In the Public Eye | Questions from Cultural Studies

Photo by Daniela Brown

By Daniela Brown

Bucharest, 1980 and a bit. At the 6 March student hostel, the summer exam session started the very day and hour that blossom appeared on the lime trees that surrounded the building with their green wall. They also masked the chipped plaster, and diminished the odour of the canteen, the smell of food past its best. And under their irresistible perfume, lovers paired off in early-summer waves. To study for exams in that place, at the hour of lime blossom, was against nature! That year for the first and last time, our little group of four classmates and friends for life shared the room above the entrance to the hostel. Up until then, we had honourably survived all the exams, most of them wonderful, others horrors in miniature (scientific-fantastic socialism, socialist-triumphalist political economy, Marxist-Leninist-Ceauşescuist philosophy, military service), not to mention the cold that froze water in mugs and in our veins, the dubious food in the canteen, the lack of water, the meanness, the hellish toilets, duties on the landing and in the canteen kitchen. Our enthusiasm for literature and art, for the spiritual journey into the world of books, human values, friendship and humour was our shield. It helped us bear the absurdity that had been up till then and the absurdity that was to follow.

Exam-after-exam-and-yet-another-exam. Textbooks instead of food, in place of carpets. We had slammed the wardrobe door shut on the Cinematheque, the theatre, and dating. Under lock and key were concerts in the Radio Hall, hunting through shops, and cafes. We studied with wet towels round our necks to keep our neurons from falling asleep. But, in the short and frequent breaks, the lime trees insinuated themselves into the room and opened our windows. And because we were above the entrance, the very spot where lovers could not let go of each other, we heard and we saw, without wishing to! Everything: vows, kisses, embraces, wooing strategies, imploring, promising, making-up… and the same all over again. As if at an altar of love, they seemed to be praying to us to protect their happiness! We had been drawn into other people’s stories without having the power to stop them. Close the window, and the air was unbreathable; open it, and your mind boggled!  And so I found the solution, the ideal-solution- that-didn’t-really-solve-anything, but at least gave us some satisfaction: I drew in pastel a huge eye, a piece of amateurish kitsch that concentrated all our frustration, and I hung it in the window. It was The Public Eye! A shout that “We can see you!” That “We would appreciate a little privacy, to be able to get on with our studies and our lives!” That “There’s no high and mighty god or goddess up here for you to pray to!”

But there was! Because the next day or the day after that, the Goddess of the Hostel, Comrade Director, made an untimely entry into our room, prickly and all-knowing, pulled down the drawing, tore it up triumphantly, and summoned the author of the offending work to her office. I learned to my complete astonishment that I had betrayed the ideals of the Communist Party and insulted the Country and its Leader, that I had disgraced my parents with what I had done, that I was in danger of being expelled! I explained everything in a choking voice. She didn’t believe me. But what had I done? The Comrade’s answer turned me cross-eyed: I had displayed the symbol of a hostile and outlawed party, thus instigating young people to insubordination by mendacious propaganda. “Party? Politics? Maybe she quarelled with her husband last night!” I thought.

“What are you talking about? What party? Please!”
“The National Peasant Party! The eye was its emblem!”
“But I didn’t know. I’ve never heard of any of this in my life!” I said.
“I don’t believe you! You’ve studied history.”
“I don’t remember any eye! No one taught me about it. I don’t remember about this party either. That’s why I’m doing English, not History. What am I to do?”
“Go to Comrade Rector with my proposal of expulsion!”

In his office in the Law Faculty building, through whose windows came the same scent of lime blossom, Comrade Rector believed me, smiled as at a good joke, and allowed me to carry on pursuing my destiny. The moral of this incident I discovered in the 1990s, when, as coincidence would have it, someone mentioned to me that Comrade Director was now making her mark as a member of the Christian Democratic National Peasant Party! Poor woman! How could she look them in the eye?

Text originally published in Romanian on 30 September 2015 at

Translated from the Romanian by James Christian Brown and Daniela Brown.

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