Vale Bernard Bate

I was saddened to learn yesterday that my friend and colleague Bernard Bate passed away. A scholar in his prime in his mid-fifties, Barney (as he was known) was a model of vitality, health, optimism. On paper, Barney’s story is straightforward: A Chicago anthropology alumn with a speciality in Tamil oratory, he taught at Yale before moving to Yale-NUS, an innovative liberal arts college in Singapore where Yale and the National University of Singapore created a unique curriculum combining Western and Eastern classical traditions. His book, Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic says a lot about Barney: It’s sly reference to Weber encapsulates the mix of playfulness and profound depth that marked Barney’s scholarship. The book is also a homage to Barney’s deep personal commitment to Tamil as a language, Madurai as a place, and to the global Tamil-speaking community.

But it is really in this YouTube clip where you can catch a sense of Barney’s remarkable personality. Asked by the interviewer what duty Tamil speakers have to preserve their language, Barney immediately turns the question around. “I wouldn’t put it like that,” he says. “What joy of preserving your language, I would say. I mean, it’s not a really a duty.” And then, switching into Tamil, he walks the walk by talking the talk, ending with the line “it’s your duty to enjoy your language.”

Barney’s emotions were always very close to the surface and — remarkable — they were always positive emotions. Joy is an overused cliché in today’s world, but Barney was a genuinely joyful person. We often memorialize professors by saying they had lots of energy, but Barney seemed incredibly vital and alive. Enthusiasm is a quality we often mention when discussing great students. But Barney had a special sense of immediacy about him. He wanted to crack moments open and live inside of them. He wanted something to happen. And around him, it often did.

Scholars often come with warts: Precision can ride alongside small mindedness, and drive is sometimes accompanied by unseemly ambition. One of the things I appreciated most about Barney was his ability to find a healthy, positive way to be a scholar. He was driven by positivity, not negativity — and that is a remarkable thing to find in someone, regardless of what their profession is.

One of the things I hear people say most about Barney is that he had time for them. And he did — everyone I’ve spoken to remembers the ten or fifteen minutes they spent with Barney at AAA meetings. It is another cliché, but when he spoke to you, you felt that you were the only person in the room, or the only thing that mattered to him at that moment. A towering presence — he was a tall guy — Barney was naturally giving and willing to talk, about literally anything. Look at me: We had almost nothing in common theoretically or areally, but I was just one of many people who got folded into Barney’s life as a friend.

Barney was sharp as a tack. But more then that, he was a highly trained scholar. Between the Tamil literary tradition, South Asian studies, and the anthropology department at Chicago, Barney knew intellectual life as an apprenticeship in a great tradition, one that shapes who you are, and of which you were just the smallest and most recent link in a long, long chain. He cherished that tradition. I could see it in the syllabi he sent me, littered as they were with Jakobsen, Saussure, Peirce, and Bakhtin. And, like many South Asianists, the idea of ‘ethnographic theory’ seemed a nonstarter — he was already teaching Guha, Chakrabarty, Kaviraj, and other South Asian scholars as if they always already were central to anthropology. Because they are.

But at the same time, Barney loved what he called ‘the newness of old things’. He was immersed enough in tradition to know that it innovated — that, indeed, there can be no  innovation without an inherited past. But he was steeped in tradition but not pedantic. This is probably why Yale-NUS appealed to him so. The idea of reading Plato one week and Confucius the next and then seeing what would happen: Barney was made for a position like that.

I think Barney’s love of novelty came form his love of language, and especially his love of the spoken word. One of the central tenants of linguistic anthropology is that speech can be art — ‘verbal performance’ as the put it. But for Barney, this was not a theoretical tenant, but a deep and profound love of speech, and a fascination at its power. He came from a tradition where educated people memorized poetry — one friend remembered the time Barney recited the entirety of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” from memory spontaneously — and his book is embroidered with poetry. But he also loved the spoken word, the moment of speech, the ‘breakthrough into performance’ when someone says something new for the first time in the world. This was why he always had such an appreciation of immediacy: He saw life as a work of art.

Barney saw life as a work of art. His own life was a work of art. It was too short, but in the time he had he filled it with beauty, and shared that beauty with us. He showed us how to be good scholars, and good people. His memory is a blessing.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

6 thoughts on “Vale Bernard Bate

  1. A terrific loss for all of us. I was privileged enough to spend the last seven months in his wonderful presence and cheerful company at the Stanford Humanities Center. What a wonderful person and terrific scholar. We are all missing you dearly, Barney!

  2. I had the great fortune of overlapping with Barney at Yale Anthro for several years. Everything you say is so true. I admired him immensely as a scholar and cherished him as a friend. I only saw him a few times since we departed Yale, but each time was filled with the warmth of being with an old pal. Condolences to all his loved ones and friends.

  3. I was a senior colleague in sociology at Yale for the time Barney was there (10 years) and I was continually awed by his scope, his comfort in the intellectual traditions of India and the US (he taught courses on African-American oral traditions and Lincoln as well) — I mean this was just an extraordinary scholar and theorist! Barney was also my son’s advisor in the Anthro department and thereby I got to see the other side of Barney, which was his incredible, over the top interest in and generosity with students. He was a playful and sensitive and deeply insightful human being who also suffered from some serious sadnesses and disappointments but at the moment of his death (I had coffee with him last month in New Haven) he was optimistic and felt things were finally rightly placed. But of course he had not made the progress he’d hoped for in finishing his second book. Is anybody working to salvage something from that project?

    A terrible mysterious inexplicable deeply saddening death

    Jeffrey Alexander

  4. A grievous loss. Thank you for sharing your remembrance of his complex and radiant being.

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