Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mircea Eliade: youth without youth

Mircea Eliade was born in Romania in 1907 and died in Chicago, Illinois, in 1986. He is described as a journalist, an historian of religion, a philosopher, an essayist, and a writer of short stories and novels. I knew him first from his various philosophical and religious works: The Myth of the Eternal Return, Myth and Reality, and The Sacred and the Profane, all of which I found thought-provoking and interesting. Eliade has also been blessed with extremely competent translators. All three works are on my list of books to be reread.

I was therefore surprised to find he also wrote fiction. I was enlightened when I was browsing a list of recommended films on Netflix. One of the films mentioned was Youth Without Youth. The plot was interesting, but what was most intriguing was that it was based on a novel by Mircea Eliade. I did watch the film, and I have just finished reading the novel. I'll save the film, perhaps, for another post.

Dominic Matei is an aging academic, over 70, and beginning to be forgetful. One night, during an extremely localized thunderstorm, he is struck by lightning and burned over 100% of his body. He not only survives the lightning bolt and its consequences, but his body regenerates to that of a man in his early 30s. His hair turns dark and he grows a new set of teeth. His memory becomes far better than it ever was: he now remembers everything that happened to him, everything that he has studied and learned. However, these memories no longer seem to belong to him. In addition, he has only to read a few paragraphs of a work to know what is in the rest of the work.

Yet, in spite of these super-abilities, Matei doesn't come across as a superman, or at least not as a typical superman that is found elsewhere. Matei spends the years following his rejuvenation in hiding. All he really wants is to be left alone so he can finish his great work on the origin of language and society.

Eliade's treatment of Matei brings in echoes of other works. For example, before the accident, Matei begins to lose hope about finishing his great work: "the more time passed the more clearly he understood that he would never be able to to finish his one and only book, his life's work. He awoke one morning with the taste of ashes in his mouth. He was approaching age sixty, and he had finished nothing of all all that he had begun." In George Eliot's masterwork, Middlemarch, the Reverend Casaubon has also spent his entire life on his great work on the origins of myth, and near the end of his life, he begins to realize that he has spent his entire life preparing to write a book that he will never finish, or perhaps even begin.

Matei, after the lighting bolt, discovers that he has a double. It is not a double in the sense of Dostoyevsky's double or Edgar Allan Poe's double--one that the character sees as existing outside of himself and acting independently. This double is another consciousness that he and only he can hear. It too occupies his brain, or so it seems. Only when Matei sleeps does this consciousness take control and act. In the morning, Matei can guess at what went on during the night through his dreams. What's intriguing is that Youth without Youth was published in 1979, only three years after Julian Jaynes published his controversial work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which Jaynes postulates a similar condition for a major part, if not all, of humanity. Thousands of years ago, this was interpreted as the voice of god, while today it is seen as an auditory hallucination.

Other elements in the story include a discussion of Plato's theory that learning is simply remembering what we have always known, an escape from the Nazis who are interested in Matei's super human abilities, and an excursion by one woman into past lives who aids Matei in his search for the ur-language. This, too, has its drawbacks, forcing Matei to halt the project.

The Ending: well, if you feel that you have come full circle on the last page, you are correct. Borges has a short work in which a man in front of a firing squad is given a year to finish his play. Ambrose Bierce wrote a short story about a Confederate sympathizer who "escapes," for a short time anyway, being hanged from the Owl Creek Bridge.

Overall Rating: a strange, quirky novel that requires several more readings. If this commentary seems fragmented or disjointed to you, I agree with you. I don't feel that I have a grasp of the work, but I did want to let others know about this work.

I shall also have to begin looking for his other works of fiction.

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