February 9, 2008
By John Crowley
Sunday, October 20, 1996 True scholars rarely take up their fields of study purely out of intellectual interest, or even for reasons of fashion or academic advancement. The interest is often deeply personal, obsessive even; the scholar’s work can proceed out of a primitive wounding or longing just as the poet’s can. A scholar who takes a lifelong interest in sex or magic or power or divinity can do so because there is something he or she very passionately needs to know or to avoid knowing.
Ioan Culianu was born in Romania and came to questions of sorcery, religion and power — and the connections between them — as a birthright. He was a brilliant synthesizer and would perhaps have gone on to be a brilliant original thinker as well, who might have transformed the study of the history of religion. He was 41 when he was shot in the head in the men’s room of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School on May 21, 1991.
I am obliged to say that I came to know Culianu just before his murder and was interviewed on a couple of occasions by the author of this book, though I could tell him very little. Ted Anton reports that the effect Culianu had on me he had on many others, including the poet and radio commentator Andrei Codrescu, the Israeli scholar Moshe Idel, Umberto Eco, and his own graduate students, one of whom described Culianu as inducing in his acquaintances “a sense of self-discovery, and fantastic wish-fulfillment that was mildly hallucinatory.” “Yet many people,” Anton says, “realized afterwards they did not really know him.” The most valuable and interesting part of Anton’s book is the tracing of a remarkable journey of self-creation that I, at least, was largely unaware of.
Born into a noble family of notable intellectual achievements, Culianu grew up in the few rooms of his ancestral estate which the new communist regime allowed his family to occupy (whenever they made trouble, they risked losing another room). He also grew up within a tangled and (so it would prove) inescapable history.
Romanian mystic nationalism of the prewar period, anti-Semitic and authoritarian, which his father and uncle had battled in intellectual life, had not so much been defeated or suppressed by the communists as absorbed by them. Many former “Iron Guard” fascists found homes in the secret police; other factions escaped abroad; a contingent ended up in Chicago. To that city also came Culianu’s early intellectual hero Mircea Eliade, the Romanian historian of religion who had not only studied but practiced yoga and tantra and whose early romantic novels were lifeblood to trapped young Romanians.
Culianu joined the Communist Party in order to be able to travel, study and publish; he also, after much wavering, defected while on scholarship in Italy. He wrote to Eliade in Chicago and received ambiguous replies. He nearly starved. All that kept him going was an astonishing capacity for absorbing knowledge and a steely will to work and survive. He eventually won international renown, though it was not unshadowed by the suspicion that he was somehow faking something: No one could know so much about so many things in so many languages.
In his most far-reaching book, “Eros and Magic in the Renaissance,” Culianu recovers the Renaissance theory of magic as personal power arising from the heart — not the organ that today only pumps the blood, but the spirit synthesizer that since antiquity had been located in the same place. The heart was where the sense-impressions were gathered. If the spirit that the heart contained was pure and hot, it formed a brilliant mirror of the world; passion and feeling did not cloud it but made it brighter; the mind saw and judged what was shown there and willed and acted on the basis of what the heart knew.
So the greater the strength of feeling — of eros — directed toward the world, the fuller and greater was the world contained in the heart to be acted on by the mind. Magic is love, said the Renaissance magus Giordano Bruno, whom Culianu studied, and love is magic. He meant not the gentle empathies or mild assent we sometimes call “love” but eros, the fire of transcendent desire.
We who could not really know Ioan Culianu could not know the strength of his desire nor how far it had carried him: It was at once the motor of his intellectual inquiries and their object. Bruno says that two things are necessary for magic to work between souls: The operator must believe that his processes work, and the subject must believe the operator. Ioan Culianu was, or aspired to be, a magician: a good magician, in all senses. It was a game, but he played it for keeps.
Eventually he came to Chicago, still a somewhat louche figure but on his way to becoming an American (he loved being a consumer and ordering things from glossy catalogues). Eliade, old and ill, sponsored him, in part to have someone to take over his own work; he couldn’t know that Culianu, though devoted, was moving away from the older man’s ideas. And among the papers he put in order for Eliade was evidence supporting the long-rumored connection between Eliade and the Iron Guard.
Not long after Culianu inherited Eliade’s position in Chicago’s School of Divinity, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe began to collapse. Culianu’s sister and brother-in-law were active in the liberation movement. How would Romania go? Culianu published a Swiftian fantasy of an almost magical prescience, describing an imaginary country, Jormania, in which the aging and unpopular dictator and his wife are destroyed by the secret police of the neighboring Maculist empire, using specially bred housecats called Zorabi. In the succeeding pseudo-revolution, the economy is captured by the dictator’s former henchmen, and the secret police declare themselves Immaculists. Little changes except that pornography is allowed to be printed.
Something roughly like this began happening late in 1989, though few Americans perceived it then. A plan by the KGB to eliminate the unpopular Ceausescus under the guise of popular reform got out of hand and became a revolution, forcing the Communists to become, or appear to become, democrats in order to retain power. In the new regime, ultra-nationalism again became a political force, and the suppressing of enemies abroad — something the Romanian Securitate had always taken seriously — continued on an even broader front.
Many of Culianu’s American friends didn’t know how involved he was in post-Communist Romanian public life and how much danger he was in because of it. In his scholarly work Culianu was able to project an astonishing grasp of the most recondite materials and make them seem vital, even urgent; in the scathing political and cultural criticism he now began to publish in Romanian emigre papers, he continually “left the disquieting impression that its author was only hinting at deeper ideas that he planned to disclose later.” He told his students and friends — but not the police — that he thought he was being followed, and took out additional life insurance.
In “Eros and Magic” Culianu studies a little-known work by Bruno in which Bruno shows that the bonds of desire, in the broadest sense, can be manipulated by the worker who understands how to project images that can compel the hearts of all men. Culianu saw in Bruno’s prescriptions a more sophisticated Machiavellianism, not using the brute tools of force and fraud but foreshadowing the whole panoply of propaganda, public relations and mass media that all modern states would be based on.
Anton errs in supposing that Culianu saw in the lies and manipulations of the Communist regime an expression of the bonds Bruno described. Culianu distinguishes between two types of polity: the magician state — such as the United States or Italy, where he lived when he came to the West — and the police state. The police state becomes a jailer state, “changing itself into a prison where all hope is lost,” repressing both liberty and the illusion of liberty in order to defend an out-of-date culture in which no one believes. It is bound to perish. The magician state, on the other hand, can degenerate into a sorcerer state, providing only the illusion of satisfaction, keeping the controls hidden; its faults are too much subtlety and too much flexibility. “Yet the future belongs to it anyway,” Culianu says. “Coercion and the use of force will have to yield to the subtle processes of magic, science of the past, of the present, and of the future.”
Odd tone to be taking in a scholarly work. But is it strange that those who live by language and ideas should think the world and reality are in fact made from them and can be changed by changing them? Culianu was a believer in puns, premonitions, coincidences and codes, a man who was entranced by the game of Logos, or Meaning. Whoever shot him (the case remains open, though political assassination is assumed) chose to do it in a toilet, on the victim’s mother’s name day, a near-sacred day in the Romanian ethos. Culianu was not the only one who believed in the power of pattern and connection.
Ted Anton, an associate professor of nonfiction writing at DePaul University, assembles a dazzling, even obscuring, array of connections, hints, foreshadowings, and plots from his many years of research, but he is clear that at the center of this hall of mirrors is a real life, ruined by the operations of brute power. “Chance and fate, truth and fiction, murder and illusory disappearance,” Anton sums up. “In many ways, Culianu said, these opposites are the same. The deepest tragedy is that, in the only way we understand, they are not.”
John Crowley’s novels include “Little, Big” and “Love & Sleep.”