Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Only symbolic?

Meine Kooperation mit den Nazis ist nur symbolisch (My cooperation with the Nazis is only symbolic), says a guard at the train station of Bregenz as he lets a man whom the Gestapo inspector had forbidden to pass go back on the train to Switzerland while his supervisor is distracted. It's a tense if somehow unconvincing scene, shot dutifully at night with lots of shadow and steam. It comes 47 minutes into Francis Ford Coppola's not very good 2007 film "Youth Without Youth," as the film's protagonist Dominic Matei completes his flight from the Nazis who were after him in his native Romania.

The scene is not in the novella on which the film is based, Coppola notes in the director's commentary, but based on a story he had heard in another connection; he added it to helps explain how Matei manages to escape. There's more going on here, though. The novella "Youth without youth" is by Mircea Eliade, and by the time Coppola managed to raise the funds to produce this labor of love, Eliade's complicity in Romanian fascism had become a topic of considerable controversy. I suppose one can look like a Nazi without really being one, but should Eliade be let off the hook this way? (It is in any case exceedingly poor taste to let Matei - played by Tim Roth, who looks like Eliade in old pictures - seem an honorary Jew here; the train station scene is a trope of Holocaust narratives.)

And what does "only symbolic" mean in the context of Eliade's work, as a theorist of sacred symbols (!) and as the author of magical realist fictional works like this one (published in 1976), where an old scholar is rejuvenated by a bolt of lightning to become a "post-human" superman who sees that whole civilizations may need to be destroyed on the way to a future in which humanity can live in harmony with time again? On one level, fascism itself is "only symbolic" - but an "only symbolic" that can be deadly for those seen to resist the symbolic.

I played this and other clips from "Youth Without Youth" in Theorizing Religion today as a way of raising questions about Eliade and faschistisches Gedankengut. As in years past (where I raised the same questions, though without Coppola's help), many students were simply annoyed. So what if Eliade consorted with antisemites and if his theory of the sacred and profane derives from the work of a teacher (Nae Ionesco) who inspired a fascistic and antidemocratic group? Is it such a big deal if there are echoes of historic anti-Jewish claims in Eliade's assertions that it is with "Judaism" that the sacred "idea of cyclical time is left behind," leading to the fateful "desacralization of the world" and its terrifying relativism (The Sacred and the Profane, 110), and that supposedly "nonreligious" man "forms himself by a series of denials and refusals" (204)? Even if Eliade were a fascist, would it matter since it's us making use of his ideas? I won no friends by suggesting that there wasn't just one fascist moment long ago and far away, but that it's a temptation today too - and not just a symbolic one.

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