Photo Tom Costello


Another recent interview was for Radio Romania Cultural. It is available on the website of the 'Dupa 20 de ani' programme. To listen to it, click here.



Works and Days at Oxford

Cristina Neagu in Dialogue with Robert Lazu


Translation into English of the interview 'Munci şi zile la Oxford: Cristina Neagu în dialog cu Robert Lazu', published in the Romanian literary journal Adevărul literar şi artistic (Bucureşti: 1 November: 2005), 8-9.

ROBERT LAZU: Dear Cristina Neagu, we have very little knowledge of Romanians, other than Moses Gaster, at Oxford. To start with could you please give us some details about who else was connected to the University? Once we have a grasp on the context, could you tell us the story of your own road to Oxford? Take us step by step from the beginning.

CRISTINA NEAGU: The first Romanians who came to study at Oxford were three young men sent by Constantin Brancoveanu (1654-1714), Prince of Walachia. There is very little known about their stay here. To the best of my knowledge no research has been done yet, as most of the documents which could cast light are now housed in the archives of Worcester College. At the end of the 17th century, when the college was known as Gloucester Hall, Benjamin Woodroffe had the idea for an unusual experiment. In collaboration with the Orthodox Church in Greece, he initiated a programme especially designed for candidates from Southern and Eastern Europe.

In the period which followed these first tentative steps until the wave of undergraduates, graduates and researchers today, Romanians have generally been a pale presence in the University. The main reason was a cultural one to start with, as England was not top on the list of choices for East-European intelligentsia. From 1945 until 1989 the problem was, as we know, a political one. Looking back, however, a few names should be mentioned. As you said, Moses Gaster. In 1886 and 1894, he was invited to deliver a series of lectures on the influence of the Byzantine tradition on Slavonic literature. He is also remembered with gratitude for the important donation of Hebrew manuscripts he left to the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Another famous Romanian was Nicolae Iorga. The University conferred the title of doctor honoris causa to Iorga in 1930. In 1936 Mircea Eliade and Alice Voinescu were invited to deliver lectures at an important conference organized by the Oxford Movement. Participating in conferences was the most common means until 1990 whereby Romanians came to Oxford. Among the well known figures to do so were Iorgu Iordan (1962), Constantin C. Giurăscu (1968) and Alexandru Ivasiuc (1969). On a more formal level, Petru Rezuş enlisted as a student in theology between 1937 and 1938, and Alexandru Ciorănescu was visiting professor for a short period in 1948. Much closer to the present-day is a Romanian who has since become very well-known, namely the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu, who was awarded a Master’s Degree in Politics at St Cross College in 1993.

In contrast with all this, after 1989 the Romanian presence at Oxford has become increasingly significant. Many of Soros and Georgescu scholarships which have funded most of us for one year initially have been converted into 5-7 years doctorates, the majority of which have not only been accepted, but have also been in part financed by the University. In the meantime, some of the DPhil thesis of the first wave of Romanians have been accepted for publication. This is the case with Radu Calinescu’s book on parallel computing, Alexandru Popescu’s monograph dedicated to Petre Ţuţea and my own book on the poetry and prose of Nicolaus Olahus. With very few exceptions, most Romanians awarded doctoral degrees at Oxford (especially those working in sciences) have managed to secure positions as teachers or researchers in or near the University. The present situation in the computing department is worth mentioning. For some years now, there have been so many of our co-nationals working there that Romanian has become literally the second language spoken on the corridors of the applied sciences building.
The story of my involvement in research is somewhat convoluted in space and stages, but surprisingly straight and followed by luck each step of the way. As I said, Oxford became a reality due to a close-to-miraculous Soros scholarship in 1993. My doctorate in Renaissance studies from Oxford started in truth almost by default. It started (believe it or not) with my checking details for the section related to Romanian cinema in Tom Costello’s book International Guide to Literature on Film published in 1994. There is a long story here.

ROBERT LAZU: I cannot miss an opportunity to get an unusual story for our readers. Could you, I wonder, tell of the events which took you from Bucharest to Oxford, starting with the book by Tom Costello, who is now your husband.

CRISTINA NEAGU: Everything started with a letter the director of the National Film Archive put on my desk back in December 1989 : a bulky envelope sent by Tom Costello (Lecturer at the University of Liverpool) containing a detailed filmography of Romanian books on film, accompanied by a request to check whether the information included was correct. This filmography was to be integrated into a volume dedicated to international film between 1930 and 1991. It was this collaboration with an English academic that first introduced me to the rigour and methodology of English research in the humanities, crucial in paving the way which ultimately made a doctoral degree possible .

As to the Soros scholarship, I applied for it in January 1994. The application led to an interview in spring. In June I could not believe my eyes when I opened a letter from Lady Margaret Hall. The letter informed me that the college had accepted me as a visiting research scholar for a year starting with October. What followed was an amazing period, marked by incredible freedom and all kinds of revelations. What counted more than anything however were the weekly tutorials with my then supervisor Professor Douglas Gray, an eminent medievalist. These had the deepest impact on my development as a researcher. We used to meet every Tuesday to discuss the essays I usually handed in on Monday. I did my best to keep this routine. And so, step by step, more precisely, essay by essay, I got closer and closer to Nicolaus Olahus’ corpus of poetry. We examined it attentively and agreed that it was a topic which, due to its originality and relevance, deserved more. The fact that this poetry (together with most of his literary work) had been largely ignored by critics and scholars pointed to Olahus as a suitable subject for a doctoral thesis. At my supervisor’s suggestion, I applied for a place to study for a DPhil. In less then a month I received a letter of acceptance from the University, then the college (I decided to remain at Lady Margaret Hall). And, while waiting for the results to my various applications for funding, I received a rather extraordinary letter from Professor Terence Cave, one of the most respected Renaissance scholars in the University, who happened to be also Director of Graduate Studies that year. In this letter Professor Cave told me that he found the Olahus project worthy of attention, and if I agreed he was willing to supervise my thesis.

ROBERT LAZU: You mention you were first a “visiting graduate student” . What does this mean? And what, by comparison, does a doctoral degree at Oxford presuppose?

CRISTINA NEAGU: Visiting student is a formula by means of which a College can invite undergraduate and postgraduate students as members of the University for a period up to one year. At the end of this period there are no exams and no degrees awarded. These visiting studentships are in effect research bursaries sponsored by various institutions and organizations in collaboration with the University (in my case the Soros Foundation and the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office).

There are various types of postgraduate studies. The diversity of Oxford higher degrees is impressive and follows the medieval tradition. Among the most well-known higher degree titles is the MStud (Master of Studies), a three-term course of special study followed by examination. This degree is regarded as being the equivalent in arts subjects of a taught MA degree. Other higher degrees include the MPhil (Master of Philosophy) and the BPhil (Batchelor of Philosophy). These are granted after an examination and the submission of a thesis following two years (six terms) of study. There is also the MLitt. (Master of Letters), confined to arts subjects and awarded on the submission of a thesis. Residence for a minimum of six terms is required. The MSc (Master of Science) may be obtained either by following a course of special study and passing an examination in science-related subjects, or by pursuing a course of research culminating in the submission of a thesis.

Oxford and Cambridge doctorates are called DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy). This is the most advanced degree in arts or science presupposing research and evidence of ‘outstanding ability’. The examiners of a DPhil thesis must be satisfied that the candidate has made a significant and original contribution in the field of learning within which the subject of the thesis falls. As I said before, acceptance for starting a DPhil has to come from both the College and the University. It is essential that the application is supported by a practical, original and insightful proposal. It is also essential that the candidates’ Batchelor and/or Masters degree results are outstanding and that they have three exceptional references.

Writing a thesis in the humanities takes between 3 to 5 years in most cases. The dissertation (of approximatively 80,000 words excluding the bibliography) has to be defended in an examination called viva voce. The contrast between the informality of the intellectual context in which this examination (designed as a dialogue between the board of assessors and the candidate) and the formal richness in which this takes place confer upon the event a very special aura. This is a culminating event in which all participants (examiners and examinees alike) are required to dress formally in university gowns. These gowns are in an essential way part of the Oxford ethos. Depending on subject and status, their cut and colours vary. Throughout Trinity term (the third term of an academic year), the streets of Oxford are busier than usual, full of fellows and students, wearing carnations and cycling towards the Examinations Schools. The carnations have a quite unique tradition here. The flower is white on the first day of Finals (a series of 3-hour examinations undergraduates take at the end of their final year of study). After the first exam, the flower is left in a red inkpot overnight. The carnation turns pale-pink by the morning. Looking at students in the street one knows how close they are to finishing. It all depends on how intense the pink of the flower has become. The flower is normally red before the last exam… and the undergraduates – after ten to twelve 3 hour examinations – are heart-breakingly pale. The difficulty of Finals is notorious.

ROBERT LAZU: After finalizing the doctorate you have stayed on in Oxford and now work in a famous library. Could you tell us a few words about your job at Christ Church and the steps that took you there?

CRISTINA NEAGU: The route from Lady Margaret Hall (the college where I wrote my doctorate) to Christ Church (where I now work) was not an easy one in spite of the fact that it opened naturally. It started because the scholarship which I was awarded only paid for the university fees, so I had to find means to cover my living expenses. As luck had it, this coincided with Lady Margaret Hall advertising for a part-time Assistant Librarian. Traditionally this had always been offered to a postgraduate student. Since during my Soros research year I had been among the most regular and enthusiastic users of the library (which was noticed) I found myself with that advantage and I was offered the job. I’m very grateful to Roberta Staples, the Head Librarian, who supported me with grace and flexibility during the 5 years when I worked with her. Far from being just a toil necessary to cover my living expenses, the job of Assistant Librarian at Lady Margaret Hall proved to be an unexpected and wonderful gain. It was my first active contact with the library from backstage and I saw it as a centre of excellence, an exquisite space for study and the very heart of the college. An irresistible combination! I wanted to explore the field a little better, so I combined my last two years of preparing for my doctorate with studying also for a MSc in Information Science and Library Management.

For two years now I have been working at Christ Church. The college has a fabulous library: famous collections of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts (the oldest being a 9th century Byzantine codex), incunables, tens of thousands of early printed books, all housed in an altogether exceptional space. It is exceptional not only because of its beauty (architecturally it is a model of baroque elegance), but also because the stability (for books) of the environmental conditions in the building. Not many things have changed since the library opened in 1772 (the medieval library had long-since become too small for the number of volumes it contained). The temperature and humidity are measured daily. In spite of seasonal variations, they are within permissible limits which, in modern buildings, can only be maintained by means of very sophisticated air conditioning equipment. As far as light is concerned, in spite of the enormous Venetian windows, sunlight does not fall directly onto books at any point during the day.

ROBERT LAZU: Research-wise, what are you currently working on? What books, articles and conference papers do you have in preparation?

CRISTINA NEAGU: I have recently finished two studies. One (The poetry of Dürer and the etching of language) is about the counterpoint between text and image in some of the engravings for which the German painter wrote a series of poems. The second (Sites of memory: strategies for the survival of book illumination in the 16th century) discusses a few Italian manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. There is a third study which I am currently getting ready for publication (Francis Godwin, Ficino and Giordano Bruno’s lectures at Oxford). This dwells on the impact of Bruno’s ideas as expressed during his controversial but intensely creative period in England between 1583 and 1585. Regarding conference papers, I have three in preparation. The first (Codified rhetoric and subversive imprints – Vienna, December 2005) discusses the reasons and implications of Giordano Bruno’s six Italian dialogues all published in England under false imprint. The second, for the Renaissance Society of America (Woodcuts and magic - San Francisco, March 2006) comments on Ficino’s theory of image and its influence on some of the works of Giordano Bruno. Finally, there is a paper for the triennial Congress of the International Association of Neo-Latin Studies (Self-fashioning and exile - Budapest, August 2006), which will examine the literary qualities of Bruno’s writing. These are a few of the projects that I have on my desk at present. Most of them have in common one rather fascinating author. The tragedy of his life and death are extensively discussed, and so are aspects linked to his defence of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. Less studied is his talent as a writer, his sense of drama, his use of graphic art to illustrate ideas. His texts have a versatility which deserves a closer look. It is too early to say if my tentative approach will lead to a book on Bruno the poet. It is possible.

ROBERT LAZU: In the past couple of years one of the most controversial and lively debates in Romania has been on the topic of how representative is Romanian culture abroad. Taking into account your English experience, what do you think might be the best ways to discover and then promote Romanian values on an international scale?

CRISTINA NEAGU: I think one should start from recognizing and acknowledging genuine talent. The responsibility of those in a position to do this is huge, as their decisions may impact on more than just individual lives. In the long run, the cultural destiny of a country is at stake here. What could be done? Ensure the context and means for young talent to breathe freely and be noticed. One basic thing that should be done is facilitating contact with important institutions abroad by means of a coherent programme of scholarships and travel grants. It is, I think, alarming to realize that none of the many Romanians currently engaged in study or research at Oxford have benefited from any Romanian financial help. As to Romanian cultural events, although these are by no means numerous, they are generally well received. However, beyond the force and beauty of the few concerts, films, plays, books and exhibitions that make it to England, one can easily discern a great deal of suffering. The main source of this is a terrible inequality of means. The freedom of movement gained in December 1989 is something that has changed our lives profoundly. However, if this liberty is not accompanied by a real effort to help talent then nothing much can happen. Representative institutions and Romanian political authorities have a duty of both care and conscience here. Of course, each one of us knows many fine examples of individual success. We know very little however about how convoluted and difficult the road to achievement had been. And how, in most cases, everything happened because of an opportunity offered by a non-Romanian body. This, in my opinion, is a very serious failure. It is unforgivable for a country in which there is so much talent to rely almost exclusively on the talented to find ways and make things possible. Of course, I am aware that the struggle to fulfil one’s potential is essentially a lonely one and success is often determined by natural selection. This brings me to another point. To what extent is authentic value encouraged on a wider scale in Western countries? The answer to this question is not a simple one. Ever so often the successful are not necessarily the best as well. There is much unfairness in all this, and it often depends on superficial trends and fashion. In spite of this however, to a certain degree things are usually kept in a balance. At least in my experience at Oxford this was the case. It has been so reassuring to witness the care and responsibility with which talent is revealed and put to the trial again and again, forced to improve and watched over.

ROBERT LAZU: You are among those who wore a red carnation, aren’t you? What does it mean to be a Doctor of the University of Oxford? What does it mean from the point of view of prestige, but also intellectually, financially and spiritually?

CRISTINA NEAGU: The carnation is for the exclusive use of undergraduates during Finals, so the answer is no, I did not get to wear it. If we are to look for exterior signs of progress or fragmentation, these are much less visible in the case of postgraduate students. Maybe just the long black gowns. Doctors are formally distinguishable only at special ceremonies such as Encaenia (the festivities celebrating the end of the academic year), where both the elegance and the colours of the robes have a royal demeanour. Other than that, there is the prefix Dr, used in all official documents, replacing Mr, Miss, Mrs and Ms as a form of address. On the whole not many exterior elements point to the holder of a doctorate. Significantly, the highest is also the most discreet of academic degrees.

From the point of view of prestige an Oxford doctorate is a highly respected degree. Financially however this neither translates into a higher salary, nor does it guarantee a job. Today a doctorate has become a minimum requirement for obtaining an academic teaching job in most British, American and Commonwealth universities. It is a necessary passport to the first rung of the academic career ladder. There is therefore little prestige in having a doctorate when it has become a minimum qualification to teach in a university. A sense of prestige only comes with being appointed to an academic job, and even this is very limited. Compared to other professions there is currently no financial advantage in England in having a post in a university. Salaries in universities here have never been related to qualifications. Promotion and survival is based not on the number of degrees you have earned but on the number of books and articles you have published.

So why do a doctorate at all? The simple yet final answer lies in the realms of enthusiasm, dedication, commitment, faith and belief. It is to engage in intellectual exploration for its own sake. It is a species of what the Irish poet W.B. Yeats called ’The fascination of what’s difficult’. One has a supportive context (Oxford), a valuable yet neglected subject (the poetry of Nicolaus Olahus, for example) and everything else – be it money, prestige or personal advancement – are irrelevant. One might fail in the task, one might just succeed. But what one absolutely refuses to do is to walk away, give up, betray the certainties that what one is doing is worthwhile, valuable to self and others, and needs to be done. A poet has no choice but to write the poem. The poem has chosen him.

Like its lack of exterior signs, the relevance of an Oxford DPhil is not readily visible at first sight. The change which occurs in the case of most postgraduates working for this degree is however potentially as spectacular as the ceremonial dress. Intellectually, the academic rigour and originality of thought one has to demonstrate throughout have the advantage of lifting quite a lot of veils off sleepy eyes and dismantling both prejudiced and preconceived ideas. The result, not always comfortable to live with, is marked by a diminishing capacity for self-forgiveness for the errors in one’s own work, and by an ever-widening hypersensitivity when confronted with lack of professionalism. One of the unique advantages of writing a doctoral dissertation at an university such as Oxford is the ongoing dialogue with top specialists, amazing scholars, several of them the authors of seminal books in the field. The unpretentious directness and promptitude of this dialogue may appear strange to an outsider.

This particular aspect brings me to the latter part of your question about the significance of an Oxford doctorate. From a spiritual point of view, the lessons that Oxford bestows on us is one of altruism and modesty. What happens here looks paradoxical. As a postgraduate student preparing a dissertation, one is listened to and supported with every step one takes. The university is literally at one’s service. No effort is too great. When one finishes though, things change all of a sudden. Once the thesis is validated after a challenging, uncompromising viva, and the degree awarded in a spectacular Latin ceremony, the new Doctor faces a reality where it becomes obvious that the title (genuinely respected as it is) is unlikely to bring any material advantage. On the surface, this seems unfair. Yet, the lesson is a remarkable one. Essentially, a doctoral thesis is not meant to be written for one’s own enjoyment or benefit. One’s contribution (within the limits of one’s talent) has no value if it is not for the benefit of one’s fellow scholars. So, at the end of the road from the privileged posture of one who has received immensely, one becomes aware of a change of polarity with respect to one’s role. Through effort and talent on the one hand, and with the help of those better than oneself, the time comes when one can and should start actually giving rather than just taking. Seen from this perspective it is no longer unfair that a doctorate is not ’rewarded’ in the material sense. As in the famous prayer of Saint Francis, the reward is one of conscience. ’It is in the giving that we receive’.


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