “Iosef Hechter,” he wrote, addressing Sebastian by his real name, “the Messiah has already come and you did not know him…. Because pride put scales in your eyes.”

Amazingly, Sebastian insisted on including the introduction in the published book. (Too bad the present edition doesn’t include it as an appendix; despite including a useful introduction by the historian Mark Mazowe, the edition includes no notes or other contextualizing material.) But maybe it’s not so surprising, since he was used to having people disparage his work. In his diary—published in an excellent English-language edition as Journal 1935-1944 (2000), which anyone who wants to know more about Sebastian should read—he tells the story of a professor who, when offered a copy of the book, exclaimed, “Sebastian? Aha! That yid who got himself baptized” and notes that he can’t escape the book’s notoriety even when he’s running a simple errand like visiting the eye doctor: the man has a lot of opinions about the book even though he hasn’t read it. Sebastian realizes he has been “cursed even by ‘hearsay’.”

The furor was enough to make Sebastian doubt himself. And yet the book was good. Re-reading parts of it two years after publication, he notes with pleasure: “There were a number of things I had completely forgotten. I had a real surprise. Apart from a few passages that are too markedly Jewish, the rest strikes me as exceptional. I didn’t know. I wasn’t expecting it.”

Although appealingly leavened with humility, Sebastian’s confidence is warranted. The book is exceptional: brilliant, subtle, complex, and beautiful, a modernist masterpiece. Sebastian’s self-assessment is accurate in all ways but one: to call parts of the book “too markedly Jewish” is to miss the point. For Two Thousand Years—its title references the generations of Jewish persecution that date from the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE—is a profoundly Jewish book. But it is also a particularly Romanian book. Its subject matter is the struggle of increasingly assimilated Jews in the first decades of the 20th century to be accepted in Romanian society. Yet this very particularity is what ensures its continued relevance. The novel’s questions are our own. What is the relationship between individual and group identity? Can cultural, ethnic, or religious minorities flourish amongst majority populations that reject them?

In addition to being deeply philosophical, however, For Two Thousand Years is also ravishingly poetic. The brilliance of the book is to combine these modes. Even when the narrator is merely admiring his surroundings he always injects a thought-provoking note. Here he is, for example, returning from a walk in Bucharest’s central park:

It was beautiful just now in Cişmigiu, with that white metallic sun, the water green with vegetation, the still leafless trees, naked like a herd of adolescents drafted into the army.

The simile unsettles what could have been a conventionally pretty description, forcing us to consider whether new recruits blossom into something as beautiful as a tree in leaf, or whether denuded trees have something conformist, even potentially violent and authoritarian about them. His description of the morning after a blizzard is similarly defamiliarizing: “The mountains of snow that yesterday were surging up at us now lie defeated, like wild beasts, their muzzles laid upon their paws. Giant shaggy white lions, soft-maned, reclining.” “Soft-maned” is a nice touch (and an inspired choice on the translator’s part): we can just see the snow softening in the post-storm sun.

Characteristically, this description appears in the form of a sentence fragment, a stylistic choice that serves two functions. It lends verisimilitude to the conceit that the book is supposed to be a notebook. And it implies the narrator’s observations don’t add up to a coherent world-view.

We see this tendency most clearly in the narrator’s love of aphorisms; the book abounds with self-contained observations that aren’t obviously connected to the plot, as when he refers to “the voluptuousness of being alone in a world that believes it owns you” or when he reflects on the curse of self-reflexivity: “Something tells me that we are unable to live any of life’s moments fully. Not one of them. That we eternally stand at a remove from what is happening.”

The more these reflections move away from psychology and towards philosophic abstraction the more coherent—if counterintuitive—they become. At times Sebastian approaches Kafka in the complexity of his thinking, as when he considers the sh’ma, the prayer in which Jews affirm monotheism: “Does not “God is one” mean that God is alone? Alone like us, perhaps, who receive our loneliness from him and for him bear it.”

This deconstruction of God’s relation to the human fits with his acknowledgement that even a non-believing Jew like himself can’t ever really leave Judaism:

The harder he tries to shake his shadow, the tighter it sticks. Even in disowning his race, the very fact of his apostasy is a Judaic act, as we all, inwardly, renounce ourselves a thousand times, yet always go back home, with the willfulness of one who desires to be God himself.

Perhaps the reason the narrator can speak more completely (if still enigmatically) the more abstract the subject matter of his observations is that he is alienated from his homeland. When he writes about the landscape, he is writing about a place that hasn’t accepted him. “Probably,” he concludes, “it will always be difficult for me to speak of ‘my Romanian fatherland’ without a feeling of sudden awkwardness.” That Jews are deracinated—rootless cosmopolitans who belong nowhere and have no allegiances except to each other—is a tenacious anti-Semitic slur. The truth, as this novel demonstrates, is that the lack of belonging Jews are accused of has been forced upon them.

But if abstraction is so congenial to the narrator, how are we to understand what he tells us in the novel’s arresting opening lines?

I believe I’ve only ever been afraid of signs and symbols, never of people or things. My childhood was poisoned by the third poplar in the yard of the Church of St. Peter, a tall, mysterious tree, its shadow on summer nights falling through the windows, over my bed—that black band slashing across my bedcovers—a terrifying presence I could not understand and did not try to.

Each day the boy would run his hands across the tree to remind himself that it couldn’t threaten him, but each night the terror would return: “the shadow of the poplar found me once again tensed, with fists clenched and eyes wide open, wanting to shout out but not knowing how or to whom.” This opening scene announces the solitude that will characterize the narrator’s later life. The fear and loneliness he experiences here will continue to accompany him, elegantly suggested by the violent interruption of the parenthetical phrase “that black band slashing across my covers,” tellingly phrased in continuous present tense.

But why is he frightened of this tree, what justifies his extreme language (“poisoned,” “terrifying”)? After all, he begins by telling us he’s only afraid of signs and symbols, not people or things. Perhaps an answer lies in the fact that he seems to be more afraid of the tree’s shadow than of the tree itself. Recall how he likens ineliminable Jewish identity to a shadow: “The harder he tries to shake his shadow, the tighter it sticks.” The tree, which after all stands in a churchyard, reminds him of the identity he cannot forego but that is foreign, even alien to the place he nevertheless calls home. Thus the shadow is indeed a symbolic reminder of his status as a cultural pariah.

As the African American sociologist and writer W. E. B. Du Bois wrote some thirty years before Sebastian, to be a member of a minority is to stand in a position of critique towards the dominant culture. Du Bois called this position “double consciousness” and highlighted its double-edged nature. On the one hand it allows you to see things that members of the majority group could never see about themselves. On the other, it forces you to be separated from yourself, turning you into a kind of shadow whose identity can only come from the terms given by the majority. It’s costly to inhabit such a position: one’s psychological and bodily integrity are always at risk. Reflecting on the tediousness of having to respond to the questions and comments of even compassionate and well-meaning white people—all of whom are ghoulishly wondering, “How does it feel to be a problem?”—Du Bois famously says:

One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Sebastian would surely agree with the pain invoked by Du Bois. His narrator is a problem not so much to himself as to everyone around him—a fact he experiences through violence and suffering. In the first part of the book he struggles to complete his studies amidst violent anti-Semitic persecution. Like the other Jewish students, the narrator is chased, verbally abused, even beaten. At times, he’s sanguine, even funny about the situation: “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” But that pose accompanies a whole series of emotions. Shame at the prospect of showing physical weakness. Worry that his mother will learn what’s happening to him. And, most surprisingly, depression that the attacks bring him together with his fellow Jews: “Jewish fellow-feeling—I hate it.” The narrator isn’t self-hating, isn’t a secret anti-Semite. But he’s constitutionally unable to partake in expressions of group identity, insisting that he is “definitively alone.” His highest values are detachment, not only from others, but also, more complicatedly, from himself, a self that can’t seem to stop thinking.

Escape from the situation comes from an unusual source—ironically one he is led to by anti-Semitic persecution. In an effort to escape some thugs who are chasing him through the halls, he ducks into a seminar room. The professor, Ghitâ Blidaru, is young, elegant, ironic, seductive. Even though their initial interaction is unpropitious—Blidaru brusquely cuts off the narrator’s complaint that he’s been thrown out of the lecture hall: “’Well, and what do you want me to do about it?’”—the two develop a friendship that has important consequences for the narrator. Blidaru is “one of those people who makes the rules for everyone else, obliging you to submit to their temper and style as well as to their arguments.” The rules Blidaru makes for the narrator stipulate that he take up a craft that will connect him more closely to the soil. Blidaru encourages him to abandon law and take up architecture.

Surprisingly this proves to be a good decision. In one of the abrupt shifts in time that characterize the novel, we flash forward five years to find the narrator attached to a new master. Mircea Vieru has designed a massive industrial complex, a refinery in the oil fields in the Danubian delta that has displaced old villages and ways of life. He hires the narrator to act as an intermediary between the firm and the American magnate who has been granted the oil concession by the Romanian government. The narrator delights in the project’s violent, even destructive modernization: “immense chunks of black earth had recently been cut from the flank of the earth of the hillside. Grass boulders and the trunks of giant trees had been tossed about together as though in the wake of a giant plough.” The demands of mastering both the physical and the human landscape leave him no time to dwell on the “intellectual problems” that had given him “a certain illusion of personal superiority.” Reflecting on his university days, the narrator is ashamed to have “reduced everything to the drama of being a Jew.” “Life,” he concludes, “is so simple now, so clear.”

But history has simply given him a respite. It hasn’t solved the problem of his identity, which can’t be bulldozed over as easily as the landscape. Revolution is in the air. Strikes roil the oil fields. One friend is jailed for his communist sympathies. Another emigrates to Palestine. And the narrator learns that everyone who is closest to him hates Jews. Listening to some newspaper boys shouting out their anti-Semitic headlines—“Death to the Yids!”—the narrator realizes the problem isn’t the slur itself, “but that the cry goes unobserved and unopposed, like the tinkling of a bell on a tram.” He compares “that age-old call for death” to the ticking of a clock in a quiet room. Most of the time you don’t even hear it, but once you notice it you can’t hear anything else: “you suddenly get caught off-guard by the clock ticking with unsuspected violence and energy.”

That’s what happens to the narrator. Now the productive years at the oil concession seem the aberration, not the pitched battles of his university days. Enmity once again surrounds him. His best friend from the architect’s workshop lashes out at him (“Don’t act the Jew…. Don’t speak that Jew-talk”). A school friend who has fashioned himself into a conservative revolutionary tacitly harnesses the power of anti-Semitism to advance his rhetoric of crisis. When the narrator calls out his dog-whistle politics, the man callously shrugs off the accusation: “If the revolution demands a pogrom, then give it a pogrom.” Even more distressingly, Vieru, the architect the narrator has admired for having overcome so many slights and humiliations and for having had the courage to forge his own creative path, a man who once told the narrator that “any general judgment of a category of people gives me the shudders,” now reveals his own hatred: “I’m Romanian. And, all that is opposed to me as a Romanian I regard as dangerous. There is a corrosive Jewish spirit. I must defend myself against it.” Vieru has the gall to insist that he in not anti-Semitic, before concluding, “Yet there is a Jewish problem, and it needs to be solved. One million eight hundred thousand Jews is intolerable. If it was up to me, I’d try to eliminate several hundred thousand.”

One response to such vitriol might be to hold on ever more tightly to one’s own identity. But the narrator rejects the national/racial self-determinism of Zionism. In one memorable scene, a friend takes him to an evening with a pioneer from Palestine who is on a recruiting trip in Europe. The narrator is astonished to find a room full of young Jews able to converse in fluent Hebrew. But drawn though he is to their camaraderie he is unable to join in with their Zionist songs:

Well, I for one can’t sing. I am discreet, have a critical disposition, a sense of the ridiculous, self-control, and other tragic nonsense of that kind, and possess the supreme folly of self-regard.

With typical self-deprecation, he thinks of his inability to join with “his own kind” as a mark of failure: “my inability to sing is an infirmity… a sad failure, a sad defeat.” He admires the Zionist enterprise, but daren’t believe it will succeed. Jewish history isn’t so easily left behind: “Two thousand years can’t be overcome by leaving for somewhere.” That belief in the power of a burdensome past also explains why he rejects another world-view popular in his circle: Marxism. Its universal humanism is simply the flip side of Zionism’s ethnic nationalism.

What separates the narrator from everyone around him is that whereas they make Jewishness into either a problem or a solution, he thinks of it simply as an incontrovertible fact—one that might be even less important to his self-identity than being a Danubian. Near the end of the novel, the narrator makes one of his most overt statements of belonging and belief:

But I will speak of a land that is mine, and for her I will risk appearing ridiculous, and I will love that which I am not allowed to love. I will speak of the Bărăgan [the Romanian steppe] and the Danube as belonging to me not in a legal or abstract sense, under constitutions, treaties and laws, but bodily, through memory, through joys and sorrows.

At the same time, he will always be a Jew. For him that is a simple, unalterable fact that can be neither celebrated nor disavowed:

I will never cease to be a Jew, of course. This is not a position I can resign from. You are or you’re not. It’s not a matter either of pride or shame… The difficulty does not reside and has never resided in legal recognition of my situation, which is a detail that has nothing to do with me, since I’m not trying to lay claim to anything or have my rights recognized. (I imagine a gathering of willows from the Braila marshes, asserting their rights to be willows.)

Here the narrator and his author come together, for Sebastian mined this language in his response to Ionescu’s hateful preface. In an essay called “How I Became a Hooligan,” Sebastian wrote:

I was born in Romania, and I am Jewish. That makes me a Jew, and a Romanian. For me to go around and join conferences demanding that my identity as a Jewish Romanian be taken seriously would be as crazy as the Lime Trees on the island where I was born to form a conference demanding their rights to be Lime Trees. As for anyone who tells me that I’m not a Romanian, the answer is the same: go talk to the trees, and tell them they’re not trees.

“Tell them they’re not trees.” Here Sebastian anticipates Hannah Arendt’s response to her friend Gershom Scholem’s attack on her in the wake of her book on the Eichmann trial. Scholem wrote: “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel: ‘Love of the Jewish people….’ In you, dear Hannah … I find little trace of this.” Arendt famously responded:

You are quite right – I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed ‘love’ only my friends and the only kind of love
I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly, this ‘love of the Jews’ would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect…. I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.

The narrator’s tragedy is that no one will allow him to inhabit Arendt’s “mere belonging,” leaving him instead with the much more dangerous reality and perhaps spurious consolations of Du Bois’s “twoness.” Sebastian’s narrator has certainly demonstrated his “dogged strength” but the risk of the body being torn asunder feels all too great.

In the end, what is intimated for the character became reality for the author. Sebastian was indeed torn asunder, but ironically by a fate much more banal than ideologically sanctioned violence. He survived the increasingly terrifying threats to his body brought on by his country’s turn—in the form of the political movement known as the Iron Guard—to state-sponsored anti-Semitism. A far-right paramilitary movement and political party that took power in 1940—with the enthusiastic support of several of his friends from the Criterion group, including Eliade and Cioran—the Iron Guard instituted violent attacks on Jews, most notoriously a pogrom in which thousands of Jews were murdered in a Bucharest slaughterhouse, their bodies displayed on meat hooks.

Through good fortune, Sebastian survived the war, but his experiences didn’t chasten him. Once he was able to return to public life he continued his independent ways, criticizing the Communism that looked set to take over Romanian political life in the wake of the Red Army’s arrival. But then, just after he had been appointed to the university faculty, as he was crossing the street to give his first lecture, on Balzac, Sebastian was struck by a truck and killed on May 29, 1945. Romania—and, as English-language readers can now see, the world—lost a brilliant voice, one who subtly articulated dilemmas still relevant to all of us who live in pluralistic societies, especially those minorities regularly told by the majorities around them that the privilege of mere belonging is not for them.

Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College and blogs about books at eigermonchjungfrau.