Several years ago I had some pain in convincing a friend working on Husserl that the “phenomenologist” J. Mohanty which he knew too well was the same as the scholar of Sanskrit Philosophy J.N. Mohanty (I had similar problems in convincing the same person that avatar is a Sanskrit word). Just like there are two Mohantys, with two different target audiences, so there are two F.X. Clooneys. Scholars of Indian Philosophy will know mostly the author of Thinking Ritually and of further essays on Mīmāṃsā and Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (1986, 1988), whereas Catholic and other Christian theologians and believers will know mostly his works dedicated to comparative theology (1996, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2014).
In the former works, Clooney conforms to the common rules of academic writing (disembodied, impersonal, “scholar”), although an attentive reader might detect also in them a hue of the latter Clooney (for instance, in his insistence on listening to Jaimini’s voice and detecting it within the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā Sūtra). The “theological” Clooney is passionate, engaged in what he writes and sensitive to the transformative enterprise of writing. One even gets the feeling that he might think that writing is a performance on something yet-to-be-estbalished (sādhya, to go back to the Mīmāṃsā terminology), rather than a description of already settled (siddha) conclusions.
Consequently, as a reader of His hiding place is darkness one is split by two different feelings. On the one hand the positive feeling on being on a journey with someone who is also on the same path, on the other the frustrating feeling not to be able to come to a scholarly sound conclusion. The book is, in fact, programmatically unsettled and unsettling. Nor could it be differently, since it puts side by side the Old Testament’s Song of Songs and the Tamil Tiruvāymoḻi (“The holy word of mouth”), song 1.4 and 1.5, without having previously established any essential similarity between the two. Rather, Clooney just chose them out of inspiration, in a way which could be compared to J. Derrida’s approach to texts in themselves, without the safeguard of their historicisation, without a safety net and in fact Clooney starts the book with two long juxtaposed excerpts of the two texts. And similarly ungrounded is also the juxtaposition of Jorie Graham’s poetry in the first chapter (tellingly called “Act One”). The Tamil text comes from the Tiruvāymoḻi, which is part of the Divya Prabandham, the collection of songs of the Āḻvārs, poet-saints who composed their mystical poems in South India, in the first millennium of the CE (the date is very controversial, also due to the desire of the Śrī Vaiṣṇava community to directly link the Āḻvārs to Nāthamuni, traditionally recognised as the compiler of the Divya Prabandham and whose date of death seems to have been 923).
Although the Aḻvārs were considered by the later tradition as inspired mystics, and revered as founders of the Śrī Vaiṣṇava religion, the songs chosen by Clooney are written from the perspective of a young girl who burns for love for God, Viṣṇu, but cannot find Him. She is desperate and in her desperation she blames herself for her sins, due to which she cannot come closer to Him, the people who do not pity her, and last even God Himself who, notwithstanding His merciful nature does not come to her. Clooney noticed the similarity in the religious application of the motif of a young girl’s passionate love and of her desolation once the lover has disappeared and put the text side by side with the portions of the Song of Songs in which the girl is left alone and laments her solitude.
Clooney offers helps and guidances, such as his translations of the Tamil text, his frequent reference to contemporary exegesis of the Song of Songs and, more importantly according to me, quotations and interpretations from religious commentaries of the one and the other text. Nonetheless, Clooney programmatically avoids to settle the issues he opens. There is no solution to why the girl in the Song of Songs at once sends her lover away at night, only to repent soon thereafter, nor to why the daughters of Jerusalem laugh at her. Even more disturbing is that there is no solution of the problem of the co-existence of two exclusivist religions which both see themselves as the only one but share striking similarities and coexist in a contemporary world in which exclusivist faith seems no longer possible —and probably not even desirable.
Notwithstanding the above, also an academic audience can profit of His hiding place is darkness. I have, for instance, appreciated Clooney’s ability to detect from the classical commentary on The holy word all elements which enabled one to see the purpose and meaning of seemingly merely decorative poetical elements. For instance, the reader discovers in this way that Viṣṇu is not by chance said to lie on his snake-bed. His lying on it means that He is not far, He is close to the world because He cares for it. Thus, His failing to soothe the loving girl appears even more cruel. Similarly, the girl’s pausing on the plumage of the cranes she chooses as the messengers of her love to Viṣṇu is a sign of her pausing on their capacity to reach Him fast.
More in general, Clooney’s way of seeing poetry as theology throws indirectly light on why so many Indian theologians decided to write poems and not (or not only) treatises. Theology enabled them different perspectives. If Clooney is right, at least one of the reasons for choosing the poetical medium is its theopoetic ability. The term comes from the theologian Urs von Balthasar and indicates a poem’s ability to dynamically enliven rather than represent.
This might also be the reason why, I believe, Veṅkaṭanātha chose to write also poems. What about other Indian authors?
For more on the probem of why Indian authors write in verses, have a look at the comments to this post.
Friday is my day for broader reading, see my monthly planning here.
(cross-posted on my personal blog)