overemphasis on magic

thompson at handel.jlc.net thompson at handel.jlc.net
Thu May 30 17:30:00 UTC 1996

I would like to thank Jan Houben for his recent posting re magic, for that
in fact is the issue that most concerned me, in the posting that has
otherwise led to the text vs theory discussion [for me an unintended

His remarks show that, in his case, it is *not* a matter of mere lip
service: he has persuaded me that he uses both hands, and both of them very
well.  The problems that Houben poses are deep and perhaps intractable.
They make it extremely difficult for us to gain access to that
much-discussed but little understood thing, "the Vedic world-view."  If
access to that view were easy, i.e., if I felt that I understand what I
read in the RV, I would not have felt the need to have invested so much of
my time in studying it. It is precisely because I do not understand that I
am interested.

It is fascinating, to me, as a philologist, to study, e.g., RV 4.42, an
Atmastuti, about which many of the best Vedicists of the last 100 years,
laboring greatly, can come to *no basic agreement whatsoever* about the
simple matter of *who is speaking*!

As for the linguistic turn referred to by Houben, I have taken it.  It is a
major reason why I think that discussion of "magical grammar" is necessary.
That language appears to be inextricably woven into the fabric of the
cosmos is a rather well-known Vedic metaphor that is, I think, largely
consistent with the paradigm shift that has recently occurred.  Perhaps
this makes it more likely that we can make some progress in understanding
"the Vedic world-view."

In Elizarenkova's new book we see quite strongly the influence of Saussure,
Benveniste, Jakobson, and the Moscow-Tartu school of semiotics, as well as
a round-up of all of the usual suspects in Vedic studies.  The semiotic
approach that she has adopted, along with Toporov, Ivanov, Oguibenine, et
al., is valuable in ways that I cannot go into here.  Suffice it to say
that she too uses both hands well.

As for the term "magical grammar", it is Elizarenkova's.  But she does not
give an elaborate defense of it, nor can her book [devoted to poetics] be
used as a starting point for critical reflections re magic.  However, her
view is, as far as I can see, entirely consistent with the one set forth in
Tambiah's book [again, cf. his reference to Burke's definition of magic as
"primitive rhetoric"].  If I can find the time, I will try to develop these
ideas myself.

Best wishes,
George Thompson

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