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Youth Without Youth4/25/2008 09:19:33
Have you heard about the new Francis Ford Coppola film, Youth Without Youth? Maybe not - it is playing hardly anywhere and the reviews aren't all that good. Despite writing about it now, I still haven't seen the thing. But I'll let you in on a little secret, if you're not in on it already: those of us in the "scholars of religion" club get little goosebumps just thinking about it.
The film is an adaptation of a novel(la) by Mircea Eliade, the Romanian scholar and writer who was the founding figure of religious studies in the United States. Looking from his perch at the University of Chicago, starting in the mid-1950s, he turned comparative religions from a slightly embarrassing feature of divinity schools to a self-sufficient scholarly discipline in its own right. (The wisdom of this move has become hotly disputed, especially since Eliade's death.)
Like so many of the traditions that Eliade masterfully synthesized, his own thought had both exoteric and esoteric dimensions. There was, on the one hand, the scholar's bird-eye-view. Here, Eliade claimed his objectivity with the best of them, creating monumental works that sought to set out the universal principles that govern all religious systems. It was this that an academic discipline could be founded on, and this by which universities could be persuaded to make departments. Not far beneath the surface, then, was an esoteric realm, a program for humanity's mythological future, ever tied to the first by a Jungian circle.
On The Immanent Frame (where as of this week I am working), Jeffrey Kripal offers a powerful reminder of Eliade's esoteric dreams, traces of which are inescapable in the study of religion even today. Kripal, a controversial scholar whose training places him at only two degrees of separation from Eliade himself (I am two and a half), is one of the few who still quite unapologetically asserts the myth-making rights of religion scholars. His review of the Coppola film ends this way:
... 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. [emphasis mine]
There is a wonderful fantasy in there, and secretly it may be the reason many of us became religion scholars to begin with: the desire to create a new religion of our own - with its fresh "signs and hints of that greater and deeper humanity." The film version of Youth Without Youth, a dissemination of Eliade's esoterica, gives some little bit of life to that weird, almost conspiratorial underbelly of religion scholarship.