Politics and Conscience: Dag Hammarskjöld on the Art of Ethical Leadership

(Shambhala Publications, to be released February 2020)

In 2013, I published Hammarskjöld: A Life, the first major biography since Sir Brian Urquhart’s classic, permanently important work of 1972. At 760 pages—much like Sir Brian’s in length—the book seemed to me all that was needed to reintroduce the life and thought of this utterly outstanding statesman and man of religion to new generations. But American and world politics took a new turn in recent years, and I wondered. Would it make sense to distill and offer in a compact handbook just the essence of Hammarskjöld’s political thought and practice? In 140 pages or so, with only the most necessary biographical background, could the radiant and pragmatic thought of this man touch people—touch elected political leaders in many countries, touch concerned citizens? His thought and example are urgently needed today. This is how to lead a world that works, a world that isn’t recklessly or ignorantly sliding toward disaster. This is the sound of true leadership: deeply informed, psychologically astute, principled without self-adulation, clear and quiet, inspiring. We can build for ourselves, and now, on the basis of Dag Hammarskjöld’s thought and example.

Book by Roger Lipsey: Politics and Conscience: Dag Hammarskjöld on the Art of Ethical Leadership
Politics and Conscience: Dag Hammarskjöld on the Art of Ethical Leadership

Politics and Conscience: Dag Hammarskjöld on the Art of Ethical Leadership

PDF: the opening pages of Politics and Conscience courtesy of Shambhala Publications.

  • Amazon logo link
  • Barnes and Noble logo link
  • Penguin Random House logo link


Gurdjieff Reconsidered: The Life, the Teachings, the Legacy

With a Foreword by Cynthia Bourgeault

Shambhala Publications (2019)

This entry is excerpted with permission from the May 2019 issue of Mind Body Spirit, published by Watkins Books, London (www.watkinsmagazine.com)

When I set out to write, I perceived no need for “another Gurdjieff book,” another exposition of the teaching that could not help but echo, loudly, the large and in part marvelous literature already in print. But for years I have had something else in mind, awaiting its time.

Gurdjieff taught quite differently from decade to decade in the West, and in some respects, he was a different person. He too evolved, worked on himself, responded to the constraints and opportunities of changing circumstances. Gurdjieff Reconsidered listens to him, and up to a point biographically chronicles him, in four successive periods: the first teaching cycle (Russia, 1912 – 1917); the Institute he founded at Fontainebleau-Avon (1922 – 1932); Paris in the 1930s when he was living modestly with few but gifted pupils; and finally the Occupation and post-war period in Paris when he taught at his apartment, rue des Colonels Renard, and in rehearsal spaces at the Salle Pleyel for the sacred dances or Movements.

“Once in Russia,” Gurdjieff recalled, “I lived like a gypsy. I had a horse, donkey, tent, friends. I make 20 or 30 kilometers one day, then stop rest two days. Only such travel is real. Then you know how is—you know if each place has two or three stones. Go this way from Paris to Turkestan and will complete education have.” I wrote in this spirit. His decades set successive boundaries; I wanted to see and share those two or three stones—and many more—that made each period distinctive and deeply interesting. If there was to be teaching in this book, it would be delivered by Gurdjieff himself and those closest to him; hence what must be hundreds of anecdotes and records of unique conversations gathered from published literature and previously unexplored archives. They are flashes of insight, flashes of light. One early reader of the book called it a “reboot”, a renewal of our vision of Gurdjieff. I hope that you will find it so.

In my concern to see Gurdjieff whole, the book explores not only his work with pupils but also his choreography, the music composed in collaboration with Thomas de Hartmann, much of it dating to the mid and later 1920s, and also some of the more difficult writings. Gurdjieff cannot be understood without knowing at least a little of these aspects of his sustained creativity. I wanted to see him whole and to share that vision.

In his lifetime (1866 – 1949) and in decades after, Gurdjieff was by and large expelled from Western culture, from serious consideration by credentialed intellectuals. He didn’t bear close attention. Wasn’t he a crank or cult figure? Once this view was infused among Western academics and opinion makers, it lingered for decades and made it unnecessary to look freshly and inquiringly at Gurdjieff; the conventional view was sufficient. For his part, Gurdjieff was likely content with isolation; the men and women who chose to work with him, who passed through the sieve of indifference and derision and found their way to him, were often brilliant in varied ways, always sincere and striving. In his lifetime that was all that was needed.

After early misrepresentations and gutter press reporting in the 1920s, when he did initially invite journalists’ attention to Movements performances and to the values and way of life at the Institute, he wanted nothing more to do with the media. As well, he had gained a reputation as a “hard” teacher, provocative and challenging—although privately with pupils, family, friends, and the impoverished Russian exiles in Paris who came daily to his kitchen for food, he was capable of life-changing kindness. He may have been content with marginalisation—there is a quiet atmosphere and fertile soil at the margin. But as I matured, and in the course of decades of participation in the teaching, I could not join Gurdjieff in that contentment. I experienced the gap as sad and sterile rather than as a moat that served everyone well.

In order to reunite Gurdjieff and his teaching to the Western mainstream, I knew that I should face his most severe critics, particularly those who assailed him in the decades after his death—and among those, particularly Louis Pauwels, whose book Monsieur Gurdjieff (1954 with revised editions to 1996, and English 1972) became the arbiter of opinion. This was an utterly interesting assignment. No previous author has looked as closely at the history, content, and consequences of assaults on Gurdjieff’s reputation. In a chapter of my book called “Derision”, Pauwels and others are heard, questioned, and I believe disarmed at last. Criticism of Pauwels’ kind was destructive. It left no good, and there was overwhelming good.

Gurdjieff’s teaching and at times his teaching style were great challenges. That was as it should be. He was both the Pythagoras and the Diogenes of our time: Pythagoras, the austere man of spirit, the musician and measurer of cosmos; Diogenes, the ironist and deliberate outsider, fearless and droll. Pythagoras in the esoteric redoubt of his school; Diogenes in the street. These ancient antecedent teachers were not easy; neither was Gurdjieff. But both were limitlessly inspiring to those who wished to be more, to know things not obvious but essential, and not least to know how and what to give others without vanity, in true service. This is the wide, for the most part unnoticed channel between Gurdjieff and Western culture. It is back at the headwaters and flows on from there.

There is so very much of value in Gurdjieff and his teaching that needs to be, yes, reconsidered. This was a very great human being. The teaching is a very great teaching. It is time, and past time, for thoughtful people to “take them on board”, to listen to the words and music, to experience—at the distance inevitably imposed by a book—the intensity of life and learning around Gurdjieff. The margin is no longer a generous enough terrain. Gurdjieff and his teaching belong closer to us as we do what we can to face and, insofar as possible, remedy the stunning difficulties of our time. Some will find a way to participate; others will, I trust, gain a new appreciation without choosing to participate. And those who still prefer to be critics of Gurdjieff and his teaching will have this book as a resource: start here.

Gurdjieff Reconsidered by Roger Lipsey
Gurdjieff Reconsidered by Roger Lipsey

  • Amazon
  • Barnes and Noble
  • IndieBound
  • Shambhala Publications
  • Target logo link
  • Walmart logo link

Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down: The Long Encounter of Thomas Merton and His Abbot, James Fox

(Shambhala Publications, 2015)

I had written some years earlier about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author—see Angelic Mistakes, below—but there was more to explore and share. Signs throughout Merton’s journals and correspondence point to an enduringly difficult relation with his abbot. However, apart from passing references in biographies and other sources, no study had brought the issue to light and fully explored it. It was easy enough to view this fateful relation from Merton’s perspective through his writings. But that is half of the story. What of Dom James’s perspective, what of his experience as the superior responsible for the welfare of a world-renowned author and (in later years) peace activist, regarded by Fr. Dan Berrigan and others in the 1960s anti-war movement as their spiritual counselor? Thanks to the generosity and trust of the current abbot of Gethsemani, I was invited to explore all but forgotten monastic archives. Dom James’s passionate commitment to traditional monastic thought and practice, his devotion to the Crucified Christ, his uneasy and not infrequently coercive relation with Merton, his admiration for Merton and mistrust, his heartfelt work toward a materially productive, self-sufficient monastery were there to be seen. The fine detail was evident at last. For example, Merton typically suffered, oh he suffered, during Dom James’s homilies—but where were the texts of those homilies? In the archive. The basis for fair assessment was at hand. A fascinating story could be told.

In early years an ideally submissive monk, over time Merton became a loyal rebel, a seeker of truth beyond the boundaries set by the monastic norms and practices of his day. His mind forced him on, his need for direct contemplative practice forced him on. Dom James possessed the authority to contain him—through 27 years of residence Merton left the monastery for trips of more than a few days only three times, though he was in demand worldwide as a conference participant and retreat leader. The agon of these two men—their combat and reconciliations, their harsh love for one another as vowed brothers of the same Order—is an astonishing and, to my mind, beautiful story. More than a personal story, it has qualities of legend.

Why did I care? In recent decades I’ve had an instinctive concern for spiritual community: its ideals, its dynamics, its potential for darkness, its potential for light. And spiritual community needn’t be monastic. Sound spiritual communities among lay men and women, based on teachings that go deep and make sense, are equally valid, and arguably more so, for our time. But Thomas Merton—an authentic seeker of truth, an author of scope and chosen words and genius—offers an opportunity like no other to understand how brave individuals, both Merton and Dom James, make their way in spiritual community.

  • Amazon
  • Barnes and Noble
  • Shambhala Publications
  • AbeBooks logo link
  • Walmart logo link

Hammarskjöld: A Life

(University of Michigan Press, 2013)

“It is difficult to hear the low voice of reason or see the clear little light of decency, but, of course, both endure and both remain perfectly safe guides.” So Hammarskjöld wrote to a friend, late winter 1957, a few months after settling many aspects of the Suez Crisis which had seen Britain, France, and Israel wage a brief and futile war against Egypt. Hammarskjöld was the second secretary-general of the United Nations, serving from April 1953 until his death, September 1961, in a suspicious air crash in central Africa, now viewed by many as an assassination. John F. Kennedy described him as the greatest statesman of the century. I’m sure that was true. His example and influence need to reach us; he still has so much to offer.

I first noticed Hammarskjöld in 1964 when his private journal Markings was published. The journal revealed the statesman to have been a man of religion, a spiritual seeker who knew the world’s spiritualities—Christian, Taoist, Indian, and more—and had taken them to heart. He held himself to a high standard of self-awareness and, yes, self-criticism; it is fair to say that he was the first mindful political leader of the West. From his perspective he was a work in progress, an instrument through which good could be achieved if and only if he sustained a vigilant attitude toward himself and an intensely inquiring mind in world affairs. In his private journal he often wrote as a religious seeker and poet; in public life he explored issues with admirable lucidity, addressed the UN member nations and world public with integrity and quiet eloquence, and acted decisively where needed. What linked the two sides of Hammarskjöld, the immensely rich inner life and the immensely rich and challenging public career? That is the recurrent focus of the biography.

I became, in effect, his student. For years, while I was employed as a writer and communications director in the US accounting industry, I knew that one day I would write about him. Sir Brian Urquhart’s biography of 1972, a major and permanent contribution, is primarily the biography of the world’s leading diplomat. Using additional resources—correspondence, new reflection about Markings in relation to the public life, interviews with surviving colleagues, and other source material—I set out to redraw the portrait of this truly great individual, a world leader then, a teacher now.

I am grateful that Hammarskjöld: A Life has been so well received across a broad readership. Had I written nothing else, this would have been enough.

  • Amazon
  • University of Michigan Press logo link
  • Barnes and Noble
  • AbeBooks logo link
  • Walmart logo link

Life Behind the Mask: Theater Practice as an Instrument of Self-Knowledge

By Didier Mouturat

Translated by Roger and Susan Lipsey from Tous les matins, l’énigme… La vie derrière le masque (éoliennes, 2013), with a preface by Roger Lipsey

(Sussex Academic Press, 2016)

Through the French title of this wonderful, all too little known book, Didier Mouturat places himself in the lineage of the poet, essayist, and novelist René Daumal (1908 – 1944). Let’s do some translation. “Tous les matins, l’énigme…”, Mouturat writes. It resists attractive translation, but you might say “Every morning, the enigma…” That has no grace; as translators, my wife Susan and I preferred to work with the subtitle. Now Daumal, in one of his most evocative expressions: “Chaque fois que l’aube paraît, le mystère est là tout entier.” Again difficult to translate. The French is lovely, but what of this English: “At every dawn, the mystery is wholly there.” Accurate, not lovely, and the rhyming paraît / entier is gone… The observation stands: Mouturat feels the presence of Daumal in the background of his work, rightly so. They are both spiritual seekers, they both have the gift of language, and more still unites them.

Life Behind the Mask recounts a classic apprenticeship—in theatrical performance (but it could be nearly any stringent discipline) focused on the use of masks as in traditional Japanese and other theaters. Mouturat’s master of the art of masked performance, Cyrille Dives, taught acting, mask carving, and eventually the requirements of founding and supporting a theater company. Some challenges facing Mouturat called for months of work: for example, walking on stage, responding to the mask rather than imposing on it. The relation of apprentice to master is evoked with spectacular attention to detail, spectacular ability to make the reader feel what the apprentice feels. Like Daumal, a brilliant storyteller and essayist who could express certain things only in verse, Mouturat interleaves freely conceived, haiku-like verse as his tale progresses. His poetic reflections envelope the struggles of the apprentice in a timeless, giving atmosphere.

Later, Dives revealed to his apprentice perhaps the deepest source on which he drew, not for the form of his art but for its substance, its insistence: the Gurdjieff teaching. Dives was a pupil of Gurdjieff in the 1940s, and continued to participate in the teaching after Gurdjieff’s death in 1949. He was well known to people I have known.

What finally to say of this book? Life Behind the Mask is the beautifully written record of two apprenticeships: of theater and of the search for authentic being in a world that doesn’t much ask that of us. That is the life behind the mask.

  • Amazon
  • Barnes and Noble logo link
  • AbeBooks logo link
  • Walmart logo link

The True Scholar. Passages from A. K. Coomaraswamy on Art and Scholarship

Selected and Introduced by Roger Lipsey

(Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2013)

It was a privilege, and a joy, in the fall of 2013 to accept an invitation from Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan to offer in New Delhi a lecture on the enduring value of the thought of the art historian and religious philosopher, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877 – 1947). It was to be one element in a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi, an institution now central to arts scholarship, exchange, exhibition, and performance. On that occasion, in cooperation with my respected elder and friend, Dr. Vatsyayan, we decided to publish a small book of citations from Coomaraswamy’s writings. As this homage to Coomaraswamy won’t have widely circulated, I reproduce here the introduction.

This is an enchiridion, comparable in size and purpose to the handbook assembled by Arrian in the second century of the Common Era from the lectures of his master Epictetus. Coomaraswamy would not object to the comparison: his relentlessness, his clarity, his scope of concerns and provocative ironies are quite like those of the great Stoic philosopher. Certain thinkers insist. They feel the gravity of the human situation, the urgency of recovering truths and on that basis finding the way forward. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy was of this kind.

The passages are selected exclusively from Coomaraswamy’s late period, 1932–47, when he was as much a religious philosopher as an art historian. In earlier years, it is not too much to say, he had given us an Indian art history through monographs, general histories, catalogues, and essays on objects and motifs that drew a vast circumference around the emerging field. Of course he was not alone in doing so: he was a participant. But when one thinks of those years, one thinks of his work. It was his destiny to move on, to strive toward a pure, rather austere understanding of art and artist, and more broadly of our calling as human beings. Once a graceful essayist, he now didn’t mind at all if his writings were difficult. Yet in virtually every essay and monograph in the later years there are passages of breathtaking beauty and clarity. Some of those passages are assembled in these pages.

The true scholar—such he was. True in many senses: devoted to his work with the suffering, poignantly innocent hope that he could reach others and deeply persuade us. True as a child is true to himself, fearless. True also in his search for ancient and unchanging truth at the heart of the traditions of East and West to which he was dedicated.

Not everyone will agree with every thought in these pages—of course not. But there is majesty here.

Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton

With an introduction by Paul M. Pearson, director of the Thomas Merton Center (Louisville, KY)

(Shambhala Publications, 2006; reprinted 2019 by Echo Point Books and Media)

Angelic Mistakes by Roger Lipsey

Most of us know of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author of world fame, for his many writings and his peace activism—but not for his visual art. Yet the art was always there, meticulously preserved at the Thomas Merton Center and in private collections: for the most part abstract brushwork in a style midway between Zen calligraphy and the expressive Minimalism of his friend at the center of the New York art world, Ad Reinhardt. Further, some of the finest of these works on paper would prove on close examination to be prints—monoprints, one time only, created by the simplest of means while Merton lived in the 1960s in a hermitage on the grounds of his monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani. Mystery upon mystery, as he might say. None of this rich heritage from Merton had been explored, understood, placed in its dual setting as products of that moment in American art and of a ceaselessly creative mind.

I noticed Merton’s visual art in 1982, when I came across well-chosen works serving as illustrations or grace notes in his late book of essays, Raids on the Unspeakable. A visit to the Thomas Merton Center to explore what else there might be yielded two certainties: that this material called out for interpretation and publication, and that it would take me time to undertake the project. Years passed, the project unforgotten, until the first years of the new century.

The exploration was an adventure from start to finish. I hope that Merton’s readers will find their way to this book in which Merton still lives.

  • Amazon
  • Barnes and Noble
  • Echo Point Books & Media logo link
  • AbeBooks logo link
  • Walmart logo link

Henriette Lannes. This Fundamental Quest: The Journey of a Pupil of G. I. Gurdjieff

Translated by Roger and Susan Lipsey from the original edition, Retour à maintenant

(Far West Institute, 2003)

A direct pupil of G. I. Gurdjieff, Henriette Lannes (1899 – 1980) was responsible in later years for the practical study of the Gurdjieff teaching in Lyon (France) and London. Until the publication of this book in its first French edition by her pupils in Lyon, and a similar book published by the London circle who also knew her well, Madame Lannes’ voice had been little known, legendary but inaccessible. What characterizes her approach to the Gurdjieff teaching? Directness and firmness, unshakable fidelity to the search to know oneself, a gift for uncovering in the complexity of experience the warmth and promise of truth.

“Together we seek to discover new meaning in our lives,” she writes in these pages. “Seeking generally proves to be a difficult experience because in most of our explorations we want an immediate answer. What have we found? Have we discovered who and what we are? We seek contact with our lives, with a subtle, vital energy. We persevere in this fundamental quest to recover what, to all appearances, is lost. Yet within us has awakened an instinct for searching, experiencing, knowing.”

It was a privilege to translate this text, to give it new life and readers in English. We had not had the good fortune to meet Madame Lannes, but she is present in these pages. The work of translation was a long and welcome work of listening.

On October 26, 1989, Madame Lannes was named one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, in recognition of her successful effort during the Nazi Occupation of France, at her peril, to hide and support four hunted Jews who had already lost family members in the Holocaust. The account of her courageous service will be found at yadvashem-france.org/les-justes-parmi-les-nations/les-justes-de-france/dossier-4421. She was known at the time as Henriette Tracol.

AbeBooks logo link

René Daumal. Letters on the Search for Awakening: 1930 – 1944

Translated by Gabriela Ansari and Roger Lipsey

With an introduction by Roger Lipsey

(Dolmen Meadow Editions, 2010)

Letters on the Search for Awakening cover by Roger Lipsey

René Daumal has been for me—and for many others—a companion for decades. He is hard to find, especially in the English-speaking world, but once found hard to forget. The point of entry to his writings is his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue, preferably (if you can find it) in the incomparable translation by Roger Shattuck. Better still in Daumal’s French, but that doesn’t matter—Shattuck captured both letter and spirit. The novel remained unfinished because of the adverse and ultimately fatal circumstances facing Daumal. In his later years, which weren’t later at all—he died at the age of 36—he was suffering from TB at a time when resources and medical care were scarce under the Nazi Occupation. Enough food was a struggle, enough coal or timber to warm a room was a struggle.

He was one of those, rare, who matured quickly as an artist. His later works are classic in the way that French literature can be classic: lucid in thought and language, discreetly measured and heard, with a wild sense of humor in the spirit of Alfred Jarry and François Rabelais, with deep seriousness conveyed as if secrets of life are best shared in a whisper.

Daumal was an intellectual prodigy. With his high school buddies—some of whom became well known authors—he started a literary review that attracted the attention of writers and editors at the top of French literary life. Drawn to Asian thought in his teen years, he taught himself Sanskrit in order to read the Indian classics in the original and went on to write essays on Indian scripture and the seminal texts underlying theater and dance. He was too daring. He experimented with a dangerous anesthetic to look, if possible, beyond this world: an early and perilous adventure vividly recounted in another of his great pieces, “A Decisive Experience.” And one day in 1930 he met Alexandre de Salzmann in a Left Bank café. Providence or chance, the encounter was a turning point.

De Salzmann was a pupil of G. I. Gurdjieff (you’ll find him in my book Gurdjieff Reconsidered), no longer close to Gurdjieff at that time but a brilliant exponent of Gurdjieff’s teaching. They met often. After de Salzmann’s death (again, TB…) in 1934, Daumal continued his engagement with the Gurdjieff teaching in the circle of Jeanne de Salzmann, who introduced Daumal to Gurdjieff in 1938. Insofar as his health permitted, Daumal and his American wife Vera saw much of Gurdjieff.

Among Daumal’s wartime writings, don’t miss his “Holy War,” a prose poem of considerable length—a perfect thing expressing elements of the Gurdjieff teaching as lived in a way that is simultaneously colorful and austere.

Gabriela Ansari and I recognized the need in English for a selection from Daumal’s correspondence, focused on the theme that mattered most to him: the search for awakening.

  • Amazon
  • AbeBooks logo link

Have you been to Delphi? Tales of the Ancient Oracle for Modern Minds

(State University of New York Press, 2001)

I was a trespasser. I hadn’t trained in Classics, for ancient Greek I relied on a massive dictionary, to collect tales and references I relied in part on a magnificent electronic resource familiar to all Classicists. And yet I belonged. I belonged because both academic training and native temperament allowed me to hear and care for tales, to recognize the impulses and patterns in them and place them in a larger context—call it the human condition. I belonged because the language of symbols and allusion is the language of the Oracle, and in part my language also. I don’t need fixed clarity, I need light. I belonged because I belong to Socrates; he is one of my permanent teachers, the teacher of all inquirers. And he belonged to the Oracle.

The tales are marvels, typically compact, powerful, thought-provoking. They had never been collected and appreciated. “The Oracle at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but makes signs”—so said Heraclitus, who would have known. The Oracle’s words were the very opposite of dogma: they challenged understanding, you had to think. Where the length of tales is concerned, the exception is the extended, majestic tale of Croesus, the sixth-century king of Lydia, who misunderstood a sign, lost his kingdom in battle, and turned toward the Oracle as if to a person, as if in dialogue.

After the book was completed and I looked back, I realized that I had been instinctively exploring the issue of spiritual authority and its reception. Difficult as it was, riddling as it was, the Oracle was a major spiritual authority for centuries in the ancient world. The striving to interpret its sayings and intentions runs parallel to efforts today to grasp the meaning of spiritual teachings and teachers, and to act on whatever meaning is understood. We are all colonists, setting out in unpredictable seas toward unknown destinations. Please, a word from the Oracle.

There was Delphi, and here we are.

  • Amazon
  • Suny Press
  • Barnes and Noble logo link
  • AbeBooks logo link

An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art

(Shambhala Publications, 1988)

Remaining in print under the subtitle, thanks to Dover Books

Like Hammarskjöld: A Life and Gurdjieff Reconsidered, this was one of the fundamental books in whatever life I have had as a writer. All three represented points of arrival and new departure. Each reflected what I had cared for centrally in the past and what I hoped. An Art of Our Own has blazed its own long path, quite apart from me; it is still read and valued, particularly by artists.

The impetus for An Art of Our Own was from Coomaraswamy. His magisterial account of the spiritual in what he called traditional art—especially in Western medieval art and the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim arts of India—was accompanied from time to time by disdain for the art of his own time. He scarcely mentioned it. The only contemporary artists who roughly passed muster were in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz in the 1920s, and these were people he had known personally and appreciated. That didn’t seem right or altogether sensible to me. Coomaraswamy was unquestionably my master and teacher for the scholarship of art history and of religious ideas rooted in the world’s sacred texts and commentary—but there was a gap in his vision. I entered there.

I read intensively the writings of twentieth-century artists and found their works in museums worldwide. Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Brancusi, Picasso, Matisse, Klee—Paul Klee! What can one say of his depth, his striving? And more still: the Bauhaus as such, as an advancing idea; Henry Moore; Isamu Noguchi, with whom I had the privilege of speaking; the post-war American school, including the great and tragic figure of Mark Rothko. And then what I called Minor Masters, less well known, less stitched into history, but grand in their ways—I’m thinking at the moment of Julius Bissier. His small works ring like temple bells. All of this and more represented for me a courageous, sustained, authentically spiritual search for truth at every level where truth can be found, from far above to this suffering, still beautiful world.

I learned how to think about and directly perceive the spiritual in the art of our time—“an art of our own,” as Brancusi said—from the artists themselves. Their works and words taught me, and in turn I ordered as much and as richly as I could in a book.

  • Amazon
  • Barnes and Noble
  • AbeBooks logo link


Lectures Commemorating the Birth Centenary of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

(Institute of Indian Art History, Karnatak University, 1980)

In 1977, the year of the Coomaraswamy centenary, I toured India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal to give lectures on AKC, as some called him. Collecting the main lectures and additional writings, this book is like a compass with markings then obscure—in what directions did they point?—but now clear and modestly prophetic. Even then, when the Coomaraswamy trilogy had just been published (see the next entry), I was contesting the value of twentieth-century art with AKC. Proof: the two opening essays in the book, “Traditional Ideas and Modern Art” and “The Question of Sacred Art in Our Time.” The seeds for An Art of Our Own were already set in the ground.

And then the extended essay “Daedalus,” a first adventure into ancient Greek myth and tale. The seed for Have you been to Delphi? was set in the ground. Most surprising of all, as I look back so many years, is the concluding essay, “Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power in the South Indian Theory of Government.” It is a commentary on one of AKC’s most difficult late books, Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power in the Indian Theory of Government (1942), and represents the seed for the work I’ve dedicated to the political thought and practice of Dag Hammarskjöld. AKC looked into the deep past for greatness and probity; I looked nearby, in our own time, and found it.

The opening paragraph of this last essay speaks to AKC’s procedure as a scholar and author, and to the courage he asks of his readers. “The enduring challenge left by Coomaraswamy lies in the late writings, writings he himself regarded as the accomplishment that represented his best understanding and good will. They can be described as a meditation, but hardly resemble the cliché of meditation in which the complexities of the world are gradually sloughed off, leaving peace and radiance. On the contrary, they deal dialectically, setting idea against idea, with the fundamental problems of life, and they are formidably complex in discourse. Rarely peaceful, they are much rather what he spoke of as being ‘all in act’: fully committed, without a trace of laziness, to the recognition and solution of difficulties. . . . The writings are difficult, at times even irritatingly so, but truthful by ancient standards and increasingly beautiful as one comes to know them.”

AbeBooks logo link

Coomaraswamy trilogy

Coomaraswamy 1: Selected Papers on Traditional Art and Symbolism

Coomaraswamy 2: Selected Papers on Metaphysics

The two volumes edited with an introduction by Roger Lipsey

Coomaraswamy: His Life and Work

By Roger Lipsey

(Published as a trilogy in the Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, 1977)

I’ve sometimes said that to read Coomaraswamy’s writings for a year would be a vastly worthwhile education. I still think this true. I was willingly captivated in the late 1960s. AKC’s writings drew me to graduate work in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts (New York University). Certain of his writings were at the surface, easily found. Most important to me at the time, and enduringly so for many readers, were three books from his later years: Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, The Transformation of Nature in Art, and Hinduism and Buddhism. But many books and essays were nearly unfindable; I had to search them out.

At the time I was deciding to write my doctoral dissertation about his life and thought—this in the late 1960s—there occurred a sad and fateful event: the passing of AKC’s widow, Doña Luisa, who had worked for years with the support of a Bollingen Foundation fellowship to edit and publish the complete works of her late husband. Though it was her life’s work, she had been unable to complete the task. She bequeathed to the Foundation AKC’s papers and library, and at the invitation of Bill McGuire, senior editor for the immense Bollingen Series published by Princeton University Press, I was asked to sort through the papers, understand and catalogue them, and prepare them for deposit in the university’s library. I had met Doña Luisa at her home in Rhode Island; I had understood something of the mystique surrounding her work. I shall never forget my conversation with this elderly woman wearing an accountant’s shade to spare her eyes. A most dedicated person, and most welcoming.

I want to take a moment to remember Bill McGuire. This was an authentic man of letters and a generous mentor. Quite apart from other things, he had overseen much of the huge edition of C. G. Jung’s writings in the Bollingen Series—a permanent contribution. Bill combined a no-nonsense approach to text with discreet appreciation for what the very special texts with which he worked had to say.

The initial cataloguing completed, the Press invited me to edit and introduce not the complete works of Coomaraswamy but a selection, to which in time we added a revision of the Life and Work study I had written as my dissertation. The overall project, buffeted by a fair share of life vicissitudes, took nine years.

Lines from my 2013 lecture in New Delhi: “Coomaraswamy in his later years conferred dignity on those who instinctively approach religious art as an epiphany, a transforming experience that teaches and touches both mind and heart. So doing, he was not arguing for an abandonment of scholarship, on the contrary. He was enlarging and refining a dimension that had been marginalized, forgotten, even scorned in the legitimate effort to construct an art history and modes of art historiography on a solid foundation. It was a dimension that had no voice—none that was thorough and persuasive—until he spoke. That dignity was his own, communicated through his writings as if they were a secondary but nonetheless powerful darshan.”

Coomaraswamy trilogy by Roger Lipsey

AbeBooks logo link