In Mircea Eliade’s Gaudeamus, yet another precocious, pernicious, prescient adolescent, full of a sense of predestination and the promise of literary greatness, marches out into the world to audaciously forge life’s meaning in the smithy of his soul. In a narrative where Goethe’s Teutonic Young Werther and Wilhelm Meister meet a more Central European Stephen Dedalus, writing, the life of the mind, metaphysics and the mastery and power of the Will engage in serious and frolicsome interplay, with subtle (or not so cowed) undertones of everything that a very different historical time would hold in store.

The setting is Bucharest in 1928, when the city was a cosmopolis of roué fascination and singeing intrigue, a glamorous demi-monde of exiled monarchs, nouveau-pauvre aristocracy, luxury hotels and a giddying social pace. It was a glittering, slightly hallucinatory facade, most famously captured in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, behind which lay centuries of Austro-Hungarian power, aura, ideology and history, and a very recent national pride but also rising darkness. Beneath the students’ ivory-tower bonhomie looms a very different real world: “Are you anti-Semites?” asks a student at a party, expecting an affirmative answer to be the only reasonable option. His “vigour made us all uncomfortable” is the narrator’s commentary, a theme and a question repeated poignantly throughout. Yet even though the historical echoes, parameters and rambunctiously debated ideologies are unsettlingly contemporary, in Eliade’s novel the overall feel is more fin de siècle St Germain des Prés than 1930s bohemia, while the underlying intellectual journey and rites of passage cause a vertigo of perception. L (phonetically evoking a semi-autobiographical ‘El-iade’) portrays himself as a self-deprecating, dejected and solitary, yet also Manfredian flâneur, while at the same time infusing what is at first sight a textbook Künstler-Bildungsroman with philosophical, ideological and theoretical anxieties that distil with critical momentum that single instant between the glimmer of light after WWI and the obliterating blackness already under way.

The novel, which alternates between direct narrative, diaristic writing and epistolary exchanges, offers stunning cameos of stereotypes and of literary and philosophical topoi.”

L would like to be seen as a teacher’s ultimate student, a ladies’ man, a boon companion, as well as a reactionary, irreverent iconoclast (at least in his mind), a Pygmalion-style bully where women are concerned, and a rather patronising superior in his relationships to his male peers. The novel, which alternates between direct narrative, diaristic writing and epistolary exchanges, offers stunning cameos of stereotypes and of literary and philosophical topoi. There is student life somewhat à la Evelyn Waugh: the dichotomy between society and solitude, the questions of faith, spirituality and religion, seen through the almost canonically sceptical prism of undergraduates at every point in historical time. On a different level, the modernist fascination with the power of the Will, the centrality of the Self, the distinctiveness of the Individual and the effectiveness of historical forces in bringing about change and progress, the nature of political action and the ethics of politics and of social existence, are interwoven into a dense, confessional manifesto, which has a certain allure as the chronicle of a particular, specifically articulated and predicated life, but especially as an early charter of what would emerge as Eliade’s own vision of man and the world, and as a blueprint of an era and a crossroads of human destiny.

There is a hefty dose of Huysmans’ À rebours and L’Oblat, combined with intense self-reflexivity, as well as proclaimed lifelines in the form of Croce, Hegel, Gentille, Pascal, Poincaré and Descartes, with Nietzsche, Jack London’s Martin Eden, Ibsen’s Brand and Balzac’s Rastignac vying for precedence as Virgilian figures to L’s Dante. There is also the allure of a philosophy that defies rationalism in favour of an almost occult mysticism and metaphysics: “One understands such matters after not understanding them for a very long time… And there are questions I hope I shall never understand.” “First you become completely and utterly confused. Afterwards, you’ll begin to see clearly, to understand organically, effortlessly, without torment.” Above all, in favour of the absolute convergence of solitude and agency: “all by myself” becomes a mantra for L, as it would for Eliade later in life.

Gaudeamus offers a faux-naif tableau and often shrewd analysis of the impertinence and arrogance of youth, its feeling of omnipotence and its entitlement to pass judgement (it is tempting to see this as a meta-narrative intended to act against its narrator and his semantic universe); as a subtle, stinging parody of its rites of self-destructive frenzy, gangly magnificence and frequently endearing ridicule, its bombastuous heroics, and the ultimate angst and terror against a tranquil, tame, perchance wiser maturity. “For me, to utter the commandment ‘I will’ was almost a magical rite. My Will,” proclaims L almost in raptures.

Innocent as it is in the context of a Bildungsroman, this is a dark mirror of the urge to a more historically determined and empowered individualism, which in the context of the time, and the biographical subtext of Gaudeamus, with its profuse elements of roman à clef, suggests very different realities from a purely intellectual asceticism or an austerely perceived life of the mind. Full of ironic asides, this is a novel that is also redolent with prescient darkness, political and ideological, with divisions and risky fusions. Women are portrayed as the objects of straying temptation or of necessary satisfaction, or as the ultimate challengers if they should lay claim to a power of choice or a will of their own. The task is always subjection and domination, whether physical or intellectual, while renouncing at the same time the mediocrities of conventional social structures and strictures. It is a fascinating, problematic and unsettling account of a journey of consciousness and awareness, of understanding and obscurantism, through the tropes of ecstasy and almost epic despair.

Seen with the perspective of his overall corpus in mind, this is an extraordinarily revealing record of Eliade’s journey through thought and experience.”

L declares that he wants to be a hero, above all: “one who struggles with all his might to make certain spiritual values that greatly transcend the common spirituality become tangible, flourish and spread. One who goes beyond the human, one who renounces the way others live in order to live ascetically, like a saint, all because he has sworn to achieve those things he has set out to do.” L’s sainthood is a self-referential one, however, even a heterodox one: he wishes to be seen as a god and accepted as a master – a dream of a new super-race of individuals with particularly chilling associations at that particular moment in time. There is sadism behind the grand vision of strong, determined men, or, as L says, a state of mind that is “monstrously lofty”. It should be stressed that Eliade is not necessarily tautological to L, even if the process of writing does appear to be one of relentless self-scrutiny, a logbook of the laboratory of the soul by an existential, more metaphysical than physical Dr Frankenstein perhaps.

When seen with the perspective of Eliade’s overall corpus in mind, his philosophy and structural theoretics of the power of myths, symbols, archetypes and heroes to influence and shape culture and humanity, this is an extraordinarily revealing record of Eliade’s journey through thought and experience. He would seek, till the end of his life, “the path of perfect freedom” that L is also yearning for, even if this would take manifold permutations and reformulations along the way. Eliade described his quest for “a philosophy of meaning” as a struggle against agony, opposites, ambiguity, separation. His theoretical writings and his teachings at the University of Chicago revolve around his central axioms of nostalgia for an originary place (metaphysical or real), the conviction in the notion of eternal return, and especially in epiphanic experiences, which he called hierophanies. He sought a master narrative of coherence, determined to map out the cross-cultural patterns of universals, semantic identity, experiential or symbolic convergence. He believed in rituals and myths that re-enacted the first manifestation of the Sacred, in a Homo religiosus who would counter the man of reason, but also the man of the emotions, and especially the man under the grip of the Terror of History. Like Yeats, he was fascinated by the idea of a cosmic centre, an axis mundi that would hold everything together. Against doubt, fragmentation, flux and uncertainty, he devised numerous regimes of willpower, explored the occult, studied Eastern religions with an insight and ferocity few came to equal. Yet for all his Will to be solid, unified, unequivocal, Eliade is perhaps a superbly divided and ineffable writer and thinker. He haunts us as much as he provokes us to think, shocks us into disbelief as much as he inspires in us a desire for leaps of faith, for the intangible and the mysterious.

Gaudeamus comes with its own critical apparatus, consisting of a foreword by Bryan Rennie, a historian of religions, and an afterword by Sorin Alexandrescu, a semiotician and the nephew of Eliade. Bartholomew’s translation captures the masculinity and solipsistic vigour of L’s rhetoric, even if it can on a few occasions seem confused, odd or unclear, as well as being cluttered with too many typographical mishaps (even the translator’s name is spelled indiscriminately as both Bartolomew and Bartholomew…). This is a book that can be a window to a rather exciting world beyond its pages, from Eliade’s Bengali Nights and the posthumous response by the real heroine of that later novel, Maitreyi Devi, raising new consortia of questions, to his philosophy and structural ethnography as it reveals the cult of the self of the 1930s, the preoccupations of a generation that bred both angels and monsters, heroes and villains, and so much more, such as a lust for knowledge and a thirst for a very different revelation and wisdom, a more unmediated relationship to the world. It deserves to be seen as part of the canon of “portraits of the artists at their time of becoming”, alongside Goethe, Joyce, Huysmans, Hamsun, Balzac, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Hesse (whose Damian certainly lurks behind Gaudeamus), Melville’s forgotten Pierre; or: the Ambiguities, Henry James, Samuel Butler or F. Scott Fitzgerald; it is, especially, a startling document when read as an account of the formation of a young mind and conscience in the early 1930s.

 

Mircea_EliadeMircea Eliade (1907–1986) was born in in Bucharest, the son of an army officer. He lived in India from 1928 to 1932, after which he obtained a doctorate in philosophy with a thesis on yoga, and taught at the University of Bucharest for seven years. During WWII he was a cultural attaché in London and Lisbon, and from 1945 he taught at the École des haut études in Paris and several other European universities. In 1957 he took up the post of Chair of History of Religion at the University of Chicago, which he held until his death. His extensive body of work includes influential studies of the religious experience The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of the Eternal Return. He also wrote numerous works of fiction, including Bengal Nights and Youth without Youth, both of which were adapted for the screen. Gaudeamus, translated by Christopher Bartholomew, is published in paperback by Istros Books.
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Christopher Bartholomew undertook extended gap-year mission work in Romania from 1998 to 2000, and continued Romanian studies during a BA in English from Brigham Young University and an MBA at Westminster College in Utah. He stumbled across the early novels of Mircea Eliade in a used bookstore in Bucharest’s University metro station in 2004. He has translated Eliade’s Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent (2016) and Gaudeaumus (2018) for Istros Books.

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

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