A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age / Edition 1

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"The need for a fresh look at the area of comparative religions should be apparent to anyone with any connection to the field. In the time that post-modernism has become the fin de siecle intellectual establishment, challenge to its orthodoxy has become unthinkable. However it is now obvious that a radical change of intellectual style is much overdue. . . . we must critique post-modernism from within the mind set of the period. This book does just that, filling a yawning gap in the literature of the field." -Ralph Slotten, Professor Emeritus of the History of Religions, Dickinson College

Author Biography: Kimberley C. Patton is Assistant Professor in the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of When the High Gods Pour Out Wine: Ritual, Paradox, and Divine Reflexivity (forthcoming in 2000). Benjamin C. Ray is Daniels Family NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Myth, Ritual, and Kingship in Buganda (1991).

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520221055
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/11/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 254
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Kimberley C. Patton is Assistant Professor in the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of When the High Gods Pour Out Wine: Ritual, Paradox, and Divine Reflexivity (forthcoming in 2000). Benjamin C. Ray is Daniels Family NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Myth, Ritual, and Kingship in Buganda (1991).

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Read an Excerpt

Magic Still Dwells

Comparative Religion Postmodern Age
By Kimberley C. Patton

University of California Press

Copyright © 2000 Kimberley C. Patton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520221055

The Scholar As Mythographer:
Comparative Indo-European Myth and Postmodern Concerns

David Gordon White

In preparing this contribution, I had the occasion to refer, for the first time since graduate school, to the 1959 volume The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology , edited by Mircea Eliade and Joseph Kitagawa, that many have identified as a landmark in our field. Now, some forty years after its publication, that collective effort appears more as a period piece than a landmark, quite nearly as antiquated in its Enlightenment presuppositions or Romantic agendas as the earlier works of Frazer, Freud, and Max M|ller. In a word, this is a modernist document, the mere reading of which should suffice to alert us to the fact that ours are postmodernist methodologies, and have been so for a good many years.

Loosely defined, postmodernism is a critique of modernist thought, the legacy of such modernist thinkers as Leibnitz and Descartes, but ultimately of all metaphysics going back to Plato. In his typically rhetorical fashion, Jacques Derrida has described metaphysics as

the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the whiteman takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos , that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of what he must still wish to call Reason. Which does not go uncontested.1

Now, some would argue that this is precisely the sort of insight that historians of religions, and particularly Mircea Eliade, had already had several decades prior to Derrida's deconstructionist endeavor, that is,

that Western logos is always already grounded in Western mythos . But this would be a misrepresentation of both Derrida and Eliade. Derrida's argument is against White Man's logos rather than in favor of any mythos whatsoever: he is, after all, a deconstructionist. This makes his agenda quite different than that of Eliade, who, in his theory of "primitive ontology," attempted to valorize mythos as the narrative expression of authentic being for Religious Man, Homo religiosus .

While one might be tempted to read Eliade's as a proleptic "deconstructionist" strategy, wielded to undermine the hegemony of White Man's Reason, this is in fact not the case. Rather, it is more accurate to see Eliade's construction of Religious Man as the swan song of Romanticism, a last nostalgic Western imagining of archaic or primitive people that, while it opposed itself to the Enlightenment view of these as so many benighted heathens, was fully as Western and modernist in its appropriation of other people's myths as were the Enlightenment rationalists. Eliade used the Australian aborigines' dreamtime to attack Hegelian historicism, but he never truly sought to understand dreamtime on its own terms. Rather, he used dreamtime to demonstrate a theory of "meta-dreamtime," arguing that the West too had had its own mythic dreamtime before "profane," rationalist, historicist thought occulted it with its logos .

So, in the end, Eliade was constructing his own White Man's metanarrative, and the unmasking of such metanarratives is what much of postmodernism is about. This is at the heart of Jean-Frangois Lyotard's critique of modernism, of "totalising metanarratives, great codes which in their abstraction deny the specificity of the local and traduce in it the interests of a global homogeneity, a universal history. Such metanarratives would include Marx's historicist narrative of emancipation, the narrative of psychoanalytic therapy and redemption proposed by Freud, the story of constant development and adaptation proposed by Darwin,"2 as well as, we might add, the theories of myth and religion offered by the likes of Frazer, Eliade, and Livi-Strauss (even if structuralism itself belongs to an early phase of postmodernism).

Now, if we follow Lyotard's argument to its conclusions, as some postmodernists have done, we find ourselves forced to grapple with the question of the legitimacy of conducting comparative studies of culture, societies, or religions, that is, of pursuing the discipline of the history of religions as it has been constituted over the past century. This argument runs as follows: modernist metanarratives, in order to accommodate widely diverging local histories and traditions, abstract the meaning of

those traditions, by way of a "translation" into the terms of a master code, which leaves the specific tradition simply unrecognizable. Such metanarratives also become coercive and normative: they systematically control and distort the local under the sign of the universal. Such a drive to totality cannot respect the specificities of the genuinely heterogeneous traditions.3

If we accept this argument uncritically, then we are forced to conclude that we, as comparativists, must be the witting or unwitting propagators of the sorts of modernist metanarratives that produced Auschwitz. By "signing on," through an uncritical acceptance of the modernist categories that ground our discipline, to a form of reason that is hegemonic, coercive, and even demonic, we are participating in the carnage. However, as already stated, a cursory re-reading of the 1959 The History of Religions leads me to the conclusion that the days of the history of religions metanarratives chronicled in that work are well behind us. Our thinking has changed radically, just as our world has changed since that time.

And so it is that I would maintain that the postmodernist critique of modernist metanarratives is pretty much a dead horse as the millennium draws to a close.4 If we are talking about contemporary Western scholarship—on art, architecture, law, literature, economics, politics, society, and yes, even religion—the postmodern message has been received and acted upon. Educating politicians, technocrats, the media, and land developers is another question altogether, but the fact is, these have never paid much heed to the Academy in any case. The demonization of modernism by the postmodernists is more a matter of rhetoric than of substance, just as is the demonization of the postmodernist Academy by neoconservatives. And while it may be the case that postmodernism has been, in the sociology or economics of knowledge, a short-term windfall for a number of subfields of the humanities, the self-indulgent pursuit (even if self-indulgence often takes the form of self-flagellation) of talking about ourselves talking about other people is one whose time has passed. We would do better to do what we do, which is to attempt to make sense of other people's religions, even if we do so in the certain knowledge that everything we say and write is provisional and condemned to revision if not ridicule by future generations, as well as by our own proximate and distant others.

In practical terms, this means that we need not feel ourselves compelled to front-load our own discussions with deconstructions of the theories of all who have preceded us on our path, nor need we worry

out loud over what facets of our discussion are "essentialist," or attempt to render our scholarship "self-consciously performative . . . reflecting on itself in such a way that it reveals its own rhetorical nature."5 All of these issues ought to be present in what we say and write, but as subtext rather than text. Postmodernism has been around long enough for us to take it more or less for granted. Watching ourselves talking about talking about what we do is not what we are about: we are about doing what we do, interpreting religions.

Behind the ever-expanding, always already expendable rhetoric of postmodernism, there nonetheless remains the substantive question of its implicit critique of comparativism, which needs to be addressed seriously. If, as Lyotard and others maintain, comparativism jettisons cultural specificity in favor of theoretical comprehensiveness, then we as historians of religion need to address the issue of how we compare the traditions we study. Here, we would do well to recall the insights of Antoine Meillet, who states in the introduction to his Comparative Method in Historical Linguistics that

the linguistic sign is arbitrary: it has value only by virtue of a tradition. If unity is expressed in French by un, une , duality by deux , etc., this is not because the words un, une —deux —etc. have by themselves any connection whatsoever with unity, duality, etc., but solely because such is the usage taught by those who speak to those who are learning to speak. Only the totally arbitrary character of the sign makes the historical and comparative method possible. . . .6 There are two different ways of practicing comparison: one can compare in order to draw from comparison universal laws or historical information. These two types of comparison . . . are entirely different.7

Here, Meillet's discussion identifies the great divide between the two types of comparative studies that we encounter in the humanities and social sciences. The first, whose goal is to uncover universal laws, has been followed by semioticians (De Saussure), general linguists (Jakobson), folklore specialists (Propp), structuralists (Livi-Strauss), as well as phenomenologists or morphologists of religions (Eliade). Here, the analysis is synchronic, and based on the assumption that all the varied data that fall within the purview of these approaches are viewed as so many "accidental" events (parole ) within a timeless, immutable system (langue ). Similarity is the watchword of this approach, which is patently deductive, interpreting particulars on the basis of universal principles. The second, whose goal is to interpret historical data, is diachronic, inductive, and as such, most attentive to diffirence . Scholars who have

followed Meillet most closely in this historical approach have included Benviniste, the comparative Indo-European philologist, and a number of (mainly European) historians of religions; as for Meillet himself, he takes for his example of the historical approach none other than the "young French scholar Georges Dumizil,"8 who salvaged the field of comparative Indo-European mythology from the reef upon which Max M|ller had thrown it a half century before.

With this division in mind, let us now revisit Jacques Derrida's broadside against metaphysics, which he characterized as a White Man's mythology, the Indo-European mythology, parading under the guise of "the universal form of what he must still wish to call Reason." If we read this as a critique of a Western ideology-laden endeavor to correlate individual expressions of, say, religious experience, to universal laws (the Sacred, the Holy, structures of cognition), then Derrida's criticism is not unwarranted. If, however, we take what Derrida has referred to here as the Indo-European mythology seriously, then we must take issue with his rhetoric.

I say this for two reasons. The first concerns the highly ambiguous term "mythology," which, as Marcel Detienne has noted, is employed both as a synonym for "myth" (as in Greek mythology), and for the study of myths (or of mythology). The term "mytho-logy" itself indicates an effort of interpretation: just as anthropo-logy is the study of human beings, so mytho-logy is the study of myths. Detienne maintains that mytho-logy emerged with the emergence of writing, which opened up a space for synoptic exegesis, comparison, reflection, and interpretation of the immediate, orally transmitted data of myths. By extension, our modern-day Western studies of world mythology are so many interpretations of interpretations: this is a case of double mimesis.9 Thus, whereas the Greek mytho-graphers catalogued variants of their own "authorized versions" of myths, certain present-day comparative mythologists catalogue Greek and Amerindian and Chinese myths as so many variants on universal mythemes. Derrida has not told us which sense of the term "mythology" he intends, which leaves me with the impression that his understanding of mythology in both senses of the term is a rather naove and uncritical one.

If Derrida is, as one would suspect, taking Indo-European mythology in the sense of the oral and literary traditions of the Indo-European language area, then he may be accused of presuming a homogeneity of tradition that never existed. If he is using the term to denote the modernday study of Indo-European mythology, then he is misrepresenting that

discipline which is, I would maintain, more interested in difference and historical change than it is in immutable ideologies or cross-cultural mythemes.

Now, it is not my aim here to rehabilitate the scholarly reputation of Georges Dumizil, but rather to argue that the field of comparative mythology, Indo-European or otherwise, when grounded in a diachronic, inductive attention to difference, may be used to advantage in formulating a model for a "new comparativism," in which difference is not explained away, but rather mustered to thicken the description of similarity. An excellent example of this is Georges Duby's The Three Orders , a study of class ideology in medieval France, in which the orders of society were always three in number, but with the social group filling the three "slots" changing from century to century, if not from decade to decade, according to religious, social, political, and economic reconfigurations.10 Another example would be millenarian accounts of a race of Dog-Men, whose transformations across European, Chinese, and Indian traditions tell us fully as much about the cultural specificities of those traditions as about the "core myth" itself as it was reconstructed in the mind of this scholar.11 Here, a new comparative mythology, driven by attention to historical change and cultural difference, emerges as a sophisticated and self-conscious endeavor that corresponds neither to Derrida's "White Man's mythology" nor to the earlier universalist or diffusionary models that preceded it.

How is it that we as twentieth-century scholars may legitimately tap into the mythology of other peoples from other times? Here, let us recall the dual sense of the term "mythology." The myths that we as textualists study have, by the simple fact of having been committed to writing, been subjected to a primary exegesis by their mythographers: it is therefore mythology that we read, myth that has already been sifted through, with this "variant" thrown out and that "reading" retained as "authoritative," a process that already involves an effort of comparison and interpretation. In this perspective, the effort of the scholar is a continuation of that of the mythographer: in both cases, the cognitive activity of the reader intervenes between the text and its truth content, between the realms of language and being.12

It is at this point that the ruminations on comparativism by Jonathan Z. Smith commend themselves to our discussion. It is Smith who recalls for us, in one of his earliest articles on comparativism,13 the acronym OTSOG for "on the shoulders of giants," a commonplace dating back to the thirteenth-century Thierry of Chartres for the relationship of me-

dieval and modern thinkers to the ancient philosophers. Here I wish to propose a new acronym, which I believe applies to any history of religions discussion of comparativism: we are OTSO-JZS, because we are standing on the venerable shoulders of Jonathan Z. Smith (if you disagree, you're NOTSO-JZS), who has artfully shown us how we may take issue with our modernist forebears without embracing the rhetoric of certain of our postmodernist contemporaries.

Here, I wish to concentrate on Smith's discussion of the central role of difference in the comparative enterprise on the one hand and, on the other, the mediating role played by cognitive activity of the person making comparisons. Referring to "the rich vocabulary of similarity and difference," Smith notes that its terminology

presume[s] intellectual operations on the part of the individual making the comparison, as well as the notion that we are comparing relations and aspects and not things. . . . Similarity and difference are not "given." They are the result of mental operations. . . . In the case of the study of religion, as in any disciplined enquiry, comparison, in its strongest form, brings differences together within the space of the scholar's mind for the scholar's own intellectual reasons [my emphasis]. It is the scholar who makes their cohabitation—their "sameness"—possible, not "natural" affinities or processes of history. . . . Comparison does not necessarily tell us how things "are." . . . [L]ike models and metaphors, comparison tells us how things might be conceived, how they might be "redescribed." . . . A comparison is a disciplined exaggeration in the service of knowledge, . . . an active, at times even a playful, enterprise of deconstruction and reconstitution which, kaleidoscope-like, gives the scholar a shifting set of characteristics with which to negotiate the relationships between his or her theoretical interests and data stipulated as exemplary.14

To conclude, then, it is possible for comparative studies, and more specifically comparative religion, and most specifically comparative mythology, to steer a middle course—between the universalism of our modernist forebears and the nihilism of certain of our postmodernist contemporaries—through the opening afforded by the cognitive activity of reading and interpretation. We may legitimately compare other people's myths not only because this is what we ought to be doing as scholars of religion, but also because when we do so we know that we are comparing relations and aspects rather than things. Finally, there is the matter of the term "history" in the history of religions. Our discipline has, on this side of the Atlantic, generally failed to incorporate an analysis of the role of historical development and change within its comparative enterprise. Following the examples of such scholars as Dumizil, Duby,

and J. Z. Smith, we must effect this important shift in our methodology, from the morphological to the historical, if the comparative method within the history of religions is to be a meaningful and legitimate one.


Excerpted from Magic Still Dwells by Kimberley C. Patton Copyright © 2000 by Kimberley C. Patton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Wendy Doniger, Diana Eck, Malcolm David Eckel, Jonathan R. Herman, Barbara A. Holdrege, William E. Paden, Laurie L. Patton, Kimberley C. Patton, Benjamin C. Ray, Huston Smith, Jonathan Z. Smith, Lawrence E. Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, David Gordon White

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