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Zolla, Elémire


ZOLLA, ELÉMIRE . Elémire Zolla (19262002), an Anglo-Italian polymath, writer, historian of ideas, metaphysical thinker, and spiritual seeker, has a unique place in twentieth-century religious, comparative, and cultural studies. His rigorous and passionate explorations of shamanism, Gnosticism, alchemy, and esoteric doctrines, and his original views on archetypes as the unifying patterns underlying historical processes, on the mystic state conceived as the crux and marrow of human experience, and on syncretism as the equalization of philosophies and religions on a trans-historical plan, make Zolla an unusual thinker, and a candidate for a nonparochial reconsideration of his spiritual anthropology. Zolla's work is imbued with the passion for truth that Abraham Joshua Heschel immediately recognized at the time of their first encounter in Rome in the late 1960s. In fact, Zolla was the dedicatee of the Italian edition of Heschel's Passion for Truth (1974).

A prominent and controversial figure on the Italian cultural scene from the late 1950s, Zolla became director of the Institute of Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Genoa, where he was also chair of Anglo-American literature and Germanic philology (19701974). In those same years, before transferring to the University of Rome to serve as professor of American literature, he directed the Ticinese Institute for Advanced Studies at Lugano, Switzerland, where he organized summer courses dealing with the metaphysical assumptions of Latin, Greek, Hindu, Chinese, Iranian, Hebrew, Islamic, and African civilizations. Zolla was also the founder and editor of an Italian-language journal in cultural and religious studies, Conoscenza religiosa (19691983), and he was a regular contributor to numerous other journals, many in English. He served on the board of editors of Cahiers de l'hermetisme, Connaissance des religions, Incognita, and Quaderni di Italianistica, and was a member of the advisory board of the African Institute for the Studies of Humanistic Values at the University of Cincinnati, as well as for the Centre for the Study of Eurasian Shamanism at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and the scientific council of the Centre d'anthropologie et de civilization Européenne at the University of Strasbourg. Zolla became professor emeritus in American literature at the University of Rome after he retired in 1991.

Essential Biographical and Academic Data

Zolla was born in Turin on July 9, 1926. His father, Venanzio, was a well known Anglo-Italian painter; his mother, Blanche Smith, was a musician from Kent. Zolla was brought up speaking English, Italian, French, Spanish, and German. Later he would master several other languages, including Russian (he translated Pavel Florenskii's Ikonostas as Le porte regali, Milan, 1977). He graduated in law from the University of Turin, and also attended courses in psychiatry held at the town asylum. A severe lung disease contracted at the age of twenty-two gave him recurrent reminders throughout his life of the need to cherish every drop of vital energy. From a religious point of view, he was agnostic, but a fervent believer, as he used to say, in the boundless power of belief. In the prime of his life he wrote stories, including "An Angelic Visit on Via dei Martiri," and two novels, Minuetto all'inferno (Minuet in hell; 1956) and Cecilia o la disattenzione (Cecilia or inattention; 1961).

As a literary critic he freelanced for the main periodicals of the time, contributing essays on Franz Kafka, André Gide, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. Zolla developed a keen interest in American matters from literary, historical, juridical, and ethnological angles. On the suggestion of Mario Praz, the leading Anglicist at the University of Rome, who had been highly impressed by Zolla's earlier investigations on Herman Melville's Clarel, on Emily Dickinson's poetry, and on Nathaniel Hawthorne's Septimius Felton, Zolla was offered the post of associate professor of American literature at the University of Rome in 1959. A full professorship followed in 1967.

Eloquence, bold knowledge, and a special gift for teaching made Zolla revered and popular among his assistants and students at the universities of Genoa and Rome. New branches of study, such as Native North-American studies and ethnopoetics, along with fecund intersections with comparative and Oriental studies, developed as a result of Zolla's work. He launched research projects involving teams of junior scholars on the superman theme in modern literature and on exoticism in American literature. He also edited and introduced Novecento Americano (American literature in the twentieth century; 19801983), a three-volume textbook providing monographs on fifty major American modern writers. The studies in mortem produced by some of Zolla's former disciples are noteworthy when considering the legacy of Zolla's work in this area.

Key Figures in Zolla's Thought

In a long interview with a journalist shortly before his death, Zolla teasingly predicted: "It won't be easy to retrace the lives I have lived and the directions of my thought" (Fasoli, 1995, p. 29). On another occasion, when asked who had been a key figure in his own quest, he replied by quoting two metaphors, both of them aquatic. The first is from Zolla's collection of essays Che cos'è la tradizione? (What is tradition?, 1971), a work that Bernard Wall described as a manifesto of a fearless program of reaction against the spiritual atrophy of modern civilization: "Humans are like carp," wrote Zolla, "who flourish and grow when there is a rock in the center of their pond that they can swim around in harmonious circles" (p. 9). The second metaphor, from Zolla's Verità segrete esposte in evidenza (Neglected truths exposed, 1990), is contained in a broader reflection, abbreviated here: "Every life," wrote Zolla, "comprises an invisible interiority that is substantial to it. The only way to grasp this is to sidestep tangible appearances, to take a leap against the current like the salmon, who is the living symbol of knowledge in the Old Norse Scriptures" (p. 154). The carp circling the rock and the salmon swimming upstream towards the sourceno images could better express the two leading traits in Zolla's intellectual biography and at the same time the character of his peculiar philosophical vision.

Syncretism, which Zolla vigorously defended in his essay "Il sincretismo" (1986), and metaphysical experience, which in the first lines of "Archetypes" (1981) he described as "the gathering in of the aloof mind" when it "becomes absorbed in its self-existent identity and sameness," were as much leitmotifs in Zolla's pursuit of a unitive knowledge as was his incoercible drive toward the systematic exploration of otherness, a notion that he shaped into an extraordinarily vast array of implications, much beyond its strict ethnological meaning. In a memorable lecture given at the Inter-religious Colloquium at the Rothko Chapel in Houston in 1974 (see Ibish and Marculescu, 1978), Zolla described otherness as an antipodal category of the human spirit, the paradigm of an inverted world where ordinary life might flow peacefully between action and contemplation, and the esoteric life as a joyous apprenticeship in metaphysical experience. This broader notion of otherness offers a key to an unbiased investigation of Zolla's accumulated research into alchemy, including Western, Indian, and Daoist notions of immortality; esotericism, with a special bent for ecstatic Qabbalah, Sufism, Zoroastrian, and Tantric traditions; mysticism, which he explored in a monumental anthology of pagan and Christian contemplatives (I mistici dell'Occidente, 1963); shamanism, particularly in the Native North American and Korean contexts; and tradition and metaphysics, fields par excellence of Zolla's lifelong spiritual quest. His encounters with survivals of the past among the North American Indians, in Africa (Nubia and Cairo), and especially in the East (Israel, Iran, India, Bali, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan), were analyzed in his quarterly journal Conoscenza religiosa. An international group of leading specialists contributed to its sixty-eight issues.

The most perceptive interpreter of the multifaceted identity of Zolla's spiritual anthropology was probably the Romanian historian of religions, Ioan P. Culianu (19501991). In his view Zolla was "perhaps the most original, versatile, and untimely of Italy's foremost intellectuals, displaying supreme indifference towards the fashion of the day and thereforeneedless to saycontroversial" (Culianu, 1990, pp. 222224). In his reconstruction of the image of the Indian in American literature, which Zolla made in his celebrated book, The Writer and the Shaman (1968), he approached the categories from the point of view of the Native American. Moreover, Culianu emphasizes that this process of lucid identification with the indigenous point of view, or with the shaman who effects his ascent to heaven in trance, or with the mystic enraptured in a circle of contemplative bliss, was possible thanks to the new position that emerged as part of Zolla's method. It is the position of the "intelligence out of love" (a fairly faithful translation of Dante's "intelletto d'amore"). To kindle a certain quality of love in the process of comprehending the inner nature of otherness was the esoteric part of Zolla's intellectual achievement. He was well aware that such an achievement could not be pursued except by swimming upstream against the current of his time. No vision could be as antipodal to the spirit of the age which was dominant on the eve of the 1968 student revolts as the one Zolla depicted in Le potenze dell'anima (The powers of the soul, 1968), a crucial investigation of the spiritual morphology in the history of culture.


Eighty percent of Zolla's writings are in Italian; approximately ten percent are in English, with the remaining works in Spanish, French, and German. Essays and papers provided to international conferences are scattered in several journals and volumes of proceedings. His articles in Il corriere della sera, La nación, and the Sunday supplement of Il sole 24ore (published between 2000 and 2002) have ranged from travel accounts to social, literary, and art criticism. An annotated bibliography in Italian, updated to 1991, is available in La religione della terra: Vie sciamaniche, universi immaginali, iperspazi virtuali nell'esperienza sacrale della vita, edited by Grazia Marchianò (Como, Italy, 1991), pp. 3541. This title, translated as Earth Religion: Shamanic Paths, Imaginal Worlds, Virtual Hyperspaces in the Sacred Experience of Life, is a collection of interdisciplinary essays offered to Zolla on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday by Francisco Garcia Bazán, Ioan Petru Culianu, Terence DuQuesne, Moshé Idel, Toshihiko and Toyo Izutsu, Wolfgang J. Jilek, Louise Jilek-Aall, Luce López-Baralt, Adam McLean, Viviana Pâques, and Lawrence E. Sullivan.

For evidence of the mark Zolla left on a new generation of Italian specialists in Anglo-American studies, see Angelica Palumbo's "Elémire Zolla: An Initiation to Research"(in Italian). Studi Europei: Annals of the Department of History of European Thought 10 (Genoa, 2002): 129144, and Fedora Giordano's "Zolla and the Native Americans"(in Italian), in Gli Indiani d'America e l'Italia, edited by F. Giordano and Alberto Guaraldi, Alessandria, 2002.

Bibliographies updated to the year of Zolla's death (2002) are available in Viator 6 (2002): 2434; and Idea viva: Gaceta de cultura 14 (2002): 5254, where, in addition, the relevance of Zolla's esoteric thought is examined by F. G. Bazán in "E. Zolla y el esoterismo," pp. 10, 12, and 48; and Sheshat: Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Poetry and Philosophy 6 (2003), a special issue in memory of Zolla, edited by Terence DuQuesne and Mark Angelo de Brito. See also Religion, Fiction, and History: Essays in Memory of Ioan Petru Culianu, 2 vols., edited by Sorin Antohi (Bucharest, 2001), a collection to which Zolla contributed his "Culianu" (pp. 176205), which includes an essential bibliographical survey on page 589.

Ten new works by Zolla appeared between 1991 and 2002, the last being Discesa all'ade e resurrezione (Milan, 2002), a philosophical meditation on the hermetic motif of the journey of the human soul once the flesh has been discarded. Zolla's Il dio dell'ebbrezza: Antologia dei moderni dionisiaci (Turin, 1998) is an exegesis of the Dionysian traces in modern literature, and Uscite dal mondo (Milan, 1992) is a collection of essays focusing on the goal of life in light of the amazing new perspectives offered by virtual reality technology. Among Zolla's works in English, The Eclipse of the Intellectual (1959), translated by Raymond Rosenthal (New York, 1968), Zolla's first controversial book in social criticism, contains a fierce attack on modern mass civilization. Zolla's influence is acknowledged in Marshall McLuhan's From Cliché to Archetype (New York, 1970). Stefano Cochetti notices the strong influence of Theodor W. Adorno's and Max Horkheimer's negative dialectics on it. Zolla's The Writer and the Shaman: A Morphology of the American Indian, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (New York, 1973), is an impressive study of the images of the Indian in American literature from the beginning of colonization to 1969.

Zolla's Language and Cosmogony (Ipswich, U.K., 1976) is a philologically-based analysis of Indo-European roots leading to a reconstruction of the Vedic cosmogonical process. His The Uses of Imagination and the Decline of the West (Ipswich, U.K., 1978) is a concise discussion on the decay of creative imagination as distinct from and opposite to fancy in the modern West, with a learned, comparative approach to the theory of imagination in Iranian metaphysics and Indian Vedānta. Zolla's Archetypes: The Persistence of Unifying Patterns (New York, 1982) begins with a description of metaphysical experience in terms akin to samādhi in the Vedānta philosophy, then moves on to a consideration of the archetypal patterns and their modes of operation as mirrored in mathematics, poetry, history, and politics. Reviews include those by Paul D. Huss in Library Journal 5, no. 1 (1982): 897; Pamela van Schaik, English Studies of the University of South Africa 1 (1982); Philip Sherrard, Temenos 3 (1982): 186190; and Victor H. Jones, The Journal of Mind and Behavior 3, no. 2 (1982): 175177. The Androgyne: Fusion of the Sexes (London, 1981), published in the United States as The Androgyne: Reconciliation of Male and Female (New York, 1982), is a scholarly and beautifully illustrated pageant of the man-woman image throughout history and myth. Encyclopedic entries by Zolla include "Les religions des Amériques: Tribus Indiennes du Canada et des Etats-Unis," in Encyclopédie des religions, edited by Frédéric Lenoir and Ysé T. Masquelier, vol. 1, pp. 12351250 (Paris, 1997); and "Chamanisme: Amérique du Nord: Cheyenne"; "Amérique du Nord: Inuit"; and "Amérique du Nord: Sioux"; in Dictionnaire critique de l'esoterisme, edited by Jean Servier, pp. 280282 (Paris, 1998).

Zolla's essay, "Traditional Modes of Contemplation and Action" can be found in Contemplation and Action in World Religions: Selected Papers from the Rothko Chapel Colloquium "Traditional Modes of Contemplation and Action, " edited by Yusuf Ibish and Ileana Marculescu (Houston, Tex., and Seattle, Wash., 1978). See also Ioan P. Culianu, "Elémire Zolla: Neglected Truths Exposed," Incognita 1, no. 2 (1990): 222224; and Doriano Fasoli, ed. Un destino itinerante: Conversazioni tra occidente e oriente (Venice, 1995).

Reviews on Zolla include Bernard Wall, "Against the Delirium of Negation," Times Literary Supplement (October 29, 1971). Excerpts from major reviews are quoted in the entry on Zolla in Book Review Digest (1974): 1351. See also Vine Deloria Jr., "Images of the Indian," Boston Sunday Herald Advertiser (March 2, 1974); Guy Davenport, The Geography of Imagination (1981): 353358; Peter Nabokov, "Return to the Native," New York Review of Books 31 (September 27, 1984); and Ioan P. Culianu, "The Construction of the Other," History of Religions 30, no. 3 (1991): 308311. In Cesare Médail's Le piccole porte, translated as Small Doors (Milan, 2004), Zolla's spiritual quest is closely examined in comparison with the ones of Mircea Eliade, Tenzin Gyatso, XIVth Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Raimon Panikkar.

Grazia MarchianÒ (2005)

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