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  • Derek Penslar

What Do Vivekananda and Theodor Herzl Have in Common?

Derek Penslar

Academic historians are uncomfortable with people. Not so much the people – scholars often write about nations, citizens, ethnic groups, and minorities. They are also fine with smaller groups of people, like printers or peasants. But they prefer aggregates to individuals. If historians were physicists, most of them would be Newtonians, deriving observations from the movements of macroscopic objects. But an individual is more like a microscopic particle whose behavior is unpredictable and not fully knowable.

There are, of course, academic historians who write about individuals. Over the past half century, some scholars have focused on an individual in order to illuminate a previously unknown social universe. They have chosen previously invisible and unheard people, such as Carlo Ginzburg’s Menocchio and Jill Lepore’s Jane Franklin (Benjamin Franklin’s long-suffering and impoverished sister). Historians have been particularly fond of chronicling the lives of those who have broken prevailing racial, class, gender, and national barriers, and of global travelers like the late Natalie Zemon Davis’ Al-Hasan Muhammad al-Wazzan, aka Leo Africanus, or Linda Colley’s Elizabeth Marsh, whom Colley described as “socially obscure, sometimes impoverished, and elusively mobile.”

Readers outside of academia, however, crave biography of not only interesting people but also influential and important ones. They don’t want to read about those who break a mold so much as those who forge a new one. Rather than trace the broad arc of a paradigm and paradigm shift, general readers want to know about individuals who caused that shift to happen.

Most academic historians shun writing biographies of individual figures, largely relegating elite biography to popular writers like Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Walter Isaacson, and the late David McCullough. These authors have honed their writing skills and can tell an absorbing tale, replete with anecdotes and insights, and contrasting the biographical subject’s private and public lives.

Readers are drawn to biography as edifying and entertaining, devoted to plumbing the complexity of human character and the tortuous twists and turns of a fascinating and impactful life. Hermione Lee, former President of Wolfson College, Oxford, and one of the greatest literary biographers of our age, has written that “whether we think of biography as more like history or more like fiction, what we want from it is a vivid sense of the person…Readers of biography are greedy readers, with an insatiable appetite for detail and story.”

Biography is an extension of the 19th-century Euro-American novel. Both of them narrate tales of life from beginning to end, with triumphs and tragedies, and a predictable, if not inevitable, unfolding of the character’s essential traits in such a way as to account for their eventual ascent to the zenith of fame or plummet into the depths of infamy, dissipation, or despair. (The connection between the traditional novel and biography was criticized in Pierre Bourdieu’s classic essay from 1986 on “the biographical illusion,” which raises important challenges to notions of humans as possessed of stable selfhood or a coherent life course.) But the popularity of elite biography can be ascribed to much more than a desire for entertainment.

A recently published edited volume by Darrin McMahon, History and Human Flourishing, considers seriously the therapeutic value of historical writing. People who read biography identify with its subject. In the spirit of the classic novel, the subject is more than an object of fascination, admiration, or animosity but becomes an extension of the reader, someone with whom the reader empathizes. Humans strengthen their own sense of self by entering deeply into the life of a fellow being, be they a hero or a villain. Elite biography, whose subject is world-historical figures who have re-routed the course of history, offers to the reader a sense of empowerment and of understanding the extent and limits of human agency.

What happens when academic historians decide to undertake writing the biography of great world-historical figures? What can and do historians provide, and what is their added value beyond the work of the journalist or talented teller of stories?

They can challenge the idea of a fixed, consistent self, as Ruth Harris does so ably in her 2022 biography of Swami Vivekananda, Guru to the World: The Life and Legacy of Vivekananda. As a biographical subject, Vivekananda’s psyche was exquisitely complex with inextricably-bound religious and political motifs, and after his death, he was claimed as an ancestor of multiple and diametrically-opposed forms of Hindu identity.

Swami Vivekananda | Wikimedia Commons

Born in Calcutta under the name Narendranath Datta, Vivekananda was a child prodigy who received a thorough education in the Hindu scriptures, Bengali literature, and western philosophy. In his late teens, Narendranath began to explore streams of Hindu reform thought that had rationalist and universalist dimensions, but he also became a disciple of Ramakrishna, a mystical, mysterious, and (at least to Westerners) utterly confounding figure. Narendranath changed his name to Vivekananda and lived among Ramakrishna’s entourage before becoming a peripatetic monk. In 1893, however, Vivekananda’s life took yet another turn: he travelled to the West and swiftly became a celebrity – lecturing at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, and then gathering devotees in Massachusetts, New York and, ultimately, California. An interlocutor with American Theosophists, Christian Scientists, and august figures like William James, Vivekananda also travelled back to India, where he was greeted with enthusiasm and crafted a message whose political and religious dimensions could not be separated. Buffeted by a flurry of work, Vivekananda died, most likely of a cerebral aneurism, at the age of thirty-nine.

What does Harris do with this life, and how is it different from a so-called popular biography? Best known for her books on fin de siècle French history, Harris is neither a political nor intellectual historian in the conventional sense of the terms. For Harris, ideas are inseparable from their embodiment in the individuals who produce them. Her work rejects Cartesian approaches to humanity. She presents Vivekananda as a man constantly shifting from childlike neediness and anger to serene otherworldliness. She does not attempt to reconcile the contradictions between Vivekananda’s rationalism and mysticism, universalism and particularism, authenticity and flamboyance, and asceticism and sensualism. We see him as simultaneously emotionally distant and agglutinatively bonded with others. Like his guru Ramakrishna, Vivekananda was repelled by human sexuality, and his relationships with American middle-aged women were as platonic as they were intense.

Unlike a conventional biography, and more in keeping with Bourdieu’s cautions against the construction of coherent selfhood, Harris presents Vivekananda’s persona as a highly-charged field of streaming energy. Her account of Vivekananda’s globe-trotting political and intellectual activity presents him as both immersed in Western ideas and always “Indian.” His ideas were unbounded yet also finite, and there was a family resemblance between them even if they could be scattered and even contradictory. Speaking in the West, Vivekananda espoused a Hindu Universalism, yet he remained attached to particularistic aspects of Hindu custom and was anything but a radical on issues of gender and caste. Despite his contemplative nature, Vivekananda at times called for a collective Indian spiritual renewal rooted in muscularity and virility. This anti-colonial and nationalist dimension grew stronger in the thought of his Irish disciple, Margaret Noble, aka Sister Nivedita. (It is this strain of his thought that has caused Vivekananda to be identified as a spiritual ancestor of Hindutva.)

For a professional historian, no life, no matter how absorbing and consequential, is removed from context. Harris tells the story of not only Vivekananda’s extraordinarily complex personality and thought but also his position as a transnational figure, a “guru to the world,” who brought embodied Hindu sensibilities to a mass American market via his book from 1896, Raja Yoga. For Harris, Vivekananda had much in common with Catholic mystics she analyzed in her 1999 book on the shrine at Lourdes. The swami’s expansive social and intellectual network was a challenge to capture, but Harris had already mapped an equally vast, albeit geographically somewhat more compact, network in her 2010 study of the Dreyfus Affair.

In this biography, the great leader is a disciple and in turn has disciples. Much of the book is about Vivekananda’s guru Ramakrishna and his disciple Sister Nivedita. Still, the book is not a prosopography, as Vivekananda commands the reader’s attention, as does his self-fashioned, exotic visage, complete with a saffron turban.

Vivekananda’s psychological complexity, uncommon charisma, contradictory ideas, peripatetic lifestyle, and complex relations with women who were attracted to him were all characteristics of another great figure, Theodor Herzl ,about whom I published a biography in 2020.

Theodor Herzl | Wikimedia Commons

Born in Budapest in 1860, Herzl was raised in an upper bourgeois Jewish home that is often incorrectly described as “assimilated.” In fact, Herzl attended a Jewish school as a child, but more important, it was impossible for a Jewish person in the mid-nineteenth century Dual Monarchy to escape their heritage or identity. Herzl studied law in Vienna and briefly worked as a state attorney, but early on in life he distinguished himself as a journalist, and when only in his early thirties Herzl became the highest-paid correspondent for Central Europe’s most prestigious newspaper. Herzl was also a modestly talented playwright, though enduring success in the theater escaped him. Deeply worried by the rise of antisemitism in his native Vienna, suffering in a miserable marriage, and prone since adolescence to depression, in 1895 Herzl experienced what appears in retrospect to have been a manic episode during which he decided to commit his life to Zionism.

In the same year that Vivekananda published Raja Yoga, Herzl published a pamphlet titled The Jewish State, and in the following year he convened an international Zionist Congress and Zionist Organization. For seven brief years, Herzl traversed the globe in search of diplomatic support for mass Jewish settlement in Palestine and juggled the demands of obstreperous Zionist colleagues until he was felled by heart failure at the age of forty-four.

Unlike Vivekananda, who appeared to be in a constant state of movement while tethered to a spiritual lineage, Herzl lacked an internal anchor though he cultivated an air of solidity and self-assuredness. Herzl was psychologically exoskeletal, constructed from the outside in. Herzl was far less contemplative and insightful than Vivekananda, and he fancied himself to be a statesman rather than, as Harris describes the swami, a “guru to the world.” Although Herzl had predecessors, unlike Vivekananda he had no master; after his turn to Zionism he went so far as to deny awareness of previous Zionist thinkers such as Leon Pinsker. Nor did Herzl raise disciples. He was too emotionally distant, too rigorously self-controlled, and too devoted to his quest to build the Zionist Organization and win international recognition of Zionism to give of himself as a teacher must for their student.

Nonetheless, for Harris, as for myself, biography represents terra incognita. As Hermione Lee has observed, “What does biography do with the facts that can’t be fixed, the things that go missing, the body parts that have been turned into legends and myth?” When writing about men who were mythologized by their own followers but who also engaged in self-mythologization, we had to read our subjects’ own writings within a hermeneutic of suspicion. In my reading of Herzl, he was least honest when he claimed to be sincere, and most candid when he was being performatively artful, as when, after his turn to Zionism, he referred to the “novel of his life.”

In any work of history there is some measure of conjecture, but biography demands a greater capacity for speculation precisely because it is committed to unfold the inner workings of a human mind. No person can ever truly know another – this is why conventional novels, where the omniscient narrator burrows into the depths of the characters’ psyche, are so enormously satisfying.

Biographers do not have the luxury of fabricating a character out of whole cloth, so they read as thoroughly as possible in their subjects’ ego-documents (e.g., diaries, memoirs, correspondence), paying extensive attention as well to contemporary accounts of their subject. Just as novels in our own era are increasingly likely to have unreliable narrators, so is it possible to write fragmentary biographies, where caesurae are openly displayed rather than cleverly concealed.

Social history, which for the past sixty years has been the bread and butter of academic historiography, is effective at illuminating the life of the forgotten, but less so in examining those who have not been forgotten but rather lionized and mythologized – petrified into marble, so to speak. The world-historical individual needs to be not only humanized, as Ron Chernow did so brilliantly with Alexander Hamilton, and not merely contextualized, as any good, traditional, “life and times” biography will do. An academic historian can bring to the art of biography the skill of deconstruction. By “deconstruction” I do not mean only the unraveling of myth and exposure of foibles. Rather, deconstruction entails challenging the very core of traditional biography: the stable, coherent self.

Harris’ Vivekananda and my Herzl existed as discrete beings in time and space, and certain drives and characteristics accompanied them throughout their lives, but they were also shifting, multi-faceted, and fluid beings – even though Herzl attempted to present himself as rock solid.

Individuals are like quantum particles – observable but not fully knowable and displaying counter-intuitive traits akin to the quantum object’s possession of the characteristics of both particles and waves. Academic historians prefer the equivalent of classical physics’ focus on larger, aggregate units whose movements are easier to track. Individuals are mercurial, and it is the contingency of their being that gives readers faith in their own agency and pride in what their fellow particles have wrought in the world.


Derek Penslar is the William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History. He is the director of undergraduate studies within the department and directs Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies. Penslar is a resident faculty member at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES) and is also affiliated with Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His books have engaged with a variety of approaches and methods, including the history of science and technology (Zionism and Technocracy: The Engineering of the Jewish Settlement in Palestine 1870-1918, 1991), economic history (Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe, 2001), military history (Jews and the Military: A History, 2013), biography (Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader, 2020), and the history of emotions (Zionism: An Emotional State, 2023).


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