Bryan Rennie on Gaudeamus by Mircea Eliade

Translated from the Romanian by Christopher Bartholomew (Istros Books, 2018)

Gaudeamus igitur
Iuvenes dum sumus.
Post iucundam iuventutem
Post molestam senectutem
Nos habebit humus

Let us rejoice, then
While we are young.
After pleasant youth
After distressing old age
The earth will have us

Thus runs the commercium song or student anthem for which Mircea Eliade entitled his novel, Gaudeamus. Originating in the Middle Ages but given its familiar form in the late eighteenth century, this paean to seizing the day is belted out to this day at university gatherings around the world. Likewise about “seizing the day,” Eliade’s Gaudeamus, written between February and March of 1928, is a coming-of-age novel based on his undergraduate years at the University of Bucharest (1925 to 1928). His earlier novel, Romanul adolescenului miop (Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, Istros Books, 2014) had focused on the final years of his Liceu (high school) education and had been serialized in its entirety in the Bucharest periodicals Cuvântul, Viața Literară, and Universul Literar in the 1920s, but the manuscript of Gaudeamus had a different trajectory. Finished before Eliade’s departure for India in 1928, it remained among his papers in the family house on Strada Melodiei in Bucharest. Only three pages, described as an “excerpt” from Gaudeamus, appeared in Viața literară in March of 1928. Eliade attempted without success to place the manuscript with the publisher, Cartea Românească, but the novel was to wait more than fifty years to appear in print. Eliade did revisit and reread it in 1932–33, when, according to his Autobiography, he found it “both lyrical and frenzied, too pretentious, timidly indiscreet, and quite lacking in grandeur.” He never again tried to have it published, nor indeed to have any contact with it. The house was demolished in 1935 and the manuscript passed into the possession of his younger sister Cornelia (Corina) Alexandrescu. It was not until 1981 that the high school teacher and Eliade enthusiast, Mircea Handoca, along with the philosopher, essayist, and poet, Constantin Noica, were given access to Mme Alexandrescu’s attic and recovered the manuscript. Together they assembled the first 2,500 typed pages of Eliade’s writings from 1921 up to 1928. Several chapters from Gaudeamus appeared in three issues of the journal Manuscriptum in 1983, three years before Eliade’s death, but the entire text of the novel did not appear until 1986 when it was published in Revista de istoire și teorie literară and then again as a single volume with Romanul adolescenului miop in 1989. Curiously, the three-page passage from Viața literară was absent from the final version of the manuscript. Thereafter Gaudeamus was translated into French in 1992 and Italian in 2012 and now it appears for the first time in English.

Known in the English-speaking world as an historian of religions, Eliade authored more than twenty major works, including Patterns in Comparative Religion, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, and Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. He taught for almost thirty years, from 1957–1986, at the prestigious Divinity School of the University of Chicago and was editor-in-chief of the 1987 edition of the Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Religions. The school endowed the Mircea Eliade Chair in the History of Religions in his honour shortly before his death. However, decades before this success as a scholar of religions, Eliade achieved recognition as a novelist in his native Romania. After minor successes with periodical publications he published his first novel, Isabel și apele diavolului (Isabel and the Devil’s Waters) in 1930, and his first major success as a novelist came with Maitreyi in 1933. Nuntă în cer (Marriage in Heaven, 1938) was translated into Italian as Nozze in cielo in 1983 and won the Elba-Brignetti prize for the best foreign novel in 1984.

Eliade’s Ph.D., from the Department of Philosophy of the University of Bucharest, had been awarded in 1933 with a thesis on Yoga that constituted the basis of his Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, and after his exile from Romania at the end of the Second World War he focussed more on his career as an academic. His publication of novels became sporadic, although he did publish what he considered his novelistic chef-d’œuvre, Noaptea de Sânziene, in Paris in 1971. This was translated into English in 1978 as The Forbidden Forest (translated by Mac Linscott Ricketts and Mary Park Stevenson, University of Notre Dame Press). Thus the appearance now of this early, initially unpublished novel from the 1920s, in Christopher Bartholomew’s English translation, constitutes a formerly unavailable source of insight into the thought of this versatile author, as well as being edifying reading in its own right.

Gaudeamus is, of course, a testimony to a vanished world—the Bucharest of the late 1920s, specifically the life of the university student of the time—but it is more than just that. Eliade’s principal biographer, Mac Linscott Ricketts, deems it a document of inestimable importance, “a precious testimony to one phase of Eliade’s personal spiritual itinerary.” It also can be read as evidence (positive or negative?) of Eliade’s literary status, of the development of his understanding of the history of religions, of his relation to anti-Semitism, and of his unfortunate sexism, and these four interdigitate intriguingly. Of course, as a novel it is difficult (but not always impossible) to know when we can recognize Eliade in the protagonist. Ricketts assesses the novel as “being (up to a certain point in the narrative) a candid and authentic account of the author’s actions and thoughts. At those points where it can be checked against other sources, it shows itself to be factual and reliable.” For example, Eliade’s Autobiography informs us that the principle female character, Nișka, is based on Eliade’s real-life friend, Rica Botez, the name of the character being taken from a friend of Rica’s. But, at the same time, some events were clearly fictionalized. This inseparable intertwining of fact and fiction is one of the primary characteristics of Eliade’s trăirist style in which he seeks to invoke an inescapable authenticity.

The critic Eugen Simion sees Gaudeamus as a notable novel for two other reasons. First, it introduces the “young generation” of 1920s Bucharest on a wide front, from sexuality to philosophy, and second, it attempts an innovative reinterpretation of the psychology of the couple: “The author’s thesis is that the post-war generation is destined to seek God and that the redeemed are but the insane, that is, those fleeing from sentimental and cerebral mediocrity, from the illusion of comfortable happiness.” As a bildungsroman, Gaudeamus shows the influence of authors whom we know Eliade to have read: André Gide, Giovanni Papini, Henrik Ibsen, and Jack London, but it does not follow them slavishly. Commenting on the Italian translation, historian of religions Giovanni Casadio pointed out that Gaudeamus plays on three themes in three different registers. The first is the author’s relation to the bohemian world of students and professors, and it sounds a comic/realistic tone with tinges of farce. The second concerns Eliade’s relations with women and his intimate “romantic education.” This uses a romantic/idyllic mode with spikes of harsh realism. The third theme is Eliade’s dialogue with his own will and ego, couched in melodramatic mode; sometimes restrained, as in the almost elegiac opening: “The chestnut trees were wet after the rain, the boulevards were cold. Above me, only autumnal sky . . . I felt hopes and desires swelling and anxiously stirring . . . ,” sometimes emerging with astonishing arrogance, as in the final—“My soul is harsh, vast, serene. I sense the others left behind me, and before me, the glimmers of destiny”—echoing the titanic pride of Hyperion in the closing of Eminescu’s Luceafărul.

Eliade wrote Gaudeamus in two week-long bursts in February and March of 1928 while staying at a friend’s house in Clinceni about twenty-five kilometres outside of Bucharest. That same year he was working on the tezei de licență (the thesis required for his Bachelor’s degree), which he defended in October. His thesis was on “Renaissance Contributions to Philosophy,” to which he also referred as “Italian Philosophy from Marsilio Ficino to Giordano Bruno.” Thus we can be comfortable that he was already aware of, and undoubtedly influenced by, both the Italian Renaissance humanists and their precursors such as Dante Alighieri and Boccaccio, whom we know from the Autobiography that Eliade had read in his youth. It seems beyond doubt that among the many contributions to Eliade’s understanding of the history of religion was Ficino, whose translations of Plato introduced the term “Platonic Love” to Renaissance Italy and whose translations of the Corpus Hermeticum supported the idea that all truth is one. Of the twelfth chapter of the book, “Storm at the Hermitage,” Ricketts is confident enough to say “I believe that the views on religion expressed by the narrator of the book are indeed Eliade’s own at that time.” Here, not only does the narrator repeatedly express his inability to believe in God, he also expresses an understanding of the development of the monotheistic God that is clearly indebted to the work of Raffaele Pettazzoni, with whom the young Eliade had corresponded since 1922.

Accusations of anti-Semitism have long dogged Eliade’s path, unsurprisingly, since he gave his enthusiastic written support to the Legion of the Archangel Michael for about a year spanning 1936–1937. The Legion was a fervently Nationalist Romanian political organization which spawned the terrible Iron Guard (Garda de fier), guilty of heinous anti-Semitic atrocities. Eliade never disavowed his support for the Legion and some have seen this as incontrovertible evidence of his anti-Semitism. Others (including myself, to be fully open) have defended Eliade against these accusations, pointing out that he can be accused of no known actions against any Jewish person or persons—especially of no acts of literary defamation for which he had infinite opportunity. Gaudeamus provides fuel for this debate. Although there is casual reference to anti-Semitism throughout the book, not only is this an accurate representation of the Bucharest of 1928, but it is never ascribed to or embraced by the narrator. On the contrary, one of his student friends warns him that “Before long you’ll turn into an anti-Semite too . . . ”—implying that he is known not to be such. In fact, the narrator explicitly denies being anti-Semitic, and those who do (proudly!) identify themselves as anti-Semitic are either very dubious characters, such as “Melec” and “the Boss” who gate-crash a student gathering in the narrator’s attic; or profoundly confused, such as the young medical student who is engaged to, and obviously in love with, a Jewish girl, yet claims to be anti-Semitic. Although little is overtly made of the fact in the novel, one of the narrator’s best friends, “Marcu,” is known to be based on one of Eliade’s real friends, Mircea Mărculescu, who was Jewish. The Romanian commentator Liviu Bordaș is not alone in explicitly using Gaudeamus to defend Eliade against accusation of anti-Semitism.

Far more problematic, in my estimation, than this putative anti-Semitism is the apparently dreadful sexism of the text. Eliade was explicitly influenced by the dolce stil novo, with its familiar theme of donna angelicata—elevating the female to a position of inhuman adoration, as with Dante’s Beatrice or Petrarch’s Laura. Eliade’s childhood vision of “the little girl on the Strada Mare,” familiar to readers from the first pages of his Autobiography, is reminiscent of Dante’s first encounter with Beatrice Portinari (although Eliade was four or five years younger than Dante was when this happened). In Gaudeamus, the narrator transforms his love for Nișka from what could have been a simple student infatuation to an act of heroic self-denial, “elevating” her from a flesh-and-blood woman to a sacrificial fetish. Eliade explicitly invokes Dante (and Don Quixote) in the novel, and he overtly referred to the relation of Dante and Beatrice in an article from January of 1928 on “Beatrice and Don Quixote,” where he says, “why don’t we seek a Beatrice as an occasion for heroism—rather than sentimental love and sensual satisfaction?” (He sees both Dante and Don Quixote as “mad”, but heroic in their madness.) Gaudeamus paints a picture of the narrator’s “fathering” of Nișka as object of adoration in a Pygmalion-like process of spiritual sculpting until she becomes the woman of his dreams, with whom he can fall utterly in love—and then resist! Immediately after this incredible act of manipulation and objectification, the narrator meets another female friend, Nonora (based on Thea of the Autobiography), with whom he has had earlier, superficial sensual encounters. He treats her, physically, even more callously in an act which brutally inverts his relationship with Nișka.

Eliade was aware of early twentieth-century feminism, introducing “a snub-nosed girl who read German philosophy books and was proud of her feminist views” in the opening pages of the novel. Yet, throughout, the novel is littered with statements of shocking male supremacy: “Waiting is a feminine attitude . . . The feminine soul reveals itself through the process of confiding itself in a masculine soul . . . the feminine soul is passive, waiting to be fecundated by masculine spirit . . . the feminine soul tires easily . . . woman alone is not capable . . . the furrow of her soul ached for my will as for the sower.” And here the major theme of the novel emerges: the “masculine” will. For the narrator, the truly “masculine” soul is equipped with an ithyphallic will to which the “feminine” yields. We know from the Autobiography and elsewhere that Eliade had read—and been much impressed by—both Jules Payot’s L'éducation de la volonté and Ibsen’s Brand. He recommended both to Rica. It is a central theme of Renaissance humanism that humanity can ascend (or descend) the great chain of being by an act of will. Papini and Friedrich Nietzsche, both authors who praise the power of the will, were models for Eliade’s writing. These are ingredients in a heady brew engendering intoxicating visions of indomitable will. The true education of the student narrator of the novel lies in disciplining his will to the point that he can seize any opportunity presented to him, simply because he wants it (which is, no doubt, why he feels more sympathy for magic than for monotheism).

The narrator’s shameless treatment of Nonora towards the end of the novel resulted from something he felt “more strongly than my will, more strongly than my respect for Nonora’s love.” The point seems to be that such acts of brutality emerge from a failure of the will, contrasted to the “success” of the steadfast will required to reject Nișka. From our perspective in the twenty-first century, the physical abuse of Nonora casts light on the spiritual abuse of Nișka, revealing it to be a corresponding opposite: two extreme—and extremely “masculine”—vices between which a morally virtuous mean is yet to appear. The objectification of Nișka is thus another act of violation—but it seems improbable that, in 1928, either the twenty-one-year-old Eliade, or his fictional narrator, could see that.

In his Journal for December 15, 1960, Eliade claimed that he was “more and more convinced of the literary value of the materials available to the historian of religion . . . what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years is not totally foreign to literature. It could be that someday my research will be considered an attempt to relocate the forgotten sources of literary inspiration” (Journal II: 1957–1969, 119). If there is any truth in this observation—and I am sure that there is—the understanding of the scholarly and the literary worlds of Mircea Eliade are finally interdependent and the appearance of this novel, available for the first time to the English-speaking public, constitutes a significant contribution to both.

A version of this essay will appear as the foreword to Gaudeamus, forthcoming from Istros Books.