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Eros, Magic, and the Death of Professor Culianu
By Ted Anton

Chapter One: Religion as a System

Every once in a while a Chicago spring offers one perfectly mica-bright, warm gift of a day. The air will be cool and fragrant with smells of cottonwood, prairie wind, and whitefish off the inland sea of Lake Michigan. The sun will glint off the lake with a hint of immortality, casting such sharply geometric shadows on the dramatic skyline that the city will look surreally emerald, as if rousing itself again to reclaim the great romance it once offered--of nature's metropolis, gangsters, and new schools of art, literature, and economics.

If there was a place where one might look for that promise to be reclaimed in 1991, it was the campus of the University of Chicago. Founded one hundred years earlier, the school boasted 64 Nobel laureates, 113 American Academy of Arts and Sciences members, alumni who included Philip Glass and Susan Sontag, and teachers like the late Enrico Fermi and Leon Lederman. Isolated on the city's South Side, the campus neighborhood featured the most seminaries per square mile of any spot in the world.

The reason for the clustering of seminaries around campus was the university's Divinity School, home of scholars like Paul Tillich, who popularized a vision of Christian faith in the atomic era; Paul Ricoeur, the French thinker on theological philosophy; and Mircea Eliade, the Romanian "exile from eternity," as he was dubbed by the New York Times. No one thinker had so profoundly studied the lost power of the "sacred" or the deeper level of life in modern times as the author of such widely read books as The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of the Eternal Return.

May 21 at the Divinity School was marked by the excitement of the annual book sale and the anticipation of term's end. Outside the gothic Swift Hall, graduate students chatted in groups or lounged on the stone steps. Leafy oak trees shaded a tour guide who discussed campus safety with a group of high school juniors and their parents.

Inside Room 202 of Swift Hall, Ioan Culianu was finishing up his class Fundamentals of Comparative Religion, in which the day's subject was gnosticism. He discussed the Nag Hammadi texts, rediscovered in the modern era in 1945. "As if in a classic detective story, these scrolls had been hidden for centuries because they offered variations of the Bible, challenging the Christian church's idea of truth," he said. The gnostics saw life as sabotage, rebellion, and escape from the ignorant gods who ruled the world. "The point of gnostic knowledge," he concluded, "was to use it. It was meant to change the world." He read aloud from the prologue of one text: "`These are an offering to an ideal order that completely transcends life as we know it.... Whoever finds the interpretation of these texts will not experience death.'"

After class Culianu and some of his students headed down to the book sale. It was a Hyde Park event, attracting students, staff members, retired professors, scholars, and others who toiled in or lived near the great university's offices and labs. The crowd filed into the Swift Common room, lined with oppressive oak wainscoting, where castoffs like Kenneth Clark's The Nude or Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man lay stacked on tables and chairs, and on the floor. On stereo speakers Ice-T blared, rattling the dust off portraits of past deans.

At the sale graduate student Alexander Arguelles approached Culianu. That afternoon Arguelles was to give his first thesis talk to the faculty, so he sought advice from his closest friend among the professors. "I'm nervous about this," he said.

"It's just a rite of passage." Culianu smiled and patted him on the back. "It's nothing to fear. You'll do fine. See you in a couple hours."

Arguelles watched him walk to the stairs, trying to feel reassured.

Culianu bounded up the main stairwell. For several weeks he had been juggling a dozen different projects. Earlier in the week he had sponsored an international scholarly conference on "after-death journeys," the first religion conference on campus in years. Entitled Other Realms: Death, Ecstasy, and Otherworldly Journeys in Recent Scholarship, it featured speakers from Barnard College, Hebrew University, Princeton, Notre Dame, and other schools. The talks had titles such as "The Ascent of the Visionary" and "Transcendence of Death." His students Greg Spinner and Michael Allocca catered the final dinner. "He demonstrated the worldwide continuities in reports of otherworldly journeys and demanded an explanation," said a reviewer of Culianu's later book on the subject. A university press wanted to publish the conference papers.

He had three books in press at once--the book on otherworldly journeys, another on gnosticism, and a dictionary of religions. He had several more close to contract, including a multivolume encyclopedia of magic for Oxford University Press. He was teaching two courses, Otherworldly Journeys and Out-of-Body Experiences and Fundamentals of Comparative Religions, supervising several doctoral students, and planning his first trip in nineteen years back to his home country of Romania. He was also planning to get married.

His fiancee was Hillary Wiesner, a graduate divinity student at Harvard. Quiet and distant, she had blossomed in their relationship. His coauthor on two of the forthcoming books and numerous pieces of short fiction, she was planning to travel with him to Europe that summer and to meet his family for the first time. "We're going to have such a party!" he would exclaim when he was feeling good about the trip. They would see Transylvania and his hometown of Iasi, where his grandfather and great-grandfather had directed the country's oldest university. Ioan and Hillary had discussed such a trip often since the country's 1989 revolution.

Culianu made long telephone calls to his sister late at night. She pressed him to return. He kept changing his mind. Three days before, he told her he was being threatened by a far rightist group with which a former professor of his was closely associated. She downplayed the danger: people were threatened all the time. So he kept his plane tickets. But he was more worried than he let on.

"We cannot say where these after-death journeys take place," he had said in his concluding remarks at the conference. "Although we still mistake the space of the mind in these tales for the space outside, we are learning the former is no less powerful than the latter. Identity, power, and historical truth have their roots in these imaginative realms. Every individual thinks part of a tradition and therefore is thought by it, allowing us to perceive the obscure roots of history which go back to the dawn of Homo sapiens. And yet, the exploration of our mind space is only at the beginning."

Culianu was also having some fun. Earlier in the month he had been the featured scholar at a national science fiction conference at the Hilton in Schaumburg, Illinois. He lectured on the Renaissance and participated in a panel exploring questions such as "Is all magic bad magic?" He defended magical practice: "Magic is not about disorder," he said. "On the contrary, it reestablishes a peaceful coexistence between the conscious and unconscious when this coexistence is under attack."

The conference's featured author, science fiction writer John Crowley, had asked Culianu to be the Special Scholar Guest. Crowley had read Culianu's Eros and Magic in the Renaissance and had been eager to meet its author. The book was dense and difficult, but it captured Crowley's imagination. "He suggested a kind of mass hypnosis was possible, by means the Renaissance called magical but we call psychological, through the use of erotically charged images," Crowley said. The two had met a year earlier, becoming close friends. "I never had such an intense, sudden friendship in my life," Crowley said. For Culianu, who secretly wanted most of all to be a fantasy writer, the conference was a great inspiration. Participants in his conference sessions felt the same way about him. Conference organizer Jennifer Stevenson said chat Culianu "hit you with such an impact, he made the world seem somehow much richer and more mysterious than you ever imagined."

On the last night of the conference, Culianu read his fiction for the first time in America to a packed audience in a suite nicknamed the Dharma Buns Cafe. Cowritten with Hillary, the story was called "The Language of Creation" and was to be published in National Public Radio columnist Andrei Codrescu's magazine, Exquisite Corpse. It describes a scholar very much like Culianu, "forty years old, living in a high-rise security building on a Lake," teaching at a "grey and renowned Midwestern University," to whom many strange coincidences occur, almost all of which were based on his real life. The story's main character comes to possess an ancient music box, which he believes contains a key to the language spoken by God: the Language of Creation. Yet the three former owners of the box each met with murder.

Although the narrator tries to break the code, he cannot. Gradually, however, he begins to feel threatened by the strange occurrences or "charismata" he associates with the box, wondering whether they signal some greater meaning than he realizes. The "charisms" included the ability to divine events, but only petty ones like whether his doorman will shave his mustache, and a "misplaced love charism," which caused certain female students to develop unwanted crushes on him. Culianu read: "After a certain moment my conviction of an occult connection between the charismata and the box had become so solid that I was tempted to make a test of its powers against a distasteful political regime.... The hypothesis that I might imminently resume the fate of [the former owners] came to haunt me." After much indecision, the narrator leaves the music box at a yard sale and escapes to freedom from what had become an intellectual prison posed by its secret.

At the end of the conference, Hillary Wiesner noticed that her fiance seemed terribly distracted. He locked the keys in their rented red Toyota while it was still running. He could not remember when they were to see each other next. He kept pressing her to stay, not to return to Cambridge. When he saw her off at O'Hare airport, he looked sadder than she had ever seen him, as though he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. What he desperately needed, she thought, was a good vacation.

* * *

At about quarter to one on May 21, Culianu was in the Swift Hall canteen--a small, crowded, stuffy basement coffee shop with plastic-sealed Danish but good Kona coffee, falafel, and a buzz of heated conversation. There he chatted with students, then took the main stairwell up two steps at a time back to the third floor.

He stopped in his secretary's office at the end of the hall. It was quieter up here. Classes were in session, and seminar room doors were closed. He asked if he had any messages, picked up his mail, and walked to his office a few yards away.

Sitting at her desk, secretary Gwen Barnes listened to the droning voice of another faculty member dictating his book chapter on her headphones. She often worked through lunch because it was the only way to stay ahead of her assignments. Of the three faculty members she served, Ioan Culianu was by far her favorite. Raised in black South Side Chicago, she had felt an instinctive empathy with him when they first met. He greeted her in the morning with a bright "Good morning, Gwendolyn!" and treated her as a colleague. He had made her an editorial associate on his scholarly quarterly, Incognita: International Journal for Cognitive Studies in the Humanities. He took her to lunch and remembered her birthday. He encouraged her to earn her masters' degree. A university secretary for twelve years, she knew the academic world well enough to recognize that his attitude toward his secretary was not typical.

Across from her another secretary was mouthing something at her. Gwen Barnes looked up and pulled off the headphones.

"What?"

"Did you hear that?"

"Car backfiring," said the third secretary in the room.

"It sounded like a firecracker. Only more high-pitched."

* * *

Professor Jerry Brauer sat in his corner office, wearing his trademark bow tie as he prepared for his seminar. He had opened his tall, lead glass windows to look out over the sunny quad. A former dean and a specialist in Puritanism, he had his yellowed lecture outline out and was reviewing it, concentrating. He gradually became aware that he was going to have to go to the men's room. He decided to finish what he was working on.

It was a little after one o'clock when he heard the loud pop. He kept working, but a part of his mind went off on its own. He tried to decide what could cause such a sound: Car backfire? No. Can't be, road's too far away. Gunshot? No. Can't be. Swift Hall, one o'clock.

It was not more than five minutes later when he decided he couldn't wait. He had to use the men's room. He headed up through the swinging doors, taking the steep service stairs. The steps echoed. Downstairs an overflowing dumpster stood beside a door that opened into the lobby; up above was another set of swinging doors. The stairs were deserted. He came out on the third floor, directly opposite the men's room. A tall, lanky young man whom Brauer did not recognize stood out in front. Brauer pushed the bathroom door. The student grabbed his arm. "Don't go in, Professor Brauer."

Brauer had already pushed in far enough to see the familiar lavatory with its blue stalls, yellow tile, fluorescent lights. A student peered at the second stall from the window. It was deathly quiet. A hand dangled beneath the stall door, with curled white fingers poking out from a turquoise shirt cuff. Blood made a small pool on the floor.

"Something terrible's happened," said the student.

"I can see that! We gotta help!" Brauer said.

"We already called for help."

The student turned toward Brauer. He was short, blond, and very scared. It was Jim Egge. He looked white as a sheet. "Dr. Brauer!" he said. "He's dead."

"Who? Who's dead?

"I'm not sure."

Suddenly a congregation of firemen, campus security officers, and paramedics came running down the hall. At first there were perhaps five people, followed quickly by another group that included a Chicago police sergeant and two beat cops. Everything happened quickly. Within minutes a paramedic wheeled in a stretcher. After a moment two Chicago detectives stepped in. By then there was a melee in the hall. Clark Gilpin, the current dean, had arrived. "Jerry!" he said. "What is it?"

Brauer pushed him toward the detective. "This is our dean," he said. "What's going on? We have to know who it is."

"Sure, but not right now. We're too busy."

Following them out came the paramedics with the stretcher. An oxygen mask covered the victim's face. Clark Gilpin asked to look at the face. The paramedic removed the mask. Gilpin peered down. The victim's face had swollen gray and expressionless. He looked like a fifty- or sixty-year-old man. No blood-soaked cavity or glaring wound revealed the violence of the death. Gilpin turned to Brauer. "I don't know him," he said.

"Well then, who does?" Brauer asked.

Jerry Brauer returned to the seminar room where his students waited, but no one wanted to discuss American revivalism. They kept hearing footsteps moving outside and a low hubbub. The book sale continued. Afterward Brauer would think: Why had no one come running when the shot was fired? Why did it take the police so long to cordon off the building's exits? If only he had not waited to complete his review of his notes, he might have seen the killer. He could not stop thinking about it.

* * *

Gwen Barnes never heard the shot. She first learned of it from another secretary. Only two yards from the bathroom, they never thought of it as a gunshot. A young man came running in, telling her to call the university police. It seemed to her that the security officers took forever to come. She called again. After hanging up she hesitated, then went to look. In the men's room sunlight streamed from the courtyard window, bathing the 1950s floor tile. Blood was spreading from the fourth stall, shining in the fluorescent light. For a long moment the scene held her--the yellow and black specked tile, the hand, and an unusual opal watch that looked somehow familiar. Just then a loud rushing sound made her jump out of her skin--the urinals' automatic flush. She left.

Later she too saw the body on the stretcher. Despite the khaki trousers, turquoise striped shirt, yellow tie, maroon-bordered socks, and watch, she did not know who it was. It was almost 2:00 P.M. when a Chicago patrolman asked to use her phone. As she talked with another secretary, she overheard him spelling a name.

"C-u-l-i-a, n-o, a, n-u-u, no, U!"

A wave swept her up and carried her forward. She ran down the main steps, tears streaming down her face, not hearing herself screaming: "Oh God, oh God. It's Mr. Culianu! No, no, not Mr. Culianu! Not Mr. Culianu!" In the hall conversations stopped. Gwen rushed into Dean Gilpin's office, her cries rising in a loud wail. "It's Mr. Culianu!" she said.

"No, no, it's not."

"Yes it is! Yes it is!"

* * *

At 3:30 when his seminar had a break, Jerry Brauer strode down to the dean's office. By then the rumor was spreading around the building that someone, maybe Ioan Culianu, had committed suicide. Most students could not believe it. Culianu? One of the happiest professors there? Small groups milled in the lobby and on the front steps. The book sale crowd still moved freely in and out; the stereo belted out concert announcements for the month. A few policemen patrolled the building while detectives Ellen Weiss and Al McGuire questioned a student who had made the error of telephoning, hyperventilating in his fear, to find out if the rumor was true.

In his somber office Gilpin sat quietly in a swivel chair. Ashen, he took a minute between telephone calls. He stared at Brauer. "It was Ioan Culianu, Jerry," he said. "And I didn't even recognize him ..."

"What happened?"

"Well, the police think it might be suicide."

"Did they find the gun?"

"No, no, there's no gun."

"Where do they think the gun is?"

"They say maybe he had a friend ... who took it away."

"And implicate oneself in something like this? Suicide? He's just got his green card, he's going back to see his family, he's getting married ... Wasn't he sitting on the toilet?"

"Yeah."

"Come on, what human being would go in, pull his pants down, take a gun, and stick it in the back of his head? Where are these guys coming from?"

"Well, it might be murder."

"Might be?"

The initial suicide report was in the newspapers, and it was on television. After twenty-four hours, though, when the medical examiner's report came in, there was no question. It was murder.

* * *

Greg Spinner and Michael Allocca noticed an ambulance outside Swift Hall when they unpacked groceries for the weekly Wednesday lunch for divinity students and faculty. That week's lunch talk was to cover the theology of the ABC television series Twin Peaks. After they finished, Patty Mitchell approached Greg out in front of building.

"Greg? Did you hear?"

"Hear what?"

"Ioan committed suicide."

"Ioan? Don't be ridiculous. I just saw him this morning. He's the last person in the world who would commit suicide."

Mitchell gave him a funny look.

Greg walked across the leafy quad to the Regenstein Library, hardly giving a thought to Patty's rumor. He remembered to note in his calendar a reminder to call Ioan; they had a longstanding date to get together as soon as his teacher's hectic life calmed down. After settling into his study carrel, Greg saw another Divinity School friend, Jason Gerber, approaching him. Jason's eyes were red. "Greg," he burst out. "Ioan's committed suicide!"

"Who's spreading this rumor? I just heard it from Patty Mitchell. It's ridiculous. Ioan did not, would not, could not, ever commit suicide." But slowly Greg rose and headed back to find out exactly what was going on.

Out on the quad the spring air carried something soft, like the breath of memory. His mind started to race. Without knowing it he ran a series of deductions, just as Ioan claimed the history of an idea or religion would follow. Number one: Ioan would not commit suicide. Number two: here were ambulance and, now, squad cars. Number three: two people had repeated a rumor Ioan was dead. If it was true, if Ioan was dead, then it had to be murder. If it was murder ... Who would murder Ioan? A year earlier he had told Greg he was getting into "dangerous territory" in some writing ... But what writing? Greg was running over now. One look at Gwen Barnes's stricken face and his neat train of thought abruptly ended.

* * *

Later that day Culianu's students gathered on the steps of Swift Hall, crying, trying to console each other. "We just sat there, hugging each other. We couldn't speak," said Greg. Other students came up, each pressing the other for news. There was little. No gun, no money stolen, no sign of struggle.

In the evening the group headed over to Jimmy's, a favorite student bar where Ioan had often gone with them after class. Sitting apart from them in the dark, seedy front room, amid the scattered tables and some broken chairs, was Nathaniel Deutsch, assistant editor of Incognita. He did not join in their reminiscing and questioning. Nathaniel's mother was East European, and partly for that reason Ioan Culianu had shared a special relationship with him. In the darkness Nathaniel listened to the others and stared blankly at the dusty editions of baseball encyclopedias and almanacs kept on the shelf to settle bar arguments. He rested his head on his arms and began crying for relatives lost in the Holocaust. He did not, exactly, know why.

* * *

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Culianu's twenty-seven-year-old fiancee, Hillary Wiesner, was in a deep afternoon sleep. Often Ioan would telephone her after he woke from a nap, describing a dream that would be exactly what she was doing, or explaining something significant about his next publishing move or some obscure cosmology. It was part of the fabric of life with him. Before Ioan, Hillary had hardly held hands with a man. Her friends described her as intense, otherworldly, and one of the smartest women at Radcliffe College. Incredibly funny. But men? No, none, not before Ioan.

The phone rang, and she jumped. Her sleep had been dreamless. She sat bolt upright, frozen. It was Wendy Doniger, Ioan's colleague, holder of the Mircea Eliade chair in the faculty of the Divinity School, a powerful department member. "Hillary? Hillary, you better sit down. Are you sitting down?"

"What?"

There was a silence. "I'm afraid I have to tell you ... Ioan has been killed."

"What?"

"I ... I ... Hillary, the police are asking if you know of anyone who would do such a thing. I'm so terribly sorry ..."

For about one minute she couldn't breathe. Maybe it was ten minutes. Oh, she finally thought. Tears couldn't come. She looked at her wall, covered with pictures of him--from Milan, Madrid, Cairo, from the Metra train in Chicago, from Rome and Courmayeur and Paris. He was grinning in front of the big American flag she had bought him, "flown over the Capitol!" he liked to tell visitors. He was giving her the V for Victory sign he liked to make. He was probably America's biggest patriot ... Slowly, methodically, she began taking the pictures down.

She hung up and telephoned her mother at work in the Board of Trustees office at Amherst College. By the time she had hung up again, her mother saying she was on her way, Hillary was already thinking about packing her bags. She pulled out her suitcase, still with the O'Hare destination tag from her last visit. It dawned on her very easily, very clearly, as one might figure out a difficult mathematics problem and know instantly that the solution was right and true and something more, fated. She had thought about it before, tried to prepare herself, even discussed it with her friends. You had to have a myth for your life, he once told her, some story you discover to live by and turn to at your darkest moments. Now, after all this time, just when everything seemed to have become so wonderful for them, she remembered. She had never taken the time to find one.

© 1996 Ted Anton

Northwestern University Press

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