Book Review: Tamil
by David Shulman
The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2016
David Shulman, the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University, opens his new book Tamil: A Biography in a scholarly playful tone that’s virtually calculated to make the blood of everyday normal folk freeze in their veins:
A language is never a thing, even if its speakers sometimes do whatever they can to turn it into one – to make it an “it.” The ideas people have about their language may be things, and as such may have a history; even so, the language will always exceed those ideas and, given certain basic conditions, will continue to grow and thus to fulfill the organic, uncertain, and lively destiny encoded in its grammar. Old languages like Tamil, given to intense reflection over many centuries, write their own autobiographies, in many media, though we may not know how to read them. Sometimes they ask the assistance of a ghostwriter, a biographer, like me.
A language is not a thing? It exceeds its ideas and uses? It can grow independent of its speakers, maybe sneaking out after supper to attend pop music concerts? Languages write their own autobiographies? They ring up their agents to hire ghostwriters from the Valley, for a nice up-front fee and some comfortable residuals but no cover credit? And these ghostwriters then do what, exactly? Write a biography of a thing that isn’t a thing?
There are few things more alarming than a scholar in a puckish mood, but the reckless glee can also be contagious. Shulman intends to take his readers through the cultural and literary history of Tamil, a language spoken by some eighty million people in South Asia, a language with roots reaching back through many centuries of works, poems, criticism, schools of criticism. Shulman knows that most of his potential audience has never heard a single spoken syllable of Tamil and couldn’t pick the Tantiyalankaram out of a police lineup, and when, on page 68, he finally comes out and says “I’ll try to keep things as simple as I can,” we can sense that his heart is in the right place. And since no professor in the 100-year history of Hebrew University has ever said “I’ll try to keep things as simple as I can” and then succeeded, we can’t even really hold Shulman’s failure against him.
He tries with a will for about 69 pages, but the usual linguistic suspects start creeping in, and pretty soon you can’t turn around without bumping into Whorfian determinism or diglossia and polyglossia. There’s a technical murk throughout the book that will baffle the general reader to the same extent that it pleases Shulman’s fellow specialists. Those kinds of technicalities are endemic to any study of a language’s biography, and although Shulman dishes diphthongs with the best of them, he saves his narrative, time and again, with an ardent enthusiasm that tries its best to reach outside the specialist huddle. “Good Tamil is clarity itself, an intense and luminous, or translucent, form of being,” he writes, “It is clearer than clear. It is also delicious.”
The Tamil in Tamil certainly comes across as clear and delicious. Shulman is a priceless advocate of the language and its many masterpieces, and given the abstruse nature of his subject, it’s really marvelous in a way how persuasive he is when rhapsodizing about a literature most of his readers will likely never have heard about. He completely avoids the trap that tends to close on lengthy linguistic studies like this – he always remembers that languages are personal things, shaping the experiences of people:
Those who want to read more of the Tamil bhakti poets can now easily find annotated translations. Anyone who visits a Tamil temple is likely to hear a pilgrim gently singing these very poems as he or she comes within sight of the image of a god or goddess. When you see the deity, you might feel the familiar, unappeasable longing, tearing at your very breath, disrupting “normal” metabolic processes, driving you to the limit of sensation and thought; and at the same time, you might feel block, disconnected, lost in the stony surface of self. These two moods tend to coincide.
That offhand mention of easily-found annotated bhakti translations is downright charming – why, I just saw one left on a park bench this morning. But the wonder of Tamil is that it actually moves you to go and find such a translation, to go and sample this vast and complex and, you’re now thoroughly convinced, beautiful literature and see if it can live up to its biography. And for that, all hail the ghostwriter.