Monday, January 2, 2023

Costica Bradatan on Romanian Failure

Costica Bradatan grew up in a peasant family in late Soviet Romania, a home with no books and not even many spoken words, yet somehow managed to end up as a humanities professor in the US. (So much for enrichment.) I was fascinated by his NY Times essay about Romania as a place devoted to failure:

At the time I was born, in the 1970s, the country was in the middle of an intense affair with utopia. Nothing breeds more failure than an obsessive quest for purity. The closer you get to perfection, the more abject the failure. We were supposed to reach the communist paradise any day, even as people’s lives were becoming progressively more hellish. The state was supposed to wither away, per Friedrich Engels’s prophecy; yet it was becoming more and more oppressive. Everything was owned in common, even though there was nothing much to be owned. For good measure, the utopian experiment was run largely by a gang of thugs. That strikes me now as a logical arrangement. You had to be either an incurable idealist or rotten to the core to believe in utopia, and idealism was never a plant to grow roots in that part of the world.

The Romanian state did everything — from the repression and surveillance to the police beatings and windows broken in the middle of the night — in the name of the working class. The regime was called “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” but that must have been a grammatical error: It was most obviously a dictatorship over the proletariat. The workers were kept deep in misery, ignorance and poverty. They were treated like beasts of burden and told that they were lucky, that under capitalism their lives would be so much worse. In school, many subjects were covered, but the discipline most widely taught was the art of cognitive dissonance: how to look at all of this and pretend to see none of it. If you mastered the craft, you could survive, even though you were left seriously broken inside. I lived in “1984,” knew it like the back of my hand, long before I discovered the book. . . .

By the late 1980s, some of the thugs got bored with the communist experiment and realized that it would be more fun if they turned capitalist. That’s how the regime collapsed, under the weight of its own absurdity, catching us, the children of utopia, amid its ruins. Not that this hurt us (by that point, we were too damaged to be hurt by anything), but it left us with a privileged relationship to failure, an affinity for it, even a special flair for it. Once in utopia, you are doomed; you carry its nothingness in your bones wherever you go.

Bradatan ends by saying that he is doing well in America because despite all our talk about success what really motivates us is fear of failure, something that scares Romanians not at all.

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