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  • The Self-Serving Humility of Disciplining Liberal Humanist Scholars:A Response to Russell McCutcheon
  • Paul B. Courtright

The issue Russell McCutcheon raises is an important one. If I understand his essay, and restating it in my own words in the form of a question, it would be: how are scholars to be honest about the limits of their representations of the Other(s)? He takes the liberal humanist tradition to task for claiming to speak for the Other while denying the Other its own voice, all the while reassuring itself of its solidarity with the Other. And, on those occasions when the Other resists the scholars' representations, scholars defend their privilege to speak for themselves. In either case there is an arrogance that warrants recognition—honesty—regarding the flawed nature of the process of inquiry. Humility about the limits of what scholars can know, or claim to know, about the Other is a good thing. I wonder though, again, if I understand McCutcheon's argument, whether the contamination that seeps into the process of representation itself makes the enterprise altogether impossible. Should we all not get honest and humble enough to abandon our misguided efforts and acknowledge what we have been doing all along—whether we knew it or not—writing fiction? [End Page 752] Thus, we could save the Other from us and save ourselves from our own delusions.

I am grateful to McCutcheon's invitation to humility regarding my own experience of interpreting the Other. Let me interpret myself for a moment with reference to McCutcheon's gesture to J. Z. Smith's well-taken point that, in the interpretation of religion, it is about the choices the scholar makes regarding what to emphasize that make all the difference.

When I was writing my book on the Hindu god Ganesha twenty years ago, I also made choices. Specifically, I made the choice that stories are important: stories about how Ganesha came into the world, how he got the head of an elephant, and how he came to be the one who presides over beginnings and removes obstacles. I made choices about which texts to look for, whom to ask, and what to notice. Upon inquiry among Hindus in India for whom Ganesha was important, I learned that these stories were well known. I noticed a connection between the "texts" of the ancient tradition and the "context" of what the folks I met were passing along orally.

I suppose I could have stopped there: here are the stories, here are the texts, here are the contexts in which people tell them, and here is what they say about them. In other words, I could have completed my work by becoming as transparent as possible, bringing the Other and my Reader into as close to a face-to-face meeting as my powers of translation and description could achieve. Many of these things I actually did, because I worked with colleagues in India in finding the texts, working out translations, and asking them along the way, "am I getting this right?"

But, and this may be a lack of sufficient humility on my part, I could not become invisible. At some point along the way, I made choices that I also stood in an interpretive tradition that I needed to include; let us call it, well, liberal humanism. These stories were already part of a discourse that was going on among scholars in both India and the "West" that were employing Freudian categories, principally the Oedipus complex. What does it mean that a tradition remembers and reveres a story in which a father beheads his son because his son is protecting his mother from him? Is this an oblique way for a tradition to attend to "unconscious" issues of primary family relations, of sexual rivalries? Who owns that question? Who benefits from asking it, or not asking it? At the time I wrote the book I thought—and I still do—that it would have been odd, if not irresponsible, not to engage that discourse, a discourse that included a number of eminent Indian scholars. It was, so to say, the elephant in the room.

It was this turn toward...


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pp. 752-755
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Archived 2007
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