Friday, March 13, 2009

Youth Without Youth by Mircea Eliade

"At a certain age, you can expect anything." This what a doctor tells Dominic Matei, the main character in this novella. A recent film based on this work recently marked the return of Francis Ford Coppola as a director. It would seem an odd choice for the director of "The Godfather" trilogy and "Apocalypse Now," but it represented a challenge - a motion picture depicting thought as much as action.

Mircea Eliade, a scholar of comparative religion, tells the story of Matei, a scholar working with language who has spent most of his life trying to finish one great work on the origin and composition of human language. Yet, he is an old man with little hope of doing so, when he crosses a busy street and is struck by lightning. He survives and almost immediately begins to transform into a young man.

Philip Roth, as noted here before, has made a mini-career chronicling how a human being can feel alien in his own body as the aging process takes its toll. As the narrator of his recent book "Everyman" observes, "Old age isn't a battle. It's a massacre." Yet "Youth Without Youth" gives seemingly the best of both worlds - youthful vitality without youthful ignorance. But something is lost in the process as well - youthful freedom. Matei must change his identity in order to avoid capture by the Nazis. He then embarks on a multi-decade odyssey, carrying him in search of answers to the great questions of his life.

Eliade only vaguely sketches out the outlines of this. Dominic Matei, like many, is haunted by the feeling that the events of his life have occurred for a reason, and that someone is watching over him. Yet, even as a regenerated man, there is the nagging feeling that this watchful presence might not always be benevolent or a disinterested observer. "Why has this happened to me, of all people?" he asked. If there is a test beneath these events, one feels terrified of failure.

He is not alone on his journey. Later in the book, he is accompanied by a figure known only as the double, an alter ego who questions him, challenges him, occasionally directs him. He also encounters a young woman with an experience eerily similar to his - she begins having episodes that hint as a reincarnation several centuries old, in a different language. Of course, Dominic is the only one who "understands" her. The themes here, of literally being "born again," are inescapable.

In the end, Dominic still finds himself alone, his search for knowledge ending in a conclusion that he has "been fated to lose all that I love." This is not all that different from anyone else, as time inevitably robs us of our most cherished possessions, knowledge, and relationships. But Dominic does not have the prison of age to control his ambition, though he knows at any time, he can renounce his second youth.

"What do we do with Time?" he asks, echoing a question found throughout history in all walks of life. In Richard A. Cohen's study of the philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas, "Elevations," Cohen observes:

"Contemporary philosophers invariably take stands - explicitly or implicitly - regarding the structure and significance of time ...Time is as central in contemporary thought as was eternity in ancient and premodern philosophy."

You will notice that as mankind began to forsake the idea of infinite existence and the reality of God, his focus shifted from the eternal to the limits of his lifespan. Not much of a trade. Instead of considering how our lives are spent, we instead are left to cram experience into an uncertain and ever-shrinking vessel - our own lives. What do we have to show for our use of time? What will we do without it?

But consider the original question: What will our lives mean in the course of eternity? "Heaven and earth will pass away, but..."

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