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We must never expect from Eliade a minute treatment of sources or a detailed presentation of ideas. For him, vague, superficial resemblances are enough, suggested here and there by his summary interpretations. He is ever repeating himself, content with illustrating his intuitions by a few evocative images from his exotic albums, but he never analyses. His work, prolific as it was, produced no new concept and elucidated nothing. If the thought of Lévi-Strauss is difficult, austere, laboured, and a magnificent challenge to the wisdom of the reader, the crude convictions of Eliade seem to expect the reader to be naive, capable of being amazed by lyrical incantations and facile prodigies of erudition. Although they demonstrate vast reading, Eliade's works are nonetheless irritating. Metaphysical thesis always precedes demonstration, which is reduced to its most expeditious, that is, the accumulation of partial witnesses and arbitrary comparisons. He gives the constant impression of having read too quickly, impatient to add a new field to his antique territory. His reflection seems to proceed from a brisk sweepinga-way of data, from which he retains merely the odd superficial detail.
The interest presented by Eliade's thought, then, does not arise from his theoretical daring, from the originality of his method, or indeed from his conceptual profundity. It comes, rather, from its exemplary character, for we find in it a condensation of all the faults and abuses belonging to those mystical processes that claim scientific value.
As a discipline the history of religions will never look exactly like the other social sciences. The complexity and even at times the strangeness of the facts under study, the imperfect and no doubt impossible laicization of all of the problems posed, the deep “metaphysical” resonances of some of its interrogations, and the crucial interpretations that arise from these – all inevitably favour the composition of ambiguous work that, under its name and its scientific authority, delivers unreserved apologias of bizarre and partisan theses. Thus I was able to point out, in Chapter 2, that next to its paganbased ontology, its archaizing nostalgia for agrarian society, and its pungent traces of anti-Semitism, this work manifested a disturbing sympathy for occult movements, mysteries, gnoses, and initiation-based societies, as well as for individuals such as René Guénon, who, when not openly advocating ideals of a fascist or National Socialist nature (in the manner of Julius Evola), referred to secret traditions invariably reserved for a small elect.
My point here will be limited to completing and developing these latter indications by analysing the Eliadean conception of religion in the light of all that these notions – often obscure and poorly known – presuppose, and that historians generally leave to the margins. But is it not in this metaphysico-political hodge-podge, found at the crossroads of esotericism and fascism, that Eliade definitively situated the very essence of religious facts and authentic religious life?
With the theoretical and critical study I have devoted to many undoubtedly essential aspects of Georges Dumézil's comparative work and method, beginning in 1985 with an article entitled “Matériaux pour une typologie des structures trifonctionnelles,” which was followed by five other essays (“Contribution à une épistémologie dumézilienne: l'idéologie”; “L'Inde dans l'héritage indo-européen de G. Dumézil”; “Épistémologie comparée des théories mythologiques”; “Anatomie d'une hypothèse en mythologie comparée: les trois functions duméziliennes”; and “Du mythe au roman: Dumézil et Lévi-Strauss”), the writing of which was interspersed with the six chapters of Twentieth-Century Mythologies that you have just read, I feel authorized to venture here a preliminary synthesis in the form of a sort of global theoretical list. This will of course be a provisional list, as are all such attempts to promote new readings and to elicit further reflection and wonder.
Two significant and related concerns will guide me in this. The first derives from a simple but often neglected premise, actually unknown to many. Dumézil's work, in retrospect an apparently solid monument of masterful construction, is in fact internally motivated by the burning question: what is the definitive “social reality” underlying the three functions? This question alone explains several ad hoc hypotheses, lexical imprecisions, and radical reorientations found by analysis (in particular as outlined in Chapter 4, “The 1950s: a reorientation”). This persistent question, to which Dumézil returned several times to weigh and evaluate it anew, in fact governs the overall evolution of his opus.
To idealize “the religious respect for the earth and for life, the belief that the sacred reveals itself directly through the mystery of fecundity and cosmic renewal” (Mém1, 285), as Eliade proposed doing, represents at best a mystic, metaphysical reinterpretation of the naturalist and vitalist theses that flourished at the turn of the twentieth century around the work of Mannhardt and Frazer. In the same period the idea arose that by studying the cults of primitive peoples one would gain access to the elementary forms (Durkheim), the matrices of all religion: “…archaic and primitive [religions], in which there is a chance [for the historian of religions] of meeting certain religious institutions at a still elementary stage” (MA, 193).
Eliade associates this prejudice with another one that contradicted the optimistic evolutionism of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scholars, as they had almost always held the two conjointly. Far from conceiving each primitive fact as a sketch or a simplified, crude conception of what in time would become more complete, eventually producing evolved forms that we recognize today, Eliade stresses the origin and devalues the meaning we attribute to historic progress. When he remarks that “the myths of ‘primitives’ still reflect a primordial condition” (MR, 5), he means that these myths represent our most precious “ontic” documents because they reveal to us literally what happened at the origin; how the gods created the cosmos and breathed life into it; and how, in a word, archaic homo religiosus at the time coexisted with the most powerful manifestations of the Sacred.
Before examining in detail the complex system organized by the expressions and rules of the “binary logic” on which rest both exegesis and the most general philosophical considerations developed in the 2000-odd pages of the Mythologiques, this work itself must first be introduced. Too often, in fact, when we have taken from it only isolated reflections or certain categorical affirmations regarding structural method, we have neglected the long and minute commentary to which Lévi-Strauss turned his hand. Now as this commentary was designed to justify and validate the quite general postulates summed up in the preceding chapter, the best service the reader could render to the work would be to take it for what it is: a new and exemplary analysis, devoted to an extremely large number of myths of the two Americas. With this deliberate return to the sources and interpretive practice of the author, the philosophical considerations and conclusions previously evoked will find both their place and their limit.
The Mythologiques present themselves as a long series of commentaries grouped around a number of general themes, most often with enigmatic titles. The object of these analyses is an immense corpus of myths – more than 800 – taken from dozens of different tribes across the two Americas. In fact, two geographic poles emerge: the first, in the south, is centred on present-day Brazil; the second, obviously in the north, occupies the neighbouring regions of Vancouver Island as well as a large part of the prairies found at approximately the same latitude.
In the preceding chapters I have shown that it is not possible to rid Eliade's work of the mystical postulates and irrational, woolly notions that run through it at every stage; nor can one ignore the strict affinities it presents with certain Fascist themes (anti-Semitism, spiritual elitism, and, in a general way, global hostility to the heritage of the Enlightenment). This group of traits also conforms to what we know today of the political engagements of Eliade in 1930s’ Romania, engagements that his compatriot Eugène Ionesco first deplored at the end of the Second World War.1 In addition, the lasting interest that Eliade showed in the numerous aspects of Western esotericism is proof of his intellectual fascination from this point with certain representatives of this occult strain, such as Guénon and Evola. In spite of these original basic failings, does this work – which, it must be remembered, has received the highest academic distinctions and continues to fascinate a large public – offer in addition a fertile and relatively original conception of the symbol or of symbolic function? Does it open new perspectives for anthropological reflection or to contemporary thought, the critics of which would agree in thinking that they could contribute, if they have not already done, and enrich this central question?
In autumn 1999 a letter was published in the bulletin of the French Research Center in Jerusalem. It had been taken from the archives of the French Collection in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem; it was addressed by Eliade to Gershom Scholem, and dated June 25, 1972. This long letter, anxious but also cleverly argued, was in reply to one from Scholem. In Scholem's letter this specialist in the cabbala stated that he had learned that his eminent colleague in the history of religions and his neighbour at meetings in Ascona was hiding a past that he as a Jewish intellectual could only look upon in dismay. The occasion of this discovery or confirmation was provided by reading the Israeli journal Toladot, which had just published extracts of Mihail Sebastian's Journal (1935–1944), in which Sebastian spoke of Eliade's “conversion” to the ideas of the Iron Guard, and reported some of his anti-Semitic statements. Sebastian, a Romanian playwright of Jewish origin, had been a close friend of Eliade's in the years preceding the Second World War.
I should like to recall and comment on some significant passages from this letter that concern the established facts, and consequently the most revealing and most embarrassing. They especially show that Eliade never hesitated to lie in order to hide his opinions and past involvements, which become even more weighty when one understands their influence on the actual content of his work drafted after the war.
One of the most unexpected chapters on the work of Lévi-Strauss was written by Ivan Strenski, and appeared in the United States in 1980, before my own work on the same issue in France. It is true that it concerns the profound but widespread influence of a thought – Buddhist thought – that in general is very poorly known. This is why this influence, iBefore addressingvctim of such collective ignorance, has been underestimated and considered very secondary or anecdotal: one of those intellectual caprices, exotic and inoffensive, that great minds like to indulge in at times. It was inevitable, under the circumstances, that this lack of knowledge and indifference would provoke and harbour a profound misunderstanding, which still deforms the potential perception of this major work today.
In opposition to this obstinate tendency, the present chapter aims at nothing less than proving that the Lévi-Straussian system possesses an eminently metaphysical dimension that draws part of its inspiration from ancient Buddhism; that is, from a Buddhism that is doubtless idealized, atemporal, denuded, and austere, reduced to superior principles, and not yet invaded by the proliferation of cults and marvels.
Before addressing the demonstration required by such affirmations, let us locate exactly the misunderstanding of which the thought of Lévi-Strauss seems to be a victim.
Myths have intrigued scholars throughout history. Twentieth Century Mythologies traces the study of myth over the last century, presenting the key theories of mythology and critiquing traditional definitions of myth. The volume presents the work of influential scholars in mythology: the noted Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumézil, the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the historian of religions Mircea Eliade. Twentieth Century Mythologies is an indispensable resource for scholars of religion and myth and for all those interested in the history of ideas.
An indefatigable worker and reader, as well as a prolific writer, Georges Dumézil (1898–1986) never imagined that the life of a scholar would yield any outcome other than the edification that comes from his work, since through it alone, he asserted, his existence metamorphosed into destiny. In Dumézil's eyes, intellectual work and the written word were absolutely essential. Nevertheless, the highly unusual breadth of his work is stupefying: several dozen volumes composed in approximately sixty years, from 1924 to 1986. His youthful illusions, despite his superior gifts, were brutally dashed by the First World War, but his sceptical, doubting spirit sought and found in intellectual adventure an elegant and fitting answer (as others later remarked) to the desperation and absurdity of the time. His personal life, carefully guarded and subordinated in every respect to his immense labour, can be reduced for our purposes to a few dates that punctuate the twentieth century and trace the progress of an exemplary if not ideal career.
In 1916 Dumézil enrolled as an honours student in the École Normale Supérieure in Paris; and in 1919, following a few months’ active military service at the front, he returned to graduate with a teaching degree (agrégé). His chosen area of study was Classics, which he may later have regretted, as he became certain that literary studies could never result in the sort of immortal perfection that accompanies the rigorous analyses of phonological systems or the humblest mathematical theorem.
Before answering this question, another one should first be asked: how does the work of a specialist in Indo-European comparative mythology draw attention to the most general problematic that can be formulated by the history of religions as a historical and anthropological discipline? To answer this question one must of course re-examine the history of mythological studies since the seventeenth century in order to understand how this subsequently inseparable myth-religion couple was formed. It is beyond doubt, at least, that from the end of the eighteenth century, as we see from Court de Gébelin, the idea was asserted that myths corresponded and referred to the most primitive forms of religion. This idea would be taken up again by anthropologists and historians of religions at the end of the nineteenth century – for example, Edward Burnett Tylor and Andrew Lang – with a conviction commensurate with the fact that it admirably suited their vast evolutionist perspective; the absurd, baroque, or excessive myths of primitive tribes discovered then had to resemble those of distant human ancestors. In addition we must remember that, if the contemporaries of Tylor and Lang accorded such a central place to the myths, it was also because, nourished with classical texts, as were their predecessors of the seventeenth (Bacon) and eighteenth centuries (Joseph Lafiteau, Charles de Brosses, Jacques Dupuis, Georg Creuzer), they adopted the exegetical and interpretive methods elaborated by antiquity (euhemerism; naturalist, moral, or metaphysical allegories) in order to explain Homeric texts.
Even in its trivial form, the question of an exclusive meaning, present in every statement, somewhat like the core of an apple, is no longer current for a rather simple reason, in which a sort of paradox is summarized, inherent in the question itself. Provided that it appears grammatically correct, one is tempted to recognize today that a statement carries with it not an exclusive and definitive meaning, but the possibility of evoking or giving birth to meanings that one can nuance or renew indefinitely. In addition, the universe of communication where these statements are engendered has its own rules – social, semiotic – of production and reception, different from one society to the next, which superimpose themselves on their properly linguistic characters. For all of these reasons, the possibility is henceforth excluded of attaining, of capturing in any statement a single meaning, stable, complete, and irrevocable. On the other hand, the Mythologiques having been finished before the double problematic of the communication and the reception presented itself, this problematic plays no role. It is, however, no longer possible to neglect it today, particularly as it contributed to the substitution of an immutable meaning for variable meanings.
As consolation for having lost a certain “absolute” idea of meaning, one can at least try to describe the particular mechanisms that engender these partial and provisional meanings.
Eliade read Heidegger and, with his inimitable way of pleading for his own genius in every situation, congratulated himself on the fact that Heidegger had espied certain truths that formed the basis of his own particular conception of the world (MDM, 239; FJ1, 437 and elsewhere). Even though mistaking the meaning of some technical terms from the Heideggerian lexicon, Eliade “recycled,” via his own system, the terms “Urgrund,” “modes d'être,” and “ontic.”
Most important, however, both of these men lived through the 1930s and kept company with organizations and ways of thinking – Nazism for Heidegger and the Romanian Legionary movement for Eliade – so that, whatever their differences, they were alike in their condemnation of democracy, the modern scientific world, progress (social and technical), and free thinking. This was in the name of an obscure metaphysics of Being, an aristocratic, anachronistic elitism, an agrarian mysticism that promoted archaism, and a verbose exaltation of the Volk, the people: a metaphysics they claimed to be solidly rooted in the earth and thus preserving traditional virtues.
After the war, in all the thousands of pages they published, Eliade and Heidegger never tried to re-examine their political and intellectual engagements, much less to deny them. It is true that such a step would certainly have led to uncovering the solid affinities between their own thoughts and those that would give birth to Romanian and German anti-Semitism.
Since the subject of this book is not so much myth itself as the theories propounded about myth(s) during the past sixty years, it has set itself a precise goal: to define an approach and a method that will reveal a supplementary way of looking at the history of thought. Its approach will thus try to bring together diverse hypotheses and definitions of myth (or myths) into a coherent whole such that each hypothesis with its particularity will nonetheless profit from the ensemble. The term attributed to this method – comparative epistemology – allows for the analytic approach as well as the comparative option, itself a constant and indispensable tool.
My choice of authors is based on a simple premise: their exemplary works dominated the field of mythological study from the end of the Second World War. The first is Georges Dumézil. His Indo-European and comparativist work legitimized a study that makes myth and ideology the two poles of an axis along which lies all that is imagination based in archaic Indo-European societies. The choice of Claude Lévi-Strauss as the second author is doubly justified, as his four-volume Mythologiques remains one of the major works of the second half of the twentieth century, and its influence was critical to structural theory, with its theoretical and philosophical dimensions pushing the study of Amerindian myth far beyond its starting-point. The third author, increasingly a subject of contention in scholarly circles, Mircea Eliade, was nevertheless chosen for two reasons.
Contrary to what one might expect, the Mythologiques do not open with a definition of myth or religion, but rather with the statement of a very general philosophical problem. The first lines of the first volume in fact propose to define the terms of a particular type of concrete logic; for, without forgetting or denying the sensible qualities of things, this logic will first be constructed on the linguistic signs endowed for the moment with an unusual definition:
At the beginning of this introduction I explained that I had tried to transcend the contrast between the tangible and the intelligible by operating from the outset at the sign level. The function of signs is, precisely, to express the one by means of the other. Even when very restricted in number, they lend themselves to rigorously organized combinations which can translate even the finer shades of the whole range of sense experience. We can thus hope to reach a plane where logical properties, as attributes of things, will be manifested. … Our task, then, is to use the concept of the sign in such a way as to introduce these secondary qualities into the operations of truth.
To understand this definition, from which we especially cite the affirmation about the reciprocal transparency of the linguistic sign, the logical category, and the sensible quality, we must try to bring together the ensemble of Lévi-Straussian philosophical postulates.