Semnalez apariția ultimului număr al revistei culturale Litere, un număr excepțional prin diversitatea și calitatea articolelor referitoare la literatura română de ieri și de azi. Dimitrie Cantemir, Vasile Alecsandri, Panait Istrati, Ioan Alexandru și Calinic Argeșeanul „slăvind dumnezeirea”, Nichita Stănescu ca personaj de roman, sunt doar câteva dintre articolele care merită neapărat citite.
Și, sigur, am publicat și eu un Cocktail de vară pe care-l găsiți la pagina 94 sau mai jos.
As I was saying – the decision to go to Iran was unexpected even for myself. I like to I travel, but since the pandemic has slowed down our travelling impulses, I try to remind myself how today we can travel virtually very well with the help of the internet. And even though I don’t have the technology that allows me to immerse myself in a certain virtual reality, I can still travel comfortably almost anywhere in the world without leaving my favourite place at home where I feel relaxed and comfy. Actually, there are places difficult to reach except virtually. I don’t necessarily mean the bottom of the oceans or the heights of the Himalayas or the outer space. There are places, which for different reasons, are not accessible to us. Opportunity, excessive costs, we’re not all in the same league with Elon Musk, can be some disincentives.
But, lo and behold, the stars aligned and the algorithm tracking me sent me the unrefusable offer and … the decision was made. I’m going to Iran. Why? Probably because, since over one decade ago, I have been looking to the world that exists beyond Europe, whether Central, Eastern or Western, and I wonder how we came to the point of looking at this huge and so diverse world only through our cultural glasses which are so narrow and distorting?! Did I say cultural? Is ideology part of culture? Or is it vice versa? It is a simple question, and yet the answers are multiple and not easy to give. At least not here, in this column where I want to get, I hope, to tell you about 1001 nights of fairy tales chosen and told by a woman to a powerful ruler whose life and death decision she thus influenced. Hey, what am I doing here? Have I put on the glasses of a very fashionable ideology now? Whether we call it feminism or gender studies or gender balance or intersectional feminism doesn’t really matter. We all know the reality I am referring to.
Let me return to fairy tales. Everybody knows that “1001 nights” is a collection of Arabian stories! Why then bring it up in an account of Iran or Persia? Of course, we live in an area of the world where Bucharest is often confused with Budapest, and of course that irritates us in various degrees; and we usually think of the Middle East, with one truly exceptional exception, as inhabited by Arabs. And that leaves us more or less indifferent. Who cares anyway? Maybe most of us don’t, but what about those who live there?
I remember my Persian students who, very politely, were trying to tell us that they are not Arabs. Yeah, but you speak a Semitic language and you write with characters that look very much like the Arab ones. “Not at all”, they would answer patiently. “We speak an Indo-European language, quite different from Arabic. True in Iran we use the Arabic cursive script which is particularly ornamental. And just as true is that we highly appreciate the art of calligraphy.”
True indeed. I was impressed by the patience and discipline with which they work or should I rather say they painstakingly create works of great delicacy and fineness – words I no longer hear nowadays except probably in book titles such as “The Painstaking Chronophage/ Migălosul cronofag” by Adrian Săhlean  the excellent translator of Eminescu into a fresh and intelligible English. The Persians took the art of calligraphy to an extraordinary refinement and their constant respect for and inclination towards literature, especially towards poetry preserved Persian making it intelligible even today.
The truth is that things are never simple: either to explain or to grasp. As a teacher I have known this for a very long time. And I also know how frustrating it is for everyone involved in the learning process to discover that there aren’t always simple, clear and universally applicable rules. “But I want to know the rule” many learners would say, especially those who come from the exact sciences. The rule and possibly some exceptions. But what do we do when there is a rule and multiple exceptions, as in learning English and not only. Let me, however, come back to “1001 nights” one of the charming books of our childhood. I am particularly thinking of the 1001 nights: Arabic fairy tales retold by Eusebiu Camilar, which came out at Tineretului Publishing House in 1956.
Today the stories of 1001 nights are no longer told by Scheherazade, but by Hollywood and Walt Disney, or even by various local film industries that have the power, and the budgets, to look at the stories of Scheherazade and Shahriar from multiple angles, and many of those who watch them most likely don’t even know that those stories started to be told probably in the 8th century and travelled over huge territories, from India through the Middle East to Turkey.
As in other similar situations, there are many voices that claim their primacy over the collection of fairy tales. Ulrich Marzolph, Professor and specialist in Islamic studies and Persian narrative tradition at the Georg-August University of Göttingen, believes that the general public thinks of the book as a collection of Persian, Arabic and Indian folk tales collected and transcribed into Arabic about a thousand years ago . Despite this popular perception, Marzolph believes, based on documents, that the stories were first written in middle Persian known as Pahlavi. Their transcription took place between the 8th and 13th centuries and only later were they translated into Arabic.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica  says about the same thing, underlining the diversity of the contributions to the widely read collection of fairy tales. The person who wrote the article from The Encyclopaedia Britannica considers that although the names of the main characters are Iranian, the frame of the story seems to be Indian and most of the other names are Arabic. And, of course, the style of stories and other elements of internal analysis of the text lead to the same conclusions: multiple, uncertain authorship.
Britannica also tells us that the first known reference to the tales is a fragment from the 9th century. Incidentally, Britannica also agrees that the Persians were the first to mention the legendary collections of stories from Iran, India and Greece called in those times “One thousand nights”. In 987 Abū ʿAbd Allah ibn ʿAbdūs al-Jahshiyārī began to write down a collection of 1,000 Arabic, Iranian, Greek and other folktales, but died leaving only 480 written.
And this is how we realize that “A thousand and one…”, with its various titles, is only a way to indicate a large number. This was an age with no obsessions related to the accuracy of numbers. Subsequently, after the West began to translate the fairy tales into French and later into English, the number was interpreted literally. And more stories and fairy tales were added.
But who cares about these details today? From the wonderful collection, most of those formed in the Western culture (is this use of terms about to become an oxymoron?) remember, at best, the stories about Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad who did not even exist in the original corpus. Is that really how things are today?
To check whether young people know about the 1001 stories and taking advantage of a written exam that I had with my students from Applied Modern Languages in the ASE I made a small experiment. I asked the students to write at the end of their papers what they knew about Scheherazade.
‘Do you want me to write it down?”
‘Yes, please. Yes.’
I did as asked.
‘And if we don’t know anything?’
‘If you really don’t know anything, write: Scheherazade – I don’t know.’
I was really looking forward to the end of the exam to see the results. All I could do on the spot was to verify whether they answered the question or not. The vast majority had. The outcome?
Out of the 43 students present in the exam room, twenty answered they “didn’t know/heard/or even ???”. Twelve gave me various correct options. And I also had a separate category, eleven answers, with some very interesting explanations. I considered these 11 responses as positive, although you will notice below that some prove otherwise, but they have the merit of being extremely hilarious. Therefore, out of 43 respondents, 20 did not know who Scheherazade was, and 23 did give some sort of correct answers from which we can conclude that they probably know.
So what? For me this situation clearly represents the loss of a cultural reference system that deepens the gap of lack of communication not necessarily between generations, but between those who “know” and those who “don’t know”. I forgot to mention that my students did not have access to the Internet, which partially explains the results. Over the years I have sadly discovered that many young people no longer know proverbs or other classical cultural references. Of course, there are those who respond after discreetly consulting their friend Google. But when you don’t have access to a friend?
And here are the “special” answers that I can’t resist sharing with you: Scheherazade is a poem; a wise woman – a doctor; a story – a revolt; a sonorous name, but I don’t remember the context; a Persian sultana/queen; a character/a female character; cinema. And most remarkable for its ingenuity and comic: Scheherazade is an organizational model stylized inorganizations for their better performance. It is probably relevant to mention that the end of semester test during which this mini-quiz took place is called “People and organizations”.
The most elaborate answer was from one of the students with a clear and declared interest in literature in general and poetry in particular. “Scheherazade is a name that seems to represent the quintessence of Orientalism. Being a made (not born) ‘Eurocentrist’, I can almost hear Edward Said criticizing and dismantling my claim. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the name of a soap opera watched by my grandmothers. I know however, in the spirit of René Guénon, that the true essence of Orientalism is another one.”
The results of the ad hoc quiz given to my students can be interpreted in many ways, but I’m not interested in those interpretations here. Especially when some of those who answered “don’t know” are people with advanced soft and professional skills they consider to be their priority at the moment.
I’m thinking however about the importance the Eastern world, and yes, we are right at its gates not having the guts or the will to enter, grants to history, culture, literature and especially poetry as pillars of classical culture. Over here, we are satisfied with adopting culture as a social and mainly organizational binder; culture theorized by Hall, Hofstede et co. often not knowing even them or their works.
I was wondering upon reading an article in The Economist  about what happens when algorithms become so advanced that they cannot be distinguished from human writers? The answers are very exciting, but about them next time.
At the invitation of Professor Mihai Stan, editor-in-chief of the Litere / Letters magazine of the Târgoviște Writers’ Society, I started writing about my April 2022 trip to Iran in a column entitled Algorithms and stars. Once again my thanks here for his invitation.
Here is the link to the first article in Romanian available on page 93:
We live more and more under the sign of algorithms. They rule our lives without our knowing it, without our feeling it, most often without our consent, and all this happens while we continue fighting for the freedom to choose what each of us really wants more and more passionately. We often fuss and debate, with more or less valid arguments, if the influence of algorithms on us is acceptable or not; we think about whether we will be replaced by robots or just ruled by them, but we forget more and more to look at the stars and remember what it was like when they were the ones literally guiding our steps and journeys, not Google maps, or were influencing our destinies for those who believed in the power of some of the “initiated” in reading beyond what can be seen of the visible or less visible universe.
A Facebook algorithm brought me an invitation for a trip to a relatively exotic destination. Sent by a friend from my list with whom I had had awesome adventures before. Therefore, it wasn’t too difficult for me to give in to the temptation, especially since I had to offer myself a birthday present for a beautiful age for which the only real gifts are the immaterial ones: novel experiences and the thoughts they induce. Therefore, giving in to the algorithm and also consulting with my internal advisor replacing the stars, in other words checking my various memories related to that destination, memories from books or constructed from the media or from my international students coming from that area, there I was accepting the invitation.
And why is it a big deal to accept going on a trip? Even if it’s quite long, 18 days is after all a bit of a luxury for those who still work and have various obligations to family and community. Especially while the pandemic is still active in the world, even though our authorities seem to have lifted all bans, and the war is much closer to us than we would have liked it and it affects us in extremely painful ways. Especially those who still have the memory, real or mediated, of the wars fought in Europe before. Not to mention the fact that I had decided to stop traveling, especially over long distances, and obviously by plane, because the planet still needs some timeout from pollution similar to the one during the lockdowns.
This is the value of our promises in the face of the temptations intelligent algorithms constantly send us because they know us too well. The experts in the mysteries of artificial intelligence say that algorithms know us even better than we know ourselves. We have anyway long forgotten, or maybe we didn’t even know the “know thyself” adage. Not even the promised hell of climate change that is already here though we are feeling it probably less than others in the more and more aggressive deserts against the planet that we humans have conquered often not knowing where to stop and how to end the suffering of animals and plants because we don’t really care for the suffering of other people. Not even the hell of climate change scares us any longer. Based on the principle that has become axiomatic though it shouldn’t have that often “homo homini lupus”. And yet, the wolf is a remarkably social animal, highly intelligent, caring and devoted to its family (pack), playful and, above all, attentive to the cubs, whom it “educates” to be efficient in their world, of wolves, but also attentive towards the wounded or elderly whom they do not leave behind when they can no longer actively contribute to the life of the pack . Unfairly demonized by fearful and ignorant humans, the wolf is undoubtedly disadvantaged by the comparison with us.
But doesn’t the same happen with other fields or with other people we do not know or we know less? Aren’t we, more often than not, creatures of habit either through stereotypes and clichés that we pick up without much analysis, out of convenience, or because we simply refuse to complicate our existence with deeper analysis and search?
Didn’t Kahneman receive half of the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002  because for decades, together with Amos Tversky, he studied how people take decisions? And why would a psychologist take the Nobel prize for economics? Because he set out to dismantle a very dear idea to the economists – that of Homo Economicus, i.e., the rational man who only makes well-founded economic decisions. Kahneman and Tversky, both interested in human irrationality, have shown that people often, and of course involuntarily, make irrational decisions. Why? Because, says Kahneman, people use two methods to reason, in other words to make decisions. Kahneman called these two methods Systems 1 and System 2. In Kahneman’s view , system 1 represents the fast, intuitive thinking through which we react to the surrounding world, based on what seems coherent to us at the time, taking short-term decisions: it’s cloudy – I’ll take my umbrella; the economy collapses as a result of the pandemic and of the economic sanctions against Russia, I am more careful with my disposable income, I won’t spend money too easily because a crisis awaits us, etc.
System 2 is more analytical, it starts more slowly, and generally prefers not to be disturbed. If system 1, for example, tells you that your boss just walking past you frowns because lately you haven’t had very good results at work, system 2, if it were to activate, would say your boss is frowning because of the horrible traffic on his way to work and of the recent discussion with his wife. The activity of system 2 requires a lot of energy or put differently intellectual activity, that of reflection and meditation, and tires us more than a medium-intensity physical activity.
Well, the algorithms that select our future “options” know very well that we react based on system 1 and they send us all kinds of information maybe, just maybe we take the bait. On the other hand, even if we can’t change our biology, we can adapt and take it into account. Of course, we know that every click on Facebook will bring us ads and information from that area. A lot fake, some biased, and, of course, much replicating the general line of thinking of those in our bubble. It’s so much easier to give a “like” or whatever else Facebook allows us, than to stop for a while, check the information, usually it is very simple and quick, and make an informed decision.
Like me, for example, when I received the invitation to join a group of tourists who were going to a Middle Eastern country that our own Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended as risky and therefore to be avoided if possible. The temptation, however, had been too big and here I am back safe and sound, having had not only an excellent tourist trip, but an incredibly rich one from a cultural and historical point of view as well. I am now reading one of the novels of the writer of Turkish origin Elif Shafak whom I discovered through the recommendation of one of my former international students from the country I visited and whose action takes place in the country where I spent three weeks of incredible walks into history and culture. Among algorithms and stars. In the future I will tell you here wonderful or just ordinary happenings that deserve to be shared. See you.
De ce pe repede înainte? Pentru că se petrec atâtea lucruri, într-un ritm atât de accelerat că nu prea mai apuc să le înregistrez. Încerc câteva măcar.
1 iunie – ziua copiilor și ziua mea. 70 de ani! Mult? Puțin? Important este că sunt și sper că n-am trăit degeaba.
Sunt constant impresionată de memoria oamenilor care se gândesc la mine și-mi spun că, poate neștiut, dar natural pentru mine, i-am ajutat. Cum? În primul rând ascultându-i cu răbdare și respect și spunându-le ceea ce cred. Și, sigur, credințele mele se bazează pe lecturi multiple și, mai ales, pe experiențe trăite de mine și cei apropiați mie în multe, multe locuri pe unde am umblat. Studenții mei sunt unii din cei care mă fac să cred că nu trăiesc degeaba. Dar despre asta voi scrie separat. Și, sigur, mai sunt colegi, prieteni, oameni. Vă mulțumesc tuturor pentru că mi-ați dat ocazia să las o urmă pe nisipul vieții voastre.
Absurdul existenței noastre, dacă alegem s-o privim astfel, este, iată, ridicat la rang de artă, cel mai adesea literară, de cei care, născuți pe meleagurile mioritice, s-au mirat sau chiar s-au revoltat de inconsecvența și inconsistența eforturilor noastre de a da un sens vieții. Sigur, motivele sunt multiple, dar nu este locul lor aici. Aici doar vreau să semnalez eforturile din Curtea de Argeș, oraș regal prin opțiunea regalității și, cu timpul, sper și al locuitorilor, de a menține starea de excelență culturală a meleagurilor prin energia captată și dirijată cel mai vizibil și profesionist de cel care a înființat Curtea de la Argeș.
Sunt multe despre care vreau/trebuie să scriu pe larg, nu pe repede înainte. Acum doar menționez că “No comment“, una din primele afaceri particulare locale – cel puțin în memoria mea, a primit supranumele “La Urmuz”. Spre conformitate vedeți pozele nu foarte grozave, dar autentice. Pe locul respectiv a fost casa în care s-a născut “înainte-mergătorul revoltei literare universale…” (Eugen Ionescu apud George Păun). Absurdul pare fi la el acasă: localul cu aer și bucătărie tradiționale are recenzii foarte bune pe trip advisor de la străini. Românii, desigur, sunt nemulțumiți. No comment ca să zic așa.
La Urmuz – merită încercat.
A fost o zi minunată. Mai ales că mi-a apărut și un articol în numărul pe mai al revistei Litere de la Târgoviște. Mulțumesc redactorului-șef.