Religion After Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos, Steven Wasserstrom, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999) 368 pp.

Reviewed by Arthur Versluis, Michigan State University

Without any doubt, these three authors - Scholem, Eliade, and Corbin - are titanic figures in the history of twentieth century religious studies. They were during their lifetimes, and remain today immensely influential, even if their works have been subject not only to scrutiny and criticism but even to dismissal. Indeed, one sometimes wonders if Harold Bloom's earlier notion of how an author must "wrestle" with his predecessors is not even more so at work in fields like religious studies, where one finds Moshe Idel correcting or arguing with Scholem, for instance, and others lining up to dismiss Eliade's works. Wasserstrom's book Religion After Religion fits into just such a context, for in it he explicitly insists that contemporary scholars of religious studies must "recover" from the influence of these figures, must not only "work through them" but "move beyond these authorities"; we must while "rediscovering their legacy," also get over the "trauma caused by our necessary break with their nurturing authority (247)." But one has to ask whether some traumatic break with these figures is necessary, and whether Wasserstrom in his criticisms of them is entirely accurate and fair. In brief: although Religion After Religion is by and large a solid extensive study of the works of these three seminal authors, it is also a book whose basic assumptions and conclusions themselves are problematic, particular as regards Henry Corbin.

Certainly one has to recognize that Wasserstrom has spent a great deal of time in the library, and has delved into all manner of nooks and crannies concerning Scholem, Eliade, and Corbin, their various meetings, their shared time at the well-known Eranos conferences, their commonalities and their differences. This is an erudite book about three titanic figures, and on the whole I think Wasserstrom makes a serious effort to depict the primary theses and perspectives

of each of these authors, to analyze many of their works and to distill what they have to say; indeed, this book represents a fairly good introduction to each of these three figures as intellectual forces. All three of them, in Wasserstrom's view, preferred the realms of symbolism and myth to that of rationalism; all three of them insisted on the importance of transcending the limits of time. Of course, Wasserstrom himself is highly skeptical of such an emphasis on transcendence, and even goes so far as to claim that "for each phantasmic footfall in the imaginal dimension, we divest ourselves of some concomitant confidence, lose further capacity for coordinating ethical and rational direction"(81). In other words, the more one emphasizes the transcendence of time or even what Corbin called the "imaginal," the further one is from the presumably hallowed ground of "reason." And that supposed distance from reason is, naturally, bad. Thus although Wasserstrom offers us what appears at first to be a more or less fair and educated overview and assessment of all three of these authors, I am not at all convinced by Wasserstrom's various presumptions or asides attacking these authors as antinomian or anti-rational.

Let me turn to a specific figure, that of Henry Corbin. Corbin is, of course, not exactly beloved by all in the field of Islamic studies; one can find numerous academic books discussing topics and figures that Corbin also wrote about earlier, yet often his name does not even appear in the index. Such an absence suggests that Corbin's work is not really seen by these scholars as historicist, and in fact as Wasserstrom points out, Corbin saw himself explicitly as a kind of scholarly prophet; he did not pose as a traditional historian, and his contributions are more in the realm of what we may call an anti-historical spiritual philosophy, that is, a spiritual or prophetic philosophy that is precisely about the transcendence of history. Hence Corbin's work is more in vogue among literati than among academics in the field of religious studies, and so far I am in general agreement with Wasserstrom. But what I find especially disturbing is Wasserstrom's insistence that Corbin's work is implicitly fascist, because here I do not think that Wasserstrom is at all accurately depicting what Corbin actually wrote.

Wasserstrom offers a whole string of pronouncements about Corbin and esotericism at the end of chapter nine, many of which are very

much unsupported and, in my own view, quite mistaken. He begins his conclusion to this section by asserting that Corbin offered an "escape from open rational inquiry" in favor of a "more exciting, surreptitious quest," one based on the fact that "the esoteric art of writing is, in plain language, also a form of lying" [italics in original]. "The esoteric writer," Wasserstrom continues, "feels obliged to dissemble, covering half-truths in something exotic like camouflage, or heavenly deception" (154). But where is an example of this, either from Corbin's work or from any "esoteric writer?" Consider the works of Jacob Böhme, undeniably esoteric in the strict and broad senses of the term. Are we to believe that Böhme was lying when he wrote about the hidden aspects of the cosmos or the nature of the divine? What evidence is there of this? Is Corbin lying when he writes about the imaginal realms? But the attack on Corbin and esotericism in general does not end here. Corbin, we learn on the next page, because he insisted that there is such a thing as a gnostic hermeneut, was in fact proclaiming a "hidden authority" that "was profoundly, instructively, equivocal about - when it was not identical with - fascism" (155). Having thus told us that Corbin's work is either allied with fascism or is itself fascist, Wasserstrom then retracts the assertion, and insists that he is not claiming that Corbin was fascist. Whew! One feels greatly relieved. But of course to insist on the possibility of a gnostic understanding or authority is not inherently fascist; indeed, Corbin's work is far indeed from endorsing mass movements of any kind, for he emphasizes above all the encounter of the self with the angelic self in the imaginal realm. Corbin is a visionary, and this is what continues to inspire poets and artists in his work; he provides a visionary philosophy.

It is tempting to speculate more generally on the contemporary tendency to attack figures like Corbin or Jung (or for that matter, Eliade and to some degree even Scholem) as somehow neo-fascist or at the very least, anti-rational and thus suspect. One thinks here of Richard Noll's relentless attacks on Jung in part because of Jung's esoteric interests, and has to wonder whether such attacks in fact manifest the tendency of many modern intellectuals to almost totally ignore the various intellectual currents that can be grouped under the heading of "esoteric."

This ignoring in turn tends to foster enthusiasm among others for precisely those same currents, which do indeed inspire influential figures like Jung and Corbin, who in turn are themselves derided as anti-rational or even quasi-fascist. Thus there appears to be a kind of dynamic at work here, and I think that Wasserstrom's book participates in both sides at once. On the one hand, I think the author is himself somewhat attracted to and influenced by these three figures; but on the other hand, he feels compelled to criticize them as anti-rational and therefore suspect as near-fascists, even though such labels do an unforgiveable disservice, particularly to Corbin. Can one have it both ways? Perhaps, but in the end one finds oneself on one side or the other.

For my own part, I have never been convinced by literary critic Harold Bloom's insistence, early in his career, that every author succeeds by overcoming or attacking his or her predecessors, that the metaphor of "wrestling" accurately describes one's relationship to those who came before. I would agree more with Longinus, who held that the poet delights in the works of those who came before, and that in such delight is found the fundamental impetus to create. One creates, one is free to create, not by tearing down a figure like Corbin or Eliade or Scholem, but by being inspired by his example. I think there is truth in Wasserstrom's observations that all three of these writers pointed us toward what he calls a "religion after religion," and that Corbin defiantly proclaimed "heretics of the world, unite!" This "religion after religion" more or less endorsed by all three of these great figures has, in Corbin's eyes, a necessarily heretical and individualistic character; it is a gnostic encounter of the individual with the divine, and as such it is beyond institutional boundaries. And Wasserstrom is right to question whether one can found a theory of the history of religions based upon such premises. But that is the negative perspective; from the affirmative side, one must also acknowledge that precisely in such provocative ideas does one see what remains inspirational and enkindling in the works of these great figures well beyond the specific field of religious studies; it is precisely for such ideas that many read these great writers to begin with; indeed, this is what makes them great.

The importance of these three authors derives not only from their vast knowledge of specific religious traditions, but even more from their extracting and weaving together provocative and profound ideas out of that knowledge. We can criticize them as we see fit, but if what they have to say is indeed of enduring value, their works will long outlast those of their critics, not least because they inspire more than they condemn.

Arthur Versluis
Michigan State University