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Felix Aderca: jewishness and modernism

Mihai Mîndra 


Jewish modernism and existentialism


I detect in the figure of the Jewish modernist artist an aesthetic sublimation of his ethnic otherness, a consequence of his existential history marked by the experience of cultural displacement and isolation. This artist inherits from his ethnic ancestors the condition of perpetual emigration/immigration, homelessness and spiritual transitoriness. Such a traveler carries with him, in ethical terms, the responsibility of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments, and the critical legacy of former Law proliferation (Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the Mishna) and iconoclasm (the Haskala). Thus, he is a moralist, a prophet and a rebel.

Art for art’s sake meant, for the Jewish modernist, freedom from community constrictions and fettering clichés, a chance to live up to his unrelenting individualism. Modernism offered the spiritual ethnic ’other’ the opportunity of a Zeitgeist open to a rootless present continuous. For the Jewish spirit, relatively recently freed from religious community life, out in the open in the secular world, there was no justification or nostalgia for a loss of classical wholeness and harmony. One undermines with more relish than in the case of main stream modernist writers, in a more accurate manner (Tristan Tzara), well established myths contradicted by a dynamic, always in the making present. It is a repetition of the Haskala wakefulness, a tearing away from the Book in favor of the immediate, skeptic and rational experience. Adrian Marino calls it, referring to the modernist consciousness in general, amor vitae (MARINO 55).

As an opponent to artistic tradition the modernist is, after all, a Talmudist, i.e. an intelligent, creative revisionist of a code. Jewishness gets asserted by the tearing away from an already constituted system, the rejection of the cultural authoritarian norm in the best tradition of Judaic monotheism, the singular original theocentric vision in a former world of anthropomorphic religious representations.

Modernism was the obvious foe of official culture. So was the ’wondering Jew’ in a politically organized nationalist world playing ball with ’difference’, offering the Semitic ’other’ the double bewildering status of eternal immigrant/emigrant.

Writers like Ilarie Voronca, Saşa Pană, Tristan Tzara, Benjamin Fundoianu (Fontane), Ion Călugăru (in Statistic Paradise), painters like Victor Brauner and Marcel Iancu illustrated this category, the avant-garde of Jewish Romanian culture.

Significant elements of Expressionism can be found in these artists’ work too. The re-establishment of man as the center of things and the recognition of the universe as a totality (RITCHIE) may be related to Hasidism. Irrespective of their personal religious-intellectual background the Jewish expressionists inherited the Hasidic spirit, hosted the inborn possibility of the Hasidic mind: its rejection of rigid intellectualism for a movement of the freely expressed feeling of simha and hitlahavut, used by the historical movement to oppose the Rabbinical authority. I would compare the mission of the zaddik as a go-between of man and God as well as the Jewish Pantheism of ha-Makom, suggesting divine omnipresence, with the German playwright Georg Kaiser’s Expressionistic ”vision”: ”an attempt to establish contact between ’heaven’ and ’earth’, to render the ”figure” transparent so that the Vision behind can be observed, to erect a kind of slippery pole reaching up into infinity…” (RITCHIE 249). With Alfred Döblin, the German fiction writer the world stuff is spiritual. You should not touch it. You act upon it, you try to keep it, and you lose it (MARTINI 495). With Felix Aderca one has the character called suggestively Ionel Lăcustă-Termidor (mock-ethnicity, Jewish mobility and inventiveness, revolutionary disposition), the protagonist of the homonymous novel (F. Aderca), as a frail evanescent incarnation of a Spirit persecuted by the gross materiality of a corrupt world.



The Adventures of Ionel Grasshopper-Thermidor

Aderca’s Jewishness, as a literary critic and writer, develops in three major directions: existential insurgence, humanism and otherness. The first characteristic appears in his fiction as ethnic self-assertion of a margin inhabitant opposing ethnocentric majority in the disguise of the aesthete who slights nationalistic messages. Felix Aderca got engaged in such polemics, denying national specificity, with the Jewish critic Ion Trivale. His humanism appears in his critical essays and fiction: complex lively human structure ridicules the mechanical operating system of the social dynamo. This position implies the writer’s honest assuming the problematic nature of his ethnic status. He is a Jew living in an aggressively nationalistic Diaspora. As a writer Aderca refuses to use Yiddish. He denies his religious Jewish background, which he considered strictly formal. His acknowledged status: a Jew integrated into his Romanian cultural environment. However, he strongly asserts his inner Jewishness. This is a problematic, existentially dangling position. It paradoxically declines assimilation inside the two cultural camps, Romanian and Jewish, while admitting some inedible ethnic deep structure:


”Let me make a confession: I am not a Jew… You will not find with me any of that confusing empathy telling you when you approach somebody: this one is also a Jew. I just pass people. People, not Jews. And still, I feel I am a Jew! I have forgotten some insignificant rites on certain days; but on the walls of my soul, where years of my previous existence come to wail, still stay inscribed the letters drawn my a hand writing: Adonai…The kinder who used to go to his heder, hungry and sleepy, here he is turning one page after another, dead serious and puzzled, his heart torn by a cruel claw, of a notebook in which the return to Jerusalem is mentioned in writing, over and over…I am fascinated.” (M. Aderca, PROBLEMA 34)

Even within the modernist mode, the Jewish artist takes care to highlight its humanist values. Although he supports futurism [1] , considering it an artistic asset (POP, 181), Aderca develops his own modernist lyrical stance, an escape from mundane reality to a literary privileged space where man, not the machine, appears as hope for liberation and fulfillment. This type of humanism, corrupting the aggressive avant-garde contraption, the paraphernalia of futurism and vorticism used to destroy before reconstruction, is Jewish. It contains poetic nostalgia for human wholeness and its sacredness. 

Finally, the last mentioned feature, Aderca’s otherness, appears most clearly sublimated through the story of the protagonist of The Adventures…, Ionel Grasshopper-Thermidor, a paragon of margin difference fighting mainstream sameness. The Jewish schlemiel condition is contained in the name (Ionel, not Ion, a child’s soul), together with the liveliness of spirit (the nimble grasshopper) and rebelliousness (Thermidor, the pure exempted from terror, revolution: Robespierre’s fall, the ”pale executioner”, on 9 Thermidor [F. Aderca, Aventurile 26]). The lyrical dynamism in this novel obtains its energy from spiritual love and love for humanity used to ridicule civil and state authority fetishism (represented by the prince of Albania, the policeman and other authority figures). This inspired upbeat humorous rhythm is obvious from the very beginning of the novel. Lăcustă (grasshopper), as a protagonist and an anti-novel appears as the rebellious terrorist in a slapstick comedy as engaged in a metaphoric relationship with the lawful authorial world of the classical novel. In other words Lăcusta is the intermediary agent standing for the rebellious author gunning down the classic novel world, but also, at the level of social reality, the petty middle class suffocating the artist, the nationalistic center persecuting the ’different’ Jew.

An application of Jacques Lacan’s symbolic system to the analysis of Aderca’s anti-novel will throw, we hope, some light upon Jewishness as otherness and margin in Romanian ethnocentrism. In this Lacanian structure ”the law-of-the-father”, or ”name-of-the-father”, is another term for the ”other”, the center of the system, the thing that governs the whole structure. This center is also called ”the Phallus” [2] , to underline even more the patriarchal nature of the Symbolic order. The Phallus, as center, limits the play of elements, and gives stability to the whole structure.

For our interpretation of the ”phallus”, Gallop’s starting her chapter with Lacan’s assertion ”the phallus is the privileged signifier” is significant (LACAN, 287). In a basically ethnocentric culture, like the Romanian one, the national discourse will focus on a dominant ethnocentric signifier ordering the whole semantic structure. The ”phallus”, in this case, is a ”linguistically” manifested attitude of definite rejection of ethnic difference, specifically of anti-Semitism. Such a context, in which the center emanates its phallocentric manipulative lingo, will only admit a Jewish margin lacking in full national expressive means, trying to survive, culturally, by compromising and merging with the mainstream. However the authoritative phallus limits play. It imposes its version of reality as the only genuine one. Margin protest will, consequently, appear as ’unreal’, mock real, etc. Modernism suited Jewish art as a means to do that in the most delicate manner: through aesthetic revolution fighting the dominant signifier, undermining and exploding it.

This type of ”conversation” between phallocentric realism and the oppressed periphery irony is suggested by the relationship between the police officer and Raşela in The Adventure. Bashful, childish, pure Raşela fascinates the macho womanizer, whose daughters, as offsprings of center auhtority, are ”military” and emancipated in the spirit of aggressive, almost masculine (crop hair, smoking heavily), Romanian mainstream. At the ethnic level Jewishness gets feminized as a minority signified in a phalocentric majority semantic field where the signifying phalus obsessively rapes the ’other’ and busily disseminates itself. The delicate Rashela is eagerly, erotically desired by the potential subscribers to ”Ideea Ministerială”. Lăcustă himself appears as emasculated in an assertive macho environment both as a Jew and as an artist trying to tame reckless manliness. He is chased, brutally or spitefully rejected by different characters, versions of center authority: the police chief commissioner, the theatre manager, policemen. Ionel answers through his art, trying to domesticate war with poetry and artistic sensitivity.

A similar relation is illustrated by the nominal expression of the protagonist’s identity as explained above: existential purity in a mature i.e. corrupted as guilty of phalocentrism social environment (Ionel), the ”urge for extensive fecundity” in spirit and idealism (Lăcustă/ grasshopper), reforming mind (Thermidor). 

Lacanian jouissance comes also handy in any attempt at explaining Aderca’s modernist fiction. Jouissance is a legal term —in Latin usufructus — referring to the right to enjoy the use of a thing, as opposed to owning it. The jouissance of the Other, therefore, refers to the subject's experience of being for the Other an object of enjoyment, of use or abuse, in contrast to being the object of the Other’s desire. The realm of fantasy (read: modernism as surrealism with Aderca) is determined by the way the child/the player/the artist situates himself in relation to the jouissance and the desire of the Other. In Aderca’s modernist techniques of persiflage and subtle criticism of the center one perceives jouissance, i.e. the abuse of the Jew as object of enjoyment/persecution by the authoritarian Other, as major social and existential connector between the Romanian Gentile and the Romanian Jew. Ionel Lăcustă, through his clownish unorthodox behavior eludes the tight Romanian anti-Semitic legal framework, the norm in an ethnocentric society, at the aesthetic level. He acts, as margin representative, in anti-novel/anti-world/anti-reality space, offering himself, in this hyper-real zone the freedom denied by the real center zone. The arbitrariness of the anti-Semitic Romanian center code applied in its relation with the Jewish margin charges even more the writer’s surrealist vision.

On the other hand the modernist aesthetic means of constructing a rebellious character whose revolt can hardly be perceived within this imposed center code, suggests the disquieting status of the Jewish ’other’ for the Romanian ’same’. As a result of the ’mysterious’ aspects of a minority culture the Romanian center refuses to decode one gets to suspicion, fear and hate. In these circumstances, so unfavorable for genuine cultural communication, the phalocentric imposition of a center misreading technique meant to limit and even to stifle such foreign/strange difference. Ionel appears, in his disobedient behavior, like the author in his seditious modernist prose, as an outsider. Aderca highlights this condition of the Jew in the Romanian mainstream by his expressionistic metafictional prose. 

Matei Călinescu perceives the change from modernism to post-modernism as a passage from the epistemological prevalence to the ontological one (CĂLINESCU, 306). The inner modernist logic system of questioning the possibility of knowing the ’other’ (Lăcustă is, for the Romanian center, the eccentric, impossible to decode, cultural ’other’) becomes postmodern through its extension to the generic existential query: how real and substantial in terms of authentic existence is the mysterious ’other’?

One answer to this question, rejected by Aderca, is the assertion of the reality and substantiality of the center as the only true entity, denying the margin as ’mad’ and unruly, i.e. outside the established cultural system. Difference is thus marked as dangerous for its disorganizing potential to a phalocentric society. Ionel’s romantic affair with Irène, the Prince of Albania’s goddaughter, endangers political arrangements and state order. Here, like in the whole novelistic space, Ionel is perpetually followed by the police, like an original commedia dell’arte character, a combination of Brighella, Harlequin and Lelio or Flavio. He is both a clown and a tragic lover, a schlemiel in a world dominated by the political center, a state bureaucracy obsessed by almost sadistic imposition of power and control over its subjects. The Romanian policeman wants to jail him, the Prince of Albania wants him sent to his country and decapitated.

Ionel invites Irène to a world tryst and erotic adventure covering generously the five continents and the North and South Pole. It is universal love against national dichotomy, the metaphysical opposing the mundane: ”All the races have opened their eyes to see you and to blend you into their primordial flesh.” (F.Aderca. Aventurile, 102). Ionel wipes away in poetic fashion cultural difference and abolishes otherness in a liberating gesture pointing towards Talmudic universality and concern for human dignity. This harmonious pacifistic vision is openly rendered in Ionel’s writer’s notes:


”However, after millions of years, one perceives on the horizon a different future for humanity: people will finally notice that playing the war game, a game they have been playing since the beginning of the world, is naďve, as all the nations are subjected to Time, to change. The people on this planet will make up then one single body aware of its deep, essential unity, will slow down this crazy production of children and goods, will lessen the doom of birth and hard, bloody, painful labor of mothers and factory workers. The monstrous heaping up of fortunes as well as the beastly mating of the former generations will be perceived as signs of primeval humanity. Creative energy and the sheer joy of living will not disappear with the discord supporting them today, because people will still fight but for the right reasons: for a bride, in a laboratory, on the sport ground…

…I know that this kind of prophecy will be hated by the people living today around, the people who, fortunately, like the Neanderthal gorilla are transient, will not last.” (F.Aderca. Aventurile.122-123)    


A spirituality mocking and debunking the brutality of center authority, Kafkaesque nightmarish representations of an incomprehensible intolerant center mark the social background of Ionel’s adventures. The modernist rejection of organized, totalitarian center impositions on the individual appears in the story of an arrest so similar to thet of K. in The Trial. The agents, pursuing the protagonist for obscure reasons, are drawn in powerful, expressionistic, repulsive sketches, as members of an animalistic Center:


”I saw then the bulldog snub-nosed face of the other agent while his swarthy fat mate, whose twisted mouth line suggested an eternal smile, was reaching for something at his back, probably his revolver.” (F.Aderca. Aventurile. 116)


Officialdom as suffocating absurd power imposition and restriction of individual freedom humiliates Ionel further:


” …one of them showed me a piece of mimeographed paper in black writing, with my name and address scribbled in violet ink and stamped over some illegible signatures. The legal piece of paper meant…that the three fellows were just legal executors of an order given by some authority that was sending me a stamped and registered legal notification. Therefore one could respond to that authority with other notifications, from a higher authority possessing the highest and final stamps and signatures.” (F.Aderca. Aventurile. 117)


This was the world within which the minority Jew was expected to exist: a space filled with paper work, red tape and invisible authority chasing from the center the periphery game. It could be rendered in Romanian modernist fiction as evocation [3] , the crux of genuine art, according to Aderca.

However, how much of a Jew was the writer of these lines, refusing to use his Diaspora lingo, Yiddish, and indulging in the national prose lore? He was obviously as much of a metaphysical one as one could be in those ethnocentric circumstances. A problematic nudnik, a troublemaker. Like his fictional modernist alter ego, Ionel Lăcustă-Termidor:      

”…God…let me thank you loudly, so that everybody could hear, for leading me once, by the hand, to a long line of humble Jewish parents, without sparing me the insults, the misfortunes and humiliation: it was your wish that I, driven away form mankind, its languages and peoples, should see the meanness of the peoples, its languages and rulers and to strive, while being whipped on my bare skin, with hot eggs under my armpits and the red hot tongs under my finger nails and under my tongue, for the great peace of the Unity, of Abstraction, of your Eternity.” (F. Aderca. Aventurile. 72)


Seemingly it was by tongue in cheek modernist daydreaming, a leeway offered to his miserable imprisoned ethnic self, that Aderca reached his own Elohim. The aesthetic path would have been as fitful as any other, once it gave a chance to the artist and the man to keep what was undeniably his: his Jewishness.           





1. Aderca, Felix, Aventurile D-lui Ionel Lăcustă-Termidor, Bucharest: Minerva, 1987.

2. Aderca, Marcel, F.Aderca şi problema evreiască, Bucharest: Hasefer, 1999.

3. Calinescu, Matei, Five Faces of Modernity, Durham: Duke University Press, 1987

4.Lacan, Jacques, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

5. Marino, Adrian, Modern, modernism, modernitate. Eseuri, Bucharest: Editura pentru literatură universală, 1969.

6. Martini, Fritz, Istoria literaturii germane, Bucharest: Univers, 1972.

7. Pop, Ion, Avangarda în literatura română, Bucharest: Atlas, 2000.

8. Ritchie, J.M. (ed.), Periods in German Literature, London: Oswald Wolff (Publishers), 1969




Mihai Mîndra is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, the University of Bucharest and has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. His work in progress is in the area of cultural theory and ethnic studies. He is the author of The Avatars of the Problematic Hero: from Myth to Anti-Novel (1998) and The Phenomenology of the Novel (2000).



[1] See his article Ce e viitorismul (What is futurism) in ”Năzuinţa”, 1922.

[2] See, in connection with possible interpretations of Jacques Lacan’s La Signification du phallus (Ecrits II. Paris: Seuil, 1971) Jane Gallop’s chapter 6 of Reading Lacan, Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1991.

[3] See Aderca’s definition of art in the novel discussed here, on p.115: ”Fiction is not creation, as one vainly believes, but just evocation, and it implies the reader’s similar aesthetic experience, like a resonance box without which the well strung cords of our sentences no matter how skillfully used, are voiceless.”

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