March 21, 2013

Mircea Eliade On The Modern Man's Passion For Historiography

Below is an excerpt from Mircea Eliade's book, "Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities." Harper & Row, Publishers: New York. 1960. Pg. 233-36.
"It is sometimes surprising to see how certain cultural habits, which have grown so familiar to us that we regard them as the natural behaviour of every civilised man, disclose unexpected meanings as soon as they are viewed in the perspective of another culture.We need only instance one of the most specific features of our own civilisation---namely, the modern man's passionate, almost abnormal interest in History. This interest is manifested in two distinct ways, which are however related: first, in what may be called a passion for historiography, the desire for an ever more complete and more exact knowledge of the past of humanity, above all of the past of our Western world; secondly, this interest in history is manifested in contemporary Western philosophy, in the tendency to define man as above all a historical being conditioned, and in the end created, by History. What is called historicism, Historismus, storicismo, as well as Marxism and certain existentialist schools---these are philosophies which, in one sense or another, ascribe fundamental importance to history and to the historic moment. To some of these philosophies we shall have to return when we come to examine the meaning of anxiety in Indian metaphysics. For the moment, we will confine ourselves to the first aspect of this interest in History; that is, the passion of the modern world for historiography.

This is a fairly recent passion; it dates from the second half of the last century. It is true that, from the time of Herodotus, the Greco-Latin world knew and cultivated the writing of history: but this was not history as it has come to be written since the nineteenth century, the aim of which is to know and describe, as accurately as possible, all that has come to pass in the course of time. Herodotus, like Livy, like Orosius and even the historians of the Renaissance, wrote history in order to preserve examples and models and pass them on for our imitation. But for a century past history has been no longer the source of exemplary models; it has become a scientific passion for exhaustive knowledge of all the adventures of mankind, an endeavour to reconstitute the entire past of the species and make us conscious of it. Now, this is an interest we find nowhere else. Practically all the non-European cultures are without historic consciousness, and even if they have a traditional historiography---as in the case of China, or the countries under the Islamic culture---its function is always to provide exemplary models.

Let us now look at this passion for history from a standpoint outside our own cultural perspective. In many religions, and even in the folk-lore of European peoples, we have found a belief that, at the moment of death, man remembers all his past life down to the minutest details, and that he cannot die before having remembered and re-lived the whole of his personal history. Upon the screen of memory, the dying man once more reviews his past. Considered from this point of view, the passion for historiography in modern culture would be a sign portending his imminent death. Our Western civilisation, before it foundered, would be for the last time remembering all its past, from protohistory until the total wars. The historiographical consciousness of Europe---which some have regarded as its highest title to lasting fame---would in fact be the supreme moment which precedes and announces death.

This is no more than a preliminary exercise in our comparative research, and we have chosen it just because it exhibits at once the risks attendant upon such an approach and how profitable it may be. It is, indeed, somewhat significant that judged from a wholly external point of view---that of funerary rituals and folk-lore---this modern passion for historiography reveals to us an archaic symbolism of Death; for, as it has often been said, the anxiety of modern man is obscurely linked to the awareness of his historicity, and this, in its turn, discloses the anxiety of confronting Death and Non-being.

It is true that in us, modern Europeans, the passion for historiography arouses no presentiments of disaster: nevertheless, seen in a religious perspective, it signifies the proximity of Death. And depth-psychology has taught us to ascribe more importance to the active presence of a symbol than to the conscious experience which manipulates and evaluates it. In the present case this is easily understood, for this popularity of historiography is only one, and that the most obvious aspect of the discovery of History. The other, the more profound aspect, is that of the historicity of every human existence and, therefore, directly implies the anguish of facing Death.

It is in trying to estimate this anguish in the face of Death---that is, in trying to place it and evaluate it in a perspective other than our own---that the comparative approach begins to be instructive. Anguish before Nothingness and Death seems to be a specifically modern phenomenon. In all the other, non-European cultures, that is, in the other religions, Death is never felt as an absolute end or as Nothingness: it is regarded rather as a rite of passage to another mode of being; and for that reason always referred to in relation to the symbolisms and rituals of initiation, re-birth or resurrection. This is not to say that the non-European does not know the experience of anguish before Death; the emotion is experienced, of course, but not as something absurd or futile; on the contrary, it is accorded the highest value, as an experience indispensable to the attainment of a new level of being. Death is the Great Initiation. But in the modern world Death is emptied of its religious meaning; that is why it is assimilated to Nothingness; and before Nothingness modern man is paralysed."