“I must say, you make the whole thing sound crashingly dull.” This is what the dissolute Paul says to Christopher in Down There on a Visit, in response to the latter’s attempt to explain Vedantist techniques of meditation. In the end Paul properly launched in holiness by the guru Parr, turns out to be something of a saint, a very camp saint admittedly, but an Isherwood holy man needs to be so. Until Susan Sontag wrote about it in Partisan Review, the standard treatment of camp was the analysis in The World in the Evening, and one foresaw in this new book a final apotheosis of camp; but it turns out after all to be crashingly dull.
(It is possible that some readers have missed that Sontag article and even that they haven’t missed it but failed to understand it. It may therefore be useful to give a brief account of the locus classicus in Isherwood’s novel. Stephen has a friend who explains the word “camp.” First he says that “a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa” is the kind of thing called “camp” in “queer circles,” but it is “an utterly debased form,” or Low Camp. High Camp is: the ballet, Baroque art—camp about love, camp about religion; Mozart rather than Beethoven, EI Greco rather than Rembrandt, Dostoevsky rather than Flaubert. “Camping” is “expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and elegance.” The relevant part of the discussion ends with the observation that you can’t really define camp:
You have to meditate on it and feel it intuitively, like Lao-Tze’s Tao. Once you’ve done that, you’ll find yourself wanting to use the word whenever you discuss aesthetics or philosophy or almost anything. I never can understand how critics manage to do without it.
It will be obvious that the word “camp” in this review is used in the Isherwood sense of High Camp, give or take a little inevitable contamination by the feather-boa sense, which may well have been the original, sublimed though it now is by Isherwood’s efforts.)
Not that Sri Ramakrishna isn’t High Camp, a real Isherwood character. He was called Paramahansa, which means “great goose,” though as a name of Vishnu it connotes “divine.” Mr. Isherwood doesn’t actually mention this, but the mingling of holiness and folly is what attracts him. Ramakrishna was a highly paradoxical figure, reckoned a profound teacher though ignorant of Sanskrit, English, and even of the higher Bengali literature; a man of perfect life though a transvestite, and something of a coquette; and a stickler for the ritual observances and customs of caste, which as an avatar he might have been expected to transcend. He told animal stories and played jokes, yet at any moment might fall into ecstasy. He reminds one that the word “silly” used to mean “holy,” and also that there is a strong camp element in Christianity and in the parables. Ramakrishna was strongly attracted to Christianity and had a vision of Jesus. He would certainly have admired and understood the last section of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly.
Mr. Isherwood isn’t, in this book, merely “down there on a visit”; he is deeply involved. Ramakrishna, even if one leaves out the doctrine, is clearly in his sweetness and silliness an Isherwood person, and one might have expected that he would try to give the reader some intuition of the sanctity of this god-man by camping him, however subtly and reverently. But he goes beyond camp; the camera is focussed on the official Life and the Gospels, the style sweetly plain and expository. The book is scripture or hagiography depending on your view of the subject. The standard Life of Ramakrishna is a five-volume work in Bengali, but there are several authoritative works in English based upon it, and the degree of Isherwood’s dependence may be judged by comparing a passage in his book with the parallel in the Advaita Ashrama Life of 1925. The Indian work says of the disciple Totapuri:
Endowed with an iron constitution, Totapuri was never troubled with complaints of the body. He had a good digestion and always enjoyed sound sleep…But after a few months’ stay in Bengal he could feel the enervating influence of its climate, and even his strong physique became a prey to a virulent attack of dysentery…Even before the attack he had marked that the climate was not suiting him and that he must move. But he could not persuade himself to forego the blissful company of Sri Ramakrishna…But as the symptoms of disease began to manifest in his body…the desire to quit Dakshinewar became stronger, but something or other prevented him from raising the topic before Sri Ramakrishna and asking his leave. Seeing him get emaciated Sri Ramakrishna arranged for a good diet and sundry medicines for him, but it was of no use…He got disgusted with his body and thought, “Owing to this wretched body, even my mind is not under control. So why should I associate any more with this rotten thing and suffer its pain?…I must sacrifice it in the Ganges…” Totapuri carefully concentrated his mind on Brahman and slowly advanced into the water. But what was this! Was the Ganges really dry tonight? etc.
Totapuri walks across to the other bank and back, meditating on the freaks of Maya and the power of the Divine Mother. In Isherwood the whole thing is shortened and revised:
Tota’s constitution had always been strong. He had had little experience of the miseries of physical life, the aches and pains which distract the mind from contemplation. But now the climate and the water of Bengal began to affect him; and he had a severe attack of blood dysentery. At the first warnings of the disease, he thought he should go away; but he found himself unwilling to leave the company of Ramakrishna, to whom he had become devoted. Several times, he made up his mind to go to Ramakrishna and bid him Goodbye; but as soon as the two were together, they would become absorbed in talk about God and Tota would forget his purpose. So he grew steadily weaker and weaker, despite the medicines which Ramakrishna obtained for him…He was filled with disgust for his body. “I must get rid of this nuisance,” he said to himself. “Why do I stay and suffer? I’ll commit it to the Ganges.”
Tota does his double traverse of the river; Isherwood adds a remark of Ramakrishna to the effect that Tota must have “chanced to walk along a shoal which ran out from the bank.”
Obviously it is not only the logia that comes out more or less verbatim but the narrative itself as in the Synoptic Gospels; there are many other instance, some of them, like the story of Ramakrishna’s trial of Narendra Nath, even more closely parallel. Yet, as between the synoptic Gospels, there are differences, and not only the differences caused by Isherwood’s need to compress. There is, for instance, the rational explanation of the miracle. Another example of this is Isherwood’s account of the birth of Ramakrishna. In the traditional account the baby, while the midwife is attending to the mother, “slipped into the adjacent oven.” In Isherwood it merely “rolled across the floor” and was found “lying among the ashes of the fireplace.” Still, Isherwood isn’t so skeptical as not to accept Ramakrishna’s parthenogenetical conception, or Shiva’s annunciation to the mother, or the dispute with the Doctors, or the horoscope. In fact he argues for the credibility of these events, apologizing only for making everything sound “a little too sweet.”
What makes this different from medieval acta sanctorum is simply that it can’t help being sophisticated: credo quia non probabile. When an Isherwood writes naively—Ramakrishna’s parents “worried over their latest child just as much as any other couple” despite the visions and the horoscope, but “their anxiety proved groundless, however”—we can’t avoid the feeling that maya is having a joke with us. The sort of joke Ramakrishna plays on Durgadas Pyne by disguising as a woman, when “even Durgadas Pyne had to laugh at the joke against him.” But the whole book is written in this for-the-children manner, except when it gives solemn explanation of the Hindu terminology—Brahman, Atman, etc.—or social system (caste is not the social menace you probably think it). It is partly the fault of good writers like Isherwood that we can’t take seriously this pious Western version of the holy story. It lacks all irony, all criticism. “Anyone who meditates beneath an amalaki tree will have his dearest wish fulfilled,” we are assured. When Ramakrishna imitated Hanuman, a monkey devotee of Rama, his spine grew an inch in length. If you are tempted not to believe this, remember that Ramakrishna and his disciples thought it vile to lie. For the same reason you have to believe him when he says he is an avatar of Vishnu. “Many people,” observes Mr. Isherwood rather mysteriously, “meet a Jesus or a Ramakrishna and regard him as entirely ordinary, because of the grossness of their own perceptions.”
It is in such terms as these that the book presents the Indian god-man. He had transcended our grossness, was “simultaneously aware of God and the universe,” and acted always on the direct prompting of his Mother Siva. Grossly, we might sometimes object that her instructions were anti-social: Ramakrishna, who enjoyed the support of rich patrons, tried “to wean the Brahmos away from their excessive preoccupation with social reform.” Occasionally she made him pointlessly sensitive; when Narendra Nath hid a rupee under his mattress he started back from his bed in pain, like the princess who detected the pea. Still, he was an interesting man, “sublime and absurd, now expounding the highest philosophy…now singing and dancing, now staggering in ecstasy like a drunkard, now admonishing his devotees with the mature wisdom of a father, now dropping his wearing-cloth and walking naked like a baby.” One would have liked an account of him free of all the uncriticized Aberglaube. This should not have been impossible. After all, he died only seventy-nine years ago, and people who knew him well survived until much more recently; but the myth took over, as it has done in other religions.
As an outsider considering this book, I have not only to register a certain repugnance but also a conviction that it matters less as an account of the saint than as a hint of what it is that comes over Hindu thought when it moves west. For a long time now it has been usual to make high claims for Hindu religion; the names of Schlegel, Hegel, and Emerson come to mind, and the general receptivity to it in late nineteenth-century authors—not only professional thinkers like MacTaggart but occult-minded poets and novelists as late as Lawrence. The acquisitive, syncretizing mind of Yeats is a type of some modern Western attitudes to Hinduism. His lifelong interest began when Mohini Chatterjee arrived in Dublin just at the moment when the Dublin Lodge of the Theosophical Society (which according to Yeats did more for Irish poetry in a few years than Trinity College in centuries) was being established. Mohini had been brought over by Madame Blavatsky, and everything he said fitted in with the views of the author of Isis Unveiled. This could not have been so but for the old affinities between Eastern thought and the NeoPlatonic, Hermetic and Cabbalistic traditions of the West; the Pythagorean-Platonist revival prepared our terrified anti-positivists for Hinduism. There is a useful commentary on this and other aspects of the matter in a book called Hinduism Invades America by Wendell Thomas, which was published in 1930 and is doubtless now forgotten. The whole affair needs to be studied, not by occultists, and not by literary historians only, who have in the nature of the case to take account of ambiguous figures like Eliphas Lévi and Mme. Blavatsky, who affected writers as diverse as Mallarmé, Rimbaud. Yeats, Joyce, and Lawrence. What we need is an explanation of the appeal of this syncretic “mysticism” to people in general.
One Man’s Vedanta September 16, 1965