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|Mircea Eliade (1907-1986)|
Romanian-born historian of religion, fiction writer, and one of the pre-eminent interpreters of world religion in this century. Eliade was an intensely prolific author of fiction and non-fiction alike, publishing over 1,300 pieces over 60 years. He earned international fame with Le Mythe de l'eternel retour: archétypes et répétition (1949, The Myth of the Eternal Return), an interpretation of religious symbols and imagery. Eliade was much interested in the world of the unconscious. The central theme in his novels was erotic love.
"In archaic and traditional societies, the surrounding world is conceived as a microcosms. At the limits of this closed world begins the domain of the unknown, of the formless. On this side there is ordered - because of inhabited and organized – space; on the other, outside this familiar space, there is the unknown and dangerous region of the demons, the ghosts, and the dead and foreigners – in a world, chaos or death or night. This image of an inhabited microcosm, surrounded by desert regions as a chaos or a kingdom of the dead, has survived even in highly evolved civilizations such as those of China, Mesopotamia and Egypt." (from Images and Symbols, 1952)
Mircea Eliade was born in Bucharest, Romania, the son of Georghe (Ieremia) Eliade, an army officer. He had changed, according to Eliade, his name from Ieremia to Eliade due to his admiration for the writer Eliade-Radulescu. The family moved from Bucharest to Rimnicu-Sarat and later to Cernavoda. "In my memory," Eliade wrote in his autobiography, "that time spent there between the Danube and the brick-colored calcinated hills, where wild roses and tiny flowers with pale dry petals grew, is always lighted with sunshine." At school he was interested in biology and chemistry, and he had his own small laboratory. He read much, and increased this time reading books by sleeping only five-six hours.
While collecting material in Italy for his study on Renaissance philosophers, Eliade read Surendranath Dasgupta's work A History of Indian Philosophy, which impressed him deeply. After graduating in philosophy at Bucharest in 1928, he studied in India under Dasgupta at the University of Calcutta. Eliade was a talented student, but his relationship with Dasgupta became strained when he fell in love with Dasgupta's daughter Maitreya. During this period he wrote the erotic novel Isabel si apele diavolului (1930).
His experiences in the Himalayas, at Swami Shivananda's ashram, where he went to meditate, Eliade depicted in the novel Maitreyi (1933), which became a success. Eliade considered his tantric experiments in the Himalayas with the South African Jenny a proof that he had not understood India. "My vocation was culture, not sainthood." After military service Eliade took his doctorate in 1933 – his thesis dealt with the history of yogic techniques. In the same year Eliade was appointed associate professor in the faculty of letters at Bucharest University. In 1934 he married Nina Mares; she died of cancer in 1944. After publishing Domnisoara Christina (1936) Eliade was accused of pornography and dismissed from his office for a short time. The protagonist in the novel, based on Rumanian folk stories, was a strigoi, a ghost or vampire. The story dealt with the meaning of erotic life and death in human life.
In the 1930s and 1940s Eliade published several works of fiction. The unifying element of the early fiction is a strong, autobiographical bent. Isabel si apele diavolui was a thinly disguised story of a love affair between a European man and an Indian girl. In Întoarcerea din rai (1934) and Huliganii (1935) the author went beyond his personal self, and depicted the 20th-century reincarnations of the older 'nihilists.' The 'hooligan' in the title referred to a person, who is guided by his inner visions and youthful energy, and who doesn't approve of the rules or beliefs of the outside world. The character bears resemlances to Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov and Kirilov. Lumina ce se stinge (1934) was an experimental novel using a Joycean stream-of-consciousness technique. Eliade's growing interest in the supernatural was seen in Domnisoara Christina, Sarpele (1937) and Secretul Doctorului Honigberger (1940, Two Tales of the Occult), which included the tales 'Nopti la Serampore' and 'Secretul doctorului Honigberger'. The title of the book referred to Dr. J.M. Honigberger, writer of the book Thirty-five Years in the East (1952).
In 1938 Nae Ionescu, professor at the faculty of philosophy, was arrested and Eliade was dismissed as his assistent. Ionescu was accused of being member of the Legion of the Archangel Michael (the "Iron Guard"), an extreme-right-wing Romanian organization, anti-Semitic, with Nazi sympathies. Soon also Eliade was arrested and he spent a short time in a concentration camp. From 1940 Eliade worked as a Romanian cultural attaché in London and in Lisbon (1941-44). After WW II he did not return to his home country, but held posts at various European universities. He lectured at the Sorbonne and taught for a while at the École des Hautes Ètudes and elsewhere. While in Briançon he met a female occultist, the high priestess of an African secret society, who claimed that she could remember many of her previous incarnations. She lived in an elegant apartment and had forty or so disciples, each paying about ten thousand francs for an initiation course. "All this in the Paris of A.D. 1950 is not only possible but also very profitable," Eliade wrote in his Journal.
Eliade's friends during this period included Eugène Ionesco, Georges Dumèzil, and Georges Bataille. In 1950 he married Christinel Cottescu, a Romanian exile, whose sister was a professor of Latin. There is only a few refrences to her in Eliade's Journal I: 1945-1955, but in his Autobiography he devoted to her a whole chapter. "In contrast to her sister, Christinel was blond and blue-eyed, but like Sibylle she left her hair fall to her shoulders. That first image has never been erased from my mind: she laughed like a child, yet with a troubling feminity, showig her teeth, inclining her head slightly."
Eliade started to write The Myth of the Eternal Return in 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, when Europe was in ruins, and Communism was conquering Eastern European countries. The essay dealt with mankind's experience of history and time, especially the conceptions of being and reality. According to Eliade, in modern times people have lost their contact with natural cycles, known in traditional societies. Eliade saw that for human beings their inner, unhistorical world, and its meanings, were crucial. Behind historical processes are archaic symbols. Belief in a linear progress of history is typical for the Christian world view, which counters the tyranny of history with the idea of God, but in the archaic world of archetypes and repetition the tyranny of history is accepted. Stoics created from the concept of the eternal cycle a theory which embraced the whole universe. Eliade contrasts the Western linear view of time with the Eastern cyclical world view. In the 19th century Nietzsche's criticism of Christian dogmas brought back the idea of the eternal cycle to Western discussion. These ideas were further developed by Oswald Spengler in his study The Decline of the West (1918-1922).
Eliade's other major theoretical and scholarly works in the 1940s and 1950s include Traitè d'histoire des religions (1949, Patterns of Comparative Religion), Le mythe de l'éternel retrour, and Mythes, rêves et mystères (1957, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries). The Forbidden Forest, which Eliade considered his major novel, came out in 1954 .
In 1957 Eliade assumed the chair of the History of Religions Department of the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he taught until 1983, retiring at the age of seventy-six. His office in Meadville-Lombard School of Religion caught fire in 1985. Most of his precious books were damaged by smoke and water, but his notebooks of his Journal survived relatively untouched. The fire had started on the desk, perhaps from pipe ashes in the ashtray.
Histoire des croyances et des idées religieuses (3 vols. 1976-1983, A History of Religious Ideas) has been called the synthesis of Eliade's work as a scholar. "The breadth and depth of Eliade's learning," wrote Roger Corless, "which astonished all who met him, his reverence toward the tradition he studied, and his intense, infectious enthusiasm, were an assurance that, if anyone could find what was religious about religion(s), he could. I believe the record shows that he could not. As a result, we now know a great deal more about religion(s) and we can ask totally new questions about it/them." ('Building on Eliade's Magnificent Failure, in Changing Religious Worlds: The Meaning and End of Mircea Eliade, ed. by Bryan S. Rennie, 2000).
Since 1960 Eliade suffered from the rheumatoid arthritis in his hands, which made writing extremely arduous for him. Eliade never returned to Romania, where he had been denounced as a "mystic" and "Fascist" by the Communist regime. However, during Ceausescu's era several of his books were published in Romanian translations. Eliade remained in the United States until his death on April 23, 1986. His body was cremated on the day following his death. Five years later the Divinity School of the University of Chicago became, dramatically, the scene of Ioan Culianu's death. Culianu – the professor of the history of religion, Eliade's professional heir – was killed in the restroom. He suspected that – allegedly – Eliade had been associated with the Iron Guard. After Eliade's death he started to develop his own theory of history. (see Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu by Ted Anton, 1997)
A central theme in Eliade's works was that the archaic religions made sacred the world in a fashion no longer available. Through the understanding of the relationship between the sacred and the profane it is possible to begin to understand the world of the past. Eliade's creative hermeneutics has received considerable criticism, and it has been said that his "main position is shrouded in ambiguities". Claude-Henri Rocquet has suggested the reader of Eliade is involved in "a hermeneutics without end, since even as we read Eliade, we are interpreting him, just as he is interpreting some Iranian symbol".
Eliade was a Christian and Jungian – he met Carl Jung for the first time in 1950, and two years later he interviewed Jung at the Eranos Conference. "The modern world is desacralized," Jung said in the interview, "that is why it is in a crisis. Modern man must rediscover a deeper source of his own spiritual life." Also Eliade's works, such as Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, and Aspects du mythe (1963, Myth and Reality), stressed the relevance of ancient religions for contemporary man. However, Jung insisted that the images of archaic man are much closer to the European and American psyche than Eliade admitted. Eliade later stopped using the term "archetype," which is familiar from Jung's works, in order to avoid Jungian and other misinterpretations.
In Le Sacré et le Profane (1959, The Sacred and the Profane) Eliade argued that "the manifestation of the sacred ontologically founds the world." The traditional man, 'homo religiosus,' had a strong will to live within the sacred.or near the sacred objects. A sacred place possesses an unique existential value for religious man, but for nonreligious man, space is neutral. Although modern man seems to experience the world completely as profane, ancient myths, taboos, and rituals still nourish life in the West, but in a corrupted form.
According to Eliade, shamanism is "one of the archaic techniques of ecstasy – at once mysticism, magic, and 'religion' in the broadest sense of the term." He wanted to restrict the term 'shaman' to those who went into trances and who would address the tribe through a spirit or would visit the spirit world and return. James Frazer described bluntly the evidence of superhuman powers in The Golden Bough (1890) as spurious, but Eliade himself was convinced that shamanism had a paranormal component. In Shamanism (1968) he argued that epics of ancient poets and certain kinds of fairy tales derive from ecstatic journeys and mystical flights. Throughout his life Eliade believed in destiny, "in the sense that I think there is something that cannot be explained – I can't call it Providence – but certainly there is something that cannot be explained. . . ."
In his novels Eliade used the conventional repertory of fantasy: vampires, serpents, ghosts, time warp, searches for immortality. Most of Eliade's postwar fiction dealt with the hidden world behind everyday reality. Among his masterpieces is La Forêt interdite (The Forbidden Forest), which appeared in English in 1978. Pe strada Mântuleasa (1968, The Old Man and the Bureaucrats) is an allusive and symbolic novella in which a schoolteacher detained for questioning by Communist authorities beguiles his captors with stories, as the enslaved Sheherazade in The Arabian Nights.
For further reading: Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred by T.J.J. Altizer (1963); Myths & Symbols, ed. by J.K. Kitagawa and C. Long (1969); The Role of Myth in Religion: a Study of Mircea Eliade's Phenomenology of Religion by G.R. Slater (1973); Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred by Thomas J. Altizer (1975); Structure and Creativity in Religion by D. Allen (1977); L'herméneutique de Mircea Eliade by A. Marino (1981); Imagination and Meaning, ed. by N. Girardot and M.L. Ricketts (1982); Mircea Eliade: The Romanian Roots, 1907-1945 by Mac Linscott Ricketts (1988); Waiting for the Dawn, ed. by David Carrasco and Jane Marie Law (1991); Reading and Responding to Mircea Eliade's History of Religious Ideas by John R. Mason (1993); Mircea Eliade's Vision for a New Humanism by David Cave, John David Cave (1995); Reconstructing Eliade by Bryan S. Rennie (1996); Myth and Religion in Mircea Eliade by Douglas Allen (1998); The Politics of Myth by Robert S. Ellwood (1999); Changing Religious Worlds: The Meaning and End of Mircea Eliade, ed. by Bryan S. Rennie (2000); Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective by David Carrasco and Jane M. Law (2009)