Lost among my books, probably in a box somewhere, is a paperback copy of Bhagavad Gita As It Is, offered to me at a reasonable price by a smiling Hare Krishna devotee working the crowd in Union Square. The word “smiling” is probably redundant. What the group advertises is bliss, and it would be a pretty shoddy product if it broke down under the pressure of New Yorkers’ indifference.
I bought it -- the book, anyway -- but hadn’t noticed it going AWOL until reading Richard H. Davis’s The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography, a volume in Princeton University Press’s rewarding Lives of Great Religious Books series. Davis, a professor of religion at Bard College, mentions that A. C. Bhaktivedanta, “a vigorous 70-year-old Bengali,” arrived in the United States in 1965 and in short order was teaching and chanting among the protohippies in Greenwich Village. Swami Prabhupada, as he came to be known, published his own heavily annotated edition of the Gita in 1968 -- the one you can still get from his robed and shaved-headed acolytes now, 50 years after he began proselytizing.
The swami went on to his reward in 1977. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness he founded can now claim, semiplausibly, to have put out more than 20 million copies of Bhagavad Gita As It Is in some 56 languages. It is a sign of Davis’s accomplishment with his “biography” that he leaves the reader aware of how small a blip those missionary efforts are in the context of the Gita’s history -- let alone on the scripture’s own cosmic scale.
As sacred texts go, the Bhagavad Gita (“song of the Lord”) is notable for both its brevity and the relatively straightforward relationship between doctrine and narrative. It has a plot. The setting is ancient India, shortly before a war that will leave more than a million dead. Arjuna, a warrior by birth, surveys the two armies poised for battle and, turning to his charioteer, Krishna, expresses overwhelming despair at the pointlessness of the fratricidal warfare about to begin.
Krishna first counsels a kind of stoic attitude toward the performance of duty: the lot of the warrior is to fight, but without attachment, to fulfill destiny without desire or fear as to its outcome. It is attachment, the corruption of action by the passions, that keeps someone bound to the cycle of rebirth.
Then Krishna reveals that he is not just a god moonlighting as chariot driver but the Supreme Being ne plus ultra, something beyond all human imagination or understanding: “Arjuna sees Krishna’s arms and eyes, bellies and mouths, stretching out in all directions. He sees all the gods contained within Krishna’s vast body.” The vision can only be called mind melting as Krishna speaks the words that Robert Oppenheimer recalled while witnessing the first atomic explosion:
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the Splendor
Of the Mighty One…
I am become Death
The shatterer of worlds.
Returning to human form, Krishna makes what is in some ways the most powerful revelation of all. Love and devotion are Krishna’s due, and Arjuna is prepared to give them. But the relationship is not one-way. Krishna expresses his love for Arjuna and promises to be the warrior’s ultimate refuge: “I will liberate you from all sins. Do not grieve.”
With that, Arjuna’s doubts and hesitation are put to rest, and the battle is joined.
The dialogue appears as a philosophical interlude in The Mahabharata, an epic poem of prodigious scale. It is unclear which came first -- the dialogue may have been composed as part of the larger work and then extracted, or it could be a freestanding text that some ancient editor spliced in. “Some observers,” Davis notes, “have pointed to the unlikelihood, or the ‘dramatic absurdity,’ as one noted Indologist put it, of great masses of zealous warriors sitting idly by for ninety minutes while a soldier and his charioteer chat in the no-man’s land.”
As an aesthetic objection that seems fair enough. The situation doesn’t work as a realistic segment in a chronicle of war. (I can’t say, having never read The Mahabharata, or even met anyone who has.) But its “dramatic absurdity” nonetheless works in expressing the mood of terrible existential pain, the moment of facing life or death and feeling overwhelmed by the reality right in front of you. That quality makes the Gita a powerful work even for readers incapable of regarding surrender to Krishna as what William James called “a live option.”
For medieval Indian poets, artists and sages, the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna resonated with ideas and debates of long standing; they read it as a work concentrating and clarifying doctrines expressed rather more obliquely in the Vedas, a much older set of scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita’s depiction of Krishna also put pressure on the devotees of other gods to produce revelatory works of their own. “These gitas,” Davis writes, “always involve discourses conveyed from deities to listeners that constitute authoritative instruction on the fundamental nature of the world along with guidance for effective human conduct leading to worldly benefits and ultimately liberation.”
Infomercials of the gods! Still, it was Krishna’s gita that became the Gita -- a text widely, if dubiously, regarded as “the Hindu bible.” Its ascension was no sure thing. In two absorbing chapters, Davis traces a series of stages leading from the first English translation in 1785 (a byproduct of British imperial interests) to widespread fascination among the literati (Thoreau took it to Walden pond, Whitman died with it under his pillow) to a kind of rebirth as an element of Indian national identity, in part through Gandhi’s reading of Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial, which put the Gita into English, and iambic pentameter to boot.
Davis notes that only a very small share of early iconography of Krishna shows him in scenes from the Bhagavad Gita. More commonly depicted were legends of his mischievous childhood or his role as combative young prince. Treating the Gita as the Hindu equivalent of the Judeo-Christian scriptures probably revealed more about British Protestant sensibilities than it did about Indian religion.
But it proved to be a productive sort of confusion: with so many questions about the Bible they knew troubling the minds of Westerners, the new scripture from the East proved timely. Davis says just a little about the broad similarity between Krishna and Christ (each understood as a human incarnation of the divine, with a message of love) but clearly it was on the minds of some enthusiasts even before gurus started making trips to Europe and America.
There’s so much else to say about The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography -- but my karma depends upon meeting a deadline, so not today. Princeton’s Lives of the Great Religious Books continues to offer interesting titles (up soon: The Book of Revelation) and is the rare instance of a series with a concept that really works.
As of this week, Intellectual Affairs has been running for 10 years, which is nearly as long as Inside Higher Ed itself has been around. My title when it all began was Essayist at Large, as in fact it still is: I can’t imagine a nicer euphemism for being, in effect, a perpetual student -- and somehow making a job of it to boot.
Few publications would offer such a position to a writer; fewer still, if any, would give a columnist such a long tether for such a long time. Inside Higher Ed’s exact launch date is not clear. The beta version went live during the Modern Languages Association’s annual conference at the very end of 2004, which the founding editors covered as it happened. But a placeholder page (the gamma version?) was online even before that. In any event, Intellectual Affairs made its debut on Feb. 1, 2005 -- a short time after IHE hit the ground running as a fully functioning (if, for a time, woefully understaffed) news organization, reporting on academe and publishing throughout the workweek.
As it happens, the column premiered almost exactly 19 years after my first article for the late, lamented magazine Lingua Franca. Being so alert to the passing of anniversaries is undoubtedly a tic of consciousness, but in this case it underscores something that’s informed the column from the start: an effort to carry forward into the digital era as much of the tradition of the journalism of ideas and haute vulgarization as possible. The models I had in mind included the sort of review-essay that Francis Jeffrey fostered in The Edinburgh Review in the early 19th century, the more casual and sprightly genres of the feuilleton and the causerie, and the mode of confessional criticism practiced by Seymour Krim, one of this column’s patron saints.
While the rise of e-publishing may be irresistible, it seems that reports of the death of the traditional book are somewhat exaggerated. But the shape of the public-intellectual sphere has been forever changed by the past decade. It may amuse younger people to know that in 2005 the idea that scholars would blog was controversial. Just try to stop them, I remember thinking. (For a taste of what went on, search “Ivan Tribble.”) Both digital boosterism and neo-Luddism have always struck me as dead ends. Each evades the task of paying attention to the world and checking how well one’s stock of ideas and attitudes holds up in the flux of experience.
Writing in the preface to the American edition of his essay collection Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco said something that left a huge impression on me and set the course leading to this column: “I believe that an intellectual should use newspapers the way private diaries and personal letters were once used. At white heat, in the rush of an emotion, stimulated by an event, you write your reflections, hoping that someone will read them, and then [you] forget about them.” It would seem that I took this even more to heart than I realized: by the time something is published, I don't want to spend another minute thinking about it. Sharp-eyed readers will occasionally point out a blunder or, more often, a garbled passage. (There is a very efficient gremlin who occasionally removes something important from a sentence, such as its verb, or the word "not.") Repairs are made, but otherwise my habit after filing a column and responding to edits is to go to work immediately on the next piece without looking back.
But here's a selection of columns that seem to have held up reasonably well, assembled with the help of friends with better memories than mine.
A handful of pieces elicited discussion far beyond the ivory tower, such as the early one on the 19th-century American novelist Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, considering how and when her work had ever been called back from its richly deserved neglect. Another column from that period was among the very first articles about Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" when Princeton University issued it as a hardback booklet. The review had little or nothing to do with On Bullshit's subsequent best-seller status, but it was surely the only mass-media response taking into account the secondary literature. A column on the postpublication peer review of Robert Service's biography of Leon Trotsky seems to have made its way around the world and, if memory serves, into French translation. But the most notorious column, it seems, expressed my dismay at the as-told-to autobiography of Cornel West, a good man undone by mere celebrity.
The closest runner-up would probably be the piece discussing a publisher's effort to whitewash the abundant and well-documented scholarly transgressions of Michael Bellesiles. While distasteful to write, doing so was a basic obligation of intellectual hygiene. Much more agreeable was writing the profile of George Scialabba, an important cultural critic who now has the wider audience he deserves. It's also been gratifying to be able to alert readers (academic and otherwise) to university-press books shortly after they've appeared, such as a French historian's memoir on working in the archives, or a fascinating monograph on Santa Muerte, "the skeleton saint," who hears the prayers of spurned lovers, gangsters and entrepreneurs. And likewise to share the news that a fellow C. L. R. James scholar had discovered the long-lost script for a play about Toussaint Louverture in which Paul Robeson played the lead. And the column's readers heard about The New Inquiry (here and here, for example) a year or two before The New York Times got to it.
Publication of Zizek's Jokes by MIT Press provided the opportunity to confess my secret shame at having dubbed the Slovenian thinker "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- an endlessly repeated phrase that will surely outlive me, despite it being, on the whole, fairly idiotic. Among the earlier Intellectual Affairs columns was a literature review on the field of Oprah studies, followed in due course by an interview with the organizer of the first academic conference on a reality TV show called Jersey Shore. More interesting and rewarding was a book that established how career criminals signal their competence to each other (despite the lack of an established credentialization process) and applied its findings to the world of incompetent-but-powerful senior faculty in Italian universities. The column explored such 21st-century questions as the sociology of trolling and the value of a comprehensive and professionally curated archive of Twitter.
The troubling developments at Miskatonic University were a challenge to report on, and I still regret covering part one of the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy, which gave the expression "train wreck" a whole new meaning. Reviewers have said that the budget and quality declined sharply with each new installment. I find that impossible to imagine but am glad to take their word for it.
Finally: I've written a number of commentaries and tributes following the deaths of various people, including the historian Philip Rieff and pomo prophet Jean Baudrillard. Thanks to the Google, I see that references to each of them have turned up in later years, including a description of J. B. as being, "in his day, [a] major brand-name cash cow in the world of academic publishing," which still seems apt. So does the obit that says, "Lou Reed’s lyrics were quite unwholesome, like a Baudelaire sonnet," especially given Reed's place as a student of the poet Delmore Schwartz. A couple of the tributes were hard to write because the subjects were friends. Over the first few years of the column, I always kept in mind that the novelist and critic John Leonard was out there in the audience reading it. He said as much, which was inspiring and intimidating at the same time, and I miss him.
By contrast, the suicide of Aaron Swartz -- who, when we met, didn't look old enough to shave -- still seems difficult to believe. Yesterday I saw his photo while going through the spring catalog for The New Press, which is bringing out The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz in May. A worthy effort, but it's hard to feel anything but numb at the prospect of the posthumous collected works of an author who died at 26.
Ben Goldacre writes something in the preface to I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That which left me slightly dreading today's column: "Reading your own work from 10 years ago is a bit like being tied down, with your eyelids glued open, and forced to watch ten-foot videos of yourself saying stupid things with bad hair." Indeed! It's been a week of careful, strategic combing, that's for sure. It has been an interesting decade -- and while the work seems never to get easier, in a sense the effort is its own reward. (I wouldn't want the editors to take that too literally, because I'm counting on the paycheck.) And as the guy in a medieval shtetl is supposed to have said about his job keeping watch for the Messiah so he could blow a horn to tell everyone else: "Well, at least it's steady work."