INTRODUCTION: THEMES IN THE INTERNATIONAL ELIADE
THE DEVELOPEMENT AND INTENTION OF THE VOLUME
Mircea Eliade was undoubtedly an international figure. Born and educated in Romania he traveled and studied in India, Italy, Germany, and France. He taught at the University of Bucharest, the Sorbonne, and the University of Chicago. His academic writing has been translated into all major European and some into Asian languages, and his literary fiction has likewise been widely translated. One of his novels Nuntă în Cer [Marriage in Heaven] won the Elba-Brignetti prize for the best foreign novel in Italian in 1984, and he was nominated for the Noble Prize in literature in 1979 and 1980. He carried on a lifelong correspondence with scholars of the history of religions on several continents, including Raffaele Pettazoni, Stig Wikander, Georges Dumézil, and Gershom Scholem. He received the French Legion of Honor in 1978 and honorary degrees from (among others) the University of Washington, USA (1985), the Sorbonne, France (1976), Lancaster University, UK (1975), Boston College, USA (1971), Universidad de San Salvador, El Salvador (1969), Universidad de la Plata, Argentina (1069), Ripon College, India (1969), and Yale, USA (1966). However, despite all this recognition, criticism and assessment of Eliade in the Anglophone West rarely takes international opinion into account, or considers Eliade’s career and oeuvre as a whole. Ironically enough, this may be partly Eliade’s own doing: he insisted that the Chicago journal, The History of Religions, was published exclusively in English (see Kitagawa, “Mircea Eliade”). This collection of essays is an attempt to address this state of affairs and to introduce the English reader to the international bibliography on Eliade. None of the contributions specifically address the question of Eliade’s political past, on which the reader can consult “Mircea Eliade: Further Considerations,” in the second edition of the Macmillan Encyclopedia.
This anthology began in 1996 at a session on “The Reception of Mircea Eliade in the United States” given by the History of the Study of Religions Group of the American Academy of Religion. The papers offered at that session became the nucleus of an earlier anthology, Changing Religious Worlds: The Meaning and End of Mircea Eliade (Rennie, 2001). Early in the process of collecting articles about Eliade it became obvious that there were too many contributors from outside the English-speaking world, with too much of importance to say, to be ignored. This second volume began to take shape after two symposia held at the eighteenth quinqennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions in Durban, South Africa, in August 2000: “Mircea Eliade’s Vision and the Global Understanding of Religion.” Several of the contributors (Berner, Chung, Itu, Okuyama, Sharma, and Rennie) attended those symposia. Others sent their papers in advance for our consideration and discussion. Other papers have been added since that time.
I am aware of the self-selecting nature of any group of scholars who chose to write on Eliade and I attempted to mitigate this effect in the call for papers which stated that “the publication will not be a ‘festschrift’ for Eliade. My intention is that it will be a balanced consideration of Eliade’s significance. Given the currently divided state of evaluations of Eliade, I specifically invite contributions from scholars whose assessments are negative and those who are positive.” Given that specification, and the fact that I have not selected papers on the grounds of their position in respect of Eliade, I can only report that the assessment was generally favorable.
A NOTE ON THE ORGANIZATION
The themes of these papers determine the organization of the volume. The sacralization of historical time can, in many ways, be seen as an over-arching theme, homologous to the interpretation of specific historical contexts. Thus I begin with Michel Meslin’s critique of Eliade’s conception. The interpretation of specific historical contexts and the utility of Eliadean categories in such interpretation provides the common theme for the next group, consisting of Berner, Ouellet, and Muthuraj. Mircea Itu also addresses that theme, but he raises the theme of the next group: the significance of India for the development of Eliade’s thought, thus he is grouped with Sharma and Bordaş under that heading. These headings provide very permeable boundaries as many of the papers touch on more than a single theme. Bordaş, for example, touches on both the Indian influence and the equally important question of the influence of “traditional” thought on Eliade and thus provides a link to the following section on the subject of Eliade’s “traditionalism.” Thus Bordaş should be read together with Natale Spineto, under this heading, and, since Spineto also touches on the question of (a)historicism central to Philip Vanhaelemeersch’s paper, Spineto should be read along with Vanhaelemeersch on this point. In fact, several other papers, notably those of Ouellet, Spineto, Chung, and Muthuraj also touch on this central question of history and historicism. António Barbosa da Silva discusses Eliade’s specific way of doing the History of Religions and so is grouped with Katrine Ore’s paper on gender perspectives in Eliade’s History of Religions. There are, again, permeable boundaries and contiguities between all the following papers although they each address their own central issues. I have placed the papers of Chung Chin-Hong and Wilhelm Dancă each in its own section, although I hope that they naturally follow one from another. The final section on literature, touched on by Dancă but focused upon centrally by both Elena Borta and Okuyama, is the venue for a previously unpublished translation of one of Eliade’s works of fiction: “Men and Stones,” a play written in 1944.
A SYNOPSIS OF THE CONTENTS
That the contributors’ assessment is generally positive does not mean that their response is uncritical. Michel Meslin, particularly, shows the admirable scholarly insistence upon critical assessment which has manifested itself in those Francophone critics of Eliade who have been the most demanding and the most damning of Eliade. I think, naturally, of Daniel Dubuisson and Alexandra Laingnel-Lavastine. Unlike these authors, however, Meslin does not concentrate upon Eliade’s past or his politics, but on his understanding of the sacralization of time. Meslin builds upon the criticism made by Raffaele Pattazzoni that “it is not the primitive mythical world that confers significance on the present moment, but rather the world hic et nunc, which furnishes the components of any representation of the world of origins, conceived of as alternative and seen in opposition to it.” Thus it is not the “the sacred” that “sacralizes” profane experience, but the latter that provides our conception and understanding of the sacred.
Not for this reason alone does Meslin disagree with Eliade’s conception of the sacralization of time. We also see in Meslin’s critique the claim that Christian eschatological time is linear, (although the reinstitution of the divine prelapsarian condition implied by the redemption and the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven can easily be seen to be a return the that paradisiacal time before the fall, and thus as cyclical rather than linear). Meslin concludes that “[c]learly neither for the historian nor from an anthropological perspective does the sacralization of time as Eliade conceives it appear correct.” Meslin comments only on Eliade’s concept of the sacralization of time and makes no attempt to asses other components of his thought. Other writers, while remaining critical of Eliade in some respects, nonetheless recognize the value of his work. Ulrich Berner, for example, reminds us that Eliade is probably the most highly polarizing figure in the History of Religions, defended as strongly as he has been criticized, so that the debate on Eliade has tended to be some kind of worldview-controversy between “religious” and “non-religious” scholars of religion. Berner attempts to go beyond such a one-sided approach to show what the History of Religions loses when the Eliadean approach is abandoned totally and what the History of Religions loses when it follows the Eliadean approach exclusively. He attempts to verify as well as to criticize a central element of Eliade’s theory by taking up an example from the religious history of Late Antiquity, the work of Lucian of Samosata. Berner raises the all-important question of “the effort to understand and describe how religious people see the world” (10) to good effect, and points out that both blind discipleship and unappreciative iconoclasm are basically wrong. He draws salutary attention to the dangers of one-sided oversimplification in the study of religions, for example, the identification of any singular religious worldview as the worldview of “archaic humanity.”
The assessment of an Eliadean approach as useful to the understanding of specific religious phenomena in limited historical contexts while recognizing its inherent faults and limitations is made even more forcefully by Brigitte Ouellet. Her paper on the study of ancient Egyptian texts admits the limitations of an Eliadean approach and gives specific consideration to detailed criticisms. However, it also defends his approach and emphasizes its utility and applicability in this narrowly specialized field. The article suggests various contributions to the elaboration of a hermeneutic of Egyptian texts implied by the application of the intentions that govern an Eliadean hermeneutic and, at the same time, indicates changes implied by advances in textual interpretation. It is rare that a specialist such as this takes the time to write on the theories of generalist such as Eliade, and Ouellet’s paper is a significant contribution because of this. Given the acknowledged paucity of Eliade’s knowledge of Egyptology, it might come as a surprise that a specialist such as Ouellet not only finds considerable consonance between “Categories of Eliadean Thought and Egyptian Categories” but puts them to good use in explicating ancient Egyptian religion and responds to the identification of normativity in Eliade’s work.
Concerning the utility of Eliade’s work Joseph Muthuraj gives a significant insight in to the specific utility which added to Eliade’s popularity in the 60s and 70s. That is to say, its utility in dealing with human faith in an academic and pluralistic religious environment. The paper attempts to follow through Eliade’s insights. His understanding of religion is seen as offering much to theology and the study of the New Testament. Historical-critical methodology, which provides the concepts and tools for NT study, has largely ignored questions concerning the Sacred. Muthuraj explains that Eliade’s achievements help to meet the deficiency created by historical positivism, which pervades NT scholarship. One important area of study relates to the attitude and approach to other religions in comparison with religious phenomena of early Christian experience. Except among a small group of History of Religions scholars in NT studies, oriental religion and philosophy, which formed a major component in the thought-world of the NT, have not received the attention they deserve. Eliade criticized the reluctance of theologians to use historico-religious hermeneutics since it raises doubts about “the uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian revelation.” According to Muthuraj, and specifically for an Indian NT scholar, Eliade forms a mediating ground between Western and Eastern schools of thought because of his positive estimation of Indian Religions and Philosophy. Muthuraj argues that Eliade’ understanding of myth enables scholars to see the richness of the experience of God by NT authors. Both the impersonal and personal dimensions of the Divine, both “Being” and “God” can be uncovered in this way. Very rarely have theologians or NT scholars looked for inspiration from History of Religions scholars and too little work within the field of NT has given serious attention to contributions made by Eliade in the study of religious phenomena. However, Muthuraj hopes that his study will help to open a field of research for NT students and theologians.
Mircea Itu also writes on India and on Eliade’s utility in interpreting specific texts. Like Ouellet and Berner he applies Eliade’s work to understand specific historical situations, this time from Eliade’s earliest years in India interpreting the Upanishads. Despite Itu’s occasionally hagiographic approach, which bears certain stigmata of hero-worship, he makes some good points and is by no means uncritical of Eliade. Itu focuses on six untranslated Romanian articles published in Bucharest in the 30’s in the journal Cuvântul and the review Vremea and emphasizes the importance of recognizing Eliade as an Indologist. The paper considers some of Eliade’s commentaries on Hinduism from his years in India (1929-31) dealing with a major element of Hindu religion—the identity between God and the human soul (the “Brahman/atman equation”)— \\among other items from the Upanishads. Itu argues that Eliade was deeply influenced by Indian philosophies and religions. However, he also argues that, contrary to what Eliade states in these studies, the “way to God” in Hinduism is not through revelation but through direct intuition. Itu critiques Eliade’s opinion that revelation is determined by karma (action). On the contrary, argues Itu, God is the source of revelation: karma remains in connection with the phenomenal world while intuition springs from the human soul. The paper also criticizes Eliade’s claim that the Upanishads are not mystical. These texts are the very heart of Hindu mysticism and religion, because they insist on this unity between God and the human soul. Itu also concludes that Eliade confused non-attachment with indifference.
Arvind Sharma’s paper casts some doubt on Eliade’s ability to interpret Indian religious phenomena sympathetically or accurately, specifically the questionable phallic symbolism of the Shivalinga. Although he recognizes both strengths and weaknesses in Eliade’s approach to Hindu symbolism Sharma asks whether Eliade can correctly depict the Hindu tradition if his interpretation of the Shivalinga is entirely “phallocentric,” since in modern Hinduism the phallic understanding of it has receded to virtual invisibility.
Whatever the final assessment of this specific question or of Eliade’s general accuracy in interpreting Hinduism, both Sharma’s and Itu’s papers touch on the same question that Muthuraj broached: the extent of the Indian influence on Eliade’s development. This topic is also dealt with by another Romanian, Liviu Bordaş, who deals with the history of Eliade’s stay in India and convincingly reveals Eliade’s tendency to “mythologize” that history. The myth of Eliade the spiritual initiate is clearly revealed, as is its later manifestation in some of Eliade’s fiction. As well as the question of Eliade’s Indian experiences, Bordaş raises the question of his “traditionalism,” a point considered by Natale Spineto. Bordaş and Spineto come to similar conclusions on the issue of traditionalism—although Bordaş is perhaps more inclined to emphasize its influence on Eliade. Neither of them conclude that Eliade was any kind of adherent. In fact, Spineto provides a nuanced understanding of the term and decisively concludes that it is inapplicable to Eliade. He shows Eliade’s dependence upon his historical context without reducing that debt to a simple duplication of the thought of traditionalists, or a radical dependence upon any one man (such as Julius Evola) with all the political baggage that this would entail. Both Bordaş and Spineto provide excellent examples of the detailed and painstaking archival work being done on Eliade. They refer to much of that work and Spineto points out that in recent literature on Eliade’s intellectual biography one of the areas that has received the most original contributions is this assessment of Eliade’s relationship to scholars linked to “traditional thought”; particularly René Guénon, Julius Evola, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. Spineto’s presentation examines the relevant documents, summarizes the results, and establishes to what extent Eliade’s reading of the traditionalists actually influenced his work. Eliade integrates traditionalist terms and concepts within a different conceptual framework that does not admit the fundamental bases of traditionalism. Spineto aims to show that it is neither possible to consider Eliade’s works “esoteric” (as Daniel Dubuisson maintains), nor to assert that Eliade’s perspective has a connection to “Christian Kabbalah” (as Steven Wasserstrom has argued).
Together Spineto and Bordaş show the complexity of such issues as Eliade’s debt to traditionalism and the danger of coming to hasty and oversimplified conclusions. Where Spineto overlaps with Bordaş on the topic of traditionalism, he overlaps with Vanhaelemeersch on the topic of Eliade’s attitudes to history and historicism. Vanhaelemeersch discusses the status of “history” in Eliade but does not reiterate the classic accusation that Eliade denies the idea of history (manifest in Meslin’s paper, for example). Vanhaelemeersch brings more nuance to both Eliade’s arguments and to the arguments against him. History is a term that continues to create confusion. Instead, he suggests that we address the issue in terms of the concept of “historicism.” As a historian of religions Eliade does not reject history as do yogins or shamans. What he rejects is a specific way of conceiving the historical character of religion. Vanhaelemeersch contrasts Eliade with the Italian form of historicism (storicismo). The historicism of the father of storicismo, Benedetto Croce, moves the discussion of Eliade and history to a genuinely philosophical level.
Barbosa da Silva turns our attention from ideas of history and historicism in general to the History of Religions in particular. As well as attempting to locate Eliade in the European philosophy of the period, his essay proposes five necessary conditions for understanding Eliade’s way of doing “the History of Religions.” As well as establishing a clearer understanding of the Eliadean approach, Barbosa da Silva’s argument sheds light on the different receptions of Eliade on the European continent as opposed to the Anglophone West.
Katerine Ore raises the rightly perennial issue of feminism and gender relations. It is no surprise that she should conclude that “[t]he political aspects so well known to gender studies (women’s studies and feminist studies) are missing in Eliade’s writings” but en route to this conclusion she has more to say about Eliade’s attitudes to women and the potential for the history of religions than might be anticipated. She points out that Eliade deals with the feministic issues and themes, but that he uses them to think about maleness. Ore’s paper focuses on the connections between the first and second waves of feminism (c. 1880-1925 and c. 1960-1990) that meet in a reading of Eliade’s books with a gender perspective in mind.
However Eliade’s History of Religions is understood, its elements of the dialectic of the Sacred and the Profane and “creative hermeneutics” are quite familiar. These are the elements analyzed by Chung Chin-Hong, who poses two questions: First, “what does the term religion indicate?” Second, “how can religion, thus understood, be interpreted?” Eliade’s concepts of the sacred and of hierophany have been criticized as so ambiguous that religion appears not only as an objective reality but also as a phenomenon of subjective consciousness. However, Chung argues, Eliade’s dialectic of the sacred and the profane proves this criticism wrong. He presupposes humanity as homo religiosus and this is experienced in the world of human life. Thus, the question should not be “what is religion?” but “what is called religion?” The concern should \be turned from metaphysics to experience. What is important is not what Eliade says about the conscious system of religious studies but how he changes the scheme of \the question itself. Eliade’s hermeneutics is based on traditional phenomenology: his hermeneutic discourse is not greatly different from phenomenological hermeneutics. When Eliade’s attitude is criticized as being anti-historical such a criticism is due to the misconception of structure and phenomenon, sacred and profane, and this misconception is the result of ignoring the fact that what Eliade calls free variation is not imaginative but actual, and the fact that the encoding of symbolic meaning or assessment of symbol is done on the basis of experienced existence. What must be understood is the creativity of Eliade’s hermeneutics. In this respect, his hermeneutics is more than phenomenological hermeneutics. Chung sees Eliade’s phenomenology as differing from traditional phenomenology by overlapping epistemology and praxiology through phenomenology and hermeneutics. Chung calls this the surplus of phenomenology and sees that surplus as Eliade’s contribution to religious studies and as still appropriate for students of religion.
Wilhelm Dancă considers the concept of mysticism in Eliade’s work and raises the undeniably important but often neglected question of the influence of Eastern Orthodox theology on the thought of Mircea Eliade. The paper attempts to outline the efforts of the young Eliade to understand what religion means, and his debt to the friends and teachers he had before the Second World War. Political events such as the unification of Romania in 1918 determined the characteristics of Romanian spirituality and also the new position of the Orthodox Church in Romania, which, in 1925 became a patriarchate. The mystical perspective of Romanian spirituality influenced the researches of the young Eliade, who wanted to engage his own Romanian culture in dialog with other, larger cultures. Eliade found the ground of all religions to be the natural experience of the sacred. As a result, when he spoke about Greek, Egyptian, or Indian religions, he emphasized concepts such as “asceticism,” “absolute liberty,” “plenitude of life,” “achievement in itself,” “harmony with the universe,” and so on. The same things were emphasized when he spoke about Spanish or German mystics.
What Dancă sees as absent from Eliade’s researches are moral considerations, as is common to a great many mystics. Considering the character of Eliade’s literary writings, Dancă suggests that they represent a metaphysical interpretation of life, which does not include any moral attitude, so he tries to explain Eliade’s vision of religion by considering both his academic and his literary work. Homo religiosus, according to Eliade, is the mystical human being in his or her natural mode everywhere and from any time. Thus reading Eliade’s work, Dancă understands both Eliade’s personality and the human condition as open at any time to the revelation of the sacred.
Considering both Eliade’s academic and his literary work as he does, Dancă makes an appropriate connection to the concluding section of the anthology. Elena Borta and Okuyama Michiaki focus on Eliade’s literature. Okuyama points out that in the preface to his History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1, Eliade announced that he would deal with the camouflage of the “sacred,” or rather, the identification of the sacred with the profane, in the final chapter of the work. His term “camouflage” is applied to many examples of “myths in the modern world” to indicate that myths and symbols have not lost their vitality even today. Again, when we listen to Eliade speaking of the relationship between his scholarly writings and his literary ones, we find a preoccupation with the problem of the “camouflage of miracle in history.” To the extent that Eliade was engaged in “camouflaging miracle” in his novels, Okuyama is drawn to ask whether his scholarly works might not have absorbed the novelist’s prerogative of reading “miracle” into historical fact. This suggested to Okuyama his comparison with the contemporary Japanese novelist and Nobel laureate, Õe Kenzaburõ. Õe read Eliade and was influenced by his ideas in the course of trying to integrate the experiences of his own life with his own vocation as a writer. Okuyama considers two of Õe’s novels to clarify the connection and reconsider the problems posed by Eliade’s work.
Elena Borta argues that Eliade’s literary creation—a kind of “nocturnal” counterpart to his academic work—is indispensable for the understanding of his vision of existence and being. Within the whole, his fantasy fiction is of particular value regarding his philosophical, religious, and aesthetic thought. At the ontological level, Eliade’s fantasy reveals an anthropocentric perspective, its basic concern being the way that humanity is related to the different levels of being; its themes consist in a series of widely inclusive dichotomous couples of a coincidentia oppositorum type, liable to inclusion, in their turn, within the dialectic of the sacred and profane. Important not only for his comparative approach to the history of religion, but also for his literary creation, the sacred is a transhistorical concept. Unrelated to geographically or culturally limited space, the way these themes are approached provides Eliade’s global perspective. By resorting to archaic symbols within a fantastic context, apparently local issues become emblematic for the whole of humankind.
Eliade’s fiction is seen as close to that of James Joyce: the characters’ existential itineraries are often a series of “ordeals” or happenings illustrating a permanent shifting and exchange of values between the theological concepts of good and evil. Using the polysemy of different levels of language and discourse enables an intermingling of fantasy and “reality,” often to the point of confusion, which, corroborated with dimensions of space and time, also makes his fantasy comparable to that of Jorge Luis Borges. Besides these connections with modern(ist) literature, Eliade’s fiction shares some common aspects with postmodern narrative—Borta recalls Thomas Pynchon’s characters, looking for ultimate significances within an entropic universe.
The quest motif, ubiquitous in Eliade’s fantasy fiction, reveals a search both for recovering originary values and for re-modeling, shifting and re-inventing human life patterns. This motif can be seen in Eliade’s play, “Men and Stones.” This short work relates a two-man expedition into the caverns beneath the Carpathian mountains in quest of Paleolithic remains. Professor Petruş, the older academic expert in speleology and the Paleolithic, is accompanied by the younger poet, Alexandru, both, perhaps, representing aspects of Eliade’s personality. Written early in 1944, when Eliade was 37, the year in which his first wife, Nina, was later to die, the play seems to present a premonition of that loss and an attempt to come to terms with a life rendered futile by death; both individual and the collective horrors of the ongoing World War. It deals with the processes of creative hermeneutics and the role of the sacred in making sense of life and in making sense of foreign cultures, here represented by Paleolithic “troglobites” and human cave-dwellers, who appear in Alexandru’s fantasies. As in many of Eliade’s works, the theme of the untellable secret, the ineffability of the real, is a constant presence.
Altogether these articles reflect the ability of studies of Eliade to ignite valuable debate and to raise important issues in the study of religion. They also indicate the work that remains to be done. Whatever one feels the value of Eliade’s work to be, the consideration and clarification of the questions that it raises can only serve to increase our understanding of religion and of all of the issues raised in its academic study.
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