Between Life and Books: Words


Words play a crucial role in our existence. They are the fundament of the entire life schemata of the human being, and the very world of a subject of consciousness often identifies with them. The present article is aimed at analysing the mediating function of the word in the logic of life representation, as well as in its transfiguration in the book of an emblematic thinker: N. Steinhardt’s Jurnalul fericirii.

Keywords: Lifeoccurrenceswordsmediatejournal


No one can reflect on the meaning of a life or writing – be it one’s own or that of others – without

resorting to the weight and power of words. From the very beginning, words are the building materials

in the construction of the universe of any human being. Words institute and govern man’s relationship

with his own existence; that is why they cannot be a mere instrument of designating a neutral reality.

Words organize and ‘cut out’ reality in a particular manner, specific to each subject of consciousness.

They intervene between the human subject and his lived reality, a reality whose objectivity is put

between parentheses when – or maybe only when – it is conferred a certain value through meaning or

meanings attributed to it. Meaning is actually the a priori condition of the examining of words.

The present study is aimed at highlighting the negotiation of meaning in the text of The Journal of

Happiness by Nicolae Steinhardt, a heart-rending testimonial inscription of survival in the gulags of

Romania under communism. Steinhardt himself, whose life can be appear, seen from the outside, as

rather unhappy, is in search for the meaning of words and, through them, for the meaning of his own

existence. The present article attempts a critical discourse analysis of his text and its underlying

struggle with meaning at all levels and layers of significance. It explores the cognitive, linguistic, and

psychic mechanisms which come into play in the author’s confessional articulation of the resorts of

survival as active resistance. While scrutinising the semantic layers of the text, the present author’s

analysis aims to extract a general discursive model of spiritual resistance to totalitarian imprisonment

of thought, which answers a vivid international interest in studies on the memory of totalitarian

experience. We demonstrate how, once elevated to the level of the exemplarity of a model of existence,

words have the power to transform everything, including, as in the present case, the transformation of

unhappiness into a sort of happiness of submission and through this, of life itself.

Confessional discourse between factual experience and linguistic signification

In the space of Romanian spirituality, N. Steinhardt is a distinctive figure for at least two reasons.

The first is that he represents a singular case of a cultural personality who, in full awareness, converted

from Judaism to Orthodoxy. The second – another thing out of the ordinary – is that, after years of

imprisonment, because of his refusal to give false evidence against his fellows, N. Steinhardt ends up

writing, despite all evidence to the contrary, a Journal of Happiness – Jurnalul fericirii . In the face of

such a destiny, endured and fulfilled with the patience of a saint, how many people could still have the

power to write a journal about the joy of his earthly passage? (Steinhardt, 1991)

N. Steinhardt is not a traitor. He refuses to save his own hide by turning in his friend, Constantin

Noica, with whom he will remain friends for life. And when people become true friends – which is so

rare after all – they know what would be good for the other, what would gladden or sadden him, where

and how he could find his peace and tranquillity. I wanted to point this out after reading that

Steinhardt’s withdrawal to the Rohia monastery was due to the fact that Constantin Noica had chosen

Rohia as a perfect place where his friend was to prepare his passing to the world beyond . And so it was.

Apparently Noica must have seen that place blessed by God as Steinhardt himself was to see it when he

decided to withdraw from the turmoil of this world, being attracted “first of all by the silence, the smallness and meekness of the buildings, by the majesty of the forest and the glimpse of the possibility

of long hours of uninterrupted meditation”.

The world of Steinhardt and Noica, as well as that of other illustrious members of their generation

(M. Eliade, E. Ionescu, E. Cioran, M. Vulcănescu, A. Ciorănescu, A. Dumitriu and many others) was

not at all an innocent one. But how many people’s worlds can be deemed as innocent? In how many of

them is history exempt from treason and torture, while men – as François Mauriac wonders rhetorically

in one of his journals –“are lambs in a larger number than they are wolves”? (Mauriac, 1970)

N. Steinhardt did not have the face of a traitor. Albeit cast into the maelstrom that brought together

people who betrayed or were betrayed, or who refuse to betray (everything, in the history of the 1950s

and 1960s revolved around to betray ), N. Steinhardt a considered that it was not the same to be

imprisoned and turn in your fellows or, on the contrary, refuse to turn them in. Certainly, there is in

man an innate penchant for honesty or dishonesty. Second to this native given, there is the influence of

your environment and education, for which everyone around you is responsible in one way or another,

at one moment or another. One cannot overlook the fact that a father – Oscar Steinhardt, in this case –

tells his son, before the latter is taken away for questioning by the Security: “Do not disgrace me, don’t

be a fearful Jew […]” In such extreme moments when the self-preservation instinct would naturally

push anyone towards a solution favourable to one’s own being, the father’s intervention categorically

inclines the scales on side of honesty. And this even if it comes at the cost of his own son’s freedom.

This does not make him less of a parent. What kind of heart-breaking reasoning does it take to arrive at

such a decision? Without a doubt, the decision is definitive, endorsed by the authority of the parent

(“Do not disgrace me…”) further supported by the argument of a reflection which defies the loftiness

of many theories about human condition: “[…] don’t be saddened, you’re going from one large prison

into a smaller one, and don’t rejoice too much in getting out, you’ll pass from one small prison into a

larger one…”.

This fact of life is telling in several ways. First of all, it is because in totalitarian universe you can

find yourself convicted without being guilty of any real offence. It clearly indicates that, in politics,

complying with the will of men sometimes means opposing divine will. Does not this mean breaking

that commandment forbidding one to give false evidence against one’s neighbour? Instigation to

evildoing is raised to the status of law and shows that renouncing one’s innocence is the only way of

getting out of trouble. But if one’s nature is not crooked or warped, there is no way one can adhere to

the ideology of such a system, of a history which irremediably places the individual under its flattening

march. The system, inherently repressive, even under its “freest and democratic” forms, is ready to

annihilate any gesture impinging upon the inflexibility of its laws. N. Steinhardt was asked to be a

witness for the prosecution in the trial against Constantin Noica and Dinu Pillat, accused of mystical

and legionary activism, and his refusal resulted in his being sentenced, on 4 January 1960, to 12 years

of forced labour, alongside other twenty-two prominent personalities of Romanian culture (Alexandru

Paleologu, Sergiu Al. George, Vladimir Streinu – to mention but a few). An explanation for the

strangeness of such a tragic and unjust experience is given by N. Steinhardt in a speech to his cell-

mates at Aiud prison, “after supper, during the heavy time until blackout”. He wants to make them

understand something of the mechanism of the regime “accommodating” them there. He first invokes

Andersen, with his story about the naked king: “Everyone sees and knows that the king is naked, but

nobody can say it. Nobody can say that two and two makes four. Little by little everyone gets used to

that, they resign themselves and become indifferent to whether he is naked or not.” The king is, in their

case, the system, which is believed to be have been instated for ever and cannot be changed. And the

child, who blurts out the truth in Andersen’s story, is, in the given context, each lucid individual living

under the system. He will be told “cautiously and protectively” not to speak the unspeakable.

Consequently, he will be taught that there is an order which he cannot but submit to or he will be

subjected to a different kind of teaching. By different methods and by other teachers. And if he has the

misfortune of seeing reality as it is and not as he is told it is, if he has the audacity to take the liberty of

telling it like it is (the liberty of “two and two is four”), he should expect the ensuing suffering. Not all

these things are explicitly expressed by Steinhardt, they seem to be inferred from one another,

especially since they resonate with the reflections of other thinkers, enounced in the very first pages of

the Journal : «I knew, otherwise, from Camus that “there always comes a moment in history when

those who affirm that two and two makes four are punished to death”. And from Dostoyevsky that two

and two makes four is not life any more, but the origin of death. Man, says Dostoyevsky, has always

been afraid of this rule; he keeps searching for it, he sails the oceans in search of it and sacrifices his

life in this quest, but he dreads to think that he will find it. It is a deadly principle and it is a good thing

that two and two makes sometimes happen to make five for once. But Orwell thinks otherwise, that

freedom means the freedom of saying that two and two makes four and that, once this is acknowledged,

the rest follows naturally». From the daily notation of crude facts to the leaps of history, metaphysics

and literary quotations on which it weaves the fabric of its patterning, Steinhardt emerges as an

incessant meditation on the fundamental problem of human condition. The ideational debate thus

becomes a continuous shuttle between real and imaginary history, linked by the matchless charm of a

permanently waking conscience. And conscience does not opt for any of the two kinds of history but it

is permanently between them, trying to explain each one through the other or to fundament the one

starting from the other.

Critical discourse analysis: the necessary deconstruction of meaning

Between Life and Books/Între viață și cărți , this is how N. Steinhardt appears even to those readers

who are not familiar with the first book he authored, published by Cartea Românească in 1976, due to

Mihai Gafița. In the volume of essays entitled Între viață și cărți , highly acclaimed at the time by

critics in the domain, the underlying rule of the writer’s undertaking is not to give a biographical

interpretation of the work, by reference to those reflections which could be attributed to the dimension

of eventuality in the life of the writer being analysed (Steinhardt, 1976). The rule of the approach is the

perspective of between , a word with the power of linking the ontological and cultural spheres, but also

with the power of transfiguration which only the act of creation can accede to. In fact, “ it , the

connecting word, states N. Steinhardt, is the most important, not the life, nor the books, but this

between ”. The middle space between life and books exists at some halfway point, where the forging of

the creator’s experience and its transfiguration in art cannot be framed within precise limits. That is

why he will always situate himself between real life as a concrete ontological given and the leap into spirituality which already presupposes an act of total liberty, assumed beyond pre-established patterns

or laws. Any great creator is tempted to oppose the finality of life with the restlessness of freedom and

irreconcilability with the constriction of his own finiteness. It is probably from here that the ideal of

any perennial work begins to take shape, conceived out of the double perspective of the ethical courage

proved by the creator and of the aesthetic daring that creation invites. If a man lacks courage, at least

his aspiration to escape the constriction forced on him should help him forge his own dignity. Aesthetic

courage cannot substitute ethical courage, but it can illuminate the privations initially deriving from

being confined in space and time. “Life, when it is insidious, wicked and inimical wants precisely this:

to turn us into puppets, manoeuvred by strings and ropes, into some parrots or freak shows for the

circus profiteering and the vanity fair”, reflects in one of his confessions the one who had become, in

the meantime, Nicolae, the monk from Rohia.

Courage is the primal virtue on which N. Steinhardt dwells systematically either in his own

reflections or in his references to biblical lines or writers such as Descartes or Brice Parain. From

Descartes’ “all hardships are caused by one’s lack of courage”, the writing takes the reader to the

notation obsessively recurrent in the Journal , which, simple as it may be, is so uncompromising in its

articulation of the idea of courage derived from Brice Parain’s philosophy of life: “If we want to be

free, we should simply not be afraid of dying, that is all.” There is a crescendo of the discourse on

courage at the end of which the absence of courage is identified with the presence of stupidity itself:

“Enquire. Demand. Knock. Dare. Do not be afraid. Do not get frightened. Insist. Rush. Be awake. Stay

sane. There are so many urges clearly showing that it is not proper that we be stupid.”

The lucidity as to the lack of alternative created by the threat of imprisonment is once more

demonstrated by the father, Oscar Steinhardt, who sees the courageous refusal to betray as the only

way out of the impasse: “‘It is true’, says my father, ‘that you are going to have very hard days. But

your nights are going to be peaceful’ (I must repeat what he told me, I must; God would punish me if I

didn’t) ‘you are going to sleep well. Whereas if you accept to be a witness for the prosecution, you will

have, indeed, fairly good days, but your nights will be dreadful. You won’t be able to sleep a wink.

You will have to live only on sleeping pills and painkillers, numbed and dozing all day long, but

excruciatingly awake at night. You will torment yourself like a madman. Be prudent. Come don’t

hesitate anymore. You must go to prison. My heart is breaking, too, but you have no choice. In fact,

even if you take the stand now as a witness for the prosecution, don’t be a fool, in six months they will

come after you anyway. That is certain.’”

It is not incidental that the Journal of Happiness begins with the evocation of that “January of

1960”, the year in which N. Steinhardt is convicted, then moves on to the days of 28 and 29 August

1964, when he is released from prison together with the third and last cohort. It is these two reference

points that frame the distillation of the whole discursive substance of the Journal , mainly generated by

a “noble defiance of reality”. The darkness of prison, with everything it entails – with all kinds of

humiliations and sufferings – Steinhardt will counteract by the light irradiating from his inner freedom,

which nobody can take. Revealing in this sense is the confession which shocks by the unusual feel of

such an experience: “In this almost surreally sinister place I was to experience the happiest days of my

life. How completely happy I could be in room 34! (Nor was I any happier in Brașov, during my childhood with my mother, or in the endless streets of mysterious London; neither on the decorous hills

of Muscel, nor in the blue postcard scenery of Lucerne; no, nowhere else).”

Not anyone is capable to talk about happiness in the conditions of imprisonment. Nor about the

triumph of inner freedom while one is deprived of physical freedom. It is no less true, however, that not

anyone is destined to attain such heights. The life of the spirit, of superior spirits, works according to

laws different from those of the so-called “normality”. The fettering real can only be confronted,

defeated and metamorphosed by such spirits.

The Journal is discontinuous in space and time. It does not observe the chronological principle (it

covers the period Vienna 1928 – Bucharest 1971), being written according to the flux of images,

memories and impressions, which eludes the strict linearity of objective time. It also eludes any

common classification, being neither an autobiographical novel nor a mere journal of ideas. It has been

said to be a testimonial of “survival through literature”. Although it often starts from the notation of

everyday facts, reflection is not confined to a mere account of them or to a single voice. There

intervene, one by one, the most highly resonant voices of world culture: Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche,

Saint-Exupéry, Huxley, J. P. Sartre, Henry James, Balzac and numerous others.

The Journal of Happiness does not capture a single aspect or isolated aspects of human condition.

The book vibrates with everything that is human. With everything that can be experienced in a man’s

life end even more. Beyond what could appear as the concreteness of a particular destiny, the writing

rises to generalizations which, without necessarily pertaining to the reader’s experience, are instantly

accepted by virtue of the verisimilitude they emanate. And this can only be attained by the

profoundness of the experience or of the ideational leap actuated by the writer’s inspired writing. The

book’s substance consists, first of all, in the writer’s encyclopaedic learning – which surprises not only

by the variety of the voices inserted, but especially by their being so well orchestrated that it feels as if

they all speak only through his voice. But the work does not stop at that. From an encyclopaedic scope

which is not at all forced or ostentatious, the tonality rises toward that sphere in which nothing is

unfamiliar to one, albeit not experienced by everyone. Steinhardt talks about friendship (it will never be

of those who say “if I can”), about imposture (which he finds, “sometimes more convincing than the

authentic model”), about suffering and pain (“the spectacle of suffering is sacred”), about life in

general (as a “way of having come to terms with the unacceptable human condition”), about justice and

injustice (“injustice, when done not to you, but to another, must be denounced, cast down, set right”),

about the human condition (“Experiences are not transmissible. We do not believe each other. We

won’t, we can’t, we don’t know how, we don’t dare, we don’t strive to believe the others”), about

patriotism (whose teaching does not qualify as judgements or prejudices, but as feelings, with their

“gift of tears”), about trust and suspicion (the former pertaining to the knight and the gentleman, while

the latter to the rascals who like to believe that all the others are “as corrupt as they are”). From trust

and mistrust Steinhardt moves on to faith ,defined as “trust in the Lord, although the world is evil,

despite injustice, meanness and the negative signals coming from everywhere”. Then, he configures the

steps of forgiveness , three in number (“We find it hard to forgive our trespassers”/“We find it even

harder to forgive ourselves”/“We find that the hardest to forgive are those against whom we

trespassed”). Then come the steps of sin, with the hierarchy of those in prison ( forgivable and unforgivable sins – the latter being blackmail and betrayal). Steinhardt also talks about patience as a

restraining of the mouth and through it of the entire being, about the Pharisee’s great guilt – self-

sufficiency – about the feast as a manifestation of the joy for the other , about the chief human quality ,

which “is not so much self-love but hatred and envy towards another”, about the courageous man , seen

as the one who “does not care about external perils and for whom danger can only come from himself”.

The dialectic of good-evil isfounded on a lifelong belief: “In the face of evil, good is more delicate,

more unstable, of a slighter makeup. Good is always in a position of inferiority (fragility), it cannot

wrestle with its adversary”. Steinhardt also shows a political vision when he distinguishes in the

general evil three phenomena of the time: the vertical invasion of the barbarians, the reign of fools and

the betrayal of good people . “The first: the invaders are not the barbarians from other continents, but

the rogues, coming from the bottom up. These barbarians take over the leadership positions. The

second: the stupid and the uneducated have rose to power, pure and simple. The third: instead of

opposing them, decent people adopt benevolent expectations, they pretend not to see or hear, in brief:

they betray”.

Of no less interest is the reflection on the archetypal fundament of the Romanian soul “just as it is:

joyful, longing for friendship, willing to see the contentment of the other, incapable of rejoicing alone,

anxious to share any good fortune”. Towards the end of the book, being, quite understandably, unable

to avoid talking about “the inevitable character of the disenchantment at the end of any life, any

adventure, any event”, Steinhardt still retains the tonic feeling which only the goodwill between people

can sustain. The quotation from Henry James is significant: “There are three important things in

people’s lives. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind”. Kindness,

as the expression of our opening towards the other , endorses the concept of the Christian sentiment

invoked by the biblical quotation at the end: “it makes one happier to give than to take” (Acts 25, 30).

The creed underlying the Journal of Happiness , which made possible the transformation of the

prison’s darkness into the light of salvation, is for N. Steinhardt none other than the desire to be

Christianised into Jesus Christ and God. “I believe, oh Lord, help me in my disbelief”, the book’s

motto, taken from Mark (9, 24) is naming the existential dilemma of “I believe and yet I know that I

don’t truly believe. I believe insofar as I call Christ “Lord”. And I don’t believe insofar as I ask him to

come and help me in my disbelief”. Steinhardt admits thus to not having found the ultimate, complete

formula for salvation. He will find it twenty years later, not as the writer Steinhardt, but as Nicolae, the

monk from Rohia, the formula being kindness, the good-heartedness of which he speaks in one of his

conversations with Ioan Pintea (Steinhardt & Pintea, 2009) and which we could conceive once more as

an in-between : between life, books and the road to salvation:

“What’s the good of having it all: intelligence, culture, cleverness, erudition, doctorates, super-

doctorates (as the professor in Lecția/The Lesson by Eugen Ionesco), if we wicked, vicious, rude,

vulgar, stupid and foolish, we are worth nothing, there goes intelligence, down the drain, and erudition,

and super-doctorates, and all the international congresses we take part in and all the study grants we

win through tough competitions. Nothing can replace or be a substitute for a little kind-heartedness, a

little benevolence, tolerance or understanding. A little sustained civility. Good-heartedness is not a

subtle or refined virtue, but a basic attribute of the human being and an attribute of culture at the same time. Goodness is another name for Aristotle’s definition of man: a social being. Without goodness we

can only cohabitate in terrible conditions, endorsing the bitter affirmation of Sartre: the others, this is

hell! There is an elemental altruism expressed through goodness, which is an axiom of communal

living. Berdiaev said: bread for me is a material problem (implying a selfish, vulgar one), but the bread

of my neighbour, Berdiaev went on, is for me a spiritual duty. It clearly results from this that nothing

can fully substitute goodness. We know that if we could speak all the languages and all the dialects on

earth and if we could classify according to decimal classification all the volumes printed in all the

world’s languages, from Gutenberg to this day, and if we were full of learning and erudition, and if we

knew the usage of all the terms specific to all sciences and technologies, we would not be worthy of

being deemed as cultivated people if we are still envious, uncouth and vicious at heart. Whether we like

it or not, culture is not merely an accumulation of knowledge, but a certain delicacy of character and

the capacity of not considering kindness as a mere obsolete and sentimental virtue”.


Withdrawn from the world as in a real self-exile, N. Steinhardt gives thus, through the voice of

Nicolae, the monk of Rohia, his testimony regarding the meaning of man’s sojourn on earth. A

testimony more likely to be a living example for others, insofar as it affirms the necessity of the

triumph of goodness over that area of darkness inherent to human condition. It is a conclusion or life-

lesson to be learnt by anyone who believes in the perfectibility of the human being.

We have endeavoured to demonstrate how the words of this genuine life lesson textually construct

the stature of a personality and of a written work which cannot ignore the dimension of lived historical

experience. Always occupying the middle ground, words define the signification of the two reference

points of life and books . As the only linkage between life and books, Steinhardt’s words give shape to

the creator’s experience and transform it into a work of art. It marks the beginning and the end of an

entire world, which we could unmistakably categorize as a classical testimonial of ‘survival through

culture’ and of opposing monologic ideology by the dialogism of humanist discourse.


  1. Steinhardt, N. (1976), Între viață și cărți. București: Ed. Cartea Românească. Steinhardt, N. (1991). Jurnalul fericirii. Cluj-Napoca: Ed. Dacia.
  2. Steinhardt, N., Pintea I. (2009). Primejdia mărturisirii. Iași: Ed. Polirom.
  3. Mauriac, F. (1970). Le nouveau bloc-notes. Paris: Ed. Flammarion.

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