The Old Amalaki

Ramakrishna and His Disciples

by Christopher Isherwood
Simon & Schuster, 348 pp., $7.50

Christopher Isherwood
Christopher Isherwood; drawing by David Levine

“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,”…

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