Glimmer Of Zimmer

Updated: May 18 2003, 05:30am hrs
The recent screenings of two interviews with Joseph Campbell, Love And The Goddess and Masks Of Eternity in The Power Of Myth series exposed the genius of one of the legendary scholars of civilisations, religion and culture with a profound knowledge of India. In fact, the interviews with Mr Campbell by Bill Moyers have, if you believe Wendy Doniger, made Mr Campbell a household name for something more than soup!

Mr Campbell had a guru, his teacher, Heinrich Zimmer. Zimmer (1890-1943) is best known for his works, Myths And Symbols In Indian Art And Civilization, Philosophies Of India, The Art Of Indian Asia and The King And The Corpse. All these books were posthumously edited by Mr Campbell and published in the Bollingen Series. The relationship between the late Zimmer and Mr Campbell was complex. Many have wondered how much Zimmer was really present in these four books and the extent to which Mr Campbell had intruded in them. The book, Heinrich ZimmerComing Into His Own, throws light on this complex relationship.

Mr Campbell speaks of how much work he had to do in preparing these works for the Press. In his introduction to Myths And Symbols, he remarks, Scraps of paper, scribbled in German, English, Sanskrit and French were sifted everywhere into the pages of his library and files. Their transformation into a book demanded considerable recomposition, rearrangements, abridgements and augmentation. Whatever it may be, these are remarkable books and helped secure for Zimmer a worldwide academic recognition that he did not receive during his lifetime.

Zimmer, in turn, was taught by Carl Jung. His first encounter with Jung was classic. Eagerly and naively, Zimmer asked Jung his opinion about the Hindu idea of the transcendental Self. Jung did not answer, but poured gin from a bottle into Zimmers lemon squash, with his finger persistently pointed at the rising level of the liquid. Zimmer was forced to draw his glass away and say thank you. That was Jungs gentle way of asking Zimmer to stop talking and descend from the loftiness of his question and get more earthbound!

Zimmer had a lifelong interest in Ramana Maharshi and was very keen that Jung should call on the sage during his visit to India. However, Jung found himself unable to visit the sage. His explanation, Maharshi is of a type that always was and will be. Therefore, it was not necessary to seek him out. In India, he is merely the whitest spot on a white surface.

Zimmer wrote about Indian art and culture with a feeling and unique understanding. Yet ironically, Zimmers lifelong wish to come to India was never fulfilled. He tried thrice. In the 1920s, the company with which he had booked his journey went bankrupt. He made a second attempt in 1935, but the plan failed for the German government refused him permission because his wife was half-Jewish. The last time he planned the trip was in 1939, but the outbreak of World War II upset this plan. Zimmer shares the unfulfilled ambition of never having visited India despite having written so extensively on it, along with another great German scholar, Max Mueller.

For Zimmer, life and learning were not separate and he pursued both with vigour and passion. From 1924 to 1938, he held the chair of Philology in Heidelberg, but was forced to migrate because of his criticism of Hitler. He moved first to Oxford and then to Columbia in New York, where he helped the Mellons establish their Bollingen Series. He recommended Coomaraswamys name as an author in the series. Zimmers stipend at Columbia was barely adequate, but he refused all monetary help. Zimmer died of pneumonia after a severe cold, while lecturing on the symbolism of tarot cards in 1943. He was only 52.