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Sunday, February 12, 2006

surely thou art the great God...

LI has been reading James Mill’s History of India. James Mill is known to most of us as the Gradgrind who brought up his boy, John Stuart, on a migrainous diet of Greek and Bentham. But of course Mill was a high clerk in the headquarters of the East India Company. His History is famous for its systematic contempt for its subject – to Mill, the whole problem with India was to root out any veneration for its civilization expressed during the 18th century Then one could set about the task of Anglicizing the natives, while rationalizing their laws. Mill’s History is one of the classic moments in the history of the imperial effect.

It’s an audacious book. Mill’s preface is full throated confession that the author had neither seen India nor is conversant with any of its languages. But, he argues – prefiguring the argument that runs through the whole book – it isn’t as if anything important would be gained by assimilating the native’s knowledge of the place, considering the worth of that knowledge and the relatively mean cultural level of even the most glorious native. Everything worth knowing about India can be gained from European books about the place, and in better order too.

Anyway, I’ve been reading Mill’s account of the Hindu religion. It’s rather funny, since he so disapproves. But it has some nice, 18th century features. For instance, Mill accounts for monotheism in terms of the dialectic of flattery. Because the rude mechanical figures that the gods are as he is, he at first showers them with adulation and flattery, just as he’d like to be flattered. But flattery repeated falls short. Other, more violent excitements and endearments have to be added to the mix to move the gods. Eventually, one settles on a god and begins to prune the tree of other deities, as those deities take something away from the splendor of the deity to which you’ve dedicated yourself. Eventually you simply demote the deities wholesale, and presto-chango you have one god and a whole roomful of metaphysics. This is not quite the psychology one would expect from a utilitarian.

Interesting. But this is what I want to excerpt. It is a fable that I like, even though I am reminded of Dr. Seuss’ story of the goldfish, too:

“At the close of the last calpa, there was a general destruction, occasioned by the sleep of Brahma; his creatures in different worlds being drowned in a vast ocean. The strong demon Hagyagriva came near him and stole the Vedas, which had flowed from his lips. When the preserver of the universe discovered this deed, he took the shape of a minute fish, called sap'hari. A holy king named Satyavrata then reigned. One day, as he was making a libation in the river Critamala, the little fish said to him, How canst thou leave me in this river water, when I am too weak to resist the monsters of the stream who fill me with dread? Satyavrata placed it under his protection in a small vase full of water; but in a single night its bulk was so increased, that it could not be contained in the jar, and thus again addressed the prince: I am not pleased with living in this little vase; make me a large mansion where I may dwell in comfort. The king successively placed it in a cistern, in a pool, and in a lake, for each of which it speedily grew too large, and supplicated for a more spacious place of abode; after which he threw it into the sea, when the fish again addressed him: Here the horned sharks and other monsters of great strength will devour me; thou shouldest not, O valiant man, leave me in this ocean. Thus repeatedly deluded by the fish, who had addressed him with gentle words, the king said, Who art thou that beguilest me in that assumed shape. Never before have I seen or heard of so prodigious an inhabitant of the waters, who like thee has filled up, in a single day, a lake 100 leagues in circumference. Surely thou art the great God whose dwelling was on the waves.”

That little fish reminds me of the transformations of my own obsessions. They, too, first appear as little threatened things. And I coddle them. I fish them out of dangerous places and put them in protective places. And they grow. It isn’t their fault they grow – it is what obsession is supposed to do. And I put them in larger containers: I put them in a crush, I put them in a notebook, I put them in the plan for a novel, I put them in a social life, I put them in a move to a new city, I protect them and protect them. And then I look and see and lo: my obsessions have filled up twenty years or more. My so called life.

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