Panodyssey and the importance of culture to our cultures
by Claudia Moscovici
Panodyssey is a new international cultural website that aims to promote all the arts: writing, music, the visual arts, film, theater, dance, etc. Its founding premise is that culture is important to our cultures. What is culture? Culture can mean 1) the practices, values, beliefs and mores of a given society or a “way of life” and 2) various fields in the arts and humanities, including literature, art, cinema, music, poetry, theater, philosophy, dance, literary and art criticism, among others. I’d like to argue that “culture” in the second sense of the term is essential to our “cultures” in the first sense of the term. Why is culture so important to contemporary societies? I’d like to list some of the reasons why culture needs to remain vital in our socieities by using as my point of departure a few poignant citations by some of my favorite Romanian authors.
a) “Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds”. ELIE WIESEL
During the most repressive epochs in human history, authors of literary fiction, memoirs and critical essays have been some of the most courageous and outspoken voices of protest. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind, Lena Constante’s The Silent Escape and, of course, Elie Wiesel’s Night took readers into the horrors, the Kafkaesque show trials, the physical and psychological torture and the general hopelessness that characterized life in totalitarian regimes. Their powerful words of protest reached not only millions of readers, but also entire generations. They echo to this day. Wiesel also famously stated, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference”. It is more difficult to remain indifferent to human suffering when one reads such powerful writing.
b) “Literature is a reflexive art”. ION LUCA CARAGIALE
Caragiale was way ahead of his time in so many ways. He’s quoted often, to this day, in Romanian newspapers because his witty, cynical and poignant remarks about politics apply as much to our contemporary context as they did to his own times. Perhaps Caragiale also foreshadowed the schools of thought—formalism and poststructuralism—that maintain that art and literature are important in and of themselves. This is, of course, not a new conception of art and literature. During the nineteenth-century, Théophile Gautier is credited with coining the notion of “art for art’s sake” (l’art pour l’art). Although art, literature, criticism and philosophy often have moral and social implications, they don’t have to in order to be considered significant. They have an intrinsic value: the expression of human creativity in itself.
c) “Culture kills naïveté and knowledge chases away ignorance”. GEORGE COSBUC
Philosophy, art, criticism and literature don’t simply mirror reality. They transform it, along with our assumptions about it. They change our political and social conventions; they make us question others and ourselves more deeply; they help build the foundations of a new reality. Not reducible to mere ideology or polemics, art, philosophy and literature help us interrogate our assumptions about the world and sometimes lead us to arrive at deeper truths.
d) “The meaning of existence, and every person’s duty, is creation”. MIRCEA ELIADE
This ontological assumption reminds me of an observation that is common sense and repeated often: humankind is the only being on earth that distinguishes himself (or herself) through the powers of thought (and creation), not merely procreation. Our intellectual and artistic capacities are a large part of what makes us human. We should prize these capacities, express them and maximize them.
e) “Criticism is a misconception: We must read not to understand others but to understand ourselves”. EMIL CIORAN
Cioran expresses here a fundamental truth about human creativity: Reading–be it poetry, philosophy or literature–is a largely introspective activity. In books we learn so much about human history, about the motivations for human behavior and most of all, as Cioran eloquently states, about ourselves.
The very existence of the website Panodyssey is premised on the importance of culture. Culture is important to our cultures because it helps us question our social conventions and transform them; it stimulates to the maximum our creativity; it’s often the first and last recourse to freedom in repressive social and political circumstances; it’s one of the key elements that make us human; and because human creativity needs to be preserved and respected for its own sake. To conclude with one final quote, as Kenneth Kaunda, the first Zambian president said, “A country without culture is a body without a head”. This basic truth about “culture” applies internationally, to all cultures.