Tutors Talk Books: Krishnan Venkatesh

March 3, 2017 | By Samantha Ardoin (SF16)

Krishnan Venkatesh has taught at St. John's in Santa Fe for more than 20 years.
Krishnan Venkatesh has taught at St. John’s in Santa Fe for more than 20 years.

“Tutors Talk Books” is a series of interviews with St. John’s College tutors. In this interview, we caught up with Krishnan Venkatesh, who has taught in Santa Fe’s graduate and undergraduate programs for more than 20 years and helped shape the campus’s Eastern Classics (EC) graduate program. His full bio can be found at the bottom of this article.

I heard you’re on sabbatical! What are you doing on your year off?

I’ve been spending time with the family and writing!

Have you been working on any writing projects in particular?

A book of essays on the Discourses of the Buddha, and on Lord of the Rings (LOTR). I think they are fairly unique because I’m trying to approach them as a literate, thoughtful human being first, and not as, say, a Buddhist or a Tolkien scholar—which I’m not anyway. The essays have been posted on my blog.

What inspired you to write on the Discourses of the Buddha?

I’ve been thinking about the Discourses for over 20 years, studying them in the EC as well as by myself—but I’ve never made time to sit down and articulate those thoughts. I have also practiced various forms of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, and have always been struck by the depth of psychological insight in these early Buddhist texts. I’ve learned a lot about myself through studying them, and they have given me some necessary tools for understanding my own experience. Some time last year I found myself spontaneously writing down reflections on the passages that moved me, and here I am.

In what ways have the Discourses affected your life?

The Discourses have affected me deeply in many ways. Among them: greater awareness of body and motion as well as of my emotions, the ability to sit still and watch feelings as they change from moment to moment, a greater awareness of change as it happens, and a generally calmer state of mind. I have become better at handling stress, but also more aware of other people’s feelings than I was before. Being by nature a dreamy person easily given to reverie and getting lost in my own thoughts, I had a lot of work to do in these respects, and the Discourses have been invaluable guides.

What prompted you to start writing critically about Lord of the Rings, and what have been some highlights of this process of going deep into such a story?

I’m not a big Tolkien fan and also not a big reader of fantasy fiction, but prompted by conversations with (tutor) Richard McCombs I started to reflect more on whether it was a great book or not, and if so, why. Over the course of reading it slowly with a wonderful community seminar, I began to form a genuine admiration for Tolkien’s genius as a writer. He has his weak points, but on the whole the man can WRITE. I found out that all the crucial moments in the book he is laconic and suggestive, and some of the characters are richly enigmatic: Gollum, Sam, Frodo, Eowyn. Best of all was finding out for myself that the LOTR is not a book meant for children, but speaks deeply to “mature” people who have experienced struggle. Frodo is 50 when he starts his quest. It ends up being about what Jung calls “enantiodromia”—the “turn” halfway in life to seek completion by developing our incomplete halves.

Which Program books do you find yourself turning to in order to understand or explain the current political phenomena within our country?

After the election I reread the complete Federalist Papers, wondering if I had completely misunderstood the project of this country. Other program books that are consoling and instructive for me are, believe it or not, Thucydides and Plutarch—the former because he is so hard-headed, the latter because of his understanding of political types. Tacitus has been good to think about too, because he gives the best account of how a tyranny gets established, and his account is written from inside a tyranny. In general history is consoling because we see that these things have happened before and we can recognize the repetitions. Apart from program books I’ve been reading George Orwell’s essays.

At St. John’s one of the most important things we learn is how to ferret out the truth and say it, and we learn it through studying the masters. In dark times, there are no arts more important than the arts of truth-finding, and when faced with liars and obfuscators we will have learned to recognize hogwash and not tolerate it. So, one consolation of our work in this program is that we are laying essential foundations for political action—since all action comes from thought.

Was there a particular book, poem, or film that, in your formative years, inspired a healthy dose of skepticism? 

In my intellectually formative years, age 14-16, I was a voracious reader. Reading itself tends to loosen up inherited and congealed opinions, because one has to take seriously other worlds than one’s own, and other authorities than the people around us. In school we had a lot of history: lots of detailed study of European wars, the fight for universal suffrage, and the industrial revolution. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I think it went in deep—so much so that I am always shocked at how ignorant many Americans are of subjects like labor history. Ancient history was also important for me—and I remember the thrill of learning to read Caesar, Suetonius, and Tacitus critically. I didn’t have much of a social life. I remember reading Sartre and Camus very passionately; I still have a file folder full of notes from that period! And I studied Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov—the fathers of modern drama—every weekend by myself for two years. All of that changed me. I never felt I belonged to my time and place. The 70s and 80s mostly passed me by!

My background is so weird that I don’t think it can be an example for anybody else!

What we all need is to develop a discerning intelligence towards what we read, see, and hear. That is what we try to do at the college. When people wonder about the usefulness of our studies, they forget that even in the age of the internet it is still one of the most useful skills to read well. The habit of carefully interpreting texts naturally creates distance between us and what we are told.

We also learn to interpret one another in conversation, and in math and lab we study arts of reading the world.

The weakness of an SJC education is that we are not good at making sense of experiences without the mediation of a text, so when we have to discuss political events or campus crises we are strangely helpless. I think more seminars on films would help.

How so?

With a film you are faced with something happening in real time, not framed with words and questions. We have to say what we thought we saw—what was that look, what was that gesture? We can’t just quote a passage as if it solves something. Novels are great too of course, but films have so much real interaction: faces, body motions, voices.

Aren’t you involved in the SJC Film Institute?

I was one of the founder-developers, along with (tutor) David Carl. I taught both summers with (tutor) David McDonald. I believe strongly that in our period we can’t consider ourselves liberally educated if we don’t have a developed critical relationship to audio-visual media, especially the moving photographic image. Apparently in 1936 Scott Buchanan (founder of the college) thought so too, because in the blueprint for this college he called for a four-year great books program like ours and a fifth year called the St. John’s College Institute for Cinematics!

What are some essential films that Johnnies should watch and discuss?

The Passion of Joan of Arc, Tokyo Story, Early Spring, Bicycle Thieves, Nights of Cabiria, Andrei Rublev, Mirror, Rules of the Game—to give you a few to start with!

About Krishnan Venkatesh

Krishnan Venkatesh has taught at St. John’s College in Santa Fe for more than 20 years and helped shape its Eastern Classics graduate program. From 2003 to 2008, he was the dean of graduate studies at the college, and his recent works and studies explore the Pāli Canon of the Buddha, the Japanese philosopher Dōgen, and the mathematical books of Johannes Kepler. Born in Malaysia in 1960 to a South Indian Brahmin father and a Hakka Chinese mother, Venkatesh studied English literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he obtained First Class honors. He researched Shakespeare at the University of Muenster, Germany, and from 1986 to 1989 he taught literature and philosophy at Shanxi University, China. The lifelong companions on his bedside table include Montaigne, Chaucer, the poet Thomas Hardy, Blake, Wordsworth, Zhuangzi, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Austen, Balzac, Laxness and Shakespeare.

Venkatesh's blog, The Old Pearl Bed, layers reflections on Tolkien with Tolstoy, on Chekhov with Buddhism, and many other unexpected connections abound.

One of Venkatesh’s essays on the Discourses was recently published in Tricycle, a popular Buddhist magazine.