Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.25

Marco V. García Quintela, Dumézil: une introduction.   Crozon, France:  Editions Armeline, 2001.  Pp. 222.  ISBN 2-910-87816-3.  EUR 14.48 (pb).  

Reviewed by David W. Frauenfelder, The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (
Word count: 1731 words

A translation from the 1999 Spanish original, this modest-looking but dense paperback shows on the cover a portrait of its subject, Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumézil (1898-1986, hereafter D.), in negative, edge-glow black and white. The photo effect renders the face hardly recognizable; every feature, every line and wrinkle, becomes harsh, abstract. It is not an inviting cover, but it effectively portrays a leading thesis of the book: the image of a human being is easy to distort.

The title of the book is misleading also. To be sure, the first section ("Dumézil: une introduction") gives a valuable biography and summary of D.'s work, while the second ("Anthologie de textes de Georges Dumézil") excerpts relevant quotations from D.'s scholarship. The third section ("L''Affaire' Dumézil: histoire de l'historiographie ou chasse aux sorcières?"), however, is the true main event, for the first two sections anticipate and set up the third -- indeed, they exist for the sake of the third. This is not a reference book per se. García Quintela (G.) continues an almost two decades-long discussion, in which much sweat and printer ink has been expended, to determine to what extent Indo-European triumphalism, as well as sympathies with Nazism, skewed D.'s scholarly program. G. is firmly on the side of D. as honest scholar smeared by jealous rivals, but the case is not so clear-cut. And G.'s task is made less palatable by the use of D. as a stamp of authenticity in Indo-European studies with neo-Nazi or rightist agenda.1

Throughout the book, G. charges himself with the almost impossible task of advocating for all of D.'s theories, ideas, and associations that others have called into question. Almost impossible, because D.'s career spanned seven decades, with a publishing record to match. D.'s Indo-European tri-partite ideology is an immensely complex construct which he developed in the late thirties and continued to refine and modify until his death. It holds that peoples and cultures of Indo-European (and only Indo-European) linguistic ancestry show a tendency to develop an elaborate ideological system in myth and religion which features a tri-partite functional hierarchy of priest/kings, warriors, and farmers, in that order. Reductive, exclusive, impossible to prove: these are some of the objections registered against D.'s work and some of the tough challenges G. faces in D.'s defense. But perhaps most serious are the charges of D.'s support for fascism before World War II.

An outsider, his mother from longtime Algerian colonists, D. spent the earliest years of his career in Turkey (where he developed a lifelong interest in Caucasian languages), then in Sweden. He returned to France in 1935, where he found a post in the École pratique des hautes études, during a time of great political unrest and confusion. Here is where the focus on D.'s political views has been harshest: during this time D., under the name Georges Marcenay, wrote editorials for two pro-fascist newspapers (27-8). G. goes to great lengths in this biographical chapter, as well as later on, to prove that these political views did not affect D.'s scholarship. He points to D.'s friendships with Jews, Marxists and other opponents of fascism, as well as his membership in the French Loge maçonnique, a secret society which the Vichy (Nazi-controlled) government considered subversive (34).

In 1938, D's tri-partite ideology had the first of its many blooming seasons, and in 1949, D. received a chair in the prestigious Collège de France. In 1979, he was accepted into the innermost circle of French intellectual life, the Académie Française. At the time of his death in 1986, the "'Affaire' Dumézil" had already begun.

In the second part of the first section, G. labors to explain the basics of the Indo-European tri-partite ideology, and digests several of the questions within the system which D. worked on throughout his career. D.'s comparatism was highly eclectic and followed its own rules. Sources (few, see 51-2) for the tri-partite ideology could come from texts or rituals of any era, as long as they were used by Indo-European peoples. In one comparison, for example, traditional Armenian folk-epics stood side-by-side with Arthurian legends and French medieval romans (174-5). Ancient material, especially from Sanskrit and Latin, held equal status with later sources. D. supported this synchronic view by arguing that he was not tracing the origin and development of the ideology, only its existence and validity. He was also at pains to show that, unlike the views of early sociologist Emile Durkheim, whom he had followed at one time, the ideology was not a reflection of any social reality. Still, as aggressively anti-concrete as this theory ended being, D. insisted on its pervasiveness in and especially on its exclusivity to the Indo-European language family, even after reports came in of possible tri-partite structures in places as far-flung as Japan and America.

The selection of quotations is useful. Instead of cramming the main narrative with hundreds of footnotes to works which may not be readily available to all, G. chooses 25 representative quotations from D. and references them frequently. They give the scholar a chance to speak for himself in relatively long (page or more) passages. They also reflect G.'s view of D. as humble, honest, clear-thinking, always refining and modifying his theories, but for sound reasons. He begins the selection with a fireworks display of captatio benevolentiae, in which D. admits in a 1980's interview that he stretched the evidence in his first long comparative work, Le Festin d'immortalité (1924). "...j'avais tenté de reconstituer un 'cycle' déjà indo-européen de l'ambroisie... Et j'en ai fabriqué oú il'y en a pas... Mon livre est d'une grande maladresse... (91)" The intent is to portray D. as one who, far from skewing his research for political reasons, admitted graciously when he was wrong.

The reader, thus, is well prepared for the final "witch-hunt" section, which contains seven chapters discussing and refuting separate attacks on D. -- with Arnoldo Momigliano, Christiano Grottanelli, Carlo Ginzburg, and Bruce Lincoln as principal antagonists. G. seeks to prove that these scholars are not critiquing D. honestly, but for diverse psychological reasons, such as displaced self-criticism (Momigliano) and greed for status in their chosen fields (Lincoln, Grottanelli). Since, furthermore, it is difficult to critique D.'s work because of its huge breadth and depth (i.e. "en partant de l'intérieur", 179), misguided students of myth must attack D.'s personal beliefs and discredit his scholarship "en partant de l'extérieur", that is, politically (180).

Momigliano was the first, in 1983 (before D.'s death), to accuse the distinguished researcher of Nazi leanings. G. does not dwell on this piece of criticism, but pounces on a supposed misunderstanding on Momigliano's part, which concerns tri-partite ideology derived from narratives about marriage and wills in Indo-European cultures. The reader is invited to infer the Italian historiographer's inability to comprehend D.'s work and thus his need to attack D. personally. Not one to lose an opportunity, G. is quick to point out Momigliano's own membership in the Italian Fascist party, and speculates that Momigliano may be choosing D. "comme un alter ego sur lequel projeter la vision autocritique de sa propre position politico-académique des années trente...(146)" An eye-popping blast of ad hominem fury which does nothing to further G.'s argument.

In the chapter on Ginzburg, who developed Momigliano's views on D.'s political beliefs, G. concentrates his defense on D.'s admitted support for Mussolini -- which he explains as a reaction against the confusion and aimlessness in French politics in the late thirties. Especially for intellectuals, G. argues, the political aporia, caused mainly by the reigning Front Populaire, drove many to positions which later would be considered untenable (154). He argues that to blame anyone for being a product of his own times is going too far; to say that D. should have recognized the dangers of fascism is an abuse of hindsight. Ginzburg's program is one of "denigrement (156)", therefore, rather than honest scholarly reflection, a suggestive word which he will develop further in the chapters on Grottanelli and Lincoln.

G. assails Lincoln's book Death, War and Sacrifice (Chicago/London 1991) for its criticism of D., claiming that Lincoln makes several crucial errors of judgment, including guilt by association, and back-reading D.'s ideology from scholarship which has no overt ideological bias (a charge leveled at Ginzburg as well, 148-9). He goes on to challenge Grottanelli along similar lines, arguing first that if Grottanelli cannot succeed at a legitimate refutation of D.'s work, then he must resort to personal attacks -- among others, a damning comparison of D.'s political stance in the 1930's with that of his colleague Marc Bloch, a Jewish member of the Resistance who was executed during World War II.

The critique of Grottanelli and Lincoln again turns contentiously ad hominem: "En définitive, Lincoln cherche à se positionner dans ... les milieux scientifiques d'influence et de pouvoir (170)... [Grotanelli's critique] s'agit d'un combat symbolique pour la préeminence intellectuelle dans le milieu de l'étude comparée des religions... (192)" The similar vocabulary and thought of these two accusations, combined with no direct evidence for either of them, makes them seem pro forma, and weakens G.'s credibility.

In the preface, medievalist Christian-J. Guyonvarc'h, a strong supporter of D.'s theories, introduces the author, a Profesor titular of Ancient History at the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, and praises him for his defense of D., pointing to the fortunate irony that a man from Spain would be the one to defend and explain the work of one of the greatest scholars from France (8). But the moral dimension of this story cannot be closed by demonstrating that D. himself did not mix politics with scholarship. Scholarship can be used for good or ill, and theories of Indo-European unity have been used more than once as ideological battering rams.2. G. would have made a more generous and therefore better defense by concentrating his fire not only on D.'s opponents, but also on the misuse of Indo-European studies, and by honestly acknowledging and treating Bruce Lincoln's claim that some Indo-Europeanists even today use D. uncritically to pursue morally dubious scholarly programs.

This volume is most effective as a statement of the brilliance -- and convolutions -- inherent in D.'s work. Guyonvarc'h writes that when D. returned from a trip to the United States in 1975, he had the feeling of not having been very well understood (7). G.'s book illustrates why that reaction was not just possible, but inevitable.


1.   This according to Bruce Lincoln's Theorizing Myth (Chicago 1998, my review in BMCR 2000.07.29). It is a readily accessible work which attempts (in a larger program of scrutinizing comparative mythology as moral act) in an even-handed way to assess what D. believed politically, how it affected his writings, and how others use him (see especially 121-37, 141-146). Further, the useful themed issue of Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft (1998.2), not included in G.'s bibliography, treats "L'Affaire" in a fair, solid, and illuminating fashion. Relevant material on this issue is archived at
2.   This type of struggle is not lost on me, since one of my interests is to slow down the blind acceptance of Joseph Campbell's theories of myth in secondary school textbooks. I have recently published an article discussing this issue (among others) in a new journal called Anvil; for an offprint, please email me.

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