Tutors Talk Books: Patricia Greer
November 2, 2017 | By Samantha Ardoin (SF16)
Tutors Talk Books is a series of interviews with St. John’s College tutors. In this installment, we caught up with Santa Fe tutor Patricia Greer (AGI95), who has taught at St. John’s since 2001. She spent 20 years in Auroville, India. (Her full bio can be found at the bottom of this article.)
When did you first visit India?
I went to India in late 1972.
What moved you to spend 20 years there?
I felt at home there. I fell upon a wonderful project, the international township of Auroville in Tamil Nadu, which was just getting started at the time. So I helped pioneer it. Planting trees, construction work, establishing an international school system for kids from 20 or more countries, etc. I met my French husband there. Now it’s a veritable town, with several thousand people.
Could you further describe Auroville?
The place that I came upon in India is not at all the place it is now. It was just beginning. There were several thousand acres of environmentally destroyed land, with no trees—nothing. It had been used and overused. There had been deforestation. There were many small, poor local villages around there. When I got there, there were a couple hundred people living in clusters all over this land, with the great idea of starting an international village, also with the clear eye and understanding that it might not be possible because human beings might not be ready to do that. But we were going to take a shot. It was going to be dedicated to truth. When I got there, it was all pioneering—building thatched huts, planting trees, digging wells, and so on. It developed very quickly, and after 10 years or so we had started several handicraft units and we were able to support ourselves. We had started schools. Now there are several thousand people there.
Why did you choose to leave at that point?
It was time. I think the pioneering had succeeded, and I needed a new adventure—and that was St. John’s.
On the Auroville site, there is a lot of talk about unity. What do you think it means for a community to be unified?
Just to put it in the barest terms, people are different and cultures are different and the idea wasn’t to level down those differences and make people alike, but to honor and encourage those differences with an understanding that as human beings there’s something we all share. It wasn’t all holding hands and being sentimental, but it was a sense of, ‘We’re here together, making an experiment that we all believe in, that we’re all dedicated to, and that’s what unites us.’ That’s what kept the place going.
St. John’s seems to have similar goals.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I feel so at home here after that experiment. I feel that we’re a place that’s dedicated to doing something with a profound ideal behind it. So, we call ourselves Johnnies, and we know we’re doing something different and doing it together. We deeply believe in what we’re doing, and this fundamental human project of finding out who we are.
That project doesn’t always have a place in the world.
No, it doesn’t. I think it has less and less of a place in the world, actually.
Which books have been especially on your mind this academic year?
Right now I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which seems rather apt. I also am teaching Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji in the Eastern Classics program, and, on the sixth or seventh reading, I find it one of the most beautiful, deep, challenging pieces of literature I ever have read. It is very much on my mind.
What’s changed for you reading it this time? What’s new?
Oh, god. Everything. Every time I read that book it gets greater, and I think that’s a sign of a great book. Every time I read it, I read it with wonder. I cannot believe that this woman in the year 1000 wrote this book that is considered the first novel ever written in the world. The psychological profundity of it, the aesthetic sensitivity of it, the mysteriousness of it. It has astounding insights into human nature—and then, on another level, a very delicate observation of Buddhism and Shinto, which was the religion on the ground, and how these forces connect with the aesthetic and erotic sensibility of it, and how all these things fit together with the most delicate sensibility. I’ve never seen a book that manages to be so erotic without saying anything explicit. There are just tiny little things: ‘He pushed aside the screen.’ You don’t need to say anything else.
The Mahabharata is another book you’ve studied in depth. If there was one important thing to note about the Mahabharata, what would it be?
It’s hard because it’s not exactly an it. It calls itself an itihasa, which means ‘that which was said.’ It’s a saying. Now, what does that mean? ‘Thus said.’ What are you, book? ‘I’m a thus said.’ We could talk about that for hours. If, when asked, ‘What book would you take to a desert island if you take one?’—Well, it’s probably cheating, but I’ll take the Mahabharata and spend my life happily reading that text, and trying to figure out what it is. It’s not something I’d just tell someone to pick up and read. First of all, you’d have very problematic translation problems. But it’s a wonderful book to explore in a St. John’s class—like Genji. I would never tell someone to just pick it up, unless they had some reason or background in Japan. I would tell someone to come to St. John’s and read it in class.
Why not just pick it up and read it?
When you first start reading (The Tale of Genji) you don’t really understand what you’re reading. You think, ‘Is this a story? What kind of people are these? Is this going anywhere?’ You don’t know where you are. Then, when the book starts unfolding, I think maybe I’m seeing more in here than is really in here. Then, I come out the other end and see that I’m not seeing enough. I would tell you, sit down and read War and Peace just like that. But I’d say, for The Tale of Genji, read it the first time with others, and the second time on your own. The Eastern Classics program at St. John’s is particularly important in this way. There are a lot of texts we read that would be pretty impenetrable for a Westerner without really sharing it and plunging into it with other people—like the Mahabharata, Sima Qian, and the Upanishads.
Patricia Greer has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, since 2001. She received a master’s at Johns Hopkins University in writing and pursued doctoral studies at Univeristy of California, Los Angeles, after which she spent 20 years in Auroville, India. She then received a master’s in liberal arts at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and a doctorate at the University of Virginia in history of religions of South Asia.