Linda Hess | biography

An intellectual and creative autobiography

[When applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete my book on Kabir oral traditions, I learned that Guggenheim gives its applicants a unique and wonderful assignment.  They are asked to write about their life history as it is relevant to the work they are doing. How did you get here? What do you care about, and how is this expressed in your project? I found this exercise inspiring and clarifying, and I’m sharing it here in place of a more conventional “bio,” for anybody who’s interested.]

Poetry was at the center of my personal and, later, my academic universe. Composing, translating, or studying, I was moved by the life of that intense and creative language. When I wrote poetry from early childhood, when I memorized Keats and Chaucer in high school, Stevens and Hopkins in college, later Baudelaire and Verlaine, the words–their placement on the page, their sounds, rhythms, colors, textures–had a physical presence that couldn’t be separated from their meanings. It seemed to exist in my cells, and differently in the cells of bone, blood, organs, nerves. Sometimes it actually lit up my body. Pulled deep into Dante’s journey, I was strange among undergraduates in not stopping at the Inferno, but finding a kind of linguistic and sensual rapture in the Paradiso, despite the barriers of translation.

Going to India in my early twenties, I started up the rocky road of learning Hindi, the widespread vernacular of the North. Learning Hindi wasn’t as easy as learning French. Though not technically difficult, Hindi was embedded in a culture, or complex of cultures, that I didn’t really understand. It partook of histories that I didn’t inherit. The colloquial turns, proverbs and jokes, intermixture of modern and premodern forms, diversity among regions, classes, rural and urban speakers, kept getting in the way. Despite my facility with languages I kept running into problems, like the potholes and diversions, the jams of trucks, tractors and animals, the sudden disappearance of pavements and bridges, on Indian country roads. Even now the effort continues. I can carry on a good conversation, make a speech to a city or village audience, and work my way through the terrain of modern criticism or medieval verse–with help and delays. The difficulty of this process has been instructive.

Though this can only be seen in retrospect, it is now clear that I was always interested in embodiment and performance. Poetry for me was rooted in the body, arose from below, gradually partook of different modes of perception, unified the faculties in its own way. Metaphor, as Lakoff and Johnson noticed, was physicalized thought. As a young scholar, having spent nearly three years in India studying and translating the fifteenth-century mystical and iconoclastic poet Kabir, I was drawn to the reader-response theory of Stanley Fish. Fish’s brilliant books Self-Consuming Artifacts and Is There a Text in this Class? made the study of literature intimate and dynamic, following the line-by-line and moment-by-moment interactions of text and reader as crafted by the very structure of the text, the moves it made, its ways of flowing, diverting, stopping short, playing and surprising. This was—though the phrase didn’t exist for me at the time—text as performance. Fish’s concentration on seventeenth-century English religious poetry and prose created unexpected links between his work and mine. His poets, like mine, were often playing at the brink of the conceivable, using words to upset the verbal habitations in which we tend to live unconsciously. But they weren’t always hovering on a mystical edge. Far from it! Standing amidst the familiar shapes of houses, relationships, social formations, commerce, emotions, institutions, mountains and oceans, plants and animals, the twists and turns of the human psyche, they wove the world, then spun out ever more subtle threads, and unwove us even as we stood with them. Their literature demonstrated the construction and deconstruction of the world. To change the metaphor, it played this process out upon and within us, like music that takes us over in a way we could never expect. One of my early publications, “Kabir’s Rough Rhetoric,” studied how an unlettered oral poet worked on his audience by the words and structures he chose, his ways of questioning, challenging, amusing and shocking us. This study also became part of the introduction to my first book, The Bijak of Kabir, published in 1983 by North Point Press in the US and Motilal Banarsidass in India, revised and republished by Oxford University Press, New York, in 2002.

The list of “familiar shapes” in the last paragraph (houses, relationships, social formations, and so on) points to the next opening in my work: off the page, beyond the individual body-mind, into the world. A chance meeting with Richard Schechner on the banks of the Ganges led to a years-long collaboration on the Ramlila of Ramnagar, a monumental annual performance that lasts thirty days and moves over miles of terrain, incorporating environment and travel into the performance. The connection with poetry remained, as the Ramlila is closely based on the poet Tulsidas’s revered and beloved sixteenth-century Hindi devotional rendition of the Ramayana epic. At a certain point I developed a doubt about Fish’s reader-response theory. Was it reader-response, or Fish-response? Were other people experiencing the text the way he was, or differently? The same doubt applied to my own text-based audience-response study of Kabir. The next step was going to take me from the individual interaction between text and reader to the realm of social interactions, the presence of texts in communities. Fish also introduced the very influential notion of “communities of interpretation.” But he didn’t do fieldwork.

In the Ramlila I traipsed with tens of thousands of devotees over mud, paved roads and forest trails, day and night, sitting on the ground, coping with weather and pressing crowds that sometimes reached 100,000. I asked them about content and meaning. I observed their ways of participating as well as my own. Three years of nonstop participation in the full cycle led to a series of articles including “Ramlila: the Audience Experience,” published in 1983, revised and republished in The Life of Hinduism (University of California Press, 2006). The elaborately worked-out connections between source text and performance text/mise-en-scene enabled me to see in ever more far-reaching ways how literature lives in people and in the world. The prominence of the Maharaja of Banaras in the Ramlila brought forth political subtexts. The ideological messages of Tulsidas and his interpreters over the centuries gave rise to questions about gender and caste. The weavings of poetry, bodies and minds, society and politics became more complex. Inner and outer were not separate. Kabir had tried to tell me this in his own way years earlier. My articles on the Ramlila and the Tulsi Ramayana between 1983 and 2000 reflected these new ways of thinking.

My first love in Hindi religious poetry—Kabir—has proved to be my last and deepest. In the past ten years I have returned to Kabir with a radically different research agenda and sense of text. Kabir was an oral poet and never read or wrote as far as we can guess. His living oral traditions continue to this day, though complicated by the histories of media and technologies. My work now is in the field of Kabir oral traditions, the fusion of words and music, the ways in which contexts (performative, religious, social, political) create meaning. Scholars usually try to keep oral and written separate, as the former complicates the latter almost unbearably. I am reaching for an understanding of text that puts the vast and dynamic oral traditions of Kabir into conversation with the “canonical” written collections that scholars have relied on so far. (The word “canonical” must be treated skeptically, as the major written collections were codified about a century after Kabir’s death.)

The lyrics of the late medieval mystics of North India (who include Hindus, Sufi Muslims, Sikhs, and those, like Kabir, who defy such labels) are still extremely popular and powerful, but not as words in a book. They are, and always have been, songs. They live in music, sung in many forms, styles, and situations. My 2009 book, Singing Emptiness: Kumar Gandharva Performs the Poetry of Kabir, studies how a great classical singer of the twentieth century sang the songs of Kabir, how deeply he engaged with their feeling and meaning, and how the musical expression transforms the listener’s relationship to text. The larger book to which the fellowship year will be devoted, tentatively called Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in Northern India, focuses on folk traditions, moving through rural and urban worlds with singers and audiences, weaving the relationships between texts, music, contexts, communities, and individual people.

In 2002 I spent a year doing fieldwork with Kabir singers, based mainly in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. At the end of that year, in Malwa’s villages, I met Shabnam Virmani, a Bangalore-based filmmaker who was beginning a documentary film project on Kabir oral and musical traditions in their various real-life contexts. Our projects—very similar in concept and approach, but in different media–became closely intertwined. I joined the board of four advisors to the film project, which was supported for five years by Ford Foundation and eventually produced four feature-length documentary films, ten audio CDs, a DVD documenting performances of a Kabir singer in the US, and six accompanying books. Shabnam and I often traveled together, translated together, and collaborated in many ways. She decided to feature me as one of two main characters in one of the films, called “Chalo hamara des / Come to My Country—Journeys with Kabir and Friends.” The film explores the idea of Kabir’s des or country, an image that often comes up in the songs. She interweaves the stories of Prahlad Singh Tipanya (the central figure in two chapters of my book) and me, two people from opposites sides of the world whose lives have been deeply touched by Kabir. Eventually all of us, coming from different locations, find a meeting ground in the “country” of Kabir. This film beautifully represents Kabir oral traditions and my engagement with Kabir over many years. The website provides information on all the finished productions as well as ongoing activities of the project. Each of the other three feature-length documentary films addresses different questions and unfolds with its own powerful narrative.

Along with the interest in reconceiving text, along with the outward gaze toward society, politics, and institutional religion, the intimate experience of poetry is not lost. Kabir remains my teacher in this as in other matters. His gaze goes relentlessly inward and outward. “God is in your body.” And, “Hindus and Muslims talk about love, then kill each other.” He speaks of minute psychological and spiritual events, of breath, of subtle physical experiences, light and sound in the body. He speaks of social hierarchy, ritual, hypocrisy, the arrogance of the powerful, the violence in all of us. He shows how the darting mind stays busy, keeping our fantasies and desires intact, shielding us from what we fear, until death falls on our heads and it’s too late to wake up. He uses language to overturn language. His texts sing. His words get inside our bodies and work on us. Thus my youthful sense of poetry remains alive in the research, translation, and writing in which I am engaged decades later.