A True Israelite

— Perhaps those who know the late James Darmesteter only from such eulogies of his life and learning as Professor Max Müner has given will hardly realize how essentially this surprising man, with a note of unfinished tragedy about all he undertook, — Orientalist, ultra-Parisian, striving not unsuccessfully to lead modern thought in the ways of a wide philosophy, — was, iu all and through all, a Jew of the Jews. It was not alone the passive melancholy, which grew cynical in Heine, belonging to a race that holds intensely to its inheritance of qualities evolved before classic paganism had moulded the intellect of mankind. The ideas themselves of Professor Darmesteter were those of all the sons of Israel, when they take cognizance of their genuine mental processes. With all his sublimation at the hands of modern culture, with the touching idyl of his married life, he seems never once to have faltered in his belief that salvation is of the Jews. He vainly gave a philosophic interpretation to religious names, and professed that vague rationalism which Renan has made intellectually fashionable. The Weltgeist which had borne him from four thousand years of travail with his race — not the doctrine, but the thing of evolution — produced in him a living utterance of Jewish thought as it is in presence of the revolutionary Zeitgeist. He had not even assimilated by the way the Western inheritance of distinctively Christian thought and feeling.

His father was a poor bookbinder in the little town of Château-Salins in Lorraine, close to what is now the frontier of the German Empire. His mother was of the family of Brandeis, from which have sprung so many of the doctors of the Mosaic law that lie buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Prague, described by Marion Crawford. The father, without much book-learning himself, dreamed of a future in which his sons should be distinguished for wise rabbinical lore. Hoping to better his condition, he came up to Paris when James was three years old. But he only fell the deeper into cruel want. Amid all his struggles, intensified by ill health, he never lost sight of the ideal life he had planned for his two sons. The spirit of solidarity, which is the strength and the prime offense of the Jewish community, allowed him to realize his aim beyond all his expectations, though he lived not to see it.

The two boys, from the bosom of their family, drew a thorough acquaintance with the German and French languages, and that familiarity with liturgical Hebrew which is found in the stricter, old-fashioned Jewish circles. The Israelite consistory (the organization in which the French state recognizes the Jewish religion as one of the official churches) has in Paris its own higher school of the Talmud Thorah. Here, besides the religious education which is its reason for existence, instruction is given in all the studies required by the government programmes of the university. Arsène Darmesteter, who was the elder by three years, had no other collegiate training than this. How sure it must have been is shown by the position he took immediately afterwards among the chosen pupils of M. Gaston Paris, the founder of Romance philology in France. In 1872, when only twenty-six years of age, he was named maître de conferences at the Ecole des Hautes-Etudes. The father had died in 1868, before seeing more than the dawn of promise in the, school record of his sons, with both of whom the frail body seemed like a sheath overworn by the keen sword of the spirit within.

Arsène, who had himself been prepared for the rabbinate, had induced the father to send his brother James to complete his studies for the bachelor’s degree in letters in the government schools. This was undoubtedly to the great advantage of the boy’s literary training. He was successively a day-scholar at the Lycée Charlemagne, which occupies the pre-revolutionary house of the Jesuits, and at the Lycée Condorcet, which is similarly in a former convent of Capuchin friars. The mere buildings convey little of the spirit of the mediæval Church to tlieir present inmates ; but James Darmesteter brought with him a tradition of things which has braved the storms of all the ages. He distinguished himself in mathematics, to which for a moment he thought of giving himself up ; he bore off the prize of rhetoric, in the general competition of all the Paris colleges ; and he had his day dream, with Hebrew versatility, of writing for the stage. But his whole fife had prepared him to appreciate tlie subtle philosophies of Oriental religious and literatures ; and he entered into tlie school where his brother was a teacher, as a pupil of Bréal in philology.

Three years later, at the same age as his brother was when promoted, he was recognized by his masters as their equal. He had astonished the learned world by a first volume, — Haurvatât et Amerêtât, — in which he explained intelligibly the divinities of ancient Persia, — a land wherein no one had seen clearly since the death of Eugène Burnouf. Two years passed, and the Ecole des Hautes-Etudes called him to teach Zend, and he again showed his science by publishing a volume — Ormazd et Ahriman — on that problem of the two essential principles, good and evil, which Persian religion passed on to the Manicheans of St. Augustine’s time, and which the saint, some say, handed down to John Calvin. Professor Max Müller now confided to him the important translation of the Zend Avesta for his collection of the sacred books of the East. The profane world has been astonished at reading the high eulogium given to the mere scholarship of James Darmesteter by the Oxford professor ; it was merited long before he had reached his thirtieth year.

At this time, by a patriotic turn, he compiled a volume of readings in French history. In 1882 he was chosen secretary of the Société Asiatique, where, in succession to Renan, he was obliged to write those difficult and exhaustive accounts, which are published every two years, of all that has been done in France in the domain of Oriental studies. In 1885 the College de France made a place for him as professor of “ the languages and literature of Persia.” He was already coming to be known to the world at large for his clear, broad views of all that concerns the East. It was in this year that his study of the Mahdi appeared, with its complete summing up of the religious history of Islam. The following’ year he was sent out to India, with the special mission of investigating the difficult problems of the Afghan language in its home. The Parsees, of whose ancestor Zoroaster he had written things unknown to themselves, received him as an envoy of Western science. He delighted them with a conference on the five religions, Jewish, Christian, Mussulman, Indian, and Zoroastrian. In the two volumes he had already published of “ Iranian studies,” he had shown the distinction of what is called the Zend from the old Persian of inscriptions, from which, through the Pehlvi and Parsee (in Arabic letters), we come to the modern language of Persia. In the modern Afghan he found the direct derivative of the language of the A vesta, and he gathered the material of two volumes of “ popular songs of the Afghans.” In all these studies, to which should be added a work on Aryan cosmogonies, he sought out the successive elaboration of a primitive religion by the varying influx of Aryans and Semites (Mussulmans). According to him, the religious evolution of humanity is “ the only guiding line by which we can follow the evolution of the life of peoples.”

Shortly after his return to Prance, in 1888, he lost his brother Arsène, who died of a disease of the heart at the age of forty-two. James piously edited the Reliques Scientifiques of one who had taken a fixed place among the great authorities on French philology. Few have read more of the life of history and psychology in the dried-up words of an infant language. Next came the event which has always seemed to his friends the crown and consolation of his life of ceaseless labor. “ James ” Darmesteter (by a presentiment he had always written his name in English fashion) was married to the refined English poetess known as Mary Robinson. It does not belong to a stranger to say more. The new interests of their conjoined lives are equally to be seen in his essays on English literature — Shakespeare, Byron, Wordsworth, Browning — and in her works (written in French which the Academy has crowned) on Renaissance tales and the chronicles of mediæval Froissart. The husband seems lately to have aimed, beyond scholarship, at the larger influence of literature, in his Revue de Paris.

The last great work of James Darmesteter was entitled by him Prophets of Israel. With no pretense to faith in the dogmatic, sense, he maintains the thesis dear to his soul from childhood, — perhaps even from the prenatal aspirations of his mother’s race. The world must come back to learn from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. He makes no place for the Christ of Nazareth. Whatever secret sympathies he may have had with the Christianity that trod down his people in transforming the world, he hides with studied reserve. He sees in his people’s chosen prophets the two ideas which are perennially to regenerate the world : the divine unity, which, in the light of modern science, he interprets to be “ the unity of law ; ” and Messianisme, which to him is the “progress ” coming from expectation. This, at least, is of plainer utterance than Renan’s attempted harmony of past and present. Perhaps it is equally Christian. Those who find only disaster in the fading away of all high ideals will regret the disappearance from the seething world of Paris letters of that scanty, almost deformed body which held the strong soul-energy of James Darmesteter.