Indo-European thought project update 8: working on Barthes, Lévi-Strauss and the Mission Paul Pelliot

Since the last update on this project I’ve not done quite what I intended. I had thought I’d begin working systematically through Georges Dumézil’s works in a chronological way, filling in much detail and some gaps in my previous reading. Instead I went down a couple of detours which have been interesting and productive, but are almost at the two different ends of the project – one right at the beginning, and another towards its end.

One of these things I want to discuss in the project is how Dumézil and Émile Benveniste were important for a younger generation. I’ve already done quite a lot on the relation between Dumézil and Foucault for my books on Foucault, and for some separate papers. More recently, my focus has been on Roland Barthes, following up on some clues in the excellent biographies by Tiphaine Samoyault (French/English) and Marie Gil. Barthes’s references to Dumézil are minor, but he is explicit about the importance of Benveniste to his work. There are lots of references, both in texts he published in his lifetime – including, among others, reviews of both volumes of Problèmes de linguistique générale and an obituary. There are also some references in his courses, both at the Collège de France and the École pratique des hautes études. This expanded quite a way beyond what I originally anticipated. I asked some bibliographic questions about Barthes, and received some really useful replies. I added all the information into this post. I’m particularly interested in his courses, mainly at the Collège de France, but also at the École pratique des hautes études.

I’ve also begun a bit of work on the relation between Dumézil, Benveniste and Lévi-Strauss. This is a much bigger challenge, and I think will be more important to the story I want to tell. The correspondence between Benveniste and Lévi-Strauss has been published, as well as his more extensive correspondence with Roman Jakobson, but not the Dumézil-Lévi-Strauss letters. Emmanuelle Loyer quotes some of the latter in her biography of Lévi-Strauss (French/English), but I will try to look at the full collection in the archives at some point. There are a lot of things to follow up here.

There is also work to be done at some stage on the way wider Indo-European work was important for some French classicists, including Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Clémence Ramnoux, and possibly others including Marcel Detienne and Nicole Loraux. For that I think I need to get a much better sense of Dumézil’s work on Greece, which is be largely at the start and end of his career, and especially his work on Rome, which runs as one of its major themes throughout.

Paul Pelliot examining manuscripts in the Dunhuang ‘library cave’, 1908 (public domain)

The influence on these thinkers is a late part of the story I want to tell. But the other part of the story which I’ve been reading and writing about is towards its beginning. This is the Mission Paul Pelliot from 1906-1909. This was an expedition to central Asia and Western China, led by Pelliot, which brought back a lot of artefacts and manuscripts – bought under such dubious circumstances they were effectively looted. The Musée Guimet has a lot of this material, and the manuscripts, many of which came from a remarkable find in Dunhuang, are mainly at the Bibliothèque nationale. There are lots of publications which came from the material returned to Paris, some of which involve a very young Benveniste. I started reading a little on this to provide some background, but ended up spending more time on it than I anticipated. It’s been interesting, and has taken me to a different reading room at the British Library, Asian and African Studies, one of the very few there I had not used before. 

There are a couple of popular books which talk about Pelliot, including Peter Hopkirk’s classic Foreign Devils on the Silk Road and more recently Eric Enno Tamm, The Horse that Leaps through Clouds, so I’ve been reading those too, as well as accounts of the almost parallel expedition of Aurel Stein. The material Stein brought back is across London – including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Library and the British Museum. And there is a lot elsewhere, so material from key sites, including Dunhuang, is scattered across the world. There are obviously connections to some of the more high-profile debates about cultural repatriation like the Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles. But Dunhuang seems to be a case where there is a lot more international collaboration, and there is an incredible online resource, The International Dunhuang Project, gathering links, reproductions and information. 

In the last update I talked about the records of Dumézil’s teaching, and especially his courses at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. I followed the references in Hervé Coutau-Bégarie’s bibliography, which are largely complete, but found a few other sources of information, including the pre-announced titles. The records on Gallica are very good, and saved a lot of time, but there are a couple of pages missing from that digitisation, one of which I still can’t find. But I now have an almost complete listing, which will be useful as I work through the manuscripts.

I will be back in Paris for much of January, and I’m beginning to think about what I will do there. But I will be taking some days off now. Thanks for reading Progressive Geographies in 2022, and I’ll be back with the academic books I enjoyed most this year around the New Year.

Previous updates on this project can be found here, along with links to some research resources and forthcoming publications, including the reedition of Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna. There is a lot more about the Foucault work here. The final volume, The Archaeology of Foucault, is now out!

This entry was posted in Claude Lévi-Strauss, Emile Benveniste, Georges Dumézil, Indo-European Thought, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, The Archaeology of Foucault, The Early Foucault. Bookmark the permalink.

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