Symbolism, the Sacred and the Arts

It is a very long time since I have read Mircea Eliade. I have to confess it will be a long time until I read him again. Reading his collection of essays, 'Symbolism, the Sacred and the Arts' following through on a recommendation of Roger Lipsey's (, I was surprised at my reaction.

Eliade is a distinguished and highly influential historian of religion whose commitment to the reality of the transcendent and refusal to entertain reductionist accounts of the religious is deeply sympathetic to me. He usually writes fluently and well, and many of his points are intelligent, provoking and well-made. He does lapse into piling up examples of disparate cultures so that you lose track of where you are and you doubt whether these specific examples actually sustain the point he is making. The point is too general, too universalizing to be carried by the concrete particulars of his examples.

So why my recoil? Precisely because of this tendency to make the particular subservient to the universal. You begin to imagine that a particular culture's treasured myth making, the stories that impart meaning to it and its members are only useful as illustrations of the intellectual frameworks of one, Mircea Eliade. This is no empiricist carefully exploring, and loving, what is seen, but a man in search of confirming his own necessary framework. He is strikingly instrumentalist and you feel the actual texture of people's lived lives being placed on an intellectual rack and stretched accordingly. If I were an Inuit, I would like my community's story to first and foremost be appreciated as mine, in the roundness of its loved liveliness, before it was dissected and a scrap or two squeezed into an argument!

It is only in the more direct appreciations of particular artists - essays on Brancusi  and Chagall and on the writer Ionesco - that you feel the pressure of particular people and their concerns. But there always lingers the suspicion that an abstract rabbit is being pulled out of a particular hat, one distorted not to fit its subject. I get the feeling that Eliade is not an honest writer (which is, I admit, a very difficult thing to be). This is not to do with his evasion of his past (see below) but for his turning everything into a 'confirming instance': a conformity that the world does not afford us.

[The irony of the essay on Ionesco is that Eliade describes him as a friend and Ionesco is on record as describing Eliade as a 'former friend' (we are hyenas to each other) because of Eliade's (disputed in level if not in actuality) support of right wing politics in Romania in the 30s and 40s]


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