Scholars and the Rest of Us

Dan Tyler, September 2011

As long as the Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust keeps lurching from one blunder to the next in their publishing practices, the blunders must be pointed out. Doing that has become something of a cottage industry.

The 1987 publication of the seventh edition of Baba’s Discourses pervasively altered Baba’s words without informing the reader. The mechanics of that editing were poor. But the fundamental mistake was not the disastrous quality of the editing. The real damage was that it happened at all — and the precedent that was set.

The 2005 publication of Infinite Intelligence plunged the Trust’s publishing policies into new dangers. Again, the editing of the original material was calamitous and should not have been done. But among many mistakes, the fundamental mistake was putting Baba’s name on a book He did not write.

The 2007 republication of the sixth edition Discourses introduced new editorial depredations. Despite presumably adhering to revamped policies designed to protect Baba’s words, Baba was again named as author of material He did not write. This time it was a new Volume IV. That publication also inserted footnotes into the first three volumes that pointed out “mistakes.” The editor explains them in some detail in the new (falsely attributed) Volume IV.

If the problems with the Discourses and Infinite Intelligence are indictable felonies, the following passage may be closer to a ticketable offense. Still, this excerpt reveals the central problem fueling the Trust’s editorial polices: a belief that there are two kinds of readers of literature by and about Meher Baba, the “general reader” and the “textual scholar.” The former are hapless souls in round-the-clock peril of pratfalling on their own drool. The latter are an elite few who have to rewrite and explain things to the rest of us.

from Why Meher Baba’s Words Should Be Left as They Are

Many of us heard Baba’s great disciple Eruch relate accounts of extraordinarily beautiful “talks” and Discourses that Baba gave at different times. Obviously these remembered words of the Avatar need to be transmitted to posterity. Let us suppose that we recover thirty tape recordings of Eruch retelling a certain message that Baba once gave. If one wished to publish this message in written form, obviously one would need to transcribe the thirty oral renderings, collate and compare them, apply a variety of methods in the effort to ascertain what is most authentic, and publish a readable version that captures what seem to be the original elements of Baba’s discourse. What I am describing here, of course, is an editorial procedure. . . . The attempt to block all such editorship will inevitably fail.

Ward Parks
Love Street Lamp Post, 2010

It is not at all obvious that various recordings of Eruch telling the same story have to be edited into a single written version by a “textual scholar.”

If Eruch told the same story in 30 different ways, they should all be made available in writing. Death and taxes may be, but editing is not inevitable. Eruch did not need a “textual scholar” to tell the stories, and the people hearing them did not need a “textual scholar” to listen to them.

Editing each of Eruch’s retellings into one “readable” version disguises the fact that Eruch told the story differently each time. That erases a rich history. If each version is unique, a synthesized compilation by a “textual scholar” weakens Eruch’s voice by replacing it with the “textual scholar’s.” A single version edited for publication will destroy the opportunity to appreciate the differences individually, one reader at a time. Rather, it will express an opinion about what Eruch meant to say about what Baba said.

Here’s a fun idea: a book that presents 30 different versions of the same story exactly as told by Eruch.

If a musicologist produced one “listenable” piece of music from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, their beauty would be lost, leaving us with an impoverished piece of music that expresses someone’s idea of what Bach should have composed (if only he could have made up his mind).

It is not obvious that, “The attempt to block all such editorship will inevitably fail.” That’s akin to an alcoholic saying, “I’m bound to fall off the wagon sometime so I might as well get tanked and start driving right now.”

As long as the Trust is guided by the notion that “general readers” need extensive help from “textual scholars” to appreciate literature by and about Baba, these problems are going to continue.

Related Work