A Reminiscence: CMI the Mentor
No one else captivated and so irrevocably dominated the formative years of my intellectual journey into philosophy at the University of Bucharest than the inimitable, sartorially elegant, and exquisitely mannered Cornel Mihai Ionescu.
In the chaos that followed the insurrection of the un- (or perhaps simply less) tainted (by decades of collaboration with the communist regime) faculty in the spring of 1990, the Department of Philosophy embraced radical change and along with it those who were willing and able to revamp its antiquated curriculum. Amidst student protests, witch-hunts and the customary name-calling, a parade of new and rather unlikely characters wound up in the not-so-hallowed halls of the old Faculty of Law Palace on Kogălniceanu Boulevard.
So it was that Andrei Pleşu, Sorin Vieru and Gabriel Liiceanu – household names for a young generation of students raised to believe in the redemptive power of high culture epitomized by the Păltiniş Circle – addressed audiences eager to learn if there was a different way of doing philosophy. Along with them, a few interlopers further challenged whatever was left of the old order: Radu Toma, professor in the Faculty of Letters, would offer a course on “Modernism and Postmodernism” to the despair of those holding the chair of analytic philosophy. “Oriental Philosophy” would now be taught, at Pleşu’s suggestions, by someone (Radu Bercea) without a Ph. D. or any sort of formal training in Philosophy. Likewise, Vasile Dem Zamfirescu would teach something that even a few months earlier would have been inconceivable: a course on “Philosophical Psychoanalysis.”
But it is Cornel Mihai Ionescu, at the time a lecturer in the Faculty of Letters, who would make the most eccentric of all contributions to revamping our curriculum: a course on “Baroque Philosophy”. To us budding revolutionaries, who had begun our student careers under the old regime, but would graduate under the new, these were rousing times. Here we were the first generation to break free from the grip of a failed ideology and to embrace valiantly the intellectual and social challenges of a new era. Or so we thought at the time.
I will never forget those intimate, cigarette smoke-filled classrooms, populated by only a handful of the most dedicated students, in which CMI (as he was then, and is still, fondly known), employing at once the most sobering analyticity and lurid rhetorical artifice, would discourse about the philosophical allegorism of Baltasar Gracián’s Criticón or about Caravaggio’s baroque aesthetic and its unremitting blend of classicism and realism. As a rule, CMI would choose a particular passage, theme or illustration and, by exploring all its surface meanings, would seamlessly weave a web of interstitial discourse around it, cleaving to its context but never so closely as to imperil his (or the work’s) paradoxical stance.
In his professorial demeanor, CMI resembled a curator of ideas (and ideal forms), mindful of their infinite plasticity and chiaroscuro effect, lacking, to my delight, the dry didacticism that had survived, nay thrived, in a generation of academics caught in a time warp of history. In CMI I saw the aesthete that Kierkegaard so despised, not for his presumably irredeemable surrender to intellectual fashion (and flourish), but because he embodied that apotheosis of excess and masked virility that only a true aristocrat can effortlessly carry off. Reading Derrida’s La farmacie de Platon and Heidegger’s Unterwegs zur Sprache with CMI meant traversing vast horizons of thought – both temporally and culturally – in what I can only describe as a most intense graduate level seminar. We were also apprenticed to the craft of rhetorical and hermeneutical exegesis by teasing out the layered nature of a writing (écriture) that is ultimately only given to us as palimpsest. Oftentimes the spell of the lecture hall would not be broken until the late hours of evening, long after CMI had populated our Bacchic reveries with tales of the sublime and the grotesque (yes, a few of us did join him for drinks after class at the Grand Hotel du Boulevard and various other taverns in a Bucharest that was struggling to revive its bohemian past).
A truly unrecognized genius of philosophical and literary criticism, CMI undoubtedly would have been a major intellectual presence on the European cultural landscape, had he come of age on the happier side of the Iron Curtain. Indeed, as I would eventually learn, in his Palimpseste (1979) he had anticipated the type of critical literary theory (with deep roots in the poetics of the Baroque era) that would gain widespread currency after the publication of Gerard Genette’s similarly titled volume in Paris in 1982. That many would-be luminaries in CMI’s generation suffered the same fate of marginalization and censorship that befell whatever was left of the Eastern European intellectual elites is a truism. But it is most poignantly obvious to those of us, his students and disciples, who have had the good fortune to pursue our intellectual passions in the open societies of the West.
When my immersion in oriental philosophy finally fixed my gaze firmly eastward on India, CMI intervened to avert it, if only briefly, to the cultural heartlands of Latium and Gaul, to Dante and Pascal. I thank him for that. Now, many years and several continents later, I look upon that mentoring relationship with fondness, nostalgia and a little awe. And so it has come to pass that my American students are amongst the many unsuspecting (and unsuspected) beneficiaries of CMI’s genuine perspectivism, consummate passion for detail and beautifully wry sense of intellectual humor.
Department of Philosophy
College of Charleston
Charleston, South Carolina