Mircea Eliade22 Nov 2001 14:26
HeavenRomanian historian of religions. Before and during WWII, he was an active and vocal fascist intellectual in Bucharest. After the war, he lied flagrantly about his past and became a highly respected academic in the west, eventually and for many years professor at the University of Chicago.
Heaven is a place
Nothing ever happens
Of course, many prominent mythologists of the 20th century had similar political leanings --- Jung was definitely a Nazi fellow-traveler (though not an active party member, like Eliade), and Joseph Campbell was extremely reactionary (and may, also, have been a supporter of fascism). The cause of this connection isn't entirely clear to me, but it seems to have something to do with the way that fascism originated (both in its right- and left- wing roots) in a rejection of rationalism and materialism --- and what better way, for a scholar, to act out such a rejection than to study, indeed celebrate, the stories that rationalism dismisses as superstition?
Be that as it may, Eliade was also, in some odd way, a Christian, and has been accused of trying to make it seem as those some kind of simple monotheism and/or redemption myth is the original, universal religion of humanity by highly selective quotation and other forms of manipulation of evidence. I'm not competent to judge that, but frankly I wouldn't be much surprised. That part of his thought doesn't interest me very much, to be honest. What I'm intrigued by are his ideas about commonalities in different cultures' myths, particularly mythical ideas connected to the early history of technology. Of course, if he misrepresented the facts to support his pet beliefs in one area...
Probably the central notion in Eliade's work is that of "archetype and repetition". The idea is that the pattern of the world was set (as he always put it) in illo tempore, in Those times, the magical ones towards the beginning of the world. Those times are magically, ritually re-created when it is necessary to re-affirm or draw on the "power and prestiege of origins" --- at the new year, during initiations (one of his big themes), when attempting alchemy.
His gloss on alchemy is that the alchemists attempted to, as a physicist today might put it, recreate the initial conditions — that by turning lead (or whatever) into the prima materia they not only made it formless but capable of being perfected by human art. The alchemists were trying to perfect creation by going back to the problem at the beginning. (Particle physicists have similar strategies but few would admit in public to trying to repair the universe.) There's a lot to be said for this notion, I think, but Eliade definitely pushes it very hard, to the point where he sometimes seems to lose sight of the fact that the alchemists were experimenters, getting their hands dirty in the lab and wanting to have real gold, or at least real shiny stuff, and real elixirs, or at least real medicines, to show for their efforts.
- Recommended, by ME:
- Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
- The Forge and the Crucible
- Rites and Symbols of Initiation
- Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return [In some editions, the title and subtitle are reversed]
- Myths, Rites and Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader
- Yoga: Immortality and Freedom
- Recommended, about ME:
- Peter Gay, "Witness to Fascism", New York Review of Books 4 October 2001 [Review of the journals of Mihail Sebastian, a Romanian writer of Jewish descent who was a personal friend of Eliade's, showing just how deep into fascism and anti-Semitism Eliade was, and how much he lied about it afterwards]
- Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century [Contains a very good discussion of the intellectual context which produced Eliade, and how many fascist intellectuals similarly white-washed themselves once it became clear that they'd lost. I recall Eliade being mentioned by name but can't now find the passage.]
- Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century
- Ian Strenski, Four Theories of Myth in Twentieth-Century History: Cassirer, Eliade, Levi-Strauss and Malinowski
- To read:
- Leonardo Ambasciano, An Unnatural History of Religions: Academia, Post-Truth, and the Quest for Scientific Knowledge [According to a hostile but informative review in Isis, Eliade features as the "chief enemy" of good history of religion.]
- From Primitives to Zen
- History of Religious Ideas (3 vols.)
- Patterns in Comparative Religion
- The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion
- Robert Ellwood, The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell
- Bryan Rennie (ed.)
- Changing Worlds: The Meaning and End of Mircea Eliade
- The International Eliade
- Volovici, Nationalist Ideology and Antisemitism: The Case of Romanian Intellectuals in the 1930s
- Steven M. Wasserstrom, Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos