Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu

By Ted Anton. Northwestern University Press, 1996. xiv+301 pages. $24.95 HB

Reviewed by Claire Fanger, University of Western Ontario

This biography and work of investigative journalism seems designed from its opening pages to suggest the structure of a murder mystery, describing first an episode of divination by geomancy, second a dead body. The geomancer was Culianu, and the body was Culianu's too, found soon after his death on May 21, 1991 in the men's washroom not far from his office at the University of Chicago Divinity School. So unexpected was Culianu's murder in his immediate circle of academic colleagues and friends that it was understood by police and others for the first few hours after the fact, in defiance of all the evidence (as well as the lack of it) at the crime scene, as a suicide.

In the opening pages of this book Ted Anton describes the day after the murder and the shock of Culianu's students and friends attempting to puzzle out (even as they grieved over) the circumstances of his impossible death. He goes on to tell the story of Culianu's life, treating both its personal circumstances and its political dynamics. A child of intellectual parents, Culianu defected from Romania when he was only twenty-two on scholarship in Italy. The precocious talents, driving ambition and sheer determination by which he rose from the condition of poor student-inexile to become a well-known scholar of Renaissance magic with a prestigious position at the University of Chicago make fascinating reading, and Anton's account is vivid. Anton details too the increasing political persecution of the family Culianu left behind in Romania, and the way Culianu himself was, like many Romanian refugees, drawn to become more involved in Romanian politics around the time of the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Like a snake eating its own tail, the story returns to the day of the murder at the end of the book, but by this time the murder no longer

has the appearance of something fundamentally incomprehensible: despite the fact that the murder case remains unresolved, all the available evidence suggests that Culianu's death was not a suicide but an assassination.Unfortunately the injustice involved is so massive that our readerly understanding of these events remains somehow small and difficult (unlike the satisfactory and conclusive tidying away of loose ends offered by the fictional crime novel this book in part emulates).

The killer has never been apprehended, though Anton's evidence (much of it circumstantial but nevertheless compelling) points to the murder's having been orchestrated by the Romanian Securitate. The killing was accomplished with one bullet from a small caliber gun held at close range. Other evidence, speculative but plausible, suggests that the killer was not an American and may have returned to Romania immediately after the killing. Despite the ambiguity of the direct evidence surrounding the murder, there can be little doubt that the deed was politically motivated, not only because of the assassination style methods of the killer, but also because Culianu had been receiving death threats, by mail and phone, for some time before his death. As for many immigrant journalists and writers who spoke out against the Romanian government both during and after the Ceausescu regime, death threats had become a part of life which Culianu perhaps took too much for granted. At any rate, by the end of the book, one wonders why the murder came as surprise to anyone not because the crime as such appears any the more soluble, but because the volatile instability of Romanian politics, the style of coercive behavior of the Securitate (of which Culianu and his family had had much experience previously), and the patent unwillingness of Culianu to be coerced under any circumstances makes it seem as though the contest between them could hardly have had any other ending than some act of extreme violence.

Aside from the fact that it makes a gripping narrative, it seems

important that Culianu's story should be told. The complexities of his life illuminate both the power of learning to strengthen individual consciousness, and the limitations of all institutions (the ivory tower no less than the police state) in their attempts to contain or direct it, to determine what knowledge should do or how it should be used.

Yet although I feel this book is important for scholars to read, it must be admitted that it is not always comfortable reading for a scholar. Anton is a journalist, not an historian, and even though he has clearly made an effort to read and digest all of Culianu's writings (a monumental effort, since Culianu's output was massive a full bibliography is provided at the end) his popularizing summaries of the content of Culianu's works often seem to have a banal, almost cartoon-like quality. I am not certain whether this is a result of Anton's lack of background in the area of Renaissance scholarship, or a simpler effect of the translation of some of Culianu's more accessible ideas into splashy journalistic rhetoric it may be a little of both.

Whatever the reason, for anyone familiar with the primary sources, it is an odd experience to read Anton's description of Culianu's description of the ideas of the famous mages of the Renaissance: "To Culianu," writes Anton in a description of Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, "these philosopher-magicians were early masters of cyberspace...." (Anton, p 108) Or: "Bruno claimed to raise the ancient Greek art of memory to a level of 'global emotional control' by creating a mental computer through concentric circles that he could rotate and recombine.... [Culianu] claimed that today's multi-billion-dollar budgets devoted to understanding consumer psyches do exactly what Bruno did ... concoct public images to create 'the total illusion of total satisfaction' " (Anton, p 109)

What makes this popularizing rhetoric so particularly uncomfortable is not that it involves a gross misrepresentation of Culianu's own statements, but rather the reverse: most of what Anton says stays close enough to the sort of thing Culianu said, or might have said.

And yet if I had not read Culianu's own writing first, if I had encountered only Anton's description of it, I might well come to the conclusion that Culianu's thought was relatively shallow, that he wrote only a kind of pseudohistory, that his books were hardly worth reading. It does not help matters that, in his assessment of Culianu's contribution to Renaissance scholarship, Anton relies heavily on rather vague statements gleaned from interviews with other scholars who knew him. The very brief, general opinions about "the importance of his contribution" do little to alleviate the impression that Culianu's "brilliance" might be nothing more than journalistic hype. And this seems an unfortunate flaw in the biography of a man for whom scholarship was so important, was in many ways the driving force of his life.

My discomfort with this aspect of the book was sufficiently extreme to send me back to reread Culianu's Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. This turned out to be a very useful corrective to the experience of reading Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu; indeed each book seemed to reveal things unconscious or suppressed in the other, and perhaps everyone should read the two in tandem. There can be no doubt that Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, too, has a hidden agenda; it is flawed by the many ways Culianu's intuition tends to leap ahead of his facts. He seems to read earlier writers through the major works of the Renaissance (seeming to attribute to the earlier Arabic writer al-Kindi, for example, an interest in Eros and erotic magic which is found more clearly in the later Renaissance magi, but not al-Kindi himself). Most of the ideas attributed to Culianu by Anton are actually there in one form or another, though the book is not in fact about the things Anton suggests it is about: it is a book not chiefly about the magic of computers and marketing, but rather about the human imagination; it traces the rise and fall of a certain understanding of the vis imaginativa [latin in italics]. And if Culianu's writing is not always reliable, it is also not shallow: whatever its faults, it remains

recognizable as genuine scholarship.

This journalistic misrepresentation of the subtleties of Culianu's writing may (depending on one's viewpoint) seem a venial offence in a biographer, but it is linked to another more serious fault. Anton attends closely, and certainly not without reason, to the magical qualities of the events of Culianu's life, the ways in which Culianu tended to think of himself and represent himself as a magician. The episode that opens the book (in which Culianu, apparently at ease in the role of wonder-worker, is shown telling fortunes at a student party to the awe and astonishment of his audience) istypical of Anton's emphasis throughout. For the most part one cannot double check Anton's interpretations without going back to cross-examine the witnesses. Yet in one place where double checking was possible (Anton's recapitulation of an incident which happens also to be related by Culianu in the acknowledgements to Eros and Magic in the Renaissance), I noticed some interesting gaps in Anton's representation. Here is Anton's version:

He did not tell his mother of a strange experience he had at the conference. At his lecture at the French Centre de Recherche Imaginaire et Création in May 1985, three self-described witches objected to his work. He, his colecturer, and several audience members became seriously ill. Such lectures, he wrote in his preface to Eros and Magic, were "an enterprise from [which] I will desist in the future." (Anton, p 119)

Culianu does indeed say something like this in Eros and Magic, but he says several other things as well. Here is Culianu's own report:

Since 1984 I have occasionally given lectures on Renaissance magic, an enterprise from which I shall refrain in the future.

In Chambéry, where I was invited by Jean Burgos, three real witches happened to attend my speech and accused me of talking about things I did not know from experience. I admitted it only too gladly and humbly asked for some understanding for a poor historian who was merely doing his job. This was apparently not granted, for strange things happened: a couple of people fainted, while my colleague the Africanist Hans Witte and I each got a terrible headache, which persisted till after we left the place. We found a rational explanation to this in the awesomemistral , a wind so fatal that Moroccan traditional law used to excuse a husband if he killed one of his wives during the windy season. (Regrettably enough, the reverse does not seem to be true).
(Culianu, EMR [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987] p xvi.)

Anton's version omits the naturalistic explanation of the illness (as well as the joke) which Culianu delivers at the end of the narrative, and he has slightly altered the emphases in several other ways as well. The two headaches and two fainting spells described by Culianu are inflated by Anton to "serious illness" suffered by "several audience members." Anton has also omitted the content of the witches "objection" (which functions in Culianu's own narrative to set the historian's activity categorically apart from the witches' activity). Finally Anton's opening sentence ("He did not tell his mother of a strange experience ...") seems to suggest that Culianu might have taken the incident so seriously that he did not care to talk about it; in fact Culianu's own public report of the event is lighthearted enough. One is left wondering where else Anton may consciously or unconsciously have shifted the emphases in stories like these to reveal Culianu in a more magicianly mask. No doubt Culianu the type of Faust makes better copy than Culianu the

skeptic, Culianu the scholar and writer of "dense, difficult" books though Faust was of course also a learned man, and the quest for greater, deeper knowledge is always a magicianly activity. The myth of Faust would have to enter in some manner into any accurate telling of Culianu's life. Yet one might wish to see the biography of Culianu the magician at least reflect more accurately the scope of Culianu's real knowledge and the subtlety of his real thought. Despite (or more likely because of) all the lip service given to the man's "brilliance" and "importance", Culianu comes across as a person if anything more shallow, less intelligent, less complicated and difficult than he really was. Other stories of Culianu's life probably could (and I hope eventually will) be told. In the meantime readers should turn to this one ready to make some allowances for the little slippages brought on by its popular cast and journalistic rhetoric.