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An honest, simple, straightforward answer

We received the following comment by Auroram:

From The Lives…

Exhibit 1: “I was struck by the peaceful expanse of his brow, his trouble free face, and fathomless eyes. It would be years before I learned that all of these features owed their distinctiveness to the retoucher’s art.”

Now how do I understand this? Is PH complementing Sri Aurobindo or discrediting that whatever seen in his photo is more due to airbrush rather than reflection of his spiritual realisation.

Exhibit 2: “His prose was good, if rather old-fashioned, and he had a wry sense of humor that came out when you least expected it.”

Would these sentences pass Mother’s approval for publication about Sri Aurobindo?

Honest, simple, straightforward question?!

An honest, simple, straightforward question deserves an honest, simple, straightforward answer.

Would these sentences pass Mother’s approval? The  honest, simple, straightforward answer is that no one knows. Any attempt to second-guess The Mother is foolish in the extreme.

We suppose that even a Sraddhalunatic can’t find anything wrong with saying that Sri Aurobindo’s prose was good, and that he had a most wonderful sense of humor. How is it, then, that the Sraddhalunatics suffer collective apoplexy when Sri Aurobindo’s prose is described as “rather old-fashioned”? Styles are perpetually going in an out of fashion. Is Sri Aurobindo a fashion model? Cannot an old-fashioned style be as superb as Sri Aurobindo’s?

“Exhibit 1” is a good example of the Sraddhalunatic strategy of (1) quoting out of context, (2) inducing readers to accept a false interpretation, and (3) imputing to the author the wish to denigrate Sri Aurobindo. By asking rhetorically if the author is “complementing Sri Aurobindo or discrediting that whatever seen in his photo is more due to airbrush rather than reflection of his spiritual realisation,” Auroram suggests to the reader that the author’s intention was to discredit or deny Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual realisation. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is hard to believe than anyone could swallow such a brazen lie.

Two photographs

Figure 1 (retouched, left) and figure 2 (unretouched, right).

“Exhibit 1” has to be read in conjunction with the following passage, which begins on the next page:

Figure 2 is a photograph of Aurobindo that was taken around the same time as figure 1. Note the dark, pockmarked skin, sharp features, and undreamy eyes. As far as I know, it did not appear in print before 1976, when I published it in an ashram journal. To me it is infinitely more appealing than figure 1, which has been reproduced millions of times in its heavily retouched form. I sometimes wonder why people like figure 1. There is hardly a trace of shadow between the ears, with the result that the face has no character.The sparkling eyes have been painted in; even the hair has been given a gloss. As a historical document it is false. As a photograph it is a botched piece of work. But for many, figure 1 is more true to Aurobindo than figure 2.

The author’s changing appreciation of the retouched photograph follows our own (or the other way round). As long as figure 1 (left) is the only photo of Sri Aurobindo from around 1915 that one has seen, and as long as one isn’t aware of how it has been botched, it has its charm. But when one sees figure 2 (right) and realizes what has been done to figure 1, one is shocked.

Shocked at how anyone could have dared to mess with Sri Aurobindo’s face in this brutal fashion.

Shocked at how people can prefer the bland expression of figure 1 to the intense and enthralling expression of figure 2.

To understand the author’s actual intention, one must read these passages in context. Their context reveals that the author intended to illustrate the difference between biography and hagiography. The hagiographer is like the retoucher, whose task is “to make the photograph accord with the reality that people want to see” (p. xiv). The biographer’s task, by contrast, is to make his account accord with reality — period.

How can people prefer a fiction to the real Sri Aurobindo? How can anyone who loves the real Sri Aurobindo do this? It is impossible. Those who prefer a fiction — a lie, a falsehood — to the real Sri Aurobindo cannot be in love with him. They must be in love with an idol, with a vapid, story-book Sri Aurobindo of their own making.

It’s about these people that Heehs wrote, rather prophetically:

The genre of hagiography, in the original sense of the term, is very much alive in India. Any saint with a following is the subject of one or more books that tell the inspiring story of his or her birth, growth, mission, and passage to the eternal. Biographies of literary and political figures do not differ much from this model. People take the received version of their heroes’ lives very seriously. A statement about a politician or poet that rubs people the wrong way will be turned into a political or legal issue, or possibly cause a riot. The problem is not whether the disputed statement is true, but whether anyone has the right to question an account that flatters a group identity. (p. xii)

How right he was!

Possibly cause a riot….

August 15th is approaching….

  1. Jeev
    July 18, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    What is most shocking is that it is those who are accusing Peter of tampering with Sri Aurobindo’s history who have actually and all along been the worst offenders when it came to tampering Sri Aurobindo’s image and his history. Now it is clear as crystal why these offenders ganged up and caused a riot when Peter came out with the most authentic biography on Sri Aurobindo. Knowingly or unintentionally, Peter exposed these offenders completely. The offenders therefore ganged up and retaliated in revenge against him. What a shameful act in the name of Sri Aurobindo. But the good thing is that they are now fully exposed.

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