Mohandas and the Unicorn

Patrick French in The National Interest:

Great_Soul_coverIf celebrity is a mask that eats into the face, posthumous fame is more like an accretion of silt and barnacles that can leave the face unrecognizable, or recognizable only as something it is not. We might feel we know Mohandas Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Joan of Arc or Martin Luther King Jr., but, rather, we know their iconic value: their portraits or statues, their famous deeds and sayings. We have trouble seeing them as their contemporaries did—as people. Jawaharlal Nehru, writing in the 1930s when he was in a British prison and some distance from becoming India’s prime minister, said that Gandhi’s views on marital relationships were “abnormal and unnatural” and “can only lead to frustration, inhibition, neurosis, and all manner of physical and nervous ills. . . . I do not know why he is so obsessed by this problem of sex.” Nehru was writing publicly, in his autobiography, but it is fair to say that few Indian politicians today would speak of the Father of the Nation in this unfettered way. Gandhi has become, in India and across the world, a simplified character: a celibate, cheerful saint who wore a white loincloth and round spectacles, ate small meals and succeeded in bringing down an empire through nonviolent civil disobedience. Barack Obama, who kept a portrait of Gandhi hanging on the wall of his Senate office, is fond of citing him.

Joseph Lelyveld has already found himself in some trouble over Great Soul, not for what he wrote, but for what other people say he wrote. In a contemporary morality tale of high-speed information transfer and deliberate misconstruction, his book has been identified as something it is not. The Daily Mail, one of London’s lively and vituperative tabloids, ran a story saying Great Soul claimed Gandhi “was bisexual and left his wife to live with a German-Jewish bodybuilder.”

More here.