Thirty years ago today—on May 21st, 1991—a bullet fired by an unknown murderer sadly ended the life of 41-year-old Professor Ioan Petru Culianu.
Romanian-born, citizen of the world and of the mundus imaginalis, Ioan Culianu has been a brilliant scholar of religions, gnosticism and Renaissance magic. In a few years of hectic work he established himself as an esteemed author, renowned for the breath and originality of his works, as well as the depth of his thinking. Armed with a mighty erudition and a mercurial intellect, he deftly moved across disciplines, bridging history of religions and ethnography, literary criticism and relativity theory, historiography and cybernetics. His academic career reached its peak at the prestigious Divinity School in Chicago, where he taught from 1986 till his untimely death, in 1991.
Still today, his works remain essential reading for any student of the Sacred and its theological, metaphysical, sociological, and cognitive implications.
One of the recurring themes in Culianu's body of work is the importance of the imaginary dimension and its potential to reconfigure reality. With archeological accuracy, he reconstructed the historical viccisitudes that brought to a mutation of the imaginary in the shift from a magic-based society (like the Renaissance), to a modern society based on a scientific ideology. Liberating magic from the "primitive" interpretations typical of certain anthropological and ethnological traditions, Culianu restored magic to its mainly cognitive dimension: magic is a science of imagination, a technology of the mind to investigate the world and ourselves, a mode of operating to shape reality itself. Here's an often quoted fragment from his book "Eros and Magic in the Renaissance":
Historians have been wrong in concluding that magic disappeared with the advent of 'quantitative science'. The latter has simply substituted itself for a part of magic while extending its dreams and its goals by means of technology. Electricity, rapid transport, radio and television, the airplane, and the computer have merely carried into effect the promises rst formulated by magic, resulting from the supernatural processes of the magician: to produce light, to move instantaneously from one point in space to another, to communicate with faraway regions of space, to y through the air, and to have an infallible memory at one's disposal. Technology, it can be said, is a democratic magic that allows everyone to enjoy the extraordinary capabilities of which the magician used to boast.
As Culianu explains, magic never actually disappeared, it just shapeshifted. And the role of the magus, thanks to his knowledgeable use of the imagination, is to access that "mental space"—a parallel and infinite "elsewhere", whose ontological value is equal to our consensual reality—and bring back what he saw and learnt. The awareness of the laws of interdependence and interference existing among parallel and co-existing worlds allow the magician to reprogram reality, causing change to occur in conformity with will.
Counterpoint to his rigorous scientific activity, it's been his spellbinding and mind-warping narrative production. With trickster wit and serious playfulness, Culianu designed interdimensional labyrinths, making the concepts of ordinary time and space elastic and evanescent, and the boundary separating reality from fiction much less sharp and tidy than what feels reassuring to believe.
Culianu had a lifelong affectionate relationship with Italy, the first country granting him political asylum, in 1972. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his passing, the magazine Antarès honors him with the special issue Ioan Petru Culianu. Argonauta della Quarta Dimensione. Thanks to the dedication of curators Horia Corneliu Cicortaș, Roberta Moretti, and Andrea Scarabelli, with an introduction penned by Professor Grazia Marchianò, this book collects Culianu's unpublished material, essays on his work, testimonials from friends and colleagues, letters and interviews. This publication is a tribute to a sensational scholar, whose spirit and ideas are still alive and vibrant. This is also an invitation to the next generations of explorers of knowledge to continue journeying in the mundus imaginalis, the way Culianu pioneered.
Image courtesy of Bietti Edizioni.