overemphasis on magic

thompson at handel.jlc.net thompson at handel.jlc.net
Sat May 25 00:26:06 UTC 1996

Jan Houben's recent remarks offer an interesting challenge to all
Indologists, particularly in light of the previous remarks of Michael
Witzel [Re: PTS style Tipitaka CD-ROM] concerning 'the general contempt for
"textual studies"' -- in particular among his American audience.  Witzel on
the one hand calls for the editing of more texts; Houben on the other urges
us to get current with our theory [anthropological theory in particular].
Witzel urges us to return to the Ivory tower [assuming that the editing of
texts is an Ivory tower sort of preoccupation], while Houben suggests that
we have become irrelevant by staying there.  Clearly, we are being called
in two different directions here.

This is an issue which "the American audience", in particular, should
perhaps confront.  As for the overemphasis on magic in Max Deeg's book on
altindische Etymologie: this is another issue, which also should be
confronted.  While Houben has convinced me that Deeg's theoretical
foundations are not up-to-date, he has not persuaded me that the discussion
of magic is now passé.  In fact Tambiah's book is no less than a
continuation of a preoccupation with magic that goes back nearly thirty
years [to his 1968 article on "The Magical Power of Words"].  It would seem
to me rather self-evident that Tambiah has continued to study the problem
of magic precisely because it has seemed to him to be, still, a rather
important one.  If anything, Tambiah's book would seem to be a call to
*further* exploration of the problem of magic.  Look at the evolution of
Tambiah's thought: in his earlier, now classic, articles he resorts to
speech act theory [cf. esp. "A Performative Approach to Ritual"].  In the
present book cited by Houben, he has added Wittgenstein [cf. his remarks on
the Golden Bough] and Kenneth Burke [cf. his characterization of magic as
"primitive rhetoric"], among others.

In light of Mikael Actor's recent suggestions, perhaps I may be allowed to
quote myself.  I have recently written a review article [to appear soon in
IIJ] of Elizarenkova's new book [mentioned already on this thread].  In it
I said the following:

'Elizarenkova also offers a provocative discussion of the overall "magical
grammar" of the Rgveda [pp. 291ff., et passim],which as far as I can see
opens up new vistas for the study of Rgvedic rhetoric: for essentially what
a "magical grammar" amounts to is a "poetic grammar," i.e., a grammar of
poetic devices.  This discussion represents a remarkable measure of
progress in the development of an adequate picture of the Vedic world-view,
in which magic undoubtedly plays a crucial role: for it asserts [or at
least suggests] that magic is fundamentally a matter of rhetoric, and vice
versa, that rhetoric in Vedic is also fundamentally a matter of magic. In
my view, this is a crucial issue for Vedic studies which deserves much more
serious thought than it has, until now, received.'

I still believe that discussion of a magical grammar is crucial for Vedic
studies, and that is why I have raised the question re Deeg's "overemphasis
on magic."

George Thompson

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list