Friday, March 17, 2017

Norman Manea on Mircea Eliade in his essay "Happy Guilt"

Norman Manea published an important article about Mircea Eliade, "Happy Guilt," in the August 5, 1991 edition of the New Republic. Unfortunately, the article is no longer available in the journal's online archive. I just read it in his collection of essays, The Fifth Impossibility: Essays on Exile and Language (Yale University Press, 2012). Norman Manea is a Romanian writer, now living in the United States, and teaching at Bard College. He was born in the Romanian province of Bukovina in 1936, and when he was five years old, he and his family were deported to a concentration camp in Transnistria, a part of Ukraine that the Nazis handed over to Romania during the Second World War. He survived and returned to Romania after the war and he lived there under the Communist regime until 1986, when he left first for Germany and then for the United States, in 1988.  

Charles Simic, in a review of Manea's memoir, The Hooligan's Return, in the New York Review of Books (October 23, 2003) describes what happened to the Jews of Bukovina:
In October 1941 the entire Jewish population of the province was deported to labor camps in Transnistria, a place that previously did not exist on any map or in any geography book. It was a newly carved region in Ukraine, north of the Black Sea and Odessa that extended as far as the rivers Dniester and Bug. The Romanian army of Marshal Ion Antonescu, which participated in the Nazi attack on Russia, was given the land as spoils of that campaign, and Antonescu soon after set aside the region to be the graveyard for Romanian Jews. The order for expulsion in 1941 required the Jews to hand in immediately to the National Bank all the gold, currency, shares, diamonds, and precious stones they owned and to report on the same day to the train station with their hand luggage. Everything else was to be left behind and was promptly pillaged. 
Manea was five years old when he, his parents, and grandparents made the journey in sealed freight train cars. Back in Romania, Premier Antonescu declared:
Our nation has not known a more favorable moment in its history…. I am in favor of forced migration. I do not care whether we shall go down in history as barbarians. The Roman Empire committed many barbaric acts and yet it was the greatest political establishment the world has ever seen.
Out of 200,000 Romanian Jews who were sent to Transnistria half perished, Manea’s grandparents among them. There were no gas chambers and crematoria; people were either shot, hanged, slaughtered, burned, starved to death, or died as the consequence of infectious diseases and the weakening of the body. Nazis were not involved since Romania was not an occupied country. This was an operation carried out by the local Romanian police and gendarmerie. Antonescu was an ally of the Iron Guard, the extreme rightwing nationalist movement of the 1930s, whose ideological father was Nae Ionescu, a professor of philosophy at the University of Bucharest much admired by Eliade.
Manea was, therefore, a child when Eliade was working in the Romanian embassies in London and Lisbon.

"Happy Guilt" is described by David Mikics in his review of The Fifth Impossibility for for the New Republic in 2012:
The troubled heart of Manea’s book is his well-known essay “Happy Guilt” (first published in The New Republic in 1991), an examination of the pro-fascist sympathies of the great religious scholar, fiction-writer and memoirist Mircea Eliade. Although Eliade disdained Hitler’s anti-Semitism in 1934, by 1937 he had changed his tune, asking, “Can the Romanian nation end its life … ravaged by poverty and syphilis, overrun by Jews and torn apart by foreigners?” In 1939 he wrote that “The Poles’ resistance in Warsaw is Jewish resistance. Only yids are capable of blackmail by putting women and children in the front line”; and he concluded that “rather than a Romania again invaded by kikes, it would be better to have a German protectorate.” Eliade went from village to village campaigning for the Iron Guard; during the war he spent much of his time in Portugal, where he became an admirer of the right-wing dictator Salazar. After 1945, Eliade was clear in his disapproval of both Marxism and Fascism, but he avoided the details of his own past complicity (as did Cioran, who once wrote that if he had been a Jew he would have committed suicide). 
Manea rightly points out the shocking contrast between Eliade’s violent fascist prejudices and “the free play and dreamy compassion of his writing.” The genial, open-minded professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago, where Eliade taught from the 1960s on, was hard to reconcile with the champion of the Iron Guard. But there were also reasons why Eliade, given his mystical bent, might have been attracted to fascism’s promise of “sudden and magical history” (in the words of Robert Ellwood, Eliade’s student). Eliade was attuned to the appearance of the sacred within the profane, seemingly secular modern world; fascism, he seems to have thought, was a potential source of sacredness. Mihail Sebastian loved and admired Eliade in the 1930s (along with Eliade’s teacher, the die-hard anti-Semite Nae Ionesco—no relation to the playwright). But Sebastian was bewildered by the gulf between himself and Eliade: the fearful Jew faced with an anti-Semitic tidal wave and the exultant advocate of a new, Christian-fascist Romania. Manea writes that Eliade’s attraction to men in uniform, to “the compensations of vitality, mystification, martyrdom, and all manner of excess,” baffled Sebastian.

When Manea’s essay about Eliade’s fascism was published in Romania in 1992, it sparked a campaign of hatred against Manea. Eliade, whose rehabilitation began during the latter half of the Ceauşescu era, had become a hero to Romanians, an intellectual saint. Interviewed on Romanian television programs, Manea was asked about the “Jewish cultural mafia”; he was called a fundamentalist, a witch-hunter. The grotesque nationalism and anti-Semitism that has sometimes sprouted in post-Communist Romania, visible in the Eliade affair, the official honoring of Antonescu, and elsewhere, is a grab for identity in the confusion and the loneliness of the newly chaotic, newly capitalist era.
Manea's article is not just about Eliade's affiliation with the Iron Guard and Romanian fascism more broadly conceived, but about how Eliade never publicly acknowledged or recanted his actions during the fascist era. He contrasts Eliade with Andrei Sakharov, who in his youth admired Stalin and admitted that in his memoirs.
When he is called a Nazi or an anti-Semite, when he meets the stony weight of accusations that simplify the story of his life, Eliade’s tendency to withdraw is even more marked. To be sure, there is dignity in silence, and there is delicacy, not just cunning, in evasion: but in silence and in evasion there is also much that is reprehensible. To retract one’s former beliefs, to denounce the horrors, to disclose the mechanisms of mystification, to assume the burden of guilt—probably few are sufficiently clear-eyed and courageous for this. But it is precisely those few who do have the courage for such a confrontation with the past who justify the stature of the intellectual. 
 In order to be truly separated from the errors of the past, one must acknowledge them. Is not honesty, in the end, the mortal enemy of totalitarianism? And is not conscience the proof of one’s distance from the forces of corruption, from totalitarian ideology? In his Memoirs, Andrei Sakharov confessed without embarrassment his youthful admiration for Stalin. The honesty of that admission was precisely the honesty that enabled that great scientist and humanist to achieve a profound understanding of the nature of the communist system, and to become its unyielding critic.
The whole essay is worth reading, both for the information it gives on Eliade's beliefs and actions in the 1930s and 1940s, and for its analysis of the consequences of Eliade's lack of honesty about his past.


  1. You can run; but, you can never hide what you were. This will forever leave distaste and smell around Eliade that will never go away. He forgot his Aristotle because his hubris destroyed him in the end.

  2. I'm always mindful of Eliade's past when I find the need to cite him, and yet when I find I can't avoid mentioning an idea I originally read in Eliade, cite him I do. I'm also aware of Eliade's biases in terms of theory and psychology of religion, which consititute a pernicious kind of "higher anti-Semitism." Still, once in a while I find that Eliade has something to add to the conversation, so, with some guilt, I refer to him by name. The guilt leads me, naturally, to look up the latest writings on Eliade, including the work done by Manea, on the Internet, and thereby to your latest posting. Of course, my college-aged philosophy-major nephew was quick to call me, his Modern Orthodox rabbi uncle, a fascist myself years ago (although he had recanted that accusation a year later). I've worked for more than 25 years in Manhattan as the Cantor of Cong. Shearith Israel, the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue. I've often wondered how yet other Jews than those you mention, particularly other contemporary Roumanian Jewish intellectuals, related to these Iron Guard-affiliated intellectuals. Regards to my beloved Southern Tier (I'm from Vestal) from Downstate. - Rabbi Ira Rohde

  3. Rabbi Rohde - thank you for commenting. Have you read Mihail Sebastian's diaries, which were published in English translation in 2000? (I've also written about them on this blog). He died in 1945, unfortunately, but was contemporary with Eliade when he still lived in Rumania.