by Deanne Stone, OLLI member

In recent years, Clare Fischer has taught courses on the writings of Naguib Mahfouz, Patrick White, Tagore, and Alexandra David-Neel, at both OLLI @Berkeley and the Fromm Institute. What connects writers from Egypt, Australia, India, and Belgium is Fischer’s scholarly research on the theme of pilgrimage in literature. This June, she will continue that exploration in a four-week course on the novel Deep River: A Tale of Memory and Loss by the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. Little-known in this country, Endo, who died in 1996, is one of the major Japanese writers to emerge after World War II.

The novel relates the journey of four Japanese tourists, survivors of the war, who travel together to India. Strangers at the start of the trip, they gradually reveal their painful pasts and reasons for making the pilgrimage to the Ganges, the deep river of the title.

“This is a perfect novel for older readers,” says Fischer, “because all of the characters are working through memories and confronting ghosts from their pasts. In fewer than 200 pages, Endo presents a set of highly readable narratives that insist that we take seriously an interior journey as well as a physical journey. All of the pilgrims have endured tragedies and grapple with issues of identity and the restoration of memory.”

Fischer’s interests in pilgrimage and tourism started early in her academic career. After finishing her dissertation on the French philosopher and Christian mystic, Simone Weil, Fischer made a pilgrimage to retrace Weil’s life, working backwards from her gravesite in England, to the south of France where her family had fled during World War II, and to Paris where she was born. That experience started Fischer’s thinking about the meaning of pilgrimage, a subject that became a scholarly pursuit after she retired in 2005 as professor of religion and culture at the Graduate Theological Union.

“When I teach pilgrimage, I’m aware of what it speaks to in the life histories of mature people. To make a pilgrimage you have to leave home, but a pilgrimage is always about return--a round trip. My interest is in the return and homecoming.”

In 1973, Fischer married Joe Fischer, then associated with Cal’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Joe, who had taught in Burma and Indonesia, considers Java his second home. Over the years, the couple spent summers teaching in Java and Bali. Collecting traditional art, developing friendships with local artists and leading tours--all have played a role in their appreciation of Java and Bali.

“Our tours were not pilgrimages, although we took people to sites that are pilgrimages for the Javanese and Balinese. But through my travels in Indonesia and later in India, I became increasingly interested in the distinction, if any, between tourist and pilgrim.”

I interviewed Fischer in her Berkeley home, which she and Joe share with their Elkhound, Astri. The house is a virtual museum of traditional Indonesian and Indian art and reflects their lifetime of study, travel, and collecting. Paintings, masks, and textiles cover the walls of the living and dining rooms, and configurations of wood and clay carvings are arranged on all the tabletops.

“Joe and I are committed to art that reflects the tradition of a culture. As a sociologist I’m interested in the subject of modernization and its impact on tradition.”

After many years of teaching graduate students and more recently older adults, Fischer makes a point of describing herself as an “educator,” rather than a teacher. “Teaching assumes that students attend without prior knowledge and experience. An educator knows this is not true and invites dialogue. To me, mature students are co-educators.”

The does not mean that Fischer withholds her expertise. She begins each class with a mini-lecture on critical background information and then opens the class to discussion of the shared reading. “People involved in lifelong learning want social interaction and friendship. By inviting everyone to participate as co-educators, I hope they will leave the class carrying on the conversation in cafes, over lunch, and at home.”


Read an older interview of Clare Fischer from May 2012 here: