Mircea Eliade

21 Sep 2023 09:47

Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens
Romanian historian of religions. Before and during WWII, he was an active and vocal fascist intellectual in Bucharest. After the war, he lied flagrantly about his past and became a highly respected academic in the west, eventually and for many years professor at the University of Chicago.

Of course, many prominent mythologists of the 20th century had similar political leanings --- Jung was definitely a Nazi fellow-traveler (though not an active party member, like Eliade), and Joseph Campbell was extremely reactionary (and may, also, have been a supporter of fascism). The cause of this connection isn't entirely clear to me, but it seems to have something to do with the way that fascism originated (both in its right- and left- wing roots) in a rejection of rationalism and materialism --- and what better way, for a scholar, to act out such a rejection than to study, indeed celebrate, the stories that rationalism dismisses as superstition?

Be that as it may, Eliade was also, in some odd way, a Christian, and has been accused of trying to make it seem as those some kind of simple monotheism and/or redemption myth is the original, universal religion of humanity by highly selective quotation and other forms of manipulation of evidence. I'm not competent to judge that, but frankly I wouldn't be much surprised. That part of his thought doesn't interest me very much, to be honest. What I'm intrigued by are his ideas about commonalities in different cultures' myths, particularly mythical ideas connected to the early history of technology. Of course, if he misrepresented the facts to support his pet beliefs in one area...

Probably the central notion in Eliade's work is that of "archetype and repetition". The idea is that the pattern of the world was set (as he always put it) in illo tempore, in Those times, the magical ones towards the beginning of the world. Those times are magically, ritually re-created when it is necessary to re-affirm or draw on the "power and prestiege of origins" --- at the new year, during initiations (one of his big themes), when attempting alchemy.

When this kiss is over
It will start again
It won't be any different
It will be exactly the same

His gloss on alchemy is that the alchemists attempted to, as a physicist today might put it, recreate the initial conditions --- that by turning lead (or whatever) into the prima materia they not only made it formless but capable of being perfected by human art. The alchemists were trying to perfect creation by going back to the problem at the beginning. (Particle physicists have similar strategies but few would admit in public to trying to repair the universe.) There's a lot to be said for this notion, I think, but Eliade definitely pushes it very hard, to the point where he sometimes seems to lose sight of the fact that the alchemists were experimenters, getting their hands dirty in the lab and wanting to have real gold, or at least real shiny stuff, and real elixirs, or at least real medicines, to show for their efforts.

(Mostly written 11/22/2001 14:26:20, with only minor updates since)