The Ocean of Forgetting
A Romanian Phenomenomenologist (1916-2002)
Until his death in 2002, we were aware of Alexandru Dragomir only as a strange figure who moved more or less mysteriously in Romanian intellectual circles. Everything that we knew of him came from those who actually met him, because Dragomir never wanted to make himself known. Indeed he had a sort of aversion towards the idea of becoming a public figure. It was known that back in the ’40s he had been a student of Heidegger’s, studying for a PhD degree in Freiburg. Those who had the chance to meet him during the last decades of his life said that he possessed a fabulous philosophical knowledge, that he was brilliant as a thinker, and had an insightful and lively mind. However, what greatly intrigued those around him was the fact that he never cared to publish a single page in his life. He always said that publication was of no importance to him, and all he was interested in was understanding. Hence he constantly refused to enter the cultural industry. Indeed no one knew if he ever wrote anything.
Walter Biemel remembers that Heidegger highly appreciated Dragomir’s sharp intelligence. Alexandru Dragomir took part in Heidegger’s private seminars and it is said that when the discussion came to a dead-end, Heidegger used to turn towards Dragomir asking: “Well, what do the Latins say?” At the end of 1943, Dragomir was forced to leave Freiburg and Heidegger’s seminars and to return to Romania for recruitment. It was wartime. Although Heidegger insistently demanded that he should continue his studies, Dragomir was enrolled in the army. Twenty years later, Heidegger still recalled Dragomir very well and was asking for news about him.
In 1945, Romanian history took a terrible turn. The end of the Second World War unfortunately coincided with the Russian occupation and the establishment of communism in Romania. Dragomir found himself confronted with the impossibility of continuing his studies with Heidegger. He quickly understood that his relationship with Germany could be a reason for political persecution and that his philosophical endeavours might very well result in his being imprisoned. Dragomir anticipated all this and understood that his life depended on being able to dissimulate his philosophical concerns and his connection with Germany. Continuously covering the traces of his past, Dragomir worked variously as a welder, a vendor, a clerk or an accountant; he kept having to change his job, as he was frequently as his inconvenient political file led to frequent dismissal. He finally managed to work, until his retirement in 1976, as an economist in a company exporting timber.
Nothing related to philosophy. It might be tempting to say: “Behold a failed destiny!” But this would be far from the truth. For, in private, Dragomir never ceased to exercise his brilliant philosophical intelligence. For decades he lived a double life: his everyday social life on one hand and his life of solitary philosophical research on the other. He continued to work upon the fundamental texts of philosophy in Greek, Latin, German, French and English. Even when the political climate became, to some extent, more permissive, Dragomir remained unwilling to write and publish, in spite of all the proposals he received. After 1985, however, he agreed to make a “compromise” regarding the absolute silence of his philosophical activity: he decided to hold several private lectures and seminars, with Gabriel Liiceanu, Andrei Pleşu, Sorin Vieru and other prominent Romanian intellectuals as audience. It is probably thanks only to this breach that we are able to speak today of Dragomir, thus saving his name from total oblivion. At that time, Dragomir’s interlocutors, i.e. already well-known Romanian cultural personalities, were so amazed at his philosophical virtuosity, that they started recording and taking extended notes of his lectures. Dragomir’s name started to spread, as the hidden king of Romanian philosophy.
Dragomir could have remained for ever a brilliant Socratic spirit, without a real, transmissible philosophical work. But soon after his death in 2002, more than one hundred notebooks were found in his apartment, containing notes, commentaries on classic philosophical texts, essays of phenomenological research and analysis, and very precise and insightful philosophical descriptions. And what is even more important, many of them are original texts, which have turned him from a legend or a mythical figure of Romanian philosophy, into a philosopher whose work can be transmitted and shared. Most of these texts are phenomenological microanalyses or subtle and incisive clarifications of various concrete aspects of the world in which we live. One can find texts on the mirror, on forgetfulness, on error, on how things get worn out, on waking up in the morning, on the spectrum of ugly and disgusting things, on attention, on making mistakes, on writing and speaking, on making distinctions among things, on being unique, and so on. There are very different and heterogeneous topics, as though Dragomir watched the diversity of the world through his acute phenomenological lens, for the sole purpose of his own desire to understand. His genius was to discover within the banality of the everyday events of our lives, within the most concrete experiences we deal with daily, within those aspects which we deem to be the most self-evident and implicit, the profound layers of meaning and fundamental significance, which he then analyzed with a fascinating sharpness.
Yet, one topic remains constant: there are several notebooks, called Chronos, in which Dragomir thematically and systematically pursued the problem of time, over a period of several decades: the first notebook dates from 1948 and contains many notes written directly in German, while the last notebooks date from the ’80s and ’90s. It may be that the as yet unedited book on time will prove to represent Dragomir’s most important work. After the crucial discovery of Dragomir’s notebooks, it was possible to start recovering his work. The Humanitas Publishing House has already published one volume, Utter Metaphysical Banalities, edited by Gabriel Liiceanu and Catalin Partenie. A second volume called Five Departures from the Present is in press. Six or seven further volumes await publication.
We have decided to dedicate the present issue of Studia Phaenomenologica to this enigmatic figure of Romanian phenomenology and thus to let the international public know about this unique destiny. We have invited to participate in this issue those few people who knew Alexandru Dragomir in the various stages of his life. First of all, Walter Biemel, who, on his arrival in Freiburg from Bucharest in 1942, met Dragomir at Heidegger’s lectures. One year later, they made together the first translation into Romanian of “Was ist die Metaphysik?”, thus establishing a long friendship. We have also invited two of those who took part in Dragomir’s seminars in the ’80s and who contributed to the first volume of Dragomir’s work with their testimonies. Gabriel Liiceanu, his main editor, recounts Dragomir’s extraordinary biography and the discovery of his archive after his death. Andrei Pleşu paints Dragomir’s portrait by comparing him to Constantin Noica, another exceptional personality of Romanian philosophy. Starting with the ’90s several other people came to know Dragomir closely. Among them, we have invited Horia-Roman Patapievici, who remembers Dragomir’s brilliant knowledge of Galileo; Virgil Ciomoş, a special interlocutor of Dragomir on phenomenological and Aristotelian issues, and Catalin Partenie, with whom Dragomir shared a passion for discussions on Plato.
We also publish here a series of documents. Among them are some carefully preserved pages containing Dragomir’s notes taken on 14th January 1943 at Heidegger’s seminar on Metaphysics, Book Q. Next, we publish a letter of Walter Biemel from 1946 (translated into English by Adina Bozga) and the original German letter exchange between Dragomir and Heidegger in 1947. Finally, the main part of this volume contains a selection of Dragomir’s texts, translated into English, French and German. For the English translations are by James Christian Brown (lecturer in the English Department of the University of Bucharest), who kindly agreed to translate Dragomir’s often difficult texts with the generous accord of Sorin Antohi, editor at CEU Press (Budapest), where the English edition of Utter Metaphysical Banalities is soon to be published. The French translation is the work of Michelle Dobré, professor of sociology at the University of Caen. The German translation of the first Chronos notebook was made by Mădălina Diaconu, researcher at the Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. We would like to thank all those mentioned above for their kind participation in this volume. We owe special thanks to those colleagues and friends who helped us in proofreading the material: Adina Bozga, Julien Bretonnet, James Christian Brown, Aurélien Demars, Laurent Desplats, Servanne Jollivet, Adrian Niţă, Delia Popa, Tinca Prunea, Adrian Sandu, Marilena Vlad.
Paul BALOGH & Cristian CIOCAN