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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Eliade: The Regeneration of Time

In Chapter Two of Cosmos and History, The Regeneration of Time, Eliade attempts to apply his insights to the very common symbols revolving around periodicity in archaic man's life. That is to say, he applies his insights to what he sees as archaic man's desire to "abolish history" by renewing time and creation at the New Year and other events that are assimilated to his cosmogony.

Eliade begins by noting that in all cultures of which we have knowledge archaic man demonstrates 1) a conception of an end and a beginning of a temporal period, based on his observation of cosmic rhythms, and 2) a need for periodic regeneration. This concept of "cyclical regeneration," according to Eliade, "poses the problem of the abolition of 'history.'" It is at this point, I believe, that Eliade goes too far: this conception of an abolition of history reads modern ideology back into the thought of archaic man.

As Eliade begins to elaborate his argument he makes a number of initial observations:
this annual expulsion of sins, diseases, and demons is basically an attempt to restore--if only temporarily--mythical and primordial time, 'pure' time, the time of the 'instant' of the Creation.

for 'primitives,' nature is a hierophany, and the 'laws of nature' are the revelation of the mode of existence of the divinity.
The attempt at restoration centers around the New Year, for
the abolition of time is possible at this mythical moment, in which the world is destroyed and re-created.
He then points out that
For traditional man, the imitation of an archetypal model is a reactualization of the mythic moment when the archetype was revealed for the first time. Consequently, these ceremonies too...project the celebrant into a mythical time, in illo tempore.
Based on these observations Eliade continues:
For the Scandinavians...taking possession of a territory was equivalent to a repetition of the Creation. For the natives of the Fijis, the Creation takes place at each enthronement of a new chief...
...in the primitive conception, a new era begins not only with every new reign but also with the consummation of every marriage, the birth of every child, and so on.
Differing in their formulae, all these instruments of regeneration tend toward the same end: to annul past time...

What is of chief importance to us in these archaic systems is the abolition of concrete time, and hence their antihistorical intent.
What are we to make of this? Without denying the validity of Eliade's argument--to a degree--nevertheless we must ask: How can Eliade's claims be reconciled with the well known fact that, far from willing to abolish history, archaic man went to great lengths to memorialize his history? True, there is a clear tendency on the part of archaic man everywhere to assimilate his history to archetypes, but that doesn't entirely change the fact that archaic man is mindful of history and does not utterly reject it. We may find the key to this conundrum in the closing sentences of this chapter:
...it is more probable that the desire felt by the man of traditional societies to refuse history, and to confine himself to an indefinite repetition of archetypes, testifies to his thirst for the real and his terror of 'losing' himself by letting himself be overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of profane existence.
A "thirst for the real." How are we to understand that? Surely Eliade is correct that man sees what is "real" as having meaning--in philosophical terms, all that is, is precisely what it is and, to that extent has meaning--and he is correct to assert that man is utterly demoralized by the thought of "meaninglessness." But the fact remains that man is able to imagine both alternatives, and his choice of meaning over meaninglessness is not a mere leap of faith. For example, even without a clear idea of an afterlife man will act vigorously to defend and advance all that has value and meaning in his life.

As Eliade notes, man can observe that the cosmos exhibits structure, rhythms and harmony. Man knows that within the structure of the cosmos every being has a meaning--its own nature--and he recognizes also the rhythm and harmony in his own nature. If, then, archaic man's myths point to his realization that the cosmos cannot ultimately explain itself--that it must derive its being and its meaning from God or gods--it is no great leap for man to conclude that, if he is to come to terms with the meaning of his existence, he must come to some understanding of those laws of being to which the order and rhythms of the cosmos testify.  Man will need to seek the harmonies within his own human nature, to situate that human nature within the overall structure of the cosmos and--if this should be possible--to orientate his own being and nature toward the divine source of the order that he finds in his nature. Thus, the indisputable fact that man periodically seeks  to remind himself of his connectedness to the cosmos and its divine order is not necessarily an attempt by man to "abolish history" but, rather, an attempt to remind himself of his true identity. To renew a sense of that connectedness periodically is surely understandable, for forgetting and recollection are also part of the rhythm of human life.

This is not to suggest that Eliade is totally mistaken. The modern age has seen numerous ideologies that claim to annul history by treating history as if it were a knowable totality, an essence that is complete at this moment rather than a movement into an ultimately unknowable future. But we prefer to see such attempts at abolishing history as deformations of fundamentally sound tendencies in human life.  In fact Eliade was aware of this contrast.  A major theme of our continued inquiries will be to come to come to an understanding of the relation between "archaic ontology" and the deformation that we witness in modern ideologies.

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