Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: William O’Connor

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

by William O’Connor, with the editorial input of Karla Heuer

“The human sciences try to increase surprise, unlike the natural sciences, which try to decrease it. They don’t have much new data; they have to find new ways of looking at the familiar.” – Jonathan Z. Smith

My class on Shakespeare’s tragedies begins next Tuesday. The first thing I will ask students to do is take out a sheet of paper and write down their answers to two questions: Who was Shakespeare? and What is tragedy? On the last day of class, 16 weeks later, the topic for discussion will be the revised versions of these 1-page papers which I will have asked them to prepare. We will see what they have learned in the course of the semester and how their thinking has changed. This is an exercise I learned from Jonathan Z. Smith, one of the most remarkable teachers—and human beings—I have ever encountered, and whose death last month is a deep loss for anyone who knew him, but also for the academic enterprise as a whole. Mr. Smith lived up to an ideal of scholarship few could hope to achieve and possessed learning of a depth and breadth that is rarely seen today even in the most intelligent scholars. That these qualities were mixed with a sense of humor worthy of the Algonquin Round Table is another wonderful thing, in its strict sense—something to be wondered at—and another reason to lament his passing.

I’m not an historian of religion, to say the least. I’m a teacher rather than a scholar. I teach drama as an adjunct, mostly to students who are going to become actors, designers, directors, and so on. When I was a student I was obsessed with the ancient world, especially Greece. I took a course with Mr. Smith in grad school and was so impressed with his learning and his wit that I took every other course I could with him while in school, and heard every public speech he gave, years after finishing. I am still working my way through the bibliographies he provided in class, some written on the board, as many former students have noted; others, long lists of books typed up, Xeroxed by Mr. Smith (at the local Office Depot, where I saw him standing at the copier more than once checking each copy), and passed out to us. He spoke of this insistence on doing things himself, not trusting his documents to either an assistant or a machine, in a long interview with Supriya Sinhababu in the Maroon in 2008. I thought it was remarkable that a professor at the University of Chicago would do this; yet I thought it was perfectly natural. I was seeing in the flesh something Max Weber had written about the demands of scholarship: “One cannot with impunity try to transfer [small] task[s] entirely to mechanical assistants . . . .” His standards for reading authors one will teach, and for reading journal articles which Mr. Smith described in his autobiographical essay “When the Chips Are Down” (q.v.) are of a piece with his Xeroxing. I could never live up to them, but merely knowing that that ought to be the standard, makes me a more responsible person and gives me a sense of appreciation for what humans are capable of. Keeping Mr. Smith’s standard in mind has only done me good.

Mr. Smith’s courses were lessons in intellectual maturation: one began by thinking one was going to get “the truth” about awfully important matters only to learn that Smith thought the search for origins in religion was fruitless, and that the important thing was what each retelling of a story could teach us about it, its teller, or society. He was a living example of how useful it could be to learn to think like Durkheim. There were lots of demythologizing facts. He suggested that burial in the fetal position may not denote belief in life after death, but only make digging easier due to the need for a smaller hole. In the ancient Near East, where writing could take over two decades to learn, one only wrote things down which were economically justifiable. Thus over 90% of our records are business documents or legal decisions. In my notebook, I wrote “Writing brings its own sort of pragmatics—we know the names of flowers that have uses as medicine, but not those that smell good.” He warned us that we’d have to learn to read Jacobean English subtly if we wanted to avoid misinterpreting the KJV. That creation ex nihilo is a later, Greek idea not found in the Hebrew Bible, where “‘creation’ is always out of something, a re-organization.” To the question, why the Sabbath, the answer may not have been only “God rested,” but also, “The Egyptians wouldn’t let us, so we’ll go them one better.” Is Leviathan kosher? Some rabbis say yes, some say no. For the former, “when the Messiah comes, we’ll all eat a piece of pickled Leviathan.” When we read Enuma Elish, Mr. Smith said, “Marduk builds a frame and dumps dirt in it, like a sandbox.” He is building a dam. He asked us what kind of dam. Silence. Then my friend Karla Heuer said, “A god dam?” And J.Z. cracked up and told her she would be getting an A for the quarter, which in fact she did earn.

He introduced me to the study of the history Indo-European languages, and the work of Georges Dumezil, Walter Burkert (“the greatest living scholar of Greek stuff”), F.M. Cornford and the “Cambridge school,” and Cassirer’s Myth of the State. The combination of big-picture, structuralist thinking, and tiny, particular cultural and textual detail, is what I take Wilamowitz to have meant when he spoke of the need to see both the forest and the trees. As someone who deals with dramatic literature from an historical perspective but also for the stage, what I learned from Mr. Smith about both context and close reading have been invaluable.

I happened to be among a group of students at the Billy Goat Tavern on lower Michigan Avenue with Mr. Smith and another professor, who had himself been Smith’s student, shortly after the death of Princess Diana. Letting my youthful, vulgar Marxism show, I said I was surprised by all the weeping and gnashing of teeth at the pop-up shrines, by people who hadn’t known her, and suggested that they had been sold a bill of goods. Smith and his colleague then had to remind me of Durkheim’s “social fact” (I had read Elementary Forms with his colleague) and the discussion that followed had an immediate and permanent maturing effect on the way I think about social phenomena. (His essay on introducing Durkheim, and all his writings on pedagogy, have improved my own teaching as I’ve read, reread, and shared them over the years.)

Smith used to tell a story about lecturing at UCSB and strategically putting in jokes to make the content of the lectures memorable. He was later disappointed to discover that the jokes were all some students remembered, some even calling it a great night club act. But of course, the jokes were not all we remembered.

It was delightful to meet someone who seemed to genuinely know everything and yet was so down to earth and friendly. Years after class, running into him buying his cigarettes at Harper Market down the street from my apartment would make my day. I can still see him in his overcoat and the fishing hat he wore in the rain (the kind McClean Stevenston wore on MASH), with his famous cane. Seeing him in the Coop buying Leonard Barkan’s Unearthing the Past made me begin reading Barkan myself, and gave me a sense of how widely outside his “field” he read. It was Mr. Smith’s mention of John Livingstone Lowes’s Road to Xanadu that sent me running for that book too. His knowledge of drama and of literary studies was striking to me as a student of both. It was from him that I first heard Terence’s “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I thought the line was great, a sort of motto for the Renaissance, or the academic outlook, something one should try to live up to. When I read the play from which it comes, Heautontimorumenos, I was both crushed and tickled to learn that it is said by a nosy neighbor merely justifying his nosiness. That dual quality of profundity and lightheartedness seems in keeping with Mr. Smith’s outlook.

I write this simply because there are many of us who are not scholars of religion whose lives (both intellectually and humanely) were changed for the better by Mr. Smith and his example and who have continued to tell stories about him, read his work and work that he made us aware of decades after having studied with him, and despite knowing him only distantly, as members of his class rather than his real graduate students. We are grateful to have learned from him and to have benefited from his example. We extend our sincere condolences to his family and friends.

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One Response to Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: William O’Connor

  1. Willi Braun says:

    A very sensitive, insightful and moving tribute. Thank you.

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