LISTENING TO A SPEECH by President Sukarno at the University of Indonesia in 1963, the scholar Benedict Anderson was surprised to hear the leader of this newly independent nation describe the Holocaust with, as he later recalled, “the kind of calm with which a devout Christian contemplates the centuries of massacres and tortures committed in his name.” For Anderson — a leading specialist in Southeast Asian Studies best known for his pathbreaking book on nationalism, Imagined Communities — the experience helped crystallize how arbitrary our impressions of history can be, and how a genuine reflection on the past requires a kind of haunted double vision. “For the first time in my life,” he wrote, “I was invited to see Europe as through an inverted telescope.”
In his book, From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra invites Western readers to adopt a similarly inverted perspective on the last 200 years of history, and to witness how, for an influential but lesser known group of Asian intellectuals, European subordination of their continent was as much intellectual and spiritual as it was economic and political — a fact which helps to explain a great deal of the region’s current ideological geography. Thus Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt is told from the point of view of a cleric named al-Jabarti, who notes the French soldier’s mangled Arabic, ludicrous dress, and habit of urinating in public. The rise of democracy is acknowledged in the journals of an Ottoman historian named Asim, who likens parliamentary debate to “the rumblings and crepitations of a queasy stomach.” Turn-of-the-century America is seen through the eyes of a visiting Chinese diplomat, who notes its tensely segregated cities, third-rate leaders, and duplicitous foreign policy. The Peace Conference following World War I is analyzed from the point of view of Asia’s future leaders, from Ho Chi Minh (who was there) to the 25-year-old Mao Zedong (who, following events from afar, wrote that Woodrow Wilson in Paris was “like an ant on a hot skillet”). For Mishra, this is not just a thought experiment designed to challenge Eurocentric assumptions. Nor is it a critique of “hegemonic discourse” from the field of postcolonial studies. This, he wants us to know, is history:
For most people in Europe and America, the history of the twentieth century is still largely defined by the two world wars and the long nuclear stand-off with Soviet Communism. But it is now clearer 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 both Asian and European empires.
Not content to rehash the East versus West debate, Mishra’s purpose is more ambitious and valuable. In his account, the legacy of imperialism does not fade to irrelevance after World War II — it lives on in the Iranian revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood, the policies of the Chinese Communist Party. Hearing the lesser known non-Western voices in Mishra’s book provides an important reminder that neither the simplistic formulas of “modernization theory” nor the hollow campaigns for “Asian values” can do justice to the historical trajectories of countries outside of Europe and North America:...read more