World Literature

Mircea Eliade

 

BORN: 1907, Bucharest, Romania

DIED: 1986, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.

NATIONALITY: Romanian

GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Soliloquies (1932)

The Hooligans (1955)

The Sacred and the Profane (1959)

Shamanism (1964)

A History of Religious Ideas (1976-1983)

 

 

Mircea Eliade. Michael Mauney / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

 

Overview

Mircea Eliade is best known in the West for his scholarly works and studies in comparative religion, written in French and English. Unfortunately, his literary works, written in Romanian, equally masterful but less frequently translated, are less known. Thus, as a writer of fiction, his work continues to belong only to Romanian literature: In his native land, Romania, where he is better known for his fantastic and realistic fiction, he ranks among the nation’s most significant writers.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Budding Intellect. Mircea Eliade was born in Bucharest, Romania, to Gheorghe, an army officer and a native of Moldavia, and Ioana, a native of the western region of Oltenia. Because of his father’s military postings, the Eliades moved twice between Tecuci and Bucharest, finally settling in the capital city soon after the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. They moved into a house whose attic was to play an almost mythical role in the writer’s life. Around the time Eliade was admitted to the prestigious Spiru-Haret high school in 1917, he began reading novels and detective stories while simultaneously developing a passionate interest in the natural sciences, chemistry, zoology, and entomology.

First Publications. In the spring of 1921 his first article, ‘‘The Enemy of the Silkworm,’’ was published in Journal of Popular Sciences. It was followed by a scientific story called ‘‘How I Discovered the Philosopher’s Stone,’’ which was awarded the first prize in a competition sponsored by the same journal. Encouraged, Eliade wanted to work in the field of science while also feeling a strong vocation for imaginative literature.

Autobiographical Works. In 1923 Eliade began writing an important autobiographical piece, ‘‘The Novel of the Nearsighted Adolescent,’’ partly published in various periodicals between December 1926 and December 1927. The book aimed at being more than an autobiographical novel; it was also intended as a symbolic narrative about a teenager’s life. Eliade also began keeping a journal, a habit he preserved until his death. Several years later, Eliade used the same technique of the autobiographical journal-novel inspired by the ideal of authenticity in his unpublished novel ‘‘Gaudeamus,’’ which was conceived as a sequel to ‘‘The Novel of the Nearsighted Adolescent.’’

Spokesman for a Generation. By 1928 Eliade had earned the reputation of an astute essayist. He wrote regularly for the influential Bucharest-based Cuvdntul, edited by his professor Nae Ionescu, one of the most important intellectuals in Romania during the interwar period. Eliade became interested in articulating problems related to his own generation. He addressed significant issues in an essay series, ‘‘Spiritual Itinerary, I-XII,’’ published in Cuvdntul in the fall of 1927.

Studies Abroad: Italy and India. In the spring of 1928 Eliade traveled to Italy, where he did research for his thesis, ‘‘Contributions to Renaissance Philosophy’’. As a result of his work, he successfully defended his thesis and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Bucharest in the fall of the same year. In August 1928 Eliade received a letter from Maharaja Nandy informing him that he was awarded a five-year grant to study Indian philosophy with Dasgupta in Calcutta. There he spent three years studying Sanskrit, familiarizing himself with Indian philosophy, falling in love, and writing articles and novels for his Romanian readers.

Prolific Years. In the fall of 1932 Eliade and his friends founded in Bucharest the Criterion Association for Arts, Literature, and Philosophy, a cultural organization that held a series of public lectures and sponsored various other cultural events. In 1935, the year in which he became a member of the Society of Romanian writers, Eliade offered his readers three new books: Asiatic Alchemy, his first published scientific book; Work in Progress, a companion to India; and The Hooligans, a sequel to The Return from Paradise. Eliade never matched this astonishing pace of publication in subsequent years, while he devoted most of his time to consolidating his reputation as an academic. The book that contains the seeds of all Eliade’s later interpretations of the symbolism at the center of the world, Babylonian Cosmology and Alchemy, appeared in the fall of 1937.

Threatened Freedom. A royal dictatorship was imposed on Romania in the spring of 1938. Corneliu Codreanu, the head of the right-wing Iron Guard movement, was arrested. People suspected of sympathizing with the Iron Guard were put under close supervision. Eliade, who had written a few right-wing articles, was also suspect. After escaping a night-time search of his home, he was arrested a few weeks later and charged with having suspect foreign contacts. Refusing to sign a declaration of dissociation from the Iron Guard (which he never belonged to), he was sent to a detention camp at Miercurea-Ciuc, where he joined Nae Ionescu. Eliade remained there only a few weeks. Suspected of having tuberculosis, he was transferred to a sanatorium further south and released three weeks later.

Success in the 1950s. For Eliade the 1950s were a successful decade in which he achieved long-deserved international recognition as a leading historian of religions. He was invited by Olga Froebe-Kapteyn to lecture at the multidisciplinary Eranos Conferences in Ascona, Italy. He also became a prominent member of a circle dominated by the psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. In 1951 a research grant from the Bollingen Foundation relieved him of the poverty he had been living since his 1945 arrival in Paris. Two of his most important scientific books, Shamanism. Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951) and Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (1954) were published.

Renewed Popularity, Retirement, and Declining Health. In October of 1956, Eliade emigrated to the Chicago where he began a highly influential professorship. During the 1970s Eliade pursued his scholarship with renewed stamina and enthusiasm. Most of the books he published during this decade were academic, culminating with the first two volumes of his monumental three-volume A History of Religious Ideas (1976-1983). Despite his declining health, Eliade’s last years were dedicated as usual to travel, scholarship, and literature. He also continued to receive visits from admirers, friends, and Romanian exiles. In Romania the interest in Eliade was revived by the publication of At the Court of Dionysus (1977), which offered a good selection of Eliade’s best fiction. In 1982 he started working on the second volume of his Autobiography, and in 1983 he retired from the University of Chicago.

Hailed as one of the founders of the history of religions in the United States, he completed the third volume of his A History of Religious Ideas, supervised the editing of the monumental sixteen-volume Encyclopedia of Religion (1987) and worked as a guide to world religions published in collaboration with his protege Ioan P. Culianu at Chicago. In 1985 the trustees of the University of Chicago established a new chair in Eliade’s honor. He died only a few months later, on April 22, 1986.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Eliade's famous contemporaries include:

Corneliu Codreanu (1899-1938): Romanian leader of the Iron Guard, a violent anti-Semitic organization that was active during the interwar period.

Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong (1901-1971): The American jazz trumpeter who was an innovative and therefore primary influence in the advancement of jazz music.

Walt Disney (1901-1966): The American producer, screenwriter, animator, and entrepreneur who was one of the world's foremost entertainment artists, producing movies, amusement parks, and subsequent iconography.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): The famous expatriate writer whose name is synonymous with the Great American Novel.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954): The Mexican painter who became an influential figure with her representation of indigenous culture rendered in her distinctive style.

 

Works in Literary Context

Influences. Eliade’s lifelong personal habits as a scholar and writer were influenced early and with great force: Jules Payot’s The Education of the Will (1894), which Eliade read as a teen, started him on a rigorous process of self-discipline. To learn English he read James George Frazer. He discovered alchemy and the history of religions. He read Edouard Schure, Lautreamont, Leon Bloy, Voltaire, and B. P. Hasdeu, and was fascinated by the breadth of their knowledge. He also developed a special inclination for Honore de Balzac. The teenage Eliade’s greatest discovery, however, was Giovanni Papini’s autobiography, The Failure (1912)—this book reinforced Eliade’s drive toward encyclopedism as well as his will to self-perfection.

Profound Themes at Interplay in Dual Genres. Eliade’s five-year study of Indian philosophy with guru Dasgupta in Calcutta from 1928 to 1933 taught him great lessons and further reinforced his life-long themes of study. Most significantly, he discovered the sacred in objects or cosmic rhythms that are common to all traditional rural societies. This last lesson became a recurrent theme in Eliade’s approach to the history of religions. As he did elsewhere in his fiction and nonfiction, Eliade further developed this theme in works such as The Snake (1937), a fantastic novel with common characters who become involved in a series of strange happenings. By using symbols such as the snake, the moon, the forest, and the water, Eliade described the way in which the fantastic permeates everyday life without disrupting it. He reiterated the main idea of the unrecognizability of miracles. This idea, along with the theme of the sacred camouflaged in the profane, is the key to all Eliade's major writings.

In 2006 the University of Chicago held a conference to evaluate the academic, political, and social contributions made by Eliade and another prominent religious scholar, Joachim Wach. In addition to recognition in the United States, sections of Europe's far right and German representatives of Neue Rechte credited Eliade with inspiring them in their respective endeavors.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by writers who have also explored religion, alchemy, and mysticism:

The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), a nonfiction book by Joseph Campbell. In this influential work, the author investigates heroes and heroism, myths and mythology.

A History of God (2004), a nonfiction book by Karen Armstrong. In this comprehensive study, the author thoroughly explores three monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Man and His Symbols (1961), a nonfiction book by Carl Jung and colleagues. In this collection, Jung and four esteemed scholars discuss mythology, ritual, and symbol in art and culture.

The Tempest (1610-1611), a play by William Shakespeare. In one of his last plays, Shakespeare features the magician Prospero and explores alchemy on many levels.

 

Works in Critical Context

As an encyclopedist writing in both fiction and nonfiction genres, Eliade developed a full-fledged methodology of the sacred that revealed his originality as an historian of religions and established him as a revered scholar. As renowned Canadian critic Northrop Frye once noted, the most impressive thing about Eliade's works was not the breadth of his erudition, but the unity and the consistency with which he brought together yoga, literature, primitive religions, and alchemy to form a pattern.

A Mixed Affair. Reviewers were mixed in their opinions of the exoticism and the mythology of voluptuousness of Maitreyi (1935). The love story became a widely acclaimed novel and was hailed as a ‘‘revolution’’ in Romanian literary history. It was awarded the national prize for 1933 and was one of Eliade's most successful works, gaining him recognition as a major literary writer in Romania. A contributor to the Times Literary Supplement saw the tale as a ‘‘metaphor for the narrator's awakening consciousness of a new and radically different culture'' and compared Elaide's ‘‘intensely poetic prose style, by turns declamatory and confessional'' to Marguerite Duras and Elizabeth Smart. Isabel Colegate, writing for the New York Times Book Review, reviewed both accounts and cited Elaide’s version as ‘‘intensely felt and economically written.’’ Fleming declared Bengal Nights to be ‘‘a romance not just with an Indian but with India herself.’’ Indeed, several critics noted Elaide’s feminization of India in this novel. Tilottama Minu Tharoor, writing for Washington Post Book World, noted Elaide’s depiction of Alain as an engineer who ‘‘unabashedly revels in his assumptions of racial superiority and the power he exercises over the Indian landscape.’’ Tharoor continued, ‘‘Whenever there is something about [Maitreyi] that eludes his immediate understanding, Alain refers to her as ‘primitive.’’’ Fleming commented on the discrepancies and similarities between Elaide and Devi’s versions: ‘‘Elaide’s offense was not novelistic embellishment but rather its reverse: Had Bengal Nights not retained so many truths, it would have been far less damaging.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. The Spiritual Itinerary essays Eliade wrote empowered his generation. Write your own Spiritual Itinerary—for your generation. What will you include to empower, encourage, or inspire your peers? What is important to your generation?

2. There are several Web sites with trivia quizzes for celebrities and famous people. At Celebrina.com, however, there is only a blank form for Eliade (to date). Visit www.celebrina.com/mircea-eliade.html and fill in the blanks, based on what you know about Eliade.

3. If the page is finally complete, go to the next prompt here: Work alone to come up with your own trivia quiz on the author. When you finish, trade quizzes with a partner. What do your two trivia quizzes have in common? What did you leave out? What had you included that your partner left out? What does this tell you about what is important to your partner and to you?

4. Eliade was greatly affected by the political extremism in Romania. To put his life and work into further context, do a Web search on the political movements in the country during the 1930s and following decades. If you work in a group, each person could consider one element—censorship, the problems with King Carol II, the Iron Guard movement—and meet again to inform each other, giving you a more complete picture.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Eliade. Autobiography, Volume 1: 1907-1937, Journey East, Journey West, translated by Ricketts. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.

Eliade, Mircea. Recollections: I. The Attic. Madrid: Destin, 1966.

Ricketts, Mac Linscott. Mircea Eliade: The Romanian Roots, 1907-1945, 2 volumes. Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 1988.

Rocquet, Claude-Henri. L’Epreuve du labyrinthe. Entretiens avec Claude-Henri Rocquet. Paris: Belfond, 1978.

Periodicals

Cahiers roumains d’etudes liteeraires, 3 (1984): 132-43, Mac Linscott Ricketts, ‘‘Mircea Eliade and Nicolae Iorga.’’

Cross Currents, 36 (Summer 1986): 179-92, Robert P. Forbes, ‘‘Eliade, Joyce, and the Terror of History.’’

Journal of the American Romanian Academy, 13-14 (1990): 128-44. Peter Christiansen, ‘‘Mircea Eliade’s The Torbidden Forest and Post-War Existentialism.’’

World Literature Today, 52, no. 4 (1978): 558-64, Matei Calinescu, ‘‘The Disguises of Miracle: Notes on Mircea Eliade’s Fiction.’’

Web sites

Books and Writers. Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/eliade.htm.

The Fresian School. Terms used in Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, The Nature of Religion. Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://www.friesian.com/vocab.htm.

Rennie, Brian S. Westminster College. Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://www.westminster.edu/staff/brennie/eliade/mebio.htm.