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A Professional Sage

During these years he participated with some social and sexual panache in rich American circles, and married again in 1930. Then, like many American Orientalizers before him he discovered the Maine woods. He regularly camped there, and then bought a house. He became a passionate fly-fisherman, and remained one to the end of his days. This red-blooded activity alone rules out any claim on his behalf to Buddhist or Hindu spiritual status. For in the East it is what a person does that defines him, not what he says or thinks, however elevated his ideas. Coomaraswamy knew this.

By 1932, however, his interest in technical art history had waned, and he began to assume the mantle of metaphysical sage. In 1933 he was given the title of Research Fellow, no longer curator. It was a logical move, for it enabled him to explain and justify his attitudes by referring to transpersonal archetypes. The huge series of articles that he produced from then until the end of his life in 1947, from which Dr. Lipsey’s selections are culled, were devoted to exploring the roots of culture and art in archetypal forms of thought by a method then his own. He used his profound knowledge of Indian philology to explore the ancient wisdom from which he believed Western men had shut themselves off.

Coomaraswamy’s interest in scholasticism led him to see the thirteenth century as the end of true culture in the West. After that there was only a long decline toward the scientific-industrial materialism he hated. He believed that a different kind of science could discover a valid and self-consistent corpus of ancient wisdom in certain old literatures and uncontaminated craft traditions of the world. The task he set himself was to discover the true, eternally valid ideas these enshrined, and bring them to the world’s attention. In the light of these ideas every art would reveal its true character—inspired in the case of traditional craft-arts, shoddy in the case of post-Renaissance arts.

This purpose he shared with a group of other twentieth-century Hermetic writers, among them Eric Gill, René Guénon, who settled in Cairo and joined a Sufi order, and the younger scholar Mircea Eliade, who later became professor of comparative religion at Chicago. Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, and Henri Corbin were among other and younger men who worked similar veins. Like them, Coomaraswamy seems to have believed that in principle it was only the traditional past that had any direct access to archetypal wisdom. For although he knew some work of Jung, and corresponded with him, he seems not to have accepted Jung’s view that the archetypes by which spiritual realities express themselves are both available to modern men and constantly clothed in the forms of modern art. He thus shut himself off from an important avenue of communication with modern readers.

The method Coomaraswamy adopted in his metaphysical articles was a kind of philological semantics, sometimes so lavishly annotated that the notes exceed the article. They are undeniably hard to read. But Dr. Lipsey suggests that this difficulty is a kind of initiatory test, sorting out those who should, from those who should not, have access to the ideas. The method probably derived from the techniques of Western Indological philology; but Coomaraswamy carried it far beyond its original limits. His first monumental application of it was A New Approach to the Vedas (1933), which is Indological. But later he applied it to explore in detail the semantic implications of words and phrases in a wide range of religious literatures, comparing phrase with phrase across the boundaries of culture.

Significantly, these literatures were overwhelmingly Indo-European and shared common grammatical forms. The canon of orthodoxy he developed for himself was largely based on the Indian Veda and Upanishads, early Pali Buddhist literature and some later Indian craft texts, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Hermes Trismegistos, Dionysos, Dante, St. Thomas Aquinas, the then accepted works of Eckhardt, and a small selection from the Persian and Rumi among the Sufi poets. By collating linguistic symbolisms he demonstrated what he believed to be nuclear spiritual conceptions common to virtually all mankind. The purely historical did not concern him; and his attempts to bring Chinese thought within the system were not unexpectedly half-hearted and relatively unsuccessful.

The following exerpt from “Atmayajña: Self-Sacrifice” (1942) is characteristic:

With giri (√ gir, “swallow”) compare grha (√ grah, “grasp”); both imply enclosures, resorts, a being within something. At the same time, giri is “mountain”; and garta (from the same root) both “seat” and “grave” (one can be “swallowed up” in either). The semantics is paralleled in Ger. Berg, “mountain,” and its cognates Eng. barrow, (1) “hill” and (2) “burial mound,” burgh, “town,” borough, and finally bury; cf. Skr. stupa, (1) “top,” “height,” and (2) burial mound. We are then, the “mountain” in which God is “buried” just as a church or a stupa, and the world itself, are His tomb and the “cave” into which He descends for our awakening (MU ii.6, pratibodhanaya; cf. AV xi.4.15, jinvasyatha).

Such commentaries are impressive and can seem inspired. It is when Coomaraswamy moves from the verbal to the visual that, despite his years of research on art, he abandons all confidence in the logic of the eye. He seems not to recognize what makes art into art, and he demands that it do no more than convey baldly the reflection of a verbal abstraction authenticated by priestly authority.

I use the term “demands” advisedly; because I think that Coomaraswamy came to assume that his daily familiarity with the literary expression of divine ideas entitled him to speak to the modern world ex cathedra in articles and speeches. He refused to admit that modern men could have any direct access to wisdom save through the intermediacy of traditional theology. Unlike Jung, he did not recognize that, in the hands of artists, archetypes around which wisdom crystallizes can clothe themselves in the styles of different eras; antiquity has no monopoly of them. Coomaraswamy claimed that radiant absolutes could only be exhumed for the modern world’s inspection. His suggestions on how the modern world might profit from them in practical terms are, to say the least, unfortunate.

This is where I must explain my personal doubts, and raise what I believe to be a very important general issue. One can accept an almost unbelievable idealistic naïveté about the past when a general point is being made: e.g., “the women of the folk do not bear resentment”! But one cannot accept evasions and condemnations which genuinely distort and mislead. In Dr. Lipsey’s selection of thirty articles on visual art and symbolism we find virtually no discussion of actual works of art, or of what artists themselves have said. The pieces consist, like the philological ones, of collated quotations from what nonartists of the past—philosophers, theologians, a few poets—have written, mixed with Coomaraswamy’s own moral pronouncements. Repeatedly he sneers at his enemies, the aesthetes. In “Symptom, Diagnosis, and Regimen” (1943), his clearest statement of his personal position, he wrote:

Aesthetic reactions are nothing more than the biologist’s “irritability,” which we share with the amoeba. For so long as we make of art a merely aesthetic experience or can speak seriously of “disinterested aesthetic contemplation,” it will be absurd to think of art as pertaining to the “higher things of life.”

In “The Intellectual Operation in Indian Art” (1935 he declares, “To say that a work of art is its own meaning is the same as to say that it has no meaning.” In a footnote he disposes of the whole European tradition of portraiture—Titian, Rembrandt, van Gogh—by citing a quotation from Jitta Zadoks on Roman art as “reanimation of corpses in a charnel-house.” Duns Scotus, whom he quotes elsewhere, should have helped him to see that haeccitas matters transcendentally; and so should the profound Buddhist Mahayana doctrine of the Nirmanakaya. He also ignores the important scholastic doctrine of the aesthetic contemplation of form as a valid religious activity, which he must have known.

Coomaraswamy also fails to tell the truth about Oriental art, to which he was so attached. “Introduction to the Art of Eastern Asia” is one of his most admired articles, but in it he makes at least two vital assertions which he must have known to be false. “Oriental art rarely depicts or describes emotions for their own spectacular value: it is amply sufficient to put forward the situation itself, unnecessary to emphasize its effects, where you can rely upon the audience to understand what must be taking place behind the actor’s mask.” In fact, the sacred fourth-century Sanskrit manual of drama and dance, the Natyashastra, devotes the whole of chapter seven and many other passages to the techniques of using the visible and audible effects of emotion—even grimaces—to awaken latent feelings in the audience. Medieval Indian art is full of such emotive devices, conveying especially the erotic, the terrible, and the sublime. Coomaraswamy writes of the Far Eastern icon in general, “There is no feeling of texture or flesh, but only of stone, metal, or pigment.” In fact there are numberless Hindu icons of male and female deities, and many great early Buddhist icons in Japan, which show that statement to be absurd. Part of the interest of such works is how and why “feeling of texture or flesh” was expressly embodied in them.

In his excellent essay “Chinese Painting at Boston” (1944), he comes closest to acknowledging openly that his older ideological formulas need to be extended. But he still does not realize the radical distinction between the Indian view of the Real as the “eternal noun” and the Chinese sense of Tao as a stream of unrepeatable process to which every one of Blake’s “minute particulars” is literally essential. For in “The Theory of Art in Asia” (1936) he had written that “Ch’an-Zen art presents no exception to the general rule of art in Asia, that all works of art have definitely and commonly understood meanings apart from any aesthetic perfection of the work itself”—whatever “perfection” here may mean. The formulas of late Japanese Haiga painting might perhaps be said to be a case in point. But what of the highly evolved calligraphic expression of great painters like Much’i, Liang-kai, or Shih-tao, whose works were head by the Chinese and Japanese for conveying each their own “meaning beyond the text”?

The issue emerges fully into the open when Coomaraswamy writes (in “Abhasa,” 1934) of Gujarati and Rajput painting that “the flattening of the visual concept must be related to a corresponding psychological modification, and certainly not to any technical procedure for its own sake; for thought precedes stylistic expression in the work.” He thus denies any status to style as “thought,” and buries the real artistic factors under such labels as “psychological modification” and “technical procedure.” Many other passages also show how he failed to see that, just as with music, the actual working-out of the structure of forms in visual art is in a radical sense the artist’s real topic; and hence “style” represents genuine but nonverbal thought.

Coomaraswamy seems never to have realized that there are orders of artistic form which have their own raisons d’être and open vistas toward Being in their own self-consistent terms. There are “wisdoms” of nonverbal form. He seems never to have experienced in depth the world of analogical structures which twentieth-century music and art have made us—and could have made him—aware of. Indeed there is no index entry in Dr. Lipsey’s books either for “analogy” or “metaphor,” though Coomaraswamy’s own method was based on reading them.

This being so, what are we to make of the outright claim which Coomaraswamy asserted in the College Art Journal in 1943 that “there must be a censorship of art”? (That was how it was printed in 1946; Dr. Lipsey prints the more innocuous “manufacture” for “art.”) Here is the “something fishy” I referred to at the outset. I think that Coomaraswamy gained such an intense insight into the depths of religious expression through words that he became emotionally committed to a sense of total righteousness of the sort claimed by certain religious leaders. He felt his vast abstract categorical knowledge of religion and traditional morality to be all-embracing, a kind of personal Koran entitling him to condemn anything that lay beyond its scope. The case of Coomaraswamy can thus serve as a warning to others about the psychological hubris which may possess even the greatest scholars—and he was certainly one of them. This is the light in which we should read what he wrote. We can then accept gratefully the riches he does have to offer.

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