May 8, 2008
The Persistence of Eliade's Memory
— Jeremy Biles
Released this week on DVD, Francis Ford Coppola's film Youth Without Youth, based on the novella of the same name by celebrated historian of religions Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), opens with a montage of clocks woozily stretching and bending. These fluctuating clocks, reminiscent of the iconic melting timepieces in Salvador Dalí's "The Persistence of Memory," are an apt way to open a movie that, as Coppola has said, seeks to explore "Time and Interior Consciousness." Coppola's movie highlights both some possibilities and problems associated with Eliade's understanding of time, which he calls "the supreme ambiguity of the human condition."
In an early scene, an elderly Dominic Matei is abruptly enveloped in a freak thunderstorm on Easter evening, 1938. Unfolding his umbrella, Dominic is swept up on a current of lightning before being dropped back to earth, the entire surface of his body crisped. He's left in a "larval" state, at the cusp of a death that yet heralds rebirth, the return of his youth—and with it, a supernatural memory and astounding capacity for acquiring knowledge. Dominic finds himself able perfectly to "recall" numerous languages, and can internalize the knowledge contained in books simply by passing his hand over them. He realizes a fantasy of perfect recollection.
The fantasy of perfect recollection calls attention to one question at stake in this story: the relationship between historical time and transcendent, mythological time, and the role of memory in mediating this dialectic of the sacred in our modern, secular world—a world where, Eliade claims, the sacred is "repressed." Dominic proclaims the advent of absolute knowledge that heralds "post-historical man"—the new identity of humankind immersed in what had been a forgotten or repressed religious dimension. An agent of the dialectic of the sacred, Dominic participates in a transcendent plane that recapitulates mythological time and the origins of human consciousness.
But the fantasy of Youth Without Youth, like Dali's melting clocks, is ambiguous, and it is here that I believe we can perceive some of the fraught political dimensions of Eliade's thought—and his life. Eliade describes the dialectic of the sacred in psychoanalytic terms. As readers of Freud know, the repressed always returns, though in disguised forms. For Eliade, the sacred returns within the profane world of modern art, literature, theater, and popular culture; it is as present, but also as unrecognizable, as the youthful Dominic Matei. My contention is that Eliade, in seeking to expose traces of the transcendent, obscures the other side of the dialectic of the sacred—for the fantasy of a re-enchanted world, and of a new humanity, is possible only by virtue of a repression of the "terrors of history."
Eliade himself was intimately acquainted with these terrors. It is well known that as a youth in Romania in the thirties, Eliade was affiliated with a far-right Christian political organization, the Legion of the Archangel Michael. After being exiled from Romania and eventually settling in the United States in 1956, however, Eliade was largely apolitical. (It is said he rarely read newspapers.) In his prophetic-scholarly mode, he attempted to live in a realm that, through prodigious learning, prolific output, and a cultivation of the extraordinary memory for which he was famous, aligned him with sacred time. But might not Eliade have been driven to write—obsessively, compulsively—as a kind of Freudian disavowal of the recollection of his youthful fascist involvements, which he never publicly acknowledged, and for which he never apologized? Was his poetics of the sacred an attempt to "annul his own history"?
Writing itself, and particularly the writing of fantasies, as anthropologist Michael Taussig has suggested, might be interpreted as a symptom of repression. This is how I read Youth Without Youth—as a symptom of the persistent return of a repressed memory. Indeed, this dynamic is dramatically rendered in Youth, when Dominic Matei is shocked to realize that, while in a dream-like state, he has been sleeping with the enemy—a Nazi informant in a hospital room adjacent to his. This scene appears as a symptom of a repressed political past, the disavowal of personal history. The persistence of memory, the "eternal return" of mythological time that Eliade prized, is itself contingent upon a repression of historical and political memory.
But the terrors and traumas of one's personal past also persist in a memory that, if disavowed, returns to haunt the sacred. In some sense, then, Eliade's dialectic of the sacred is also a dialectic of the persistence of two kinds of memory. Thus the ambiguity of the sacred, like the "supreme ambiguity" of time, lies in the fact that politics must be acknowledged alongside poetics, and the persistence of memory is always part of a dialectic of repression.
In the realm of history and politics in which we all inevitably live our lives, a "perfect" memory comes only at the price of succumbing to an eternal return of the repressed.
Jeremy Biles holds a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is the author of the book Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007).
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