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Mircea Eliade & the Rediscovery of the Sacred

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Mircea Eliade et la Redécouverte du Sacré (YouTube [2], Romanian subtitles)

Mircea Eliade was a traditionalist Romanian novelist and philosopher. Following the disaster of the Second World War, he moved to Paris and Chicago, becoming a respected and influential historian of religions. He acquired something of the status of a guru, as poignantly told in the 1987 documentary Mircea Eliade et la Redécouverte du Sacré. The film features interviews with Eliade at the end of his life, artfully spliced with cuts to religious imagery on a background of moving spiritual music. It was released in 1987, the year after his death.

The more scientistic Westerner is likely to be annoyed at Eliade’s rather New-Age vibe. Eliade had an enormous erudition and knowledge of history, reading half a dozen languages. But he is not really interested in explicating the details of this or that religious tradition, but in finding the unity from Australian Aborigines “to the latest Western mystics.” The sacred, we are told, is the foundation of human life and once pervaded all of his actions. Western culture “suffered from a certain provincialism” but now is open to the spirituality of others. We’re all just one world, man!

This is asserted without evolutionary or traditional psychological explanation. The “skeptical” and “atheist” types, seeing this bearded man very profoundly smoking his pipe behind his large glasses, will cry: “This is an Eastern mystic masquerading as an academic historian.”

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And that is surely true. Eliade’s postwar appeal appears similar to Alan Watts’. Besides the powerful religiosity of the Romania of Eliade’s youth, he also spent three years studying yoga in India. Before the Second World War, Eliade publicly supported the Romanian Legionary Movement and the Portuguese dictator Salazar [4], citing their nationalist and spiritual approach to politics.

Eliade’s support for the Far Right, though admittedly preferring traditionalist forms to the more modernist fascism of Italy and Germany, has obviously been a source of controversy ever since. But he was nonetheless able to reinvent himself at the University of Chicago and one is left with an unmistakable impression: this man dedicated the rest of his life promoting the history of religions as an apology for spirituality, in effect a crypto-Right-wing traditionalism. (Eliade’s peers were largely in the same boat, being people who either died or could not ostentatiously and/or overtly express their Right-wing convictions in the new world of “freedom of thought and tolerance” ushered in by the egalitarian Allies: René Guénon, Nae Ionescu, Emil Cioran, Carl Schmitt, Georges Dumézil . . .)

There are clues along the way that Eliade comes from a very, very different culture and intellectual sphere than that of postwar Western demoliberalism. In India, Eliade was fascinated by popular myths “which were the expression of archaic societies which had preceded the Aryans, the Indo-Europeans in India.” Upon returning to Romania, he could better appreciate the rural culture of the Balkans, where unlike Western Europe spirituality was still lively. The roots of popular myths in the Balkans went deeper, Eliade claims, than Roman, Greek, or Mediterranean culture, but reflected “Paleo-Indo-European” (i.e. Aryan) sacred tradition. (Rather incongruously, the camera then cuts to dancing Gypsies, who are about as Aryan as Ashkenazim.)

Eliade notes that virtually all human activities — painting, dancing, sculpture — began as religious activities in primitive and prehistoric societies. A sense of the sacred gave significance to every action, integrating man’s impossibly fleeting existence into an eternal, transcendental whole. “The sacred is at the basis of his existence in the world,” he says. “The sacred is . . . an element of the structure of consciousness and not a stage in the history of this consciousness. To live as a human being is in itself a religious act.”

Modern secularism has, according to Eliade, destroyed man’s faith in the divine meaning of existence. Homo religiosus is dead, or at least sleeping. This was achieved first “especially by the revolution accomplished by Jewish monotheism, by the action of the prophets, which desacralized the cosmos.” This fracture was then spread among the gentiles “by Judeo-Christianity,” which led to “evacuating the gods” and reducing the universe to “dead matter.” Whereas early Western scientists believed faith and science could be conciliated, this was eventually lost. Particularly guilty were the reductionists who developed “the theology of the death of God,” “beginning with Karl Marx” (reducing all to economics) and “especially with Freud” (reducing all to biology, in particular the sex drive), but also “the great Nietzsche.”

This is a disaster, for man becomes an agnostic atom in an existence reduced to meaningless chaos: “Human existence is without meaning, man lives in a nature without a model, without a Creator, without an objective, and we have then arrived to this type of nihilism which Nietzsche had announced, speaking of the ‘death of God.’” For: “Man cannot live in chaos.”

Eliade makes a fine prophecy: “The sacred is saturated with being. Incidentally an a-religious society does not exist yet and cannot exist. If it were to be realized, it would perish after a few generations from neurasthenia, by a collective suicide. If God does not exist, all is ash.” Who dares contradiction? Is this not the fate of the West?

This tragic narrative, of the rise of nihilism, is told with powerful, angsty music, some also used in 2001: Space Odyssey. (I find something rather disgusting in Albert Camus and especially André Malraux, disserting on nihilism, which they call l’absurde, but doing nothing about it.)

Unlike Nicholas Wade (The Faith Instinct), Eliade does not attempt an evolutionary interpretation, which would dare to perform a sacrilegious autopsy and dissection of the sacred. But I will say to the scientists: religiosity appears to be a compensatory psychological mechanism which, by brute force, forces a sense of meaning in one’s life, regardless of one’s limited reason, one’s very partial (minuscule, really) view of the world, and one’s objective living conditions (an often “nasty, brutish and short” life, full of suffering). Why? Because optimistic believers always defeat depressed agnostics. Hence the universal pervasiveness of religion (it obviously, contra the probably criminal Richard Dawkins, reflects a biological predisposition and not merely superstition). The evolutionary adaptiveness of a good religion is also obvious in the social unity and “social programming” (by defining taboos and goals) it enables, and in the well-documented higher birth rates of the religious.

All militant atheists should be given Darwin Awards [5].

Logically, all this ends in either World-Judaism and/or Islam or esoteric Hitlerism.

The advent of agriculture led to a spiritual crisis and religious change, as must the advent of modern technology. We need a new religion. Fascism was an attempt, smothered with hate-filled fanaticism. Late liberalism is a half-orgiastic/half-life-fearing effeminate death cult.

But one should not limit oneself to a profane scientific approach. The historian’s study of religions has “existential consequences” on him, Eliade says, convincing him of the unity, nobility, and value of mankind’s sacred tradition. Hermeneutics “transforms the researcher.”

Eliade is astonishingly optimistic in the film. I guess those 1980s New Age movements and Westerners’ dabbling in Buddhism were hopeful signs? Eliade is convinced that a return to sacred convictions would lead to great existential improvement and to cultural creativity, from poetry to the sciences. I think he is absolutely right. “Sterility, nihilism, decadence” would be done away with.

Women have a much stronger intuitive sense of health and the good life than men (mostly unconsciously, easily overridden by misguided piety/conformism). Hence, your modern yuppie gal — though raised on Sex and the City — will go to yoga and earnestly chant an “ohm!” of surprising power. Health and spirit are calling her. And yet she’d be disgusted at the thought of doing this somewhere unfashionable, like a church.

Obviously men should be coming forward to found a new faith.

Eliade tells us that when man opens himself to the sacred:

Life becomes infinitely richer, more exciting. It really is worth living because the world which opens up . . . full of messages, full of hopes, which is no longer opaque . . . everything is word, everything is symbol, and everything is openness to something which is certainly positive. . . . It is no longer the opaque world, without significance, purely tragic, in which tragedy has no more meaning. The world of certain philosophers and writers.

Death too becomes a passionate mystery: “Death is a second birth, the supreme initiation. One must die to be reborn in eternity.”

We salute you Mircea Eliade, Aryan mystic, loyal in a dark age to the faith of your forefathers.