Eliade's American Experience

It is well known that Mircea Eliade lived numerous experiences of otherness and exile in countries such as India, France, Portugal, America, but it is only in the last that he remained for twenty-seven years. Eliade's perspective on America is somehow indebted to the reason he remained in the United States for almost three decades, which was his teaching the history of religions in Chicago. It is therefore the viewpoint of the historian of religions that we mainly encounter in his Journal, as well as in the chapter "I begin to Discover America" from his autobiography, the viewpoint of the scholar preoccupied with the desacralization of the contemporary world and with the dissolution of tradition and hence, of man's contact with the sacred. In America Eliade finds the epitome of modern society: one living in synchrony, not in diachrony, departing from tradition and experiencing perpetual amnesia. He interprets this tendency of living in the present and casting away any connection with the past not as the inherent evolution of modernity, but as an involution towards the state of oblivion and amnesia similar to an incarceration, since the soul is stranded from the ancient spiritual tradition that nourished it.The sacred has become profane in the modern world, Eliade maintains, and America is a living illustration of this thesis. He doesn't include himself in the age of modernity, as he feels that the age of industrialization and technological development alienated man from tradition and ancestral spirituality and deepened the rift between sacred story and profane history.It is extremely interesting to see how Eliade situates himself in the relation to the West and what kind of status he ascribes to himself: "As for me," he remarks in his Journal, "I'm trying to open windows onto other worlds foundered tens of thousands of years ago. My dialogue has other interlocutors than those of Freud or James Joyce: I'm trying to understand a Paleolithic hunter, a yogi or a shaman, a peasant from Indonesia, an African, etc, and to communicate with each one."[1] (179) Eliade seems to have undertaken the task of opening new paths towards ancient spiritual worlds for the Western man, hence of enlightening the Occidental culture from the perspective of the learned Orientalist. He is the one who has communicated with other cultures and civilizations and tried to understand them from their point of view and from a perspective that attempted to go beyond the differences and boundaries of culture and history towards the unifying spirituality, the center, the primordial ancestors of humanity. Eliade considers himself a disseminator of culture in the West, and it is to this purpose and with this task that he accepts to remain in America and teach the history of religions. He feels he has a civilizing role, a task of cultural missionarism –which is to bring the authenticity of "worlds foundered tens of thousands of years ago" into the modern man's degraded consciousness. He clearly states his role in these terms inserting it in the temporal context of modernity: "I believe that modern man has rediscovered in my books [italics mine] a dimension of cosmic sacredness which is neither a lyric creation nor a philosophical invention; because I have always made an effort to draw the facts and their interpretation from those who still participate in a pre-Christian religious universe." (101) From this perspective, what he does is reiterating the experience of European colonization. He assumes the task of enlightening the American decadent society and initiating it into the realm of mysticism. Hence, he defines himself as a European colonizer, coming to tame the West, to re-construct and re-create it by forcing it into remembrance (remembrance is also a re-membering, an act of recuperation, of putting the pieces back together in order to form the original unity). Remembering one's origins means locating oneself in a tradition, being aware of it and gaining a sense of belonging. It also entails rethinking one's identity on a different level and escaping amnesia. What is interesting is that in doing this, Eliade actually re-enacts the cultural frame of mind inculcated in his mind as a European. He reiterates the experience of missionarism and the sense of messianism that motivated the first pilgrims and pioneers to settle in America and found the "City upon a Hill" – a mentality that he himself theorized in the article "Paradise and Utopia: Mythical Geography and Eschatology". His intention represents an updated version of the Puritan ambitions of spreading the gospel and founding a sacred land, the Earthly Paradise – the similarity is even more striking if we consider the fact that his palpable contribution is mainly a religious/spiritual one. In reiterating the mentality of the European colonizer, Eliade also appropriates the former's cultural constructs in interpreting the Americans. In the second volume of his Autobiography called Exile's Odyssey he recalls: "Often a student would ask me, solemnly and yet with a strong feeling: 'What's the best method to study and understand the history of religions?'" He interprets the question emblematically – Americans are a combination of naivety, innocence and optimism – by placing it in a pre-established grid of interpretation: "It seemed to me I recognized the descendants of the first waves of pioneers, embarked on the conquest and cultivation of an enormous space that lay beyond the frontier. It was the same fundamental conviction: if we have the best tools possible, we can make a paradise of this land; if we have the best method available, we will understand the history of religions in all its complexity, and we will be in a position to make discoveries unsuspected by anyone before."[2] (187)Of course, the cultural missionarism is met with most of the creators of culture, who felt not only the duty of sharing their knowledge and shaping culture but also the power and recognition they gained in doing so. In 1961 Eliade notes in his diary that a young American having read his books called him up one night saying that he might become "the guru of America" if he really believed in what he wrote. He must save the Amerindians, said the young man, living in reservations because they represented the only archaic cultural traditions in America. It is an incident testifying for the general opinion that considered Eliade as more than a simple mentor, a pioneer. We shouldn't overlook the fact that Eliade truly accomplished his initial aim – at least in a formal, official way. As he confesses to Claude-Henri Rochet in L'Epreuve du Labyrinthe, when he came to America, in 1957, there were only three departments in the history of religions in the United States, and in the eighties there were almost thirty such departments, most of which were run by Eliade's students. This is an obvious proof of the fact that his missionarism was successful. One of the aspects that I find relevant in Eliade's Journal and Autobiography is the way he perceives America as a geographical space. Describing Palm Beach in December 1973 Eliade exclaims that it's so beautiful and "elegant" that it seems artificial, resembling a Californian movie scenery from the thirties. In 1961, he writes in his diary that he is fascinated by the secret meaning of the American suburb and by "those charming little houses, each having its garden and its lawn, each located ten or twenty kilometers from the center of the city." (149) These attributes, Eliade suggests, pertain to the artificial, but they stand for an American construct that originates in a nostalgia of the past. Having a garden in front of each house implies a desire to get back to the lost paradise of the pioneers and to nature. This is how Eliade interprets the "terrible sadness" revealed in the "Return to Nature" slogan: "The guilt complex: we Americans have betrayed our forefathers ("the pioneers"), we have destroyed 'nature', we have believed too much in skyscrapers and reinforced concrete. Whence all our difficulties and disappointments. But if we return once again to the source, everything can once again become as in illo tempore…" (149) And if we think of the unutterable nostalgia for the Dutch sailors who settled the virgin land evoked in The Great Gatsby – the all-American novel – we realize that Eliade was obviously right. Speaking of the American tradition and values of the past, Eliade remarks that Americans have no history, no roots "yet". Culturally speaking, they are still at the level of exploring and pioneering – a country of immigrants: free and available. A land of opportunity. He considers this as a great fortune for, although they descend from a Western culture, they can still start from scratch, "take everything back to the beginning" (183) and create something new, since the New World is rooted in theology and considered "a nation of God."America's artificiality is a feature that has produced numerous comments so far, and it is interesting that Eliade noticed the same tendency towards the artificial arrangement of the space with the purpose of rendering it idyllic as if the Americans would try to suggest that they still live in the ancient projection on the country as the terrestrial paradise. Jean Baudrillard shares this view on America: the country, he claims, resembles a huge hyper-protected natural reservation. America offers itself as a space of simulation ready to host an infinite number of projections and to adjust to various New World modes. This points to its nature of artifact, to its being a construct – a cultural one. America is the place of projections, of never ending speculations, and it represents a text. A text triggers an infinite number of interpretations and so does America since it represents a mythical projection – I am referring Roland Barthes' acceptation of the term myth as speech, a mode of signifying, a form of discourse framed within historical boundaries. Eliade is an exilic figure par excellence, trapped within modern man's condition, aware of its threats and destructive tendencies, yet he sees no way out of it in the future. The solution is a return to archaic times, to tradition and ancestral heritage. He belongs neither to contemporary Romania, since he sees only the communist obstruction of spiritual values, of the "nocturnal man", nor to India, France, or to America with all its 'open possibilities', pragmatism and artificiality. He is between worlds, visiting all of them, a homo viator ultimately pertaining to none, but heading towards the past, cherishing it as the sacred primordial time. He bears a feeling of nostalgia for a time that hadn't been corrupted by the flow of history, still dwelling in potentiality. In Eliade's view, everyone is a Ulysses, searching for his homeland and hoping to find himself. Homeland is a symbolical substitute for the maternal womb, for the source of life, a sacred space where the self partakes of the universe. Hence Ulysses' myth, which Eliade seems to adopt, is a paradigm for a certain way of existing, of relating oneself to the world. The Romanian scholar believes that he is the inheritor of a culture situated between two worlds: the Occident and the Orient. The Occident through the Latin language and the Roman heritage and the Orient through a traditional culture rooted in the Neolithic age. Hence the tension between modernism and traditionalism, the analytical spirit and the mystical and religious propensity, rationalism and contemplation. These oppositions can be reconciled through creation. Exile helps you to realize that the world is never unfamiliar once you have discovered a center. The symbolism of the center is the key to understanding Eliade's exilic experience, an experience that makes him "larger", "rounder". In 1961 he states in his Journal: " Today, coming home from the University, in the vicinity of the Oriental Institute, I suddenly experienced my life's duration. (…) I suddenly felt, not older, but extraordinarily rich and full; expanded – bringing together in me, concomitantly, both the Indian, Portuguese and Parisian 'time' and the memories of my Bucharest childhood and youth. As if I had acquired a new dimension of depth. I was 'larger', 'rounder'." (120) The exilic experience is for Eliade an experience of completion, for it permeates the self with other cultures exposing it to diversity. It is in diversity that Eliade finds the unity, the center, the common origin of mankind, and the "breath" of the universe.
[1] Mircea Eliade, Journal (1957-1969). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989. All references are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically;[2] Mircea Eliade, Autobiography. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

by Ioana Stamatescu