Ordeal by Labyrinth

The career of Mircea Eliade, the Rumanian-born writer who has held the prestigious title of Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago since 1964, has been both extraordinary and controversial. He has authored more than fifty books in Rumanian, French, and English, and he began publishing the first of his hundreds of articles at the age of thirteen. He was the single greatest influence in establishing the history of world religion as a formal academic discipline in the United States.

Eliade’s reputation in the United States was established by the appearance of three books on the mythic bases of the religions of the world, Le Mythe de l’éterne retour: Architypes et répétition (1949; The Myth of the Eternal Return, 1954), Traité d’histoire des religions (1948; Patterns of Comparative Religion, 1958), and Le Sacré et le profane (1956; The Sacred and the Profane, 1959). Eliade’s work has attracted the attention of scholars in many disciplines—anthropology, psychology, sociology, literature, theology—and has won a wide popular audience as well. He is respected and praised by many as a significant interpreter of the phenomenon of homo religiosus, and he is dismissed vehemently by others as a mere dilettante and mystic.

Ordeal by Labyrinth is a translation of L’Épreuve du Labyrinthe (1978), a transcription of Eliade’s tape-recorded conversations with Claude-Henri Rocquet, a professor of aesthetics and art history in Paris. Rocquet’s familiarity with Eliade’s autobiographical journals and with his major works of fiction and religious history contributes significantly to the success of this book. He is aware of the tendency of this format to become a kind of inconsequential journalism, and he skillfully directs the conversations toward the important details of Eliade’s career. Eliade, meanwhile, reveals a surprising ability to summarize the important contributions of his scholarly work and to relate them to the formative influences of his early training and experience.

In his preface, Rocquet observes that Eliade “has never forgotten the irreducible role of interpretation, the inextinguishable desire for meaning, for philosophic discourse.” This book is evidence of that observation. Ordeal by Labyrinth is a philosophic discourse which reveals the search for an appropriate interpretation of the known facts about the “archaic roots of the human condition.” It is replete with manifestations of the desire for affirming a meaning to life. Indeed, in Eliade’s work, this is the definition of the religious experience: the recognition of the need for meaning in human existence.

Ordeal by Labyrinth, then, is not simply a retrospective of Eliade’s career. It is itself another attempt to achieve a higher level of understanding. Eliade and Rocquet strive to understand, to unravel the mystery of existence, as they discuss Eliade’s experience as a student and historian of religions and as a writer of fiction—for Eliade’s lifework can only be understood when one grasps the interplay between his fiction and his much more widely known scholarly works.

At one point in the conversations with Rocquet, Eliade makes an observation about his own life that emerges—perhaps without his being aware of it—as the dominant theme of the book. Eliade states that, through the influence of studying the Bhagavad Gt, he reached the position of “renouncing the fruit of his actions.” In doing what he feels he must do, following his vocation without consideration of the reward, man abolishes the “infernal cycle of cause and effect.” Eliade’s autobiographical observations in Ordeal by Labyrinth reveal this attitude of renunciation. Because he has been so productive and so successful, it would be easy to suspect that he has been very careful to do those things that would bring him that success. At several points, for example, he indicates that he chose to pursue a particular path of research because it was unexplored, and abandoned another because it had been studied by other researchers. Although this selectivity might indicate an opportunistic approach, the tone of Eliade’s commentary suggests that he has done what he has done because of a strong sense of vocation. His choices have been determined by his evaluations of what needed to be done, without consideration of the personal consequences of those choices.

There have been many critics of Eliade’s...

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Booklist. LXXIX, September 15, 1982, p. 76.

Christian Century. C, January 5, 1983, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, July 23, 1982, p. 122.