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Murder in Chicago

On May 21, 1991, Ioan Culianu, a young (forty-one) and brilliant professor of the history of religion at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, stepped into the stall of the restroom of his department. Someone in the adjoining stall climbed onto the toilet seat, aimed a Beretta .25 at the professor’s head, and killed him. As the Cook County medical examiner Robert Stein remarked, “To kill with one shot from a .25 at that distance, that’s not easy.” Which immediately suggested a professional killer.

The police had no leads. First, they considered the explanations any investigator would think of: disgruntled student, homosexual involvement, robbery attempt, cherchez la femme. But Culianu had not been robbed; he was known to be happily engaged to Hillary Wiesner, a brilliant and charming young scholar; and he was immensely popular with his students. It emerged, however, that he was a Romanian exile openly opposed to the former Ceausescu regime and to its successors. Culianu could have been killed by a member of some fanatical sect with which he was in contact, or by surviving agents of Romania’s notorious secret service, the Securitate. In any event, the Chicago police still have not found the guilty party.

Last year in Bucharest, after I gave a lecture on a quite different subject, one of the first questions asked by the audience was: “Is it true that you were acquainted with Ioan Culianu? How do you explain his death?” I replied that I had exchanged a few letters with him, that I admired his work very much and he had demonstrated a flattering interest in mine; and so a cordial friendship had developed, though I had actually laid eyes on him only two or three times, always on public occasions. The last time had been when my novel Foucault’s Pendulum was being published in New York. At a roundtable discussion of the novel, Culianu was in the audience with Hillary Wiesner and was invited to take part. After that I didn’t see Culianu again. When I learned of his death, I took another look at the inscription in the author’s copy of his Out of This World,1 which I had received a short time before. The date was April 4, 1991. And this was all I could say in Bucharest. About his death I knew only what everyone else knew, namely that nothing was known.

I sensed the audience’s disappointment. They wanted me to talk about Culianu, to reveal something further to them; and I realized that, especially for the younger generation of Romanians, Culianu had become a myth. Or perhaps a political symbol. I realized that, beyond his academic work, very little was known about him. Now, having read Ted Anton’s book, I know more. Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu is a detailed reconstruction of a much-publicized crime, but the solution that the author suggests certainly has political significance. At the same time this is also a book about a myth, which contributes to the propagation of that myth.

To judge by the number of people he contacted, Anton worked scrupulously. When he learned I had been in touch with Culianu, he asked me for photocopies of the letters we had exchanged and for any other information I might have. If he did the same, and apparently he did, with others who knew Culianu, his efforts to reconstruct the man and his story must be considered conscientious, even rigorous. Though the book is aimed at a non-specialist audience, when Anton summarizes Culianu’s theoretical positions he does so without distorting the writer’s thought. Some misstatements could be pointed out, such as the definition of Nicholas of Cusa on page 109 as “a poet” or the dismissal of Borges’s Ficciones as “detective stories,” and there is a certain confusion in comparing the wheels of the art of memory by Raymundus Lullus with those by Giordano Bruno. But in a work of this nature, these are venial sins. As far as I can judge, the bibliography (which lists even Culianu’s minor works) seems impeccable.

Nevertheless, in this book there is a great deal of reconstructed dialogue between Culianu and his friends and acquaintances. In literary theory, one of the criteria for distinguishing a work of fiction from a work of history is the presence of dialogue. Still there are books with dialogue that are not outright fiction, a genre I would call fictionalized biography. I am thinking, for example, of some works by Robert Graves. In order to give us a vivid image of a character, the author reconstructs dialogue that may not have taken place exactly as described; we may accept this but we demand that the writer’s reconstruction be based on documents which, if they do not confirm those conversations, at least do not render them implausible. Anton’s book surely belongs to this genre, and it makes fascinating reading for those who have never heard of Ioan Culianu. But Graves wrote fictionalized biographies of people dead for hundreds of years, about whom we thought we already knew a great deal (especially the circumstances of their death), and he did so in an attempt to explore their psychology. The case of Culianu (and of Anton) is different: the fiction-like form serves to make us understand a character about whom we discover we knew very little, and to venture a hypothesis concerning the reasons for his death.

I will not attempt to describe everything that Anton says in this book. What interests me more is not what the book says but why it was written. Let us suppose that Culianu was “only” a historian of religion who had concerned himself throughout his working life with the theological disputes between Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In this case (and excluding all the rest) Anton’s book could be summarized in this way:

A young Romanian born and educated under the Communist regime tries to escape the oppressive confines of his personal universe. He discovers the work of a great historian of religion, his compatriot Mircea Eliade, who has lived for some time in France and the United States. The youth becomes fascinated by the subject and—with a few friends—constructs his own private intellectual world (as Anton says, “he found the possibility of meaningful rebellion for him—not outward, but inward”). The young man feels oppressed by the inquisitional climate of the regime that rules his country (he is repeatedly questioned by members of the notorious Romanian secret police, the Securitate), and finally he manages to obtain fellowships that take him first to Italy, then to France, where he carries on his research.

At this point he is given a position as professor in Holland, and finally at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where Eliade is a prominent teacher. During these travels he undergoes the familiar sufferings of an exile: he seeks some contact with his hero Eliade, achieves it only after many difficulties and some inexplicable reticence, but at last becomes Eliade’s collaborator and biographer. In all this, the young scholar, who knew little of what had happened in his country before his birth, discovers that—allegedly—Eliade had been associated with the Iron Guard, an extreme-right-wing Romanian organization, anti-Semitic, with Nazi sympathies. He questions the master about this dark aspect of his past, receives only mumbled admissions, and before long realizes that Eliade was indeed close to Iron Guard circles. Still Culianu keeps hoping that he can prove that Eliade was not an actual member of the organization and was surely neither a Nazi nor an anti-Semite.

But what can he know of left and right, this young man who throughout his formative years was kept ignorant of political developments in the Western world? At first, according to Anton, Culianu himself displays interest in the cultural ambiance of the right, but later his works and his writings testify to his democratic vision. Eventually he will insist that the Iron Guards were “the most secret, the most bombastic, the most mystical and bungling fascist organization of pre-War Europe.”

After the death of his mentor in 1986, Culianu distances himself from him, not least in his scholarship, developing his own theory of history, while he remains sensitive to what is happening in his native country. While Ceausescu is still in power, Culianu writes some stories in the science (or rather, political) fiction genre; they prove prophetic, foretelling the way the Communist regime will be overthrown. But even after it falls, in December 1989, he is not satisfied. He believes that the series of events that have caused Ceausescu’s end were not a revolution but rather a coup d’état that has allowed the old leaders to remain in power, and he is further convinced that in the new climate created in Romania the old Communists have found natural allies in the heirs of the old extreme right. And he never tires of expressing these views, both in a series of articles and interviews and, repeatedly, in his stories, which are transparent allegories, satires more provocative than any political statement.

Perhaps he doesn’t yet know that many Iron Guardists who had abandoned Romania in the 1940s have settled in the Middle West, particularly around Chicago, Detroit, and Toronto; or perhaps he only begins to suspect it too late. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that some of his literary fantasies, written with an edge of irony, are taken with great seriousness by certain people who consider them more dangerous than a direct political attack, all the more so because they are now published in a new magazine, Lumea Libera, widely circulated in his homeland.

Though he harbors no monarchist notions, Culianu meets former King Michael of Romania and becomes convinced that the return of the monarchy can perhaps restore a constitutional stability to the country. He receives many warnings: phone calls, letters, threatening incidents such as a break-in at his house. Some of them he dismisses; others worry him; perhaps at a certain point, he thinks, he can no longer avoid some sort of political role. He is killed in a manner typical of the methods of Eastern European security services. Anton writes:

The sequence of Culianu’s harassment also followed a formula described by a former Securitate colonel to journalist Petre Bacanu: letters first, then telephone calls, then a break-in or personal visit. Then, if the writer did not stop, he was killed.

The Romanian authorities deny that they are aware of any political motive for his murder; but it is suspicious that România Mare, a paper in which, in an association hard to disentangle, old Communists are to be found along with old members of the pro-Nazi extreme right, should speak of the “fermented vision of Culianu’s fecal brain” and that his death should be commemorated there with an epitaph such as the following: “Captivated by eros and magic from the Renaissance and trips ‘out of this world,’ [Culianu] finally has the possibility to do his investigations.”

  1. 1

    Shambhala, 1991.

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