Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A glimpse into a great mind: Jonathan Z. Smith

[Editor's note: One of my purposes in writing
Wide Awake Minds is to publicly recognize and draw attention to intellectual and academic achievement. In the coming months, I hope to highlight the achievements of many thinkers and self-educators by sharing excerpts from their books and interviews that highlight their love of learning, their commitment to education, and their individual learning styles and research methods.]

Jonathan Z. Smith is a historian of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

(Via his faculty website:) Smith's research has focused on such wide-ranging subjects as ritual theory, Hellenistic religions, nineteenth-century Maori cults, and the notorious events of Jonestown, Guyana. Some of his works include Map Is Not Territory; Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown; and To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual.

From Smith, Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion:

All of these inchoate musings became clearer when I accidentally came across a copy of a journal with (Ernst) Cassirer's 1945 article, "Structuralism in Modern Linguistics," in a 10 cents barrel in a Fourth Avenue used bookstore. ...I don't think I had ever been as impressed with a mind at work as I was with Cassirer's.
The more than thirty years I have spent teaching at the University of Chicago has defined my work. ...The University's commitment to letting a mind go where it will resulted in a diversity of appointments, until the ultimate freedom, granted in 1982, of being without departmental affiliation as the Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor of the Humanities.
Moving to Chicago in the late 60s was to enter into Mircea Eliade's orbit at the height of his influence. Eliade had been, for me, a model of what it might be to be a historian of religion. He seemed to have read everything to be able to place the most variegated data within coherent structures. While a graduate student, I set out to read nearly every work cited by Eliade in his extraordinary bibliographies in Patterns in Comparative Religion, hiring tutors to teach me the requisite languages. These readings constituted my education in the field.
It was during this period of "playing in the stacks," supported by a Yale Junior Sterling Fellowship, that, having read John Livingstone Lowes's description of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's reading habits (Lowes, The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination [1927; reprint, New York, 1959], 30-36), I developed a set of reading rules I have followed ever since. These include: always read the entire chapter of a book in which a reference you are looking for occurs, then read at least the first and last chapters; always skim the entire volume of a journal in which you are seeking a particular article, then read the tables of contents for the entire run of the journal; after locating a particular volume on the shelves, always skim five volumes to the left and to the right of it; always trace citations in a footnote back to their original sources. ...Later, I added: do not teach or discuss a figure unless you have read the total corpus of their work as available to you.
The label 'historian' is the one I am most comfortable with.... Whether global in their reach or preoccupied with one limited segment of human activity, historians share an uncommon faith in the revelatory power of a telling detail, a small item that opens up a complex whole and that thereby entails a larger set of intellectual consequences.

From Smith, "The Necessary Lie: Duplicity in the Disciplines":

When we conceal from our students (the hard work of academic research), that which is actually the way we earn our bread and butter, we produce a number of consequences. I remember testifying once before the California state legislature and facing a legislator who wanted to know why professors should be paid to read novels, when the legislator himself read novels on the train every day. Well, that was the price of our disguising the work that goes into things.

There are, I think, more serious educational consequences. If we present the work as perfect or as work without a revisionary history, then we present a work that no student could hope to emulate. Indeed it serves, if it serves at all, as a standard for how far below that standard the student falls. If we present the material without displaying the effort that goes with it, students tend to conclude that things are true or false, or alternatively, that it's entirely a matter of their opinion whether the object is exemplary. In that case, what we have is a contrast between his or her feelings and my feelings. Thus, in the name of simplification, what we really end up doing is mystifying the objects we teach at the introductory level.

Excerpts from an interview with Smith conducted by Chicago Maroon reporter Supriya Sinhababu on 6/2/08:

SS: How about e-mail?

JS: I've never used a computer.

SS: Never?

JS: No.

SS: So do you typewrite all your papers?

JS: Yup. Or handwrite them. ...I take Marx very seriously, I think [the computer] alienates the worker from his production.... With a typewriter, I hit a key, and it goes bam. I understand that: I made that letter happen.

SS: What got you interested in the religions that you study?

JS: Because they're funny. They're interesting in and of themselves. They relate to the world in which I live, but it's like a fun house mirror: Something's off. It's not quite the world I live in, yet it's recognizable. So that gap interested me. And so I specialized in religions that are dead, which has the great advantage that nobody talks back. No one says, "That's not what I heard last Sunday!" Everybody's dead. And I like that. Now, I sometimes have to deal with religions that keep going. And they're more problematic because then you deal with people who believe things.
I also think that whether you like it or you don't like it, (religion has) been a part of the world, and remains a part of the world that has a lot to do with what people do. And so I think if you think it's a worthwhile task to try to understand other people, then you probably haven't given up on trying to understand yourself. ...Whether (or not) an individual sees themselves as religious, there is still enough embedded in the culture in which they live (that), to some degree, the eyeglasses through which they look at the world are shaped by those religions.

SS: You mentioned that your teaching style is peculiar. Can you describe what you mean by that?

JS: ...I try, I suppose, very hard — someone once said religion is a topic you have to un-teach before you teach, because in some sense, everybody comes in with an idea in their head, so they're obviously sure that they know something about it. Your job is to suggest, without being incredibly in their face, that they don't. So you have to take it apart, respectfully, but nonetheless take it apart.
For (students) the word belief means only religious. I'd never quite realized this before. They don't have beliefs about science, or beliefs about Obama or beliefs about War and Peace. They only have beliefs about religion. If you say "what do you think about..." that's not beliefs! So somehow beliefs isn't about "thinking about," first of all; that's the first thing I learned from my students.
SS: So do you consider yourself one of those people who's in-between [in terms of religious belief]?

JS: Oh, I would hope so. In between is where you always are. If you want one word from me I'm a translator. That's what I do. I translate in both directions.
Martin Luther says, "What think you of Jesus Christ?" is the only question! Well that's the only question, but what hundreds of questions are wrapped up in that question?
SS: I don't know if you if you've heard of this website — probably not, but it's called, and your reviews are glowing.

JS: I've never heard of such a thing. And I don't like the idea. ...

Well I think [] is an awful idea. And what good does it do? I mean, I've been married for nearly 50 years, I'm not on the market. What other reason would one have for such a thing? ...

No, I've been spared much by never—I've never seen the Internet. And my son endlessly explains to me that I should say that rather than "I've never seen the Web." I haven't seen that one either! He says I sound very ignorant if I say I've never seen the Web....

One (college) major is bad enough. I would like to abolish majors altogether. So two is unbelievable. ...Majors I think are of no use to anybody.