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Max Muller

The Essential Max Muller: On Language, Mythology, and Religion selected and edited by Jon Stone (Palgrave Macmillan) (PAPERBACK) "A classic," humorist Mark Twain is credited as saying, "is a book that everyone talks about but no one has read." Were Twain alive today he might have said the same of the scholarship of Max Muller (1823-1900), the famed German-born Oxford professor of comparative philology and Vedic studies. A prolific writer and a highly popular lecturer, Muller enchanted the literate public of Victorian England with his learned essays and addresses on subjects as varied and exotic as Asian mythology, Western folklore, comparative linguistics, the philosophy of language and thought, and the origins and historical development of the world's religions. Though having never visited India himself, Muller supported the Indian nationalist struggle for equality with its British rulers. G.W. Trompf points out that while it had been through Muller's published writings that the English public first became introduced to the ancient wisdom of India (ex Oriente lux, light from the East), at the same time "his work was one of the finest symbols of urbane, liberal Oxonian scholarship during the hey-day of the British Raj.” Johannes Voigt notes that Muller's opinions regarding British-Indian affairs had "more in common with those of the leading Indians of his days [sic] than with those of the majority of Englishmen,” with the result that he was more revered in India than in either Britain or his native Germany-and remains so to this day. It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that his Oxford home became a place of pilgrimage for Indian gurus and pandits who traveled westward to see this enlightened sage, a man whom many Hindus called mahatman, great soul.

Max Muller represented the best-and at times the worst-of nineteenth-century intellectual life. His work in the origins and growth of language, mythology, and reli­gion typified Victorian armchair scholarship: bold, adventurous, pioneering, some­times triumphalistic, but always convinced of its social and cultural superiority. To be sure, there is much to admire, much to despise, and much to be embarrassed by, in the antiquated scholarship of the Victorian era as a whole. But as a pivotal period in the history of human ideas, the historical and intellectual import of its scholarly literature should not be ignored by historians or summarily dismissed by present-day researchers as utterly worthless. Rather, it should be read and understood within its own social and cultural context. In the case of the voluminous and, at the time, influential writings of Friedrich Max Muller, this observation proves no less true.

Max Muller was a strong, loud, and sometimes lone voice in many of the major intellectual and political debates of his time, especially over the implications of the reigning Indo-European (or Aryan) linguistic theories on the legitimacy of British colonial rule. Though a religious man, Muller was one of only a few scholars who disagreed with Darwin's theory of the "descent" of man from apes on purely schol­arly, not religious, grounds. Today, Max Muller is largely forgotten. His death in 1900 seems to have confined him to that era, unlike his contemporaries, such as Darwin, Spencer, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, whose works have been revived or at least revisited.' If Muller is read by anyone, it is generally in excerpted form or in very brief passages, passages often unrepresentative of Muller's larger works or excerpts wrested from his masterfully laid out and profusely illus­trated essays. This present anthology, containing some of Muller's best-known essays and public lectures, is meant therefore to correct this unfortunate oversight. The intention behind this anthology is not to defend Max Muller's findings, based as they were on the now-dated linguistic schol­arship of his time, but, like the friendly voice that encouraged St. Augustine with the words tolle lege, the intent here is to invite students, scholars, and those beyond the ivory tower to "take and read." While most scholarship sits idly on dusty library shelves and is opened only occasionally by specialists, those who take and read herein will discover in the works of Max Muller some of the enchantment, as well as a little of the discomfort, that the nineteenth-century English public felt upon encounter­ing exotic religions and mythologies whose spiritual outlook and aspirations differed little-in essence-from their own.

It is M folly, one might say, to judge the value of a person's life's work, even the most idiosyncratic or arcane, without first reading a good portion of it. Indeed, it will surprise many readers how much there is that is of historical and philosophical inter­est in Muller's ambitious efforts to trace "scientifically" the development of human thought in terms of the artifacts of language, mythology, and religion. Moreover, by comparison to many of his starched and stodgy contemporaries, Muller's keen use of language and his expressive style were fluid, felicitous, and highly accessible.' To be sure, some critics have called his style beguiling, as if in exhibiting his skillful and effortless use of language Max Muller were somehow trying to smooth over gaps in his argument. Perhaps, on some points, this observation is true. But to acknowledge gaps or ambiguities in his work does not mean that there is nothing of worth-no useful insights-in what Muller thought or in what he wrote.

Muller himself knew the limits of a scholar's work, especially of one who had lived over three-quarters of a century. As he observed in his unfinished Autobiography published the year after his death, "Another disadvantage from which the aged scholar suffers is that he is blamed for not having known in his youth what has been discovered in his old age, and still violently assailed for opinions he may have uttered fifty years ago.”. The specific essay he had in mind was his letter on the Turanian languages published in 1854, an outmoded linguistic analysis of non-Indo­European and non-Semitic languages that, as Muller complained, "continues to be criticized as if it had been published last year." Moreover, he continued, "though I have again and again protested that I could not possibly have known in 1854 what has been discovered since..., everybody who writes ... seems to be most anxious to show that in 1894 he knew more than I did in 1854. No astronomer is blamed for not having known the planet Neptune before its discovery in 1846, or for having been wrong in accounting for the irregularities of Saturn. But let that pass; I only share the fate of others who have lived too long". Of course, one must approach such works with their obsolescence in mind, much the same way one should read Marx, Nietzsche, or Freud. But to say this is not to say that there is no contemporary value in Victorian scholarship, only that the reader needs to bear in mind the times in which this scholarship was undertaken, the specific questions the scholar sought to answer, and the types of resources at his or her command."

All human knowledge, however antiquated, possesses some value for the present. True, such knowledge may not yield pure gold, but there might still be a few nuggets one can mine, specks of gold ore that can be used to enrich one's knowledge of human history and of human ideas. It is perhaps ironic that what Max Muller had observed in his "Lecture on the Vedas" became true of his own scholarship. For while he thought the Vedic hymns "tedious, low, commonplace," he still believed that "hidden in this rubbish there are precious stones." In the same way, one will find some "precious stones" hidden in the writings of Max Muller, but only if that person is willing to mine them.

Compiling an anthology of the essential writings of E Max Muller is no mean task. While the aim throughout was to include Muller's best-known and most often cited essays and addresses, page limitations have restricted the number of selec­tions to fewer than twenty. As a result, those that have been included represent a mere sampling of his voluminous output, but a sampling, nevertheless, that pres­ents to the reader the range of Muller's research interests in the origins of language, mythology, and religion. In addition, in view of Muller's wide-ranging interests in the comparative study of religion, mythology, folklore, linguistics, metaphysics, and human cognition, the selections in this "essential Max Muller" should be of interest to scholars and students in fields as diverse as religious studies, philosophy, anthropology, early linguistic theory, and the history of Western ideas.

There were a number of problems Stone encountered in editing this collection of essays that needs to be mentioned. The first has to do with the problem of multiple editions of and revisions to his catalogue of works. For instance, there are two published versions of Muller's famous 1870 "Lectures on the Science of Religion," an original edition, first published in 1872 under the title Lectures on the Science of Religion, and an expanded edition, published in 1873, that Muller re-titled Introduction to the Science of Religion (as a point of interest, the latter edition was dedicated to Ralph Waldo Emerson). Further complicating matters, each version ran through several printings in Britain and the United States. Worse still, with each printing, Muller suggested corrections and revisions. In absence, therefore, of a definitive edition, for the selection included in this current anthology, "Lecture One," Stone decided to use the 1872 edition, which is closest to the actual lecture his audiences would have heard him give. It is shorter, "edgier," and less circumspect than Muller's revised and expanded versions.

With respect to other essays in this anthology whose originals were not available to me, Stone  has had to content myself with using Muller's later and sometimes final versions, such as those essays he himself had selected for his Chips from a German Workshop, which by 1881 had grown from two to five volumes, as well as those he republished in his two volumes of Selected Essays (1881). Additionally, the three chapters from Muller's Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1878) reprinted here are from his new edition, published in 1882. For this new edition, Muller updated some of his sources as well as tightened up his prose.

A second set of problems the editor encountered were numerous stylistic and mechanical incongruities. Muller was sometimes inconsistent in his spelling, in English translit­erations of foreign words and phrases, and in his use of accent and stress marks. In addition, at least by modern standards, Muller made awkward use of commas, colons, and dashes and tended to write highly complex and overly long sentences and paragraphs. Many of the inconsistencies, of course, can be accounted for in the stylis­tic differences between his several British and American publishers. But his awkward use of punctuation was probably idiosyncratic. Though, for the reader's benefit, Stone has attempted to bring some consistency in both spelling and punctuation and have sought to reduce and simplify other res extraneae, in the end, it seemed inap­propriate to "restyle" Muller's essays to fit modern tastes. For one thing, Stone did not want to dilute the nineteenth-century "flavour" of Muller's writings; and, for another thing, because a large amount of his published work had been written for lecture audiences, retaining most of the original accent and punctuation marks may preserve for the reader Muller's own speaking style; that is, it may allow the reader to "hear" his voice-which, according to contemporary reports was clear, passionate, erudite, and engaging. For instance, as Nirad Chaudhuri relates, after presenting a lecture on the Science of Language in the Council Chamber at which Queen Victoria and the royal family attended, Muller wrote to his wife that the Queen "listened very atten­tively, and did not knit at all, though the work was brought.” When his lectures are read aloud, Muller's punctuation does indeed add vari­ety to the pacing of his phrases and underscores their aural intensity. What is more, his indulgent use of commas and semicolons lends greater coherence to his long but carefully constructed sentences.

A final set of problems Stone faced in editing this collection was what to do with Muller's lengthy appendices, his block quotations in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian, as well as Middle English, and the many incomplete references and obscure citations in his footnotes. In these instances, as before, it seemed easiest to leave the essays in virtually the same form in which Muller himself had published them. One exception was Muller's inclusion of Latin and Greek quotes in some of his footnotes; another was Muller's lengthy notes and added appendices. With respect to Greek and Latin quotations, if Muller had already quoted their corresponding English transla­tions in the main body of the text, then the editor took the liberty of deleting them as redun­dant. If no translation was provided, and the quotes were important to the flow of Muller's argument, then Stone let them stand both in the text or in the footnote. In some instances, he have inserted translations, either by myself or by much more adept colleagues.

With regard to Stones decision to delete Muller's extraneous notes and appendices: because many of his notes and appendices were added after he had revised his lectures for publication or had updated previously published works-material often added for illustrative purposes-it seemed prudent, given space constraints, to leave them out. The essay most affected by these emendations is "On the Migration of Fables," which Muller had published in two separate essay collections, one of which does not include the added notes and appendices.

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