Professor Barnaby Ruhe wears a tattered fanny pack and a cashmere scarf. His bookshelf is littered with the usual professorial fanfare; Joyce, Proust, and Plato are all in attendance. As I enter his office, he encourages a student: “Write the book. It’s not hard. It’s like a journal.”
Ruhe believes that we 20-somethings need to create our world. We’re not starting at the bottom of the hill like we think we are, and we ought to act like it. To no one’s surprise, he also teaches “Art Now: Ancient Tradition, Radical Change,” which reveals how to vision quest-dream using values embedded by American Indian ideologies and cultures.
Dr. Ruhe is grown from an academic garden that boasts art theory, naval history, and advanced nuclear physics, a selection you might expect from a Gallatin professor. And like these credentials, the path that he took to reach NYU is also far from traditional. “The naval history boss said we needed somebody to teach, so I fattened up an application, ran back to U of Maryland, said to [an] art history professor, ‘I just scammed my way into teaching art history, what the hell do I do now?’” he says. “She looked at me, laughed, and said, ‘Oh no, my dear. That’s how we all learn.’ So I just stayed one book ahead of my students, and I’d throw these slides up and yell, ‘Wow! Look at that! What the hell is that?’ And they thought I was being pedagogical and rhetorical but the truth is I had no idea what it was!”
I asked him if he understands his right brain and left brain as one, considering his vast scientific and artistic understandings. “Yes,” he replied, “but I’ve had many psychic journeys where I’ve had to ask my left brain to work with my right.” I laugh. He doesn’t. “See, the Shaman is the navigator of all planes,” he says, as I nod. “The shaman knows that you say no when a psychiatrist asks you if you’re listening to voices, you say no!”
I am out of my depth. I ask, “So, are you a Shaman?” He looks off and explains, “I am not a Shaman. I am a Bodhisattva.” I’m not sure what that is. “Which is,” he continues, “a person brought on life to entertain the souls of all the other people out of love and sheer delight. I could go into a plague, a battle scene anywhere.” I nod again. “I talked to jaguar, and jaguar told me the crickets are my people. And the Venezuelan shaman told me, ‘How does this gringo know that?’ and I said the jaguar told me. He couldn’t believe that I knew the secret of the jaguar!”
He then explained how he became interested in this sort of thing. “When I was in high school, I went to a party,” he says. “Gale York was kicked out because she was accidentally hitting on all the girls’ boyfriends. She didn’t know. So I went up to her, and I said, ‘Gale, can I walk you home?’ and she said no, so I went back into the party. I intuitively knew she needed to be walked home, but I was doing the social mechanism correctly. But Daniel Gladstone met her two blocks away, walked her home, and dated her for the next two years,” he continues. “I did not date her for the next two years. And I realized if I’m not doing any psychic stuff, I am dead meat. I had it with social norms, where you can’t know what you know you know. Those are the people who hear voices. We have to deny them. But I’m looking for the body and the spirit.”
“Are you ever afraid your students can’t keep up with you?” I ask.
“Oh no, they better run ahead of me. I’m carrying a torch. They better grab it and run.”