Some time after he had begun work at the library he experienced a long, dramatic dream, which he remembered only fragmentarily, however, because he had interrupted it by waking up several times. There was one detail in particular he remembered: in the aftermath of his electrocution, his mental activity anticipated somewhat the condition men will attain some tens of thousands of years hence. The principal characteristic of the new humanity will be the structure of its psycho-mental life: all that has ever been thought or done by men, expressed orally or in writing, will be recoverable through a certain exercise of concentration. . . . In short, I’m a mutant, he said to himself on awakening. I anticipate the post-historic existence of man. Like in a science-fiction novel, he added, smiling with amusement.
—Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth
Initially, I did not quite understand why I was asked to review this film. As a historian of religions trained in the program Mircea Eliade started at the University of Chicago, I have certainly read my share of Eliade’s writings, both scholarly and literary. I have also admired the films of Francis Ford Coppola. But I have never written a film review. Nor did I know Eliade. He died the year I arrived at Chicago. It did not help matters that Youth Without Youth was not playing anywhere in the entire Houston metropolitan area where I happen to live. I tried to get out of this. I already had too much to do. Then two things changed my mind, and I mean really changed my mind.
The first thing was the happy discovery that my mentor, Wendy Doniger, had written an essay on her involvement in the film project. “The Eternal Return to Great Neck” begins and ends with Francis kissing Wendy, whom, it turns out, he knew already in high school back in Great Neck. Photos of the two—at about twenty, I’m guessing—frame the essay, as if to laugh at time itself. This all delighted and charmed me.
The second thing was the film itself, which, I quickly realized to my significant surprise, deals explicitly with a whole spectrum of mythical, mystical, and paranormal themes that I have been thinking and writing about for the last ten years. (For my own reflections on these psychical and paranormal streams and their relationship to the professional study of religion, the imaginaire of modern science, and contemporary American culture, see my “Mutant Marvels” in The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion and Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion). These involve what has been variously called magical, psychical, or parapsychological phenomena, the modern expressions of which—or so I have concluded—have been linked closely for the last two centuries to the scientific registers of magnetism and electricity, evolutionary biology, depth psychology, and finally atomic or quantum physics (and more or less in that order). Despite the centrality of such paranormal phenomena in the history of religions (framed, of course, in other registers), in modern science fiction, and in contemporary fantasy, film, and popular culture, this is an entire complex of religious thought that scholars tend to avoid. And that is putting it mildly.
But Mircea Eliade, a founding father of the field if ever there was one, certainly did not avoid the paranormal. On the contrary, he was obviously fascinated with these (im)possibilities, even if he usually chose to deal with them in the “safe” nocturnal realm of the fantastic rather than in the more professionally dangerous, diurnal realm of rational, reasonable scholarship. But not always. His youthful essay, “Folklore as an Instrument of Knowledge,” makes a rather strong and clear case for the empirical existence of such human potentials and their relevance for the study of anthropology, folklore, and religion. Historians, Eliade points out here, are generally faithful to historical data only as long as that data does not challenge their own, usually materialist, models of reality. Eliade was no materialist, and I strongly suspect that he was convinced in what he called the empirical or existential reality of paranormal phenomena, like telekinesis, precognition, and reincarnation, all of which are featured in the film, the latter as a “fact.” But again, this was his esoteric or literary persona, not his exoteric or professional one. Hence “Folklore as an Instrument of Knowledge” was not translated into English and published until two years ago.
Francis Ford Coppola has made Eliade whole again. He has given him back to us. Youth Without Youth is a beautiful example of Eliade’s fascination with the paranormal. It involves an aging mediocre humanist academic named Dominic Matei who, after traveling to Bucharest in 1938 to commit suicide (on Easter day, no less), is struck on the top of the head by lightning while crossing a street in front of a church. Lifted right off the ground in a stunning and literally shocking scene that could be read as a religious ecstasy or as a physical horror, Matei is left lying in the rain, charred over his entire body. Over the next few weeks and months, he magically regenerates in the hospital, eventually metamorphosing not into a giant cockroach, as in Kafka, but into a young handsome man with astonishing, indeed occult, intellectual powers. He is now, quite literally, a “youth without youth,” that is, a young man who is “really” an old man. The film develops from there into a story of love and loss, the mystery and doubleness of human identity, and the empirical reality of reincarnation.
In my own mind at least, the film is a very faithful representation of the hidden or nocturnal dimension of Eliade’s life-work. It is visually elegant, metaphysically provocative, and largely Romanian in its locations, film crew, and aesthetic sensibilities. If I recall the credits correctly, even the special effects were created by Romanian techno-wizards. Coppola has explained in an interview (with himself!) that he approached the project as a philosophical exploration of the multiple dimensions with which human consciousness endows reality. Just as a second eye adds the third dimension of depth to a single-eyed, flat, two-dimensional vision, so consciousness adds dimensions beyond these three-the fourth dimension of time, for example. And who knows how many beyond that?
This is where the parapsychological phenomena of the film and the novella come in. They are everywhere: a kind of hypermnesia that is really more of a Platonic anamnesis (the Greek term is used), that is, a learning as remembering in some kind of supercosmic archive of language and logos; the double as angelic intermediary between consciousness and unconsciousness; the paramediumistic attacks and ecstasies of Veronica that Dominic uses to plumb the history of human language; the magical ability to read entire books (or Veronica’s dreaming brain and its memories of her previous life as a cave-dwelling student of the Buddhist philosopher Chandrakirti) by the intentional wave of a hand; the materializations of the central symbol of the film, the rose, along the lines of some nineteenth-century séance and its apports; and so on. Significantly, many of these superpowers are structured along the needs and desires of an academic, a historian of religions to be exact. The Italian Buddhologist Guiseppe Tucci and the Swiss depth psychologist C. G. Jung even make appearances in the text, although not quite in the movie.
The paranormal powers are also structured, as already hinted, by the three major epiphanies of modern science, what we might call Electricity, Mutation, and Radiation. It is these modern mysteries of energy, evolution, and matter that structure much of the plot. Hence the opening initiatory scene involving the epiphany of lightning, the subsequent references to Dominic’s “mutation,” and Dr. Rudolf’s troubling Frankenstein-like project to force “a radical mutation of the species” through a controlled process that, in Dominic at least, was entirely spontaneous and fundamentally religious-an unearned grace. A young man in the story even speaks of “the eschatology of electricity” in which he imagines a post-nuclear-holocaust future in which the few human beings who survive become “so many million supermen” precisely because of the irradiation.
Clearly, Eliade and Coppola reject the latter vision as dangerous and deluded. Thus Dominic works toward his secret book manuscript stored in the bank vault as a kind of “Noah’s ark” for these post-apocalyptic future generations, who might otherwise despair of their terrible fate (Eliade sometimes wrote of the history of religions as a similar “Noah’s ark” of cultural memory). Coppola even has Dominic say-as if to address Eliade’s contemporary critics?-that, “My cooperation with the Nazis is only symbolic.” He also adds a twist to the novella’s plot by having Dominic escape his Nazi pursuers by killing Dr. Rudolf through a dramatic telekinetic scene in which Dominic mentally forces the Nazi doctor to shoot himself by his own hand and with his own gun. Dominic Matei is ultimately a moral character who altruistically gives up his love of Veronica so that she can live happily without him. In the end, he dies not as some Nazi experiment or Nietzschean Superman, but as a gentle, tired man on Christmas Day, quite frozen in the snow in the dead of winter. Fire and ice, a coincidentia oppositorum, thus frame the film as a whole.
* * * *
So here is my question. I will be pointed and provocative. What are we to make of the uncanny semblances that exist between Eliade’s novella, Coppola’s film, and blockbuster hits like The X-Men series? The latter superhero mythology, I would point out, is basically identical to that of Youth Without Youth: evolutionary mutation, a distinct mysticism of energy, magical superpowers, secret identities, occult intellectuals (Professor Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men films), and apocalyptic crisis. And this is before we even get to a modern mythical complex like that of Superman, that alien from Krypton (the Hidden, the Mystical), who is the only Superman of which most moviegoers have ever heard. Or how should we relate the novella and the film to the modern metaphysical tradition of the American human potential movement, which works from this very same fusion of mysticism, evolutionary biology, and atomic physics, that privileges paranormal phenomena as signs, as evolutionary buds of a truly promising “future of the body,” and that was largely inspired by a German scholar of comparative religion (Frederic Spiegelberg) who found himself on Hitler’s real hit-list and fled to America for political refuge and intellectual freedom (I tell this full story in Esalen). That is to say, what are we to make of all those innumerable human beings for whom the base claims of Eliade’s novella and Coppola’s film are not so far from the truth of things? Fiction, film, and reality all meet and merge here, and often in quite beautiful and positive ways. “Like in a science-fiction novel, he added, smiling with amusement.”
Will we smile at such a realization, with Dominic, that self-confessed mutant? Or continue to frown in what Weber might call our various exquisitely constructed iron cages?
There are other questions. For example, why does a film like The X-Men, a work of exaggerated fantasy and much spandex, draw in hundreds of millions of viewers, whereas an elegant and understated film like Youth Without Youth plays nowhere in my Metropolis of 8 million people? A comparison with M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, which treats the theme of superpowers in similarly sophisticated and subtle ways, would also be instructive. Finally, now on a more eccentric note, what would a film of the fantastic look like that took a work of scholarship in the history of religions, rather than a work of literature by a historian of religions, as its creative base? Can we imagine such a thing? Would that we all were so lucky to have our own Francis Ford Coppola.
Regardless of our individual answers to such questions, some at least might watch Coppola’s film now as an open invitation to take the paranormal properties, which is to say the multiple dimensions, of human consciousness, much more seriously. Perhaps we might even begin to treat these metaphysical possibilities not as a series of irrational fantasies or primitive magical leftovers, but as real intellectual challenges to our present, bizarrely naïve, materialisms, rationalisms, and scientisms. Understood in this way, a discipline like the history of religions might finally become a generator of signs and hints of that greater and deeper humanity, that new humanism about which Eliade dreamed. Coppola at least has now shone a portion of this dream on the screen—wall of that dark cave we so banally call a movie theatre—a series of flickering shadows reflective of something more.