Between Sciences of Origins and Religions of the Future: Questions of Philology

In: Philological Encounters
Maurice Olender École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

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The antique Christian “appropriation” of Hebrew by the Early Church Fathers was succeeded historically by a kind of scholarly appropriation that resulted in the emergence of a “ready-made India” founded on a new discourse about Sanskrit. In a world governed by romanticist visions undergirded with colonial aspirations, in a historical period between a Christianity weakened by Enlightenment philosophers and the advancement of scientistic secularism, certain scholarly fables about a primordial India came to resemble the fables about Hebrew. In this race toward the discovery of human origins, the new “Aryan Bible” required a new language of paradise: Sanskrit. Can one then say that India was appropriated within a scholarly environment that was being pulled between Christianity, secularism and scientism? Since our investigations have allowed us to demonstrate that this hypothesis is plausible, it is necessary to test this hypothesis through the clarification of the historical contexts, intellectual dynamics, and theological and political fields of action in which myth and reason mutually reinforce one another. While underlining the political stakes of the comparative method of anthropology, this article also recalls that not so long ago, knowledge of ancient and modern humanities often bore the mark of racial sciences that influenced all university disciplines from the early 19th century to the late 1940s.

* This essay was first delivered in French as the keynote lecture of the conference on “Semitic Philology within European Intellectual History. Constructions of Race, Religion and Language in Scholarly Practice” on the 19th of June 2013 at Freie Universität Berlin. The conference was organised by Islam Dayeh, Elizabeth Eva Johnston, Ya’ar Hever and Markus Messling. I wish to thank Ya’ar Hever for his translation of this essay.

The bishop of Seville, Isidore, who died in 636, contributed to the development of a mode of the representation of origins that would play a determining technical role in the history of European philology. In his famous Etymologies, conscious of the appeal exerted by the primordial mark of words, Saint Isidore warns his reader: “When you see from whence the name takes its origin, you will understand what its power is.”1

A thousand years later, Jean Bodin, one of the masters of the New History [Nouvelle histoire], took an interest in the fascination exerted on historians by “the origins of peoples.” They are “tormented” by this haunting “question” that takes hold of scholars’ reason, sinking them into “error”—both “early historians” and “more recent writers.”2

On Otherness: Between Attraction and Repulsion

Before examining certain ancient and modern sources that attest to structured bodies of knowledge by way of disparate representations of the indigenous, I will give some consideration to the manifold practices, especially comparative ones, that allow one to elucidate the notion of “Zukunftsphilologie.” Among the possible meanings (“the future” or “the forthcoming” of philology, or rather “a philology to come,” “emerging philology” or even “an anticipatory philology, sounding the alarm”), I choose to focus on a double-sided figure: simultaneously theory and careful practice, critical and self-critical, attentive to the shifts of science, techniques and supports, and attentive to the diverse forms of recomposing the past, a future-oriented philology. Being as much archaeological as it is genealogical, such a “Zukunftsphilologie” would give rise to interdisciplinary perspectives where poetical analyses intersect with political approaches—without forgetting that the poetic has often been able to formulate the political. One last important point: the present importance of the digital universe. Characterized notably by rapid transformation and the lability of media, the uses of digital humanities redesign our practices and our approaches to the archive, to memory and to oblivion—but without safeguarding this revamped knowledge from old biases.3

It is thus due to the initiative of the research programme “Zukunftsphilologie: Revisiting the Canons of Textual Scholarship” that I open the conference on “Semitic Philology.” And it is customary to open a presentation on an “academic” or intellectual subject with acknowledgements.4 These are often received as a purely social game, but they are not in the least “rhetorical.” The choice of an explicit formulation is part of a researcher’s approach that takes the institutional and academic drives as various economic and intellectual infrastructures, which are also simultaneously a system of technical constraints and a vibrant incentive for research.

In a quite different context, the poet Paul Celan stressed the significant intellectual importance of Danken (“to thank”). In his Bremen speech, delivered in January 26, 1958 upon his reception of the prize awarded by this Hanseatic city,5 the poet begins at once with two verbs of action: Denken und Danken—to think and to thank. Two terms that, as he explains, have in German “one and the same origin.”6 In pronouncing these two terms aloud, might Paul Celan, who knew Hebrew, have remembered that when transcribed into Hebrew orthography without vowels, the Yiddish verbs denken7 and danken could form the very same linguistic icon, a consonantal unit: dnkn?

Thus, every research endeavor bears the mark of an intellectual formation. A short word therefore on the process that led me to focus on these particular questions and on the chosen manner of formulating and defining the problems. Being an archaeologist by training, after my studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, I arrived in Paris to study comparative mythology during the seventies of the last century. At the Ecole des hautes études, I participated in the seminars of Marcel Detienne, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and later also those of Nicole Loraux, where I met Froma Zeitlin of Princeton, who was at the Wissenschaftskolleg that year; Renate Schlesier, a professor at the Freie Universität Berlin; and Dominique Bourrel, who was later commuting between Paris, Jerusalem and Berlin. Along with many others, we found each other at the beginning of the 1980s in the company of researchers coming from disparate horizons, conducting inquiries in which the distant, both in time and in space, could elucidate the nearby.

In the same years in which comparativism and interdisciplinarity guided historiographical and anthropological developments, we were mindful of the mirror games between cultures and civilizations, and the challenges of the transmission of knowledge between generations of scholars.8 Within this intellectual environment, Léon Poliakov, a historian of Anti-Semitism, who, going beyond the multiple types of Anti-Judaism, endeavoured to think and compare various forms of social exclusion, organized interdisciplinary comparative meetings at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and in Cerisy-La-Salle. Here I met, most notably, Serge Moscovici, Jacques Le Goff, Arnaldo Momigliano, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and many other friends and colleagues including biologists, geneticists, and statisticians.9 These intellectual activities also gave rise to the periodical Le Genre humain [The Human Race] in 1981.

At the same time, Momigliano published a book calling to mind to what extent the Hellenistic period, the great initiator of European philology, marked a major turning point in the intellectual modes, the ways of seeing others, the manners of conceiving, inventing, and imagining new alterities. In this work of 1975, Alien Wisdom, translated by Pierre Vidal-Naque for his collection, Textes a l’appui, published by the François Maspero publishing house, Momigliano, after noting “that Hellenism still affects our attitude towards ancient civilizations,”10 is astonished by the fact that between the 3rd century bc and the 20th century ad, learned men have not renewed their stock imagery and representations related to India. Momigliano insists on this point:

The average knowledge of an educated modern man about India is not superior to that which is to be found in Greek and Roman writers. Even now there is no obligation in our traditional curriculum to know anything about China, since the Greeks and the Romans knew nothing or almost nothing about it. The eighteenth century performed the greatest rescue operation of forgotten civilizations that humanity had ever witnessed. The Chinese, the Indians and the Celts were the most important beneficiaries. But the consequences were felt only by professors, philosophers, poets and cranks.11

In the same years, 1970-1980, at the margins of the great academic institutions, the intellectual milieu of the Hautes études could be characterized, at least for certain scholars, by a sociability or friendship as loyal as it was rigorous, fearing neither contradictions nor intellectual tensions. Inspired by the new anthropological approaches (notably those of Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss), the analysis of historical representations looked for “sensible” forms of intelligence.12

In the period after the book of Momigliano was published in France by his friend Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean-Pierre Vernant had asked me to review it for the first issue of a forthcoming journal, Le temps de la Réflexion, created at Gallimard in 1980 by the Psychoanalyst J.-B. Pontalis. The ideal of interdisciplinarity, more often proclaimed than practiced, has sometimes mobilized editorial dynamics in interaction with areas of scholarly research. Enumerating the “barbaric wisdoms” as conceived by the Greeks, Momigliano recalled that the Jews could be considered as admirable philosophers in comparison to the sages of India.13

It is worthwhile to re-read these fragments of Greek texts that are well-known to epigraphists and classical philologists. Take, for example, Megasthenes. As the ambassador of Seleucus I in India at the very beginning of the 3rd century bce, he notes in his History of India the affinities between “the Brahmans of India” [Indoîs hupo tôn Brachmanôn] and those that in “Syria are called Ioudaîoi, the Jews.” Megasthenes thus constitutes them as a category of privileged strangers who, despite being “outside of” Greece [exô tes hellados], are nevertheless “philosophers.”14

In a lengthy passage attributed to “a disciple of Aristotle,”15 Clearchus of Soli points out the genealogical affinit