Hugi Magazine 32: Say It With Flowers

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Gabriel Liiceanu's "The Paltinis Diary" (Reviewed by Rogue)

I was quite surprised at seeing the appearance of G.Liiceanu's "The Paltinis Diary" (Jurnalul de la Paltinis) for sale on international online shops. I had no idea that this book had been translated, and seeing the obscurity that surrounds it, I decided to shed a bit of light for the more curious ones.

But first things first. So... Gabriel Liiceanu is not only currently an important university teacher (Philosophy, Bucharest, Romania) but also a prolific essay writer, one that had the luck of spending a great deal of time in the company of a famous Romanian elite figure - the great philosopher Constantin Noica. In the years when the Communist regime had touched Romania, Constatin Noica had the peculiar idea of starting some sort of School of Knowledge, deep in the mountains near the little village of Paltinis, in a rented hut. Afterwards, he sought to find the most gifted youngsters in Romania at that time who he thought he could mentally train to become his followers. This sort of spiritual and mental training, after all, was his idea of what a genuine school should be like - an institute free of any required duties, a philanthropic exchange of experience and knowledge. So the whole project was started, and, as you may have guessed, Liiceanu (pronounced Leechanu) was one of the chosen few.

Spending numerous weekends at the School of Paltinis together with Noica and other now-important Romanian figures (like the ex-minister, Andrei Plesu, also an essayist nowadays), Liiceanu started a diary (The Paltinis diary obviously) and published it during the Communist regime (1983), therefore the first version was deeply censored. The version that I am reviewing right now is the 2000 re-edited one, published by Humanitas publishing house, in which Liiceanu adds some new pages to the diary (about Noica's death) and a new preface. After the successful Paltinis Diary, Liiceanu published his doctoral thesis "About Limits," a new diary "The Forbidden Door," some books dedicated to Noica and Cioran, and the interesting "Declaration of Love." None of these afore mentioned books were to top the success and importance that the Paltinis Diary had for the Romanian elite intellectual class. Don't get me wrong. I'm far from entering that category, but I typically enjoy the pleasure of poking my nose into idealistic affairs like this, since I find that the whole elevation-of-the-mind allure of these projects as most fascinating even for a beer infatuated mind like my own.

Anyhow, back to the Diary now. I have to admit that what makes the Paltinis Diary such a pleasurable read is actually Liiceanu's ability and clear style with which he uses the Romanian language. I have no idea what the translation looks like, but I'm quite optimistic that, as the style is as clear and as plain as possible, the translation process shouldn't have been a very difficult job. Not only is the style as clear as possible but there is also a freshness of thought never seen before, lacking the preciosity of intellectual monologues (that are usually quite tiresome and boring). Ideas flow gently out of Liiceanu's mind, through the words and propositions, making it almost impossible for someone with a decent intellect not to get it.

The Diary represents a sort of coming of age for the then-young Liiceanu, who seeks value in the universe of culture, a goal sometimes impossible to achieve, but still, it is the road itself that matters the most in the Diary. Liiceanu goes from a crude mind to cultural maturation in the way that he learns and perceives various philosophical matters. In Noica's vision, philosophy is the ultimate and only worthwhile road to true mental achievement. He sees no other way to accomplish yourself personally and sees the other choices (logicians, psychologists, essay writers) as failed possible-philosophers. Liiceanu was obviously meant to answer this call of destiny that Noica's proposal probably aroused in him. Knowing how to speak old languages (for God's sake, writing and reading old Greek and Latin was something ordinary in the Paltinis School), the vast encyclopedic knowledge and the study of important philosophers from Aristotle to Kant, to Heidegger and Hegel were the means through which the young pupils were to find their philosophical idea. (Noica was sure that in order to become an accomplished philosopher, one must find an original idea, meant to lift the mind in the vast universe of intense esoteric thought.)

So what is the Paltinis Diary all about? Basically, Liiceanu tells the story of what really happened up there at Paltinis. As mentioned before, Paltinis is a small mountain village near Sibiu, at about 1400 metres altitude where Noica rented a small 8 square meter room in a small hut. Paltinis is actually a very quiet place, hidden behind huge pine trees, where nothing that would look like an adventure could ever happen. What did happen was actually an adventure of the mind and spirit. In the hours of the evening: "in our wood-heated room, took place the most fascinating discussions that I ever got the chance to attend to, the most passionate confrontations of ideas, the most subtle, intense and friendly observations were made on our own texts." So as you may see, reading, writing and discussing by the fire is what took place all the time during the Paltinis project, where Noica, the creator and initiator, provided a guide for these young students, contrasting the rigid lackluster schools and universities. Soon the story about the School of Paltinis became a legend and many gifted pupils took the road there, to find Noica and his pupils meditating and learning philosophic mumbo jumbo. So these are the stories that Liiceanu tells all throughout the diary, from the perspective of a student of course. The focus of the book, though, is Noica himself (the spirit trainer) and the deep admiration that Liiceanu holds for his mentor.

You'll also find observations, long contemplations, and amusing stories telling of what was going on and information about the schedule of the Paltinis. The long walks around Paltinis that they took every morning, the philosophical discourses and their logical outcomes, the long hours of Heidegger translations, and a lot of Noica's philosophical ideas that became, over time, famous quotes are all features of the Diary. The mental training that Liiceanu received was obviously helpful in his becoming as a person, but not really as an intellectual figure. Liiceanu is neither a philosopher (as Noica would have most certainly liked) nor a writer, so he was doomed to the fate of writing non-fiction essays about his life and mostly evoking long lost moments. The road of philosophy is a great road to take, both spiritually and mentally, but it's not a privilege if you can see the outcomes from the outside, and Liiceanu, although he deeply admired Noica, was to differentiate himself from his guru, step by step in his upcoming books. Emil Cioran, on the subject of Liiceanu's Paltinis Journal, stated: A stranger who would read the Journal could think that in those years, Romanian people had nothing better to do but get lost in extemporal meditations or dream about the fate of civilization.

The thing is, during the Communist regime, the Paltinis place was a refuge from the harshness and stiffness of social life (censorship and other idiotic doctrines of Socialism), since literature and philosophy provided a beneficial place for bright students like Liiceanu and others to escape to.

Now the Paltinis hut where Noica and his pupils learned is a museum, opened for visits. Today the room is a museum, and by visiting it with sobriety, it's impossible to escape the temptation to think that here lived, thought and wrote for the generations of tomorrow, our most important philosopher: Constantin Noica.

I do recommend this book for those who find a passion not really into philosophy itself, but in the cultural aspirations and mental trainings of people set to become tomorrow's philosophers. This book is an easy read, with ideas that flow constantly into the mind and, once started, is quite impossible to set down. The lessons that I've learned during my reading of this gem are quite countless, the quotes that I've extracted carefully into my notebooks and the underlined paragraphs do nothing but prove the enthusiasm that this book arose in me. It's one of those gems that make you hungry for more reading, that provide you with the proper impulse in order to follow your personal aspirations.