Will the journey ever come to its goal? On Clooney 2013

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)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

6 Replies to “Will the journey ever come to its goal? On Clooney 2013”

  1. Thanks for the time you put into this, Elisa. A very interesting post, and worthy of much reflection.

    One quick question: I’m not sure what you mean by “exclusivist”. I have a number friends who are Catholic philosophers, quite orthodox, and while–as you may expect– they think they have the best way to God (“In the fullness of his revelation”, etc.) they directly disavow the claim that other religions are in principle cut off. I would think that typically, this attitude would fit most Vaishnava traditions as well.

    And thanks for following up on our reflections on literary style in relation to philosophical objectives. This adds quite nicely to that discussion.

    • Thanks for the comment, Matthew. What I meant is that —according to Clooney— the two texts do not in themselves require to be compared. They rather belong to traditions which believe(d) to be self-sufficient. In this sense he speaks of two “closed worlds”. Clooney agrees with you that this is nowadays no longer possible (independently of whether it is desirable).

  2. Thanks for this, Elisa. FX Clooney was a great lifeline for me in my first year at Harvard, when the study of Indian religions there was in great transition (Bryant, Carman, Hallisey had all just left and Patil, Gyatso, Monius – and Clooney himself – had not yet arrived). I took the subway over to Boston College and cross-registered for his courses there; they gave me a chance for very close reading that I’d had in almost no other courses before or since.

    One of the things his students noticed was that he would ask them “Where are you in this paper?” He cut against the usual religious-studies mold by asking students to take a constructive position on what they were studying, which was a breath of fresh air for me.

      • Thanks, Elisa. I’m glad those posts stuck with you. It was important to me to write them. Reading your response made me think a bit more about my influences and debts to my more literal teachers, and it occurred to me that it might be difficult to do so. Parimal Patil, my PhD advisor, was always cagey about his own beliefs; he much preferred to take whatever side of a debate would advance the conversation. (A number of his students once mused, mostly but not only jokingly, about holding a one-day conference on the topic “What does Parimal actually think?” – inviting Emily Hudson, his wife, as the keynote speaker, but not actually inviting him because it would just confuse people.) But what I suppose he really did pass on to me was a searching methodological rigour, hunting down the gaps in arguments on any topic – which I suspect is exactly what he wanted us all to learn.

  3. Amod, your reflections (and Malcolm’s on the Rasika thread) made me reflect on, both my profound gratitude toward so many teachers and early guides, and how I enjoy learning of others’ teachers from the perspective of their students. Down the line, it may make for a nice post and discussion, learning from folks about their main influences.

    Or we could just do a post on “what Parimal actually thinks.”

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