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Blasphemy And Carnival

NEW YORK: From his Paris exile in 1970, Emil Cioran, the iconoclastic Romanian philosopher, wrote of his nostalgia for the somewhat naive energy of those who stayed behind. "I can guess the secret of so much vitality. Without hell, no illusions." Cioran felt old and worn out. "We pay dearly for not having suffered. We believe in nothing." In Bucharest, Cioran once savaged Romania’s corrupt interwar democracy. In Paris, however, his blasphemies against French idols, he wrote wistfully, were "well received...people like to demolish all reputations, even legitimate, even justified. Especially those."

But craving for idols and illusions creates its own special hell -- the more so if society is passing through a crisis of identity and structure. This is what is happening in an Eastern Europe belatedly facing modernity and its tensions. Even literary debates may become the pretext for which violent appeals to a bigoted unity and, of course, for excluding those carrying the virus of critical thinking.

Take for example the abuse heaped on Andre Sinyavsky for his rescue (in his book "Strolls of Pushkin") of the Pushkin idol cast in the Soviet canon. One critic urged that Sinyavsky be outlawed, much as Islamic fundamentalists ostracized Salman Rushdie. As communism collapsed, the conformist momentum -- born of fevered cultural insecurity -- gathered pace. "When all holy things are trampled," Eernst Safonov (editor of "Literaturnaya Rossiya") said, "when there are no more icons or very few, Pushkin is one of those icons. He is an icon equal to the icons of the Church."