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The Revenge of the East?

Dominique Nabokov
Pankaj Mishra, New York City, 2003

There was a time, some decades ago, when the works of Rabindranath Tagore were popular in Israel. They were translated by Pua Shalev-Toren (not from the original Bengali but from English) into a highly ornate, sentimental, purely Orientalist Hebrew and published in small pocket-size hardbacks that adolescents read surreptitiously during classes and soldiers would stick in their knapsacks.

Those were the happier days before the occupation when Hebrew nationalists could still think of themselves as benevolent idealists committed to refashioning the Jewish person in a healthier, modern mode in sharp contrast with the pallid, sexless model of the Jew from the European ghettos. Tagore was mildly erotic, exotically Asian, entirely unfamiliar (this was also long before young Israelis started flocking to India after their army service).

In retrospect, such innocence looks ludicrous, perhaps disingenuous; we know that the seeds of the occupation were sown before 1967 and that Israel’s decision to embark upon the last of the Western colonial ventures was solidly rooted in the prehistory of the state and its prevalent attitudes toward Palestinian Arabs. Here is a modernist irony—precolonial Israelis doting on the anti-imperalist guru Tagore—akin to others deftly described by Pankaj Mishra in his new book on Asian responses to the modern West.

There is a Tagore Street in Ramat Aviv, near Tel Aviv University, but to the best of my knowledge no Jamal al-Din al-Afghani Street or Liang Qichao Street anywhere in Israel. These three names provide the frame upon which Mishra’s book is woven. He has chosen three emblematic figures, whose appropriately grim photographs adorn the dust jacket, to enable him to propose a pan-Asian model of posttraumatic stress and partial recovery. “It is now clearer,” he says, “that the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of Asian and European empires.”

There is a problem of balance in the choice of emblems. Of the three, the Chinese thinker Liang Qichao (1873–1929) was by far the most versatile and intellectually important (this is not, however, much of a compliment). Toward the end of his life, Liang also had a prominent, if rather ineffectual, part in postimperial politics, serving as minister of justice in the precarious republican moment led by the aged general Yuan Shikai.

Al-Afghani (1838–1897) was brought up as a Shia Muslim in Iran. As a student, I found him a fascinating, incongruous amalgam of fanatical anti-Western agitator, minor political schemer and conspirator, would-be revolutionary, and modernist reformer. He played bit parts in the Great Game, that is, the tug-of-war between England and Russia for control of large chunks of Asia. Like nearly all the Asian advocates of modernist reform, he was, in sheer intellectual terms, profoundly superficial, though he has been elevated posthumously to the role of spiritual forerunner of the Iranian Islamist revolution.

Much of Mishra’s book tells the story of al-Afghani’s largely fruitless wanderings from Iran to India, Cairo, London, St. Petersburg, and Istanbul, where he died under the wary gaze of the Ottoman sultan’s spies. By contrast, Tagore gets relatively short shrift; a chapter is devoted to his East Asian travels in 1916, three years after he received the Nobel Prize for literature. He is portrayed here mostly as expounding a form of Asian spiritualism as an answer to the crass and aggressive materialism of the West. I think he is better described as a romantic Bengali poet and musician, and I suggest we put the word “spiritual” aside. I have banned it in all my classes.

Are these men, then, among the major “intellectuals who remade Asia”? One thing is clear: all three are fully modern figures, their consciousness shaped primarily by the terms of the modernist crisis and debate. But can we even speak of a broad “Asian” response to the West and the newfangled technologies and concomitant power equations that the West brought to the East—“printing presses, steamships, railways and machine guns,” as Mishra lists them? Living in Jerusalem and traveling often to India, I find it hard to think of Asia as a cultural unit with any integrity. There is, however, one experience that was indeed shared by the Islamic world, India, China, and Japan in the nineteenth century—that of predatory intrusion and sustained economic violation by the Western powers. The forms this intrusion took varied from place to place, but its traumatic effects were common to all the great Asian states and cultures.

Mishra tells this part of the story well. It is, I think, necessary to remind ourselves today of the sheer dimensions of Western rapacity and greed active in huge parts of the planet throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries (not only in Asia, of course; Western colonialism in Africa produced even greater horrors, if that is possible). Occasionally one still hears voices justifying the colonial impulse (you can meet anachronistic throwbacks to the classical model of Western sahibs any day on the West Bank, in the guise of mildly racist Israeli officers and bureaucrats). Has any Western country truly come to terms with, or accepted responsibility for, the misery it inflicted, out of unadulterated, insatiable avarice, on peoples situated half a world away?

Mishra takes the shared trauma as his point of departure; he is fascinated by the range of attempts by intellectuals from Marrakesh to Kyoto to make sense of the military and economic disasters that overtook them with the arrival of the Europeans. As it happens, many of these attempts fall into a few fairly predictable, though locally inflected, patterns. Most of them are dominated, consciously or not, by a bottomless ressentiment. That, and the related hunger for revenge, may well be the true basis for a generalized “Asian” response to the West, if there was one.

We also find a widespread subtext lurking within this undying and entirely reasonable resentment: the pan-Asian celebration of Japan (and later, to some extent, post-Ottoman Turkey) as the one or two examples of Eastern nations that could meet the Western challenge on its own terms and, at least at times, come out on top. Thus Mishra begins his book with the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, when a small Japanese fleet destroyed the Russian navy. Japan, beloved of comparative sociologists no less than of envious Asian nationalists, seemed for a while to offer a model of radical modernization without cultural disintegration.

But in fact the modernist dilemma—by no means limited to Asian civilizations—should not be seen as primarily rooted in problems of power and exploitation. Much more than politics, however widely understood, is at stake. The worst damage, by far, took place in the minds of the colonized and has not yet been fully explored in Western languages. Mishra ends his book with an epilogue on what he calls “an ambiguous revenge”: in an era of fast-paced globalization, “the rise of Asia, and the assertiveness of Asian peoples, consummates their revolt against the West that began more than a century ago; it is in many ways the revenge of the East.” Why ambiguous? Because, he says,

this success conceals an immense intellectual failure…. No convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though those seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world.

But why should we aspire to a universalist response? Something is wrong in the way the problem is formulated. Perhaps something interesting can be retrieved from intellectual failure after all.

One might begin by setting back the date of Asian modernizing in general and by distinguishing various meanings of the word “modern.” As Velcheru Narayana Rao has eloquently shown for southern India, a form of awareness that can be characterized as modern emerged naturally and organically in the Telugu- and Tamil-speaking parts of the subcontinent toward the end of the fifteenth century.1 It had nothing whatever to do with Western influence or the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in 1498. Highly original thinkers and poets, writing in all the languages of the south, discovered, or invented, a series of interlocking notions that together comprise a novel anthropology.

Thus we find, with particular prominence, the concept of an autonomous, subjective individual, responsible for his or her fate; a new theory of romantic love; the development of literary fiction as a privileged literary technique; a vogue for skepticism and realism, seen as informing the pragmatics of everyday life; the emergence of a cash economy and the conceptual revolution that rapid monetarization entails; the appearance of a bold, full-throated, unfettered female voice; and a new concept of nature as a rule-bound domain, separate from the human and amenable to disciplined observation and extrapolation. An innovative economic model of the mind, centered on the imaginative faculty, came to define the meaning of being human.2

With this shift in incorrigible assumptions there arose a new kind of state, which we call “Nayaka,” founded by a recently recruited elite of self-made men who had cut free from their ascriptive caste and family backgrounds and who saw themselves as free agents in a world of hitherto unknown opportunities.3 Such adventurers, as well as their wives and queens, were utterly remote from the long line of “bewildered Asians” whom Mishra describes early on in his book: “men accustomed to a divinely ordained dispensation, the mysterious workings of fate and the cyclical rise and fall of political fortunes.” For the record, I have to add that the cliché of the fatalistic Indian seems to me to have no basis in fact, not in the distant past and not today.

Narayana Rao, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and I have written at some length about this dramatic shift in sensibility that reached its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; I won’t pursue it further here except to remark that it has nothing to do with the “colonial modernity” that emerged in India during the nineteenth century and that concentrated on reforming what its proponents saw as degenerate, obsolete practices of the Hindu religion (such as child marriage, the ban on widows’ remarriage, and the prevalent institution of courtesans). This colonial modernism first crystallized in the major British center of Calcutta; it is usually connected to the names of the polymath pundit Ram Mohan Roy and the modernist philosopher Debendranath Tagore, the poet’s father. In the south we find a very similar public intellectual, Kandukuri Veeresalingam (1848–1919), a mediocre character who has been canonized today as the man who invented modernism in Andhra. By the end of the nineteenth century there were already neo-Vedantists like Vivekananda, who sold a sanitized, largely Westernized version of classical Indian philosophy to a wildly enthusiastic audience at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893; and there had also emerged, of course, early nationalists bitterly engaged with a Western set of values that they secretly admired.

  1. 1

    Gurajada Apparao, Girls for Sale: Kanyasulkam, A Play from Colonial India, translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao (Indiana University Press, 2007), pp. 161–162. Narayana Rao is a scholar of Telugu and South India, one of the most original in this generation. 

  2. 2

    I have discussed this model at length in More Than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India (Harvard University Press, 2012). 

  3. 3

    See Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Symbols of Substance: Court and State in Nayaka-Period Tamil Nadu (Oxford University Press, 1992). 

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