A Conversation with Maurice Olender

The Languages of Paradise – Race Religion and Philology in the Nineteenth Century, 2008 (Copyright: Harvard University Press)
The Languages of Paradise – Race Religion and Philology in the Nineteenth Century, 2008 (Copyright: Harvard University Press)

Maurice Olender is a French historian, professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and editor at Le Seuil. In 2015, he was a visiting professor at the ETH-Zurich (Chair of French Literature and Culture). Among his publications are Les Langues du Paradis (1989), preface by Jean-Pierre Vernant, Seuil, “Points Essais” number 294, 2002 (The Languages of Paradise. Race Religion and Philology in the Nineteenth Century, Harvard University Press, 1992, 2008), Race sans histoire, Seuil, « Points Essais », number 620, 2009, 2018 (Race and Erudition, Harvard University Press, 2009), Un fantôme dans la bibliothèque, Seuil, 2017, and Singulier Pluriel, Seuil, 2020.

“What happens when the word “race” loses its quotation marks?”

How was your meeting with the editor Peter Trawny, following the publication of Heidegger’s Schwarze Hefte?

Maurice Olender: As is often the case, things happen quite simply. Umberto Eco, editor of a series at Bompiani, asked me to preface the Italian edition of Race sans histoire. I didn’t really know what to write. I started drafting a few pages on the title of the book. We are in 2014 and the press announces suddenly, in France and all over the world, the upcoming publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks. As a young reader, more of an archeologist than a philosopher, I was undoubtedly fascinated, like so many others, by the poetic brilliance of Heidegger’s formulations, his etymological wordplays and questions, which would later appear to me as participating in a very old genre to which I dedicated a text entitled “politics of etymology”…The press also mentioned that the editor of the Black Noteboooks, Peter Trawny, was going to publish a book on the role of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Since in Race sans histoire, there is a long chapter on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, I wanted to know what Heidegger could have made of this famous forgery, a frenzied text that bears witness to a mythical construction linked with a conspiracy theory. Without knowing him, I wrote to Trawny to ask him if he would agree to urgently send me his book that was about to be published (in German, which was then translated and published with Seuil) and also the unpublished pages of the Black Notebooks where Protocols was discussed. He responded to me immediately – and favorably. Even before reading these unpublished pages, I probably had, somewhere in the back of my mind, the memory of a valuable account by Jaspers when he writes (of Heidegger): “I spoke to him of the Jewish question, of the stupid nonsense about the elders of Zion, to which he responded: ‘But there is indeed a dangerous international association of Jews.’”

The texts published by Trawny are in some way “responsible” for the length of my preface; rather than two or three pages, it is around eighty (this was never published in French, or in English). That is how one book, Race sans histoire, translated and published with Harvard University Press in 2009 with the title Race and Erudition, received a third title: Razza e Destino (Race and Fate). Why? The Black Notebooks encourage us to consider the ponderousness of the inheritance of old theologies of Fate, notably in Heidegger – visions that the entire 19th century circulated in theological studies as well as in the emerging human sciences—secular in principle. That’s at least how it may seem from the point of view of an archeological history of knowledge.

So what does one read in the preface to Razza e Destino (Bompiani 2014), in these pages that have never been published in French (or in English)?

Maurice Olender: As already in Les Langues du Paradis (1989) (The Languages of Paradise, 2009), one finds here an “ethnographic” approach to the knowledge of the academic world in order to attempt to see how eminent scholars, linguists, or historians of religion could, in the 19th and 20th centuries, conceive “scholarly fables.” As Jean Starobinski writes, “how men of science, of the best faith in the world, could be mistaken.”

Continuing this type of ethnographic approach, when invited to a conference at the Martin-HeideggerInstitut of the Bergische Universität in Wuppertal, I did not propose philosophical exegeses of Heidegger’s writings. I don’t have particular competence in that subject. My craft as a researcher is elsewhere, below – in the theoretical basement, if you like. My area of research is limited to philological fieldwork, using the methods of an archeologist. It’s a modest ethnographic exercise applied to academic knowledge. Thus (without providing here the references in the footnotes), the books by Julius Evola or René Guénon (they both wrote prefaces to and interpretations of Protocols of the Elders of Zion), are registered in libraries as “metaphysics”, “orientalism”, “philosophy”, or “esoterism”—aren’t they in search of the same kind of ahistorical “veridicity”? And could the latter shed light on the “Terror of History” staged in the scholarly and literary works of Mircea Eliade? An occasion to recall the intellectual links between these three authors… and Heidegger. Another example, not so very distant: the “metaphysics” of the racial soul, mobilized by Gustave Le Bon—could this shed light on the constructions associating racial stereotypes and academic knowledge, found in the European physical anthropology of the first half of the 20th century—in the work of Otto Reche, among many others?

In my Thursday evening seminars at the École des Hautes Études, I would sometimes find myself examining, on a case by case basis, how an academic discipline, such as comparative philology or linguistics, used, in the 19th century, archaic stereotypes, in order to elevate them as new ‘cutting-edge’ forms of knowledge. Since you are asking me about the preface published with Bompiani, it seems to me that it provides evidence of this, and how in the future, Heidegger’s Black Notebooks would open more than one path to researchers from all horizons as well as to philosophers. Conducting this kind of interdisciplinary investigation, bringing together history and the social sciences, even today one feels to what extent it is difficult to make oneself heard while respecting academic codes, not to mention the compartmentalization of academic disciplines. The latter often praise interdisciplinarity more eagerly than they actually practice it.

In the preface, I wrote, no doubt too boldly: “Let us pursue our readings to see how the publication and the study of the Black Notebooks could contribute to shifting, no matter how little, a few academic barriers. By showing, for example, that stereotypes are often the result of the entanglement of scholarly, theological, and so-called “popular” sources, which mutually support each other. And it is not forbidden to do historical, or even comparative work, by approaching philosophical texts.” (p. 38, Razza e Destino, Bompiani, 2014).

In these same pages, which glance through ancient and modern texts, one can also evaluate the importance of theories of fate, from the Church Fathers to Heidegger, including, in France, Renan.

What would you have written in that preface requested by Umberto Eco if Trawny had not published the Black Notebooks ? What, for you, is the status of the word “race” today, which has come back into fashion ? What do you say about it in Race sans histoire (Race and Erudition) ?

Maurice Olender: I would probably have tried to say what one can read now in Singulier Pluriel (2020). Mainly this: words are to be taken seriously. Terms, poetic instruments, are also social and political instruments. The word “race” is a painful word. And at first – we forget this – the trajectory of the word “race” tells the story of one of the most “beautiful” words in the French language, the story of a word that “went wrong,” as it incarnated legitimacy itself, lineage, ancestry, or descendance. Mobilized by the academic knowledge of the 19th century, after having “justified” slavery, “white-washed” and “authorized” colonialism, the theories of “race” subsequently legitimized the genocides of the 20th century—including in Rwanda.

Even in the United States, where the term “race” can be understood not in a “biological” but rather “social” and “political” sense, numerous are the scholars and writers (I am thinking in particular of John Edgar Wideman) who now tell us that, beneath the notion of “race”, when you scratch the surface of the semantic tissue, you find quite quickly the notions of the “natural” and the “essential”. These past years, all that has been said about “race” can be related to (and compared with) what has been said about “sex”, whether that be in discourses stigmatizing the “female sex” or in the various forms of homophobia. Including the recent reception of the notion of “femicide”. In my seminars, I have often examined this “functional pair”, at once semantic, political, philosophical, and religious—“sex and race”—which is the same word in various languages (Geschlecht in German, genos in Greek, etc.).

It must not be forgotten that even the worst violence wishes to cloak itself in “legitimacy”. Beginning in the 19th century, what conferred legitimacy was no longer religion, but rather science. We had moved on, beyond the “fate” (a theological notion) of peoples, to “instinct” and to “race” (a “scientific” notion linked with the taxonomies of the 19th century). Which is one of the keys to the title Race and Fate.

And what about the word “race”?

Maurice Olender: In Singulier Pluriel, one can read on page 77: ““Race” was, for over a century, not only a “scholarly fable” but also a “scientific” reality, legitimized and accepted as such. Those who were opposed to this, a minority in the academic world, even if they were among the greatest scholars of their time, were not listened to. Taking a minimum level of semantic responsibility means, it seems to me, signaling to readers that the word “race”, whose recent history has legitimized, up through the laws written by Vichy France, real crimes, merely masked a “scholarly fable”, or if you will, a phantasmagoria. These quotation marks also serve as an alert, to remind everyone that the zaniest phantasms can kill and, in this way, are part of the realities of history. These little angular hooks, mobilizing before our eyes, have the pedagogical vocation of maintaining the keen tensions between memory and forgetting.” What happens when the word “race” loses its quotation marks?

Among the some 250 books you have published in your collection at Seuil, “La Librairie du XXIe siècle”, one finds, among so many others, Sylviane Agacinski, Henri Atlan, the Dardenne brothers, Florence Delay, Daniele Del Giudice, Alain Fleischer, Lydia Flem, Hélène Giannecchini, Jean-Claude Grumberg, Ivan Jablonka, Cristina Peri Rossi (forthcoming in 2023), Michelle Perrot, Jean-Frédéric Schaub, Jean Starobinski, Antonio Tabucchi, Camille de Toledo, and Jean-Pierre Vernant, as well as the posthumous 4 works of Paul Celan, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Georges Perec. Among these “classics”, which traverse times and fashions, there is no title connected with current events, except for two volumes entitled Ta’ayush’(“living together” in Arabic), in connection with the struggle for peace between Israel and Palestine, to which you wrote the preface to volume II.

Maurice Olender: You have a sharp eye. Those two volumes of Journal d’un combat pour la Paix, written by David Shulman, published in 2004 and in 2021 (volume II under the title, Un si sombre espoir) in partnership with Mediapart, (Published in English as Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, University of Chicago Press, 2007) are some of those invisible scoops!

Shulman, an Indologist and poet, recipient of the Israel Prize in 2016, created, with his friends, a nonviolent, Israeli-Palestinian intervention group, inspired by the civil disobedience movement for peace of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Why this, in a collection bringing together scholars and writers? Probably because Schulman, a scholar and poet, in Journal d’un combat pour la paix (Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine), tells the story of an uncommon daily political commitment on the ground. Not a pacifist but an activist for peace in the face of the violence of settlers, he recounts his “convictions anchored in what it means to be human.” Make no mistake: the old Hebrew texts knew that, in every society, in the face of all-too-often violent political power, intellectuals who dreamed of another world were necessary. It’s from the equilibrium of these two poles, often called, too simplistically, a “utopian ideal” and “political realism”, that the least worst outcome can sometime emerge… Let’s return to the civic experience of Ta’ayush. In his journal of everyday struggle, (Dark Hope), Schulman evokes an area of the intimate where the poetic and the political can coincide. This fragmentary life bears the mark of territories of the infra-ordinary. This concept explored by Perec is dynamic: it spurs each of us to see what has ended up becoming invisible. It is just this “becoming invisible” that blinds us in daily life, including in our own communities (watch the last film by the Dardenne brothers, Tori et Lokita), which imperils the trust necessary for sharing. © Maurice Olender – Éditions du Seuil. (Translated from French by Jason Kavett) 

Race and erudition, 2009 (Copyright: Harvard University Press)
About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery since 2005. He lives and works in Paris.