Indo-European thought in twentieth-century France update 10: Dumézil’s early work and archives; the Collège de Sociologie and Blanchot; Eliade in Paris; Lévi-Strauss

Since the last update on this project, the main task has been beginning to work through Dumézil’s books and articles in broadly chronological order, filling in some gaps in my earlier reading, and trying to write a bit about each. So far, I’ve been concentrating on the period pre-1938, as Dumézil regularly cites 1938 as a breakthrough moment with the formulation of his trifunctional hypothesis. I think that his work pre-1938 will be the subject of one chapter, so instead of moving around in focus, I’ve tried to stick broadly to that for a while. In this period he writes both studies of Indo-European mythology and develops an interest in Caucasian languages and folktales. The latter developed during the six years he spent in Turkey at the start of his career. Both themes would continue throughout his career, often in parallel – as can be seen from his publications; with his often teaching one of his classes on mythology, the other on the Caucasus; or heading to Turkey in the summer after his Collège de France courses had finished to do fieldwork.

As part of this work I’ve sketched out what might be a table of contents of the planned book, which on this plan initially alternates between chapters on Benveniste and Dumézil before their stories become more intertwined. There would be a few other chapters, probably one on Mircea Eliade’s time in Paris, one on various students of Benveniste and Dumézil, including Julia Kristeva’s early work, as well as broader legacies. I have a possible idea for a prelude on a much later period, before returning to the start of the twentieth century and then broadly proceeding chronologically. At this early stage this plan is very provisional, but it’s helped to structure some of the notes I’ve taken, and forced me to focus on things in a more disciplined way. Of course, I might tear this up and start again, but sometimes making a choice and running with it is helpful. As I’ve said before, I resave each file at the start of the day with the date in the filename, so I can easily go back to earlier versions if I decide something doesn’t work.

Dumézil’s first three books – Le Festin d’immortalité, Le Crime des Lemniennes and Le Problème des centaures

Although I planned to have Dumézil pre-1938 as the entire focus, I have also done a bit of work on Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois and the Collège de Sociologie, which went back over a bit of the research I did for The Early Foucault, and as background for the event on the Collège de Sociologie and Shakespeare I co-organised last year with Richard Wilson. Caillois was one of Dumézil’s students, who became a life-long friend. As far as I can tell, Dumézil never attended Collège de Sociologie events, but Dumézil reports that Bataille did come to some of his lectures. Bataille certainly read some of his work, and they had further links through Caillois. 

I also wrote a little on Maurice Blanchot’s reviews of some of Dumézil’s books during the war, published in Chroniques littéraires. I’m grateful to Alin Constantine for alerting me to these, and sharing some copies. Reading Christophe Bident’s biography of Blanchot was interesting, and opened up a lot of new lines of inquiry. The reviews were 1941-44, but Bident’s biography gave some detail on some of Blanchot’s earlier journalism, which was an unpleasant window into the past. While Blanchot republished some pieces in his own early collections, including Faux Pas and La Part du feu, many more were not. These pieces have been collected in a series of volumes. Political issues are becoming even more significant for this project than I’d originally thought.

Some of this work on related thinkers will be useful not just for the discussions of Dumézil, but also for the potential chapter on Eliade’s time in Paris. Eliade’s journals and autobiography are valuable sources here, and following up on some of his early publications in French has been interesting. With his books there are some challenges in working out what was written when and what was reworked – complicated by some texts being written in Romanian but first appearing in French translation; some written directly in French; and then later, some in English with French or Romanian versions. He reused or reworked a lot of material. Some English translations of his work are based on the French versions, and some directly from Romanian. But there are a lot of interesting connections – his few initial contacts in Paris, including Dumézil, introduced him to a lot of other people. And there was a lot of informal support – invitations to speak, writing commissions, and so on. 

For example, Eliade wrote a couple of times for the Diogène journal Caillois edited, and several times for Critique in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Eliade talks a bit about meeting Bataille in his journals and autobiography. Bataille owned several of his books, some dedicated by Eliade. The recent sale of a substantial part of Bataille’s library is I think a tragedy, because the books have been scattered and will be impossible ever to reconstitute. But it did provide the opportunity of a comprehensive inventory of at least this part of his collection.

Bataille also asked Eliade to write a book on tantrism for Éditions de Minuit, but this was never produced. Eliade’s excuse for not writing it is at least novel: he told Bataille he was waiting for some texts to be translated from Tibetan before he could begin. So there are some interesting connections to explore a bit further: Eliade isn’t mentioned in Michel Surya’s biography of Bataille, or Christophe Bident’s of Blanchot, so it will take a bit more digging around. Florin Turcanu’s biography of Mircea Eliade is quite useful, though having read all of Eliade’s published diaries and autobiographies, I found that it didn’t reveal that much more, at least on this period. Mac Linscott Ricketts’s epic study of Eliade’s “Romanian Roots” – almost 1500 pages – only covers the first 38 years of his life, stopping just as he moves to Paris. I still need to spend time with that. Cristina Bejan’s book Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania is also useful – a book I’ve mentioned before and to which I need to return. But my focus is on the Paris years.

I’ve also mentioned Emmanuelle Loyer’s biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss (French/English) before. This has been useful in indicating some things to explore further. I don’t anticipate Lévi-Strauss being treated in anything like the same detail as Dumézil and Benveniste, or even Eliade, but he will, I think, be important to the story I want to tell. He was a colleague of both Dumézil and Benveniste, and his institutional connections were important in lots of ways. Loyer’s research has been useful here, as has Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan’s recent book Code: From Information Theory to French Theory. At some point I hope to do at least some work with Lévi-Strauss’s papers at the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Claude Bernard statue at the Collège de France on 24 March 2023, after the anti-Macron pension protests

I had another trip to Paris in mid-March, when I continued working through boxes of the Dumézil archive at the Collège de France. Some of these were administrative, with a lot of interesting information about his auditors at both the Collège de France and the EPHE. But I’ve also started working through the folders relating to his books. He wrote or edited about sixty books, so there is a lot of material – rough drafts, fair copies, sometimes corrected proofs and related material. He must have been a nightmare to work with – appalling handwriting, lots of foreign languages in his texts, many in different alphabets with complicated layout issues and diacritics, and a tendency to keep fiddling with things. The proofs are often a mess, and it’s clear he often used others to do his corrections for him. These materials have already given me a further insight into how he worked, and reveal that he could write more neatly if he tried.

One key disappointment is there is a big gap in the publication records from the late 30s to the mid 1950s – a real shame for me, given how important this period is to what I’m doing. I already knew there wasn’t a manuscript for Mitra-Varuna, but also none for the Jupiter Mars Quirinus series, or the ones on Roman myths that Foucault often discussed.

I also made use of the Bibliothèque nationale to track down a lot of references that are not easy to find in the UK, and made one trip to the Archives Nationales, looking at some correspondence. I’m still at the stage with this work that everything I look at gives me another ten things to follow-up, so the harder I work the more I have to do, but it’s interesting and hopefully is going to produce something worthwhile.

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 worldwide.

This entry was posted in Claude Lévi-Strauss, Emile Benveniste, Georges Bataille, Georges Dumézil, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Mircea Eliade, The Archaeology of Foucault. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Indo-European thought in twentieth-century France update 10: Dumézil’s early work and archives; the Collège de Sociologie and Blanchot; Eliade in Paris; Lévi-Strauss

  1. Pingback: Indo-European thought in twentieth-century France update 11: Dumézil and Charachidzé’s work on Ubykh; Lévi-Strauss and his archive; Eliade’s correspondence; Koyré’s networks; and continuing work with Dumézil’s archive | Progressive Geographi

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