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The Philosopher as Private Collector

Catalin Partenie

The World We Live In, by Alexandru Dragomir, ed Gabriel Liiceanu and Catalin Partenie, trans by James Christian Brown, Springer, 167 pp., £63.64, ISBN 978-3319428536

This is a true story. It is about a scholar whose refusal to publish helped him not perish. I’ll never forget the day I met him. In December 1985, just before Christmas, Constantin Noica, one of Romania’s most prominent philosophers, invited me to a private lecture on Plato’s ideas, to be given in the flat of one of his friends. “Dragomir will be there too,” he said. Alexandru Dragomir was Noica’s friend, and had been Heidegger’s student; that was all I knew about him. I was then an undergraduate student at the University of Bucharest reading for a degree in philosophy, and I guess Noica invited me to that exclusive symposium because I had followed his advice and started to learn Greek.

On the day of the lecture it had snowed in Bucharest and public transport was unpredictable, so I took my parents’ car. It was a small gathering, and I was the youngest. Noica’s lecture was short and gripping, and afterwards he and Dragomir had a fierce dispute. They were so sharp and quick and witty and courteous that to me they were more exotic than the spats Noica was wearing. I don’t think I said anything.

When Noica and Dragomir left, I offered to give them a lift, and they gladly accepted. They got in at the back, and they were continuing their dispute, gesturing and pointing, Noica upwards, Dragomir downwards. I paid more attention to their dispute than to my driving and soon enough I lost control of the car (the street was icy and covered with fresh snow). The car began to spin, and I panicked (“Romania’s most prominent philosophers killed by philosophy student”). I looked at them in the rear-view mirror, which was like a still spot against a swirling world of blocks and houses, and I thought, “Thank God it’s Sunday and the street is empty.” Then the car got into a pile of snow, and the world stopped swirling, but the two of them were continuing their debate, their arms in the air, Noica pointing up, Dragomir down.

Dragomir was born in 1916. Between 1933 and 1939, he studied philosophy and law at the University of Bucharest, and wanted to continue his studies in philosophy, but Romania was a very troubled place at that time. In 1941 he was twenty-five, had been drafted into the army for several months, and he thought that the only solution would be long-term study abroad. He first went to the University of Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland) to learn Greek, Latin and German; then he received a Humboldt fellowship and enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau under the supervision of Martin Heidegger. We do not know what was the precise topic of the thesis that Dragomir worked on under Heidegger in Freiburg; we only know that it was on Hegel.

During a tutorial, Dragomir told Heidegger that he had an interesting interpretation of a Hegelian topic but could find no textual evidence to support it. Whereupon Heidegger went to a shelf (they were in his office) where there stood an edition of Hegel’s complete works, picked up a volume, quickly scanned a few pages, and then passed the open book to Dragomir saying: “Well, Herr Dragomir, here is the textual evidence you are looking for.” He told me once that he heard Heidegger, at the beginning of a class, telling his students that “to think means to compromise yourself”. “When I heard this,” Dragomir recounted, “I relaxed and said to myself: Well, this is something I’m definitely good at.”

In 1943, he had to join the Romanian armed forces, and left Freiburg without a degree. He was shipped to the Eastern front, and in 1944 was released from the army. A few years later, the communists seized power; under their regime Dragomir could not pursue an academic career and held various odd jobs. In the late 1950s he was working in the supply department of a large dam, then called the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Hydroelectric Power Station. He told me that once he had met there an impoverished little old man. They got along well, and one day this man took him aside and said: “You know, I have two first names. One is ‘Ion’, as you know, one of the commonest names in Romanian. But nobody knows the other. It is ‘Napoleon’. It’s true, I swear. But please don’t tell anyone.” I do not remember what occasioned Dragomir’s telling me that story. Now, however, when I think about it, that Ion Napoleon appears to me like a character out of Gogol, a sort of Akakii Akakievich for whom the name “Napoleon” was a clandestine overcoat. Akakii Akakievich, the main character of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat”, is a humble man who (after months and months of deprivation) manages to get a magnificent overcoat that becomes for him a means of disguising himself: when he wears it, it transforms him into a different person, a person who commands respect. An overcoat is designed to protect you from inclement weather; it has to be worn outdoors, not indoors. But danger lurks outdoors, and Akakii Akakievich is robbed of his overcoat by two villains on the first day he wears it. Dragomir’s friend kept his overcoat inside, away from the gaze of others: nobody knew about his second name. But on occasion he could not resist the temptation of showing it to someone he felt he could trust, and so he told Dragomir about his second forename. In those years of forced uniformity anything that was remarkable in any way, even one’s own name, could cause one harm.

Dragomir was a most remarkable man, and this fact alone put him in danger. He did not need something to transform him into an extraordinary person. On the contrary, he wanted something to help him dissemble, something to hide the fact that he was an extraordinary person. So he wore the mask of an ordinary man, and his disguise worked perfectly, for his co-workers never suspected that that he had been Heidegger’s student and that in his spare time he was reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics in Greek. In 1961 he took a job as an economist at a timber exporting company, where he worked until his retirement in 1976. He died in 2002 without publishing anything. After he died, almost a hundred notebooks were found among his belongings containing notes, essays and studies. I was baffled by the proportions of his written archive. While Dragomir was alive, I thought he didn’t care to write and I wondered why; after he died, I wondered why he wrote so much.

Six of his notebooks were devoted to a single topic: time. He started the first one in 1948, in German. Once in a while, a wrong ending would occur, but at the time Dragomir’s German was almost flawless. Writing in German in those bleak and hopeless years (when many Romanian intellectuals ended up in prisons and labour camps) was his attempt to somehow salvage his past, of which it was too dangerous to speak to anyone. He knew, however, that without speaking the language with native speakers, he would lose his mastery of it. In 1957, fourteen years after leaving Germany, he wrote in German for the last time. Why did he abandon his new thesis on Plato, to begin, in 1948, to work on time? Forty years later, in another notebook devoted to the topic of time, he wrote down a short fragment from a letter Wilhelm von Humboldt sent to his sister Karoline. “Time,” says Humboldt in that letter, “is the most comforting thing I can think of in the greatest misfortune. I do not know a greater god than time.” Perhaps Dragomir too found that time was the most comforting thing he could contemplate in that dark period of Romania’s history. For over fifty years, from 1948 to 2000, he had recorded in those six notebooks his thoughts on this topic, more than a thousand pages of small-sized handwriting. On December 8th, 1989, he wrote: “It seems that that which passes is being itself, but I am not content with the phrase ‘that which’, because being is not ‘something’.” The following entry was written on March 6th, 1990: “The ‘now’ is continuous, but we don’t always live in the present; often we cover it up with plans, memories, abstract thinking, imagination, desires.” Between the dates in which he wrote these two entries Ceauşescu had been executed and an oppressive regime, which had seemed eternal, had suddenly fallen. Dragomir’s notebooks on time remind me of Wittgenstein’s so-called Prototractatus, which he wrote in 1917 while at the front. Both Wittgenstein’s and Dragomir’s notebooks offer the spectacle of a mind that cannot be disturbed by historical turmoil.

He continued to think on the topic of time until 2000, when he became ill; like time itself, he could not stop. Even stranger perhaps is that Dragomir did not show those notebooks to anyone, not even his philosopher friends. One of them, Mihai Şora, confirmed this to me:

For years we met regularly in the house of a mutual friend who was also a philosopher. We discussed many philosophical subjects, but he never told us that he was engaged in some very committed research on time. When those notebooks were published and I read them, I was astonished. I hadn’t had a clue as to what he was doing.

In his private lectures too, Dragomir spoke of many things, but never about the subject that was so dear to him. For more than fifty years he contemplated in solitude a collection of thoughts, like a solitary art collector who shuts himself up in his salon to contemplate his collection of art works. “Time,” Dragomir wrote in one of his notebooks, “is deinon.” The Greek word deinon means “terrible”, “fearful”, “strange”. Time may indeed be called all of these things, for it is something that every one of us intimately experiences and yet it remains so elusive. As Augustine famously put it, “I know well enough what time is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is, I am baffled.”

Dragomir too may be called deinon. I knew him well enough, but when I asked myself who he was, I was baffled. How could we explain his solitary philosophising? In The Statesman Plato claims that “it is difficult to demonstrate anything of real importance without the use of models (paradeigmata)”. In 2013, I spoke to an actor who appeared to me like a possible paradeigma for understanding Dragomir. He was Marin Moraru, one of Romania’s greatest actors. When I was young I’d seen him as Estragon in Waiting for Godot, and his performance of Diderot in an adaptation of Rameau’s Nephew had become legendary. After he retired, he gave an interview in which he talked about the rehearsals for a production of The Tempest at the National Theatre in Bucharest. He was playing Caliban, and they rehearsed for nearly two years. However, just before the premiere, censorship considered that production of The Tempest inappropriate and cancelled it, just like that, after nearly two years of rehearsals (that was in the early 1970s, not the worst period of Ceauşescu’s regime but still bad enough). “My Caliban would have been a great Caliban,” said Marin Moraru in that interview, “because I had discovered something new and extraordinary in Shakespeare’s text.” “What?” the host asked him. “Something that only I had seen. But I’m not telling you what.” And he didn’t. Years later I met him. I told him I had seen that interview, and I asked him what he had discovered in Shakespeare’s text. “I’m not telling you,” he said. “I’m not telling anyone.” “But Mr Moraru, wouldn’t you like to share your discovery?” Before it’s too late, I continued, but only in my mind. “No. I wouldn’t.” “But why?” “Well, I’ll tell you something, although you’ll probably not get it. When the censorship cancelled our production I was devastated. I was devastated because I knew I’d never have another chance to play Caliban. ‘God, what will happen to my Caliban?’ I asked myself obsessively, but there was nothing I could do. Then, after a few years, the very thought that I alone in the whole world had seen something new and extraordinary in Shakespeare’s Tempest gave me a joy of an intensity I’d never known. That joy has never left me, and today it’s as intense as it was when I first felt it. I don’t know how to put it. It’s been like an inner overcoat; one that nobody can rob me of, as long as nobody knows about it. I don’t think I can go on without it. As an actor, I used to think that it’s all about being on stage; well, it’s not. I see from your face that you don’t get it. How could you, when sharing has become a global ideology? I told you that you’d probably not get it.”

Dragomir’s work has been published posthumously (in Romanian) in five volumes. The World We Live In contains in English translation some of the lectures he delivered to a small circle of philosophers between 1985 and 2000. In the mid-1990s, I took part in some of them. The precise number and subject of Dragomir’s lectures can no longer be determined. The World We Live In brings together all that has been preserved of them; it also includes a study of Dragomir’s life and work and a short portrait by two of his closest friends. The lectures of the first part are relatively short and each deals with a specific topic: the function of the question; self-deception; banalities with a metaphysical dimension; nations; our relationship with nature, our fellow human beings, and the divine; freedom and subjection; dialogue; man and woman; and forgetting. The second part consists of three series of lectures – on Socrates, Plato’s Philebus (intended as a running commentary to this dialogue), and the way the intellect has shaped our world.

Dragomir was not, strictly speaking, a Heideggerian (although time was the main topic of his philosophical inquiries, and he almost always went to Plato and Aristotle, regardless of the topic he was discussing). His approach may be called phenomenological (in the sense that it starts from specific situations of human existence), but he made every effort to avoid philosophical jargon (“I shall try to speak as concretely as possible, i.e. not philosophically,” he says at the beginning of one lecture). Here is a sample from a lecture on freedom and subjection:

there is a confusion between freedom and liberation. We believe that once we have liberated ourselves we are, ipso facto, also free. However, in fact we remain in the negative of liberation, in the obtaining of a state which has appeared by the negation of subjection, without knowing, positively, what it means to be free. Is freedom a miraculously innate property, on which the constraints of subjection later settle like bricks on a foundation? What is certain is that we bear within ourselves the sentiment of freedom, firmly tied to liberation, and that in thinking all the time within the subjection in which we live, we associate liberation with the sentiment of freedom.

His phenomenological approach is also detectable in the three series of lectures. Here is a fragment from a lecture that is part of the series dedicated to Socrates:

Socrates was the first European thinker to draw attention to this situation in which we find ourselves: we are the choice of our lives, but the knowledge on whose basis we might be able to choose the best life is something we cannot have, and thus all that remains to be done is to persist in asking questions about the best life, i.e. to stay, discussing with each other, in the sphere of questions without answers. This situation in which we are caught is the phenomenological basis of Socrates’ examination.

And another one from a lecture that is part of the series dedicated to Plato’s Philebus:

For Plato, nothing can save us from this [human] fragility except access to that which is unchanging. The way of access to that which is unchanging is dialectic, for it does not deal with that which has past, present and future. If, through dialectic, you can embrace that which has no past, present or future, you no longer need to fear disintegration and death; the human spirit takes refuge in that which is unchanging and thus overcomes its own fragility.

“The World We Live In” is the title of the last series, the longest of all (recorded, between 1986 and 1988, on twenty-four audio cassettes). Their main thesis is stated towards their end:

There exists in the intellect the latent possibility that it may deviate from its role of guide to the whole human being, and proclaim its own supremacy. This possibility has been realised since the days of ancient Greece, with the intellect transforming itself from guide into producer. What it has produced is science, whose constitution Aristotle grasped so well. … Modern science is the metaphysics of our times. And like any metaphysics, it is intolerant and suspicious.

His notebooks on time have been published in French and German translations (by Jean Vrin and Königshausen & Neumann). In 2009, under the auspices of the Romanian Society for Phenomenology the Alexandru Dragomir Institute for Philosophy was founded in Bucharest as an independent research institute.


Catalin Partenie is associate professor of philosophy at the National School of Political Studies and Administration, Bucharest and editor of Plato: Selected Myths (Oxford University Press) and Plato’s Myths (Cambridge University Press). Dragomir’s The World We Live In, edited by Gabriel Liiceanu and Catalin Partenie and translated by James Christian Brown, is published by Springer.