Mirce Eliade: The Romanian Roots (1907-1945)
by Mac Linscott Ricketts
1460 p; 2 vols.
1988; Columbia University Press
Sometimes the path of reading winds through distant countries. Sometimes a necessary book that has stalked you for years will finally encounter you on a street called Rue Princesse. That is, if one is fortunate. I was.
One morning I wrote the following:
synthesis: n; For those blessed with an ability for intellectual synthesis, it is also a curse. The greater the lateral thinking the narrower the path available for thinking— at its extreme the way is no more than a thread stretched across an abyss. Such a way can be successfully travelled, but the thinker must possess balance, grace, and an almost inhuman lightness of being. (A Personal Dictionary)
Later that day I was in The Village Voice bookstore in Paris buying a book by Norman Manea as a gift for someone. M., who works at the store, commented on the book and this led to a conversation about Romanian writers, including E.M. Cioran, whom he knew. The conversation expanded to include Romanians in general, peculiarities of their behavior, my father (who was born in Romania, and the fact that I only seemed to buy books from Romanian authors from him. Eventually he suggested a something that I must read. I knew the book he was referring to as it had been on my list for many years: Romanian Roots, the 2 volume biography of Mirce Eliade by Ricketts.
“To derive maximum spiritual benefit from our reading, we need a guide that will tell us in what order to read books, and at what season.” – Mirce Eliade.
Sometimes, thankfully, buying a book is about more than just buying a book.
If there is one writer who embodies synthesis it is Mirce Eliade. And even though he is not one of my favourite writers, I recognize his indefatigable will and his yearning for synthesis which is constantly grappling with an expansive intelligence. Moreover, that Eliade had an encyclopaedic mind is an understatement and I admire not only his achievement but what his striving entails: creativity as opposed to destruction, mindfulness as opposed to mindlessness, presence as opposed to oblivion, culture as opposed to war. Yet, there is something more problematic about Eliade that concerns me, that engages me… that unsettles me. Romanian roots, thinking, writing, living, being— his and mine— such is the extent of my involvement.
And as in any book that is necessary one’s current obsessions and persistent exasperations rise from the pages and begin to assemble into something comprehensible. From the pages of Romanian Roots it was all that was unresolved in my conception of the relationship between thinking and being, between the intellect and morality, that began to assume a meaningful order.
I consider it an indication of maturity when I recognize that those writers or thinkers I admire may be much more unsavoury than I would like to imagine.
I have become convinced that it can be a brief a journey from a reader or a thinker to a fascist. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it is because the act of thinking freely not only leads one to a place where such thinking is annulled, but familiarizes us with such a place. Whatever the etiology, I am no longer surprised to find extreme and often horrific conceptions present in those whose thinking I admire, just I am no longer appalled to discover extreme and often horrific acts committed by those whose living I admire.
It was not always like this of course. In the beginning I assumed that in order to act well one only needed to think (or the converse: to be evil or maleficent one must be ignorant). In other words, I adhered to the standard formula of enlightenment: the more one knows, the more one thinks, the better one will be. That terror and misery follow upon such an assumption is the sorry lesson of history. The formula is in evident need of revision. But this is not to abandon the relationship between thinking and being— it is an even greater error to consider thinking and being as autonomous endeavours. And so, where does thinking go wrong? How does the ability to think lead one to accept living amidst moral ruins? Is thinking, and more specifically, the ability to think freely, necessarily open to the inhuman? Eliade was certainly well acquainted with the treacherous terrain that one encounters as a consequence of free thinking. Early on in his writing Eliade was quite content to make an idol out of Romania and the Romanian people. When Eliade writes, “what originality is for an individual, nationality is for a people” he wrongly asserts that the collectivity called a nation exists and acts just as an individual does. It is often forgotten that it is a great leap from the notion of an individual personality to that of collective personality. Moral appraisals of personal conduct become impossible and absurd when the conduct is attributed to a collectivity. The contortions one’s ethical being must assume in order to even consider the so-called behaviour of a collective agency are functionally equivalent to permissive gestures. And this Eliade discovered well enough. Predictably, the dream of a pure and vigorous proto-Romanian found resonance with the ultra-nationalist, and anti-Semitic Iron Guard of Corneliu Codreanu. But the intellectual does not intend such application of his thinking, or so the refrain of intellectual detachment goes. But this is exactly my dilemma— is the intention irrelevant, is it an epiphenomenon that serves only to appease the one who is uncomfortable with the vivacity of their own thoughts? It is not enough claim a privileged position for the activities of the intellect. The idea that recedes, that excuses itself from experience in order to organize that experience is an idea that must be led from its lair.
That a thinker or writer must ensure that only good uses are made of their thoughts or writing will ensure that nothing is thought or written. The point at issue is not what happens to a thought, but what comes after. Eliade wrote, “I only want to express a mind that thinks and feels as it pleases and not as it ‘ought’ to think and feel”. Ought comes after, always. It is the failure to definitively respond to a perceived improper use of one’s thinking or writing that characterizes a moral failure. In this sense, at least in his youth, Eliade was not above reproach.
I am reminded of something Berdyaev wrote:
“The major evils and the principal sufferings of life are due not so much to the baseness and wickedness of individual people, but rather to the base and wicked ideas which take possession of their minds, to social prejudices, beliefs which have become vague and cloudy, which have degenerated into a mere inheritance from the environment in which they arose.”
The thinker and the writer must be committed to recognizing and treating such pathologies. Writing can be a moral imperative— and the opposite of wronging.
Eliade was a firm believer in the primacy of the spiritual. Consistent with this he believed that “to espouse a political ideology is to abdicate responsibility to himself”. Yet, he stated that “the majority of ‘spiritual’ currents of our century are political in essence”. The confusion here is not simply intellectual. It is a moral confusion. We all share it. Ideals of convenience such as intellectual detachment only encourage the confusion to elaborate its knots.
It is best not to forget that when the intellect is involved, naiveté often precedes catastrophe.
For Eliade, if all life points to the primacy of the spiritual there is attendant with this conviction a strong predilection for mysticism— and this is where any difficulties I have with Eliade and his thinking begin. Specifically, I have trouble accepting the mystical gambit: there is another world.
world: n; 3. There is no other world; there is only this world. Any other world, if it exists, must be entirely unknown to us and of no consequence. This is because we are the world and wherever we go and into whatever realms we venture, even if only in knowledge, we bring the world with us. To know is to know of the world. And we can know nothing else. The unknowable, the truly transcendent, has no relation to us. Every so-called alternate reality is an act of bad faith— reality is indivisible and though we may qualify it however we want, in doing so we earn its mockery. (A Personal Dictionary)
The dissatisfaction with this world and the yearning for another is understandable— it may even be a sign of intelligence. However, the longing for such alternate possibilities of being usually lead away from what is and from what can be thought, resulting in a habit of thinking which is not thinking at all but mysticism. There is something distasteful, even reprehensible, about taking the mystical detour in this day and age. It seems that one should just know better and that if one must flee in such a way one should never seek to evangelize one’s retreat. The fortunate case is when a mystic believes this other world is uninhabitable. Such a world will then not be a world at all but a consistent and stable renunciation of the world of which they are a part. True renunciation of this world will make no effort to redeem it, only to survive it. There can be no problem of socially ruinous consequences stemming from such a conception since such mystics are always solitary beings. The problems begin when a mystic believes the other world is inhabitable. And the problems become unbearable should a mystic ever experience any meaningful political or social power. The promise of living in what cannot be is the mystic’s unique offering. It is here where heavens, hells, and all conceivable utopias proliferate. And the trouble with any utopia, with every heaven and every hell, is access. Some will be admitted and some will not. And so there must be rules regarding who goes where. It could be argued that we are fortunate that there are some among us who happen to know what these rules are and will act as our guides. Unfortunately the rules often seem contradictory, irrational, arbitrary. It is much simpler to bypass all the technical vocabulary and spiritual bureaucracy and to generalize: some will be the chosen people and the rest will be excluded. This is much easier for everyone to understand.
The mystical tendencies in Eliade’s thinking, just like the mystical tendencies in anyone’s thinking, are indications of those places where thinking has ceased. And discovering where the thought of another loses its way is not a futile activity— we are all lost in precisely the same manner.
detour: n; There is no inner world, just as there is no outer world— there is only the world. We think that simply by closing our eyes, or our mouths, we have established ourselves as something separate— a world apart. However, any close examination of our anatomy, our physiology, is enough to convince us that we are convolutions of nature, a detour that the world has taken. Complexity and inexplicability are not sufficient arguments for dualism. And though we can call this continuity of the world into question by closing our eyes, or our mouths, it is by opening our eyes, or our mouths, that the true extent of the detour the world has taken becomes evident. (A Personal Dictionary)
Along with mysticism and utopianism there is one final element in this problematic trinity which manifests itself in Eliade’s thought: nationalism
Perhaps my objections to nationalism are a consequence of living in a country where waving a flag seems absurd, even distasteful; or, perhaps my objections are due to my living above a country where waving a flag is more than distasteful, it is oppressive. Nevertheless, any nationalism which is not a negation and which is not expressed in the form of not-this is unimaginable to me. I like to think that such fantasies are frivolous but often they are nefarious. To be proud of one’s country is, in the end, to be proud of something that does not exist. To die for it, or to live for it, is do die or live for an ideal, a phantasm. Yet, because this is what we spend most of our lives doing does not make it commendable. It should be remembered that often when we live or die for an ideal, for what does not exist, we do so at the expense of what does exist.
To attribute a meaningful and messianic difference to one’s objectified fantasy as compared to the fantasy of another would be laughable if the consequences were not so brutal.
The xenophobic and chauvinistic argument that underlies nationalism has a fatal inconsistency— the so-called culture which is to be preserved, or even saved, is the same culture that has been overrun and overwhelmed. To preserve such a thing one should expect the same results, that is, to be challenged and overrun by the same forces. If someone were consistent in their nationalistic reasoning they would call for the institution of a radically new culture, one which would not respond negatively or succumb to perceived threats to its vitality. But this is never done. Every so-called man of the future is always a man from the past. There is always a model, a proto-being who existed in a Golden Age. The fact that I understand every desire to return to a Golden Age, whether it is childhood or a primeval forest, as revealing precisely the direction one should not go is what differentiates my thinking from that of Eliade. In this sense I am not Romanian. Yet, I am not about to raise my flag and claim that Canada is responsible for my anti-utopian tendencies— I would not consider my outlook typical of the breed.
To his credit Eliade moved from the simplistic attribution of an animus to a people to the more abstract position of hypothesizing that there is an intelligible structure which animates a culture. It was in this field that his later work on myth and religion would flourish. Yet, there remains in his thinking a tension between whether it is the abstract people who are bearers of such structures or whether such structures are created and people are then able to live within them.
The possible existence of such a structure holds some fascination for me. To further abstract such a structure and call it a home leads me to wonder whether there might be some proper place for each of us, a true home to which we might return, or which we might discover for the first time. A true home within which we will be recognized and will be able to recognize others as being of the same kind. A home that will have little to do with ethnicity or inherited beliefs, but a place existing at a more fundamental existential level.
Is there such a thing as a cultural trait? Is there something which defines and therefore separates one from another? If there is an organic relationship between a historical period and the disease which dominates it (e.g. hysteria), is there also an organic relationship between a culture and the ideas which animate it?
I have always wondered why it is that some of my favourite writers are Romanian, if there was not something in their lives, some wind that blew in through their windows… a wind which also disturbed the sleep, or comforted the dreams, of my ancestors.
Eliade (and others) have suggested that if there is such a thing as a Romanian soul it can be found by passing through the word dor. This is a word for which there is no English homologue; it refers to a nostalgia or longing, not for something in particular, not for an object, but for an existential condition: I am not where I should be and I know it, I feel it. I know this word. Dor expresses a melancholia founded upon a general dissatisfaction with what is, with the here and the now of man’s predicament, his alienation from the sacred, his spiritual longing, and the necessity of his profane pursuits. Yes, I know this word— it has never been foreign to me. I have read it and recognized it in those writers which led me here: Celan, Cioran, Fondane, Manea. And if, as Eliade believed, “it is impossible to convert anyone to a belief that is foreign to them”, my recognition of such a thing is a recognition of what I myself possess.
Yet, it is this dor, this dissatisfaction with a current state of affairs which seems such a suitable precondition for reactionary thinking, nationalism, and so on, which is also that specific cultural trait which enables us to live in this world in a human way, demanding that things which are unbearable be remedied and things which are indefensible be abandoned. And to refer to such a trait as Romanian, or Brazilian, or Malaysian, etc., is to misunderstand its nature. That I, a Canadian with tenuous Romanian roots can recognize what is alive in the thoughts of so many Romanian writers is evidence not of descent from a common progenitor or of membership in some exclusive community. Instead it speaks to the possibility of collapsing distance and time, of transcending local restraints and one’s adherence to collective objectifications.
It means that human possibility is not a prescription but an effort.
clarity: n; 2. There is a very good reason why it is difficult to find examples of writing that is clear— clarity must be lived. (A Personal Dictionary)
There is no satisfying way to end what amounts to introductory remarks about a life that was lived and written and thought as exhaustively as could be imagined. Instead I will consider all that I have written here as contribution to a foreword to the labyrinthine literary legacy bequeathed by Eliade.
...remembering that in spite of everything
“every person retains some capacity to love, some capacity for spiritual growth, and so long as that is nourished, he remains alive”– Mirce Eliade.
we all have the words we deserve.