While Michael Witzel has been commenting extensively on my work over the past five years and more (and I less so), I ran into him in person for the first time during the Seminar on Aryan/Nonaryan Civilizations organized by the Center for Indic Studies of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth on June 23 – 26, 2006. I was one of the invited speakers, as was Witzel though he chose not to present a paper even while studiously attending nearly all presentations and participated verbally.
Witzel struck me as an unusual, even bizarre personality. He has no charm, and lacks the elementary grace and assurance that one expects from a person of his seniority and position. He never looks one squarely in the eye when speaking and is not above making cutting personal remarks that border on the indecent even to young people. He struck me as being insecure to the point of having an inferiority complex. This could be due to the unraveling of the theories that he has been advocating for the greater part of his career— something that was all too evident at the Seminar. His reverses following his California textbook campaign seems
also to have told on him both physically and mentally.
His total lack of warmth and personal charm made some of the younger participants refer to him as a “cold fish,” but in view of the rapid crumbling of his academic position, it might be better to describe him as a frozen fish fossil. In all these years, I have never come across a person who could so completely ‘turn off’ anyone coming in contact with him.
His lack of self confidence was in evidence when he refused to present his views at a time slot provided for him by the organizers. He commented extensively on other people’s presentations (including my own), but they were almost always negative, defending old (positions) while trying to cast doubts on new findings even in areas in which he had no competence, like genetics. His observations not infrequently were laced with personal comments, like referring to a speaker’s (not mine) ‘pseudo-arguments’ which he was forced to retract. Such behavior showed him in
poor light, reinforcing the view that he was resorting to personal attacks in the absence of any academic arguments.
The fact that all new findings are going against his cherished theories combined with the lack of hoped for results from his California textbook campaign seems to have told heavily on his self confidence. My remark that theories like the Aryan invasion will disappear along with their experts, and my advice to younger scholars to not waste any time either studying or refuting these, but focus on new findings and find new methodologies based on science and primary records seems to have affected him rather strongly.
Witzel was one of the invited speakers, but had declined the invitations, while sending on of his protégés (Dr. Pyotr Erslov of the Free University of Berlin) to present a paper on the traditional approach to Indian archaeology and literature. I happened to chair that session. Erslov cut a poor figure and the negative responses he received seem to have made him send an SOS to Witzel at Harvard, only about an hour’s drive from Dartmouth. Witzel showed up in the afternoon and stayed for the duration of the Seminar.
Another story I heard was that the Harvard authorities were unhappy at Witzel’s lack of participation at this seminar next door while he had been willing to spend a lot of time lobbying education authorities in far away California. In addition, he has been under pressure from his superiors for his lack of rapport (to put it mildly) with the Indian community. They also seem to have taken note of a letter I wrote to the Harvard Provost, pointing out the deficiencies of their program under Witzel’s leadership.
This was confirmed by Witzel himself, when just before leaving he approached me and said that my conduct (writing to Harvard) “was reprehensible” and “libelous.” As seems to be his practice, he said this without looking me in the face and left without giving me the time to answer.
A strange encounter to say the least, but one unlikely to change the turn of events