Remembering a Genius: Professor Alexander Piatigorsky

Alexander Piatigorsky in a scene from Philosopher Escaped

Alexander Piatigorsky in a scene from Philosopher Escaped

I learned recently that Viktoria Lysenko, professor of Oriental philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, is compiling a book on the late great Alexander Piatigorsky (1929-2009), émigré philosopher and scholar of Buddhist and Indian thought. The book will be in Russian and will include some of his papers on topics including Early Buddhism and the Abhidharma, in addition to recollections from his former students. As someone who had the great good fortune to study with Piatigorsky in the late 1990s, if only as an undergraduate, I answered some questions for the project and thought I would also share some memories here.

I shall not attempt to provide a biographical account of Piatigorsky. Others have already written about his association with Yuri Lotman and the other figures of the Moscow-Tartu School of semiotics, about his conversion to Buddhism and his studies under the fascinating and tragic figure of Bidia Dandaron (1914-1974), and about his eventual exile in England. After his death in 2009 there was a wonderful obituary by Tudor Parfitt published in the Guardian, which I wholeheartedly recommend; his report of Piatigorsky’s encounter with the SOAS director in the lift is simply priceless. And, of course, there was also the excellent Lativan documentary by Uldis Tirons called Philosopher Escaped, parts of which are available to watch online. In the following clip he talks about his views on death:[1]

Between 1995 and 1997 at SOAS in London, I took two courses with Professor Piatigorsky: one was called “Buddhism: Religion and Philosophical Perspectives” and the other simply “Buddhist Texts.” I also attended the series of ten lectures he gave in 1997 entitled “Philosophy and Terminology of Early Buddhism.” This was at the same time as Matteo Pistono was studying with him, and shortly after his classes on Indian Philosophy had been attended by, among others, a certain Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.

There is no doubt that Piatigorsky was a brilliant lecturer. He never referred to written notes, but delivered what always appeared to be carefully crafted and absorbing talks in a fluent, almost literary form of English. He spoke loudly and clearly, but with a thick, drawling Russian accent, as he paced animatedly about the room. (An online video of his lecture in Tallinn in 2001 captures his style well.) Like some Tibetan lamas I have known, he often gave the impression of being so unorthodox and unbounded by convention that, as a listener, you were never quite sure what would happen next, and certainly couldn’t predict what he might say.

To an undergraduate like myself the vastness of his knowledge and the depth of his ideas could be somewhat intimidating. A typical class would focus on a major theme of Buddhist thought, but make frequent reference to the ideas of Descartes, Hegel, Marx, Wittgenstein, (“that idiot”) Freud, as well as lesser known – to me, at least – thinkers like C.D. Broad. He would also mention the interpretations of modern Buddhist scholars such as Fyodor Stcherbatsky, D.T. Suzuki and Caroline Rhys Davids, but he was especially fond of Edward Conze, whom he often called his teacher.

Students were required to pay attention and, above all, to think about what he said. He actively discouraged note-taking, as he felt it got in the way of thinking. (Most of us recorded his lectures on tape-recorders, but I regret to say that my tapes were later lost on my travels; although I do still have some of the notes I took surreptitiously.) He would also insist on precision in answering questions, and we were required to know the literal meaning of every word we uttered. For his class on “Buddhism: Religion and Philosophical Perspectives” I remember that he began by asking us to define the word perspective. When we suggested that it meant something like a viewpoint, he was not satisfied, and the discussion continued until he had led us back to the word’s Latin origin as looking through. In fact, he would often impress upon us the importance of understanding words not only through their definition but also in terms of their etymology, especially in Pali or Sanskrit, but even in English.

I remember in 1995 enthusiastically buying his book The Buddhist Philosophy of Thought: Essays in Interpretation (London and Dublin: Curzon Press, 1984) but, lacking all the necessary background, finding it well-nigh incomprehensible. Still, there might be some consolation in the fact that even the famous Mahāyāna scholar Paul Williams felt the book was “not easy reading” and “requires and merits reading twice.” Since then I have re-read it, and gone through most of his other works that are available in English. They cover an impressive range: not just various aspects of Indian and Buddhist thought and semiotic theory, but also mythology (Mythological Deliberations: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Myth, London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1993) and even Freemasonry (Who’s Afraid of the Freemasons, London: Harvill Press, 1997); there was also a wonderful survey of the novels of Nabokov (“A Word About the Philosophy of Vladimir Nabokov” in Continent 4: Contemporary Russian Writers, ed. George Bailey, New York: Avon, 1982). I would call his introduction to The Bhagavad Gītā (trans. J.A.B van Buitenen, Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books, 1997) the best thing ever written on the subject, but that would imply that I had read everything else. Certainly I would recommend all these writings to the serious reader, but I emphasise the word serious, because none of them is easy, even if they do reward worth the effort they require.

I will save a discussion of some of Piatigorsky’s ideas for a future post. Here, I wish simply to acknowledge his qualities and how much his teaching and his writing, and even his very persona, have affected my own understanding of Buddhist philosophy, and more besides. This, I am sure, is equally true for all those who were fortunate enough to count themselves his students. And it could hardly have been otherwise. For he was extraordinary, unforgettable even, and – as the great Isaiah Berlin put it – “quite simply a genius”. And while that word has been much degraded of late through overuse, and he himself would surely have dismissed it as banal, I don’t think I have ever met anyone else who so merited the description. Let us hope that Viktoria Lysenko’s book will be completed without obstacle and one day be translated into English.

1. The story by Anatole France that he refers to is Messer Guido Cavalcanti from The Well of Sainte Clare (1909).