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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
James Darmesteter (1849–1894)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
A GOOD example of the latter-day enlightened savant is the French Jew, James Darmesteter, whose premature death robbed the modern world of scholarship of one of its most distinguished figures. Scholars who do noble service in adding to the sum total of human knowledge often are specialists, the nature of whose work excludes them from general interest and appreciation. It was not so with this man,—not alone an Oriental philologist of more than national repute, but a broadly cultured, original mind, an enlightened spirit, and a master of literary expression. Darmesteter calls for recognition as a maker of literature as well as a scientist.  1
  The son of a humble Jewish bookbinder, subjected to the disadvantages and hardships of poverty, James Darmesteter was born at Chateau-Salins in Lorraine in 1849, but got his education in Paris, early imbibing the Jewish traditions, familiar from youth with the Bible and the Talmud. At the public school, whence he was graduated at eighteen, he showed his remarkable intellectual powers and attracted the attention of scholars like Bréal and Burnouf, who, noting his aptitude for languages, advised devotion to Oriental linguistics. After several years of uncertainty, years spent with books and in travel, and in the desultory production of poetry and fiction, philological study was undertaken as his life work, with remarkable results. For twenty years he labored in this field, and his appointment in 1882 to succeed Renan as Secretary of the Asiatic Society of France speaks volumes for the position he won. In 1885 he became professor of Iranian languages and literature in the College of France. Other scholastic honors fell to him in due course and good measure.  2
  As a scholar Darmesteter’s most important labors were the exposition of Zoroastrianism, the national faith of ancient Persia, which he made a specialty; and his French translation of and commentary on the Avesta, the Bible of that religion. As an interpreter of Zoroaster he sought to unite synthetically two opposing modern schools: that which relied solely upon native traditions, and that which, regarding these as untrustworthy, drew its conclusions from an examination of the text, supplemented by the aid of Sanskrit on the side of language and of the Vedas on the side of religion. Darmesteter’s work was thus boldly comprehensive. He found in the Avesta the influence of such discordant elements as the Bible, Buddha, and Greek philosophy, and believed that in its present form it was composed at a later time than has been supposed. These technical questions are still mooted points with the critics. The translation of the Avesta will perhaps stand as his greatest achievement. A herculean labor of four years, it was rewarded by the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres with the 20,000-franc prize given but once in a decade for the work which, in the Academy’s opinion, had best served or brought most honor to the country.  3
  But the technical accomplishments of learning represent but a fragment of Darmesteter’s amazing mental activity. He wrote a striking book on the Mahdi, the tenacious belief in the Mohammedan Messiah taking hold on his imagination. He was versed in English literature, edited Shakespeare, and introduced his countrymen to Browning. While in Afghanistan on a philological mission he gathered, merely as a side pursuit, a unique collection of Afghan folk-songs, and the result was a fascinating and valuable paper in a new field. He helped to found a leading French review. Articles of travel, critiques on subjects political, religious, literary, and social, fell fast from his pen. In his general essays on these broader, more vital aspects of thought and life, he is an artist in literary expression, a writer with a distinct and great gift for form. Here his vigorous mind, ample training, his humanistic tastes and humanitarian aspirations, are all finely in evidence.  4
  The English reader who seeks an introduction to Darmesteter is directed to his ‘Selected Essays,’ translated by Helen B. Jastrow, edited with a memoir by Professor Morris Jastrow, Jr. (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston). There is a translation by Ada S. Ballin of his ‘The Mahdi’ (Harper and Brothers, New York); and in the Contemporary Review for January, 1895, is a noble appreciation of Darmesteter by his friend Gaston Paris. In the ‘Sacred Books of the East’ will be found an English rendering of the Avesta by Darmesteter and Mills.  5
  As a thinker in the philosophical sense Darmesteter was remarkable. Early breaking away from orthodox Judaism, his philological and historical researches led him to accept the conclusions of destructive criticism with regard to the Bible; and a disciple of Renan, he became enrolled among those scholars who see in science the one explanation of the universe. But possessing, along with his keen analytic powers, a nature dominantly ethical, he made humanity his idol. His patriotism for France was intense; and, a Jew always sympathetic to the wonderful history of his people,—in his later years by a brilliant, poetical, almost audacious interpretation of the Old Testament,—he found a solution of the riddle of life in the Hebrew prophets. What he deemed their essential faith—Judaism stripped of ritual and legend—he declared to be in harmony with the scientific creed of the present: belief in the unity of moral law,—the Old Testament Jehovah; and belief in the eventual triumph of justice upon this earth,—the modern substitute for the New Testament heaven. This doctrine, which in most hands would be cold and comfortless enough, he makes vital, engaging, through the passionate presentation of an eloquent lover of his fellow-man. In a word, Darmesteter was a Positivist, dowered, like that other noble Positivist George Eliot, with a nature sensitive to spiritual issues.  6
  An idyllic passage in Darmesteter’s toilful scholar life was his tender friendship with the gifted English woman, A. Mary F. Robinson. Attracted by her lovely verse, the intellectual companionship ripened into love, and for his half-dozen final years he enjoyed her wifely aid and sympathy in what seems to have been an ideal union. The end, when it came, was quick and painless. Always of a frail constitution, stunted in body from childhood, he died in harness, October 19th, 1894, his head falling forward on his desk as he wrote. The tributes that followed make plain the enthusiastic admiration James Darmesteter awakened in those who knew him best. The leading Orientalist of his generation, he added to the permanent acquisitions of scholarship, and made his impress as one of the remarkable personalities of France in the late nineteenth century. In the language of a friend, “a Jew by race, a Greek by culture, a Frenchman in heart,” he furnishes another illustration of that strain of genius which seems like a compensatory gift to the Jewish folk for its manifold buffetings at the hand of Fate.  7

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