Ordeal by Labyrinth

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1872

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.

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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 work, and many of those would surely suggest that he has been more opportunistic than he is willing to admit. A striking feature of his career has been his refusal to respond to his critics. Anthropologists such as Edmund Leach and Anthony F. C. Wallace, in particular, have attacked Eliade’s use of speculative notions as facts, and have charged that his work is a combination of bad history, bad ethnology, bad psychology, and mystical, pseudoscientific methodology.

There can be no doubt, in reading Ordeal by Labyrinth, that Eliade’s professional attitude is serene and noncombative. He attributes this serenity to his study of Indian philosophy, which convinced him that “the fundamental rule of all the forms of ascesis in the world” is a rule that transforms anger and aversion into an attitude of loving. While this transcendence of combativeness may justify Eliade’s reluctance to engage in polemics with his critics, it neither exonerates nor invalidates his scholarly work, nor does Ordeal by Labyrinth. The book is neither an apology nor a critique; rather, it is a narrative of how Eliade came to be what he is today.

This essay-interview is of particular interest because Eliade comments on a broad range of contemporary subjects. His informal analysis of the meaning of modern man’s existence is clearly based on the same concepts that he has developed throughout his career as a historian of religions. He emphasizes the fundamentally irreducible character of the religious experience, which he defines as the awareness of an absence of meaning to existence and the need for such meaning. Because of his belief, as a phenomenologist, that the religious experience is irreducible to the psychological, sociological, or historical, he rejects the demystification implied by the methodologies of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Rather, he seeks in a particular religious phenomenon the meaning that it possessed at the time for the person who experienced it. Thus, Eliade studies the available data of historical religious phenomena—the extant texts—and focuses on the intentionality of the data. His methodology consists in moving from the documented facts of the ritualistic act to an understanding of its meaning. It is because there is always a considerable separation between the ritual and its meaning that Eliade has been accused so often of unscientific speculation. Yet, his supporters claim that the leap from ritual to meaning requires an act of an imaginative reconstruction, and that Eliade takes that leap only with the experience of his vast knowledge of the manifestations of sacred experience in the practices of the world’s religions.

A concept that appears frequently in Ordeal by Labyrinth (as well as in the article “Brancusi and Mythology,” which appears as an appendix to the interview) is the coincidentia oppositorum, a concept which Eliade draws from the work of the Renaissance scholar and theologian Nicholas of Cusa. The most appropriate definition of the nature of God is the coincidence or confluence of opposites, as evidenced in the mystery of the Incarnation. This paradoxical blending of contrastive elements is a characteristic of every manifestation of the sacred camouflaged in the profane, and this phenomenon is the basis for an understanding of the experience of religious man. In Brancusi, the coincidentia oppositorum is manifest in the sculptures of birds, in which the heaviness of stone blended with the weightlessness of flight suggests a transmutation of matter. Eliade’s interest in Yoga springs from his desire to understand Indian culture, in which is evident the attempt to resolve the dichotomy of matter and spirit, body and mind. Similarly, the sexual revolution of the American hippie movement is a form of ritual, an act which attempts to resolve the nostalgic longing for the Edenic state and the awareness of the dehumanized urban existence. Throughout Ordeal by Labyrinth, Eliade relates modern Western culture to the mythic model of the sacred made manifest in the profane. The archaic archetypes are reactualized through modern rituals that are revealed as rituals only by Eliade’s interpretation.

Rocquet makes the observation that “beneath history is myth, and beneath myth, the memory of the world’s origins.” In response to this, Eliade evaluates the importance of the history of religions. In doing so, he expresses what he believes to be the significance of his own work. In analyzing and clarifying the mythic bases of historical religious phenomena, the historian of religions restores memory to a forgetful mankind and “saves” mankind in the process. He saves in the sense that salvation is the act of finding a meaning in one’s existence. The history of religions, for Eliade, is an intellectual revolution that may be capable of changing the course of history, for it restores the memory of origins and it makes contact with what is essentially human—the relationship of man to the sacred.

It is important to recognize that Eliade speaks of this salvation not as a man of faith but as an interpreter of historical cultural phenomena. It is evident throughout Ordeal by Labyrinth that the sacred, for Eliade, is a revelation of what is real, the experience of a nontransitory, immutable reality that stands in opposition to the profane—the fleeting reality of this world. The sacred is not simply a stage in the history of consciousness; rather, it is a structural element of man’s consciousness. Eliade takes a structuralist, synchronic view of religious history in which there is a fundamental unity underlying all religious experience.

What Eliade proposes as the primary justification for his lifework is the evolution of a new humanism in which the intellectual revolution of which he speaks consists of an understanding of the primary existential experience of man. It is a monumental achievement to effect an intellectual revolution, and the impression that Eliade occasionally creates in Ordeal by Labyrinth—that he has been a significant stimulus to such a trend—makes understandable some of the objections lodged against his work by social scientists. Eliade certainly is not a scientist, nor are his data and methodology scientific. They are speculative and subjective, but because his principal role in the system that he creates is that of interpreter, it seems unavoidable that he be less “scientific” than his critics would want him to be.

The interest of Ordeal by Labyrinth lies not so much in the system that Eliade has created in his work as in the fascinating account of his life which these conversations provide. As he says about the act of storytelling, “an interest in narration is part of our mode of being in the world. . . . We are not here in the world like stones, unable to move, or like flowers or insects, whose life is wholly laid out in advance: we are beings of adventure. And man will never be able to do without listening to stories.” This book is exhilarating precisely because it is a narrative act. It is the telling of an adventure, the extraordinary life and thought of Mircea Eliade.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14

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

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

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

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