BORN: 1907, Bucharest, Romania
DIED: 1986, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.
GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction
The Hooligans (1955)
The Sacred and the Profane (1959)
A History of Religious Ideas (1976–1983)
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Eliade used the same technique of the autobiographical journal-novel inspired by the ideal of authenticity in his unpublished novel “Gaudeamus,” which was conceived as a sequel to “The Novel of the Nearsighted Adolescent.”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 Cuvântul, 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 Cuvântul 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 professor-ship. 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 protégé IoanP. 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.
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 Schuré, Lautréamont, Léon Bloy, Voltaire, and B. P. Hasdeu, and was fascinated by the breadth of their knowledge. He also developed a special inclination for Honoré 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.
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.
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.
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
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
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.
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'Épreuve du labyrinthe. Entretiens avec Claude-Henri Rocquet. Paris: Belfond, 1978.
Cahiers roumains d'études 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 Forbidden 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.”
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.
Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was a Rumanian-born historian of religions and a novelist whose works were known in translation the world over.
Mircea Eliade began his life in Bucharest in 1907. While still studying in the lycée he wrote numerous articles in a popular vein on entomology, the history of alchemy, Orientalism, the history of religions, impressions of his travels, stories, and literary criticism. In 1925 he entered the University of Bucharest, where he pursued the study of Renaissance philosophy. Thus began a life-long preoccupation with the great creative epochs in Western history and with the puzzle of human, especially literary, creativity itself. Eliade had seen, for example, how the Rumanian poets, writers, and historians he admired had drawn material and inspiration from folk sources, and he was fascinated to see an analogous process at work in the Italian Renaissance.
For Eliade, the rediscovery of Greek philosophy, exemplified in Marsilio Ficino's Latin translations of the Corpus hermeticum and the founding by Ficino of the Platonic Academies in Florence, meant "a breakthrough toward the East, toward Europe and Persia." But as he later understood, it was not a simple reacquaintance with the classical heritage that made the Renaissance such a creative period; instead, the strange "new" occult elements which Renaissance thinkers encountered in their discoveries actually represented "the fund of Neolithic culture that is the matrix of all the urban cultures of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world."
In 1928, while in Rome to research his degree thesis on "Italian Philosophy, from Marsilio Ficino to Giordano Bruno," Eliade wrote to Professor Surendranath Dasgupta expressing a desire to study under his direction at the University of Calcutta—which he did, thanks to a scholarship offered him by the Maharajah Manindra Chandra Mandy of Kassimbazar. Eliade's stay in India lasted three years. In 1933 he received his doctorate with a dissertation on yoga, later published in French under the title Yoga: Essai sur les origines de las mystique indienne (1936), and began teaching at the University of Bucharest that same year.
Shortly after his return from India, in the midst of a busy schedule that included university teaching and many commitments to write and lecture, Eliade's novel, Maitreyi, was released to great critical and popular acclaim. Born into a tradition which saw no incompatibility between scientific and literary occupations, Eliade, the historian of religions, continued to produce novels, stories, essays, and a travel book. Today, especially in Rumania and Germany, he is known primarily as a writer of fiction; and his popularity continues to grow as more and more of his works appear in translation.
During World War II Eliade served as cultural attaché to the Rumanian legations in London and Lisbon. After the war he elected to remain in exile in Paris where he could complete work on a number of manuscripts which had taken shape during the war years, notably Patterns in Comparative Religion and The Myth of the Eternal Return, both of which came to print in 1949. The years 1951 to 1955 saw the publication of several more volumes for which Eliade is well known: Shamanism, Images and Symbols, Yoga, The Forge and the Crucible, and The Forbidden Forest. Many regard the last title as his most important work of fiction.
Eliade travelled to the United States to deliver the 1956 Haskell Lectures at the University of Chicago, and a year later he was offered the post of professor and chairman of the History of Religions Department and professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the university. Almost 30 years later, he was professor emeritus at this same institution with the title Sewell Avery Distinguished Service Professor.
Eliade's scholarly output continued unabated. Volume I of A History of Religious Ideas appeared in 1974, and three of its four projected volumes had been published by 1985. A History of Religious Ideas marked something of a departure from his previous theoretical work. As in his sourcebook, From Primitives to Zen, Eliade presented the "creative moments" of the world's religious traditions in more or less chronological order, treating them in a way one might call more historical and less thematic. In addition to his scholarly writing, Eliade served as editor-in-chief of a massive encyclopedia of religion until his death in 1986.
While the differences between homo reliosus and non-religious people of the modern West are clear, Eliade argued that non-religion can be likened to the biblical "fall" of man. That is, just as the original "fall" produced forgetfulness of God and a "divided" consciousness, the second "fall" of modern times marked the further descent of religion into the depths of the unconscious—an explanation for, among other things, the importance modern people attach to dreams, the role of the unconscious in artistic creativity, and the persistence of initiatory and other religious patterns in literature. Eliade's theoretical work in the history of religions can thus be said to embrace even his own literary creations, so that the two together form a single oeuvre consistent with his visions of a "new humanism" in modern times.
Perhaps the best introduction to Mircea Eliade's life and thought is Ordeal by Labyrinth: Conversations with Claude-Heuri Rocquet, translated from the French by Derek Coltmann (1982). Readers desirous of knowing more about Eliade's fascinating career may also wish to consult his No Souvenirs: Journals 1957-1969 (1982) and Autobiography: Volume I, Journey East, Journey West 1907-1937 (1981).
Eliade, Mircea, Exile's odyssey: 1937-1960, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Eliade, Mircea, Autobiography, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981-1988; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Eliade, Mircea (1907-1986)
Eliade, Mircea (1907-1986)
Noted scholar on the history of religions and for many years a professor at the University of Chicago. Eliade was born March 9, 1907, in Bucharest, Romania, and was educated at the University of Bucharest (M.A., 1928; Ph.D., 1933) and the University of Calcutta. He was a cultural counselor for the Romanian Legation, Lisbon (1941-44) during World War II, and after hostilities ended he became a visiting professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, the Sorbonne, Paris (1946-49), before moving to the University of Chicago, where he served first as the Haskell lecturer (1956) and later as a professor.
From his broad examination of the religious life of various peoples and his study of the nature of religious experience, Eliade wrote several important books dealing with topics related to parapsychology and the occult. He is most remembered for his studies of alchemy and shamanism and the monumental Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), which he edited during the last years of his life. He died April 22, 1986.
Eliade, Mircea. 1907 to 1937: Journey East, Journey West. Vol. 1 of Autobiography. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.
——. Forgerons et alchemistes. 1956. Translated as The Forge and the Crucible. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962.
——. Occultism, Witchcraft and Cultural Fashion: Essays in Comparative Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
——. Patanjali et le Yoga. 1962. Translated as Patanjali and Yoga. New York: Funk and Wagnall's, 1969.
——. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964.
——. Two Tales of the Occult. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.
——. Le Yoga: Immortalité et liberté. 1954. Translated as Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. New York: Pantheon Books, 1958.
Eliade, Mircea, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. 16 vols. New York: Macmillian, 1987.
Historian of religion, man of letters; b. Bucharest, March 9, 1907; d. Chicago, April 22, 1986. Upon completing the M.A. at the University of Bucharest in 1928 on Italian philosophy, Eliade went to India and studied Sanskrit and Indian thought with the prominent historian of Indian philosophy Surendranath Dasgupta. In 1931 he spent several months in a hermitage in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. He was awarded the Ph.D. by the University of Bucharest in 1933, where he began his teaching career. He served as cultural attaché for Romania in London and Lisbon during World War II. Following the war he took up residence in Paris and lectured at the Sorbonne and other European universities. In 1957 the University of Chicago appointed him to a faculty position. He founded the journal History of Religion and was awarded the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professorship the following year. His appointment marked the beginning of the so-called Chicago school of the history of religions.
Among the leading historians of religions in the 20th century, he specialized in the study of yoga, shamanism and the myths and rituals of primal societies. Eliade's primary interest was symbolism and its expression through the interplay of myth and ritual. The main sources for his writings are the religious texts of India and the social sciences, especially anthropology, with its rich collection of myths and rituals of preliterate societies. His early research work formed the basis for a series of monographs published in the 1950s and 1960s: Yoga, Immortality and Freedom (Fr. 1954, Eng. 1958), based on his doctoral dissertation and revised over two decades, may well be the primary source of his major religious insights; Patterns in Comparative Religion (Fr. 1949, Eng. 1958) is his most comprehensive statement on the nature of religious symbol; Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Fr. 1951, Eng. 1964) reflects his lifelong interest in mysticism and the occult.
The fundamental polarity between the sacred and the profane provided a framework for Eliade's thought. For Eliade religious symbol is studied as a hierophany, i.e., as a manifestation of the sacred. In his scheme of things, a hierophany reveals something other than itself; it is an historical manifestation that may be cosmic, biological, physical or psychological; it is relational insofar as it relates one both to something other than the hierophany and to something other than oneself. Hierophanies are identified by their relational function, which brings the experiencer to a new order of reality, truth, and being—an experience which is not conditioned by ordinary time, space, and existence. Hierophanies make sacred the universe; rituals make sacred or consecrate life (birth, puberty, marriage, death); and myths make sacred the experience of time and space. Eliade maintained that homo religiosus seeks that which is beyond ordinary experience and meaning: sacred life and existence, sacred time and space, a sacred universe. Myths transmit from the beginning, ab origine, the archetypes or exemplary models which are paradigmatic in religious experience. Ritual imitation and ritual repetition of these archetypes recreate and reactualize a sacred world.
A series of articles on the primal cults and myths of Australia was his major concern in the 1960s. Other important works included The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion (1969); Two Tales of the Occult (1970); Zalmoxis, The Vanishing God: Comparative Studies in the Religions and Folklore of Dacia and Eastern Europe (1972); Australian Religion: An Introduction (1973); Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashion: Essays in Comparative Religion (1976); No Souvenirs: Journal (1959–1969); The Forbidden Forest (1978); Journey East, Journey West: 1907–1937 (1981); and Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts (1985). In the final decade of his life he wrote the three volume A History of Religious Ideas (1978, 1981, 1985), an attempt to place his phenomenological work into an historical context, and served as editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of Religion (1985), to which he contributed several entries. As a man of letters he wrote numerous essays, novels, short stories, several volumes of autobiography, and edited compilations of classical texts.
Eliade affirmed the history of religions as an autonomous discipline and envisioned its task as that of integration, synthesis, and creativity. He spoke of a creative hermeneutic, not merely as an academic discipline, but as a spiritual discipline in which cultural development is a distinct goal. Recognized as an early phenomenologist or structuralist, methodologically speaking, Eliade was criticized for ahistorical tendencies.
Working with a model of the human as homo religiosus, of the human as motivated by an irreducible religious intentionality, Eliade drew most of his material from archaic cultures. Supposedly providing the most powerful evidence of the ‘morphology of the sacred’, these cultures are held to signal the contemporary need for greater ontological rootage. See also SHAMANISM.