Cover: The Languages of Paradise in PAPERBACK

The Languages of Paradise

Race, Religion, and Philology in the Nineteenth Century

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$22.50 • £18.95 • €20.50

ISBN 9780674030626

Publication Date: 02/28/2009


228 pages

5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches


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.—Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

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.—Natalie Zemon Davis, Princeton University

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.—Jacques Le Goff, Le Monde

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.—Jean Starobinski, Liber

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?—Daniel Dubuisson, L’Homme

This is one of the most beautiful books that I know on this subject, an extraordinary book that I cite often.—Umberto Eco, Bouillon de culture

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.—Antoine de Gaudemar, Liberation

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.—Anthony Grafton, New York Review of Books

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