An excerpt from

Love in a Dead Language

Lee Siegel


Some professors postulate that one shouldn't seek fulfillment or meaning in love, that love is deleterious to the loftier ideals of religion and money. They fancy that love leads to defilement and falsehood, that it forces us into the company of worthless people and drives us mad, that it causes a loss of dignity, judgment, and faith. But love, I maintain, is the very fruit of religion, and it is the most precious thing that money can buy.
     According to Auddalaki:
The man who fulfills himself in terms
Of religion, money, and love,
Now and forever attains happiness,
Both in this world and up above.
Happiness comes from doing what you please,
Without worry, without care,
Without any concern about what might happen
Now or then, here or there.
Strive for the rewards of all three ideals,
All of them have something just for you:
If not all three, then settle for two, and if not two,
Then one, if it's love, will do.
I, Vatsyayana, shall expound the ways and means of obtaining all fulfillment through the one, just one—LOVE.
"Lalita," She said cheerfully. "My name's Lalita—like Lolita but with an a." And stunned by the vision, I muttered under my breath, "No, no, my dear Lalita, not an a; no, it is rather like Lolita with an A+!" And I meditated on the magic syllables, the manumitting mantic mantra, the perfect name, the mellifluous adjective and noun from the verbal root lal—"to loll, play, dally, fondle, caress, frolic, to behave loosely or freely"; lalita—"artless, lusty, and languid, a lolling lady, charming miss, and graceful girl." O my lalita Lalita!

"Lalita Gupta," the apparition said as She walked in and drove philology crazy: gupta, "hidden, concealed, secret, private" (the past participle of gup, "to guard, defend, protect, preserve"); my gupta Ms. Gupta, ravishing descendent of the magnificent Gupta dynasty, the perfection of civilization; Princess Gupta who enchanted the Buddha; a wanton "woman who withdraws from her lover's endearments."

"At registration they said your class was full, but that I could get in if you'd sign this admission form. Fuckin' bureaucracy!" She sighed and sat down. "Will you sign me in?"

My heart lubdubbed itself into a gyroscopic spin. Oh, Her use of the precious present participle, "fucking," from the Indo-European peik, cognate with the Latin pungere, related to the Germanic ficken, purloined from the Middle Dutch fokken, associated with the Zemblan fögu_, universalized in the Esperanto fuga. Although She used the lexical indecency unremittingly, there was nothing really vulgar about it—it was rather like the use of eva in Sanskrit (the enclitic particle of emphasis meaning "in fact, really, actually, exactly, just, only, quite, the very same," a "meaningless intensifier," according to my Monier-Williams dictionary). Uttered unselfconsciously, it was voiced metrically, just to give lilt and play to a phrase, or phatically, not to express an idea but to establish sociability like the quack of a duck, song of a swan, or purr of a cat. She used it to modify and modulate, to stress and qualify, to punctuate and irradiate. The way She enunciated it brought Her fulgurant teeth to rest on Her lower lip as the upper lip rose slightly in the f; and then, for the u, Her lips parted as if for a kiss, and they stretched back into smiling as the lexeme culminated so regally in kin[g]. It was stunning to witness Her mouth form and release it: "fuh-kin'." Two lips, two syllables, and a smile that merged all twos into one.

"I mean if you can't let me in, it's okay with me. I don't really care, but my parents want me to take courses on Indian culture. Fuckin' India, India, India! They're from India, and that's all they care about; they're pissed off that I don't know anything about it."

"Oh, I can teach You about India," I answered, trying to restrain the regressive quaver in my voice, the adolescent trembling of my limbs; and yes, yes, I told myself, I must teach Her all I know, all that She has forgotten, the knowledge embedded in nucleic acids in the cells of Her flesh. My glance luxuriated in the dark down on Her bare arms, and I imagined the feel of the soft, sweetly sweat-scented, sable romavali beneath fingertips and lingering lips.

"The other thing is that my boyfriend, Leroy—Leroy Lovelace, the famous basketball player—is in the class," She continued. "And we like to take the same courses so that we can study together. You know—if I can't make it to class, he can take notes for me, or the other way around."

"I'm very strict about attendance," I interrupted.

"Oh, I don't mind coming; I'll come if it's important to you," She laughed, and my mind played dirty tricks on me, amplifying, against my will, the obscene resonances of Her verb.

"Have you ever been to India, Dr. Roth?" She asked without waiting for the answer. "My parents want me to go. They're on some sort of roots kick. But I don't want to. It's real dirty, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose so—that's one of India's charms actually," and my dirty mind made the dirty meaning of "dirty" all that I heard.

"I don't like the food—I mean it tastes okay, but I don't like the way it looks. My mother fixes it all the time, and my father plays the music and rents the fuckin' videos—really terrible movies, unbelievably corny. Yeah, I don't want to go to India—it's hot, and there are all those poor people and lepers begging everywhere." She suddenly laughed. "Well, will you let me in or not?"

I wanted to ask Her the same question. Kama's hook was lodged in my cheek, and I knew that the harder I might try to resist Her, the harder I'd be pulled back, the more the pain would tug me toward Her.

"Of course I'll let You in," I said as I signed the admission slip. "Of course, Ms. Gupta, anything You want. Anything."

"Well, there is something else: one of the textbooks is already sold out—the Kamasutra. I guess I can share my boyfriend's copy, but..."

"No, no, don't share," I interrupted all too frantically. "I mean, it's important to be able to underline, to write in the margins, to record Your reactions to the text, to generate Your own commentary on it. We enter into a relationship with any text we hear or read, like the relationship with a friend, a lover, or an enemy. A relationship is the ultimate meaning of the text. I have an extra copy. I get desk copies free. You can have this one," I smiled, handing Her my own expensive copy of a Burton translation lavishly illustrated with erotic miniatures and photographs of temple sculptures of copulating couples from Khajuraho and Konarak.

"Isn't this the book about fucking?" She asked, and the sudden use of the word "fucking," with the g back in place, to actually refer to fucking made it lewd, arousingly and powerfully distasteful. She had obviously meant to shock me, and it had worked. But I wanted Her to say it again and again—"fuckin'" or "fucking"—to say it sweetly, crudely, lewdly, softly, harshly, loudly, softly, to whisper it in my ear and shout it from the parapets of a fantastic ancient Oriental city.

Struggling not to lose what little remained of my composure, I answered as professorially as Vatsyayana might have done.

"The text is about the transformation of coitus into love, biology into culture, instinct into consciousness. Professor Vatsyayana soberly explains that he composed the book, informed as it is, and ought to be, with dispassion, after strictly observing a vow of celibacy."

She interrupted me with a reading of the cover puff.

"'The complete and unexpurgated text of the famous Hindu study of physical love.' Yeah, it's about fucking all right," She giggled childishly, as She flipped the book over and continued: "'This famous Hindu manual of physical love is one of the high points in all erotic literature. It is frank and explicit in its descriptions.'"

"It's a classic of world literature, a key to Indian culture, and I thought the students would enjoy it," I broke in; I was embarrassed, self-conscious, rather pathetically unable to look the young girl in the eyes.

"I'm sure," She laughed in a condescending, supercilious way at, it seemed, two professors—Vatsyayana and me.

We were interrupted by my graduate student and teaching assistant, Anang Saighal, who entered without warning, toting yet another chapter of his dreary dissertation on Sanskrit commentarial literature for me to read. Before I could get rid of him, She had excused Herself and disappeared.

From the moment I handed Her the Burton version (in giving Her the book, I was, I felt, offering Her Her own civilization), I wanted, as an act of devotion and redemption, to transduce the great erotic breviary for Her, to filter the text though my heart (making Vatsyayana's sentiments and sensibilities my own), to make significant all that I had learned about India, to whisper the ancient pandit's words to Her and scratch them on Her back, breasts, and thighs. Translation is transmigration: I'd be Vatsyayana reincarnated and She'd be the lover Mallanaga never names, some exquisite hetÂ…ra of Varanasi. It is for this reason that I, L. A. Roth, am beginning to translate the Kamasutra.

My predecessor, Captain Sir Richard Burton, in a foreword to his translation of the Kamasutra, wrote: "All you who read this book shall know how delicious an instrument is the Hindoo woman: when artfully played upon, by an amorously educated man, she proves capable of producing the most exquisite harmonies, of executing the most complicated variations, and of giving the divinest pleasures. She is all but indispensable to the student, and she teaches him not only Hindoostani grammar, but the syntaxes of native life. She has infallible recipes to prevent maternity and augment virility.... She is lover in health and nurse in sickness. And as it is not good for a man to live alone, she makes him a fine manner of home."

Dr. Paul Planter, the chairman of my department (who teaches Asian Studies 150A: Introduction to Japanese Civilization) is married to a Japanese woman who does the work for which he takes credit (for example, "his" translation of the erotic Chin-chin Monogatori of Sensai Bobo). He justifies and rationalizes this shamelessly: "With love we span the cultures of the East and the West. She comes up with an explanation of the Japanese, and then I lyrically English it; working together in harmony, in love, we come up with a textual transubstantiation, true to the spirit and flesh of the original." With both scorn and envy for this happy man, I feel the inequity and injustice: I am a tenured full professor of Indian studies, a Sanskrit scholar, and yet never, never in my life, have I made love to an Indian woman. Is that just, right, or good? While I have had the oral pleasure of eating Indian food and endured the gastrointestinal torment of Indian dysentery, my psycho-sexo-Indological development has been arrested; I yearn to move on to the phallic and then the genital stages of Indology. Some sort of union, an erotic spanning of East and West, had, before I met Lalita, already become a hope. And now aspiration becomes obsession: I must possess Lalita Gupta for the sake of Sanskrit and South Asian studies (not to mention knowledge and truth, let alone pleasure or happiness). My relationship with India has, thus far, been purely voyeuristic—looking at Her, stripped and spread open, from a distance, through a window, with binoculars, only faintly hearing Her sighs and moans. I have smelled Her heady scent, felt Her excruciating heat, but never have I penetrated Her. Lalita is my opportunity to enter India and hold Her in my arms, to be at once outside and inside. India is my text, Lalita will be my data, and love will be my methodology.

Lalita Gupta seems so perfectly and unconsciously an incarnation of a civilization; although She apparently knows nothing about India, one can witness Indianness in Her gait, the long stride taken with arched feet turned out. I have never really been attracted to younger women, and perhaps as a result of that I have never felt old before. Now, for the first time, having just briefly encountered the girl, my age (not the death it brings, but the desexualization that young people attribute to their elders) worries me. Will She consider me too patriarchal to hold Her in my arms? I must show Her how an ancient text, in being reread, becomes young and fresh. I decided to buy some tonic to darken my hair—not dye it, just take away the new traces of gray.

I was standing in the supermarket aisle marked "Health and Beauty" when I saw Her out of the corner of my eye. Yet again it was as if some yogic power or constellationary fate was at work to bring us together once more that day. I hastily put the hair coloring back and rushed to "Liquor" to replace the symbol of anxiety in my basket with one of joy—an overpriced bottle of 1987 Chateau d'Amour rosé champagne. Like a hunter after prey, I snuck down "Automotive Needs and Feminine Hygiene," up "Frozen Foods" and, sighting her by "Bread," I pretended to be surprised.

"Oh, hello! Ms. ah, ah, Das Gupta, isn't it?"

"No, just Gupta," She smiled carelessly, hardly taking Her dark, scanning eyes from the loaves, buns, and rolls.

"Remember me?" I asked. "Professor Roth."

"Oh yeah, sure—you're my astronomy teacher."

"No, no—Asian studies," I answered with a bruised heart. "Indian Civilization."

"Oh yeah, of course—India," She mumbled, looking neither at me nor at my festive wine.

"You're buying bagels," I stupidly observed the obvious; She nodded, mumbled "'Bye," and left me by the bread to wallow in a terrible abyss of silence.

I returned to "Liquor" to wait and watch, and when I saw Her approach a checkout counter, I flew to Her. An old woman, no doubt some protean demoness of Lanka, her overflowing cart a sudden barrier between me and Lalita, beat me to the aisle. I yearned to shove ahead of the crone, to sidle in next to Her, close enough to smell Her hair, perhaps bold enough to ever so gently let some part of my body, seemingly by accident or oversight, touch some part of Her, to look into Her purse when She opened it, to make small talk, to joke about the story in the Mirror on the checkout stand ("Sex Secrets of Teenage Girl's 101-Year-Old Lover Boy"), to walk Her out of the store, and… (oh, I don't know, I really don't know where we might have gone, what we might have said). With only one item (blueberry whole grain bagels) to buy, She vanished in an instant and did not seem to notice me there.

That afternoon in the supermarket, though absolutely nothing had happened, I felt that, for the first time in over twenty years of marriage, I had been unfaithful to my wife, that the meeting by the bread had been an illicit tryst. I wanted to confess sins that I had not committed, to beg forgiveness for intentions. I was, as Vatsyayana says, by love made to act falsely; love robbed me of dignity and trustworthiness. But, as my teacher proclaims, since life is transient we must do what we must, when we must. I agree with Vatsyayana that neither religion nor economics, neither morality nor money should in any way get in the way of love. I bought the bottle of Chateau d'Amour and took it home.

"What's the occasion?" asked my dear, bright, and beautiful wife.

"I'm in love," I sadly answered, and Sophia smiled.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 12-18 of Love in a Dead Language by Lee Siegel, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Lee Siegel
Love in a Dead Language
©1999, 398 pages, 40 line drawings
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 0-226-75697-1
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 0-226-75699-8

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Love in a Dead Language.

See also: