IN SEARCH OF A BOOK - It all began with an inborn curiosity of the eye

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By Roberto Calasso The author will be speaking at G.D. Birla Sabhagar on December 12 at 7 pm as a guest of The Telegraph To be concluded ?Roberto Calasso
  • Published 11.12.05

The East India Company used to recruit its men at the gates of the jails: on a ship of convicts, preceded by a grim roll of drums, on November 7, 1754, the twenty-three year old Anquetil-Duperron sailed off in search of Zoroaster, whom his contemporaries believed to be a later invention of the Fathers of the Church. He had with him a bag with two handkerchiefs, two shirts, a pair of socks, a case with a compass, a Bible in Hebrew and a Montaigne. ?I remember with pleasure certain episodes of my travels by land: men and women, seeing that I wasn?t a soldier, nor a merchant, nor a missionary, would ask me why I had come to India. ?To see you,? I would tell them. They would look me in astonishment, affectionately, because they had already been reached by the echoes of the Europeans? brutal rapaciousness; and they all hurried trying to help me.?

Michelet, thinking of Anquetil-Duperron, saw Creole women, bayad?res, sultanas, the whole of ?lustful Asia? beckoning him from the terraces, to lead him astray. ?His bayad?res, his sultana, is the old indecipherable book.? Schopenhauer said that his metaphysical eye had opened up reading the Oupnekhat (id est, ?secretum tegendum?). This is the title Anquetil-Duperron gave to the first European translation of the Upanishads: into Latin, and made from another translation, in Persian, of the Sanskrit original. Again, Schopenhauer remarked on this book: ?It is the most satisfying and elevating reading (with the exception of the original text) which is possible in the world: it has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.?

In his 1833 notebooks, Schopenhauer remarked, ?The fact that after thirty years the Oupnekhat is read and known so little; that the writings of Lichtenberg, instead of having new editions, after thirty-three years are sold at bargain prices; that after twenty-two years Goethe?s ?Colour Theory? is generally considered wrong: these are the character traits of the German public, which we should never forget, when we set hopes on it.?

As First Consul, Napoleon had attended to the reorganization of the Institut. As Emperor, he hastened to ask the academicians to take their oath of allegiance to him. Once again, he was following the rule of bringing the intellectuals into line. Only two refused. One of them was Anquetil-Duperron. He was spending then the very last months of his life in a state of destitution which horrified his contemporaries ? and which he called frugality. He sent to Napoleon the following statement: ?I don?t, and shall not, take the oath of allegiance to the Emperor, because there is no right by which it can be exacted from a Frenchman who is simply a private citizen, without any appointment or office.? And a letter came after that: ?Monseigneur, I am a man of letters and nothing else, i.e. a zero non-entity in the State. I have never taken an oath of allegiance or carried out any civilian or military function: being seventy-three, ready to end my career, which has been industrious, tormented, and stormy, I won?t begin now: death is awaiting me; I look at it with sang-froid. I am and shall always be subject to the laws of the government under which I live and which protects me. But the soul that Heaven has given me is too great and too free that I might demean and bind myself by taking an oath of allegiance to a like of me. The oath of allegiance, according to my principles, is due only to God, by the creature to his Creator. Made by a man to a man, it takes on, in my eyes, a character of servilism that can?t be reconciled with my Indian philosophy.? Thus ?Indian philosophy? makes its entry in a century which was still to discover it: as a rock on which to base a shining declaration of disobedience to whatever political power, coming from one of those ?zeros in the State? who were soon to describe themselves, much more vapidly, as ?intellectuals?. L?autaud used to say that ?intellectual? is an adjective.

Whoever becomes interested in India can only have as his invisible patron Anquetil-Duperron, the youth who boards a ship full of convicts in order to go and search for a book. Dozens of grave conferences on multiculturalism, hundreds of lofty mediations on the Other?s dignity (or rather, the ?autre?, which sounds better), are emptied and reduced to their natural fatuity by one single saying of Anquetil-Duperron: ?Why have you come to India?? ?To see you?. In the first place it?s necessary not to be a soldier, nor a missionary, nor a merchant. Not to be a representative of one of the three powers of oppression and devastation that the West has wrought and goes on exercising, with untiring good conscience. And then: to be endowed with an inborn curiosity of the eye ? that is, with the simplest wish to see and to understand. Human beings are by nature metaphorical and plastic, able to take on all kinds of forms and also to understand themselves in all kind of forms. If we set aside this quality, man is a rather modest being, less interesting than many animal species. As Canetti wrote, the power of metamorphosis belongs to each of us, ?but very few realize that they owe to it the best part of what they are?.

In Ka the word myth does never occur (except in a quotation from Geldner). Not because I wanted so. But evidently the text never required it. When you come to think of it, if that word is mentioned too often, it feels rather awkward. As if in order to breathe we went on mentioning oxygen all the time. The mythoi, to be called in this way, have to be opposed to the logoi, as in Greece. They are narratives which, by some of the traits they possess, are opposed to other narratives, those of historians, annalists, philosophers. Not so in India. Myths have nothing which is in opposition to them. In fact, in Sanskrit there is no special word to say ?myth?. The Indian myths are called puranas, ?old stories?, or akhyanas, ?tales?. Nothing more, nothing less. It?s taken for granted that those stories are the stuff, the underlying texture of that which is. And Sanskrit has not one single word denotating ?history? in the sense used by Thucydides. If anything, one finds the word itihasa, which designates first of all an epical (and mythical) story. In order to find a chronicle in the Western sense of the word, one has to wait till about the 1000 AD, in Kashmir. For ancient India, if there was to be a story, it had to be a story of the world, of what it?s made of, and of what came before it. And myths were nothing but that very story. There wasn?t much more to say. Or rather: nothing that was really essential.