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The scholar shaman
Robert Temple
(As published in The Spectator , 25 April 1987)
by Mircea Eliade
University of Chicago Press, 3 vols., £13.50, £12.75 (paperbacks) and £21.95
by Mircea Eliade, translated by Derek Coltman
University of Chicago Press, £7.50 (paperback)
by Mircea Eliade
Harper & Row, £8.50 (paperback)
by Mircea Eliade
University of Notre Dame Press (USA),
distributed by Harper & Row, London, £27.50
This month is the first anniversary of the death of Mircea Eliade, a Romanian by birth
who had become a unique cultural force in the world. He achieved universal recognition
as the leading historian of religions of our time. Eliade himself preferred the German way
of describing his field as the 'science of religions'. And his researches combined a
thorough, dispassionate and scientific study of the structures of religious systems and
concepts with a capacity for stepping inside them and viewing the world from their
perspectives. He called this latter technique 'hermeneutics'.
Eliade is the author of the best single book on yoga, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom
(Princeton University Press, £9.95 paperback). As a young man, he lived for years in
India practising authentic yoga and experienced all its phenomena, but he was in addition
a master of all the relevant texts in the original Sanskrit, and his book is unrivalled for its
scholarship. He is also author of the definitive classic , Shamanism: Archaic Techniques
of Ecstasy (Princeton, £12.95 paperback).
Eliade succeeded in making himself the master of all information about the archaic and
ecstatic elements of world religions. He had a wider knowledge of his subject than
anyone and was able to draw the most astonishing parallels between far-flung religions
(he even wrote a book on the religion of the Australian aborigines, now out of print,
claiming to have read everything ever printed on the subject). Eliade's mastery of many
languages, from a fluent conversational command of Sanskrit on down through various
modern ones, made his grasp of world religions all the firmer. His anthology of world
religion texts, From Primitives to Zen (Collins, £4.95 paper- back) is available, as is his
classic examina- tion of common themes, Patterns in Comparative Religion (Sheed &
Ward, £9.50 paperback).
But the triumph of Eliade's career is the production of his three-volume History of
Religious Ideas , the final volume of which came out in America just as he died. It does
not quite come up to modern times (he had intended to treat Marxism as a millennarian
religion, and point out that it was by no means the first atheist one, since Samkhya
Hinduism is wholly atheistic). Many unexpected subjects are included, such as the
troubadours, of whom he says: 'In courtly love, one exalts, for the first time since the
Gnostics of the second and third century, the spiritual dignity and religious values of
Woman.' Nothing seems to be omitted, whether the Bogomils, a dualist heresy of the
Byzantine Empire, the mediaeval Kabbalah, Etruscan ideas, morphology of the Vedic
rituals, Hittite syncretism, or even rites of the Paleolithic hunters. But the work is never
over- whelmed with data. Everything is serenely considered within its wider context:
The joy of life discovered by the Greeks is not a profane type of enjoyment: it reveals the bliss of
existing, of sharing - even fugitively - in the spontaneity of life and the majesty of the world. Like so
many others before and after them, the Greeks learned that the surest way to escape from time is to
exploit the wealth, at first sight impossible to suspect, of the lived instant.
Eliade was such a remarkable man it is difficult for any reader not to be fascinated by his
Autobiography and the book of taped conversations with him held towards the end of his
life, Ordeal by Labyrinth . It seems extraordinary that the same man could have lived as a
monk in Tibet and been Romanian cultural attache in London during the war. He knew
many of the leading talents and intellects of his time, such as Brancusi, de Chardin, lung,
lonesco, Breton, Ortega y Gasset, and studied under Dasgupta in India as a young man.
His experiences were remarkable even from earliest childhood, as in this memory from
the age of two-and-a-half:
We were on a picnic. I'd crawled a few yards, and I was lost. Then, quite suddenly, I saw a huge,
resplendent blue lizard in front of me. I wasn't afraid, but I was so spellbound by the beauty of it,
that enormous blue creature. . . . I could feel my heart thumping, out of excitement and fear, yet at
the same time I could see the fear in the lizard's eyes, too. I could see its heart beating. That image
was with me for years.
Eliade's true vocation was that of a novelist, and at the age of 26 he became a celebrity in
his native country by writing a sensational best-selling novel, Bengal Night , which has
never appeared in English, though it was published in French in 1950. The only novel of
Eliade's in print today in English is The Forbidden Forest , a tour de force on an epic
scale. Eliade's mastery of dramatic narrative is total, and he knows how to make the
reader's hair stand on end with his vivid descriptions of events between the years 1936
and 1948. As an eyewitness of the bombing of London during the Blitz, he gives perhaps
the most harrowing account of it in print anywhere. By understatement and subtlety, he
manages to leave the reader haggard and in emotional tatters without anywhere making
overt comments about the great historical events taking place. These are seen exclusively
as they impinge upon the private lives of the many characters in the novel, which after all
is how we perceive life on a daily basis. It is a devastating technique. Much of Eliade's
other fiction has never been translated into English. It is to be hoped that his merits in this
field will come to be more widely appreciated, and that more readers can have access to
his novels and short stories, all of which are bizarre and compelling.
Mircea Eliade was motivated at all times by a deep concern for the future of Western
civilisation, which he saw as threatened by possible extinction. He believed it essential
that we recognise and acknowledge the archaic and the Eastern contributions to man's
spiritual history while there is still time to do so with good grace. Otherwise, by
maintaining an attitude of contempt or superiority towards the rest of the world - past and
present - we would bring disaster on ourselves and the world as a whole. Eliade's whole
life was devoted to trying to save the world's culture by introducing it to itself. He met
with the greatest success in America, where he was for years a professor at the University
of Chicago and the nation's leading scholar in his field. His disciples are legion, and to a
large extent he actually created both the academic subject itself and the institutional
movement which led to the founding of all the departments and professorships which
now abound in the history of religions. But during his entire career one great mystery
remained: what did Eliade himself believe? In Ordeal by Labyrinth he admits that he
never wished to distract his readers or his students with his own personal opinions,
despite his ability to appear to act as an advocate for each religion in turn as he surveyed
it. Perhaps this was Eliade's finest and most fitting gift of all: the complete obliteration of
his private self in the pursuit of his higher aims. How ironic it is, then, that as a result we
will never be able to forget him.
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