Youth With Youth is a strange movie. One could even describe it as enchanting, particularly if one’s youthful self had been introduced to Religious studies vis-à-vis the Eliadean enterprise. For all those who possess undergraduate memories of wielding, with naïve expertise, Eliade’s Latin vocabulary—axis mundi, contra oppositorum, in illo tempore—only later to become disabused of such childish notions in the initiatory fires of graduate school, Youth Without Youth indulges your nostalgia by reminding you of why you began to study religion in the first place. At its worst, Youth Without Youth is a ridiculous hodge-podge of half-baked mysticism and My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006). At its best, however, Youth Without Youth is an exercise in immaturity, foregrounding the loopy, even transgressive weirdness of Eliade and suggesting that maybe, just maybe, there is something to the brand of cosmic consciousness Eliade spent a lifetime chronicling and celebrating. If Eliade was, indeed, an academic mystic or new age theologian, my viewing of Youth Without Youth begs the following questions: what is the nature (and object) of Eliade’s metaphysical desire? And what does it have to do with the powers of secular modernity?
In his lush, cinematic rendition of Eliade’s 1976 novella, Francis Ford Coppola offers a different answer than those hinted at by Eliade’s oeuvre or even by his most vicious critics. For Coppola, Eliade’s version of the sacred is not so much bound up with the Logos as it is with the technics that have made the Logos a thing in the world. Rather than engage the real reality of the sacred (Eliade’s major fault within these skeptical times) Youth Without Youth, instead, suggests that the sacred is real, for better or for worse, because we want it to be and, more importantly, because we make it so. From this perspective, Youth Without Youth becomes a rumination on the ethics of making distinctions between the sacred and profane as well as the consequences of those choices.
Youth Without Youth tells the story of Dominic Matei, an elderly Romanian scholar who has dedicated himself to the discovery of the “proto-language.” At the beginning of the film Matei has decided to end his own life out of a sense of failure and despair. With an envelope of strychnine in hand, Matei (played by Tim Roth) walks across the street and is struck by lightening. To make a very long story very short, Matei miraculously survives and assumes the creative powers of homo religious. Temporal boundaries collapse. Matei becomes young again, his powers of memory superhuman. He is able to learn all the world’s known languages in his sleep. He has metaphysical conversations with his multiple personalities. He is able to see, for the first time, the reality of “intermediary beings between consciousness and unconsciousness, nature and man, man and the divine, reason and eros, feminine and masculine, darkness and light, matter and spirit.”
Matei, in short, has developed technics to make the Logos manifest, “to discover the origins of language, human consciousness, even time itself.” Much of the film chronicles the evolution of Matei’s quest—as he is pursued Nazi scientists and shady American agents, as he goes into permanent exile and falls in love with Veronica/Laura/Rupini—his timeless love, study-aid, and new age channel to the “proto-language.” The majority of the movie chronicles Matei coming into his own as an intellectual machine—recording, storing, and integrating data at an astonishing pace. Matei’s intellectual practice, however, is marked by a sense of profound boredom, captured in Roth’s listless portrayal of Matei sitting at a library desk with stacks of books all around him. One by one he passes each book from left hand to right. Each book is set aglow as Matei scans them and downloads their contents. In his literal capacity to read books by their covers, Matei has taken the Google Library Project to its logical conclusion. He has become a perfected computer.
Throughout the movie such epistemic boredom is emphasized by the fact that Matei is a man out of joint, living within but also in tension with the horrors ushered in by techno-modernity—death camps, atom bombs, and, most significantly, the portable recording device he carries with him throughout the movie in order to archive his journey for future generations.
Wire recorders became available to consumers in the late 1940s. The Nazis had perfected their use during World War II for the purposes of surveillance, data archiving, as well as for propaganda in the form of automated and continuous radio broadcasts. After Matei is discharged from the hospital, he receives a portable sound recorder with the instructions to record any and all of his thoughts on this machine, particularly when they outpace his ability to write them down. When Matei arrives at a new insight about his condition or the condition of linguistic origins (ever the same for homo religiosus) he ominously presses “record.”
The irony, here, is dense, particularly as Matei uses the wire recorder to mark his temporality and spatial location—“Geneva 1955” he says before committing his boundary-less existence to a tape coated with a thin layer of iron oxide powder.
“I have decided to stop making notes in English and instead to use an artificial language of my own invention.” [Coppola provides subtitles for the uninitiated] “Now I can describe paradoxical situations, impossible to express in any existing language. This will permit me to reveal facts I have not dared confess in writing. This language will only be deciphered by means of a perfected computer. So my testimony is addressed to the future, let us say the year 2010. But to whom? The coming nuclear wars will destroy many civilizations. Undoubtedly, this will unleash a wave of deep pessimism historically unprecedented. A general despondency. My testimony, deciphered in the future, could counter the despair because it shows the potential of humanity, a species superior to homo sapiens, born in a far-off future. This depends on the preservation of the material in the safe-deposit box. I don’t know how this will be assured. But I do not doubt that the material will be preserved. Otherwise, my life would have no meaning.”
Like reality itself, Matei speaks in code. His salvific secrets are too much for the present to bear, let alone understand. He has no choice but to record them and to await a post-apocalyptic and technologically advanced future. The ironic convergence between Matei’s cosmic personality and the function of the wire recorder is a recurring theme in the film. Matei recognizes that his new state of consciousness confirms the “humanity of post-historic man,” the same humanity that the wire recorder promises to liberate from the terrors of linear time and the horrors of forgetfulness.
The totalitarian dimensions of this homology are hard to miss, the wire recorder having been manufactured in the service of military domination of Europe and the Final Solution. On a phenomenological level, the device also embodied an attempt to move beyond the vicissitudes of history by arresting time itself and making it available for continuous playback.
Seen in the context of Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Youth Without Youth becomes a meditation on technological reproducibility; on the way things seem to repeat in our world as if they were on a continuous loop. The anxious sense of closure evoked by the film (and one shared by Eliade) has, itself, become a repeated theme within techno-modernity. No wonder, then, that such anxiety is often aligned with all manner of death: the death of flesh and blood individuals in heated fits of twentieth-century violence but also the death of place-holding concepts—the death of God, the death of language, the death of the subject and its authority, and the death of modernity itself. For both Eliade and Coppola there is something to this death. For Eliade, technology was disorienting, the engine of desacralization, the death-knell of human creativity. The experience of temporal sedation, however, of stillness and deep calm, was antidotal—nothing less than sacred life. In Youth Without Youth, however, technology is neither ontological orientation nor obstacle, neither disease nor cure. And the experiences that Eliade clung to in such works as The Sacred and the Profane become, under Coppola’s direction, nothing more than the ordinary business of being human.
Seen with a genealogical eye, Youth Without Youth speaks to the sheer danger of the sacred as the robust object of mystical longing. But whereas Eliade’s reactionary technophobia limited his appreciation for how the “countless machines mass-produced in industrial societies” were, themselves, constitutive of his experience of the sacred, Youth Without Youth suggests that technology has everything to do with our ability to imagine—whether in the service of embracing or rejecting—the sacred.
In its generous critique of Eliade, Youth Without Youth also offers insight into Eliade’s declension model of secularization defined as the appearance of cultural forms and attitudes that either competed with or came to usurp the authority of religion. In Coppola’s rendering, such forms and attitudes are themselves both enchanting and wholly technological. In the character of Dominic Matei, an embeddedness within the secular age is a peculiar mark of the sacred. Eliade’s brand of mysticism and its corresponding desire to merge with the way things—both immanent and transcendent—really are is revealed to be a tragic quest. Any attempt to rewrite the terms of the Faustian bargain—no matter how earnest or self-conscious—is a dangerous one. Both Matei and Eliade displayed a penchant for totalizing patterns. Their desire for systematicity was both computer-like and mythic in scope, a kind of original sin that could not be set aside or dreamed away. This desire could only be acted upon. This despite the fact that such desire was also the defining character of a secular age in which the root of technology (from the Greek technologia) had become manifest in the systematic treatment of the human, by the human, and for the human.
Most significantly, Youth Without Youth frames the seductive qualities of Eliade’s thought—a style of reasoning in which all phenomena make sense according to his universal map of consciousness—as precisely that which his systematic approach to religion was designed to overcome. To engage in the perennial search for origins—for meaning, for Truth, for whatever you love when you love your god—becomes the only way to put an end to this search. Failure, in other words, is the necessary outcome. This version of Eliade, I confess, is a perversion of the original, perhaps even a figment of my imagination. Nevertheless, the Eliade that emerges from the bizarre cinematic exercise of Youth Without Youth is not so much a theologian (for that case is too easily made) but a theologian in denial. This Eliade simmers between the lines of my undergraduate copy of The Myth of the Eternal Return. This is the invisible Eliade rather than the one suggested by the trippy cover shot—a computer generated image that suggests the convergence of galactic and microscopic scales. Its neon sheen screams “hey you there, don’t you just want to dive right in!”—a succinct version of what can only be called new age interpellation.
To suggest as much is neither to rehabilitate Eliade nor, for that matter, to excuse his self-indulgent approach to religion. To view Youth Without Youth as a self-reflexive commentary upon the Eliadean corpus is to invite a strange kind of self-scrutiny. To view Youth With Youth as having something to do with the seductive power of Eliade’s methodology—one that still lurks within the academic study of religion, within the secular age, and less obviously, within the study of secularity, religion’s so-called double—transforms Eliade into a disturbingly relevant thinker.