• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Murder in Chicago

None of this amounts to proof, but it certainly adds up to strong evidence that several political forces in Romania were hostile to Culianu and could have wanted him dead. Anton does not adopt the deductive method of Sherlock Holmes and his story suggests Lovecraft more than Conan Doyle. The book confines itself to laying out facts and coincidences—and I will not go into some curious episodes that took place after the murder, featuring the claims of eccentrics, mediums, and perhaps mythomaniacs, to which the investigators and Anton himself devoted a lot of time, without arriving at any definite conclusions. Still the book leads a reasonable reader to conclude both that Culianu was killed for political motives, and that the killer was not a lone fanatic but someone sent by forces still powerful in Romania in the post-Ceausescu period. As in all events that involve secret services, this is really a very simple tale and it seems clear who must have been responsible for the murder, though nothing can be proved.

If this were so, Culianu’s story would not be much different from many others’. In the next to last chapter Anton recalls that in 1992 “at least fifty writers were killed around the world; in 1994 the figure jumped to seventy-two. Twenty-seven journalists were killed in the first nine months of 1995 in Algeria alone.” To justify the writing of this book its last lines could suffice: “Those who must speak out are Americans who care about free thought and the rights we take for granted. This crime took place on American soil, in a renowned university, in the middle of a school day…. As a sign of one American’s vulnerability to history, it presents a critical policy issue to those who teach, write, or enforce our laws.”

All this would suggest an excellent motive to write a book on Professor Culianu’s case but not to entitle it Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu. Ioan Culianu may well have been murdered for political reasons, but this title suggests that magic has something to do with it. Is this simply a publisher’s device to boost the book’s sales? I think not, because in this book Culianu’s political beliefs are so vigorously mixed with other aspects of his personality that the title is justified. And this leads us to the second aspect of the matter.

As we follow the events and the anecdotes related in Anton’s book, we discover that Culianu was fascinated throughout his life by the magical thinking of the Renaissance, by the phenomena of shamanism, by the heretical sects that grew up over the centuries in the wake of the traditions of Gnosticism, by techniques of divination, by experiences of ecstasy. Now, if one were to make a cocktail of all these ideas, without distinguishing the various historical periods, the various civilizations, and assuming that everything is equally true, one would arrive at what is called Occultism. And if this Occultism is not just something that is written about but something that is practiced, we could arrive at one of those characters who, during the day, rummages among the shelves of New Age bookshops and then, after dark, may participate in some satanic or other mystical ritual.

To be sure, many of the anecdotes that Anton has collected can lead the reader to see Culianu as an occultist. From the pact of love and fidelity drawn up with his first wife, and signed in blood, to the games he played with his students, including laying out the Tarot cards with them, and to his numerous declarations about the fine line between dream and reality, Culianu seems engaged in a constant flirtation with Other Worlds. It is not simply a matter of acting ironically or of engaging in literary exercises: anyone concerned with the subjects that concerned Culianu inevitably succumbs to the fascination of the material he or she studies, as a psychiatrist slowly comes to share the logic of his or her patients, or as a man who has lived for years alone with a dog begins to consider him a human being or to consider himself exquisitely canine.

I recall a conversation with a rare book dealer who specialized in the Occult. When I asked him if he believed in what most of his customers believed, he replied that at the beginning he had been impelled purely by cultural curiosity, but then he added: “You can’t spend your whole life in this atmosphere without somehow becoming a part of it.” I would say the same of Culianu: you cannot spend your life studying Renaissance magic and then avoid imitating your heroes, at least in fun. And the game can become dangerous in two ways: either you take yourself seriously and stop playing around, or others take you seriously who have less sense of fun and irony than you have.

If I seem to insist on irony, it’s for a very simple reason: the ability to harbor a certain amount of irony toward one’s object of study (even if you are a devout Catholic studying the theologians of the Middle Ages) enables you to remain at a critical distance, which is after all the gift of the true scholar. Without venturing a complicated discourse on what is meant by critical distance, I would like to quote a page from Culianu’s Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, in which he speaks of the writer he studied first, the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Ficino was a Neoplatonic philosopher, but he also presented himself as a magus. The Renaissance magus was neither a necromancer nor a magician (nor a trickster). He believed in a “natural” magic, that is to say he believed that mysterious ties bound together every aspect of the universe through a network of sympathies and resemblances. Thus, by acting in certain ways toward a flower, we could control a star, and our humors and our thoughts could be influenced by different precious stones. This is Culianu’s ironic, affectionate account of his hero:

Ficino’s image of a theurgist, the practitioners of intrasubjective magic, did not amount to enough to run counter to the custom of the time. Far from evoking the spirits of the dead like the necromancer described by Benvenuto Cellini, far from flying up into the air and casting a spell on men and beasts like traditional witches, even far from applying himself to pyrotechnics like Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, or to cryptography like Father Trithemius, Ficino’s magician is an innocent individual whose habits are neither reprehensible nor shocking in the eyes of a good Christian.

We can be sure that if we look him up—unless he does not consider our company to be respectable, which is very likely—he will suggest that we accompany him on his daily walk. He will lead us surreptitiously, to avoid undesirable encounters, to an enchanted garden, a pleasure place where sunlight, in the fresh air, comes in contact only with the scent of flowers and pneumatic waves emanating from bird song. Our theurgist, in his white wool gown of exemplary cleanliness, will perhaps apply himself to inhaling air rhythmically, then, having noticed a cloud, will anxiously go home, afraid of catching cold. He will play the lyre to attract the beneficent influence of Apollo and the other divine Graces, after which he will sit down.

Then comes the description of the magician’s frugal meal: some boiled greens, a few leaves of salad, two cockerel hearts and a ram’s brains, to strengthen the heart and the brain, a few spoonfuls of white sugar, a glass of wine in which some amethyst powder has been dissolved, to attract the favors of Venus. His house will be as clean as his clothes, and unlike his contemporaries, he will bathe twice a day. And the passage ends with an appreciation of this extremely civilized magus, who was “as clean as a cat.”2

Are these the affirmations of an “occultist” who does not distinguish between reality and fiction, who frequents magic gatherings? Surely not. They are the humorous description of a scholar who loves his heroes and behaves toward them like a father who quotes with benevolent irony—perhaps tinged with nostalgia—the marvelous fantasies of his son, possessor of an innocence that the father feels he has now lost.

Anton’s book does not deny these aspects of the personality and the scholarly work of Culianu, but he also allows himself often to be distracted by anecdotes that may seem to lead to a more intriguing story, but are irrelevant. See, for example, page 234: “When she got back to Cambridge, Hillary had her photographs of Ioan processed. There must have been something wrong with the camera. All the shots of him showed a double image.” The episode indicates only that Hillary Wiesner was no Avedon, but since this is the last sentence of the chapter, the reader may feel drawn to far more uncanny conclusions.

Finally, there is one aspect of Culianu’s thought that Anton does not by any means neglect (rather he reports it with precision even if the concepts are very complex), though it risks being confused with other more or less magical anecdotes. The fact is that Culianu never asserted that the world is governed by magic forces. He took the view that there is a universe of ideas, which develop almost autonomously through an abstract ars combinatoria, and that these combinations interfere with history, with material events, in often unpredictable ways, provoking various effects.

If we read Culianu’s The Tree of Gnosis,3 we see that he believed that “ideas form systems that can be envisaged as ideal objects” and that these ideal objects unite and separate through an ars combinatoria of a mathematical type (it is not so much an alchemy as it is a chemistry or a physics of ideas). His concept was to a great extent related to the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, whom Culianu rereads in the light of a “morphodynamic” theory of an almost biological sort. Since nature is nothing but the combination of some elementary forms, so not only religions but also philosophical ideas obey similar laws. His vision of systems of ideas included also the notion that there are “archetypes” of such systems (even if he believed that Jung’s theory was full of “oddities”), which are “stored in the human ‘psyche’ like a mysterious genetic code.”

In his book on Gnosis he sets out from the proposition that the various Gnostic systems all have something in common but still are different, and he constructs a sort of binary tree which permits different strains of Gnostic thought to switch from one path to another (very similar to a flow chart used in computer science). This chemistry of ideas is surely stronger than individual wills, and it is the element that leads groups and societies to evolve in different directions.

I have summarized very briefly the most provocative aspect of Culianu’s thought, omitting the ways (sometimes fantastic) by which he binds his theory of ideal objects to the physics of relativity and to other aspects of contemporary science. What I want to underline here is that his is certainly a metaphysical view, a form of Platonic cybernetics, but it is not classic occultism and it is not a magic view of the universe. If anything, it is an instrument with which the scholar tries to explain both the birth of magic thought and the way in which, by combining ideas, historic facts are produced. To paraphrase J.L. Austin, Culianu was interested in the problem of “how to make things with ideas.” Anton quotes a statement made by Culianu during the discussion of my book in New York à propos of the plots occultists invent, which then become real. “Nothing reveals this principle more than the Holocaust…. When crazed minds are in synchrony they create an alternative reality; they kill for invented reasons.”

Did Culianu, in his everyday behavior, with his ironic games, even with his stories surely inspired by Borges, act in ways that we associate with someone already proceeding along the dangerous paths of magic? I believe he did act in such ways, but this is a characteristic of his personal psychology and not necessarily of his work as a scholar. Did these psychological tendencies influence the political situation in which he was involved? Anton does not say this in so many words, but he allows the reader to infer as much.

What can emerge from the life and the death of a figure like Culianu and the inquiry into both? A myth. And, in fact, a myth is being constructed. It is interesting to compare the newspaper headlines that in 1991 reported the news of Culianu’s murder with those of 1996, reviving the subject in reviews of Anton’s book. The 1991 headlines say: “Professor at U of C slain, police say,” “Professor shot to death at U of C,” “Scholar’s death remains mystery,” and “Intrigue surrounds professor’s death.” The 1996 headlines refer to “Forces of Darkness,” “Into the Labyrinth,” “Brilliant Life Swept Up in Dark Forces.”

In Italy a few months before Anton’s book was published in the US, there appeared Il presagio (The Presentiment) by Claudio Gatti.4 The subtitle reads “an esoteric thriller,”and the subject of the novel is Ioan Culianu. This is a work of fiction, and in it, shortly after Culianu’s murder, his fian- cée, also called Hillary (Wagner, not Wiesner), is also murdered. The Romanian plot is mingled with an occultist and satanic plot in the bowels of Manhattan, etc., etc. The novel can be read with enjoyment by those unaware that Culianu really existed, while anyone familiar with the story will be irritated by this violent mélange of true events and fiction.

The irritation stems from the fact that Culianu died only a few years ago: if he had been killed in the days of the Man in the Iron Mask we would accept everything, as we accept the free mixture of history and novel concocted by Dumas. And this is the point: a real person can be used with such nonchalance only when he no longer belongs to contemporary history but has entered the cloudy region of myth. That such a freewheeling use of the Culianu myth is possible only five years after his death must make us reflect on the post-mortem story about Culianu that could have been convincingly conceived (and studied) only by the victim himself if he had remained with us. But he would have told it, no doubt, with tongue in cheek.

Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

  1. 2

    Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 136-137.

  2. 3

    Harper San Francisco, 1992.

  3. 4

    Milan: Rizzoli, 1996.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print