Mourning Philology: Art and Religion at the Margins of the Ottoman Empire

Mourning Philology: Art and Religion at the Margins of the Ottoman Empire

Mourning Philology: Art and Religion at the Margins of the Ottoman Empire

Mourning Philology: Art and Religion at the Margins of the Ottoman Empire

Synopsis

Pagan life seduces me a little more with each passing day. If it were possible today, I would change my religion and would joyfully embrace poetic paganism, wrote the Armenian poet Daniel Varuzhan in 1908. During the seven years that remained in his life, he wrote largely in this "pagan" vein. If it was an artistic endeavour, why then should art be defined in reference to religion? And which religion precisely? Was Varuzhan echoing Schelling's Philosophy of Art? Mourning Philology draws on Varuzhan and his work to present a history of the national imagination, which is also a history of national philology, as a reaction to the two main philological inventions of the nineteenth century: mythological religion and the native. In its first part, the book thus gives an account of the successive stages of the orientalist philology. The last episode in this story of national emergence took place in 1914 in Constantinople, when the literary journal Mehyan gathered around Varuzhanthe great names to come of Armenian literature in the diaspora.

Excerpt

In winter semester 1802–03, F. W. J. von Schelling gave one of the last courses he was to give at the University of Jena. It was entitled Philosophie der Kunst (Philosophy of Art). There is no mistaking the significance of this choice. For the first time ever, someone holding a chair of philosophy was giving a course on art, thus conferring upon art the dignity of being something more than an object of reflection: namely, a form of philosophy. Schelling uses a somewhat different term: he calls art, simply, a “power,” that is, a presentation of the Absolute as a whole raised to a certain power. To give his course, he mobilized all the philological knowledge he had amassed in the few years that he had just spent in Jena; most of it stemmed from exchanges with the Schlegel brothers and their wives or mistresses. Not only did Schelling steal all their philological knowledge; the elder Schlegel also continued to provide him, in letter after letter, with all the information he needed to meet the philological requirements of his philosophical program, and he did so most graciously, although Schelling had diverted rather more than just Schlegel’s philological expertise to his own ends. in his course, then, Schelling writes: “The basic law of every figuration of the gods is the law of beauty.” Even if this passage does not spell it out and even if Schelling seems to be very explicit when he says “every figuration of the gods,” what is in question here is plainly figuration, that is to say, mythological production. At the same time, of course, religion is in question as well: not just any religion, but the kind the nineteenth century would somewhat later label “mythological religion” in order to distinguish it from “prophetic” or “monotheistic” religion. It was already Aryans versus Semites, and none of the subsequent scholarly precautions would alter that in the least. of course, a philology of the Semites would also eventually come into existence. But, plainly, philology began as Aryan philology. the philology of the Semites sprang up only in counterpoint to it and in reaction against it; moreover, as a general rule, it borrowed its instruments and concepts from its predecessor. It was also careful to point out, at all times, that the Aryans’ “mythopoetic” capacity had philological precedence—meaning their capacity (good or bad) for fabricating myths and figuring gods. in any case, there we have it: art is at the origins of religion.

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