From Cioran to Eliade


The School of Life's video about Romanian-French philosopher and pessimist Emil Cioran was so intriguing I immediately placed holds on three of his books at Multnomah County Public Library. Anathemas and Admirations was the first to come in, soon followed by The Trouble with Being Born. Each was a let-down. The video, running six minutes and 30 seconds, was like a movie trailer that has all the good scenes and lines from what is otherwise a run of the mill offering.

Anathemas and Admirations alternates chapters of aphorisms with chapters where a subject, frequently a writer or intellectual figure, is taken up at greater length, while The Trouble with Being Born consists entirely of aphorisms. Few of the aphorisms are striking or compelling. Chapters on Cioran's friends Samuel Beckett and Mircea Eliade are more engaging. In the case of Beckett that may be as much a function of my interest in him as to any insight presented by Cioran. As for Eliade, I knew his name but nothing more. There must have been something to Cioran's treatment of him because it lead me back to the library where I found the first volume of his autobiography, subtitled Journey East, Journey West and covering the years 1907–1937. It turned out to be a nice discovery.

My friend the novelist Chuck Oliveros believes in finishing any book he starts. This is in general a good principle and a good discipline to cultivate. I can think of any number of books and poems that rewarded me for plowing through what was a slog in the beginning. On the other hand there will never be time enough to read all that we want to read or to reread the writers to whom a return is worthwhile. Sometimes it is advisable to make an executive decision, aware that it is done on the basis of insufficient information, and cut one's losses. I made it through about half of each of the two Cioran books and canceled the hold on the third, The Temptation to Exist.

Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) was a Romanian scholar and fiction writer, the fiction mostly unpublished, for thirty years director of the History of Religions Department at the University of Chicago, and editor in chief of Macmillan's Encyclopedia of Religion. This will not be a comprehensive review because I am only a bit over 100 pages into the autobiography.

Eliade was born in Bucharest, son of an army officer. He witnessed Austro-German troops marching into the city during World War I while his father was away with his unit. Officers of the occupying forces were billeted in the family home. Young Eliade made some of his first forays into fiction as he imagined a group of Romanian soldiers in a cornfield near Bucharest offering up heroic resistance to the enemy.

Something of a piano prodigy as a youth, Eliade had sufficient self-awareness to realize that he did not possess the feel for music needed to be a professional musician. A teacher at the lyçee sparked an early interest in zoology, but otherwise he had little interest in schoolwork. As a teenager he did poorly in his studies, failed classes, skipped school, roamed the streets with a bad crowd, read voraciously despite his parents' concern that too much reading would strain his weak eyes, and wrote novels and essays about scientific topics and writers he had read. In addition he was an ardent outdoorsman and sailor.

From the beginning Eliade exhibited a talent for antagonizing teachers and other authority figures, even those who recognized his intelligence and talents. When he did well in school it was typically because through his reading he already had a familiarity with the subject matter when it came up in class. His intellectual curiosity was matched by his discipline and work habits. He writes of taking up the study of mathematics in the summer of 1925, when he would work six or seven hours without stopping, take a break to read a book of philosophy or history of religion, then return to the math for another four or five hours. Meantime he was writing literary criticism, reviews, and other essays and corresponding with writers and intellectuals in Romania and Italy. At the age of eighteen he celebrated the publication of his 100th article. Not surprisingly he engaged in what he called a "struggle against sleep" because being awake for only sixteen hours a day was not time enough for all he had to do — "so many books to read, so many sciences to learn."

The Wikipedia entry on Eliade notes that as a student he was a disciple of the university professor Nae Ionescu, a journalist and philosopher of the far right, and that after World War II Eliade was criticized for his own far-right political connections and involvement in the 1930s and the war years. I have not gotten far enough into the autobiography for this to come up. It will be interesting to see if and how Eliade addresses the issue. First, though, must come a journey to Calcutta where he will study Sanskrit and Indian philosophy and write his dissertation on yoga.

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David Matthews

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