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

My attempt with this project to keep to a broadly chronological order of working through of Georges Dumézil’s major publications (see last update) took a bit of a detour, as his 1931 book La Langue des Oubykhs led me to follow the thread of his career-long work on the Ubykh language, part of the Northwest Caucasian group of languages. I already knew the broad outcline of the story, but there is a lot of detail which I’m trying to piece together. Dumézil was appointed to the University of Istanbul in 1925, and used the opportunity to learn languages and travel. 1930 is really when the Ubykh story begins, when Dumézil follows the lead of work done by Adolf Dirr and visits some of the few villages where exiled Ubykh speakers still lived in Anatolia. Quickly – and as he’d later recognise, too quickly – this leads to La Langue des Oubykhs, which appeared shortly before Julius von Mészáros’s Die Päkhy-Sprache on the same subjectTheir informants were all elderly, and researchers initially thought the language had died out around the time of the Second World War. Dumézil moves from the University of Istanbul to Uppsala in 1931, and during his time there and for a while after his return to Paris in 1933 he concentrates on writing up the research he had done in Turkey on Caucasian linguistics and folktales. He produces a large number of book publications between 1930 and 1939 on these questions, before he takes quite a long break from this topic, at least in book-form. But Dumézil’s work on Ubykh restarts in the 1950s when he is informed that there are still a few isolated speakers left in Turkey.

For the next twenty or so years Dumézil’s work continues with many visits to Turkey, until his health problems in the early 1970s prevented him from travelling. Instead, in the last decade of his life he and his colleague (and former student) Georges Charachidzé bring the last native Ubykh speaker Tevfik Esenç to Paris for long research visits. Esenç had been brought up by his grandparents, which helps to explain the generation gap between him and the other last speakers. One interesting aspect of the story is a rivalry between Dumézil and the Norwegian linguist Hans Vogt, who Dumézil had introduced to his informants. Vogt publishes an Ubykh dictionary in 1963, which Dumézil and Charachidzé work on revising and correcting, then reconstructing the grammar, and develop plans for a brand-new dictionary that continue until Dumézil’s death in 1986. 

Charachidzé continues working with Esenç, including making several visits to Turkey, until Esenç died in 1992, at which point the language is functionally extinct. Charachidzé continues work on his own, and provides various reports of progress, but when he dies in 2010 the dictionary is still unfinished. It remains unpublished. Along the way Dumézil publishes many works on the language, including recording and transcribing Esenç, collections of folktales, elements of the grammar, including the co-authored book Le Verbe Oubykh in 1975, and many shorter pieces often in some unbelievably obscure outlets. Apparently, half the extant corpus of the language is based on work with Esenç, mainly conducted by Dumézil and Charachidzé. Charachidzé publishes some of Dumézil’s work posthumously and adds his own pieces with Esenç to the record. But this work is often unsystematic, and there are many pieces which are correcting previous ones. I have a few of Charachidzé’s own books, which are on Caucasian mythology, history and language, but have also been tracking down copies of some of his shorter publications. The work has taken me to London, Oxford and Paris on the trail of published traces.

I can’t pretend to have any understanding of the grammatical work in itself, or the textual record of the language. Rhona Fenwick published a very expensive English grammar of the language over a decade ago, and has plans for a dictionary. But even though that work is in the hands of experts, I hope I can say something interesting about the history of the project from Dumézil and Charachidzé’s perspective, even though some of the most valuable archival traces are difficult to locate. 

I also did some more work on Claude Lévi-Strauss, particularly his letters. Some of Lévi-Strauss’s correspondence has been published, notably with his parents and with Roman Jakobson, but also letters from Benveniste. There is a lot more in the Lévi-Strauss archive at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I spent a few useful days going through some of these files, after getting permission from Madame Lévi-Strauss to access the material. In particular I was interested in his correspondence with Dumézil and a few related figures. And I found a really interesting document in the correspondence which was a great surprise to me.

Related to this, I also tried to find out what traces there might be of Lévi-Strauss’s 1950 Loubat Fondation lectures at the Collège de France. These lectures were never published, and I couldn’t work out where they might be held in manuscript. Patrice Maniglier and Emmanuelle Loyer kindly confirmed to me that there is no trace in the BnF archives. I followed some other leads in a different archive which led me to a short summary of the lectures, which hasn’t been published, so that was another interesting discovery. Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan shared some other very interesting documents from Lévi-Strauss’s early career.

I’ve also been getting hold of the published correspondence between Mircea Eliade and Dumézil, Carl Jung, Stig Wikander, and others. His letters to Henry Pernet and Raffaele Pettazzoni are extensive enough to be books, one of which I have and the other I’ve ordered. Some of this correspondence is available in a three volume Romanian collection – with the letters in the language they were written, and a translation into Romanian – but it is certainly incomplete, and more thorough records are in some very hard-to-find places. Alin Constantine has been helpful again here, but some of the outlets have defeated even Warwick’s diligent inter-library loan specialists. At some point I plan to go to the Eliade archive in Chicago, but that’s probably some way in the future.

Most of my time in Paris was spent going through further boxes of the Fonds Dumézil at the Collège de France. There is a huge amount here, and it’s taking me a lot of time. I find useful things in almost every folder, so it’s hard to know which boxes to concentrate my time on. At the moment I’m working through it all, chronologically for the most part, but moving between lectures, material for books and other publications. Apart from the cost of visits to Paris, helpfully mostly covered by the Leverhulme fellowship and department funds, I’ve realised I’m close to breaching the 90 days in any 180 days EU limit. This is a direct result of Brexit, which seems continually to provide more problems. So I am keeping a check on this. For various reasons I’m unable to come back to Paris again until July, which helps with keeping the days limited.

Among the highlights of this trip were Dumézil’s Haskell lectures at the University of Chicago, which exist in the archive as handwritten French originals, French typescripts and English translations with a ton of handwritten annotations. The lectures were published in Mythe et Épopée volume 2, and translated as The Destiny of a King (see my note on how the Mythe et Épopée volumes are partly available in English). There is some correspondence with the translator, Alf Hiltebeitel, who died very recently (obituary note here). Dumézil was asked to contribute something to a Chicago in-house journal, and provided a short and interesting summary text, which was in the archive in a French typescript. I was imagining finding the published translation was going to be a challenge, especially as this text as missed from Hervé Coutau-Bégarie’s very detailed book-length bibliography of Dumézil’s publications. But a bit of hunting around found that almost all the issues of this journal are online.

I was also pleased to discover the name ‘Calvino’ in one of Dumézil’s notebooks, which indicated that they’d met. I wondered if this could be the novelist and essayist Italo Calvino, and yes it was – they both attended a conference in Palermo in 1972, as did Umberto Eco. 

While in Paris I also had a half-day at the Archives Nationales, mainly for some CNRS records, but also found an extensive file of administrative records which shed valuable light on different parts of Dumézil’s career. Benveniste’s letters to Ignace Meyerson were interesting too. I also made several visits to the Mitterand site of the BnF, tracking down some of Dumézil’s more obscure publications like pieces in conference proceedings, and checking a host of references. Coutau-Bégarie’s bibliography is really helpful here, and with some of this stuff I’m trying to get ahead of the broadly chronological approach, so that when I need something I’ve already got a copy. 

And finally, as a post on this site indicated (with an update here), I’ve also been looking at the work of Alexandre Koyré again – someone I have read for many years, and cited in my work on territory, Foucault, Canguilhem and Heidegger. I’m now particularly interested in his role in introducing some key figures to each other – particularly Lévi-Strauss to Jakobson, Dumézil, Benveniste, and Lacan.

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 earlier Foucault work here. The final volume, The Archaeology of Foucault, is now out worldwide.

images of the BnF Mitterand, BnF Richelieu, Archives Nationales and Collège de France

This entry was posted in Alexandre Koyré, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Emile Benveniste, Georges Dumézil, Indo-European Thought, Italo Calvino, Jacques Lacan, Mircea Eliade, Umberto Eco, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to 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

  1. Pingback: Indo-European Thought in Twentieth-Century France update 12: working in some UK archives; Benveniste’s EPHE teaching; some talks on the research | Progressive Geographies

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