Gauri Viswanathan

Class of 1933 Professor in the Humanities

Columbia University

Heyman Center Fellow 2016-17

Project Desription:

Gauri Viswanathan’s current project is a full-length study of the Russian occultist Helena P. Blavatsky, focusing on how her reading of religious history helps unpack the heterodox content of modernist literary texts, especially those works that appear to waver between fantasy and reality and produce conflicting responses of belief and skepticism. My larger aim in the project is to locate literature’s contradictory impulses in the occult experience of modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These contradictions speak to the uncertainty about the status of knowledge affecting all aspects of life, including one’s relation to the worlds of spirit and matter. As a reflection of such ambiguity, literature not only opens the way to explorations of alternative modes of knowing and forms of consciousness, but it also unearths buried memories of another way of being in—and relating to—the world, without quite endorsing that perspective. Gauri Viswanathan writes, “The time I spent at the Heyman Center as a senior faculty fellow was enormously valuable, not only because of the release time it afforded me to continue my research on the Russian occultist H. P. Blavatsky but also because of the synergy present in the group of fellows, which helped me to think from a multi-disciplinary perspective. I particularly appreciated the colloquium structure of including a discussant who, in my case, offered extremely helpful remarks. All the discussants were excellent, and they helped to open up the discussions around key framing questions, leading to intellectually stimulating exchanges over the course of the year.” The work she presented in the colloquium has resulted in an article publication in Representations 141 (Winter 2018): 67-93. 

Gauri Viswanathan is Class of 1933 Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.  She has published widely on education, religion, and culture; nineteenth-century British and colonial cultural studies; and the history of modern disciplines. She is the author of Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (Columbia, 1989; Oxford, 1998) and Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief (Princeton, 1998), which won the Harry Levin Prize awarded by the American Comparative Literature Association, the James Russell Lowell Prize awarded by the Modern Language Association of America, and the Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Prize awarded by the Association for Asian Studies. She also edited Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said (Vintage, 2001). Prof. Viswanathan is coeditor of the book series South Asia Across the Disciplines, published jointly by the university presses of Columbia, Chicago, and California under a Mellon grant. She has held numerous visiting chairs, among them the Beckman Professorship at Berkeley, and was recently an Affiliated Fellow at the American Academy in Rome and a Visiting Mellon Scholar at the University of Cape Town. She has received Guggenheim, NEH, and Mellon fellowships, and was a fellow at various international research institutes. Professor Viswanathan’s current work is on genealogies of secularism and the writing of alternative religious histories. She has published extensively on the cultural influence of Theosophy, with two recent articles appearing in PMLA. She is a network partner in the international research project "Enchanted Modernities: Theosophy, Modernism, and the Arts," funded by the Leverhulme Trust in the U.K. As part of the three-year grant a major conference on Theosophy, literature, and history will be held at Columbia in 2015.