Bernfried Schlerath’s critique of the man (“G Dumezil und die Rekonstruktion indogermanischer kultur”, 1995-6, in the magazine Kratylos) leaves virtually nothing standing of his work (which covers 17,000 pages, as Schlerath points out). There is an exception – he says that GD produced good work on the Mahabharata, on the basis that he accepted the text in its own horizon, not smashing it apart to find doubtful tatters of a horizon a thousand years older.
In around 1976, as a student, I was intrigued by the ideas of Georges Dumézil and read at least a few of his books in order to find out what those ideas were. He was comparing highly disparate Indo-European texts in a way which was exciting even if his interest was not in the texts but in archaic scraps and tags which pointed back to some lost horizon a thousand years before the texts. When I was 19, that was possibly the only area in which I knew unusual things – things which very few people at the university knew anything about. That was actually a stimulus, it could have meant that I could write poems which people found new and unfamiliar. But at the same time it is a moment where introversion develops into obscurity – you could write a poem which people flat-out didn’t understand, even when every statement was plain! So that moment of branching out on your own, ceasing to be a schoolboy, was also a moment of fatal danger.
I never wrote any poems on dumézilian themes. That is potentially another part of disaster. Why couldn’t I shape it into poems when I was so enthused by it? But, artistic conscience prevailed. If you are seized by numerous intellectual enthusiasms, you repeatedly have the opportunity to write poems which nobody actually understands.
I think at one point I said to myself, European culture was like the culture of illiterate tribes at the Indo-European stage, whereas now it is very different; if we recover the IE stage we can re-unite Europe with the tribal stage, with myth, with whatever is non-Western. That idea on its own is great. And that is why I was interested in Dumézil when I was a student. But Dumézil’s project was deeply frustrating. And to be honest, what you can recover of paganism in Northern or Western Europe is frustrating, altogether. And the changes since the arrival of literacy, or the arrival of Greek culture, or what you will, are too total. There is no transition. You can’t go back and you can't present something deeply archaic to a 20th C audience and have them recognise it. It is alien and exotic to them. Actually the retrospective gaze produces results as fragmentary and questionable as Dumézil’s, you have the shadow of something within a text whose real organisation is different and much more modern. My belief is that all the Indo-European societies went through profound changes connected to migrating and to becoming literate. The archaic stage never had any writing and the reflections of it in later written texts are fundamentally altered, nostalgic, uncomprehending. That is true for all the IE languages that made it into writing! The route from 3000 BC to Irish people writing legends down in 800 AD is huge and involves possibly four or five complete ruptures, cultural revolutions. And the Christians who controlled literacy had no wish to record the pre-Christian society, it was a night which they were waking up from, in their eyes. The Indo-European thing doesn't give you sociology. Any ancient text gives you rags of what was there a thousand years before its own horizon. If you put these rags together you get nothing at all. They don’t knit together. Not at all. What does hold together is the phonology, but you can't write a poem about that. Or so I suspect. I think archaeology inspires much more confidence.
This was a project which was fundamentally going nowhere. But studying anthropology, naturally through the works of anthropologists and not those of Dumézil, was a transformative experience, even if I can't make explicit what I learnt or even glimpsed.
There was a key experience with Dumézil which was about two frames of reference collapsing into each other, or superimposing on each other. So he writes a book which involves Irish, Latin and Greek texts simultaneously, as if they were part of the same cultural terrain. I found this genuinely exciting each time. Actually the incongruity, the surreal moment almost, is what provides the excitement. If you actually fitted those cultures together it would stop being exciting… but where you superimpose them and they flow into each other and it doesn't make sense and is producing quite unpredicted shapes, that is exciting.
The recovery method involves destroying a text in order to see elements in it which may be a thousand years older. These elements may be what the text, in its full flourishing, was hiding, or may simply not be there at all. Analysis can mean a claim to see the invisible. To be literal, everything in a text written down in 1000 AD has the date of 1000 AD. And in a text every element is bound and grasped by every other. Dissolving the text is not realistic.
I have just come across a note with a quote from Michael Herzfeld. My note says “idealisation of Greece and the act of social anthropology are both ‘a physical location and a discourse through which the moral segregation of the West from the rest of the world was eﬀected.’” This seems to imply that if you cast Europe as acting out the legacy of Greece then you can exclude Europe from the gaze of anthropology and continue the idealising deception which you have already carried out by subtracting Greece from any gaze but one of adoration. You are allowed to carry out anthropology as long as you don't carry it out in Europe! This does point us back towards a project in which you would recover barbarian Europe as the true history, and focus on the illiterates, and the peoples who had customs but no lawyers, as the inventors of the European legacy. The early investors in the fonds européen.
Herzfeld, a social anthropologist, has done fieldwork in Greece and written extensively on the self-deception involved in the project of gathering Greek ethnology. Persistently, scholars selected traits which reminded them of Classical antiquity and threw away traits which were common with Turkish culture, even if that meant losing most of the evidence. So you couldn't compare Greek ballads with Turkish ballads – that would be a Lose. Whereas finding a fragment of Classical memory in a ballad would be a Win. In the sentence I quote Herzfeld is linking this self-deception with a wider self-deception of Europeans about themselves. And this is a pervasive problem of turning a critical gaze on the European middle class when that class has produced the gazer and will form the market for which the gazer will, if all goes well, produce published work.
H is suggesting a realm of ethnographical knowledge which has been thrown away in pursuing the project of idealising Greece and then turning Europe into the reincarnation of Classical Greece. This realm may not exist, since the key to anthropological knowledge is field observation and that is not possible for past societies. What we have instead is documents, and what emerges from a critical gaze at documents, in archives and so on, is history – which we already have. Within works of history are chapters about “society”, that is about (relatively) unchanging structures which resemble social anthropology at a distance.
Dumézil knew a lot about Caucasian languages, including non-IE ones, and produced work on the Ossetes, a people situated in the North Caucasus, so on the edge of Europe (near the Caspian Sea) who speak an Iranian language related to Persian (Farsi) and also, it is thought, to unrecorded languages like Scythian and Alan. (Non-recorded in a relative sense, since we do have some personal names and short inscriptions that may preserve those languages, slightly.) These were the Iranian languages of Eastern Europe. D’s proposition was that the Ossete folklore, recorded in the 19th C by scholars like Vsevolod Miller, preserved narrative structures which had descended intact from the Indo-European period, say the upper 3rd millennium, closer to 3000 BC than to 2500 BC. Roughly 5000 years. This is a ludicrous proposal and one quickly realises that Dumézil needed it to be true rather than knowing it to be true. Of course it is fascinating to learn about this rather obscure people and their vivid folklore (dealing with the Narts, heroic figures who do resemble gods in legends from peoples who still had gods as opposed to being, like the Ossetes, Moslems). The idea that the most profound and undamaged European symbolic utterances are to be found among this marginal people – poor, mountain-dwelling, warlike, Moslem – is moving and touching. Dumézil needs folk-tales collected in 1880 to be unchanged since 2500 BC, and this may well remind us of the need of scholars, travelling in Greece in 1820, to find something (more or less anything) which reminded them of Antiquity and which had descended, virginal, miraculous, from 500 BC. Men who put great stock in books wanted entire communities to be like books, preserving patterns which had been recorded in them centuries ago.
I said “descended intact” but of course the idea was that the “symbolic elements” had evolved to produce a puzzle, esoteric and convoluted, which a scholar of genius could resolve and demonstrate the continuity of the familiar in the unfamiliar. Call for Professor Dumézil!
I am inclined to shift the frame slightly and to posit that the issue is about how Europe views the Balkans as a whole, with the implication that Greece is part of the Balkans even if most Greek politicians would denounce that idea. The Balkans are part of Europe and also where the self-idealisation of Europe halts and evolves into something like horror. This is mixed, as writers like Maria Todorova (as well as Herzfeld) have reminded us, with the attempt of Balkan intellectuals and “civic society” to imitate Europe and, repeatedly, to reform away customs which were not European enough. As has been argued rather convincingly, nationalism was something missing in the Balkan 18th century which reforming activists introduced to the region to make it more European (and less Asian?). So the “ethnographical gaze” might start here – and, for example, specifically in the work of Herzfeld on Greece – and move on to Western Europe. He argues that Greece since the late 18th C has been trying to create a mirror, both of Europe and of Classical Greece, in order to please Europeans. The interaction between the Greek government and the Troika, with an arsenal of figures, or fake figures, is only the latest example of this. The Greek government hires Goldman Sachs in order to facilitate its entry into the European Union, passing the tests of fiscal probity, by creating figures whose immaculate fakeness passed every test of fiscal improbity. The attempt of the EU to impose democracy on the Eastern European accession tier can be seen as a similar exercise – a clash of academic reason and unwritten customs. And Greek tax returns can be seen as colourful “magic realism”.
But the ethnographic project is still open. Tom Harrison returned from fieldwork in Melanesia to set up (in 1938) an anthropological study of Britain – Mass Observation, “the study of ourselves”. The results were extremely interesting. Perhaps one day Herzfeld will study Lancashire.
There is one thing by Dumezil which I am not sceptical about, and that is Le problème des centaures. The material he is dealing with involves quite a bit of Polish folklore… it is fascinating and he doesn't disintegrate it in analysis. So Indo-European studies are exposed as a branch of antiquities. And I had an idea that I could use folklore in poems. And in fact dumézilian ideas, from Centaures, do turn up in one poem – ‘Twelve Days’ (in Savage Survivals).
I have just been listening to radio programmes about Vaughan Williams and his collecting of simple folk material, in Yarmouth, which he could develop into orchestral music. This concerns the relationship of folklore and literature; it suggests the possibility of the enucleation of Indo-European themes, simple like any oral literature, into “modern” literary forms in periods which had states and towns. I suspect that the process, musically or otherwise, is mainly new information being added, not the repetition of archaic and bound forms. Dumézil was slightly younger than the “nationalist” composers but still old enough to have absorbed their ideas and seen simple tunes as the basis of a national music, or literature. This is the ruling idea behind his search for impossibly ancient themes crouched at the base of classical literary texts. Somehow from within Livy’s history of Rome you can recover a folk tune which is 2000 years older and which Livy was apparently unable to alter.