Mircea Eliade: Eponym of the Humanities?

Bryan Rennie reassesses the legacy of Romanian novelist and religious philosopher Mircea Eliade.

By Bryan RennieOctober 13, 2016

Mircea Eliade: Eponym of the Humanities?

Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade. Istros Books. 176 pages.

IN JULY 2016, Istros Books published Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, written by Mircea Eliade and translated by Christopher Moncrieff. This was the first English translation of Eliade’s fiction in almost 10 years, following Youth Without Youth (translated by Mac Linscott Ricketts, University of Chicago Press), which accompanied the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s 2007 film adaptation. One hopes that this recent publication might mark a resurgence of interest in this significant humanist author. Eliade (1907–1986) was a Romanian philosopher and novelist, best known outside his native country for his studies of the history and philosophy of religion, such as The Myth of the Eternal Return (1954), Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (1958), and Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964). He taught for 30 years at the University of Chicago, becoming the most prestigious scholar of religions in the United States.

Yet toward the end of his life, and especially since his death, Eliade became something else — the object of vitriolic attacks over his politics and his understanding of religion. The support he gave to the burgeoning far-right “Legion of the Archangel Michael” in inter-war Romania and his recognition that, for the Christian, the gospel revelation is the highest possible theology have resulted in his effective banishment from the Anglophone academy. This is hardly surprising, since the political accusations culminated in claims that some of Eliade’s thought “stands,” in the words of Steven M. Wasserstrom, “on a pile of corpses,” because he supported the Legion’s paramilitary branch, the Iron Guard, guilty of “literally butchering Jews as they hung, still alive, from meat hooks.” At the same time, his acceptance of the reality of “the sacred” was denigrated as “closet theology,” utterly incompatible with objective research. The situation was not helped by the 2000 publication of Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein, in which a key character, obviously based on Eliade, is a Romanian professor at the University of Chicago desperately trying to conceal his shameful past as a fascist sympathizer.

Exasperated (although admittedly rather dull) academic protests from some quarters that Bellow was not a historian but a writer of fiction, and that the most extreme assaults on Eliade’s politics and philosophy were deeply flawed misinterpretations, inconsistent with the thinker’s published oeuvre, were no match for the dramatic Sturm und Drang of public scandal. Although his books remained on library shelves, they were increasingly left unread, and his theories were quietly withdrawn from academic consideration. The facts that Saul Bellow was a longtime personal friend of Eliade who spoke glowingly at the latter’s funeral; that Eliade’s only published support for the Legion was in some dozen articles of 1936–’37; that he objected vehemently to the expulsion from Romania of Jewish scholars Moses Gaster and Lazar Şăineanu; that as a member of the Romanian Office of Press and Propaganda in Portugal during the war he did not produce a single word of anti-Semitic propaganda; that his philosophy of religion recognizes the significance of all beliefs to all believers; that his sacred may be as valid an objective academic category as that theorized by the committed secularist Émile Durkheim — none of these carried the same weight as the accusations. The balance tipped inexorably until, for all intents and purposes, Eliade fell below the line of sight. At least in the Anglophone West, that is. Tellingly, his significance as both philosopher and novelist persisted in Italian- and German-speaking countries. There, perhaps, they are accustomed to dealing with more substantially culpable fascist collaborators and sorting actual sheep from insinuated goats.

The real villain of the piece here may be the ongoing and exaggerated valorization of “science” in the Anglophone academy. Psychology and the social sciences have long coveted the glamour and standing (and grant-attracting prowess) of the “hard” sciences, but lately even the study of religion hankers for “scientific” status, with more and more resources being devoted to the cognitive science of religion. In such an environment a scholar as irreducibly humanist as Eliade — and a novelist, to boot, whose whole life argues that “there’s no doubt that the Humanities are far superior to the Sciences” (Short-Sighted Adolescent) — could scarcely retain his status, especially in the face of the criticism he has received. German and Italian scholars, on the other hand, continue to appreciate both the distinction between Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft and the value of the latter. In Italy, Storia delle religioni remains a creative and interpretive discipline, one that may use science but is still self-consciously humanist — philosophical, creative, and interpretative — and openly appreciative of Eliade’s contributions. And even in France, where Eliade has been criticized no less aggressively, the appreciation of his academic and creative work has withstood the barrage.

Eliade published more than 80 pieces of fiction, including short stories, novellas, novels, and plays. An Italian “complete works” of his writing for the stage, Mircea Eliade: Tutto il Teatro, edited and translated by Horia Corneliu Cicortaș, appeared this year. Of 15 novellas and novels, only seven have been previously published in English translation, whereas all 15 have appeared in French, 12 in both German and Spanish, and 11 in Italian. The disparity is striking, yet some promising recent developments in the Anglophone academy suggest that Eliade may yet stand a chance. There is, for example, a flourishing discipline on both sides of the Atlantic called the medical (sometimes health) humanities, which defines itself in contrast to the medical sciences. According to the Baylor University Medical Humanities Program website, the discipline is focused “more on meaning than on measurement” and considers “experience near” questions, including the notion that literary and artistic representation can help us better understand the patient experience. Nathan Carlin, co-author of Medical Humanities: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2014), insists that the medical field benefits from generalists who look at the practice of medicine through humanistic lens, while Therese Jones, co-editor of the Health and Humanities Reader (Rutgers University Press, 2014), describes her Arts and Humanities in Healthcare Program at the University of Colorado as focusing on the

relevant and rigorous integration of the arts and humanities into health professions education and practice for all schools and allied programs on the campus. This program integrates humanities content into the required undergraduate medical school curriculum through, for example, student discussions of literary texts and their own reflective writing during anatomy lab or sessions on learning to look at works of art as a way to improve observational skills.

The segue from the fate and fiction of a late Romanian novelist and scholar of religion to the medical humanities may seem odd, but the point is this: If the arts and humanities are now deemed important in as practical and technical a field as the medical profession, how much longer can they be minimized, marginalized, and neglected in such self-evidently humanistic realms as the study of religion?

This is why one hopes — I even dare say predicts — that the Istros Books publication of Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, now the eighth of Eliade’s novels in English, marks a turn of the tide. The novel, published in serial form in the late 1920s in a number of Romanian periodicals and never reprinted in Eliade’s lifetime, was his first, written between the ages of 17 and 18. It was republished in book form in 1988, two years after the author’s death, and was translated shortly after into Italian and French, and, more recently, into Spanish. The novel has much to say about the development of Eliade’s views — on writing, on politics, and on religion. Just as literary and artistic representation can help us better understand the experience of the doctor and the patient, so too Eliade’s creative writing helps us better understand the experience of a religious seeker and scholar. By the age of 17, he already realized that, when he prayed, he had no idea to whom he was praying, and that, as the narrator says,

any Church is anathema to me. Any dogma that I can’t understand or explain infuriates me. After all the efforts made by science, it seems ridiculous to accept biblical nonsense and the horrors of Catholicism. But what if all these things are not the Church, in the same way I’m convinced they’re not Religion?

Yet he is by no means “a fiendish, cynical, desperate atheist.” The narrator’s best friend Marcu — based on Eliade’s real-life best friend Mircea Mărculescu — is a Jew of leftist political persuasion, whom the narrator clearly admires. He considers the Germans his enemies, but the controversial Italian author Giovanni Papini (1881–1956) his inspiration. He understands places, such as the beloved attic room in his family house, as having a “soul,” which, like his own soul, can be made known and “drawn into the light.” Self-knowledge — coming to know who he “really” is — is the novel’s central theme. The young author struggles continuously to “know himself,” to give expression to a known, assured, and persistent identity, which, perhaps, leads to a theory of religion in which the function of religious behavior is to provide precisely that — a known, assured, and persistent sense of personal identity — facilitated by, if not synonymous with, a sense of proximity to the sacred.

Moncrieff’s translation, which adopts the idiom of the old English grammar school system, lends a vaguely unreal, Harry Potter–like air to the novel, enlivening the intellectual content. It is always perilous to attempt to reconstruct historical reality from fiction (like reconstructing Eliade’s putative fascism from Bellow’s Ravelstein). All the same, Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent and Eliade’s seven remaining untranslated novels could shed much light not only on his own intellectual development, but also on the whole intellectual atmosphere of his era. No doubt Eliade is not entirely innocent; anyone who ever turned a spade in the soil of the right helped to prepare the ground for the holocaust to come. But is his guilt really egregious enough to warrant his outright rejection and neglect? Science will never formalize a methodology that could generate the sort of knowledge of the self that Eliade sought. The methodical and systematic procedures of science cannot replace the unsystematic and creative flashes of brilliance and insight that constitute revolutionary advances in understanding. These are produced by humanistic interpretation. Just as Hilkiah, the high priest, and Shaphan, the king’s scribe, could read the book of the law found in the house of the Lord but still needed the prophetess, Huldah, to interpret it (2 Kings 22), so the sciences read, but still need the creative humanities to interpret. Eliade was, at the very least, a leading light in the interpretive humanities, and such a light does not deserve to be extinguished.


Bryan Rennie is a British historian of religions and the Vira I. Heinz Professor of Religion at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.

LARB Contributor

Bryan Rennie is a British historian of religions and the Vira I. Heinz Professor of Religion at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. Known for his works on Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, Rennie was awarded the Mircea Eliade Centennial Jubilee Medal for contributions to the History of Religions by then-President of Romania Traian Băsescu in 2006.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!