Discovering America - Projecting A Myth. Mircea Eliade's Perspective On The Birth Of A New World

We have been acquainted with the fundamental myths of Romanian spirituality in Mircea Eliade's view and read his comments on the legend of Master Manole, the legend which, according to Eliade, certifies that myth is essential to the process of artistic creation, and to any act of creation, for the Romanian people. To remain in a pluralistic standpoint, it is interesting to see the Romanian scholar's perspective on the fundamental myths that created another culture and another country – America. In his essay "Paradise and Utopia: Mythical Geography and Eschatology" published in The Quest. History and Meaning in Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969) Mircea Eliade deals with several interpretations of the New World as they took shape and consolidated in the mediaeval time, putting forward that the colonization of America began in a prophetic context, namely the revival of the Christian world through a return to the Earthly Paradise or through the reiteration of the sacred history: "The colonization of the two Americas began under an eschatological sign: people believed that the time had come to renew the Christian world, and the true renewal was the return to the Earthly Paradise or, at the very least, the beginning again of sacred history, the reiteration of the prodigious events spoken of in the Bible." (91) It was on the background of a messianic and apocalyptic atmosphere, which spread all over Europe and influenced people's mentality, that the geographic discoveries appeared. Europe was considered an old continent, deeply touched by corruption, a continent that was heading, through its decadence and moral degradation, towards its self-destruction and final annihilation. This view on Europe as doomed to decay and annihilation was reinforced by the religious frame of mind of the mediaeval age. Hence, the Apocalypse spoken of in the Bible was considered as imminent and, according to the prophecies, this unavoidable eschatological event had to be preceded by a grand discovery. Thus, the pilgrims and the colonizers knew that what they had come across represented the prophesized and long-waited-for discovery. A renewal of the world before its final breakdown. America seems to have appeared and developed on the background of these religious convictions. Its discovery is obviously more a creation and a projection of the conquerors' beliefs, a cultural construct rather than a reality that one has to adjust to. This old messianic conception of a chosen-by-God-nation having the mission of restoring and renovating the initial state of purity and sacredness of the world is still very much reflected in the cultural, social and political life of present-day America. As Eliade notices, "it is very probable that the behavior of the average American today, as well as the political and cultural ideology of the United States, still reflects the consequences of the Puritan certitude of having been called to restore the Earthly Paradise." (99) Deeply embedded in people's mentality, this certitude is enacted over and over in all aspects of everyday life.Eliade attaches to the quest of America the nostalgia for the earthly paradise and the hope for the second chance given by God to find spiritual renovation and to begin life ab initio. The most popular religious doctrine in the colonies, according to Eliade, put forward the conviction that America represented the chosen place for the Second Coming of Christ. Christopher Columbus shared this hope himself, and upon discovering America, he truly believed that he had come across the Garden of Eden. Hence, Eliade states, the New World represented not only the opportunity for the Puritans to propagate the Gospel and found a sacred community/territory, but also a messianic discovery with eschatological implications. Thus, the colonization of America was inscribed with the belief of reenacting the sacred history, "the prodigious events spoken of in the Bible." (91) If we consider the initial myths projected upon America – such as the "City upon a Hill," the "City on a Mountain," El Dorado, Arcadia and others underlining the idea of "manifest destiny" it becomes clear that the English colonists thought of America as a realm chosen by Providence to be exploited and built upon spiritually in order to "serve as an example of the true Reformation for all Europe." (92) All these formulations suggest the fact that the myth of the chosen and predestined hasn't only contributed to shaping the optimist mentality of the elect and the American psychology of success, but has also laid a heavy burden on the chosen. It is no news by now that America was first invented and then discovered, that it was first constructed, projected and then found or conquered. America is the New World in comparison to Europe, the Old World. Hence, we might say that America, as a text and as a utopia, exists only as far as Europe exists, it displays therefore an existence in-relation. Even after its discovery, America was situated in the future as a re-creation of the mythical past, of primordial times. America is the place of nostalgia, a utopian attempt to represent and embody the unremembered past. It is important to mention here the notion of "Manichean eschatology" that Eliade introduces. This Manichean eschatology originated in the struggle or the rivalry for domination among the European powers that was eventually reduced to a conflict between Good and Evil: "Europe was presented as a fallen world, as Hell, by contrast with the Paradise of the New World. The saying was 'Heaven or Europe' meaning 'Heaven or Hell'. The trials of the pioneers in the desert of America had as their principal goal the redemption of man from the carnal sins of the pagan Old World." (95) Apart from Heaven, Eden, Arcadia and other alike interpretations of the new discovered land, another important projection associated with America was that of the desert-land. For many travelers and immigrants, the territory was a wasteland, a desert that was haunted by all kinds of demonic beings. For these pilgrims the experience of the wasteland represented the terrible trial of the desert after which they could enter the promised Canaan. Thus, it was through work and endurance that they would reach the Earthly Paradise. Eliade sees in this mentality the transformation of the initial millenarianism of the pioneers into the widespread idea of progress and pragmatism that soon crystallized in America. Hence, the Earthly Paradise underwent a process of secularization later on visible in the myth of progress and the cult of novelty and youth. Referring to the cult of youth and novelty, Eliade notices the "American irreverence toward history and traditions." (98) The American is a puer aeternus, always devoting its energy to the quest and the conquering of new realms, always in search of the new and forever residing in potentiality. Eliade considers the quest of America as symbolizing the pilgrims' quest for the origins, the nostalgia for the primordial times, for the unremembered, yet all too present past. Utopia and paradise mingle therefore in this quest and reflect the mediaeval frame of mind, the prophetic movements and the fashion of messianism that revived during the colonial period. If we relate the quest of America to the concept of utopia associated by Eliade to it, it will become apparent that this quest is doomed to fail because the more one searches, the farther away one goes from the origins. And the target is always a utopian one.