Mircea Eliade (1907-1986)

Mircea Eliade, a leading scholar of religions and an acclaimed novelist, was a prominent member of the generation of 1927 that became active in Romania during the late 1920s and dominated the cultural scene throughout the 1930s and most of the 1940s. This generation was the first to receive its education in the "Greater Romania" that emerged from World War I.


Mircea Eliade was born in Bucharest, Romania, to a family that had strong Romanian roots. (Though he and his family always celebrated his birthday on 9 March, his biographer Mac Linscott Ricketts has reported the discovery of official records listing his birthdate as 13 March 1907.) Eliade's father, Gheorghe Eliade, was an army officer and a native of Moldavia. His mother, Ioana Stoian Vasile Eliade, was a native of the western region of Oltenia, whose people were considered ambitious, pragmatic, and energetic. Eliade thought of himself as a synthesis of contemplation and action. He attributed his moods of deep melancholy to his Moldavian heritage, against which he later rebelled in "Împotriva Moldovei" (Against Moldavia), an article published in 1927.

Because of his father's military postings, the Eliades moved twice before settling in Bucharest soon after the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, in a house on Melodiei Street whose attic played an almost mythical role in the writer's life. Eliade entered the elementary school on Mântuleasa Street, which he later described in the novel Pe strada Mântuleasa (1968; translated as The Old Man and the Bureaucrats, 1979). In September 1917 he was admitted to the prestigious Spiru-Haret high school in Bucharest. At about ten he began reading novels and detective stories and became passionately interested in natural sciences, chemistry, zoology, and entomology. In the spring of 1921 Eliade's first article, "The Enemy of the Silkworm," was published in Jurnalul stiintelor populare (Journal of Popular Sciences); it was followed by a scientific story called "Cum am descoperit piatra filozofala" (How I Discovered the Philosopher's Stone), which was awarded the first prize in a competition sponsored by the same journal. Encouraged by the publication of these articles, Eliade wanted to work in the field of science while also feeling a strong vocation for imaginative literature. His first years in high school also taught him another lesson. While he was driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, Eliade learned that he had difficulty learning things on demand. Instead, he enjoyed discovering alone and was attracted to subjects or authors that were not taught in school.

His attic in the house on Melodiei Street soon began to be filled with books and magazines, and became a place for intellectual reveries and hard work. The attic was his exclusive place where he could read with impunity as long as he pleased. At this time, influenced by Jules Payot's The Education of the Will (1894), Eliade started waging a war against sleep. Through a process of self-discipline, he managed to get by on only three or four hours per night, and he read thousands of books. Thus, he discovered alchemy and the history of religions, read James George Frazer (in order to learn English) and Edouard Schuré, Lautréamont, Léon Bloy, Voltaire, and B. P. Hasdeu. The breadth of their knowledge fascinated Eliade. He also developed a special inclination for Honoré de Balzac, whose books he read at the pace of approximately one a day. The teenage Eliade's greatest discovery, however, was Giovanni Papini's L'Uomo finito (1912)--"it struck like a bolt of lightning," wrote Eliade later in volume 1 of his Autobiography (1981). This book reinforced Eliade's drive toward encyclopedism as well as his will to self-perfection. A few years later, while visiting Italy in 1927, he had the chance to meet Papini, with whom he corresponded until the death of the Florentine writer in 1956.

In 1923 Eliade began writing an important autobiographical piece, "Romanul adolescentului miop" (The Novel of the Nearsighted Adolescent, partly published in various periodicals between December 1926 and December 1927). The book aimed at being more than an autobiographical novel; it purported to be a paradigmatic narrative about a teenager's life. The novel describes Eliade's circle of friends and professors, his rampant bouts of melancholy, and his scouting adventures along with his innermost feelings and thoughts. At this age Eliade began keeping a journal, a habit he preserved until his death. For him the specific function of a diary was to "save" and "preserve" time; in other words, by writing a journal one could capture the tone of a particular moment, the spirit of a place, or the perfume of a book.

Several years later, Eliade used the same technique of the autobiographical journal-novel inspired by the ideal of authenticity in his unpublished novel "Gaudeamus," which was conceived as a sequel to "Romanul adolescentului miop." "Gaudeamus" describes his circle of friends at the University of Bucharest, where he was admitted in 1925. The writing of this novel, which centers on a passionate love story, must have had a cathartic significance for the young Eliade. He developed later the philosophy of masculinity and living dangerously that he introduced in the novel in an article, "Apologia virilitatii" (Apology for Virility), a manifesto published in 1928, and in a series of "Letters to a Provincial," published between 1927 and 1929.

By 1928 Eliade had already acquired the reputation of an astute essayist. He wrote regularly for the influential Bucharest-based Cuvântul, directed by his professor Nae Ionescu, one of the most important intellectuals in Romania during the interwar period. Eliade became interested in articulating problems related to his own generation and was unanimously hailed as its spokesman and chief. He addressed the issues in an important series of twelve essays, "Itinerariu spiritual, I-XII" (Spiritual Itinerary), published in Cuvântul in the fall of 1927. Written with the belief that everything lay within the powers of young writers, these essays offered a courageous and well-articulated statement of Eliade's ideas about the task and destiny of his generation, which he believed would become unique in the Romanian cultural history. In Eliade's view, young writers had to look for a meaningful equilibrium and synthesis that went beyond a historically bound type of humanism and to express themselves in a plurality of spiritual and cultural experiences. Eliade and his fellows--"impassionate mystics," as an older Romanian writer called them--were influenced by Nikolay Berdyayev, André Gide, Hermann Keyserling, José Ortega y Gasset, Henri Bergson, and Marcel Proust and emphasized spirituality and inner equilibrium. The strong ethos of authenticity that permeates these essays can also be found in Eliade's best novels of the 1930s. He emphasized lived experience and inner freedom and searched for a higher synthesis between life and culture.

In many respects, for Eliade 1928 was a year of destiny. In the spring he again visited Italy, where he did research for his thesis, "Contributii la filozofia Renasterii" (Contributions to Renaissance Philosophy); he defended it and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Bucharest in the fall of the same year. In Rome he became familiar with the work of Surendranath Dasgupta, a Cambridge-educated Yoga scholar, and started toying with the idea of studying in India. In fact, he wrote a letter to Maharaja Mahindra Chandra Nandy of Kassimbazar asking for financial help. While studying Renaissance philosophy, Eliade became persuaded that he had to broaden his cultural horizon and dig deeper to arrive at a more comprehensive humanism--a new understanding or vision of man--that would embrace both the Orient and the Western world. For him the Orient represented more than a fairy-tale landscape or an object of study; it held a strange attraction and became an essential part of his destiny.

In August 1928 Eliade received a letter from Maharaja Nandy informing him that he was awarded a five-year grant to study Indian philosophy with Dasgupta in Calcutta. On 20 November 1928 Eliade started his journey to India, a place that substantially enriched his life and broadened his spiritual horizon. As he recalled years later, in addition to making him politically aware, the Indian experience taught him three main lessons: the spiritual dimension of India (the idea that human life can be transfigured by performing certain rituals), the meaning of religious symbolism in traditional cultures, and the manifestation of the sacred in objects or cosmic rhythms that pointed to the cultural unity of all traditional agrarian societies, a theme that became a recurrent pattern in Eliade's understanding of the history of religions. In India, Eliade spent three years studying Sanskrit, familiarizing himself with Indian philosophy and writing articles and novels for his Romanian readers. His first published novel, Isabel si apele Diavolului (1930; Isabel and the Devil's Waters), was written in 1929. Immersed in his Sanskrit studies, Eliade felt almost "compelled" to write literature in order to regain control over himself. His second novel, Lumina ce se stinge (The Light That Failed), was finished in 1930 and published four years later. He also attended religious festivals and visited temples and holy cities. An account of this experience can be found in India (1934), a collection of articles that describe Eliade's travel impressions as well as his meetings with Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan. After falling in love with Dasgupta's daughter, Maitreyi (which became the subject of his novel Maitreyi, published in 1933), Eliade left Calcutta for Hardwar and the ashram (monastery) of Rishikesh in the Himalayas, where he remained for a few months and was initiated into the practice of classical Yoga. Searching for authenticity, Eliade entertained the idea of becoming a monk in the Himalayas in order to achieve the liberation promised by Yoga practices.

His restless spirit was, however, made for culture, not sainthood; he was destined to discover the path to salvation through culture and books. Eliade interpreted his failure to integrate himself into the Indian universe as an initiatory ordeal he had to go through in order to fulfill his true vocation. Summoned by a letter from his father to return home to perform his military service, Eliade returned to Romania on Christmas Eve 1931. By that time he had learned that the sacred is to be found in the midst of the profane, not in withdrawal from it.

For Eliade, who had returned from India "thirsting for relativities," joining his friends in Bucharest meant a new and rich episode in his life. He was poised to become well-known as a fiction writer while being engaged in the rich Romanian cultural life of the interwar period. He published various articles, mostly in Cuvântul and Vremea; spoke on Radio Bucharest; and strengthened his friendships with leading members of his generation, such as Mircea Vulcanescu, Petru Comarnescu, Mihail Sebastian, and Constantin Noica. As Eliade recalled in the first volume of his Autobiography (1981), nearly all of the ideas in the books he published in French and English after 1946 can be found in embryonic form in his Romanian essays written between 1932 and 1943.

The novels Eliade published in the 1930s drew on his fascinating Indian experience. The main theme of Isabel si apele Diavolului , a partly autobiographical novel, was overcoming sterility (the inability to create) and achieving immortality by preserving one's freedom. It received many positive reviews in the Romanian journals while its author was hailed as "the most thoroughgoing embodiment of Gidism" in Romanian literature. Eliade's second published book was a collection of essays, Soliloquii (Soliloquy, 1932), a piece of religious existentialism that conveyed faithfully the author's fascination with sincerity, authenticity, and lived experience. This small book--along with later essays--is also indicative of the extent to which Eliade felt alienated from much of the literature of that time, which was excessively obsessed with style and originality. He preferred the private diary form and autobiographical novels that employed interior monologue or stream of consciousness. The story of Eliade's love for Maitreyi, based on his journal notes (with changed names), became a widely acclaimed novel. Hailed as a "revolution" in Romanian literary history, it was awarded the national prize for 1933 and was one of Eliade's most successful works, gaining him recognition as a major literary writer in Romania. Most of the reviewers of the book praised its exoticism and its mythology of voluptuousness.

In the fall of 1932 Eliade and his friends founded in Bucharest the Criterion Association for Arts, Literature and Philosophy, a cultural organization that held a series of public lectures and sponsored various other cultural events. Considered by many as the most original collective manifestation of Eliade's generation, Criterion represented a manifestation of existentialism before the term was coined to describe the movement in France. The members of Criterion were interested in authenticity and immediate experience and wanted to overcome Romanian cultural provincialism. They delivered public lectures, wrote articles for various journals, and published essays and novels. The Criterion conferences usually triggered free and heated discussions on various, unorthodox topics in a spirit of toleration and enthusiasm. Eliade inaugurated the public lectures series with a speech on Sigmund Freud that was followed by conferences on V. I. Lenin, Charlie Chaplin, Orient and Occident, Paul Valéry, Henri Bergson, James Joyce, Jiddu Krishnamurti, André Gide, and Greta Garbo. The activities organized by Criterion ceased toward the end of 1933 as a wave of political extremism began to sweep the whole country.

In 1932 Eliade met Nina Mares, whom he married two years later. The marriage surprised his friends as well as his family, for Eliade had dated another woman, Sorana Ţopa, (a well-known actress), and Mares did not belong to his milieu of artists and writers. Eliade felt almost compelled to make her happy because she had had a previous, unhappy marriage. In June 1933 he was awarded a Ph.D. in philosophy, and a few months later he became assistant to Nae Ionescu, his professor of logic and metaphysics and the mentor to Eliade's whole generation. Eliade's thesis on Yoga was the outcome of many years of research. Yoga. Essai sur les origines de la mystique indienne, published in Paris in 1936, is a revised version of the thesis accepted by the University of Bucharest in 1933.

During 1934 there was a serious deterioration of the political climate in Romania. Nae Ionescu became proscribed in the aftermath of a quarrel with King Carol II. Eliade had already started his lectures at the University of Bucharest and contributed to various journals and newspapers. In August he traveled to Berlin to complete the bibliography related to his thesis. Four new books bearing his name reached the bookstores that year (two of them were novels): India, Intoarcerea din rai (The Return from Paradise), Lumina ce se stinge , and Oceanografie (Oceanography). Written in a personal prose liberated from the constraints of academic style, Oceanografie is a collection of essays whose main topic is how the sacred is camouflaged in the profane of the present day, an idea that Eliade developed in his later prose fiction. In Intoarcerea din rai Eliade returned to the issue of his generation and deplored the loss of the paradise in which he and his fellows had lived before being thrown into history. (The theme of the terror of history was also going to loom large in his later writings.) Eliade felt then that the time given to him and his generation would soon come to an end; hence his obsession that he must complete at least one "great book" and his fear that external circumstances might prevent him from writing his oeuvre in its entirety. (By that time he had plans for some twenty books.) Both Intoarcerea din rai and Lumina ce se stinge were considered overly sophisticated and intoxicated with authenticity; some reviewers were also puzzled by the great number of characters and literary techniques--among them, a stream of consciousness reminiscent of Joyce. These books marked a sharp departure from Maitreyi.

In 1935, the year in which he became a member of the Society of Romanian writers, Eliade offered his readers three new books: Alchimie Asiatica (Asiatic Alchemy), his first published scientific book, which advanced a radically new interpretation of alchemy as a traditional technique implying a cosmology and soteriology; Santier (Work in Progress), a companion to India; and Huliganii (The Hooligans), a sequel to Intoarcerea din rai (the third part of the trilogy, "New Life," was never completed). Huliganii was awarded the prize for the best novel of the year. The title of the book is slightly misleading: Eliade's hooligans are young people full of exuberance and belief in their own powers, disrespectful of rigid conventions and concerned with the inner freedom and creativity that would make them triumph in history. This book expresses Eliade's belief that nothing can make a truly creative person fail, short of his loss of freedom. The major literary critics praised the book while lovers of conventional literature were distressed by those passages in which Eliade's characters behaved "immorally" by trying to live freely and creatively.

Eliade never matched this astonishing pace of publication in subsequent years, while he devoted most of his time to consolidating his reputation as an academic. The book that contains the seeds of all Eliade's later interpretations of the symbolism at the center of the world, Cosmologie si alchimie babiloniana (Babylonian Cosmology and Alchemy), appeared in the fall of 1937. A few months later, Eliade started editing the international journal Zalmoxis (only three volumes were published). Eliade also edited collections of the writings of Nae Ionescu and B. P. Hasdeu, writing substantial introductions for both. Meanwhile, he visited England (where he attended the session of the Oxford Group Movement), Germany (where he resumed his usual summer study at Berlin Stadt-Bibliothek), and Switzerland (where he met the prominent Romanian poet and philosopher Lucian Blaga).

Domnisoara Christina (Miss Christina) is the only novel Eliade published in 1936. It stirred passionate controversies and led to a public scandal, the young writer being accused of pornography. His enemies also requested his expulsion from the university. By writing a novel in which the fantastic is integrated into the real, he sought to create a new genre that would draw on the rich Romanian folklore. At the heart of the story lies the belief that the miraculous breaks into ordinary life without any warning. (Eliade was a great admirer of G. K. Chesterton.) Eliade later developed this theme in Sarpele (The Snake, 1937), a fantastic novel with banal characters who become involved in a series of strange happenings. By using symbols such as the snake, the moon, the forest, and the water, Eliade described the way in which the fantastic permeates everyday life without disrupting it. The main idea of the novel is the unrecognizability of miracles. This idea, along with the theme of the sacred camouflaged in the profane, is the key to all Eliade's later major writings, including his essays on the history of religions.

For Eliade, the year 1938 marked the beginning of the period in which he and his friends were no longer free to do what they wished. A royal dictatorship was imposed in the spring of 1938. Corneliu Codreanu, the head of the right-wing Iron Guard movement, was arrested. People suspected of sympathizing with the Iron Guard were put under close supervision. The watchful eye of the Secret Services did not spare Eliade, who had written a few right-wing articles. After escaping a night-time search of his domicile, Eliade was arrested a few weeks later and charged with having suspect foreign contacts. Asked to sign a declaration of dissociation from the Iron Guard, Eliade refused because he had never been a member of that organization. Following his staunch refusal, he was sent to a detention camp at Miercurea-Ciuc, where he joined Nae Ionescu. Eliade remained there only a few weeks and managed in fact to write Nunta în cer (Marriage in Heaven, 1939), a literary expression of the metaphysics of love. Suspected of having tuberculosis, he was transferred to a sanatorium further south to be released only three weeks later. Further examinations did not confirm the initial diagnosis. He recovered the joy of living but realized that an era was drawing to an end.

Back in Bucharest at the end of 1938, Eliade faced the problem of earning a living for his family, having lost his position at the University of Bucharest. He started contributing to the prestigious Revista Fundatiilor Regale and was elected secretary of the Society of Romanian Writers in 1939. In 1939 he managed to publish a collection of essays, Fragmentarium, and wrote his first play, Iphigenia, which was staged in 1941. In the winter of 1940 Eliade also wrote two important fantastic novellas, Secretul Doctorului Honigberger (translated as "The Secret of Dr. Honigberger" ) and Nopti la Serampore (translated as "Nights at Serampore" ). They were published together as a book in 1940 and later translated into English as Two Tales of the Occult (1970). Drawing on Eliade's Indian experiences and knowledge of Indian philosophy, these novellas are a mixture of reality and fiction, combining techniques of mystery stories with philosophical ideas about time and the sacred camouflaged in the profane. At the same time Eliade became interested in exploring the symbolism of androgyny and the dialectics of the integration of opposites. His essays on the theme of ("coincidentia oppositorium") were collected in Mitul Reintegrarii (The Myth of Reintegration), published in 1942.

After Nae Ionescu's death in March 1940, Eliade was sent as cultural attaché to the Romanian Legation in England. Leaving for London saved his life and freedom insofar as it allowed him to continue writing and thinking freely, something that would have been impossible in his native country, which succumbed to a wave of dictatorships. Eliade was able to meet with many British writers and do some research in the archives of the British Museum. The experience of frequent air attacks and of the London Blitz of September 1941 left a deep impression on Eliade. He described the event in Fôret interdite (1955; published in Romanian as Noaptea de Sânziene, 1971; translated into English as The Forbidden Forest, 1978). In February 1941, on the same day Great Britain announced the severing of diplomatic ties with Romania (which had joined the Axis camp), Eliade was appointed cultural secretary (and in 1942 cultural counselor) at the Romanian embassy in Lisbon, where he remained until September 1945. Eliade enjoyed Lisbon, a haven in which he could live and work safely. He quickly learned Portuguese and began familiarizing himself with Portuguese history and literature (Luiz Var de Camoes , above all), an opportunity for him to reflect on the similarities between Romanian and Portuguese as Latin languages. In the summer of 1942 Eliade traveled to Bucharest, where he visited his friends and family. This visit was the last time he set foot on Romanian soil. He sensed that the creative era in Romanian history was over. After the war his beloved country was drawn into the Soviet sphere of influence.

Two new collections of Eliade's essays were published in Bucharest in 1943: Comentarii la legenda Mesterului Manole (Commentaries on the Legend of Master Manole), which includes important studies on the theme of sacrificial death in literature, and Insula lui Euthanasius (The Island of Euthanasius). In 1944 Eliade's wife died of cancer a few months after the capitulation of Romania on 23 August. He then moved to Cascaes in Portugal, a picturesque fishing village near Estoril, where he began drafting Le Mythe de l'éternel retour (1949), which addresses the issue of the terror of history. It was later translated into English as The Myth of the Eternal Return (1954).

Alone and isolated from his homeland, Eliade tried to find a meaning to all the initiatory tortures he had had to go through. Given his past, returning to Communist-led Romania would have been suicidal; he had to start a new life elsewhere. Having obtained a French visa, Eliade left in September 1945 for Paris, where he met his old friends E.M. Cioran, Eugène Ionesco, and Mihai Sora. As Eliade recalled in volume two of his Autobiography, his rediscovery of Paris was "a series of unexpected delights," and he started meeting with French historians of religion such as Georges Dumézil and Paul Masson-Oursel. Nonetheless, life in Paris soon proved difficult for Eliade. His reputation as a specialist in the history of religions had yet to be consolidated. Moreover, most of his studies--and his fiction--were written in Romanian. Eliade tried to obtain a permanent position in Paris, but he found that his political past made him suspect in the eyes of many French Marxists. Encouraged by Ananda Coomaraswamy, Eliade began thinking of immigrating to the United States, but the untimely death of Coomaraswamy discouraged him from doing so for the time being. Beginning in February 1946, Eliade gave a series of lectures on comparative mythology at l'Ecole des Hautes Études in Paris. Still facing financial insecurity, Eliade resumed his work on Techniques du Yoga (Techniques of Yoga, 1948), Traité d'histoire des religions (1949; translated as Patterns in Comparative Religion, 1958), and Le Mythe de l'éternel retour. In the spring of 1948 Eliade met Christinel Cottesco, whom he married on 9 January 1950. At about the same time he started editing Luceafarul, a magazine for and by Romanian émigrés.

In the summer of 1949, while working hard on a book about shamanism, Eliade suddenly succumbed to the temptation of writing a new novel, Fôret interdite , which occupied him for the next five years. Though fluent in French, Eliade decided to continue writing his literary works in Romanian: "the homeland, for every exile," he told Claude-Henri Rocquet, "is the mother tongue he still continues to speak . . . the homeland, for me, is the language in which I dream and also write my journal." Fôret interdite conveys Eliade's nostalgia for his homeland and reiterates his belief that literature represents an instrument of knowledge, insofar as literary imagination is capable of revealing new dimensions of the human condition. As in his later novellas--including Pe strada Mântuleasa (1968; translated as The Old Man and the Bureaucrats, 1979)--Bucharest, the city of his childhood and adolescence, became almost a mythical place, "the heart of an inexhaustible mythology." Though Fôret interdite did not have the success Eliade expected, it is his best novel. Combining historical realism with a narrative scenario saturated with symbols (such as the forest, the summer solstice, and the car), it describes a series of initiatory ordeals at the end of which the principal character, Stefan Viziru, transcends the human condition and is liberated from the terror of history. The pages in Eliade's journal on which he describes the birth of this work are a testimony of the interplay between literary creativity and scientific research, between the nocturnal universe of the imagination and the diurnal world of intellect. While writing Fôret interdite, Eliade realized that he was never going to be able to give up literature. For him, fiction was more than a hobby; it was his way of preserving his spiritual and mental health. Persuaded of the organic need of man to dream, Eliade discovered an intimate connection between fiction and mythology. Deriving etymologically from imago (representation, imitation), the imagination, he noted, imitates exemplary models or images and reactualizes them.

For Eliade the 1950s were a successful decade in which he achieved long-deserved international recognition as a leading historian of religions. Invited by Olga Froebe-Kapteyn to lecture at the multidisciplinary Eranos Conferences in Ascona, Italy, in the summer of 1950, Eliade became a prominent member of a circle dominated by the psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. Eliade also became a regular attendee of important conferences and congresses on the history of religions and was often invited to lecture abroad. In 1951 a research grant awarded from the Bollingen Foundation delivered Eliade from the poverty in which he had been living since his arrival in Paris in 1945. Two of his most important scientific books, Le Chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l'extase (1951; translated as Shamanism. Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 1964) and Le Yoga. Immortalité et liberté (1954; translated as Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 1958; revised and enlarged, 1969), were published in Paris. In 1954 The Myth of the Eternal Return became Eliade's first major academic work to appear in English. One year later Fôret interdite received few and reserved reviews in France.

In 1956 Eliade was appointed visiting professor of history of religions at the University of Chicago, where he gave the Haskell Lectures, published in English as Birth and Rebirth. The Religious Meaning of Initiation in Human Culture (1958), a thorough meditation on the role of initiation in primitive cultures. Moving to the United States meant a second exile for him, even though it gave him new research opportunities and eventually brought him international recognition. Eliade left Paris consoled by the thought that he would return there in less than a year. Yet, in March 1957 he accepted the post of professor and chairman of the history of religions department at the University of Chicago, where he found a collegial atmosphere and good research opportunities. A year later, he joined the Committee on Social Thought, which had just been created and whose main aim was to overcome narrow specialization by broadening students' cultural horizons. Discovering the New World and the American university system proved a fascinating experience for Eliade, who could pursue his research agenda in a tolerant and free environment. He did not remain confined within the quiet environment of the Hyde Park campus in Chicago. He continued to be a "wandering scholar," traveling abroad and spending a few months each year in Europe, mostly in France and Italy. His extensive travels and reading notes are described in his journals, which include many details about his teaching and his views on modern art and the novel. Eliade was interested in almost everything, from the Japanese artistic and religious genius (which he admired for its theology of momentary incarnations of the spirit) to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, hippies, and politics. In 1960 he began co-editing the journal History of Religions, and one year later he and Ernst Jünger began editing Antaios. Some of his most important books were translated into English, often in revised and enlarged editions and with new introductions, notably Patterns in Comparative Religions (1958), The Sacred and the Profane (1959), Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries (1960), Images and Symbols (1961), Shamanism (1964), and The Forge and the Crucible (1962). Appointed Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago in 1964, Eliade received several honorary degrees from distinguished universities and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1966). At the same time the first critical interpretations of his works were published, culminating with a Festschrift, Myths and Symbols: Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade (1969).

Thus, Eliade developed a full-fledged methodology of the sacred that revealed his originality as an historian of religions. As Canadian critic Northrop Frye once said, the most impressive thing about Eliade's works was not the breadth of his erudition, but the unity and the consistency with which he brought together yoga, literature, primitive religions, and alchemy to form a pattern. Eliade examined different religions through a morphological and phenomenological analysis of the manifestations of the sacred and put a great emphasis on the irreducibility of the sacred that reveals itself through symbols and hierophanies. By reevaluating various aboriginal cults and practices, shamanism, alchemy, and folklore, he revealed their profound meanings and proved the error of those scholars who saw them as mere superstitions. Concerned with the limitations of contemporary secular existence and confident that, in retrospect, the cardinal phenomenon of the twentieth century would be the discovery of the spiritual universe of non-European peoples, Eliade also stressed the need to avoid Eurocentrism by fostering an encounter between traditional and modern mentalities. In his view, by pointing to traditional values and religious models as well as to forgotten modes of being, the history of religions should become a synthetic, integrative, and creative discipline that could lay the foundations for a new humanism and help modern man overcome the terror of history under which he lives. If studied properly, the history of religions understood as creative hermeneutics would then result in a spiritual renewal. "I feel as though I am a precursor," Eliade wrote in a journal entry for 15 September 1959; "I am aware of being somewhere in the avant-garde of the humanity of tomorrow or after."

Still believing in the fantastic novel as a new mythology, Eliade was tempted to return to fiction writing as he became worried that his exegetical, scientific work would prevent him from work on his most "personal" books, which would best reflect his world view. On 13 June 1959 he wrote in his journal, "I am constantly tempted to write the short story 'With the Gypsy Girls,' but I hesitate to begin. I have so many other things to finish." A few days later, Eliade gave in to the temptation. In 1963 a collection of Eliade's short fiction was published in Madrid as Nuvele (Novels). It includes one of his best-known novellas, "La Ţiganci" (translated as "With the Gypsy Girls," 1981), as well as other important stories. All are fantastic stories, narrations that begin in banal atmospheres and with apparently mediocre characters. Eliade's fundamental belief in the sacred camouflaged in the profane was based on the thesis of the unrecognizability of the miracle and the idea that ordinary events can sometimes have unexpected meanings. The same themes are present in other important literary works, such as Pe strada Mântuleasa , the "freest" of Eliade's works, which illustrates the liberating, soteriological function of myth by staging a confrontation between two mythologies (those of folklore and modern technology). The stories are a testimony to the interplay between Eliade's scientific and literary work, which demonstrates once again Eliade's belief in the power of narration to allow one to create imaginary universes. Eliade also began writing his autobiography, the only book he believed he "had" to write. A fragment covering the period 1907-1928 was published in Romanian in 1966 under the title Amintiri: I. Mansarda (Recollections: I. The Attic). The end of the 1960s marked Eliade's literary comeback in Romania (then enjoying a short period of liberalization), where two works of his fiction were published in 1969: Maitreyi and La Ţiganci si alte povestiri (With the Gypsy Girls and Other Stories).

During the 1970s Eliade pursued his scholarship with renewed stamina and enthusiasm. A staunch traveler, he journeyed from one place to another to meet with other scholars and receive various distinctions and honorary degrees, notably from Yale and Loyola. Most of the books he published during this decade were academic, culminating with the first two volumes of his monumental three-volume Histoire des croyances et des idées religieuses (1976-1983; translated as A History of Religious Ideas , 1978-1985). Underlying these works, which are based on the methodology developed in The Quest. History and Meaning in Religion (1969), is the belief that the sacred is an element in the structure of consciousness, not a stage in its history. Equally important was the publication of the French translation of the first two parts of Eliade's journal as Fragments d'un journal (1973; translated as No Souvenirs: Journal, 1957-1969 , 1977; and Journal I, 1945-1955 , 1990). Reading Eliade's journals allows one to grasp the strong relationship between his scientific and literary works. The journals also reveal his views on a wide variety of issues such as the writings of Jung and Tillich, hippies, and modern art. His literary production during the 1970s includes In curte la Dionis (At the Court of Dionysus, 1977), a collection of short stories that shift back and forth between the daily world and an imaginary universe. The translations of Pe strada Mântuleasa into French (1977) and English (1979) and of Fôret interdite into English (1978) revived his hope that one day he would succeed in being known as an author of a multifaceted oeuvre, not only as an historian of religions. In 1978 two important books about Eliade the man and the writer reached the bookstores. The prestigious Cahiers de l'Herne devoted a special issue to Eliade that includes articles and commentaries on his scientific and literary work by, among others, Georges Dumézil, Gilbert Durand, Paul Ricoeur, E. M. Cioran, and Eugène Ionesco. At the same time, Claude-Henri Roquet published a volume of his conversations with Eliade, L'Épreuve du labyrinthe (1978; translated as Ordeal by Labyrinth, 1982), which reveals a candid Eliade meditating on his intellectual and spiritual journey. Along with Eliade's Autobiography, it is the best introduction to his life and work.

Despite his declining health, Eliade's last years were dedicated as usual to travel, scholarship, and literature. (He kept his apartment in Paris, to which he returned regularly.) His journal entries for 1980-1985 depict a man who attempted to use his energy as much as possible to complete his oeuvre. An important three-volume Festschrift (with about fifty contributors) was published in 1983-1984 by Hans Peter Duerr in Germany. Widely praised by the academic community, Eliade was still not spared mounting criticism of his method and of the controversial right-wing sympathies of his youth. Eliade continued, however, to receive visits from admirers, friends, and Romanian exiles. In Romania the interest in Eliade was revived by the publication of In curte la Dionis, which offered a good selection of Eliade's best fiction. In 1982 he started working on the second volume of his Autobiography, which appeared posthumously in 1988, covering his first years in exile and his move to the United States. His fiction translated into French and published in the 1980s includes the novels Le Temps d'un centenaire suivi de Dayan (The Times of a Centenarian, 1981), Les Dix-neuf roses (Nineteen Roses, 1982), Les Trois Grâces (The Three Graces, 1984), and A l'ombre d'une fleur de lys (In the Shade of the Lily, 1985). These novels address themes from man's biological regeneration to theater as spiritual exercise.

In 1983 Eliade retired from the University of Chicago. Hailed as one of the founders of the history of religions in the United States, he completed the third volume of his A History of Religious Ideas , which concluded with a general meditation on the religious experiences and spiritual crises of the modern world. He also supervised the editing of the monumental sixteen-volume Encyclopedia of Religion (1987) and worked as a guide to world religions published in collaboration with his disciple Ioan P. Culianu at Chicago. In 1985 the trustees of the University of Chicago established a new chair in Eliade's honor. The fire that destroyed his office in Chicago in December 1985 deeply saddened Eliade, for he saw in it a sign of his imminent departure. He died only a few months later, on 22 April 1986.

Some critics have rightly suggested that Eliade's literary works are perhaps the best introduction to his thought. As Mac Linscott Ricketts, the author of an impressive biography on Eliade, once wrote, "it is there, above all, that we find the man and his message." It may well be that Eliade's most enduring influence will be spread through his fantasy fiction, which he viewed as an instrument of knowledge revealing unknown dimensions or aspects of the human condition. Eliade successfully defended the value of imagination and the free play of mind. By pointing out that literature is the offspring of mythology and by rediscovering the forgotten sources of literary imagination, he opposed the academic superstition that had tended to dismiss it as nonscientific. While being keenly aware that he did not write a book that represented him totally, Eliade was never wary of stressing the unity of his oeuvre: "If anyone wants to judge what I've written up till now," he told Rocquet, "then my books should be viewed as a whole. It is only the totality of my writings that can reveal the meaning of my work."


From: Craiutu, Aurelian. "Mircea Eliade." Twentieth-Century Eastern European WritersSecond Series, edited by Steven Serafin, Gale, 2000. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 220.


  • Further Reading


    • Douglas Allen & Dennis Doeing. Mircea Eliade: An Annotated Bibliography (New York & London: Garland, 1980).



    • Mac Linscott Ricketts, Mircea Eliade: The Romanian Roots, 1907-1945, 2 volumes (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1988).
    • Mircea Handoca, Mircea Eliade (Bucharest: Minerva, 1991).



    • Sorin Alexandrescu, "Dialectica fantasticului," introduction to La Tiganci (Bucharest: Editura pentru Literatura, 1969).
    • Douglas Allen, Myth and Religion in Mircea Eliade (New York: Garland, 1998).
    • Allen, Structure and Creativity in Religion. Hermeneutics in Mircea Eliade's Phenomenology and New Directions (The Hague: Mouton, 1978).
    • Thomas J. Altizer, Mircea Eliade and the Dialectics of the Sacred (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963).
    • Roy K. Bird, "Mircea Eliade's The Novel of the Nearsighted Adolescent as Metafiction," Journal of the American Romanian Academy, 13-14 (1990): 121-127.
    • Elena Borga, "Mircea Eliade and the Nostalgia of Origins or the Romanian Dimension of a Universal Consciousness," Journal of the American Romanian Academy, 19 (1994): 159-165.
    • Matei Calinescu, "The Disguises of Miracle: Notes on Mircea Eliade's Fiction," World Literature Today, 52, no. 4 (1978): 558-564.
    • Calinescu, "Fantastic and Interpretation in Three of Mircea Eliade's Novellas: 'The Cape,' 'Youth without Youth,' and 'Nineteen Roses,'" Agora, 1, no. 2 (1988): 210-255.
    • Calinescu, "Imagination and Meaning: Aesthetic Attitudes in Mircea Eliade's Thought," in American Critics at Work: Examinations of Contemporary Literary Theory, edited by Victor A. Kramer (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1984), pp. 368-395.
    • David Carrasco, "Mircea Eliade and the 'Duration of Life': An Abundance of Souvenirs," Journal of the American Romanian Academy, 10 (1987): 7-14.
    • Carrasco and Jane Marie Swanberg, eds., Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Boulder & London: Westview Press, 1985).
    • David Cave, Mircea Eliade's Vision for a New Humanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
    • Ira Chernus, "War and the Enemy in the Thought of Mircea Eliade," History of European Ideas, 13, no. 4 (1991): 335-344.
    • Peter Christiansen, "Mircea Eliade's The Forbidden Forest and Post-War Existentialism," Journal of the American Romanian Academy, 13-14 (1990): 128-144.
    • Ioan P. Culianu, Mircea Eliade (Assisi: Cittadella Editrice, 1978).
    • Sergiu Pavel Dan, "Mircea Eliade," in Proza fantastica româneasca, edited by Dan (Bucharest: Minerva, 1975), pp. 235-247.
    • Hans Peter Duerr, ed., Alcheringa oder die beginnende Zeit (Frankfurt am Main: Qumran, 1983).
    • Duerr, ed., Die Mitte der Welt (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984).
    • Duerr, ed., Sehnsucht nach dem Ursprung zu Mircea Eliade, 3 volumes (Frankfurt am Main: Syndikat, 1983-1984).
    • Robert P. Forbes, "Eliade, Joyce, and the Terror of History," Cross Currents, 36 (Summer 1986): 179-192.
    • Norman J. Girardot and Mac Linscott Ricketts, eds., Imagination and Meaning: The Scholarly and Literary Worlds of Mircea Eliade (New York: Seabury Press, 1982).
    • Ion Goian, "Mircea Eliade and Resignifying Humanism," Romanian Review, 40, no. 7 (1986): 75-80.
    • Monica M. Grecu, "The Fantastic Element in Eliade's Novels," Journal of the American Romanian Academy, 16-17 (1992): 64-78.
    • Joseph M. Kitagawa and Charles H. Long, eds., Myths and Symbols. Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).
    • Ion Manea, "Remembering Mircea Eliade," Journal of the American Romanian Academy, 10 (1987): 64-71.
    • Adrian Marino, L'herméneutique de Mircea Eliade (Paris: Gallimard, 1981).
    • Dumitru Micu, "Introducere," introduction to Maitreyi (Bucharest: Editura pentru Literatura, 1969).
    • Ion Negoitescu, "Mircea Eliade--sau de la fantastic la oniric," Viata Româneasca, 2 (1970): 71-77.
    • Virgil Nemoianu, "Das Aussprechen des Geheimnisse. Phantastische und politische Dimensionen der Romane von Charles Williams und Mircea Eliade," in Die Mitte der Welt, edited by Hans Peter Duerr (Frankfurt: Suhrhamp, 1984), pp. 345-357.
    • Nemoianu, "Mircea Eliade între Chicago si Bucuresti," Litere, Arte & Idei, 29 June 1992, pp. 6-7.
    • Hans H. Penner, "Myth and Ritual: A Wasteland or a Forest of Symbols?," in Ritual and Myth, edited by Robert A. Segal (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 334-345.
    • Andrei Plesu, "Mircea Eliade si hermeneutica artelor," Secolul 20, 205-206 (1978): 59-64.
    • Mac Linscott Ricketts, "Mircea Eliade and Nicolae Iorga," Cahiers roumains d'études liteeraires, 3 (1984): 132-143.
    • Ricketts, "Mircea Eliade's Unpublished Novel: Gaudeamus," Journal of the American Romanian Academy, 10 (1987): 41-63.
    • Eugen Simion, "Mircea Eliade," in his Scriitori români de azi, II (Bucharest: Cartea Româneasca, 1976), pp. 319-336.
    • Simion, "Postfata," afterword to Proza fantastica, V (Bucharest: Editura Fundatiei Culturale Romane, 1992), pp. 207-255.
    • Nicolae Steinhardt, "Fantasticul lui Mircea Eliade," Steaua, 28, no. 4 (1977): 18-19.
    • Constantin Tacou, ed., Mircea Eliade. Cahiers de l'Herne (Paris: L'Herne, 1978).