Monday, August 29, 2011

Maurice Olender, The Languages of Paradise

Chapter 1: Archives of Paradise

The science of linguistics which developed in Europe in the nineteenth century was deeply tied to a theological search for humanity's origins in language--first in Biblical Eden (Hebrew), then in Aryan Paradise (Sanskrit). As the old view of the uninterrupted history of humanity from the Garden of Eden became supplanted by comparative philologists' discoveries of an "Indo-European" archive, these texts were woven into a new conception of humanity's common origin which, far from a pure, objective, scientific paradigm, fused language, race, nation, and religion. The concept now arose in nineteenth-century Europe of the "two twins" (13) at the origin of civilization--a dynamic, progressive Aryan (Indo-German, Indo-European) ancestry, contrasted with a stagnant, unchanging Semitic heritage. The age-old controversy between Jews and Christians (in many ways the violence at the heart of European history) now became reflected in the dual heritage of Aryan vs. Semite: one which had to be assimilated and overcome in the service of the other's teleological thrust. Olender summarizes: "Though [the authors of the nineteenth century] cast aside the old theological questions, they remained attached to the notion of a providential history [...] Many scholars found it easy to think of themselves...Semites by spiritual filiation, Aryans by historical vocation" (19-20). The enterprises of science and religion, in the development of European comparative philology, were not as distinct as one may think.

Chapter 2: Divine Vowels
Jewish and Christian controversies began with questions over the integrity of biblical text; Richard Simon (1638-1712) demonstrated that differences in Hebrew punctuation, and therefore in rabbinical interpretation, meant that the scripture was "partly the invention of men" (25); scripture may have been divinely inspired, but was nevertheless the subject of significant interpolation, emendation, and error, and should therefore come under the scope of philological criticism to edit out corruptions and restore the original text (26). The divine meaning remained intact, for exegetes like Simon, whose only use of philology was to edit out "human negligence and historical vicissitude" (28). In other words, philology was an ultimately providential task.

Later authors considered the Bible a literary work. Robert Lowth (1710-1788) sought to discover the secret poetry of the Hebrew Bible; in order to "penetrate the innermost feelings" (30) of the people who composed such a text, Lowth proposed a "philology of the sublime" (31), by which the text would be rescued from rabbinical authority and allowed to flourish with poetic force (in the service of Christianity). J.G. Herder (1744-1803), forerunner of German Romanticism, followed up on Lowth's Christian exaltation of the Hebrew Bible by idealizing the language itself. Like many of the Romantics, Herder was fascinated by the archaic, the primordial, the Ur. According to Herder, Hebrew's original lack of vocalization (vowels) was not an impoverishment but a sign of simplicity and thus of the sublime: "the less grammar a language has, the richer its images" (33). The very qualities of Hebrew as a language made it the "wonderfully poetic tongue of adult children" (36); the simple state of the language reflected the poor, pastoral, primal nature of its people.

Chapter 3: The Cycle of the Chosen Peoples
Herder's poetics was thus transformed into a politics of the Hebrews (37). Language, for Herder, bound together "religion, nationality, culture, society, and politics"; as for Ernest Renan in the nineteenth-century, it was the "primordial instrument of political association" (37). Herder also celebrated the diversity of races and nations, which led him to a sense of cultural relativism and, often, conflict with evangelical Christianity (41). His travel notes betray significant critiques of Christian conquest, conversion, subjugation, and cruelty (42). Hence, there was no reason to consider one nation or people "chosen" (43). However, Herder ascribed to a providential view of history, in which the development of mankind was "God's epic" (43). The fundamental tension in Herder's writings is between "a very secular ambition to write cultural history respecting national and spiritual diversities and a very Lutheran desire to institute a providential anthropology" (44). Herder did not draw hierarchical distinctions between races, but did argue that Nature had provided a separate place for each of them; the African climate contributed to the Negro's sensuality, while the temperate climate of Europe explained its development of reason and humanity (45). At the same time as he propagated the unity of the human race, he regarded certain nations and people (Chinese, Jews) outside of history, changeless, unevolving (46). Herder's belief in a common humanity notwithstanding, his historical vision was "Christian through and through" (47); the history of humankind was concomitant with the development of nature, both of which, as scientific disciplines (philology and comparative anatomy alike) pointed to the people of the Christian West as holding the future of humanity in their hands, relegating all other nations to eternal childhood without history (49-50).

Chapter 4: The Hebrews and the Sublime
The real horsemen of the apocalypse, however, are Ernest Renan (1823-1892) and Max Muller (1823-1900). Renan's interest in Hebrew and Semitic languages, which reinforced his negative reaction to the Catholic Church, prompted him to leave the seminary in 1845; however, he never left the science of the spirit, which was embodied for him in the "secular" discipline of philology. Renan glorified Hebrew, but in the same vein as Herder: "primitive and crude but incapable of evolution" (53). What fascinated Renan was that the Hebrews had almost exclusive possession of monotheism, at the expense of the potential for modern progressive civilization. Renan's theory of language was identical with his theory of religion (55): the Semitic language of monotheism was unalterable, immutable, changeless, while the Aryan language of polytheism, diversity, and geographical diffusion was destined to produce the science of linguistics (and, of course, the historical potential for evolution and progress). The Semitic idioms were "sensuous tongues powerless to conceive the world in its complexity, incapable of articulating in abstract terms concepts born of rational effort" (64), while Aryans had a rich grammar and syntax which foregrounded their contribution to the dynamism of Indo-European civilization. Semitic monotheism was an obstacle to progress; unable to conceive of multiplicity, stripped of even "the faculty of laughter" (67), its narrow bonds had to be overcome by the Aryan outlook (69). In religious terms, this meant that Western Christendom had to deal with an ambivalent heritage, an "enigmatic ancestry: Aryan in its linguistic system and Semitic in its religious faith" (70). By way of a resolution, Renan "aryanized" Christ, rescuing him from the stagnation of Judaism, which found its true continuity not in Christianity but in Islam (70). Christianity moved itself further and further away from its Judaic roots, just as Christ himself moved from the harsh desert of Judea to the "lush green land of Galilee" (71). There is, of course a problem with this formulation: if religion and language are inextricable, how could one be Semitic in religion and Aryan in language? (73). The Christian could thus affirm his dual heritage only by absorbing the intimate enemy of the Semitic Jew (74).
Renan's views on race are more ambiguous. According to Renan, language mediated one's way of being in the world, and even shaped its structures: "mythological, juridical, ethical, political, military, and artistic" (57). Renan believed on the one hand that "race" was not tied to language, and thus had no place in Europe, yet also believed that "superior" humanity was to be identified with Europe, the only place where equality was a civil right (62). Like Herder, Renan assigned different roles to different peoples; some contributed more to the development of civilization than others. He subscribed to a providential order of humanity and a rightful dominance and hierarchy based on the natural characteristics of the races, which determined their role in the theater of history (61-2). Colonization, in this view, was the role of the European, just as tilling was that of the Negro, and material handiwork that of the Chinese. It was at the end of his life, encouraged by the increasing "scientific" discoveries of history, philology, and comparative religion, that Renan was able to say "The inequality of races is a proven fact" (63). And as previously adumbrated, Renan's evolutionist view of history was reflected alike in his consideration of race as well as of religion; as Olender concludes, "The people of an atemporal role, which is to highlight Christianity's temporal progress and evolutionary development" (79).

Chapter 5: The Danger of Ambiguity

[Also worth reading alongside this is Chapter 7, "Philologist out of Season: F. Max Muller and the Classification of Religion," in Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (U of Chicago, 2006), pp. 207-258].
Max Muller drew out even more clearly the relationship between linguistic structure and religious conceptuality. Muller argued that man had been given a primary intuition of the divine at the time of Creation, called "henotheism": the primitive state of religion in which each god invoked shares in all the attributes of the supreme being (87). This intuition was then shaped, by language, into different religions; the simple, transparent nature of the Semitic languages led to an uncomplicated monotheism, while the rich, complex morphology of Aryan words led to a greater creative imagination, polytheism, and mythology. Muller believed that comparative philology was a science alongside the natural sciences, a program "consonant with a theological effort to reveal the divine in all things" (90). In other words, it was the task of comparative philology and mythology to discover the providential order of history in the myths and religions of the world, "among which Christianity of course occupied a unique position" (91). Muller desired to show, and to missionaries in particular, that all religions were based on the same intuition, and strove to make others recognize the legitimacy of different traditions; yet his argument simultaneously affirmed the providential superiority of Christianity as the most true and sacred expression of that intuition (91-2). Thus the "sciences of religion" in the nineteenth-century was still very much "sacred sciences" (92).
Chapters 6-7: Pictet, Grau
As relatively minor contributors to the major theme of the nineteenth-century fusion of linguistic, religious, and racial "science" to write simultaneously a secular-cosmopolitan narrative of cultural and religious pluralism, and a providential narrative of history with European Christianity at its apex, these two authors are being given relatively short shrift. Adolphe Pictet (1799-1875) was a Swiss polymath who fell in love with Indo-European languages and published a three-volume opus in French called Indo-European Origins, or the Primitive Aryas. His method was that of "a linguistic ethnographer in search of words capable of bringing the primitive Aryas back to life" (95). He described their providential role in history in lyrical terms, and proposed the term "linguistic paleontology" as the best method for his project: like bones, words contain the entire history of ideas (96). Inspired by Muller, Pictet attempted to supply proof for a primitive Aryan monotheism; inspired by Pictet, Ferdinand de Saussure, while critiquing the idea that a prehistoric anthropology can rest on a lost language, explained in admiring terms how his putative mentor argued that "a prehistoric political solidarity bound the Indo-European peoples together" (100). For Pictet, as for Renan, civilization had two protagonists: the Hebrews as guardians of pure monotheism, authority, compact nationality; the Aryas as progressive, receptive, diverse--their synthesis, Christianity, "heralds the radiant future of humanity" (102). Importantly, colonialism becomes a method for European Aryas to reintroduce to their Indian subjects their glorious civilizational past, fulfilling God's providential design (103-4).

Rudolh Friedrich Grau (1835-1893) was a German Lutheran minister, theologian, and apologist. His aim was somewhat opposite to that of Renan and Pictet; he sought to "infuse Semitic beliefs into Indo-Germanic cultures" (106). Truth was in fact discovered by the Hebrews, because it is ethical and not intellectual; the Indo-Germans, who created science, arts, and political institutions, had to assimilate this revelation, this element of eternity, in order to provide meaning to their otherwise temporal edifice (109). Semites are like women--no philosophy, only religion, or love of God; the masculine Indo-German masters the arts and sciences, conquers space and time, but submits to the Semitic idea of monotheism (110-1). This marriage results in monotheistic Christianized Indo-Germans, who are "modern culture's sole hope of survival" (113). They must bring about the unity of all people, and ensure that their civilization (Kultur) becomes universal civilization (Weltkultur) (114).

Chapter 8: Semites as Aryans
Ignaz Jehuda Goldziher (1850-1921) was a Hungarian Jewish scholar of Semitic philology, whose major work was done on Islam, but who published Hebrew Myth and Its Historical Dimension under the influence of Muller's comparative mythology. Goldziher argued primarily that myth was not an exclusively Aryan prerogative, but existed in the Semitic world. For mythology, defined as a process by which individuals in a community perceive natural phenomena, was universal. Its development was influenced on the one hand by psychology, the universal laws of the soul independent of people's ethnological or racial characteristics, and by cultural history, whose diversity reflects in the diversity of myth (119-120). The distinctiveness of Hebrew mythology was its transformation into national history, into the ancestral foundation of a theological and political system (122).

Unlike Renan, Goldziher believed in no strict division of roles between Aryans and Semites, and did not accept the former's notion of the "monotheistic instinct" (130). Rather, Goldziher insisted that a) religious phenomena were determined by historical context and in relation to social representation, and b) religious history followed the development of human thought, raising itself toward monotheism (131-2). He explained the latter through the lens of comparative mythology: myth was ultimately dethroned by religion, and that which was not assimilated became the myths and legends shared by all peoples (132). The replacement of mythology by religion, for Goldziher, led to the replacement of religion by "scientific consciousness" (133). He argued that the Jewish tradition, "which began with obsolete fetishistic forms and developed into the purely spiritual and moral idea of God" contained the seeds of a liberal Judaism, which dreamed of "freedom from all religious dogmatism, political totalitarianism, and nationalistic pride, and based its hope for survival on the universal values of science" (133-4).

Through his early work on Hebrew mythology and later concept of religious history, Goldziher was essentially arguing for the unique and important place of the Jew in European culture (134). Sadly, Goldziher was persecuted by the growing anti-Semitism near the end of his life, and was forced to resign from the Academy of Sciences in Budapest. He did not, however, become a Zionist (135).

Conclusion (Chapter 9: Secrets of the Forge)
There were definite links between Christian providential thinking and the religious and secular sciences which developed in the nineteenth-century: theology, religious studies, linguistics. "Modes of inquiry, designations of linguistic facts, classifications of peoples and traditions--all were shaped by the conceptual tools that scholars employed" (141). One of the primary questions which drove these disciplines was the legacy of Biblical monotheism, the gift of the Hebrews, and (European) civilizational perfection, a byproduct of Aryan genius. Language played a significant role in resolving the tension between these heritages, by means of a hierarchical inclusivism. The stories which nineteenth-century Europe told about its past may well have prefigured its violent twentieth-century future.

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