THE PAST IS a foreign country, said L. P. Hartley. So is youth. Who was I when I was 20? I feel a mixture of shame and pity and pride when I look back at that time. Mircea Eliade’s novel Gaudeamus, written before his departure for India at the age of 21, provokes similar feelings. Texts and pictures of young people, when read and seen many years later, can be the stuff of Greek tragedy. We know how their stories end, but they don’t. Their writing is, in an important way, in the future tense; their lives are still potentialities.
In Eliade’s case, this potentiality fully actualized itself. A best-selling author in his native Romania, and an acknowledged intellectual leader of his generation, he was forced into perpetual self-exile by the communist overthrow of the Romanian government. In France and, later, in the United States, he became a world-famous historian of religions. His interests in yoga and shamanism, as well as insights into the sacred aspects of reality that could be glimpsed in everyday life, made him popular with the hippies and the New Age movement. He was, indeed, a hippie avant la lettre: a young European traveler to India in the 1920s, who adopted Indian dress and practiced yoga in Rishikesh in search of enlightenment.
Thanks to Istros Books and translator Christopher Bartholomew, the English-speaking public can witness the intellectual development of young Eliade. In 2016, they brought out the English translation of his Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, a novel about his high school years. Now, they have made available the second novel, Gaudeamus, which Eliade wrote, as Bryan Rennie tells us in the foreword, while preparing his thesis for a BA in philosophy from the University of Bucharest. Both novels were discovered in manuscript form in his family’s attic in Bucharest in the 1980s. Gaudeamus was published only after the author’s death. Although the literary value of novels written so early in life is rarely exceptional, their value as a historical and psychological document cannot be underestimated.
The young Eliade both makes himself and writes himself with a fury. Jules Payot’s The Education of the Will, Giovanni Papini’s The Failure (in which the protagonist confesses to having “the disease of greatness in my brain”), Miguel de Unamuno’s “tragic sense of life,” the all-or-nothing of Henrik Ibsen’s Brand, Søren Kierkegaard’s renunciation of his beloved — Eliade imbibes it all in his singular dream: to become a hero.
Who is a hero? A man unlike any other. A hero overcomes himself thanks to his will (and if he feels his will slacken, he resorts to self-flagellation, as in the Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent). He studies more than anyone, travels to faraway countries, sleeps less than four hours a night, learns Italian, Persian, Hebrew, Sanskrit, does not get attached to his past or to other people. He drives himself crazy with exhaustion, because only heroes and madmen can resist the sickening mediocrity of bourgeois life. He sees his friends and his girlfriends slowly succumb to this boring life at the end of their studies. He, however, fights it; he fights his own “sentimentality,” his inner “Moldavia.” (Moldavia is a historical region of Romania, traditionally associated with Romantic poetry and the embodiment, for Eliade, of nostalgia and wistfulness.) He renounces his love for a girl, because nothing seems as banal and pernicious to him as student couples kissing in the street. The life of a hero, he thinks, should be solitary and pure, it should be completely subsumed to his all-conquering will.
How many years of heroic solitude would one need to realize that the ordinary human life is, in fact, extraordinary? Perhaps not that many. In his mature years, Eliade avoided the maddening loneliness of a Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. Their solitude was inevitable, springing from the core of their being. Young Eliade’s willful solitude, self-discipline, and hypergraphia is of a more curious nature.
Later, in his India journal, Mircea Eliade complains of not being able to love fully and to give himself to another human being. He confessed that any time he felt love, he also felt the desire to torture the other and to create a distance. The resulting loneliness sometimes gave him the sensation that he was the last man on Earth. For a while, he was relieved of this feeling when he joined the crowds of Indian students protesting British domination. He felt at one with them, supported their struggle, and enthusiastically wrote about their “primacy of the spiritual” and their “similarity to early Christians” in their love and suffering. It was, perhaps, the same desire to shed the limits of his ego by sharing the collective joy and the spiritual struggle that led him to the greatest mistake of his life: his support for the fascist Iron Guard.
But all this will be in his future, as will his exile. Eliade will leave Bucharest and never see the couples kissing on its university steps again. He will never see the parks and cemeteries, the monasteries and the forests, where he went on dates and on trips with his friends. He will recreate a magic Bucharest in his fiction, written in his native Romanian despite — or to spite? — his exile, fiction that will be under-appreciated by foreign readers but that he will never give up creating. And he will find a way to other people, not only through his two marriages, but also through mentoring young researchers and developing an empathy in his writing that would even extend to a character based on the foreign minister of the new regime in Bucharest, Ana Pauker.
In Gaudeamus, however, we witness a soul still in a cocoon. The youthful grandiosity makes him seem callous. After months of self-enclosure and avoidance, he proudly walks dreaming of his glorious future next to a woman crying because of their separation. He feels victorious. He thinks he has overcome something, which he would give the names of “Moldavia” or “the inner Russian” or “mediocrity,” but which is, in fact, sheer humanness. He often senses that he has lost something, feels longing and despair, cannot bear how irretrievably time is passing, how fleeting life is. In order not to let this despair overcome him, he is ready to do anything: to read to the break of dawn, study foreign language after foreign language, whip himself, or close the door on the woman he loves. For nothing is as frightening as disintegration, and all his will should be thrown into that battle.
In his Autobiography, Eliade remembers how, as a very young man, he managed to buy an edition of Plutarch’s On Pythia’s Oracle from a book dealer, and went to read it in the Cişmigiu Gardens. The trees were blooming, the sun was setting. Suddenly, while reading, young Eliade was overcome with the sense of the absurdity and the futility of it all. Nothing made any sense anymore, neither Plutarch, nor his own passion for learning, nor his exercise of will. All Pythia did was open up and submit herself to a god who took possession of her and spoke through her: a frightening proposition. In Gaudeamus, the protagonist declares that he believes in the “primacy of will,” not in God’s Grace. And yet, brief experiences of being seen, being “held,” were capable of putting young Eliade into a trance — as with the girl he encountered as a young child in Râmnicu Sărat who really looked at him and saw him, or with the mirrors in the “green room” that reflected the child Mircea, to his delight, as bigger and more wonderful than he believed himself to be. The sacred — the supernatural realm — lured and beckoned, yet scared him.
There were so many things he didn’t yet know: that a great cataclysm would shake Europe in 10 years; or that Evil surreptitiously deceives and ensnares you; or “the bitter taste of others’ bread” in exile; or how many times he would have to start again from square one; or that his homeland would be forever lost to him. Reading a young man’s autobiographical novel in full knowledge of his later fate is fascinating. Young Eliade often infuriates. At times he makes us chuckle, now and then he astonishes, and in many instances his self-presentation as a tragic hero is utterly ridiculous. Someday he will know it all: the dislocation, the bombs, the bitterness, the ruin, the poverty, the loss of friends, the death of his first wife. He will also triumph, not as the hero of his youthful imagination, but as a scholar and a writer. Yet the closing of his life will be marred by revelations of his sympathy and advocacy for the fascist Iron Guard in the 1930s.
“Let us rejoice while we are young,” prompts the students’ song from which Eliade took the title of his novel, “for later none of us will be spared.” None of us will be spared, but we may look at our student days with pity and tenderness — we were young, misguided, but full of dreams. And dreams are what make us human.