Fifteen Questions during the Solar Eclipse: Maya Jasanoff on the British Empire, Joseph Conrad, and Judging The Booker Prize



The history professor talked with Fifteen Minutes during the solar eclipse about being in a family of academics, postcolonial literature, and reading.



{shortcode-3a6f2f1da94dccde13fbfa1f6f2d8a1b3422132c}

We set our date at random. From three weeks away, Monday looked like Tuesday, Tuesday like Thursday –– 3 p.m. commonly open. “Perhaps Monday the 8th at 3 p.m?” I asked, without any evident reason. “Perfect.”

What I admired in Maya R. Jasanoff ’96’s magazine writing, I found in her person: She is sharp and cerebral without being aloof, assertive yet not abrasive, lucid and ever light. On a day when the temperature descended as rapidly as the skies darkened, she wore a warm smile.

We met on the fourth floor of the Center for European Studies, in her street-facing office, but I hardly caught a glimpse of it. Before I was in, we were out, in a rush, cardboard-rimmed glasses in her hand and a spiral-bound notebook in mine.

We emerged into the CES’s Venetian courtyard under strict orders not to look up. We joined many others who’d abandoned their desks in favor of the lightshow. The air slowly chilled, and in it was anticipation, the promise of spectacle. A fountain poured into earth green water.

Jasanoff is the Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard. Her research has taken her from the city of Calcutta to the worlds of Joseph Conrad; she interests herself in subjects as varied as the workings of the British Empire and our obsession with ancestry. In May 2023, Jasanoff published an essay in the New Yorker with the title “The History of Nepo Babies is the History of Humanity.” She followed a temporal thread from Alexander the Great to Donald Trump, always arriving at the same place: generational succession. In one parenthetical, Jasanoff smuggles in one of her most telling examples: her own family line.

Jasanoff is the daughter of Sheila S. Jasanoff ’64, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Jay H. Jasanoff ’63, Diebold Professor of Indo-European Linguistics and Philology at Harvard University. Jasanoff’s childhood was spent around Cornell, where her parents both taught. Her brother, Alan Jasanoff ’92, is a Professor of Biological Engineering, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. Their extended family includes two other academics. As the moon quickened across the sun, this is where Jasanoff and I began.

“Do you attribute certain things about you to having grown up in the company of so many academics?”

“I would say that there is a lifestyle associated with it.

“It’s a job that gives you enormous freedom in many respects, including over your own time. It’s a job that prioritizes intellectual discovery. I was raised in that milieu. I think –– for a whole bunch of reasons, some of them socioeconomic, some of them intellectual and cultural –– you find disproportionate numbers of children of academics in academia.

“When I came to Harvard as an undergraduate –– then as now — a very high percentage of my classmates, particularly the high achieving ones, were drawn off into, say, banking or consulting. I understand why people may choose those kinds of professions, but I came from a background in which control over what I thought and how I spent my time was more important and definitely more valorized than the type of paycheck that I took home.”

As we spoke, we exchanged glances towards each other and towards the sun –– its crescent shrinking into the darkness brought on by our glasses. The relative size of the sun was a time keeper.

“Was there any kind of expectation that you might follow in their footsteps, too, and become an academic?”

“When I was younger, I was very drawn to the arts and journalism. Professions of that kind are just incredibly difficult to keep yourself going, particularly if you don’t have wealth, connections, etc.

“Getting scholarships to go to graduate study was a great way to keep on pursuing ideas.

“My parents certainly never explicitly said that they had views about what we [she and her brother] should do.

“It’s hard to separate nature and nurture.

“As early as I can remember, I was drawn to thinking about how things got to be the way they are, I was drawn to literature, I liked to read, I liked to write. Obviously, this was all enhanced and supported. If I had demonstrated, for example, great gifts in athletics, maybe it would have been a different story for me.”

The trees began to sway and the bushes gently rustled as a breeze came over the courtyard. The wind was from subzero; it was its rapidity that altered us to it. The shadows lost their strength.

“Was it always journalism you wrote? Did you ever write fiction, or poetry, of your own?”

“Not really. One of the things that I did, which my parents definitely did make us do and which in retrospect I’m glad about, is keep travel journals. I should add, when I was growing up, my mother had a very tenuous job for a lot of the time. Today, the tenured professor at the private university is quite well compensated. I think it was different in the ’70s and ’80s. We were not traveling in any kind of glamorous way. But we did travel a lot in the summers because my parents were doing academic research and would take us with them. They had us write journals. So I have a full run of travel journals from the age of five.”

“Would you work through them and try to make something of them?”

Laughing, Jasanoff says, “I don’t think they repay a lot of reading! But I did actually, during the pandemic, sit down and go through a lot of them because I was thinking about writing an essay about what it’s like to be in the room with 40 years of travel journals on the shelf and be not really able to go anywhere. So I did go through them, and I made some notes. I never ended up writing the essay, but someday, probably, I’ll write something.”

In some way, I thought she already had. In November 2013, Jasanoff boarded a container ship and took a passage to Britain, departing from Hong Kong via the Suez Canal. The writer she was emulating was the subject of her 2017 book “The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Globalized World.” “When I saw the itinerary of Christophe Colomb today,” she wrote, “I saw a track that Conrad had often followed and wrote about in his fiction.”

“Who were the other writers who were important to you growing up?”

“I was totally into the Brontës as a young teenager. Younger than that, Dickens made an impression. My mother would read a lot of Dickens aloud to us. Then I discovered the modernists when I was about 15, 16, and like every one of my basic demographic profile I got very into Virginia Woolf.”

Only a slither of the sun’s light remained; we were creeping as close to totality as we would come.

“Thomas Hardy, Joyce; of course, I read a lot of Forster, Woolf. Some continental Europeans as well.”

“Many Brits. Was the literature part of why your interests came to gather around the British Empire?”

“My mother was born a subject of the British Empire. My grandparents too, of course. We traveled to India periodically. And I saw the legacies of colonialism, in a perverse way. I would be in Calcutta with my Indian family on streets named after Shakespeare.

“So I was curious about that. We did spend time living in Britain, partly with academic connections. And I read British literature enormously. I do think all these things came together. And being from a family in which my mother is Indian, my father’s Jewish, his mother being an immigrant, the feeling of connection to an American historical story was nowhere near as strong in my own family as the sense that histories are connected in funny ways.”

“Why study the British Empire from the U.S.?”

“There’s been a huge amount of imperial amnesia in Britain over the last couple of generations. In fact, it was only in the ’90s that historians in Britain and indeed historians of Britain began to integrate the histories of Britain with the history of empire. In the U.K., to this day –– although there has been a lot more written about imperial history than there was 20 or 30 years ago –– the public discourse on empire continues to be pretty impoverished.

“Every year, for example, students from the U.K. taking my course here at Harvard pretty much uniformly say that in high school what they were exposed to was the history of the Tudors, and the history of World War Two, and virtually nothing in between.

“The other thing I would say, though, about studying the British Empire from the United States is that since the ’40s, it’s been obvious that the U.S. has taken over the role of leading global hegemon, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So to be looking at the contours of one global power from the heart of another global power makes a lot of sense.”

Here we stopped, lifted our glasses once again, and turned our eyes to the sky. I joked that we assumed that we were seeing the same thing. Our sense of wonder, though, seemed to match up.

{shortcode-65de6f08c1a716e03d100fb224aa05882c28076f}

“There’s Marx’s much-quoted idea: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’ When you think comparatively between Britain and the U.S., are you using history as a way of acting on or disrupting the present? Or is it a more descriptive exercise?”

“I’m not a politician or a pundit. What I have to offer is historical knowledge, and the experience of having worked a lot on questions of linkages through time.

“Even when I’m writing about the present, that’s the value added. There’s nothing like being a scholar to realize the limits of your knowledge.

“I would say that my ability to opine with particular expertise on aspects of America’s power in the world is less, by definition, than my power to opine with expertise on Britain’s position in the world. But I definitely, not least as a citizen of this country, feel an obligation to call attention to parallels.”

“Many post colonial writers –– Edward Said, V.S. Naipaul –– have leaned on Conrad in one way or another. What has been your draw to Conrad? I remember, when he was mentioned in school, it was as a kind of footnote to Chinua Achebe’s work. Conrad was a villain, a dark man of letters. Achebe rectified.”

“I think a throughline in my work is to resist oversimplification. I believe that power is complicated and layered, that identities are complicated and layered, that human motivations are complicated and layered, and that things can coexist that might seem surprising. I believe that the desire to judge the past or, for that matter, the present through simple terms of good or bad is unhelpfully reductive.

“So Conrad, of course, is a fascinating figure. This is a guy who was born to Polish parents in present day Ukraine as a subject of the Russian Empire. He went to France in his teens to learn to be a sailor, at which point he learned English. He sailed for about 20 years before publishing a novel and then spent the entire second half of his life living in England, writing fiction. So, an enormously varied and international life. The episodes of experiences and insights of that life will make their way into his fiction.

“Heart of Darkness” has attracted a lot of criticism, in both senses of that word. Chinua Achebe was right to call attention to its racism. It’s also quite a brazen criticism of the so-called civilizing mission that was wonderfully championed at the time. And one might fruitfully inquire how a person can be so insightful and thoughtful about imperialism and that kind of power relationship while at the same time silencing the perspectives of certain people.”

“How do you handle the question of good art and bad men?”

“I think that the job of the biographer is to unpack people’s lives and think about what made them tick and how they fit it into their times.

“But that’s different from saying my job is to try the author and judge them.

“I think it’s a real limitation of an individual that sometimes shows up in their work when, for example, they have stridently misogynistic attitudes. And that comes up a lot — Conrad, for what it’s worth. The women in Conrad’s fiction are by and large completely null. That seems like a big silencing.

“You can’t create a break between the life and the work. But my interest as a scholar is in understanding the life and the work.”

“I was growing up in South Africa when the #RhodesMustFall movement took off. A repeated retort to protesting students was that tearing down the statue of [Cecil] Rhodes was ahistorical, or amounted to an erasure of history. Of course, there are many questions to do with the legacy of slavery here. I’m wondering, as a historian, what you make of that logic.”

“I dispute that completely. I think putting a statue up is historical, taking it down is historical.

“I think it’s long past time that the public celebration of figures who are of interest to tiny elites changes. But I also think that there’s no one-size-fits-all model for how to handle complicated historical legacies. I don’t view having Rhodes on a plinth in South Africa as a complicated historical question — I view that as pretty obvious: you don’t want to have him on a pedestal.

“I think, though, to imagine that removing a figure from a pedestal is removing their impact on the society — obviously, those are two different things. I think it’s helpful to some constituencies to turn everything into a struggle over the symbols, because it means that they don’t have to deal with the struggle of, say, reallocating resources, which is the more important thing.”

“Does fiction give you insight into a time that nonfiction doesn’t? And vice versa?”

“What fiction can give you is a kind of insight into an interiority for the past.

It gives you the sense of a mind from that time working through social, cultural, economic, or political scenarios.

“I view it in that sense as being on something of a continuum with, say, the sources you might associate with intellectual history.”

“I’m thinking of what Faulkner is supposed to have said: ‘the best fiction is far more true than any journalism.’”

“I’ll give you a line from Conrad. ‘Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing.’”

“Yes. So, when you’re looking for historical evidence –– the truth about a time, a sense of reality –– does fiction offer you more? Or less?”

“I will stand by my view that the novel provides an insight into what the author thinks people are thinking.

“So if you want insight into a contemporary view, in the early 19th century or whatever it is, of what made people tick, or move, a novel is a great primary source for that.

“And there can be other materials, like letters people write to a government official, in which you can gain access into the mentality of all the people who don’t have access to the kind of education and means you need to write a novel.

“For me, the fundamentally limiting thing about a novel as a historical source is that novels tended to be produced by a relatively limited set of people.”

“How did you come to judge The Booker Prize?”

“I was asked! That’s how I came to judge it. I assume that I was asked in large part because of my writing on Conrad. I was flattered to be asked, and I said yes.”

“Did it change the way you read?”

“The primary thing is that you don’t choose what you read — you’re given a list of titles. They come in boxes, 25 or so in a box, and you open it up, and you see what you have, and you just read. That’s very different from how I go about my reading otherwise, which is to pick a title in advance, and sit down and go through it.

“One thing I learned is that I have the ability to read a much wider set of things than I might pick for myself.

“I haven’t radically changed my reading habits, but they’ve definitely opened up and diversified a bit. I would also say that by reading at the pace you have to for the Booker Prize, I became familiar with the idea that I can pick up any book and I can read it in a day.”

There are some intellects who come across as encyclopedic: endowed with an almost perfect memory, trained in the trade of thinking, approaching somewhere close to the ends of knowledge. Jasanoff has these qualities to her, but none was what struck me most about our meeting. With every break in speech, she flipped her glasses on and off, staring for long moments at the historic sky. She was as enraptured by the sight of the eclipse as she might be by, say, an electrifying novel. So much so that I often suspected she wasn’t really hearing the questions I was asking her. But no. She proved, among other talents, to be a terrific listener. I got the impression of Maya Jasanoff as someone who just wants to know more — by reading more, listening more, seeing more.

Correction: April 19, 2024

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jasanoff did not mention her own family in the New Yorker article. In fact, she briefly mentioned her family in the piece.

— Associate Magazine Editor Sazi T. Bongwe can be reached at sazi.bongwe@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @sazibongwe_.