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“The Terror of History”: On Saul Bellow and Mircea Eliade

I.

“IF I AM out of my mind, it’s all right with me,” announces the narrator of Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Moses Herzog’s personal life has gone to pieces and having a PhD might be part of the problem. His study of Romanticism — “eight hundred pages of chaotic argument” — molders in his closet.

In Bellow’s fictional worlds, being cultured and crazy often go together. The narrator of The Adventures of Augie March is Sancho Panza to a string of Quixotes. Augie can’t resist illusion-chasing screwballs — from his brother with his get-rich schemes to a lover’s ambition to train eagles in Mexico. Toward the end of the novel, Augie’s warship is torpedoed and he finds himself in a lifeboat with a self-described “psycho-biophysicist” named Basteshaw as his sole companion. Basteshaw confides that he has managed to create living cells from inorganic matter and prophesies that his research is on course to discover a serum which will finally end human ignorance, strife, and suffering. “If he wasn’t a genius, I was in the boat with a maniac,” reflects Augie. When Augie tries to signal to a passing allied ship, Basteshaw wallops him with an oar. The psycho-biophysicist would rather drift toward the Canary Islands, to be interned on neutral Spanish territory, in order to continue his research. They struggle, Augie prevails, and they are saved. What’s more, they were never anywhere near the Canaries: “This scientist Basteshaw! Why, he was cuckoo! Why, we’d have both rotted in that African sea, and the boat would have rotted, and there would have been nothing but death and madness to the last.”

After the rescue, Basteshaw is decidedly cool with Augie. “The power of the individual to act through his intellect on the reason of mankind is smaller now than ever,” opines the lunatic.

In his earlier books, Bellow took down the intellectual life playfully. From the 1970s on, he came to examine madness as a political rather than a purely personal phenomenon. To be deluded was more than a foible in a supposedly cultured world capable of genocide. Did intellectuals and writers bear some responsibility for the disaster that had befallen Europe? Or were Pound, Heidegger, Hamsun, Céline, and all the others just sideshow clowns, fundamentally irrelevant to the great events that unfolded, and perhaps interesting only as examples of a general malaise?

Bellow had been wrestling with these questions for decades, even if they were not immediately reflected in his fiction. During his time in Paris between 1948 and 1950, he heard firsthand about life under the Nazis and the deportations of Jews, and read Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “crazy, murderous harangues, seething with Jew-hatred.” In 1954, when William Faulkner led a group of writers petitioning the United States government for the release of Ezra Pound from a mental institution — had Pound been judged sane, a death sentence for treason for his collaboration with the Axis would have been mandatory — the dissenting voice was Bellow’s. He wrote to Faulkner that treating Pound’s advocacy of “hatred and murder” as eccentricity rather than insanity was symptomatic of the stunning indifference to recent events: “[B]etter poets than he were exterminated, perhaps,” wrote Bellow. “Shall we say nothing on their behalf?”

 

II.

In 1945, Europe was threatened by famine and epidemic disease. Millions of refugees had to be resettled and ruined cities and infrastructure rebuilt. The postwar denazification policies imposed by the occupying powers in West Germany focused on rehabilitating all but top-level administrators in order to create a viable state that would be a bulwark against further Soviet advance west. It was not until the 1960s, with the return of prosperity and a semblance of stability in international politics, that the subject of genocide began to be addressed. The first steps in a historiography of the Nazi Final Solution were taken in the United States, most notably with the appearance of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews in 1961. That year also saw the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, the logistician of the Holocaust. The proceedings, under the scrutiny of television cameras and the world press, included dramatic testimony from survivors. Hannah Arendt covered the trial for the The New Yorker, and recast her articles for the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). In Germany, too, a new mood took hold. For the first time, the West German state tried concentration camp administrators and others who had assisted in the massacre of civilians.

“Eastern Europe has told me a lot about my family — myself even,” Bellow wrote in 1960 after a journey he made the previous year. “[W]hat I saw between Auschwitz and Jerusalem made a change in me.” Among the stories he heard from survivors were those told by his own relatives:

Cousin Bella […] tells me of one of our cousins who now lives with her husband in Geneva. During the German occupation of Riga this cousin and her sister were slave laborers in a factory that made army uniforms. Before the Germans retreated they exhumed thousands of bodies from the mass graves and burned them. A sudden sensitivity about evidence. The two young girls were among the hundreds forced to dig up putrid corpses and put them in the flames. The younger sister sickened and died.

 

III.

Solomon Bellows was born in Montreal in 1915 to orthodox Jewish parents from the Russian Empire. In 1924, the family moved to Chicago. Yiddish was the language of the home. For the adolescent Bellow, religion was immigrant baggage to be ditched on the road to American modernity. He became a Trotskyite. At university, he studied the radical new social science of anthropology. The publication of argotic, freewheeling Adventures of Augie March in 1953 marked him out as a literary innovator.

By the 1960s, however, America had changed. The Chicago of Augie March no longer existed. Poor but dynamic neighborhoods had transformed into an inner-city wasteland of drugs, crime, and despair: “The slums, as a friend of mine once observed, were ruined. He was not joking.” Bellow began to reflect on what had been lost, turning back toward Europe and the Jewish world.

Bellow’s detractors identify Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) as the point when the young literary rebel became a middle-aged champion of the elitist culture of dead white males. He was called a misogynist and even a racist. And the depiction of the United States through the eyes of Artur Sammler, a Polish Jew and refugee, is certainly provocative: “New York was getting worse than Naples or Salonika. It was like an Asian, an African town […] You opened a jeweled door into degradation, from hypercivilized Byzantine luxury straight into the state of nature, the barbarous world of color erupting from beneath.” Sammler sees a generation seeking “the free ways of barbarism” while protected by a civilized order, wealth, technology, and property rights.

Sammler has landed in the middle of a cultural revolution where nobody over 30 can be trusted. On the shores of this new world, it means nothing that he has lost his eye in the war, that his wife has been killed by a racist regime, or that he has known the foremost intellectuals of interwar London. His voice is capable of speaking of an Eastern Europe buried under communist totalitarianism, of an Ashkenazi-Yiddish civilization obliterated by genocide, and an extinct interwar intellectual order. But nobody wants to know. It is as though none of it ever happened.

Sammler cannot relate to the stew of politicized thinking around him not because it is too radical for his tastes but because it is hopelessly innocent. If America is unable to comprehend what has happened not 30 years earlier on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, then America is incapable of talking sense. Social breakdown is Bellow’s theme, but Sammler is not — solely — about the United States. In depicting countercultural America busting its mental seams through the eyes of a Holocaust survivor, Bellow is widening his lens in an attempt to take in the recent history of the planet. If in his earlier novels he was happy to study individuals who were “nuts” or “cookoo,” now he ponders the reality of insanity as a collective phenomenon.

Intellectuals deal in reason, but their subject — human life — refuses to act reasonably. “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once,” Bellow writes, “Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility that it might collapse twice.”

 

IV.

The idea that modern life makes an impossible demand on the individual mind is one of Bellow’s great themes. “Too much of everything,” says Augie. “Too much history and culture […] too many details, too much news, too much example, too much influence […] Which who is supposed to interpret? Me?” Augie has no clear idea of his own what this world is but he has a strong intuition that there are as many ideas of the world as there are human beings, that each is provisional, and that all are competing for recruits. Life is a project, reality an individual projection. In this, he sees to the heart of modern — American — life. He surfs the confusion of this world, freestyle; in place of trials and anxiety he has adventures.

But by the time Bellow came to write Sammler, he had a less thrilling take on the effect of so much freedom:

The many impressions and experiences of life seemed no longer to occur each in its own proper space, in sequence, each with its recognizable religious or aesthetic importance, but human beings suffered the humiliations of inconsequence, of confused styles, of a long life containing several separate lives. In fact the whole experience of mankind was now covering each separate life in its flood. Making all the ages of history simultaneous. Compelling the frail person to receive, to register, depriving him because of volume, of mass, of the power to impart design.

The idea that modern man recoiled in despair before meaningless choice and a deluge of information was one Bellow shared with Mircea Eliade, a colleague at the University of Chicago. Eliade had been a famous novelist in interbellum Bucharest and was widely acknowledged as the intellectual leader of Romania’s younger generation of writers and thinkers. He had settled in Chicago in 1957 and, as a philosopher and historian of religions, had enjoyed huge success with the English-language publication of his book The Myth of the Eternal Return, which had sold over 100,000 copies in various editions. Bellow had come to know him in the years prior to writing Sammler.

Eliade argued that man is religious by nature, and that the fundamental feature of religious thinking is the distinction between the sacred and the profane. The sacred is all that is unchanging and essential, the profane is all that is provisional, historical, and subject to decay. The basic characteristic of all religions, Eliade maintained, is that man makes sense of the world by cultivating an awareness of the sacred, and seeks through ritual to recreate it and participate in it. Mythical thought is an attempt to reconstitute the world of the sacred, which all cultures conceive of as a prehistorical Edenic era. Traditional societies impart meaning to existence by being centered on sacred time. Modern rationality recognizes only historical time, producing “spiritual aridity” and an anxiety that Eliade called “The Terror of History.”

Eliade was Bellow’s kind of European intellectual — polyglot, intensely erudite, with more than a dash of religious mysticism thrown into the mix. Bellow’s fourth wife, Alexandra Bagdasar, whom he married in 1974, was a Romanian expatriate from an old and very cultivated Bucharest family, and the Bellows and Eliades frequently socialized. Bellow and Bagdasar divorced in 1985. Eliade died in 1986, and Bellow delivered a reading at his funeral. At this point, Bellow must have believed that the “Romanian” period of his life was over. But rumors had long been circulating about Eliade’s association with Romania’s wartime fascist Iron Guard, and they became undeniable with the 1988 publication of Mircea Eliade: The Romanian Roots, 1907-1945 by Mac Linscott Ricketts, which uncovered a series of articles Eliade had written for the Romanian fascist press in the 1930s.

 

V.

Ricketts, a devoted pupil of Eliade’s, was interested in his master as a philosopher and literary figure. The section on Eliade’s political writings in the 1930s takes up a few dozen pages in a two-volume work of over a thousand pages — almost as though Ricketts had accidentally tripped over a bundle of newspapers while on other business — but the contents of these articles is stunning in the context of Romanian politics in those years. In them, Eliade comes across as another Basteshaw, theorizing manically while the boat drifts the wrong way; the serum that will end the ignorance, strife, and suffering of the Romanian nation, he proposes, is nationalism.

Eliade believed that democracy was inherently unsuitable for Romania, and that democratic politics was wearing itself out with its fixation on un-Romanian “abstractions” such as the rights of minorities and freedom of political expression. And when democracy wobbled, he argued, it tended to wobble toward anarchy and communism. Only a sense of national greatness and purpose could unify the nation. In a 1936 article titled “The Democracy and the Problem of Romania,” he wrote:

Whether or not Mussolini is a tyrant is a matter of complete indifference to me. Only one thing interests me: that this man has in fifteen years turned a third-rate state into a leading power […] In the same way, I’m completely indifferent to what will happen in Romania after the liquidation of democracy. If, in overcoming democracy, Romania becomes powerful, national and well-armed, and aware of its powers and destiny — history will judge this act.

Eliade was intensely anxious about the dominance of minorities in parts of Romania and about a presumed “invasion” of Jewish immigrants spilling in from the north. His concern with the physical decline of the national stock was among the intellectual banalities of the era; in one article he proclaims that Romania cannot assimilate foreigners as it did before because the peasantry was weakened by pellagra (from a change of diet), alcoholism, and syphilis — all, he observes, due to foreign influence.

Eliade fantasized of a coming spiritual revolution. By 1936, he was projecting a transfiguring “mystical spirit” and “Romanian messianism” on the Iron Guard, while writing for its press and being seen as its leading ideologue. Perhaps Eliade found the national dream so beautiful that he was willing to overlook the violent anti-Semitism of his fellow fascists. Or perhaps he had accepted that the Jews would have to absorb the inevitable collateral damage in the creation of a national state in which every Romanian had a sense of “belonging to a chosen people.” By 1938, he was convinced his country was on the brink of transformation and claimed that the fire of Romanian Orthodox Christianity was about to “dominate” Europe with its spiritual light.

In 1937, Eliade told his friend Mihail Sebastian that he supported the Iron Guard because he had “always believed in the primacy of the spirit.” Sebastian, who was Jewish, recorded in his diary: “He’s not a charlatan and not demented. He’s just naïve. But how is such catastrophic naiveté even possible!”

“I believe in the future of the Romanian people, but the Romanian state should disappear,” Eliade told Sebastian in October 1939. In September 1940, Eliade’s wish was fulfilled: Romania became a National Legionary State, with the Iron Guard ruling in alliance with the Romanian Army. By this time Eliade was abroad, having been appointed cultural attaché to the Romanian Embassy in London in April 1940, then to the embassy in Portugal in February 1941. In June 1941, Romania began fighting alongside the Wehrmacht. At this point, Eliade turned to nebulous theorizing on the common “Latin” character of the Portuguese and Romanian peoples, and the creative and civilizing destiny of the “Latin” race. In 1943, he wrote The Romanians, Latins of the East (a slim volume that Ricketts describes as “cultural propaganda”), in which he extols Romania’s historical destiny as the protector of the fringes of Europe from Oriental barbarians. The war in the east, Eliade says, in defense of “Christian European values” — Romanian troops were at this point fighting alongside the Germans to take Stalingrad — was the latest chapter in this glorious narrative of self-sacrifice.

Ricketts’s academic biography, curiously, never mentioned that the wartime Romanian state was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews. But a compelling 1991 essay in the New Republic by expatriate Romanian writer Norman Manea clearly connected Eliade with Romanian fascism. A second New Republic essay by Manea, in 1998, focused on Mihail Sebastian’s Journal (1935 to 1945). The Journal, which documents Romania’s slow slide into fascism, was published for the first time in Romanian in 1996. Along the way — as in the extracts quoted above — it records Sebastian’s sadness and perplexity at the deterioration of his friendship with “Mircea,” as Eliade’s commitment to the Iron Guard intensifies and his public expressions of anti-Semitism become more marked.

It must have occurred to Bellow by the late 1990s that Eliade had reasons of his own for feeling “a terror of history” when he asked rhetorically, in his best-selling book, how man “can tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history — from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings — if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning.”

 

VI.

When I met Norman Manea in 2014, on one of his trips back to Romania, I suggested that knowledge of the Holocaust as a Romanian phenomenon was not widespread in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. “Absolutely not,” he agreed. “And this was another shock [for Bellow]. And Eliade was this great intellectual, praised in America.”

Manea and Bellow met on several occasions in the 1990s but the subject of Eliade was tactfully avoided, though Bellow certainly knew what Manea had written about Eliade. (In a letter to Philip Roth in 1997, Bellow asked for a copy of Manea’s article, remarking, “You do well to direct me, or connect me, to Eliade.”) “There was no mention of him and there was certainly at the beginning a reluctance, on his part, to meet me,” said Manea. “He was a very close friend with Eliade, he knew a bit about this story but not enough. And suddenly he felt that he was in a kind of story where he may be also partially guilty, because he was friends with him. Philip Roth used to tell me, ‘Look, Saul smells an anti-Semite a hundred miles away.’ Well, this did not occur in this case and it’s not by chance. Eliade was a refined intellectual.”

There is an additional reason why Bellow may have had difficulty discussing his friend with Norman Manea. In 1942, while Eliade was serving the regime in Lisbon, Romanian Jews were being deported to camps in Romanian-occupied Ukraine. The five-year-old Norman Manea, along with his family, was among those expelled. Over a hundred thousand of the deportees died in the camps, on the road of cold, famine, and disease, or from incidents of random violence. It is estimated that around 400,000 Jews were killed by the Romanian authorities in Romania and in the area of Ukraine under Romanian wartime occupation.

In December 1999, Bellow appointed Manea to interview him for the Jerusalem Literary Project, over the course of three two-hour videotaped sessions. But Bellow resisted Manea’s attempts to draw him out on the subject of Romania and made no mention of Ravelstein, which was months away from publication.

Almost certainly, Bellow had been learning of the contents of Sebastian’s Journal while working on what was to be his final novel. And he must have been aware that the publication of an English edition was imminent. Manea had known about the diary even before its Romanian publication — fragments had begun to appear in English in the late 1980s — and Roth had taken a great interest in its contents. “Some fragments appeared, much before, not about Eliade, exactly, but from the diary, and yes, we discussed this […] I’m presuming Philip said [to Bellow], ‘Look! You see! Here’s the real proof of everything Manea was saying before but didn’t have the documents [to prove].’” As the US publication of Sebastian’s journal drew closer, Roth was promoting it vigorously behind the scenes.

It is not surprising that Bellow, a Nobel laureate in his 85th year, should have wished to account for the fact that he had been sipping tea and conversing with a Mircea Eliade — much as Mihail Sebastian had, half a century before. And so, Bellow included a fictionalized portrait of his relationship with Eliade in what was to be his last novel, Ravelstein.

Both Sebastian’s Journal and Ravelstein were published within months of each other, in 2000.

 

VII.

Manea’s remark that Bellow “found himself in a kind of story” is particularly telling. Ravelstein is a roman à clef, in which Bellow set out to become the master of his story once again by presenting a version of his friendship with Eliade. The Ravelstein character is based upon Bellow’s close friend Allan Bloom. Eliade appears as a secondary character, the academic Radu Grielescu, who gallantly opens doors and pulls out chairs for the ladies, remembers birthdays and anniversaries, engages in hand-kissing and bowing — and had once written of “the Jew-syphilis that infected the high civilization of the Balkans.”

Bellow (“Chick” in the novel) goes along with the charade because the Grielescus are “socially important” for his Romanian wife. He banters in French with Madame Grielescu and never probes Radu about “people he might have known slightly with the Iron Guard.” Grielescu fidgets with his pipe and does most of the talking, the subjects ranging from yoga to Siberian shamanism to marriage customs in primitive Australia:

How could such a person be politically dangerous? […] I suppose I said to myself that this was some kind of Frenchy-Balkan absurdity. Somehow I couldn’t take Balkan fascists seriously […] But what is one to do with the learned people from the Balkans who have such an endless diversity of interests and talents — who are scientists and philosophers and also historians and poets, who have studied Sanskrit and Tamil and lectured in the Sorbonne on mythology?

Ravelstein’s judgment on the historian of religions, the theoretician of myths, is more down to earth: he asks the unworldly Chick to remember when the Iron Guard hung up Jewish corpses on meat-hooks in a slaughterhouse in the pogrom in Bucharest in 1941. “The Jews had better understand their status with respect to myth,” he says.

Why should they have any truck with myth? It was myth that demonized them. The Jew myth is connected with conspiracy theory. The Protocols of Zion for instance. And your Radu has written books, endless books, about myth […] Just give a thought now and then to those people on the meat hooks.

Bellow had criticized Hannah Arendt on several occasions since the 1960s for having been enamored of Heidegger and what Bellow called the “eros” of German culture. Now Ravelstein was reproaching Chick for a similar error.

Mircea Eliade — with his ability to make lucid sense of myth and at the same time to disappear into an unmoored world of fantasy when touched by real events — resembled a character Bellow might have created at any stage of his career as a novelist. And in his last book, Bellow himself becomes one of these foolish characters, entranced by a veneer of culture, the charm of ideas, and a world of intellectualism that reveals itself as shoddy and inadequate when set beside the brutal facts.

¤

Philip Ó Ceallaigh is short story writer as well as a translator. In 2006, he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, were short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He lives in Bucharest.

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