An Interview with George Kirazian about his literary friendship with Juan Mascaró.
“The memories…are golden memories and I am reliving them,” (George Kirazian).
Author, composer and poet, George Kirazian and his family visited translator Juan Mascaró in Comberton, Cambridge in the UK in 1972. Perhaps at some future point George and I will speak again about his own creative work (he is currently working on a ballet and his rendition of the “Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church” is available on-line, however in our discussion on 8/28/15, we primarily focused on the Kirazian family visit to Comberton, Cambridge. I decided to publish this all as one piece, even though it is a bit lengthy for a blog post, but I’d like to present the full experience of George’s memories as a whole.
Juan Mascaró (December 8, 1897 – March 19, 1987) was born in Majorca, Spain, lived in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) for a time, and spent most of his adult life as a professor at Cambridge. His first name was originally spelled “Joan,” in Catalan, but he changed the spelling to “Juan” to avoid confusion with the female name “Joan.” He retained the Catalonian pronunciation, however, which is more like “jew-an,” rather than the Spanish pronunciation “wan.”
George tells that Juan only ever taught two classes at Cambridge during his entire time there. One class was on the Romantic Poets and the other was “Literary and Spiritual Values in the Authorized Version of the Bible” (which means the King James Version in the UK). There is very little written about Juan Mascaró on the internet, which is perhaps fitting for a man who dedicated his life to translating ancient words spiritual texts – his English translations of The Bhagavad Gita, The Upanishads, and The Dhammapada are still available in the Penguin Classics series. He also self-published a small anthology of his favourite Keats poems (of which George has a copy), Lamps of Light (a compilation of spiritual wisdom from world religions), and the posthumous The Creation of Faith (a collection of his own thoughts and aphorisms). Mascaró had correspondence with another George, George Harrison and this resulted in the Beatles song, “The Inner Light.”
Mascaró wrote in The Creation of Faith, “I have two lives: my inner life with God, and my outer life with nature and men. How mysterious these two worlds are,” (169). He left footprints and notes, detailed in his writings about his inner life with God, however, we know remarkably little about the man in his outer life, and our conversation with George will serve to flesh out the words a bit.
DK: Why don’t you start with how you came to have inscribed copy of Juan Mascaró’s book, Lamps of Fire, as well as his other books?
GK: I had been studying the Penguin Bhagavad Gita in the late 60s, ‘68-69, and was deeply impressed. I then purchased the Upanishads, Juan’s translation, and I was so moved when I completed the introduction, that I just simply–it was at midnight–picked up the phone and trusting to luck and good fortune, called Cambridge, yes, at midnight, San Diego time. I guess it was what, 8 or 9 am there, and she was kind enough, the operator, to trace Juan’s number for me. I called him and he was having breakfast. We chatted for a while and I said “Professor Mascaró, I am so deeply moved by the introduction to the Upanishads that it was like an Upanishad for me,” and he said “Oh, George, where are you calling from?”
You know, he had such a sharp mind that could leap into transitions effortlessly. I said, “I am calling you from San Diego,” and in a moment he simply said “Father Junípero Serra was born a mile away from my father’s farm.”
So you see how he leaped from San Diego, and if you know the whole history of the California missions, established by Father Junípero Serra [recently canonized by Pope Francis], no other comment, he just moved right into the reference, and we chatted. He was very gracious and he said, “Look, I know this is a costly call, can you give me your address.” So I took down his number and I gave him my address and we continued chatting for a while, I don’t know, by this time it was 1 am or so, and a week later I received a Penguin Bhagavad Gita inscribed to me with a very lovely note. And then there began, in Winter, 1971 a lengthy correspondence that carried over into the spring of ’72.
“In theory, an Upanishad could even be composed in the present day: a spiritual Upanishad that would draw its life from the One source of religions and humanism and apply to the modern world,” (Juan Mascaró, Introduction to the Penguin Classics, The Upanishads, 8).
[George then recounted how the friendship developed, with letters back and forth. Juan then invited George and his family to stay at a cottage he owned near his own home, “The Retreat,” and George recounts the discussion with Juan about the cottage.]
GK: Juan said, “I have a lovely cottage,” within walking distance of The Retreat” [his home], and I said, “That’s fine.” “You’ll like it George.” He said, “I’ve just renovated the bathroom and in addition to that, I have just had the roof re-thatched!”
So, Dave, my wife and I, let me jump ahead a month or so, when we approached the cottage I expected either Ronald Colman or Greer Garson to walk out and greet us, like in “Random Harvest.” I don’t know if you are at all an old movie fan. It was incredible, lovely, with an entrance archway of many miniature roses.
I said “That would be fine.” He asked, “How long are you planning to stay?” “Oh, about 5-6 weeks.” … Hmmm, it’s amazing how one can recall these conversations almost per syllable, after more than 40 years….. He said, “Well George, would $250 for the month be acceptable?” My wife and I nearly fell off our chairs. I said, “It is so generous, Juan!” Of course, I immediately sent payment to him.
I once made the mistake of calling him Juan [the Spanish pronunciation, like “wan”]. “No,” he said, “I am Catalonian, it is Juan,” [the Catalonian pronunciation sounds more like “jew-an”]. “Well, I am comfortable with Juan” [“wan”], I said. And he answered firmly, “No, George, it is Juan [“Jew-an”]. I only needed that one lesson, I didn’t need it to be repeated.
When we entered his home, Juan amazed us: he came in from a dining room and he just stared at us. It was as if time stopped, he just stared at me, my wife and our children, in a very warm way, you know, this wasn’t anything done icily. And after that he just stayed and looked, as if taking a kind of physical/cerebral inventory of us, if that is possible, and he welcomed us and we sat. It was just a wonderful welcome. And we sat there and then later in the evening, he and Kathleen [Juan’s wife] walked us to our home. And he was right, it was a newly refurbished bathroom, small but very convenient, and the roof was indeed recently thatched. My memory just leaped backwards in time. I imagined that Keats on a walking trip from Cambridge to Comberton, or William Blake, perhaps, and stopping at this cottage for a refreshing drink. I think the building date was 1732. I just said to my wife, “Who knows if Byron or Keats walked by here, and perhaps stopped to rest” – Keats was a walker, certainly, Wordsworth and Coleridge were also…so I just kind of pondered that.
There began our 5 or 6 week sharing time…
We discussed The Dhammapada [Mascaró was just finishing this translation from Pali of the Buddha’s teachings]…and there began a number of delightful, I mean, Dave, golden memories, sitting in his backyard and Kathleen fixing tea and our chatting. And my wife Dee and our girls there, sharing with Juan and Kathleen, and I underneath an absolutely massive walnut tree. Juan said I was sitting in C.S. Lewis’ favorite chair and I was gratified to hear that. He told me that another chair was a favorite of W. H. D. Rouse, who had translated the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, prose translations, in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They were very popular in America, published by Signet American Library, I used them myself in a number of my classes. He said that Rouse’s chair had been carved out of a nearby walnut tree and it was a beautiful comfortable, gnarly chair, but I preferred CS Lewis’ chair.
I asked him about Lamps of Fire, oh and a beautiful – he had done a marvelous anthology of Keats’ poetry. Published in Majorca, in a very nice, very artistic, rough-cut, parchment cover, an edition by a friend of his, published on the Island.
And we were talking about Keats, and I don’t know if you want to get into any literary or musical things, but that is what we focused on in those early weeks. He told me, he said that Keats for him was the perfect emblem of the Hellenic experience, while Wordsworth, to his great satisfaction, was the perfect embodiment of the Hindu. And if you read his notes, he took a month or 5 weeks, he told me, to do [translate] the Isa Upanishad at Tintern Abbey, one of Wordsworth’s most renowned poems and he just stayed there…he said it was a labor of love and he didn’t leave. I guess the Wordsworthian spirit and consciousness were present. He said it was a beautiful time for him.
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things…
(Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798”)
One of the most beautiful gifts he gave me was the gift of Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore and – there have been one or two other translations, but he, as I did, following his lead, felt that Tagore’s rendering of his own poems was perhaps definitive.
“Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure,” (Tagore, Gitanjali, opening line).
He gave me a number of books during our stay and then we started on our walks.
[George tells of their walks down country lanes, speaking of Lope De Vega, Ezra Pound, Bernard Shaw, “Citizen Kane,” Fortunio Bonanova (Catalonian singer and actor who moved to Hollywood, whom Juan grew up with), Tomas Vittoria’s masses. At one point, Juan and George were walking on a meadow lane near a group of cows. Juan asks George about the college the locations he taught at, in California].
GK: I told him, the city is called “El Cajon.”
“El Cajon!” He burst out laughing and the cow got so scared it just turned and ran into the meadow. He said “You have a city called ‘the box!?!’” And apparently that’s what it means. “I can’t believe that a city would be called ‘the box.’ He howled and just kept walking and slapping his knee. He couldn’t believe that a city would be given such a name.
We talked about Tagore, a dear, dear favorite. And we talked about Vivekananda and Ramakrishna and also about Paramahansa Yogananda, who came to the center in LA. He didn’t follow them too, too often, but he had heard that Yogananda had a broad following in the United States and California especially.
Then he went on to talk a little bit about Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and this was before he returned to Cambridge. He told me, “George, you know I have taught only two courses, I taught the Romantic Poets and ‘Literary and Spiritual Values in the Authorized Version of the Bible,’ that is to say the King James. “That is all I taught, my entire career.” Apparently he got his degree and then went back to Barcelona where he lost a number of his friends, I think Unamuno and others who had been shot. I guess this was Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” time, Francisco Franco ‘39, ‘40, ‘41 and he apparently had lost some dear friends, so he didn’t stay there. He went back to the school that had granted him his degrees, to teach, but he repeated, “I only taught two classes….”
And it was that day, when we returned from the walk, that he gave me the private, 200 copies only, privately printed anthology of selected poems by John Keats. Very artistic looking, a rough-cut, parchment cover edition, it showed Keats’ poems that matter most deeply to him.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness;
Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;
They always must be with us, or we die.
(From Endymion, John Keats)
And when we talked about Ceylon, Sri Lanka, where he was, he used the term “Governor” of the school, I guess the magistrate of the school. He said that he would walk to the school every morning and I said “That must have been pleasant.” “Yes, it was pleasant but it was rather unique. My rooms were not that far…” And I said “What was unique about it?” “Well, every morning when the sun rose I would walk to work, I purposefully took a cane and as I walked I would take the cane and knock the cobras out of my path.” He would just strike the snakes out and knock them onto the dirt or the meadows that flanked the walk way. I said, “Did you ever get hurt?” He said, “No, no.” Apparently every morning they were awakening from their torpor, and as the heat warmed them they were stretching and arching, and he just knocked them out, or knocked them out of his path.
[George and his wife, Dee, recount memorable evenings with Juan and his wife, where Juan would pour them all sherry and listen to Catalonian folk songs, and a different facet of his personality would emerge].
GK: He enjoyed and poured us sherry and played Catalonian folk songs on 78 rpms. And you saw a side of him that I never saw in our walks or in our conversations in his library. What a splendid library, Dave, oh Good Lord, I think he had begun building it the day he returned to England after the Spanish madness. It was just beautiful.
[I had read his] Upanishads and I was deeply moved. The introduction to it was a revelation to me, it still is.
“Our spiritual life must be a work of creation. Whether we are within a religion, or outside a religion, or against religion, we can only live by faith, a burning faith in the deep spiritual values of man. This faith can only come from life, from the deep fountain of life within us, the Atman of the Upanishads, Nirvana, the Kingdom of Heaven,” (Mascaró, Introduction to The Upanishads, 23).
And The Dhammapada, he was working on it [when we visited]. I sat once, and I was honored, he was walking around the room – I sat at the desk and he read several chapters. We looked over the introduction, and briefly discussed Lamps of Fire. He is very careful, as in San Juan Del La Cruz, St. John of the Cross, he will say “translated by E. Alison Peers or “Sister Teresa” and he’ll say “translated by so and so.” Or he’ll say “translated by Juan Mascaró,” but unless I’m mistaken, for all of the Tao Te Ching, he uses the verb “rendered by Juan Mascaró,” he doesn’t say translated. He said he would study the translations he respected the most, absorb them, as many translators do today. We see a number of Americans rendering the Tao or Dhammapada; they are hardly versed in the original language, so what they do is surround themselves in a half-moon of other paperback translations, absorb them, and then render their own translation.
So we talked about Tagore, Yeats – my favorite poet of the 20th century who had written a lovely, lovely introduction to the Gitanjali – it still reads beautifully, do you have that introduction, Dave?”
DK: I don’t think I do, I just have a collected works of Tagore.
GK: If you can get a single volume, with Yeats’ Intro, 1912 or 1907, I may be mistaken, or 1912, it is just a lovely introduction to Tagore’s poems. There are some paragraphs there, you know “I have kept these poems in my hands on trolleys and omnibuses and so forth…” just a beautiful, beautiful tribute….
“I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on top of omnibuses and in restaurants…
Lovers, while they await one another shall find, in murmuring them, this love of a God a magic gulf wherein their own more bitter passion may bathe and renew its youth. At every moment the heart of this poet flows outward…for it has known…images of the heart’s turning to God,” (W. B. Yeats, “Introduction” to the Gitanjali, 1912).
Then he had shown me a letter that Tagore had written to him and said that Juan had “captured the spirit of the Upanishads,” a very complimentary letter that Tagore had written, and then when we left, he gave me a number of books and inscribed them all, including Lamps of Fire and also Final Poems of Tagore. I think the title is “Whispers of Eternity,” unless I am mistaken, and he said these were very lovely, and indeed, I think the final poem in that volume was written on the morning or night before Tagore’s passing.
“22 December, 1938.
I have too often seen the Upanishads rendered into English by scholars who are philologists and who miss the delight of the immediate realisation of truth expressed in the original texts.
And these are the reasons why I feel grateful to you for your translation which fortunately is not strictly literal and therefore nearer to the truth, and which is done in a right spirit and in a sensitive language that has caught from those great words the inner voice that goes beyond the boundaries of words.
(Letter reproduced in The Creation of Faith, Juan Mascaró, 20).
It was a lovely summer, “How was the weather, Dee?”
[Dee, in background, answered] “Not very good. I think we saw the sun twice in one month, grey and overcast…”
[Dee, incidently, is the author of an Armenian Vegan cookbook]
I just love my memories, in the carven walnut tree chair behind the cottage….
Oh, and his eating habits – he said, “I eat one meal a day,” echoing the Buddha. He said “I have a chop, a bit of potato and some greens.” I myself couldn’t exist on so Spartan a diet, so I made it a point to eat rather well before I went for my midday visit there. But he would sit in a kind of mini greenhouse, and he was right: I saw a very thin lamb chop, a modest sized potato, and some green peas, and he ate very slowly, very delicately….
A beautiful summer it was, my family loved it, especially the girls – it looked like Snow White’s cottage or Ronald Colman’s cottage.
GK: Catalonian Dance night, the girls would read the classics…and we would have great times, and I asked, “What about W.H.D. Rouse?” He said, “Rouse was remarkable!” I said, “In what way?” (It was quite an accomplishment to translate the Iliad and the Odyssey, although they are rather prosy). He said, “Well, he impressed me deeply one day when he came here and sat in that chair George, and said, ‘I have begun the study of Chinese’ – and he was 89! ‘I am launching a study of Chinese,’” I think he died several years after.
DK: George, you had mentioned Catalonian music nights, where Juan showed a different side of his story, could you say more about that?
GK: The side was not a very Cambridge manner (laughs), I mean he was relaxed and very cordial, he sipped the sherry and he would fill it again and then translate the songs and he even would sit and get up and then change the record and then stand up and offer us a snack, and smile and laugh. He was like a young boy again, nibbling straw on his father’s farm, long before the whole Cambridge/Barcelona experience began. And we saw that – and I am not saying he was a frowning Cambridge Don, even on his non-Catalonian nights, he was very gracious, very friendly, he would laugh. He would always say, “George the power and beauty of” – and almost every meeting, and I learned from him (I get excited now because the memories as I mentioned are golden memories and I am reliving them, but I was that way myself) and he would always say, “The beauty and the blessing of stillness and silence.” And as Dee just mentioned, he spoke very softly, but you never had to lean toward him to hear what he said, everything was clearly stated and that evening was a merry, merry evening and he would sit and you would know he was in a kind of Proustian remembrance of things past…. He must have been an adolescent again, maybe stealing apples with Fortunato on his father’s farm. Dee says from background, “They were happy songs.” Yes, they were lovely songs, very lilting and happy songs. He loved his Catalonian culture. I mentioned Franco once, but he didn’t even bother to respond. He just didn’t want to discuss that time, that topic… He just wasn’t concerned with it. He was totally Catalonian….
“George, the power and the beauty…the beauty and the blessing of stillness and silence,” (Juan Mascaró, to George Kirazian, 1972).
He could crack a walnut and take a sip of sherry with the best of them, don’t get the impression that he had high, stiff starched collars – that was not the case. Very humble, in that respect he was still a simple son of a Majorcan farmer, I don’t mean that in a bad way, he was very earthy, down to earth.
We never saw him again…
DK: It is so great to hear about [your visit with him]. You know, I had read the Upanishads and the Gita when I was in college and then a few years ago I had gone back and I think I had lost the books, so I had bought them again and had, kind of similar to you, just this real appreciation for the introductions, I read the introduction and then read the book and then went back and read the introduction again, which is kind of a rare thing for me to do. I’ll often when I appreciate somebody, I will start to find everything that they had written and that is when I found The Creation of Faith [a posthumous collection of aphorisms that Mascaró had been working on at his death] and I think that is kind of how you – how did you stumble across that the blog that I did on that book?
GK: I don’t think it was a blog, was it an Amazon?
DK: Oh, it might have been an Amazon review because I would do both, an Amazon review and then expand that into a blog.
GK: And I responded to that, I don’t know what the review was, but I was struck by that and that initiated my email to you and so forth. You are right, what I did for one semester and a half was, I went through The Upanishads [Juan’s introduction] with a pen and underlined every reference to writers, such as Ramon Lull, a great poet/mystic of the 14th century. And San Juan De La Cruz, who’s Spanish even I can understand, even though it is around the time of Elizabeth, Shakespeare. But you are right, those have to be revisited often as a holy tribute.
DK: I feel like the tremendous amount of work that he did and how passionate he was, and how much he seemed to love the work that he was doing and the writing that he was translating or rendering. If you look on-line there is very, very little about him, the translations of the books and the introductions come up, but I just pulled up the Wikipedia page [on Juan Mascaró] there are only 303 words in the description of his life.
GK: Oh, my Lord!
DK: Just even what I am hoping with you is to put a little bit more about this man’s own life – maybe he is the type of person who would not want a lot of his own details out there, but for somebody who did so much important work and introduced so many generations of people to Eastern wisdom it seems…
GK: Oh, you are absolutely right, it was Juan’s, it was his translations of Penguin which for years were adopted by the UC system here. I mean from Northern California right down to my own city, San Diego, if you took a course and you walked into the bookstore, those were the translations that were on the shelf, his….
DK: And I think they are still very well respected and available.
GK: Yes, they are, and you know, a few of the comments…
GK: Let me close with this, because not too many people have touched on it in the appreciations on Amazon and elsewhere. What was a revelation to me with the Gita and then later the Upanishads the subsequent, following year, was his ability to (and a number of people now I think are referencing it), his ability when he happens on a kind of eternal spiritual truth he, instead of rendering it the way the original would have him do, he will go into the Old Testament or the New, based on his authorized version…and he will take that phrase from the Bible instead of strictly translating the original because he feels, that quote captured perfectly the Spirit, and would be luminous to kindred readers–and yet he would not dilute, he did not feel that he would dilute the effect and the power of the original by using that Biblical phrase. He worked very carefully… I was amazed at that and I told him that first night. I have never, of all the translations, I have never encountered anything like that. It showed such a total mastery of the two traditions and when I learned later that he taught only two courses,” when he said the Authorized Version, I said to myself “Well, George, there it is!” Just beautiful, just lovely…
And there began, that Summer, the literary romance of my life.
I am so happy that I found this interview which in some small way connected me to Juan Mascaro. I too have immersed myself in his introduction to The Upanishads. The breadth of his knowledge combined with a sensitive humanity moves me. Thank you very much for posting this on your blog.