Mircea Eliade

mircea eliade An introduction to one of Romania’s greatest 20th century cultural figures.

A complex author whose interests varied from the history of religions to literature, Mircea Eliade was also known internationally, especially in the US, where he taught, at the Chicago University, from 1956 until his death in 1986. Eliade was born on 9th March 1907 in Bucharest into a family originating from Moldavia, Romania's eastern province. His father was an army officer while his mother looked after the family. Eliade studied in the same high school as other important Romanian cultural figures such as the writer and journalist Arșavir Acterian, the poet, writer and director Haig Acterian, the philosopher Constantin Noica and the art critic Barbu Brezianu. 

As a teenager, apart from literature, philosophy and history, Eliade was also interested in natural science, chemistry and the occult. His favourite writers at this time included Honore de Balzac and Giovanni Papini. Eliade studied letters and philosophy at the Bucharest University and graduated with a thesis on the Italian utopian thinker Tommaso Campanella. 

Mircea Eliade's work is extremely large and diverse and includes more than 80 books of literature and the history of religions, being one of the most influential historians of religions in his day. In this field alone, he authored around 30 books that went on to be translated into 18 different languages. His literary output includes 12 novels, the most popular being Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, Bengal Nights and The Forbidden Forest, which you can find in English, as well as novellas like Miss Christina, With the Gypsy Girls, The Secret of Dr. Honigberger and The Snake. 

Mircea Eliade was one of the first Romanian orientalists who immersed himself in the culture of India. In love with India, he travelled there in 1928 to study in Calcutta, where he learnt Sanskrit and became familiar with Indian spirituality. His novel Bengal Nights is in fact dedicated to the daughter of his Indian landlord. He fell in love with her but couldn't marry her because of her father's opposition. In 1933 when he returned to Romania, Eliade wrote a doctoral thesis on yoga practices. 

The archives of Radio Romania's Oral History Centre contain an exceptional recording of an interview given by Eliade to literary critic Monica Lovinescu in the 1970s on Radio Free Europe. In this interview, Eliade described his Indian experience as a time that helped him understand the course of history as the dialogue between cultures. His study of religious beliefs and ideas helped him make a step forward and opened up a universe that had been inaccessible to him until then. Mircea Eliade:

"When I came back from India I realised the limitations of western cultural provincialism; I realised that after WWII we must find a bridge between different cultures, between western culture, oriental culture and archaic cultures; that the simplest and most convincing introduction into a given culture is understanding its tradition, which is always religious in origin and structure. It seemed to me that a history of religions was the first step, the first stage in trying to understand other cultures on an equal basis, through dialogue. So I was sure that these books would be received well and that they would interest people, because historical reality was proving me right."

Mircea Eliade saw himself as both an academic and a writer. His academic work earned him a career at the Chicago University, where, together with the German academic Joachim Wach, he founded Divinity School. But he also couldn't forget his native Romanian language and literature helped him return to his roots, as he explained:

"By writing literature I return to my roots, which is normal. It's the language I never wanted to lose and I need this dreaming and working in my language for the health of my soul. I can easily translate certain literary texts into French or English. I can, perhaps, write them directly into English or French, but for me it is important to maintain this desire not to lose contact with my own history, which is obviously the history of a Romanian who worked both in Romania and abroad."

To those who said that the influence of religion was waning, Eliade responded that the desacralisation of contemporary world is in fact a process of camouflaging the sacred, which people still need: 

"This need to listen to a story, at first mythical, about how the world came to be, how man came to be, how society was formed, etc., is a need that I believe is fundamental. It is a layer of consciousness, not another stage in the history of consciousness. I don't believe man can exist as a man without being told his history and the history of the world in which he exists and which continues to exist."

Mircea Eliade lived in exile in the West since 1945, when the communist regime came to power in Romania. He died in Chicago on 22nd April 1986, leaving behind an impressive body of work. He was made a member of the Romanian Academy posthumously, in 1990. (CM)

Publicat: 2020-09-14 14:00:00
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