From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia
by Pankaj Mishra
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 356 pp., $27.00
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 …