Michel Foucault observed that “the birth of philology attracted far less notice in the Western mind than did the birth of biology or political economy.” In this penetrating exploration of the origin of the discipline, Maurice Olender shows that philology left an indelible mark on Western visions of history and contributed directly to some of the most horrifying ideologies of the twentieth century.
The comparative study of languages was inspired by Renaissance debates over what language was spoken in the Garden of Eden. By the eighteenth century scholars were persuaded that European languages shared a common ancestor. With the adoption of positivist, “scientific” methods in the nineteenth century, the hunt for the language of Eden and the search for a European Ursprache diverged. Yet the desire to reconcile historical causality with divine purpose remained.
Because the Indo-European languages clearly had a separate line of descent from the biblical tongues, the practitioners of the new science of philology (many of whom had received their linguistic training from the Church) turned their scholarship to the task of justifying the ascendance of European Christianity to the principal role in Providential history. To accomplish this they invented a pair of concepts—Aryan and Semitic—that by the end of the century had embarked on ideological and political careers far outside philology. Supposed characteristics of the respective languages were assigned to the peoples who spoke them: thus the Semitic peoples (primarily the Jews) were, like their language, passive, static, and immobile, while the Aryans (principally Western Europeans) became the active, dynamic Chosen People of the future.
Olender traces the development of these concepts through the work of J. G. Herder, Ernest Renan, Friedrich Max Müller, Adolphe Pictet, Rudolph Grau, and Ignaz Goldziher. He shows that, despite their different approaches, each of these men struggled more or less purposefully “to join romanticism with positivism in an effort to preserve a common allegiance to the doctrines of Providence.”
With erudition and elegance, Olender restores the complexity and internal contradictions of their ideas and recreates the intellectual climate in which they flourished.
A riveting book about a difficult but important subject. Olender plunges into the scientific roots of modern racial myths with verve, wit, and remarkable erudition, producing both a dense, powerful monograph in the history of philology and a fascinating essay on the roots of twentieth-century errors and horrors.
The Languages of Paradise is heavenly to read. What languages did the first humans speak? Maurice Olender traces the answers of major scholars to that question from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, showing how rival claims for Hebrew and Sanskrit connect with fundamental ideas about race and culture. Rarely have the intricacies of comparative philology been made so accessible to the common reader as in Maurice Olender's fluid prose, given sparkling translation by Arthur Goldhammer.
Here is the flabbergasting story of how nineteenth-century comparative philology is intimately linked to the history of religions. Maurice Olender tells it, all the while respecting the complexity and the contradictions. What makes this study so nightmarish is that Maurice Olender reveals that many of these scholars criticized any ‘racist’ notion of ‘race,’ a term which many affected nonetheless; that they were at pains to attribute to Judaism a ‘poetic sublimity’ while condemning its sterilizing archaism; and that they championed religious, cultural, and national pluralism before abandoning themselves to a vertiginous Christianity which, by being Aryanized, was the only religion capable of fulfilling the original promise.
Maurice Olender’s aim is to show that theology long retained a considerable influence over philologists who claimed to be objective scientists. He uses original and reliable sources to reveal the presence of myth at the very heart of a discourse that claimed to shed the light of rational thought on vanished forms of mythical and religious belief. Consciously or unconsciously, faith and apologetics were still at work in the writings of people who sometimes compared themselves to palaeologists and whom we look on as the founders of modern linguistics.
Over and above the unquestionable value of this book as history is the troubling question it poses: Are we not today, despite all the warnings of history, the willing and unenthusiastic victims of our own scientific myths? And what are they? And where are they being generated? And by whom?
This is one of the most beautiful books that I know on this subject, an extraordinary book that I cite often.
What language did they speak in Eden? In the 19th century, Sanskrit and Hebrew battled for the privilege of being the original language. In The Languages of Paradise, Maurice Olender studies the impact of Christianity on positivism and the birth of the human sciences.
Olender's book has many virtues. Brief, intense, and often ironic, it rests on a deep foundation of learning. His ability to compress material into sinuous chapters, concise and packed with material but never overly schematic or simplified, compels admiration. The Languages of Paradise is a little masterpiece of exposition as well as of analysis.
- 228 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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