EROS, MAGIC, AND THE MURDER OF PROFESSOR CULIANU

Ted Anton
Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1996
ISBN 0-8101-1396-1



On May 21, 1991, popular University of Chicago Divinity School Professor loan Culianu was murdered execution-style on campus. The crime stunned the school, terrified students, and mystified the FBI. The case remains unsolved. In Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu, Ted Anton pieces together the evidence and shows that the murder is in fact what Culianu's friends suspected all along: the first political assassination of a professor on American soil.

Anton, who has served as an expert on the Culianu case for ABC, PBS, NPR, Radio France International, and Chicago and Romanian television, has been investigating the murder since its occurrence. (His research into the case is being used by the FBI in its continuing investigations.) This book traces Culianu's life from his privileged childhood in Romania, through his days at the University of Bucharest, where he first encountered the methods of Securitate surveillance, to his time at the University of Chicago, where, as a handpicked successor to Mircea Eliade, he was becoming a renowned scholar in his own right. Anton shows how Culianu—an expert on magic and the occult whose predictions were often remarkably accurate — began toying with a new far-right coalition in Romania, taunting them from the presumed safety of his American base with the content and tone of his articles, goading them into believing him dangerous. Besides shedding new light on the murder, this book offers a fascinating introduction to Romanian politics in the aftermath of the 1989 revolution and to the relation of ideas to power in current history, as well as to the exotic and mystical ideas of a brilliant man.

Ted Anton

TED ANTON is an associate professor in non-fiction writing at DePaul University. His Lingua Franca cover story on Culianu's murder was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Reporting in 1993. For his work on this book he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship and a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant. His writing has been recognized for three straight years in Best American Essays. His articles have appeared in The Sciences, Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications; he is the co-editor of The New Science Journalists.



"Fascinating and excellent ... important not just because it illuminates history, but because at the center of the story is loan Culianu, a figure so interest­ing no novelist could invent him. [In this murder] fiction and fact change places in a deadly game of masks and illusions."

 —Andrei Codrescu

 



"Reveals both a fascinating individual's twenty-year-long life-and-death struggle with his conscience, and a violent underground war in Eastern Europe. This is a story not only about the power of freedom of speech and press, but also about the explosive convergence of scholarship and politics, and the very real risks of the unencum­bered life of the mind."

 —Jeffrey Kittay, publisher, Lingua Franca





Professor Ioan Culianu

PROLOGUE

October, 1989. Chicago

Prince's "Dirty Mind" played on the stereo, and the smell of cigarettes and wine hung in the air. The apartment's living room featured dark oak paneling in what was once a luxury building in Chicago's Hyde Park, now given over to gloom and shadow. A large mirror flanked by wooden pillars reflected the partygoers' faces. A few students stood in a small knot around Professor Culianu. He specialized in divination practices. Some of them were trying to get him to tell their futures. He kept shaking his head no. They kept working on him. No no, he said. You won't like it.

Finally he agreed to demonstrate the ancient Islamic art called geomancy. A few students followed him into the bedroom, where they sat on the floor or on a platform bed where people had thrown their coats. Everyone felt a little giddy. Culianu pulled a deck of cards from his European-cut sport jacket and sat cross-legged on the floor. He took off his loafers. At the party he had been so unassum­ing that many of them had not realized he was a professor.

He had found the cards in a back stall in Paris, he said, explaining that normally geomancy was practiced by drawing dots and lines in the sand. Originating in the Middle East, the art had been re­discovered late in the Middle Ages and flourished during the Renaissance in Italy. The cards were four inches high. Stars flickered against a deep blue background on the back. On the front was either a single black dot or two black dots. When the thinking behind geomancy's modernist wisdom—that the cosmos was connected by invisible patterns and human events could be predicted based on simple, repeated mathematical steps—was absorbed by philosophers in Renaissance Florence, it sparked a flowering of magic that paralleled the rise of science.

Culianu was a shy man with a funny accent who was unusually quiet about his life, although he was one of the only teachers who was ready to chat with students about their lives. He had a dimpled smile and dark eyes that seemed to look beyond you when he spoke. He had pale skin and high cheekbones and a gentle, enthusiastic, open manner. In his lectures he digressed too much; other faculty members prepared students better for exams. But to many students Culianu, author of thirteen books and translations in five languages, was the only scholar they knew who studied religion as a real entity, a driving force, in people's lives.

Once he had given a talk to the Divinity School's History of Religions Club. "What is religion?" he had asked. "Why do rational people still buy into it? Why do all religions of humankind, at all times, show striking similarities to each other?" Most modern scholars avoided such sweeping questions, seeking instead the cul­tural differences that influenced specific faiths. Yet he claimed that these broad questions "had practically called the discipline of the history of religions into being." He said the reason for the similarity in many beliefs lay in the "unity of the operations of the human mind." One implication of his theory was that any "change in the system of religion would immediately affect all the other systems that create history." The mind shaped action, and religion pro­grammed the mind.

Flanking him in the apartment bedroom were Greg Spinner, in shoulder-length hair, and Michael Allocca, with his beard and long black curls. They had asked Culianu to teach them a reading course on divination that quarter. To their surprise he had agreed, setting only one condition: he expected them to tell the future in order to finish the course. So they in particular hoped he would say some­thing accurate tonight. It would make the party.

He began with the party host, who was intrigued. He asked her to concentrate on one question that was most on her mind, and to pick out her cards. Slowly he laid out her cards on the floor. He paused, studying them. "You're concerned that someone with some power in your life is going to hurt you," he said. "You don't have to worry about it."

Her heart leaped. She felt she knew exactly which professor he was talking about. Culianu said.

"I need a cigarette," she said.

He read some other people's cards, some impressively, some not. When he uncovered another student's concealed panic over his graduate studies, for instance, no one was surprised. Anyone could have told you that. When the party was in full swing, a new student who had been hanging back asked him to try for her. Again he told her to concentrate on the question that was most on her mind. Spinner and Allocca sat behind him, each watching over a shoulder as he laid out her cards. He studied them. "You're sure you want others to hear this?" he asked. She shrugged and laughed nervously. "I think we should send the others out," he said.

"No, no, my life's an open book," she said.

"All right, close the door." He turned to them: Greg Spinner, Michael Allocca, a few others. "What is said here does not leave this room." They smiled uncertainly. "You're humiliating yourself," he said. "It's really painful, and it's getting worse."

"Whoa."

"You're involved in a love triangle, and it's coloring your life. You've got to get out of it."

Her face went white. She looked around in panic. His accuracy "knocked the wind out of me," she later said. Greg leaned for­ward to check the cards. But loan cut him off before he could say anything.

At the end of the party, Greg spotted Culianu putting on his shoes to leave. "Ioan!" he called. "Come on, how does it work?" "It works because it works."

"That's not what I mean. You read those cards exactly as they were laid out."

"It's mind. It's all in the mind."

Greg Spinner could never accept that answer, though he had often heard it. His teacher always said it with a smile of irony. Once, driving with Culianu, Spinner had stumbled onto the bluntest way to ask his question: "Look, loan, if I shot you in the head, would that be in the mind too?"

He smiled. "Well, yes and no," he said.

They never knew when he was playing and when he was being what he normally was—a serious scholar at one of the world's leading divinity schools. He began his career as a follower of school legend Mircea Eliade, one of the world's premier historians of religions of the twentieth century. Culianu was bidding to become a seminal if controversial thinker in his own right, proposing in his books a paradigm shift in the study of history and ideas. Some, especially in Europe, thought he offered an important new approach. Others, even on the faculty, criticized his methods and advised students not to take his courses. The tension was so obvious that no one commented on it, observed one student. But if you wanted to position yourself well, students learned, you did not work with Culianu.

To a select group of students and scholars, though, Ioan Culianu was what higher education was all about. To understand a field truly, he said, you had to practice it. He was interested in the occult because to him it worked more often than could be explained rationally. He wanted to understand why, but that was only a small part of what he wanted. He wanted to understand the logic systems behind prophecy and religious movements and the reason for their hold on believers and influence over events. He reminded students that science was, in its beginning, considered an occult art. In fact, it was the Renaissance magicians' image of the universe, that events could be manipulated by theorems, that set the stage for Galileo.

"He was on a quest," was how student Karen Anderson put it. "Not an academic quest, but a real quest."

But did he really believe in that stuff? That was their question. Or was it all, really, just a game?