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Anatoly Liberman responds to John Hines’s Review

— Posted on 16th November 2020

After the publication of John Hines’s review of Anatoly Liberman’s book In Prayer and Laughter: Essays on Medieval Scandinavian and Germanic Mythology, Literature, and Culture (Paleograph Press, 2016), in Folklore 131, no. 3 (September 2020), Prof. Liberman sent us the following response, and Prof. Hines sent the reply that follows the response below.

Response:  Author’s reply to review. 

This review contained several remarks about my age, my lack of modesty, and my past, but no analysis of my reconstructions. Alongside the epithets ‘well-informed’ and ‘engaging’, ‘provocative’, ‘near-obsessive’, ‘insufferable’, and ‘risqué’ appear. Professor Hines apparently disliked the book so much that he even found fault with its title. Such a review hardly calls for a rejoinder, but two points in it may interest the readers of Folklore, and that is why I decided to write a response.

I am said to be ‘dismissive of the impersonal structuralism of the twentieth century—of Dumézil, Lévi-Strauss, and Chomsky’.  I have been a structuralist all my life, but I do not understand ‘impersonal’ in this context. (Incidentally, Chomsky occupies no place in my discussion of myths.) I am not dismissive of my illustrious predecessors; I am critical of them and offer my arguments. But if Professor Hines can explain to what extent invoking the idea of neutralization helps us to understand the evolution of Loki; where my critique of Dumézil’s thoughts on Loki, Týr, and others is wrong; or perhaps how the ideas of generative linguistics advance our understanding of mythology and folklore, I am ready to listen.

More important is the harsh statement that I provided ‘caricatures of medieval narrators as infantile artists with a narrow range of vision, who had not mastered the secret of perspective, and who knew no irony’. I argue that the medieval mentality was in principle different from the mentality of the post-Renaissance man. It is widely known (see Zelinskii and Olrik, both discussed in my book) that ancient and medieval narrators did not possess the technique to describe actions happening simultaneously in two different places. Students of folklore rarely refer to Zelinskii’s Law, although Vladimir Propp referred to it more than once. The inability to be in two places at once, as it were, is akin to the lack of perspective in painting. The narrative is flat. Once that barrier was overcome, many more features emerged in the art of storytelling: hypotaxis appeared and partly ousted parataxis; metaphors gained ground alongside similes; figurative idioms flooded modern languages; and irony, which presupposes distancing from the object, gained a foothold. All this amounted to a revolution. The modern sense of humour is thus post-medieval.

Professor Hines states that my chapter on laughter offers ‘a more positive, life-affirming view, encompassing optimism’. I am not sure he understood that chapter: its main point is that medieval laughter had nothing to do with optimism. Finally, I argued that the concept of authorship has changed somewhat between the Middle Ages and the present. This is not a caricature. Old authors were not infantile: they lived in a different intellectual climate. In my book and in the more recent one (The Saga Mind and the Beginnings of Icelandic Prose, 2018), I was guided by the non-identity hypothesis and tried to show the difference between two types of mentality: pre-modern and modern. If Professor Hines finds this view wrong, I shall be grateful for a substantive discussion, preferably without irrelevant remarks.

Anatoly Liberman, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA


Response: Reviewer’s reply to author’s response.

I am genuinely sorry that Professor Liberman was aggrieved at my review, and pleased that he has been given the opportunity to express this; while I am also able here to acknowledge the situation and respond one final time. I am no less truly perplexed at the range of points he considers tendentious. There is, for instance, nothing disparaging in the relevant references to his age and experience; the point made about the term ‘prayer’ in his title compared with the contents of the book is serious and valid; and there can be nothing offensive about labelling a proposition that the opening sequence of the runic fuþark deliberately uses the noun which is Vut in modern German as ‘risqué’ (this vulgar term might be identified as ‘the c-word’, or appear in older dictionaries as ‘fem. pudendum’).  Liberman chooses to re-emphasize his structuralist allegiance, but my review does not say that he is opposed to structuralism per se — nor indeed are Olrik or Propp listed with those who are repeatedly criticized in the book for interpretations representing a rigid and ‘impersonal’ structuralism. What I mean by that can in fact be illustrated by quoting Liberman’s summary characterization of the linguistics of Chomsky and Halle as ‘mechanical and barren theory’ (25).

The key foci of my review are two core aspects of In Prayer and Laughter. One is the fact that the analysis persistently recurs to a grim characterization of ancient Germanic cognition, which indeed Liberman is at pains to reinforce where I suggested a glimpse of a happier situation might be represented. But above all, this publication is insistently autobiographical; attention to the self-characterization of the author is fundamental. There I have not only been honest, but in fact positive and sympathetic. Pioneering scholars need strong self-confidence, which is not synonymous with immodesty. It is mistaken to assume that the respect implicit in a carefully considered, evaluative engagement with a substantial work of scholarship actually represents personal mockery. I disagree with what is argued in this book on key matters, but that does not mean I ‘dislike’ and reject every single argument in it. I hope that it will be widely read, at least within the relatively small circle able to understand it, and if this review can assist readers to cope with its idiosyncrasies—while inevitably also embodying my own idiosyncrasies—then I shall be glad of that.

John Hines, Cardiff University, Wales