Dumezil and the Promise of Tradition

I first read Dumezil’s Mitra-Varuna in the Spring of 2008. It was a chaotic period for me and I only took from it some broad but intelligible points. A few weeks ago, a copy of the book made its way to me and I have been chewing slowly through it, taking more time with each subsection. It doesn’t hurt that most of those subsections are only a couple of pages in length, perfect bathroom reading (Hey, I’m not made of time–I take my reading where I can).

It’s an explosive little book. Weighing in at under 200 pages, it ranges from India to Rome, Rome to Scandinavia, brushing up against Iran and the Celts as it goes. While it keeps the question of sovereignty ever-close, World War II’s proximity has given Dumezil a keen sense of scholarship’s mortality; whenever possible he gestures at the wide vistas that surround his narrow focus, so that there might at least be a record of the terrain, no matter how scanty. It’s the sort of book you could spend an entire course discussing with bright fellows and not find the end of it. Questions regarding the relationship of rite, myth, history, economy, and daily life are raised, examined, but given no false resolution.

It is most compelling to me theologically, as an account of a spiritual world and its relationship to the material and historical world. I’m keenly aware that reading it in this way runs counter to the mode in which Dumezil wrote it and counter to the mode in which scholars receive and discuss it, but it is how I am going to discuss it. Scholarship comes in play there, too, so please don’t mistake this for a plea toward some irrationalist theological position.

In his early career, Bruce Lincoln published some exemplary studies in Dumezil’s mold. His work on the girdle and the noose…well, I hope there are some traditional witches out there who have read and appreciated it like I did (speaking of things it might profit me to reread sometime). However, Lincoln turned away from this sort of work. I mention him now because his reasons for ceasing comparative work in the fashion of Dumezil only become more acute in a theological context.

Lincoln’s first concern was with fascism. That broke down in two directions, a discomfort with Dumezil’s own leanings toward fascism and the way in which Dumezil’s work had been taken up by those with an explicitly fascist bent. Dumezil’s own leaning don’t bother me overmuch. Dumezil is old-school European intellectual, and the sort of elitism that structures that world lend itself to fascist tendencies. The superiority of the intellect and the superiority of the elite at the heart of fascism aren’t too distant. I wouldn’t call it admirable, but I am not willing to throw him out of the pool for that, either.

The adoption of his work by later fascists and pseudo-fascists is more troubling. Lincoln’s decision to opt out of the Dumezil club makes good political and social sense on his part, but that Dumezil’s work is most popular there does his work necessarily support the traditionalist who see in the philological method the tools for re-inscribing their sense of ethnic identity into the political arena (e.g., the Golden Dawn in Greece)?

The tripartite model of society that Dumezil favors suggests this, with its division of the community into types and even races. Still, Dumezil is a scholar first and foremost. While he notes the pattern’s persistence in the Indo-European context, he makes clear that the way in which it manifests varies widely. It is absent or greatly diminished in influence in the Aegean world, to such an extent that he considers the ancient Greeks to be exceptional in the context oof the rest of the Indo-European world around them.

However, I can’t quite duck the question in the same way. This leads me into a discussion of Lincoln’s second problem with Dumezil, a problem with the philological method itself. Dumezil’s comparative method presumes that the natural field in which to study this matter is that of language and myth, and that the conceptual unity he finds can be best explored through that domain. Languages have a history and he presumes that history contains the history of the myths, too. What Lincoln discovered, though, is that colleagues operating outside of the Indo-European world were discovering similar patterns of thinking to the ones he was documenting in Indo-European sources.

I remember this from reading Mitra-Varuna the first time and it stood out more sharply for me this time. The conceptual world that Dumezil examines, the paradoxes and compromises that define it, look a lot like those that characterized Meso-American antiquity. That suggests that language may play an important role in the process, but that it may not be the primary aspect of it. Theologically, this opens a lot of doors, even as it starts to close down some scholarly avenues.

What makes Dumezil’s work compelling, though, even with his methodological flaws? Well, the simple answer may be the best one. Though Dumezil’s philological approach may be unnecessarily restrictive, the material that he examines is still the remnants of vital mythological traditions, which contain within themselves generations of thinking about the relationship of their people to the world and to the divine. That those structures are more general than language, suggests that what they describe is more general than language and culture.

More to the point, it suggests that language and culture may be the wrong points on which to hang either a descriptive or theological account. The commonalities encountered by Dumezil represent patterns into which human beings easily drift, suggesting the true basis of their existence might lie in general features of our animal being, the modes of sociality that are well-suited to our cognition, and the way in which spiritual beings are able to engage with that. It puts religious and social experience back where they belong, in our direct experience.

In other words, traditions are more a matter of praxis than ontology. What is compelling in Dumezil is that he has set before us one well-developed mode of understanding that domain and the ways that is has developed concretely in history. The challenge we have is to convert that outline of past forms of life into a sense of strategic possibility for the present forms of life. That demands we don’t simply try to resuscitate old organic orders (ethnic traditions) but keep vital (or even produce) new organic orders out of the present situation.

This creates something of a tension in the term ‘tradition.’ On the one hand, it refers to this active organic order. On the other, it refers to what is already partially fossilized, a practice in the process of losing its organic context and becoming increasingly performative. We need to live with spirits now, not try to summon up cupdboards into which we can slot them and keep them in the trappings of the past to which they may or may not be accustomed.

That makes Mitra-Varuna a study in the arts of binding and of liberation, of the spiritual aspects of authority and how it finds expression in the human world. It is a record of some ways in which the spirits have been rallied to both and the sorts of pacts that have been taken to sustain human society and the sorts of societies those pacts support.

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3 thoughts on “Dumezil and the Promise of Tradition

  1. Pingback: [NB] Two Kinds of Sovereign Power | Disrupt & Repair

  2. Pingback: [NB] History as Myth | Disrupt & Repair

  3. Pingback: [NB] Indo-European Permutations | Disrupt & Repair

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