Thursday, 13 April 2017

Uzdavinys in Lahore

The author of these pages first met Algis Uzdavinys one gloomy, smog-filled evening in Lahore. The occasion was a philosophy conference, sponsored by General Musharef, and Dr Uzdavinys had arrived at the hotel late. Billed as the "new Coomaraswamy", and one of the stars of the programme, the Lithuanian scholar was lodging several rooms up from the present author who, upon being advised that he had arrived, thought it appropriate to introduce himself. He knocked upon the door and after a long delay Dr Uzdavinys, a huge hairy bear of a man, answered dressed only in his Y-fronts, his room hazy with cigarette smoke and gyrating with Arab pop music. He was gruff and jet-lagged. For some reason he felt it necessary to explain that he couldn't work without music going, at which the present author scolded him saying "That's a very bad habit" but then smiled to let him know he was joking. The Lithuanian thought about this for a long moment - and only at this point seemned to realise he was wearing nothing but his underwear - and said, "Yes. Now, where can we get some decent coffee?" The hotel coffee was dishwater. Coffee, cigarettes, Arab pop music - these, along with his books, were his essentials.

The conference was farcical. The programme was chaotic and the sound system in the auditorium failed. The organisers quickly rigged up a cheap make-shift PA and fitted speakers with microphones. When it came time for Dr Uzdavinys to speak, however, he found the microphone an impediment. He furiously ripped it from his coat and unilaterally decided to address the audience without amplification. He read his paper in his big booming Lithuanian voice - a huge man, six foot three or more - calling into the echoing spaces of the auditorium. No one could make out a word of it, but this was not the issue. The PA was so bad no one could understand any of the papers presented, but at least Dr Uzdavinys made an impression. It was a memorable performance. He had presence. Everybody knew, regardless, that whatever it was he was saying was erudite, authoritative, the work of a scholar. 

We spent the next few days touring around Lahore on foot or by taxi.  He strode through the narrow medieval streets of the old city towering above the short statured locals who stopped and stared as if he was a giant from a fairytale. Indulging his passion for cartography, he purchased a swag of maps and studied them in detail, then headed out to the various historical sites that were of interest to him. Invariably, this meant long delays sitting in taxis  in insane traffic jams, and it was on such occasions that the present author had the opportunity to discuss aspects of his work, and particularly his work on Plato and the Neoplatonic tradition. In return - sitting on the park benches watching camels and men with leashed monkeys go by and lamenting the terrible decay of what was once a beautiful cultured city - the present author shared his knowledge old roses. On one expedition Dr Uzdavinys made the astute observation that the beggars were armed with cell phones and were calling ahead of each other in a strategy to extract as much money from us as they could. 

It was in the context of these adventures that Dr Uzdavinys revealed the appalling state of the Lithuanian economy and the fact that, though a world-class scholar, his income was barely at a subsistence level. His work was constrained at every point by his comparative poverty and lack of opportunities in post-Soviet era Lithuania. Asked what Lithuania exported, he shrugged his shoulders and said "Girls." The present writer therefore determined to investigate the possibility of securing him some work in affluent Australia. This eventually transpired. A research position came up, Dr Uzdavinys applied and his application was successful. For a second time the present writer had the great fortune of spending time in his company, once more largely discussing the wider Platonic tradition of which Dr Uzdavinys had a truly encylopedic knowledge. 

Dr Uzdavinys in his office at La Trobe University, Bendigo, Australia

Alas, this sojourn to Australia - as far away from his home as can be imagined - was not a happy one for the homesick scholar (amongst other things he missed the companionship of his lovely wife, Virginia, who proofread his manuscripts and acted as his research assistant), and nor did it do much to improve his finances. Worse, the travel impacted upon his health and during a return visit to Lithuania during a Christmas break he fell sick. His solid diet of coffee, cigarettes and, even worse, Arab pop music, had taken its toll. He was diagnosed with heart disease.  He died of the same, aged forty-eight, in 2010.

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The young Uzdavinys at school in Lithuania. 

Algis Uzdavinys was extraordinarily prolific. As he told the present writer, the study of the Platonic and related traditions, and writing books on these traditions, was his vocation. Like any true scholar, he felt a strong calling to this task and he devoted himself to his books day and night. Averse to computers, he wrote in long hand, usually in Lithuanian, then translating everything into English for publication. His philosophical range was remarkable. His singular contribution was to trace and connect Platonic philosophy to ancient traditions in Egypt and the Near East and then, forwards in time, to their maturation in the Neoplatonic schools and, from there, in Sufism and other kindred traditions through to the present day. Against the usual atomizing academic tendency to emphasise differences rather than similarities (an unacknowledged side-effect of specialisation and the self-sustaining quest for academic novelty), he proposed that there is a single 'golden chain' of transmission uniting all of these schools and traditions. He remains one of the great modern exponents of this 'golden chain'. Few have done so much to help restore philosophy as a heiratic art. The Uzdavinyean position is summed up in the following quotation:

In Plato’s definition of philosophy as a training for death (Phaedo 67cd) an implicit distinction was made between philosophy and philosophical discourse. Modern Western philosophy (a rather monstrous and corrupted creature, initially shaped by late Christian theology and post-Descartesian logic) has been systematically reduced to a philosophical discourse of a single dogmatic kind, through the fatal one-sidedness of its professed secular humanistic mentality, and a crucial misunderstanding of traditional wisdom. The task of the ancient philosophers was in fact to contemplate the cosmic order and its beauty; to live in harmony with it and to tran- scend the limitations imposed by sense experience and discursive reasoning. In a word, it was through philosophy (understood as a kind of askesis) that the cultivation of the natural, ethical, civic, purificatory, theoretic, paradigmatic, and hieratic virtues (aretai) were to be practiced; and it was through this noetic vision (noesis) that the ancient philosophers tried to awaken the divine light within, and to touch the divine Intellect in the cosmos. For them, to reach apotheosis was the ultimate human end (telos). Christos Evan- geliou correctly observes that, “Neither Aristotle nor any other Pla- tonic, or genuinely Hellenic philosopher, would have approved of what the modern European man, in his greedy desire for profit, and demonic will to power, has made out of Hellenic philosophia.”

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Some of the key publications of this great modern Platonic scholar, and assorted quotations therefrom follow below:

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Harper McAlpine Black

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