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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.”

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. 1

    Shambhala, 1991.

  2. 2

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

  3. 3

    Harper San Francisco, 1992.

  4. 4

    Milan: Rizzoli, 1996.

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