Mircea Eliade wrote his first book, Romanul adolescentului miop (1924) (literally, The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent), when he was seventeen years old. He described it not as a novel – as the Romanian title would suggest – but as the literary account of a failed attempt to write a novel. And yet, the word “novel” is used in the original title (the English edition has opted for ‘Diary’, thereby emphasizing its incipient nature, and encouraging comparisons to other well-known diarists such as Holden Caufield and Adrian Mole). The last sentence of the book coincides with the first one: “As I was all alone I decided to begin writing The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent this very day”, providing the already read text with a circular and paradoxical structure that is simultaneously finite and in the process of being finalized, organized and chaotic. Similarly, the narrator is both a character and his interpreter. The short-sighted adolescent is not someone who does not see well – on the contrary, he is a keen observer of people – but someone who is afraid of being seen as an ugly, indecisive, good-for-nothing young man particularly because he is short-sighted. While the other boys in his classroom are machos– as we would call them nowadays –, constantly boasting about their success with women, the short-sighted adolescent is an introverted non-macho who is, however, ironic and surprisingly inscrutable.

The author feels at home in this knot of contradictions. As he frequently mentions, the process he employs is that of transcribing excerpts from the journal started by him a few years before – a fact which is biographically accurate. Eliade regularly kept a journal while he was in Romania and in India, but he left it in the care of some friends when he went to London in 1940, hoping to recover it upon his return. However, the war and ensuing communist period prevented him from ever coming back and the journal was (probably irrevocably) lost. What is known as Fragments d´un Journal – the French Gallimard edition of 1973 – refers to the period that Eliade spent in Portugal and then France, subsequent to the London years. Hence, The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent incorporates fragments proclaimed as having been taken from a journal that currently no longer exists! Therefore, there is no way of knowing the extent of the author’s peculiar efforts with respect to making the transition from diary to novel.

Yet there are two other, parallel sources of the latter: Memoriile (The Memoirs) referring to the same period, but published separately and the edition of Scrieri de Tinerețe (Writings of Youth) published in four volumes by Mircea Handoca in Bucharest. The latter encompass articles published by Eliade in different newspapers of the time, between 1921 and 1925 – i.e. exactly the period referred to in The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent. Nevertheless, Eliade calls a few other essays in this volume the “unpublished writings”, dated 1923, meaning they never came out in any newspaper in that time yet their titles were very significant: “Journal Fragments”, “The Journal of the Guys in My Classroom” and “Journal and Memoirs”. In this case, the author mentions the names of his colleagues and best friends, such as Haig Acterian, Dinu Sighireanu, Polihroniade, Vojen and many others. All of them are referred to by their authentic names, unlike the slightly altered names in the novel.

Therefore, The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent is neither an autobiography, nor a proper fictional narration. The author and main character, who is also a narrator, do not have the same name in the text – the other characters address him as “doctor!”, not Mircea – which implies, according to Philippe Lejeune, that the reader accept a type of “autobiographical pact” by means of which he or she is led to believe that the author of the book refers to himself. However, the identification of the two instances, narrator and character, at the level of the text’s enunciation (writing) is perceived at the level of the utterance (the text itself) only as similarity between them. This enables the reader to acquire a “phantasmatic” perspective upon the character by means of which something beyond authorial intent can be inferred from the text – namely “his unknown soul”.

Playing with the conventions of various literary genres is part of an entire intellectual world in which Eliade seeks, but also builds himself, soars into different domains of knowledge, but also leaves them, struggles with scholar obligations, despises them, but also strains to solve them when nothing else can be done.

Playing with the conventions of various literary genres is part of an entire intellectual world in which Eliade seeks, but also builds himself, soars into different domains of knowledge, but also leaves them, struggles with scholar obligations, despises them, but also strains to solve them when nothing else can be done. Moreover, in many chapters, he depicts himself as a clear-headed observer of his classmates although there are strong affective and conceptual links that bind them; as such, he ironically deflates the pretensions of great erotic conquerors that they put on. Hence, we could analyze this book from the perspective of the conflict between the characters’ real identity and the one they put on; in other words, between being someone and pretending to be someone else, between authenticity and fiction. Just as in the case of a vanity fair, albeit not one as bitter as Thackeray’s, some characters have an “inflated” view of themselves, only to be “deflated” by the narrator who is simultaneously their friend and their detached observer. He concludes that they are not what they pretend to be and wonders whether he might be mistaken with respect to his own self-image in a similar manner in which his characters are. Consequently, the narrator seems to be doubled by a second observer – whom we may call metanarrative – who oversees his own pretentions, not of vanity but of lucidity. The second observer drives the narrator towards endless self-examination or merciless secret encounters with his own phantasms. The narrator distinguishes himself from his friends particularly by means of self-reflection, since the latter seem untouched by this illness. The narrator is different, he has to be different. The characters’ uncertainty with respect to the discrepancy between appearance and reality is taken on by the narrator, although with a different meaning: not of womanizer, but of thorough analyst of his own person. He depicts himself in a negative light, as an ugly short-sighted individual who is ignored by everyone – a description which is not in conformity with the narration – but he is a short-sighted character who constantly questions his true identity. The narrator knows that the others are not as they portray themselves to be, but he does not know how they really are, just as he does not know how he really is, but merely how he thinks he is. Hence, this is a strange intertwining of narrative perspectives: the characters boast about their success, the narrator invalidates it, although he acknowledges the fact that he is a chasm of uncertainty and lack of knowledge. Therefore, the novel “must be a mirror of my soul, without being psychoanalytical; because I don’t want it distorted by analysis.” Who am I? Neither have I ever had an estate nor can I associate myself with the “happy young people of Medeleni” (characters from a big estate in a novel by the Romanian writer Ionel Teodoreanu, 1897-1954). “I’d like to know who I am, because I don’t know. I’ve filled a great many notebooks trying to find out, but I haven’t succeeded. My novel is going to be full of strange heroes. Their souls won’t be one-dimensional, or all of a piece. Up till now I’ve never met an adolescent with a soul like this. But I won’t analyze my characters because I don’t know them. I can’t understand them deep down. I look at myself. I look within myself and I see so many foreign, contradictory features.” “I ask myself: would someone else be capable of producing a novel like mine, one that is a complete and accurate reflection of my adolescence, of our adolescence? More than anything I wanted to write a book that would give a full account of the inner life that I have lived on the fringe of the school, of adolescence, an adolescence that I believed I was about to leave behind. I’ll never succeed.”

This ambition towards self-knowledge is what distinguishes Mircea Eliade’s novel from many others about adolescents. While the authors of such novels usually narrate events that reveal the hero’s uncertainty with respect to himself, they do not depict the permanent self-questioning and the analysis of the mystery of identity as Mircea Eliade does. Moreover, Eliade surprisingly finds an alter-ego in Giovanni Papini’s Un uomo finite (1912) ; therefore he must change, “I have to, or people will accuse me of being like Giovanni Papini”. Is he right? This is where the meta-narrator comes in once again, instilling the character’s ambition of being different, not as a matter of course, but through self-struggle and self-construction, through the ambition of finding out who he really is and, even more so, through the aspiration of singlehandedly building a strong identity by means of an implacable will, therefore proving his true virility, which is spiritual, not sexual in nature.

In terms of the events presented, the novel is autobiographical: the high-school, the friends, the fact that the main character flunked Mathematics, the difficulties with learning German, the readings, the first entomological passion, the herbarium at home, the attic, the Bucharest scenery, the short-sightedness, the battle with sleep, the late night readings and many others are based on reality. But what is the meaning of all these? The manner in which the main character of the book, a young man of seventeen years of age, experiences these events is revealed to us by the narrator, but the manner in which the character reflects upon them, and whether he does it properly, is put forth by the meta-narrator by means of an entirely negative (self)portrait. The “short-sighted adolescent” is ugly, shy, good at intellectual debates, yet unskillful with respect to mundane or erotic discussions, fairly good at performing on stage or at playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries on the piano, but incapable of nurturing an affective relationship and forced to visit a brothel in order to move beyond the sexual barrier that holds him back.

The manner in which the main character of the book, a young man of seventeen years of age, experiences these events is revealed to us by the narrator, but the manner in which the character reflects upon them, and whether he does it properly, is put forth by the meta-narrator by means of an entirely negative (self)portrait.

However, nowadays, this (self) portrait can be interpreted in an entirely different manner. Why couldn’t the “short-sighted adolescent” be the equivalent of a non-macho, a young man who refuses to take on the macho role and positively legitimizes himself particularly by means of this refusal, turning a negative characteristic into a positive one? To some of his Romanian contemporaries, young Mircea Eliade himself appeared to be a shy person, while to others he seemed to be a youth of uncompromising views who was eager to be the catalyst of great changes in the mentality of those around him. Later in life, for instance during his stay in America, he proved to be rather shy once again, incapable of making practical decisions and fighting academic battles. Who was “the true” Eliade? Could we really assert that his views remained unchanged throughout his entire life? Changes were bound to intervene in the life of a person who moved from Romania, to India and then to Portugal and France, subsequently ending up in the United States for the remainder of his life.

Essentially, such roles are either true or false solely when perceived in relation to a certain place and time in history. I believe this can be the starting point of a more fruitful discussion than the strictly biographical one tackled thus far. The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent should not be seen merely as a few years’ autobiography, like the Memoirs, but also as the history of a long struggle with oneself and the self-construction of a young man who is dissatisfied with his initial weakness: the short-sighted individual who is unsure of himself and asocial must become a strong, willful and great intellectual young man. He is not ambitious in the same manner in which the great heroes of the nineteenth century Western novels are – as Eliade himself admitted, in those times he would read one Balzac novel each day – but he is passionate about knowledge. I believe this is the most significant distinction between this novel and other novels about adolescents such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), in which the main character, Holden Caulfield, struggles in the face of profound loneliness, comforted only by his sister Phoebe and where even his colleagues and teachers seem to be dominated solely by sexuality. Equally different is Raymond Radiguet’s famous novel Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh) published shortly before the death of its author at twenty years of age, in 1923, one year before Eliade’s concluding his novel; in the case of Radiguet, it is the mystery of human and social relations that seems to dominate the life of the main character.

On the contrary, Eliade is obsessed with his own identity based on his extensive readings, first in the domains of Botany and Biology and later in the fields of History, Philosophy, Literature and the History of Religions. The same can be asserted about his friends: Robert Vojen was passionate about D’Annunzio and above all Marcu (= Mărculescu, his best friend) was a Jewish admirer of Balzac as well, while also being a left-wing intellectual and a reader of Marx, Kautzky, Kropotkin, Bakunin and even Gherea. Together, they go through the same passionate quest for the self through readings, regardless of whether the latter touch upon sexuality and its failure or not. This would be an example of what Habermas called Öffentlichkeit (Public sphere), the sphere of public interest situated between the State and the citizens’ private interest in the context of a liberal society, although the purely cultural and non-political discussions seem to unravel a rather private subarea of the public sphere. According to Habermas, this space is nonetheless public, since people discuss topics of mutual interest without taking into consideration the social status of those involved, everyone can participate and the officials never intervene. Examples of the above-mentioned spaces would be the French salons or German coffee houses of the eighteenth and respectively nineteenth centuries.

In Eliade’s novel, we witness the emergence of a new public opinion, a new horizon of expectations of those who were then very young, yet intellectually precocious.

I believe that, to a certain extent, The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent evokes the image of the Romania of those times, the new country, reunited after World War One, but still in the process of self-defining. Its young generation emerges and develops itself in a world that is much different in comparison to that of previous generations. For the first time in history, the political borders coincide with those of the nation. Greater Romania may not be perfect, but it is finally free from the domination of any neighboring empire, it is constitutionally democratic and open to all European cultures. In a way, it was similar to Italy after the Risorgimento, the unification and the advent of the modern state with Rome as its capital city, after having shortly been Papini’s Florence – all of the above-mentioned events having been experienced so intensely by the Italian writer. Suddenly in the new Romania, just as in Italy, the older political parties, the cultural models, the social and family traditions seem anachronistic, without a substitute at hand. Romanians feel free, yet isolated. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the isolation they escape renders them curious with respect to everything that surrounds them, yet they still lack the knowledge of how to change anything (fundamentally). The first reaction is the thirst for culture, which is the most striking feature of these young people. Indifferent with respect to public instruction, although not impervious to it, many times avidly and selectively sipping it, – as the high-school student Mircea Eliade himself would do – these young people read with a kind of fury and good taste that would seem astonishing by today’s standards. This novel displays an extraordinary construction of the civilization of the book, as it appears in Romania’s new modernity. If nowadays, we witness the dawn of new media questioning the role of the book, in those times, a century ago, the book alone dominated the intellectual market. As students, Eliade, Mărculescu, or Acterian are brilliant when it comes to literature and/or journalism, but they seem to know nothing with respect to sports, – with the exception of mountain-climbing and a certain sea voyage – visual arts, jazz, ballet, travelling abroad, film or public theatre. Even mundane gatherings, albeit dominated by what we can call flirting, or by amateur theatre performances, shine as a result of literary conversations. Nota bene, politics is still unknown and so is the establishment of new public groups proclaimed as political. Habermas’ analysis can be perfectly applied in this case. In Eliade’s novel, we witness the emergence of a new public opinion, a new horizon of expectations of those who were then very young, yet intellectually precocious. The subject matter discussed by them has nothing to do with the state or with politics, although it is neither strictly private nor exclusively aesthetic. Everyone is free to participate, but truly welcome is the very cultivated young man, whose views are updated by the latest French literature – which was of the essence considering its hegemony over the whole of Europe during those times. Mircea Eliade is the first among them to speak up and particularly to write about English literature, for example Samuel Butler, Italian literature (Papini), Norwegian literature (Ibsen), the old Chaldean cultures or those of the Nile. Already, we can note Mircea Eliade’s desire to “relieve a besieged Romanian culture” from the French one, opening it towards the entire world. Itinerarul spiritual (Spiritual Itinerary) which would be written in 1927 and would be seen as a manifesto of the young generation was impending.

This novel portrays the self-discovery of a new generation in a new country and, to my view, it seems that nowadays – almost a century after its publication, when, following a period of communism, Romania re-enters Europe, albeit a much changed Europe compared to the way it was in 1925 – it is even more modern than at the moment of its publication.

Sorin Alexandrescu

Sorin Alexandrescu teaches cultural and visual studies at the University of Bucharest after having taught semiotics and Romanian at the University of Amsterdam. In the eighties he publicly protested the regime of Ceauşescu in Romania. He is a Romanian born Dutch citizen living in Romania. He has published many books and essays on modern literature (Faulkner, Mircea Eliade), semiotics (Greimas), narratology, history (the Romanian paradox), philosophy (Richard Rorty), as well as political comments and essays on modernity, painting, photography, and art theory in Romanian, French, English, and Dutch. He is currently running the Center of Excellence in Image Studies at the University of Bucharest.

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8 Comments on “An Uncommon Short-Sighted Adolescent

  1. I’m not sure how Guernica could publish this puff piece with no mention of Eliade’s rabid anti-Semitism. “He was shy later in life, Who was “the true” Eliade? Could we really assert that his views remained unchanged throughout his entire life?” What about, how he became rabidly anti-Semitic under the Iron Guard, and never acknowledged his past as an Iron Guard ideologist and never expressed regret for his involvement with fascism. Anyone who wants a real picture of Romania and Eliade should read Mihail Sebastian’s beautiful “Journal 1935-1944, The Fascist Years.” Some quotes from Mircea “All great creators are on the right.” Or, “The Poles’ resistance in Warsaw is a Jewish resistance. Only yids are capable of the blackmail of putting women and children in the front line, to take advantage of the Germans’ sense of scruple.” Take it from his Jewish friend whose friendship with him naturally had to end, this “shyness” has more to it than the author of this flattery is willing to acknowledge. The great playwrite Ionescu said the same of Eliade. “In his eyes everything is lost since ‘communism won.’ He is truly guilty.”

  2. If anyone is being “rabid” (a common rhetorical red flag warning of overheated emotionalism) it is Joan Harvey. While no-one denies that Eliade was a man of the right there is no evidence that he was actively anti-Semitic (and certainly not “rabidly”). Harvey gives two quotations, only one of which mentions Jews, and she claims that Ionescu (Eugen) “said the same” as (one supposes) Sebastian. But the quotation from Ionescu likewise says nothing about Judaism. When ‘communism won’, Romania was more or less doomed to 50 years of Russian occupation. A fate that I would not like to share, although I consider myself a man of the left (and not anti-Semitic). Eliade’s expression of dismay at this prospect is hardly culpable.

    No doubt Eliade’s statement about the Warsaw resistance was stupid and despicable. Anyone who published as much as Eliade is unlikely to leave a legacy entirely free if such stains. However, the issue of his anti-Semitism is much-debated and far from settled, and that very fact–that it cannot be settled despite the hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of words that he wrote–is extremely telling.

    Mac Ricketts’ _Former Friends and Forgotten Facts_ of 2003 makes a very compelling case for a different interpretation of the end of the friendship between Eliade and Sebastian and it should never be forgotten that almost no-one is above suspicion: Eugen Ionescu (Eugene Ionesco), whom Harvey cites as a source of condemnation against Eliade, is regarded as a tacit supporter of the Iron Guard by Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine (_Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco : L’Oubli du fascisme_, 2002, to which Ricketts also responds).

    That Eliade’s “rabid anti-Semitism” is in fact based on one painfully regrettable statement of his youthful journalism is typical of the cottage-industry that such criticism of Eliade has become. While we all have a duty to oppose anti-Semitism, and any such bigotry, wherever it should occur that does not justify inventing it so that we can be the first to condemn it.

    1. What Bryan misses is that Sebastian was a close friend of Eliade, and Sebastian remarks on his good qualities, loved him, and gave him every benefit of the doubt. “The gestures I had forgotten, his nervous volubility, a thousand things thrown together–always congenial, straight-forward, captivating. It’s hard not to be fond of him.” But then in the next sentence Sebastian says “There can be no excuse for the way he caved in politically.” Bryan says I only report one anti-Semitic quote — here is more of it: “The Poles’ resistance in Warsaw is a Jewish resistance. Only yids are capable of the blackmail of putting women and children in the front line, to take advantage of the Germans’ sense of scruple. The Germans have no interest in the destruction of Romania. Only a pro-German government can save us…. What is happening on the frontier with Bukovina is a scandal, because new waves of Jews are flooding into the country. Rather than a Romania again invaded by kikes, it would be better to have a German protectorate.
      ~ Mircea Eliade from a 1939 conversation recorded by Mihail Sebastian. Yes, this is one quote, but if you read the diary, it’s one in a long series of anti-Jewish, anti-leftist things that Eliade records. Here is another quote from the introduction “Is it possible that the Romanian nation will end in the most miserable disintegration in history, eaten by poverty and syphilis, invaded by Jews and torn by aliens,,,” And as the introduction also reports, in 1937 Eliade “plunged into a long xenophobic exhortation, reproaching the authorities for their tolerance toward the Jews.” Sebastian reports that Eliade wishes a leftist student had had his eyes gouged out instead of just the whipping he received.
      Eliade says a ballet is disgusting because of its “Jewish spirit.” To say Eliade’s anti-Semitism is debatable is somewhat akin to saying that the racism of the white nationalists in America these days is debatable, or that they are just misguided youths, going along with the spirit of the times I don’t think Bryan could say that it is debatable that Eliade was a fervent member of the Iron Guard. The Iron Guard was extremely anti-Semitic (and Romania has a history of anti-Semitism from long before this time period). Eliade was no doubt attracted to it at least in part by his mystical tendencies, but that does not let him off the hook.
      “The Iron Guard was as vicious and brutal as other fascist formations– perhaps even more than some when it came to murderous violence against the Jews- -but it differed from the others by containing, along with a strong nationalistic component, a religious one as well. It combined, according to Laignel-Lavastine,”the Fuhrerprinzip [the cult of the Leader] with the Christianprototype of the apostle and the Balkan model of the haidouks,those who meted out justice on the highways, a type of Robin Hoodof the Carpathians. ” Each member of the Iron Guard was supposed to submit himself to a discipline that would transform his character,and–at least in theory–the movement was closer to some sort of religious sect than to a customary political formation. This made it much simpler in later years for Eliade, in his extremely untrustworthy memoirs, to sanitize his close association with the Iron Guard by describing it as “having the structure and vocationof a mystical sect rather than of a political movement.” . If Eliade had ever expressed regret for his what Bryan considers youthful folly the issue would be different. But apparently for Brian, love of Franco, nationalistic passion, anti-Semitism are all inventions, or at the very worst “regrettable.

      1. I can, and do, say that it is debatable that Eliade was a fervent member of the Iron Guard. There is no evidence to date that he ever was a “member” at all. The support for the Guard that he published in 1937 and into the early months of 1938, eight to ten articles in all (only three of which mention Jews), never identified him as a member.
        I am not unaware of the close nature of Sebastian’s friendship with Eliade but I continue to argue that Sebastian might have been wrong: (A) Eliade ceased to publish any support for the Guard after February 1938. (B) Even in those articles, and during the many years of his journalistic publication, and during his tenure in the Department of Press and Propaganda of the Romanian Legation in Portugal in the war years, Eliade himself never published any of the kind of vicious antisemitic bile that Joan Harvey (and, sadly, Mihail Sebastian) attributed to him. Eliade did not record these sentiments as Harvey says. Sebastian did. This is why she has to continue quoting from Sebastian instead of supporting these accusations with anything that Eliade himself ever published. The worst quotation (to the best of my knowledge) ever to appear under his name (which was accurately reported by Sebastian in his journal) was this: “Can the Romanian people end its days… wasted by poverty and syphilis, invaded by Jews and torn apart by foreigners?” This comes from the journal Buna Vestire (1 no. 244, 17th December 1937: 1-2) and there is good reason to believe Eliade’s claim that he did not write it. In none of Eliade’s published articles did he use the word “yids” (yidani) or “kikes,” or any equivalent, and the style of the Buna Vestire article is unlike anything Eliade ever wrote. Joan Harvey has to rely upon sources other than Eliade himself (Sebastian and Laignel-Lavastine–who in turn rely on sources other than Eliade)to substantiate her argument. If Eliade was such a fervent and antisemitic member of the Iron Guard why is there no evidence to that effect and why did he never–in what was, Joan is right, probably the most antisemitic nation in the world at the time–ever publicly state these views?

  3. So you, Bryan, know more about Eliade then his closest friend. Who mentions many anti-Semitic reactions through his journal. For instance, at the ballet Mircea found it disgusting because of its “Jewish spirit.” p. 119
    “nor would I forget his explanation for joining the Guard with such passion:
    He’s neither a charlatan nor a madman. He’s just naive. But there are such catastrophic forms of naiveté.” p. 114
    And you know more than the historians, who, contrary to your statement did actually read the documents and journals of the years. “This revelatory book is an extremely erudite exploration of the careers of the three writers named in the title, based largely but far from exclusively on an analysis of the little-known(and, until fairly recently, mostly inaccessible) journalistic and periodical literature in Romanian of the 1930s and 1940s. She has read the journalism and literature. It isn’t some fantasy. Clearly you don’t like to see your hero in this light but it doesn’t change the light.”Eliade, as already noted, found no difficulty at all in accepting the ideology of the Iron Guard, which he viewed in the light of his own preoccupation with religion and spirituality. The difference between him and Cioran, whose book The Transfiguration of Romania Eliade prepared for the press as a service to his friend, is clearly illustrated in a letter in which Eliade is full of praise for the section on the Jews and other minorities, but objects to Cioran’s contemptuous remarks about the Romanian village as containing nothing but “a biological reserve.” For Eliade, it wasthe source of national- religious values that had existed forcenturies–and were again being revived by the Iron Guard. In a series of more than fifty articles between 1934 and 1938, he praised “the Captain,” as Codreanu was called, for inspiring such a movement and urged young intellectuals to join the cause. “The significance of the revolution advanced by Corneliu Codreanu is so profoundly mystical,” he declared, “that its success would designate the victory of the Christian spirit in Europe.”

    Eliade’s adhesion to the cause, however, was by no means instantaneous. It was only in December 1935 that he decided that”the primacy of the spiritual does not imply the refusal of action.” In 1936 he began openly to support the Iron Guard; but his aim was “to provide its ideology with a more solid philosophical foundation.” One is reminded of Heidegger’s attempt to provideHitlerism with what the philosopher considered a worthieri ntellectual grounding. Eliade carries on a continual battle against the ideas of the Enlightenment and traces the degeneration of Romania to its attempt to adopt such alien notions: “Being a foreign importation, the democratic regime concerns itself with matters that are not specifically Romanian–abstractions like the rights of man, the rights of minorities, and the liberty of conscience. ” Far better a dictatorship like that of Mussolini,which is always preferable to a democracy because, if the latter goes to pieces, it will “inevitably slide toward the left” and thus toward communism.

    An important event of these years for Eliade was the return of the coffins of two of his friends, both prominent Iron Guardists,killed fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. A huge semiofficial demonstration was organized to honor their remains, and Eliade wrote three articles, one published in the journal of the Iron Guard itself, to consecrate the glory of their sacrifice.As usual, he endows this event with his own pseudo-religious aura.”The voluntary death of Ion Mota and Vasile Marin,” he wrote, “has a mystic significance: the sacrifice for Christianity.” By this time he had become an active partisan of the Iron Guard; and when the Guard fell out of favor with the government in 1938, leading to the arrest of Codreanu and several hundred of his most prominent followers, Mircea Eliade was among them.

    The conditions of their detention in a camp, once an agricultural school, were far from onerous, and courses were organized by Ionescu and Eliade, who also managed to write a novel there, calledMarriage in Heaven. His wife’s uncle was a general close to KingCarol II, and since Eliade suffered from a tubercular condition, he was soon allowed to move to a mountain village and returned home early in December. Later that month Codreanu was killed, presumably while attempting to escape, and the Iron Guard movement was sternly repressed. Eliade had lost his university post, but he confided to Cioran that he “regretted nothing,” and he wrote a play, Iphigenia,that exalted the ideas of sacrifice and death for one’s country in words literally reproducing those he had used about the two Iron Guardists who had sacrificed themselves for Franco.

    Life for Eliade in his native land was becoming difficult, and his correspondence reveals that he was seeking to go elsewhere. He made efforts in the direction of the United States and France with no success, and finally had to settle for a post as cultural attache in London before Romania entered the war against the Allies. The English were quite well informed about his past, and classified him as “the most Nazified member of the legation,” possibly a spy for Germany.” A review of a French book Cioran, Eliade,Ionesco: L’oubli du fascisme, written by Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine, a historian of Eastern European history and culture.

  4. I do not claim to have more insight into the personality of Mircea Eliade that did his best friend. Nor to know more than other historians. If you will forgive me for saying so, Joan Harvey seems very quick to attribute both sentiments and words to people who have not themselves expressed those words or sentiments. Is it not possible that I, as a historian myself, might, in certain areas, now be in possession of information that Sebastian did not then have? Sebastian unfortunately died in 1945 having been estranged from his friend for more than six years. And I might, as a historian myself, have a different interpretation of the data than other historians, as indeed I do in the case of Alexandre Laignel-Lavastine, whose work has been severely criticized as often as it has received utterly uncritical reviews such as that of Marta Petreu, whom Harvey cites. I, too, have read the Romanian articles. Although my Romanian is poor it is adequate to check the translations that I have been provided, and I am only aware of 14 articles, not more than fifty. (See _Textele “legionare” și despre “Românism,”_ edited by Radu Mareș, Cluj-Napoca: Editura Dacia, 2001.) Also I have visited the British Foreign Office Records Office in London, where I read enough to know that Eliade was not appointed Cultural Attaché to the Romanian Legation in London. That appointment did not come until the move to Portugal in 1941. He was frequently referred to as a “hanger-on” in London. Those documents also reveal that, although one Naval officer (a Commander Croghan) regarded him as “the most Nazi member of the Legation” others (notably the British historian R.W. Seton-Watson), thought him an Anglophile and potentially useful to the British. In short, there was no clear consensus among British diplomats, who were exercising the full caution of a nation at war, concerning Eliade’s position. Nor do I regard Eliade as “my hero” as Harvey claims. I do admire certain elements of his philosophy of religion. But more, I value the truth and, while I fully recognize that Eliade did support the Guard from 1937-1938, which was a huge mistake, I find it deeply troubling that he can, on that basis, be directly associated with hanging the corpses of murdered Jews on meat-hooks, as Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein did with the character Grielescu, who is supposed by some to “be” Eliade. That this hideous atrocity occurred in the Bucharest pogrom of 1941 did not prevent the critic Stephen H. Norwood from depicting Eliade as a “Romanian diplomat who supported the brutality of the Iron Guard, notorious for literally butchering Jews as they hung, still alive, from meat hooks.” I find it simply inaccurate and unjust that Eliade can, on that basis, be rejected as a historian of religion for having an “antisemitic ontology” as did Daniel Dubuisson, or because his history of religions “stands atop a pile of corpses” as did Steven Wasserstrom. Like any human being, Eliade deserves the benefit of the doubt and should be considered innocent until proven guilty. That is, until the question that I asked previously can be answered: why do Joan Harvey and other such critics of Eliade always quote Sebastian’s Journal, Bellow’s novel, and the questionable interpretations of writers such as Laignel-Lavastine? Why, if Eliade was such a fervent antisemite and supporter of such nauseating brutality, can nothing be quoted to prove that directly from the scores of books, the hundreds of articles, the thousands of pages, and the millions of words that he published himself?

  5. Now that you’ve posted your whole name, I read your exchange with Philip Ó Ceallaigh. Clearly you are very informed. I don’t read Romanian, but there is nothing to indicate that Sebastian was making things up. He was a close friend of Eliade and clearly loved him. As you say, Eliade was a supporter of the Iron Guard, and he expressed some directly anti-Semitic things both to Sebastian and to the friends of Sebastian. Eugene Ionescu who also knew him remarked on Eliade’s anti-Semitism. I’m not really sure that because you haven’t read documents supporting this, you have much of a case, as there are documents that do support this. Why would he be passionate about the Iron Guard if he wasn’t anti-Semitic? Why would never speak about the mistake he made in those times did? Ravelstein is, of course, fiction, so probably best to leave that out, and perhaps the association is unfair. For some reason this discussion reminds me of Groucho Marx’s phrase only backwards. “Who do you believe — the eye-witnesses, Sebastian, Cioran, Ionescu, the British Naval officer, and other Romanians such as Andrei Codrescu and Norman Manea, and Laignel-Lavastine, a historian who has read the documents, or Bryan Rennie, also I’m sure a qualified historian, who believes Eliade should have the benefit of the doubt?” Obviously one has a choice. It perhaps speaks well of you that you choose to defend him, and from many accounts he was a charming man. And actually Sebastian did give him the benefit of the doubt, saying Eliade was naive and misguided. So were others, but some were courageous enough to admit it afterwards. Maybe Eliade wasn’t up to the uproar that would have followed. But you say nothing can be quoted directly, and perhaps the quotes aren’t strong enough for your ears, but there are some direct quotes. Does this not count: “the Romanian nation will end in the most miserable disintegration in history, eaten by poverty and syphilis, invaded by Jews and torn by aliens, demoralized, betrayed and sold for a few million lei.” But, to go back to the beginning, my point was that in the piece on which this discussion was based, its author is doing exactly what Eliade did — pretending a certain viewpoint, that was salient to Eliade’s thinking at least when young, did not exist. His fascist views can’t just be ignored.

  6. I apologize for failing to give my full name in my first post. I had no intention of withholding information but simply failed to understand the submission process and thought that I would have a chance to give my full name before the post appeared. I gave my full name in my second post on September the 11th.

    But to the facts: I do not suggest that Sebastian was “making things up,” although I do observe that several of the reports of antisemitic comments that Sebastian gives were not observed by Sebastian himself. Petru (a.k.a. Titel) Comarnescu reported to Sebastian two such instances (Journal pp. 119, 238). The entry for September 20, 1939, appears particularly damning, reporting Eliade as saying, “only yids are capable of the blackmail of putting women and children in the front line” (p. 238). This hearsay evidence from a single source must be considered warily; especially when Sebastian himself tells us that Comarnescu had “well-known fits of hysteria” (p. 363). Not only is this hearsay, it also fails to consider that Eliade had personally witnessed Gandhi’s Indian Nationalists use exactly this strategy against the British during the second campaign of civil disobedience in Calcutta in 1932. (See Eliade, “Intermezzo: Fragments from a Civil Revolt,” in Changing Religious Worlds, B. Rennie, ed. SUNY Press, 2001, p. 198.) Eliade’s evident admiration for Hindu nationalism influenced his understanding of Romanian nationalism and makes it highly unlikely that he would consider this a strategy that only some despicable group could use.

    Eliade’s own journal recorded that Comarnescu had one of his “fits” when he (Comarnescu) learned that Eugen Ionescu was favorably disposed towards Jews. Eliade wrote that he was “horrified” by Comarnescu’s “anti-Semitism, which has disgraced us Romanians so much.” This journal entry, from September 7, 1966, could itself be revisionist, however, an article by Mac Linscott Ricketts (“Mircea Eliade and Mihail Sebastian: Two Accounts of a Friendship and Two Interpretations of those Accounts,” in the American Romanian journal Origini: Romanian Roots, May-Dec. 1999, vols. 23/24, 25/26, 27/28, 29/30), paints an entirely credible picture of a gradual failure of communication and understanding between Eliade and Sebastian. This is consistent with many details from the Journal. For example, Sebastian and Eliade met at the Royal Foundations in December of 1938, shortly after Eliade’s release from prison. Sebastian wrote, “to my surprise, Mircea stood up and embraced me” (p. 192). He could not explain this, expecting from Eliade the antisemitism of other Legionary sympathizers. Comarnescu contributed to a misinterpretation, and it is understandable that Sebastian could have been easily persuaded to see in Eliade the antisemitism so deeply ingrained in Romanian culture and so commonly connected with right-wing politics. As Sebastian himself says,

    [i]n the end, people always see what their point of view allows them to see. … How difficult it is to communicate with people. All kinds of images and ideas are spread about you. You don’t know where they come from, how they were born, what they are based on” (pp. 599, 621).

    Sebastian’s Journal confirms that Eliade accepted his appointment abroad from the Royalist government before the antisemitic massacres in Bucharest, and that the Legion was reconstituted after 1938 when it became more common to call it the iron Guard. There is no evidence of Eliade supporting this later Guard.

    Joan Harvey says that she has read my exchange with Philip Ó Ceallaigh (in the L.A. Review of Books). In that case she chooses simply to ignore the argument given there that the very quotation she chooses to give is taken from “De ce cred in biruinta miscarii legionare” (“Why I believe in the Legionary Victory,” Buna Vestire, 17 December 1937), which Eliade has denied writing—a denial supported by textual analysis. She has said that Eliade wrote more than fifty articles in support of the Captain of the Iron Guard. I know of only eight or ten (depending on whether the Buna Vestire articles are accepted as genuine)—only three of which mention Jews. She has said that Eliade was “a fervent member of the Iron Guard” when there is no evidence that he was ever a member and gave them no support after early 1938—months before Kristallnacht, three years before the Bucharest pogrom, and seven years before the decisive defeat of the Axis forces. She began this whole exchange by calling Eliade a “rabid antisemite,” and she still appears unwilling to concede that, if he was antisemitic at all—a point which I still believe is open to debate—his antisemitism was of a form that included more published defense of Jews (such as the journal entry given above but also examples from the 30s listed in the LARB exchange) and no clearly antisemitic publications at all. A strangely reserved form of rabies.

    This, then, is why you might consider believing Bryan Rennie, who insists that Eliade—or, rather, that everyone—should be given the benefit of the doubt. These accusations are extremely exaggerated and over-heated, often simply inaccurate. I do not claim, I never have claimed, that Eliade’s support for the fascist Legion should be ignored. I do claim that it should be dealt with accurately and in context. That is why, in my considered opinion, Guernica was entirely correct to publish Sorin Alexandrescu’s review of Eliade’s Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent. It was not a “puff piece.” The novel provides salient evidence concerning Eliade’s thinking as a youth, written at the time. That evidence tends to support the claim that, whatever else may be true, Eliade was not a “rabid antisemite.”

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