New Republic 14/11/06, Nov 16, 2006
In the aftermath of World War II, there was a great influx of refugees into the United States. Most came from countries where populations had been uprooted by the course of battle, or were escaping from a past that they were lucky to have survived. Some, however, were trying to put behind them a different kind of past–one in which they had collaborated with, or expressed sympathy for, the Axis powers that had been defeated. A notable case of this kind was that of Paul de Man, the distinguished professor of comparative literature at Yale University; another eminent instance was Mircea Eliade, the much-admired historian of religion who was chairman of the department of religion at the University of Chicago from 1957 until his death in 1986. Eliade had been a strong supporter of the Iron Guard movement, the Romanian equivalent of the Italian fascists and the German Nazis, but he attempted throughout his later career to conceal and deny his affiliation with its ideas and his service in the pro-Axis Romanian government of Marshal Ion Antonescu during the war.
Although Eliade’s history has attracted little attention in the United States, he appears, under a fictitious name, in Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein. It is well known that the character Ravelstein is a fictional portrait of the late Allan Bloom, a member of the faculty of the University of Chicago and the author of the best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind. Another professor at the university is a Romanian-born historian of religion, Radu Grielescu, with an even greater international reputation than that of Ravelstein, and obviously based on Eliade. The narrator of the novel, who may be roughly identified with the author, is married to a Romanian woman. (One of Bellow’s wives was in fact a Romanian mathematician–in the novel she is an astronomer–and his earlier novel The Dean’s December is set in Bucharest.) The couple are flatteringly cultivated by the highly civilized Grielescu, and a minor motif of the book is the futile protest of Ravelstein against what he correctly divines as the efforts of Grielescu to ingratiate himself with the narrator.
Both Ravelstein and the narrator are Jewish, and the former has gotten wind that Grielescu, during the 1930s and 1940s, had been a fervent intellectual spokesman for the ferociously anti-Semitic Iron Guard movement. Indeed, he had “denounced the Jewish syphilis that had infected the high civilization of the Balkans.” During the war he had served the pro-fascist Romanian government in its embassies in England and Portugal; and he lived in fear that his previous Iron Guard affiliations and sympathies would become known. “Grielescu is using you,” Ravelstein tells the narrator. “In his own country he was a fascist, and he needs you to cover this up here.” The narrator admits that he had never posed a direct question about his past to Grielescu, but refuses to believe that he could ever have been a genuine Jew-hater.
This episode in Bellow’s novel is cited in a recent French study, which has not yet appeared in English, titled Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco: L’oubli du fascisme, written by Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine, a historian of Eastern European history and culture. This revelatory book is an extremely erudite exploration of the careers of the three writers named in the title, based largely but far from exclusively on an analysis of the little-known (and, until fairly recently, mostly inaccessible) journalistic and periodical literature in Romanian of the 1930s and 1940s. All these men were natives of that relatively obscure and distant land, and all performed the astonishing feat of becoming world-famous figures.
Eliade’s books on the history of religion elevated him to a commanding height in the field, and he attained fame as a novelist both in his own country and in France. E.M. Cioran was widely hailed for his brilliantly disillusioned reflections on history and culture, written first in Romanian and then in French, and he was praised as one of the greatest contemporary stylists in his adopted language. Eugène Ionesco pioneered the vogue of the theater of the absurd, and his comic but also symbolically tragic plays were performed everywhere; eventually he was elected to the Académie Française. All three had a past that they wished to hide (though Ionesco’s concealments did not arise from any sympathy with the fascist tendency that the two others fervently championed). The aim of Laignel-Lavastine’s book is to investigate the truth about this past so far as it can be ascertained from the surviving documents and the testimony of contemporaries. It has now been supplemented by the appearance in English of a work exclusively devoted to Cioran, An Infamous Past, by the Romanian scholar and poet Marta Petreu, which was originally published in 1999.
Laignel-Lavastine begins with a sweeping depiction of the political and cultural atmosphere of the late 1920s in Romania, the period during which the three men she deals with came to maturity. The ideological climate of the time was defined in a series of articles by the twenty-year-old Eliade called “A Spiritual Itinerary”–a work that quickly became the lodestar of the new generation and promoted the young Eliade to the position of its leader. Sweeping aside all the ideas of the past that had been destroyed in the carnage of World War I, Eliade wrote: “The myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism, all this has been shattered to pieces in every area in which it has been contested.” This criticism of rationalism, materialism, and loss of religious faith was accompanied by praise of the “life-force,” and of the most extreme irrational experiences, as providing the source of a new realm of values.
All three men attended the University of Bucharest, the center of Romania’s cultural life, where they became acquainted and competed for attention in the animated discussions that took place in the cafés of the Calei Victorei, the main artery of the city. Every conversation there was a personal challenge, and in a volume of critical articles titled Non, Ionesco ironically depicts the various strategies employed to make an impression. A neophyte might imitate Cioran and speak “in response to everything or with complete irrelevance,” or “in a trembling voice, in which the emotion and acute interior tension were expressed as the phrases interrupted each other, cite a passage from Unamuno or Berdyaev.” Matters were not so intellectually effervescent, however, for others in the university, especially those of Jewish origin.
Of primary importance in this context is the endemic anti-Semitism of Romanian culture, which has deep historic roots. Encouraged by the rise of Nazism during the 1930s, the indigenous anti-Semitism of the Iron Guard made life for Jewish students at the university a continual torment. They were assigned special seats, continually insulted verbally, and assaulted physically. Often it was necessary for police to be called in to protect them as they left the lecture halls. There is a moving passage in a novel from 1934 by Mihail Sebastian, also a playwright and for a time a member of Eliade’s inner circle, in which the obviously autobiographical main character, who has been slapped in the face, remonstrates with himself: “Tell yourself that you are the son of a nation of martyrs … dash your head against the walls, but if you wish to be able to look yourself in the face, if you don’t wish to die of shame, do not weep.”
The reigning academic figure at the university, or at least the figure who exercised the most influence on the writers we are concerned with, was a philosopher named Nae Ionescu. He possessed a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Munich, and he was a charismatic orator capable of producing an almost hypnotic influence in his lectures to packed auditoriums. Depicted by Laignel-Lavastine as more or less an intellectual charlatan whose brilliant performances were cribbed and plagiarized from German philosophical sources, Ionescu nonetheless succeeded in obtaining an indelible grip on the finest minds of the younger generation. His lectures, according to Cioran, were only half prepared, so that “we were present face to face with the working out of his thought. He communicated this effort to us, the tension working in a reciprocal manner…. Such professors are rare.”
What did students absorb from the teachings of this spellbinding professor? He traced the crisis of modern man, which culminated for him in the emergence of the ideology of democracy, to the fusion of the philosophical subjectivism of Descartes with the mathematical method and scientific uniformization imposed by the Renaissance. To this individualist perspective he opposed that of the submission of the individual to the national collectivity–not the legal nation, but the organic one, the community of blood and spirit, which was, according to him, the only living and creative reality. Up to 1933, such proto-fascist ideas, which formed the common coin of a good deal of the German philosophy of the time, were not given any political application by Ionescu, who had been in favor of the restoration of King Carol II in 1930. But in 1933 he went to Germany and was much impressed by Hitler’s rise to power. On his return he protested, along with Eliade, the ban issued against the Iron Guard, one of whose members had recently assassinated the liberal prime minister. It was in 1933 that the philosopher also made personal contact for the first time with C.Z. Codreanu, the founder and leader of the Iron Guard, and apparently a powerfully impressive personality.
The Iron Guard was as vicious and brutal as other fascist formations–perhaps even more than some when it came to murderous violence against the Jews–but it differed from the others by containing, along with a strong nationalistic component, a religious one as well. It combined, according to Laignel-Lavastine, “the Führerprinzip [the cult of the Leader] with the Christian prototype of the apostle and the Balkan model of the haidouks, those who meted out justice on the highways, a type of Robin Hood of the Carpathians.” Each member of the Iron Guard was supposed to submit himself to a discipline that would transform his character, and–at least in theory–the movement was closer to some sort of religious sect than to a customary political formation. This made it much simpler in later years for Eliade, in his extremely untrustworthy memoirs, to sanitize his close association with the Iron Guard by describing it as “having the structure and vocation of a mystical sect rather than of a political movement.” In fact, the organization offered candidates for all the elections and participated in all the political campaigns. Still, as late as 1980, Eliade stressed the religious component of its ideology, which glorified terrorism and assassination as examples of personal self-sacrifice. The Iron Guard, he wrote, was “the sole Romanian political movement that took seriously Christianity and the church.”
After sketching in this background, Laignel-Lavastine moves on to follow the careers of her three protagonists during this period. Cioran was born of a clerical family in what had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as a lycée student was one of the few who took advantage of the well-stocked German library. As his notebooks show, he imbibed the very best of both old and new German philosophy, as well as Russians such as Dostoevsky and Shestov. In 1933, at the age of twenty-two, he began to publish articles in the anti-Semitic weekly Vremea, in which Eliade also regularly appeared. Cioran’s contributions were distinguished by an extreme cultural and ethical pessimism derived from Schopenhauer, as well as by an anti-rationalism absorbed from Nietzsche, Simmel, and Scheler. Petreu stresses the influence of Spengler, to whose thoughts on the decline of the West, she argues, Cioran remained indebted all his life. His writings were also characterized by an anguished concern over the status of Romania on the world scene. By what means could his country succeed in raising itself above the mediocrity in which it seemed to stagnate? How could it “emerge from a thousand years of sub-historical vegetative life,” as he wrote in 1936?
Like other students of Nae Ionescu, Cioran had begun to sympathize with the Iron Guard without accepting some of its ideological presuppositions; and he always refused to affiliate completely with a political movement. But a decisive moment in his life was a Humboldt fellowship to Germany in 1933, where he lived until the summer of 1935. He was tremendously impressed by the new dynamism that Hitler had imparted to German life, and compared it sadly to the inertia at home. “To tell the truth,” he wrote to a friend shortly after arriving, “there are things here that please me, and I am convinced that a dictatorial regime would succeed in conquering our native morass.” He admired Hitler more and more as time went on, and he expresses such admiration in no uncertain terms in the articles that he sent back for his Romanian readers. “There is no contemporary political figure,” he wrote, “for whom I feel a greater sympathy and admiration than for Hitler,” who had succeeded in infusing “a messianic inspiration to a domain of values that democratic rationalism had rendered banal and trivial.” Along with many others, he attended the popular courses of the philosopher Ludwig Klages, an anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer, whom he compared to Ionescu, and placed on the same level as Heidegger. (Klages wrote a huge three-volume work to demonstrate that reason had always been a dissolving and corrupting force in human life.)
On returning home, Cioran performed his obligatory military service in the army, and then, starting in 1936, taught philosophy for a year in a lycée. During these years he published three books, two on religion and the third–the most scandalously provocative work that ever came from his pen–titled The Transfiguration of Romania. Here he raises the problem of the integration of minorities, and not only defends Romanian xenophobia but also attempts to develop a rigorously systematic and historical anti-Semitic argument to prove that the Jews are inassimilable. “The feeling of animosity toward strangers,” he declares, “is so characteristic of Romanian national sentiment that the two are forever indissoluble…. We have lived for a thousand years under their domination [that of strangers], and not to hate them, not to get them out of the way, would be proof of a lack of national instinct.”
As for the Jews, Cioran writes that “every time that a people becomes conscious of itself, it fatally enters into conflict with the Jews.” One can learn to live with other minorities, such as the Hungarians and the Saxon Germans, but this is impossible with the Jews “by reason of the particular structure of their mentality and of their inherent political orientations.” Cioran repeats the usual litany of anti-Semitic charges, but attempts to give them a logic and consistency they would not otherwise possess, linking them to essential characteristics of the Jewish mentality. (His book was written after Hitler had passed the Nuremberg laws in Germany.)
Most of Petreu’s book is devoted to a very thorough and quite critical analysis of this work, the only purely political tract that Cioran ever produced. His anti-Semitism and xenophobia were commonplace in Romanian thought, but Petreu views his political ideas as quite independent in the context of a period dominated by a conflict between “occidentalism” and “autochthony” (a reliance on native traditions). Cioran rejected both: neither a capitalist transformation along European democratic lines nor a re-affirmation of the national values embodied in rural life met with his approval.
Instead, he was in favor of increased industrialization and expressed considerable admiration for Lenin and the Russian Revolution, though of course abhorring its materialist ideology. Moreover, the transformation of Romania could only be nationalist, and it was here that he coincided with the Iron Guard, proclaiming in 1937 his confidence in the group’s “heroism which begins in brutality and ends in sacrifice.” He met Codreanu several times, but wrote to Eliade in 1935 that “no political doctrine receives my ultimate approval.” Cioran left Romania again in 1937, having applied for a study grant to Spain, the land of Unamuno. But the civil war made that impossible, and so he spent three years in France instead.
Eliade, as already noted, found no difficulty at all in accepting the ideology of the Iron Guard, which he viewed in the light of his own preoccupation with religion and spirituality. The difference between him and Cioran, whose book The Transfiguration of Romania Eliade prepared for the press as a service to his friend, is clearly illustrated in a letter in which Eliade is full of praise for the section on the Jews and other minorities, but objects to Cioran’s contemptuous remarks about the Romanian village as containing nothing but “a biological reserve.” For Eliade, it was the source of national-religious values that had existed for centuries–and were again being revived by the Iron Guard. In a series of more than fifty articles between 1934 and 1938, he praised “the Captain,” as Codreanu was called, for inspiring such a movement and urged young intellectuals to join the cause. “The significance of the revolution advanced by Corneliu Codreanu is so profoundly mystical,” he declared, “that its success would designate the victory of the Christian spirit in Europe.”
Eliade’s adhesion to the cause, however, was by no means instantaneous. It was only in December 1935 that he decided that “the primacy of the spiritual does not imply the refusal of action.” In 1936 he began openly to support the Iron Guard; but his aim was “to provide its ideology with a more solid philosophical foundation.” One is reminded of Heidegger’s attempt to provide Hitlerism with what the philosopher considered a worthier intellectual grounding. Eliade carries on a continual battle against the ideas of the Enlightenment and traces the degeneration of Romania to its attempt to adopt such alien notions: “Being a foreign importation, the democratic regime concerns itself with matters that are not specifically Romanian–abstractions like the rights of man, the rights of minorities, and the liberty of conscience.” Far better a dictatorship like that of Mussolini, which is always preferable to a democracy because, if the latter goes to pieces, it will “inevitably slide toward the left” and thus toward communism.
An important event of these years for Eliade was the return of the coffins of two of his friends, both prominent Iron Guardists, killed fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. A huge semiofficial demonstration was organized to honor their remains, and Eliade wrote three articles, one published in the journal of the Iron Guard itself, to consecrate the glory of their sacrifice. As usual, he endows this event with his own pseudo-religious aura. “The voluntary death of Ion Mota and Vasile Marin,” he wrote, “has a mystic significance: the sacrifice for Christianity.” By this time he had become an active partisan of the Iron Guard; and when the Guard fell out of favor with the government in 1938, leading to the arrest of Codreanu and several hundred of his most prominent followers, Mircea Eliade was among them.
The conditions of their detention in a camp, once an agricultural school, were far from onerous, and courses were organized by Ionescu and Eliade, who also managed to write a novel there, called Marriage in Heaven. His wife’s uncle was a general close to King Carol II, and since Eliade suffered from a tubercular condition, he was soon allowed to move to a mountain village and returned home early in December. Later that month Codreanu was killed, presumably while attempting to escape, and the Iron Guard movement was sternly repressed. Eliade had lost his university post, but he confided to Cioran that he “regretted nothing,” and he wrote a play, Iphigenia, that exalted the ideas of sacrifice and death for one’s country in words literally reproducing those he had used about the two Iron Guardists who had sacrificed themselves for Franco.
Life for Eliade in his native land was becoming difficult, and his correspondence reveals that he was seeking to go elsewhere. He made efforts in the direction of the United States and France with no success, and finally had to settle for a post as cultural attaché in London before Romania entered the war against the Allies. The English were quite well informed about his past, and classified him as “the most Nazified member of the legation,” possibly a spy for Germany. When he was transferred to Portugal, there was some discussion as to whether he should be allowed to leave the country, and he was filled with indignation at being stripped and searched before his departure. He spent four years in Lisbon, where the dictatorship of Salazar, which he called “a Christian form of totalitarianism,” was much closer to his political tastes than anything he could find elsewhere. While performing his tasks in the embassy, he also wrote a hagiographical but scholarly biography of Salazar, who deigned, much to his delight, to grant him an audience, and then entrusted him with a message to deliver to General Antonescu. Eliade’s trip to Bucharest in July 1942 was the last time he was to see his native land.
The third member of the trio was Eugène Ionesco, and the jacket of Laignel-Lavastine’s book contains a photograph taken in 1977 in Paris at the charming and peaceful little Place Furstenberg, just a few steps away from the swarming crowd at St.-Germain-des-Près. The picture captures the three exiles talking together in the friendliest fashion, and has aroused a good deal of criticism, because it would appear that all three were guilty in a similar fashion of the “oubli du fascisme,” the forgetfulness about fascism, indicated by the book’s title. The text makes clear, however, that Ionesco’s politics had always been fiercely hostile to the fascist temptation. Indeed, his famous play Rhinoceros (1959) is based on his horrified fascination with what he saw taking place as the members of his generation each yielded to the fascist spell.
The play depicts a small provincial village where the inhabitants gradually become transformed into rhinoceroses that destroy everything in their path. Ionesco’s journal records the process by which, as he wrote, “I saw how my brothers, my friends, gradually became strangers. I felt a new spirit germinating within them; how a new personality was substituted for theirs.” These new personalities were those of “the ideologists and semi-intellectuals” who mutated into “rhinoceroses”; a character called “the Logician” in the play, presumably based on Nae Ionescu, precipitates this transformation.
But Ionesco, too, possessed a past that he wished to keep hidden, though it was relatively anodyne compared with that of the other two. For one thing, there was the question of his family. Ionesco’s father was a Romanian lawyer with a French doctorate, and his mother was presumably French. But there appears to be some question about her origins: she may not have been a French citizen at all, and was probably of Jewish ancestry. None of this is mentioned in Ionesco’s autobiographical writings; but he spoke of his mother to Mihail Sebastian, whose friendship, unlike that of all the others, he continued to cultivate, and who comments that “I had long known that his mother was Jewish from hearsay.” This conversation occurred in 1941, just fifteen days after an Iron Guardist pogrom, horrifying in its slaughter, had taken place in Bucharest.
Ionesco taught French literature at the University of Bucharest, and became well known in the 1930s when his book Non was given a prestigious literary award. In it, he scathingly attacked the eminences of Romanian literature for their “ethno-linguistic nationalism and historicism.” Meanwhile, he was keeping a journal that nourished much of his later work, in which we see him rejecting the collectivisms both of fascism and communism. In 1938 he received a grant to study in Paris from the director of the French Cultural Institute who, a few months earlier, had given one to Cioran; but though the two lived in the same section of Paris and had common Romanian friends, they carefully avoided each other’s company.
At this time Ionesco was much influenced by Emmanuel Mounier, the founder of the journal Esprit, and a liberal Catholic who attempted to steer a middle course between left and right and fathered a doctrine known as “personalism.” It was anti-capitalist and highly critical of the weaknesses of liberal democracy, but it also stressed the importance of preserving the rights of the individual personality not as a political entity, but as a moral-spiritual one. Mounier has been sharply criticized for having contributed to the undermining of the respect for democracy that marked the prewar years in France; but what impressed Ionesco was his emphasis on safeguarding the moral responsibility of the individual. Both Cioran and Ionesco sent home articles describing their impressions of Paris: the former depicted the city and France itself as “a nation fatigued and worn-out, at the twilight of its history,” while the latter spoke of them as “the ultimate refuge of humanity.”
After the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Ionesco decided to return to Romania–a decision he bitterly regretted. He remained there until the summer of 1942, desperately trying to leave again without success. During this period the Romanian government was taken over by General Antonescu, who for five months shared power with the Iron Guard. They instituted a reign of terror “of an indescribable savagery,” particularly against the Jews, but also massacring other opponents and kidnapping former members of the government and prominent intellectuals to be executed. Antonescu, disturbed by the chaos, finally suppressed the Iron Guard with the help of German troops. Meanwhile new laws against the Jews were added to those already in existence, and applied to “converts” of the past and present as well as those clinging to their faith; all were excluded from teaching, as well as from any other professional office or occupation, except those with special permission from the head of state. Ionesco became frantic, as his notebooks reveal; and after several futile efforts to obtain passports and visas, he appealed to friends in several ministries for help. As a last resort, they arranged for him to become press attaché at the Romanian embassy in Vichy (France by this time had been defeated). As he put it, “I am like an escaped prisoner who flees in the uniform of the jailer.”
This is the second part of his Romanian past that Ionesco kept concealed: these Vichy years are never mentioned in his autobiographical writings. A full account of them is given in Laignel-Lavastine’s book, using the documents now available from his dossier in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bucharest and references in his letters of the time. It is quite clear, to cite the text, that this “was a strategy of survival”; and though he hated every moment of his duties, he performed them conscientiously enough to receive a promotion to cultural secretary in the spring of 1943.
Much of his time was given to encouraging the translation and publication of Romanian writers, and to maneuvering among French journals in the complicated maze created by the collaborationist, semi-collaborationist, and purely literary publications. Ionesco carefully avoided the first and preferred those that attempted to preserve a literary autonomy, even if it was necessarily limited. He also secretly employed as a translator, using a pseudonym, a Romanian-Jewish poet whose works had been illustrated by Brancusi and Victor Brauner. Very far from being lenient toward her subjects, Laignel-Lavastine does not omit other duties performed by Ionesco that might be considered “compromising”; but she concludes that his record is “in general quite honorable.” Still, those were years that he wished to forget.
Cioran was also in Paris at the outbreak of the war and decided to return to Bucharest in the autumn of 1940, though he, too, eliminated these months from accounts of his life. The reason is quite simple: he arrived when the Iron Guard had practically taken over the government; and on the very day that it was committing the atrocities already mentioned, he spoke on the radio with ecstatic praise for the “Legion” (as the movement was also called). “Codreanu,” he said, had “instilled honor in a nation of slaves; he has given a sense of pride to a spineless herd.” He also published several articles along the same lines and, preparing his return to France, obtained an appointment as cultural attaché to the Romanian embassy in Vichy. Cioran took up his new post in March 1941, but broke all records for the brevity of his service, which lasted only two and a half months. Meanwhile, he managed once again to obtain a study grant with the help of his former benefactor, now at the Collège de France, and returned to live and write in occupied Paris.
During these years, he spent a good deal of time with another ex-Romanian intellectual of Jewish origin, Benjamin Fondane (actually Vecsler), who had become a fairly well-known literary critic and poet through his works in French. In a letter to his parents in 1946, cited by Petreu, Cioran writes that “[Fondane] proved to be more gentle and more generous than all my ‘Christian’ friends taken together…. In the long run, all ideas are absurd and false; only the people are there, regardless of their origin or religion.” When Fondane was finally denounced and arrested, Cioran went with Jean Paulhan to plead for his release. Surprisingly enough, they were successful in his case; but Fondane refused to leave without his sister, who had also been taken into custody, and they both perished in Auschwitz.
There can be little doubt that, as Laignel-Lavastine notes, “the arrest of Fondane shook Cioran profoundly,” and left an indelible impression on his ideas and his values. He later wrote an admiring essay about his friend, and in addition helped Fondane’s wife to re-edit his works after the war as well as to complete an important unfinished book on Baudelaire. He also wrote an article asking that Fondane’s name be included among those deported writers whose names were inscribed in the Pantheon. Laignel-Lavastine criticizes him for having called Fondane “Moldavian” rather than Jewish (as if this were not understood), and because other phrases might be interpreted as containing traces of his own previous anti-Semitism. But actions, such as his intervention for his friend’s release, speak louder even than such words; and this is not the only instance in which suspicion is cast on any genuine transformation of sentiment in Cioran.
No such problem arises with Eliade, because no transformation of any kind took place. Quite the contrary. Eliade kept a notebook throughout the war that is now deposited in the University of Chicago library, and which, since it was never intended for publication, he did not undertake to revise so as to blur and distort his opinions and actions. It is an astonishing document, revealing a self-adulation merging on megalomania and a fervent commitment to the triumph of Hitler, Mussolini, and Antonescu over the “Anglo-Bolsheviks.” Comparing himself with Goethe, whose genius he admired, Eliade concludes: “My intellectual horizons are vaster.” Despite the consolation of such reflections, he was terribly depressed by the course of the war. After the defeat of the Germans and their Romanian allies at Stalingrad (which he called “a tragedy”), followed by the invasion of North Africa and the British victory over Rommel, Eliade was upset to such an extent that he notes: “Insomnias, nightmares, depression.”
For him, the triumph of the Allies meant “the abandonment of Europe to the Asiatic hordes.” Even though Jews were being slaughtered right and left in his homeland, not to mention elsewhere–and Eliade’s diplomatic position kept him perfectly well informed–not a word about any such events appears in his pages. As the handwriting on the wall became more and more legible, he resolved not to return home, but to take another tack. “I have decided to ‘penetrate’ Europe more deeply and with more determination than I have done until now,” he writes. Several months later, he sees himself operating as “a Trojan horse within the scientific arena,” whose aim was “scientifically to validate the metaphysical significance of prehistoric life.” This is exactly how he behaved after Antonescu was overthrown and he was discharged from his position at the Romanian embassy. He had influential scholarly connections in Paris, particularly the cultural historian Georges Dumézil, and he used this influence as well as others to obtain temporary teaching appointments. He had begun to write his Treatise on the History of Religions in 1944 and his influential The Myth of the Eternal Return a year later; both appeared in French in the immediate postwar years, and launched Eliade on his way to international fame and a permanent post in Chicago.
The great value of Laignel-Lavastine’s book is her thorough investigation of the Romanian background, and in a much larger framework than the one provided by Petreu. The chapters devoted to the postwar years of her three protagonists, though of great interest in themselves and barely touched on by Petreu, deal with more familiar and easily accessible material. A good deal of criticism has been leveled against her book, but none, to my knowledge, has really undermined the factual basis of her indictment, even though she may be faulted on matters of detail.
A different question arises when she discusses the issue of whether Eliade and Cioran ever underwent any sort of “true transformation” of their earlier views, or only engaged “in a secret game of projections, calculations, and concealments.” This involves matters of interpretation on which opinions may differ. Such a question, as she concedes, applies only “very weakly” to Ionesco, who was more a victim of circumstances than of any ideological commitment he had reason to regret. In later years the picture on the book jacket of the three men engaged in friendly conversation could create a wrong impression, even though it approximates at least a modicum of the truth of what became their relation.
In the immediate postwar years, many of the Romanian intellectuals in Paris (not all, to be sure) clustered around Eliade, whose hotel room became “one of the principal rendezvous of the exile.” Ionesco showed up at such gatherings, as he told a friend, only in order “to escape from [his] undermining solitude,” while at the same time declaiming against this group as “an affair of Legionnaires [Iron Guardists] who have not repented.” Moreover, aside from the need to overcome the “painful isolation” that he felt, the Romanian political situation had changed entirely, and he now found himself more or less partially in agreement with his ancient enemies. A communist government had taken over Romania in 1947, and Ionesco could join the others in deploring this imposition of the collectivism–of the right or the left–that he had always abhorred.
All through his later life he actively supported democratic causes, affixing his name to petitions to support the Prague Spring, the Afghan resistance against Russia, and the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate, and joining movements such as Amnesty International. He was tireless in his support of Israel, thus bucking a strong current of French gauchiste opinion. He joined Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kolakowski, and Czeslaw Milosz, among others, in his anti-communism. He is depicted as thus “sliding to the right,” but doing so in defense of the values in which he had always believed: the liberty of man, humanism. As more or less of a gauchiste herself, however, Laignel-Lavastine cannot resist a dig at “the rather reactionary side of the old academician, which sometimes brings on a smile or a reaction of annoyance” when “his anti-communism becomes in the end a little ridiculous.” This is a nasty thrust that does her little credit.
Eliade’s remarkable career illustrates his skill and success at playing “the secret game of projections, concealments and calculations.” Reference already has been made to the falsification of the memoirs and journals that is illustrated all through the volume; but his Iron Guard past nonetheless caught up with him from time to time. His application for appointment to the French Center for Scientific Research, though sponsored by a formidable array of prominent scholars, was turned down because a renowned medieval historian of Romanian origin wrote a detailed letter about his early commitments. Similarly, safely installed in Chicago in 1973, Eliade was invited for a lecture in Israel by Gershom Scholem, whom he had met at colloquiums in Ascona, Switzerland, initially sponsored by Jung (whose political past is also very suspect). In 1972 a small Israeli journal of the Romanian emigration had published an article revealing part of Eliade’s connection with the Iron Guard, but without citing any written sources. Scholem was troubled, but Eliade wrote a letter piling lie upon lie, indignantly denying that he had ever published a line in praise of the Iron Guard and relying on the inaccessibility of the Romanian material at that time.
The invitation to Hebrew University was withdrawn, though Scholem, presumably incapable of believing in such duplicity, urged Eliade to visit him personally and offered to arrange an interview with the author of the article to clear up matters of disagreement. But Eliade prudently cancelled the trip, and never visited Israel then or later. Part of Eliade’s strategy was to cultivate friendships with prominent Jewish scholars and intellectuals, as Ravelstein/Bloom had rightly charged. Saul Bellow spoke at his funeral in 1986. His novel indicates that he may have had some regrets at having done so.
Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade’s postwar writings, but the prejudice is transposed into a much more scholarly key in his theory of religion. One of the cornerstones of his doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclical time, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind or another in which “sacred time,” the time of religious experience, was re-created. The modern world has largely lost this ability to relive “sacred time” because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them) broke with the cyclical time of “the eternal return” by linking God with linear time. “The Hebrews,” he writes, “were the first to discover the significance of history as the epiphany of God,” and this discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of the modern world. Daniel Dubuisson, a French analyst of Eliade’s views on mythology, concludes that this summary notion of history “especially invents a new accusation against the Jews, that of an ontological crime, a capital crime and without doubt unpardonable.” Eliade thus remained true to himself in this erudite disguise during his later years, when his worldwide fame reached its apogee and his death was mourned with sanctimonious reverence.
The most complicated case of all was Cioran, whose later writings are shot through with passages that may be read as implicit expressions of regret for his earlier convictions, but who never seemed able to repudiate them publicly. He was much more forthright in his correspondence and in private conversation. In a letter to a friend, Cioran declared in 1971 that “when I contemplate certain of my past infatuations, I am brought up short: I don’t understand. What madness!” This would certainly seem to indicate their rejection on his part. In conversation with the author of a book about the commandant of Auschwitz, he said: “What Germany did amounts to a damnation of mankind.”
There can be no question that, unlike Eliade, the issue of his previous fascism and anti-Semitism tormented the complicated, involuted, self-questioning Cioran, whose thought was always directed toward undermining all of mankind’s certainties, including his own. The analysis of the postwar Cioran given here is the most complex and controversial in Laignel-Lavastine’s book. He is depicted as both evading any overt responsibility for his past and also, “unlike Eliade,” weighed down by feelings “inseparable from a desire for expiation and a sense of diffuse guilt … [an] ‘oppressive sensation’ with which he admits sometimes awakening in the morning, ‘as if I bore the weight of a thousand crimes.'”
As in the case of Eliade, Cioran’s past sometimes came back to haunt him. Paul Celan, the great German poet of Romanian origin whose parents died in a Romanian camp and who had himself been deported to a labor camp, was also living in Paris and translated one of Cioran’s works, Précis de décomposition (A Short History of Decay), into German in 1953. The two saw each other from time to time, and Cioran came to the poet’s aid when Celan was fighting off accusations of plagiarism. Yet when a Romanian critic on his way through Paris laid out the particulars of Cioran’s past, Celan refused to have anything more to do with him. Despite this break, Cioran was deeply disturbed when he heard of the poet’s suicide. It is suggested that this relationship with a Jewish writer may also have been meant as the same sort of “cover” that Eliade exploited so successfully; but there is nothing to support such a suspicion except that, when Cioran was once asked whether he knew Céline, he mentioned Celan instead. One has the feeling here that, despite her own evident intention to be as fair as possible in stressing Cioran’s “ambivalence,” Laignel-Lavastine is pushing matters too far.
The same problem arises when she comes to Cioran’s attitude toward the Jews. When, for example, a new edition of his most anti-Semitic book, The Transfiguration of Romania, was published in Romania, he insisted that the chapter on the Jews be eliminated, along with a number of remarks about them scattered through the text: “I completely renounce a very large part [of the book] which stems from the prejudices of the past, and I consider as inadmissible certain remarks about the Jews,” he wrote to a friend. Nothing could be more explicit. Even more, in one of his later French books he included a section on the Jews called “Un peuple de solitaires” (“A Solitary People”) that was hailed as philo-Semitic. But Laignel-Lavastine believes this to be an illusion, because on comparing this text with what Cioran had written years ago, she finds that the image now given of the Jewish people and their history is much the same as that provided earlier–except that what had been evaluated negatively in the past is now given a glowingly positive spin. Moreover, Cioran continually identifies his own situation with that of the Jews, writing that “their drama [that of the Jews] is mine.” In 1970 he mused that “I lacked an essential condition fully to realize myself: to be Jewish.”
This obsessive self-identification with the Jews is interpreted as “the reversed expression of the same psycho-pathological phenomenon” that had earlier led to Cioran’s worst excesses. Perhaps so; but to glorify the Jews instead of vilifying them surely indicates some sort of change. Also, the objection is made that while Cioran often expresses regret about his errors of the past, he never does so except in general terms, without attempting to explain why they are now rejected. For Laignel-Lavastine, Cioran’s tantalizingly ambiguous relation to his past is hardly a genuine attempt to come to terms with the practical consequences of the ideas he once espoused and still, on occasion, seemed to toy with in a rhetorically half-amused fashion. She wonders whether, as was the case with Eliade, he was merely “translating into an acceptable language ideological motifs and attitudes [that are] ideologically disqualified in the West.” Petreu is much more affirmative on this issue, and cites someone who visited Cioran during his last days, when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease: “From his hospital bed, desperately trying to overcome the symptoms of his disease, Cioran stumblingly told his guest: ‘I … am not … an … anti- … Semite.'”
Let me add my personal testimony at this point. During my years in Paris I met Cioran and saw him on a number of occasions, and we had a good many conversations (particularly but not exclusively about Russian literature, in which he took a passionate interest). Whatever the twists and turns of his troubled conscience, the brilliantly sardonic, self-mocking, and fascinating personality that I knew could not have been a conscious manipulator who would set out deliberately to deceive.
If there is a general criticism to be made of Laignel-Lavastine’s excellent book, it is that Cioran is pursued too relentlessly, perhaps in an effort to counteract his devoted admirers in France and elsewhere–the late Susan Sontag, for example, who introduced him to the United States. A lack of knowledge of the Romanian background allowed him to be seen innocently and too exclusively in the light of his soaring philosophical speculations. But if these are now shadowed by the political commitments that he himself later found incomprehensible, the reliable evidence of his genuine struggle to cope with his past deserves more sympathy. In Cioran’s case, compassion is not the enemy of truth.