Eliade in the Looking Glass

Monica Spiridon, University of Bucharest, Romania


Our paper focuses on the intertwining of modern travel writing with a series of major questions pointing to Western culture. In the realor imaginary texts of Mircea Eliade, Thomas Mann and   J.-M.G. Le Clézio,European identity is at stake. Regardless of their different starting points, the authors end up questioning the status of the equation civilized versus wild, as a basic principle of Western culture. A special emphasis   is placed by the three writers on the stereotypes of the encounter Self / Other, fostered by modern European culture mainly through mythical patterns.

[Key words: travel writing; European identity; marginal; exotic]

  1. Myths of European Identity

It is common knowledge that standard European identity has always been flaked by the image of the other, both as a barbaric figure opposed to the Western man and as an obstacle to a free cross-cultural communication. One of the basic principles of Western culture and a major landmark of European identity has been the equation civilized versus wild. In the process by which Western identity was constituted, the opposition civilized versus barbarian as well as the Figure of the Barbarian played an important part. The myth of the barbarian is tightly bound up with the main mythical components of Western identity (Bartra, 1994:146).

Traveling creates images of the other, analyzes otherness, and makes it easier to accept and to cope with (Moura, 1998). In the real and imaginary travelelogues of Mircea Eliade, Thomas Mann and J.M.G. Le Clézio that I am pointing to in the following pages, one can see the intertwining of modern travel writings with major questions concerning Western culture.

Turning the tables on those who suggest that the primitive peoples, discovered and colonized by European explorers, gave birth to the myth, we have to accept that, in fact, the already existing myth of the wild man shaped the reactions of the Europeans to real people. In this way, the wild man underpins the notion of civilization on which much of Western identity has been based (Bartra 147-48).

The very idea of a contrast between a wild natural state and a civilized cultural configuration is part of an ensemble of myths sustaining the identity of the civilized West and emphasizing the otherness, the difference. Yet, one needs to merely cast an eye on the myth of the wild man to realize that we are dealing with an imaginary form existing only on a mythological level (Duer 1986).

In his book, India, the Library ofthe Maharajah,Mircea Eliade usually sets the epithet “barbarian” between inverted commas when he is referring to India or to Indians. It is his way of showing that he is using it as a quotation from the standard European discourse. (The discourse of the white man who brought “civilization” to India). By using it, the author of the journal is challenging the idea, turning its meaning upside down: “In double ventilated train cars, Americans are praising the blessings and the reforms of continental civilization in a barbarian country” (Eliade a. 54). And further on: “Benares is stretching in all its weary barbarian beauty” (Eliade a. 64).

At a certain point the author maintains that “barbarian is rather the outlook of modern Europeans on the botanical garden: a concept that can only have its roots in a stupid epoch like the nineteenthcentury” (Eliade a. 104).

The current equation is reversed. The barbarian is the civilization-bringing Englishman who seeks to build up a monotonous town like Darjeeling, in order to feel at home: “Englishmen who are forced to spend a longer time in wilderness would make any effort to change their habitat into a small corner of England. It is they who refer to local people as poor savages “ (Eliade a. 106).

Civilization, its motives, and its models unify but also flatten differences and nuances. “It is not Europe – splendid and immortal reality – that I dislike, he concludes. It is the stupid tendency of the European of molding all the rest of the world after himself” (Eliade a. 84).

In Thomas Mann’s travel journal Travelling with Quixote journal the relationship between civilized and barbarian is explicitly phrased and emphatically reiterated. The epithet “civilized” is frequently used. Mann is, for instance, talking about “being disgusted of the mechanism of civilization” deeply hidden within his own personality. He also expresses his desire to give up civilization for primitivism, and uncertainty, for the irrational and for adventure:

“Does this pleasure betray my own disgust with the mechanism of civilization, a desire to abandon it, to deny it, to reject it, as being destructive for my soul and for my life, a desire to search for a new life style, closer to the primitive and to improvisation? Is there in me a voice that is crying for the irrational, for this cult of danger, of risks and of abuses, this cult against which I have been guarded by my critical rational consciousness, a cult which I have fought against – out of my sympathy for the European, for rationality and for order, or maybe because of an in-built need for balance – as if I didn’t’ t have in myself enough to battle against?”(Mann 293).

The escape of the self-exiled writer from Europe provides an opportunity to take a stimulating distance and to review a highly debatable equation. Civilization and the barbaric – generally speaking – are for Mann the torn halves of a cultural hybrid. The German writer is able to discover a barbarian side of modern European culture – the barbarity of Nazism, for instance, as well as Nietzsche’ s criticism of canonical European values.

Nietzsche himself – who is seen by Mann in close connection with the idea of the barbarian side of European identity – includes in his Birth of Tragedy, a dialogue about the recipe of happiness between the Fridjean king Midas and the barbarian Silenus. Although Silenus himself is meant to be the very embodiment of the non-European, he can also be seen as a symbol of the hidden, repressed dimension of Europeanism…Access Full Text of the Article

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