“The ultimate fantasy would be to write about a fantasy because as soon as you realize it’s fantasy, it changes. But where does it go? What happens to it? Freud suggested fantasy was a montage of sight and sound drawn from prior experience that disguises that experience and represses memory of it. But if the fantasy increased in intensity beyond a certain point, it too would be repressed, and a physical symptom would take its place. Might writing be just such a symptom…?
—Michael Taussig, Walter Benjamin’s Grave

“…the exile must be capable of penetrating the hidden meaning of his wanderings, and of understanding them as a long series of initiation trials …. That means: seeing signs, hidden meanings, symbols … in everyday life. Seeing them and reading them even if they aren’t there; if one sees them, one can build a structure and read a message in the formless flow of things and the monotonous flux of historical facts.”
—Mircea Eliade, No Souvenirs, Journal 1957-1969

Francis Ford Coppola’s rendition of Mircea Eliade’s novel Youth Without Youth opens with a montage of clocks woozily bending. These fluctuating clocks, reminiscent of the iconic melting timepieces in Salvador Dalí’s famous painting “The Persistence of Memory,” appropriately open a movie that, as Coppola has said, seeks to explore “Time and Interior Consciousness.” While I found Coppola’s movie to be intermittently ponderous, melodramatic (without the saving grace of campiness), and mired in “mystery” while lacking in suspense, it nonetheless highlights some possibilities and problems associated with Eliade’s understanding of time, which he calls “the supreme ambiguity of the human condition.”

In the spirit of his speculative novel, I sketch here a speculative interpretation of Youth Without Youth that suggests some relations between the “persistence of memory” and Eliade’s “persistence of the sacred,” with regard to historical and mythological conceptions of time. In doing so, I hope to trace some connections between art, autobiography, religion, and politics in Eliade’s “dialectic of the sacred.”

Though Eliade wrote his novel in 1976, decades after the interwar heyday of surrealism, I place his book in a surrealist lineage, not only because Eliade admired the researches of surrealism into dreams, symbolism, the unconscious, and pathological mental states, but also because his novel employs surrealist techniques and tropes, such as “objective chance” (fortuitous events that seem foreordained), the confusion of dream and waking states, and hysterical convulsions of personal identity. In fact, Youth Without Youth opens with a scene that recalls a phenomenon dear to the surrealists: shock.

Surrealist André Breton concluded his novel Nadja with an unforgettable line intended to shock: “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” Indeed, the convulsions of this beauty are “destined to produce … Shock.” Aesthetic shock, or convulsive beauty—as achieved through objective chance, for example—is embraced by the surrealists as a means of disrupting individual identity. In Youth Without Youth, shock also produces mythological reverberations. An early scene in Coppola’s movie finds an elderly Dominic Matei abruptly enveloped by a freak thunderstorm on an Easter evening in 1938 (thus establishing Faustian undercurrents that ripple throughout the movie). Unfolding his umbrella, Dominic is suddenly swept up on a current of lightning before being dropped back to earth, the entire surface of his body crisped. He’s left in a “larval” state, at the cusp of a death that yet heralds rebirth, the return of youth.

For Eliade as well as the surrealists, shock, such as that produced by a chance lightning strike, “convulses” identity, producing a “new” self. Surveying world mythology, Eliade places the symbol of lightning in a lunar register, connecting it with the cycles of the moon which herald regeneration. Lightning can thus be read in Youth as a dramatic kratophany establishing a violent and intense intercourse between the heavens and the earth, the transcendent and the immanent—a literally electrifying axis mundi that ruptures the protagonist’s identity through a near-lethal charge of negative ecstasy.

Extending Eliade’s line of thinking, lightning acts as a jolting “initiatory” trauma, producing a change in ontological status, achieved in this case through objective chance—the surrealist term for events or encounters that seem both random and necessary, at once immersed in the “formless flow” of historical facts and yet keyed to a transcendent mythopoesis.

In this image, we find a dramatic portrayal of Eliade’s “dialectic of the sacred”—the coincidentia oppositorum in which the profane and the sacred achieve simultaneity of form. Eliade explains the dialectic of the sacred as the “manifestation of the sacred in material things.” One of his great interpreters, Thomas J. J. Altizer, refers to it as an ambiguous, even “paradoxical mode of being which is at once both inside and outside of time.” In Youth, the question at stake is the relationship between historical time and transcendent, mythological time, and the role of memory in mediating this dialectic of the sacred in our modern, secular world—a world where, Eliade claims, the sacred is “repressed” (as I’ll return to below).

As those familiar with Youth know, another repercussion of the lightning strike is Dominic’s supernatural memory and astounding capacity for acquiring knowledge; he is able perfectly to “recall” numerous languages, and can internalize the knowledge contained in books with a wave of his hand. If Freud is right in saying that fantasies and dreams are expressions of fulfilled wishes, Dominic is the protagonist in a scholarly wet dream of perfect recollection. He proclaims the advent of absolute knowledge that heralds “post-historical man”—the new identity of humankind immersed in what had been a forgotten or repressed religious dimension. And as an agent of the dialectic of the sacred, Dominic is both subject to the vagaries of history even while participating in a transcendent plane that recapitulates mythological time and the origins of human consciousness.

But this fantasy, like Dalí’s melting clocks, is ambiguous, and it is here that I believe we can perceive some of the fraught political dimensions of Eliade’s thought—and his life. According to Eliade, the repression of the sacred means that myth will return in “camouflaged” form. The sacred, he contends, “has become unrecognizable; it has camouflaged itself in forms, intentions, and significances that appear to be ‘profane’…. Modern man has ‘forgotten’ religion, but the sacred has hidden itself in his unconscious.”

Eliade thus describes the dialectic of the sacred in the psychoanalytic terms that also captivated the surrealists. As readers of Freud know, the repressed always returns, though in disguised forms. For Eliade, the sacred returns within the profane world of modern art, literature, theater, and popular culture; it is as present, and as unrecognizable, as the youthful Dominic Matei. Extending this psychoanalytic account of repression will help us move beyond the poetics of the sacred to the politics and ethics of the sacred in Eliade’s thought.

I believe that Eliade, in seeking to expose traces of the transcendent, also obscures the other side of the dialectic of the sacred—for the fantasy of a re-enchanted world, and of a new humanity, is possible only by virtue of a repression of historical time, or the “terrors of history.” Thus the dialectic of the sacred should be read not in terms of transcendence, but in terms of repression.

Eliade’s own life suggests this as well. It is well known that as a youth in Romania in the thirties, Eliade was affiliated with a far-right Christian political organization, the Legion of the Archangel Michael. After being exiled from Romania and eventually settling in the United States in 1956, however, Eliade was largely apolitical, no longer publicly concerned with historical time. (It is said he rarely read newspapers.) In other words, in his prophetic-scholarly mode, by which he sought to initiate a new humanity, he attempted to live in a realm that, through prodigious learning and a cultivation of the extraordinary memory for which he was famous, aligned him with sacred time—but at the price of repressing a past that continued to haunt him, compelling him to write works that also fostered this repression of historical time.

In this way, Eliade’s scholarship and literary works—though admirable for their scope and far-reaching in their aims—might be interpreted as symptoms of a dangerous refusal to acknowledge a guilty past. In Freudian terms, this constitutes disavowal, that is, a refusal “to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception” (LaPlanche and Pontalis). Might not Eliade have been driven to write—obsessively, compulsively—as a kind of disavowal of the recollection of his youthful fascist involvements, which he never publicly acknowledged, and for which he never apologized? Did he write in an attempt to “annul his own history”?

The epigraph from Michael Taussig at the top of this essay suggests that writing itself, and particularly the writing of fantasies, might be interpreted as a symptom of repression. This is how I read Youth Without Youth—as a symptom of the persistence of a traumatic memory, and as the return of that repressed memory: the incursion of the political within the mythopoetic. Consider in this regard when Dominic Matei (like a disguised avatar of Eliade) is shocked to realize that, while in a dream-like state, he has been sleeping with the enemy—a Nazi informant literally embedded in a hospital room adjacent to his. The writing of this scene appears as a symptom of a repressed political past, the disavowal of a terror of personal history.

The persistence of memory, the “eternal return” of mythological time that Eliade prized as a scholar and artist seeking to open up paths to a sacred existence, is itself contingent upon a repression of another kind of memory: the historical and political. But the terrors and traumas of one’s personal past also persist in a memory that, if disavowed, returns to haunt the sacred. In some sense, then, Eliade’s dialectic of the sacred is also a dialectic of the persistence of two kinds of memory, and thus a dialectic of repression.

Youth Without Youth is a fantasy of renewal, of the perfect memory that would restore a sense of the sacred in the modern world. But read according to the psychoanalytic paradigm from which Eliade himself drew, another message lies in the final scene, where an aged and decrepit Dominic Matei is found frozen, dead. This image, I think, reveals what Eliade knew but never openly proclaimed: that initiation is not exculpation; that the ambiguity of the sacred, like the “supreme ambiguity” of time, lies in the fact that politics must be acknowledged alongside poetics; and that the persistence of memory is always part of a dialectic of repression. In the realm of history and politics in which we all inevitably live our lives on earth, a “perfect” memory comes only at the price of succumbing to an eternal return of the repressed.

Memory will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.