Mephistopheles and the Androgyne
The Two and the One
The Myth of the Eternal Return
Cosmos and History
Patterns in Comparative Religion
Yoga: Immortality and Freedom
Birth and Rebirth
Rites and Symbols of Initiation
The Sacred and the Profane
Myths, Dreams and Mysteries
Images and Symbols
The Forge and the Crucible
Shamanism: Archiac Techniques of Ecstasy
Merlin and his magic forest must be cut down to size before we can see the shape of the trees, but first let us examine the undergrowth. After graduating from the University of Bucharest in 1928 Mircea Eliade spent three years in Calcutta studying classical texts of Indian mysticism. His special concern was with the ascetic and ecstatic techniques whereby the would-be saint, having achieved a state of psychological dissociation, can persuade himself that he has access to the powers of the other world, being himself neither alive nor dead, neither on earth nor in heaven. All of Eliade’s subsequent writings have been concerned with this central theme, the symbolic modes through which communication is established between the sacred and the profane. His attitude is that of a Jesuit: he is scholar and believer at the same time. Eliade left Romania at the end of the war and later settled in Paris; for the past ten years he has been Professor of the History of Religion in the University of Chicago. The “history” which he pursues is not concerned with chronological sequences or the analysis of the causes and consequences of particular events, but rather with the development of human thought over vast regions of time and space. But this evolution is a very simple two-stage affair: for Eliade modern man stands to archaic man as Christianity to pre-Christianity. The cosmological ideas which characterize archaic religion are everywhere the same and may be exemplified, in Frazerian fashion, by any snippets of exotic ethnography which conveniently come to hand. Modern man is unique because the religious mythology of Judeo-Christianity is set in a matrix of chronological time. Christian time is on-going, it had a beginning and will have an end but it is non-repetitive, it is “historical.” In all other religions, time is a cyclical process. Instead of advancing boldly towards the discovery of a New Jerusalem, archaic man is content to engage in recurrent but imperfect imitation of divinely ordained archetypes fashioned by the ancestral deities in the first beginning.
ELIADE’S DIAGNOSIS may be challenged on many different grounds: bad history—there has never been a radical discordance between Christian cosmology and cyclical notions of time; bad ethnography—it is not true that the cosmologies of “archaic” man always incorporate notions of cyclical time; bad method—comparative ethnography in the style which Eliade employs, can only illustrate by example, it can never properly be used as a basis for generalization; bad psychology—Eliade takes for granted the Lévy-Bruhl fashions of his youth which assumed that ethnographic evidence reflects a pre-logical archaic mentality radically different from that of rational thought (Lévy- Bruhl himself abandoned this theory in his later years); confusion of terms—the most interesting parts of Eliade’s writings become fogged by his failure to distinguish clearly between the content of a set of symbols and its structure. It is only fair to add that in the last chapter of his latest book, Mephistopheles and the Androgyne, Eliade shows himself sensitive to most of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.