“The Comeback” and “The Myth of the Eternal Return”, or, “I’m Rambling Again!”

As I was reading John Ralston Saul’s brief but very important book The Comeback I felt more and more that something seemed familiar, particularly in the final section in which Saul reprints the words of a number of Indigenous thinkers.  As I finished up, I realized that I was recognizing a strong parallel to historian of religion Mircea Eliade’s uncomfortably dated but still important The Myth of the Eternal Return, also known as Cosmos and History.  To me, that strong parallel could point out a key patch of common ground shared by the settler population and the original peoples of what we call Canada.

The Comeback is principally a recap of the constitutional facts of Canada along with repeated reminders that the indigenous people of what is now Canada have been consistent for centuries in their desires and constitutional  and treaty claims.  Saul is careful to discuss the  symbolic truth of the Authority and of the Honour of the Crown as seen by the indigenous treaty negotiators and, increasingly, by the Canadian courts.  As well, Saul reiterates the major point of Voltaire’s Bastards, that the Western, linear, specialist ridden  world-view, as materially productive as it has been, is not the only functional world view and has, perhaps outlived its usefulness and become a danger.  In Chapter 4, of The Comeback Saul describes how our society has come to be dominated by amoral managers who view an election as “an all-purpose referendum or plebiscite.  In Voltaire’s Bastards Saul emphasises that for the managerial mind, there is no method imaginable other than the managerial method.

Compare Eliade:

With us, it is an old conviction that Western philosophy is dangerously close to “provincializing” itself (if the expression be permitted): first by jealously isolating itself in its own tradition and ignoring, for example, the problems and solutions of Oriental thought; second by its obstinate refusal to recognize any “situations” except those of the man of the historical civilizations, in defiance of the experience of “primitive” man, of man as a member of the traditional societies. p. x

As blinkered as Eliade can be by his own European culture and training, he is reaching for something other, a different way of seeing.  Eliade is observing in Western philosophy the same sort of narrow technocracy that Saul sees in Western society in general.

A few pages later, using some unfortunate antiquated terminology, Eliade writes of “the archaic ideology of ritual repetition” as the central subject of his study (p. xiii). When Eliade writes “archaic” he is not meaning to denigrate the ideology: he is using it in a technical sense to place it as something apart from the “Modern”.  And then Eliade continues:

The chief difference between the man of the archaic and traditional societies and the man of the modern societies with their strong imprint of Judaeo-Christianity lies in the fact that the former feels himself indissolubly connected with the Cosmos and the cosmic rhythms, whereas the latter insists that he is connected only with History.” Of course, for the man of the archaic societies, the Cosmos too has a “history,” if only because it is the creation of the gods and is held to have been organized by supernatural beings or mythical heroes. But this “history” of the Cosmos and of human society is a ” sacred history,” preserved and transmitted through myths. More than that, it is a “history” than can be repeated indefinitely, in the sense that the myths serve as models for ceremonies that periodically reactualize the tremendous events that occurred at the beginning of time. The myths preserve and transmit the paradigms,  the exemplary models, for all the responsible activities in which men engage. By virtue of these paradigmatic models revealed to men in mythical times, the Cosmos and society are periodically regenerated. pp. xiii-xiv

Compare this to the words of Jim Dumont quoted by Saul:

The Creator drew a circle on the darkness, and that was the first work of art.  He thereby created the way by which all creative activity would unfold, in a circular manner.  And so everything is circular in our worldview.  It is understandable within the circle.  When life moves out equally in the four directions, if forms a perfect circle.  Each of those energies that cause the circle to move equally in each direction is a different energy.  So, the energies of the four directions is what holds all of life together in the great circle of life’s unfolding  Thus it was established for all time that the circle would be the way in which all life unfolds as it moves forever towards the creation and recreation of life.

The view that life is circular, after all, is far more intelligent than saying: “Everything happens in a linear sequence; that there is a beginning and there is an end.  You are born here and you are dead there and that there are these steps that you take in between.” In my estimation, that is almost an infantile view of reality; and yet, that is supposed to be the most intelligent view.  It is puzzling how we have been talked into getting rid of our own circular view to be replaced by something that is far inferior to our original way of thinking.(p. 237-8)

What I find particularly relevant about Eliade’s argument is that he bases it largely on European society:

We must add that this traditional conception of a defense against history, this way of tolerating historical events, continued to prevail in the world down to a time very close to our own; and that it still continues to console the agricultural (=traditional) societies of Europe, which obstinately adhere to an anhistorical position. p. 142

And, interestingly, Eliade suggests that two forces have torn traditional European societies out of the cyclical, regenerating world view, two forces which had such horrific effects on Indigenous Peoples in North America:

If we turn to the other traditional conception — that of cyclical time and the periodic regeneration of history, whether or not it involves the myth of eternal repetition — we find that, although the earliest Christian writers began by violently opposing it, it nevertheless in the end made its way into Christian philosophy. We must remind our- selves that, for Christianity, time is real because it has a meaning — the Redemption. “A straight line traces the course of humanity from initial Fall to final Redemption. And the meaning of this history is unique, because the Incarnation is a unique fact. Indeed, as Chapter 9 of the Epistle to the Hebrews and I Peter 3:18 emphasize, Christ died for our sins once only, once for all (hapax, ephapax, semel); it is not an event subject to repetition, which can be reproduced several times (pollakis). The development of history is thus governed and oriented by a unique fact, a fact that stands entirely alone. Consequently the destiny of all mankind, together with the individual destiny of each one of us, are both likewise played out once, once for all, in a concrete and irreplaceable time which is that of history and life.” 1 It is this linear conception of time and history, which, already outlined in the second century by St. Irenaeus of Lyon, will be taken up again by St. Basil and St. Gregory and be finally elaborated by St. Augustine. p. 143

and

From the seventeenth century on, linearism and the progressivistic conception of history assert themselves more and more, inaugurating faith in an infinite progress, a faith already proclaimed by Leibniz, predominant in the century of “enlightenment,”and popularized in the nineteenth century by the triumph of the ideas of the evolutionists. p. 145-6

The Church and the Enlightenment unwittingly conspired to tear Western society out of the holistic, cyclical, regenerating world view which had sustained it for thousands of years, and continued to sustain the common people until very nearly the present day:

The peasant masses, in antiquity as in modern times, took less interest in cyclical and astral formulas; indeed, they found their consolation and support in the concept of archetypes and repetition, a concept that they “lived” less on the plane of the cosmos and the stars than on the mythico-historical level (transforming, for example, historical personages into exemplary heroes, historical events into mythical categories, and so on . . . ) p. 147

Eliade imagines a future very different from the world view we have inherited from the Church and the Enlightenment:

There is also reason to foresee that, as the terror of history grows worse, as existence becomes more and more precarious because of history, the positions of historicism will increasingly lose in prestige. And, at a moment when history could do what neither the cosmos, nor man, nor chance have yet succeeded in doing — that is, wipe out the human race in its entirety — it may be that we are witnessing a desperate attempt to prohibit the “events of history” through a reintegration of human societies within the horizon (artificial, because decreed) of archetypes and their repetition. In other words, it is not inadmissible to think of an epoch, and an epoch not too far distant, when humanity, to ensure its survival, will find itself reduced to desisting from any further “making” of history in the sense in which it began to make it from the creation of the first empires, will confine itself to repeating prescribed archetypal gestures, and will strive to forget, as meaningless and dangerous, any spontaneous gesture which might entail ‘historical’ consequences. p 153-4

After a fairly long imagined dialogue between “Archaic Man” and “Modern Man” (which I reproduce below, because it’s well worth reading in its entirety) , Eliade concludes that

Christianity incontestibly proves to be the religion of “fallen man”: and this to the extent to which modern man is irremediably identified with history and progress, and to which history and progress are a fall, both implying the final abandonment of the paradise of archetypes and repetition.  p. 162

In The Comeback, Saul eloquently reminds us of the importance of symbol and ceremony *until very recently* in the workings of our Parliament.  And he points out the ceremony and symbolism at the very heart of the treaty making process, ceremony and symbolism that had huge importance for all parties to the treaties at the beginning.  But the Government, and we, the settler people of Canada fell away from any sense of that importance.  We have become caught up more and more in the simple, linear, quotidien and largely meaningless and ultimately solitary life we live in a “Modern” society.  Place has become nothing more than the location of resources.

And so we scramble for meaning, with our Indian yoga mats and our Tibetan meditation and to often in our appropriated Anishinaabe sweatlodges.  What Eliade points out is that we have turned away from and abandoned our own ceremonies, our own rituals, our own Eternal Return to the source of regeneration in exchange for a lonely place in linear history: “You are born here and you are dead there” as Jim Dumont writes, quoted in The Comeback.  Eliade calls this “The Terror of History”.

The common ground shared by settlers and First Peoples which I mentioned at the beginning is this lost, in the case of settlers, and battered, in the case of First Peoples, supportive world view rooted in shared ceremony and symbol.  We all need to regain our respect for the ceremonial order we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Non-aboriginal Canadians need to learn and honour the Treaties. As Saul mentions, we need demand that our elected leaders to the same.  We need to return to a place of regeneration, to repair the damage done, and fulfil the promises unfulfilled. We need to regain a vision of “the paradise of archetypes and repetition.”

Eliade’s exchange between Archaic Man and Modern Man

In this total adherence, on the part of archaic man, to archetypes and repetition, modern man would be justified in seeing not only the primitives’ amazement at their own first spontaneous and creative free gestures and their veneration, repeated ad infinitum, but also a feeling of guilt on the part of man hardly emerged from the paradise of animality (i.e., from nature), a feeling that urges him to reidentify with nature’s eternal repetition the few primordial, creative, and spontaneous gestures that had signalized the appearance of freedom. Continuing his critique, modern man could even read in this fear, this hesitation or fatigue in the presence of any gesture without an archetype, nature’s tendency toward equilibrium and rest; and he would read this tendency in the anticlimax that fatally fol- lows upon any exuberant gesture of life and that some have gone so far as to recognize in the need felt by human reason to unify the real through knowledge. In the last analysis, modern man, who accepts history or claims to accept it, can reproach archaic man, imprisoned within the mythical horizon of archetypes and repetition, with his creative impotence, or, what amounts to the same thing, his inability to accept the risks entailed by every creative act. For the modern man can be creative only insofar as he is historical; in other words, all creation is forbidden him except that which has its source in his own freedom; and, consequently, everything is denied him except the freedom to make history by making himself.

To these criticisms raised by modern man, the man of the traditional civilizations could reply by a countercriticism that would at the same time be a defense of the type of archaic existence. It is becoming more and more doubtful, he might say, if modern man can make history. On the contrary, the more modern n he becomes — that is, without defenses against the terror of history — the less chance he has of himself making history. For history either makes itself ( as the result of the seed sown by acts that occurred in the past, several centuries or even several millennia ago; we will cite the consequences of the discovery of agriculture or metallurgy, of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, and so on) or it tends to be made by an increasingly smaller number of men who not only prohibit the mass of their contemporaries from directly or indirectly intervening in the history they are making (or which the small group is making) , but in addition have at their disposal means sufficient to force each individual to endure, for his own part, the consequences of this history, that is, to live immediately and continuously in dread of history. Modern man’s boasted freedom to make history is illusory for nearly the whole of the human race. At most, man is left free to choose between two positions: (l) to oppose the history that is being made by the very small minority (and, in this case, he is free to choose between suicide and deportation) ; ( 2) to take refuge in a subhuman existence or in flight. The “freedom” that historical existence implies was possible — and even then within certain limits — at the beginning of the modern period, but it tends to become inaccessible as the period becomes more historical, by which we mean more alien from any transhistorical model. It is perfectly natural, for example, that Marxism and Fascism must lead to the establishment of two types of historical existence: that of the leader ( the only really “free” man) and that of the followers, who find, in the historical existence of the leader, not an archetype of their own existence but the lawgiver of the gestures that are provisionally permitted them.

Thus, for traditional man, modern man affords the type neither of a free being nor of a creator of history. On the contrary, the man of the archaic civilizations can be proud of his mode of existence, which allows him to be free and to create. He is free to be no longer what he was, free to annul his own history through periodic abolition of time and collective regeneration. This freedom in respect to his own history — which, for the modern, is not only ir- reversible but constitutes human existence — cannot be claimed by the man who wills to be historical. We know that the archaic and traditional societies granted freedom each year to begin a new, a “pure” existence, with virgin possibilities. And there is no question of seeing in this an imitation of nature, which also undergoes periodic regeneration, “beginning anew” each spring, with each spring recovering all its powers intact. Indeed, whereas nature repeats itself, each new spring being the same eternal spring (that is, the repetition of the Creation), archaic man’s “purity” after the periodic abolition of time and the recovery of his virtualities intact allows him, on the thresh- old of each “new life,” a continued existence in eternity and hence the definitive abolition, hie et nunc, of profane time. The intact “possibilities” of nature each spring and archaic man’s possibilities on the threshold of each year are, then, not homologous. Nature recovers only itself, whereas archaic man recovers the possibility of definitively transcending time and living in eternity. Insofar as he fails to do so, insofar as he “sins,” that is, falls into historical existence, into time, he each year thwarts the possibility. At least he retains the freedom to annul his faults, to wipe out the memory of his “fall into history,” and to make another attempt to escape definitively from time.

Furthermore, archaic man certainly has the right to consider himself more creative than modern man, who sees himself as creative only in respect to history. Every year, that is, archaic man takes part in the repetition of the cosmogony, the creative act par excellence. We may even add that, for a certain time, man was creative on the cosmic plane, imitating this periodic cosmogony (which he also repeated on all the other planes of life, cf. pp. 80 ff.) and participating in it. We should also bear in mind the”creationistic” implications of the Oriental philosophies and techniques (especially the Indian), which thus find a place in the same traditional horizon. The East unanimously rejects the idea of the ontological irreducibility of the existent, even though it too sets out from a sort of “existentialism” (i.e., from acknowledging suffering as the situation of any possible cosmic condition). Only, the East does not accept the destiny of the human being as final and irreducible. Oriental techniques attempt above all to annul or transcend the human condition. In this respect, it is justifiable to speak not only of freedom (in the positive sense) or deliverance (in the negative sense) but actually of creation; for what is involved is creating a new man and creating him on a suprahuman plane, a man-god, such as the imagination of historical man has never dreamed it possible to create. pp. 155-9

All quotes from Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History are from my old Bollingen paperback edition, Princeton University Press, 1974.

John Ralston Saul’s The Comeback is available from Viking.

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One comment on ““The Comeback” and “The Myth of the Eternal Return”, or, “I’m Rambling Again!”

  1. […] The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade, translated by Willard R. […]

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