Reason on the Cusp of Madness: Anti-Semitism and Mihail Sebastian

The ease with which one can draw a line from the message of For Two Thousand Years to the events of 2017 is almost too terrifying to contemplate.

By the time Mihail Sebastian died unexpectedly in late May 1945, the Allies had secured victory in Europe but not before millions of Jews had been systematically murdered. Sebastian’s novel, For Two Thousand Years (1934), is both prescient and uncomfortable, not only for the window it offers into the nonchalant anti-Semitism of interwar Romania (and Europe) but for the subtlety and patience with which it analyzes racism.

Indeed, it’s the narrator’s analyses and rationality that give shape to the novel’s entire plot. Within this structure, the novel balances along the axis of order and disorder, solitude and tribe. With the advantage of 80 years, it’s easy for the modern reader to recognize upon which axes history broke: tribalism and disorder, as nationalism and world war exploded only a few years after For Two Thousand Years was published.

Reading Sebastian’s novel is uncomfortable, first and foremost, for passages that signal the madness to come: “Yet there is a Jewish problem, and it needs to be solved. One million eight hundred thousand Jews is intolerable. If it was up to me, I’d try to eliminate several hundred thousand.” For Two Thousand Years is filled with large swathes of observation, contemplation, and analysis. Conversations do take place — short, narrative — often only recounted as if to the narrator’s journal. Then, there are even moments like when the narrator expresses regret that he cannot remember verbatim a conversation he had with his professional mentor, the Master.

Nevertheless, it is this conversation, recounted as if being told as it happens, that forms the longest conversational dialogue in a novel otherwise largely narrative. Throughout the book, the anti-Semitism builds from physical harassment by strangers to the sentence above. Ever rational, the narrator tries to convince Vieru, his professional “Master”, of the irrationality of his anti-Semitism. He fails.

Early in For Two Thousand Years the narrator finds himself on a train with a bookseller, Abraham Sulitzer. The old man’s forthright Jewishness repels him, at first, for the mere risk of finding himself associated with it. “He was still not entirely sure of me, yet offered me the beginning of a cordial smile: a sign he had recognized me… It felt that this look, this sense of familiarity, identified me with him…” This timidity and reticence to be identified with someone so unassimilated is an otherwise universal impulse felt by some members of any socially marginalized group. But for the narrator it begins, in some ways, the trajectory of his character from bullied schoolyard victim to he who responds at the end: “‘With Jews like you…’ I’ve heard this expression before. ‘If only all Jews were like you…’ It’s a familiar old way of being friendly. And so humiliating. I’m tired of it, believe me”.

If Abraham Sulitzer is the beginning of this transformation, another otherwise unrelated event symbolizes the narrator’s ongoing articulation of the marginalized experience, of the unrecognized stranger sleeping in one’s bed, over which one has little control and with which one never asked to be associated. “A single stranger sleeps next to me and I feel a whole crowd has come in with him. He hasn’t said anything to me, I haven’t said anything to him, but I feel I have nothing else to say to him, nor to hide from him.” It marks the further opening up of Sebastian’s narrator from the taciturn man of the early novel. After leaving a bar for the night, the narrator finds he can’t shake the stranger walking alongside him, and the man has nowhere else to go for the night. Reluctantly, he allows the stranger to stay the night.

The growing anti-Semitism Sebastian describes, within a few short years after the novel’s publication, would lead to one of the most morally incomprehensible stages in human history. The normalization of violent speech had already begun to signal a brewing disaster, as when the protagonist witnesses boys selling newspapers with the ear-catching slogan: “Mysteries of Cahul! Death to the Yids!” He wonders why it is so easy to call for the death of Jews in the street without anyone batting an eye?

To connect Sebastian’s novel to recent events might exaggerate our current social unrest when compared to what Europe was about to experience. Yet the ease with which one can draw a line from the message of For Two Thousand Years to the events of 2017 is almost too terrifying to contemplate. Literature exists to refine and improve us. For this reason and many others, For Two Thousand Years is a distinctive and essential novel. It’s worth rereading again and again, and always remembering this indispensable passage:

“It is extremely difficult to follow the progressive hardening of enmity from one day to the next. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded on all sides, and have no idea how or when it happened. Scattered minor occurrences, gestures of no great account, the making of casual little threats… Then, one fine morning, you feel unable to breathe. What is even harder to comprehend is that nobody involved in any of this, absolutely nobody, bears any blame.”

RATING 9 / 10