Through the Inverted Telescope: On Pankaj Mishra's "From the Ruins of Empire"

By Drew CalvertFebruary 25, 2013

Through the Inverted Telescope: On Pankaj Mishra's "From the Ruins of Empire"

From The Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

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:

For these Asian thinkers, the threat was as much existential as it was geopolitical. What was good and bad about the old ways and the new ones proposed by the West? And was Europe’s modern civilization truly “universal” and “liberal” as its defenders claimed, or did it discriminate against non-white races? Could one stay loyal to one’s nation while importing ideas from the same Western countries that threatened the nation’s existence and survival?

There are also several useful parallels to draw between this era of crumbling empires and our current situation. Suspicion of Woodrow Wilson’s “liberal internationalism” sounds familiar in the age of Obama, while the ostensibly universal pattern of elites exploiting revolutionary causes to advance their own personal gain has direct relevance for the Arab Spring. Certainly, a better understanding of this history could be of use in the field of international development, where business gurus, think tanks, and university initiatives adopt parts of today’s developing world as laboratories for growth models derived from the pages of the Harvard Business Review. Victorian-era “progress” underwritten by the British East India Company may have given way to “development” underwritten by the World Bank and USAID. But in Malaysia, where I write, the historical archives do not everywhere acknowledge such fine distinctions. Here, the legacy of colonialism is still in evidence, but it is less often discussed in historical terms than exploited for political gain.


From the Ruins of Empire offers a necessary counterbalance to the smugness of figures like Niall Ferguson (who has written approvingly of British imperialism and America’s global war on terror), while at the same time avoiding the temptation to posit a new universalism that will replace a series of failed European ideals. In the end, its vision is appropriately bleak. The Asian century may have arrived, but we can expect that it will be plagued by the same economic rivalries and military conflicts that brought the West its own temporary period of wealth and stability. And yet there are really two impulses at play in this book. One impulse is to look closely at the creation of ideologies that continue to govern the way most people live; the other is to combat what Mishra sees as the bias of Western intellectuals who are reluctant to admit that the balance of power has shifted back to the East. The former impulse is by far the more interesting and exciting: it recreates for readers the kind of imaginative leap that was necessary for Anderson in Indonesia, and it is this feature of the book that makes it such a breakthrough success. The latter impulse is understandable (since it is true that “assumptions of Western supremacy remain entrenched even among intelligent people”) — but it tends only to distract from the project. At times Mishra is so eager to expose the Fergusons of the world that he morphs too quickly from historical analysis into punditry, which comes across as a kind of pessimism about the potential for intellectual exchange in the post-American world.

The book offers glimpses of a number of globetrotting literati, but its three main protagonists are the Muslim activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani; the Qing-era radical reformer, Liang Qichao; and the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. Mishra explains that by focusing on these three figures, all of whom are important but only the last of whom is a household name among general educated readers in the West, it is possible “to see the main political and intellectual trends that preceded and outlasted the better-known figures that have come to monopolize, and limit, our sense of India, China, and the Muslim world.” Still, “intellectual” is a broad descriptor, and I found myself wondering why else Mishra decided to focus on the lives of these three men in particular. One answer might be that as a literary journalist caught between the traditions of the East and the temptations of the West, he was attracted to those who faced a similar challenge in an earlier era. Liang, al-Afghani, and Tagore were all caught between upholding centuries-old traditions and embracing the new world that lay before them. In their quest for a synthesis of ancient tradition and European Enlightenment (a quest that pulled them in very different directions) these figures were forced to live, as Mishra perhaps feels he must, in a state of perpetual displacement — culturally, intellectually, and quite often geographically. Since Tagore’s story is better known, Mishra focuses most of his efforts on examining this displacement in the cases of Liang and al-Afghani, whose ideas and political exploits he traces in greater detail.

Al-Afghani’s journey was especially complex. Born in a small Iranian town, he lived throughout the course of his life in Delhi, Kabul, Istanbul, Cairo, Tehran, London, Moscow, and Paris. In 1871, he was expelled from Istanbul for proposing that the prophet’s words were open to revision, only to be invited back two decades later, where he lived in a palace on the banks of the Bosphorus and acted as Advisor to the Shah. He sought audiences with the Ottoman sultan and the Russian tsar, describing himself as “a roving revolutionary who could arouse and unify Muslims across Central Asia and India.” At different stages, he was a teacher, a scholar, an activist, and a politician, but he was first and foremost a polemicist. In Egypt, al-Afghani played a central role in setting up a satirical journal, Abu-Naddara Zarqa (“The Man With Blue Spectacles”), which was the first Egyptian journal to use colloquial Arabic rather than the formal language of scholarship. In Paris, he started an anti-imperial, pan-Islamic magazine called al-‘Urwa al-wuthqa (“The Firmest Bond”), distributed in places as far away as Tripoli and Malaya.

He was a vortex of contradictions. Known in his early days as a liberal religious scholar whose goal was to “retrofit the Koran for modernity,” he grew more convinced in India that radical action was necessary to combat Western power. Shuttling back and forth between Karachi, Bombay, and Calcutta, al-Afghani adopted the guise of an orthodox Muslim and began to advocate armed struggle. In Paris he transformed once again, exchanging his robes and turban for stiff white collars and neckties. When a British journalist named Wilfrid Blunt visited him in his office, he found a “very curious party of strangers who quite filled the room — a Russian lady, an American philanthropist, and two young Bengalis who announced themselves as Theosophists.” In 1895 al-Afghani tried to leave Istanbul by securing a British passport; the following year one of his disciples assassinated the Shah.

Though he may have been inconsistent, al-Afghani was certainly shrewd in his advocacy. He invoked the Koran with one audience, and the Vedas and Shastras with another; over time he learned how to make his views acceptable to a broader constituency. When the Shah granted a tobacco concession to a British businessman, he seized on the opportunity to spread his anti-imperialist message. As Mishra puts it: “He advocated both nationalism and pan-Islamism; he lamented the intolerance of Islam; he evoked its great glories in the past; he called for Muslim unity; he also asked Muslims to work with Hindus, Christians, and Jews, and did so himself […] He was consistent only in his anti-imperialism.” Anticipating the two chief Muslim responses to the West — modernism and Islamism — he was a predecessor to both the moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood and the extremists in al-Qaeda.

Liang Qichao’s trajectory also undermines attempts to assign him a permanent “-ism.” He flirted with Buddhism and Enlightenment thought, but remained a staunch defender of Confucian principles up until his death. He inspired later generations of revolutionaries, including Mao, late in the era of the Qing Dynasty (1644–­1911), but he was still advocating top-down reforms that would turn China into a constitutional monarchy rather than pushing for the establishment of a republic of the sort that was founded on January 1, 1912, with Sun Yat-sen as its first president. And while he launched newspapers that were important vehicles for debates on democracy, he was not prepared to introduce elections to China overnight. After visiting Chinese immigrants in New York and San Francisco, he proclaimed that “the Chinese people must for now accept authoritarian rule; they cannot enjoy freedom […] those born in the thundering tempests of today, forged and molded by iron and fire — they will be my citizens, twenty or thirty, or fifty years hence.” Like al-Afghani, Liang’s political career ended in disaster. Returning to China after time spent in Japan, the United States, Southeast Asia, and India, he became the Minister of Justice under Yuan Shikai, the military strongman who bullied Sun out of power to become China’s second president in mid-1912 and then tried, without success, to found a new dynasty. As Mishra writes, Liang “had thrown himself into the tumult of the post-Qing state only to find himself utterly compromised by politically expedient associations with corrupt and violent warlords.” Eventually his intellectual project would be overrun by a new generation of radicals for whom the traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism were inextricable from the discredited monarchy. This group thought that China could only look to its future by overthrowing its past.

For Mishra, it is ironic that although both Liang and al-Afghani supported a unified resistance to the West, each of them has also been celebrated by American and European scholars as “liberals” who fought for concepts like “civil society” and “free speech.” In one chapter, Mishra ridicules an attempt by US diplomats, at a ceremony in 2002, to claim al-Afghani as a moderate Muslim scholar, when in reality he was a radical whose movements were closely monitored by British intelligence officers: “The mercurial and brilliant al-Afghani was anything but this bland figment of sanguine imagination.” Throughout the book, we are reminded that while al-Afghani and Liang may have been reformers, they were also political strategists. Each was convinced that the West posed an existential threat to his world, and their perception of this threat was central to their careers as writers and journalists. Al-Afghani was one of the first activist journalists in the Arab world, responsible for setting up independent newspapers, writing in colloquial Arabic (rather than the formal language of scholarship), and “creating a public sphere that eventually staged the politicization of the Middle Eastern masses.” Liang played a similar role in China, and this has led some Western scholars to characterize him as a staunch defender of democracy and the accompanying virtue of free speech. In reality, however, both were focused almost exclusively on an anti-imperialist program of “self-strengthening” — al-Afghani on behalf of Muslims worldwide, and Liang on behalf of the “the Chinese race,” a concept he helped promote. Mishra is right to be skeptical of Western scholars who are determined to find historical analogies that confirm their cultural preeminence, but not everyone shares this agenda, and he has a way of letting his arguments impose on his narrative. Describing Tagore’s visit to the White House in 1930, Mishra finds it odd that the press should be so enamored with this bearded Bengali ambassador of Eastern wisdom who, after all, was openly critical of American society. Here Mishra seems to have his sights set on a certain species of Anglo-American intellectual, the kind who harps on about civil society and admires writers like Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie for their ability to spin “the clash of civilizations” into a harmless postmodern fable. Moments like these reminded me of Orwell’s response to the narrowing discourse of his own time: “Everyone’s thought is forensic.”


I first began reading Pankaj Mishra in 2009, while I was living in Beijing. The financial crisis had taken hold, and there was a vague sense that the world had slipped from its axis. The bookstores were filled with prophecies of Western decline, and the movie theaters advertised patriotic dramas about the founding of New China. Nigerian, Kazakhstani, and Korean students spoke to each other in broken Mandarin. On Chinese state television, English-language newscasters denounced Western arrogance in faux-Oxbridge accents. Public intellectuals with little previous interest in China arrived to share their thoughts. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek visited Renmin University, where he gave a provocative, insightful, self-contradictory speech about environmentalism and modern Chinese ideology, confusing and delighting everyone. Noam Chomsky accepted an award at Beijing University wearing the gown of a Chinese graduate and gave a speech that was so apocalyptic that a journalist for the Beijing News said afterwards: “their scholars are admitting defeat.” Everyone was in transition, and everyone’s politics were strange. Whatever it all meant, it seemed clear that I was experiencing a different kind of globalization from the one Thomas Friedman had witnessed when he golfed with Indian executives and decided the world was flat. And yet there was also this unsettling obsession with geopolitics in the abstract, as if everyone had suddenly become a fellow at a think tank. The West was finally losing, and the East was finally winning — that was all there was to know. Even conversations about poets or physicists resembled an Olympic gold medal count.

What I liked about Mishra was the fact that he transcended this tiresome back-and-forth. Particularly memorable is his New York Times profile of the writer Yu Hua, whose novel Brothers portrayed a society marked by historical amnesia and capitalist excess. Mishra was a fascinating guide to the Chinese intellectual scene mostly because he was familiar with the historical ironies coiled within some of the world’s most powerful ideologies, from evangelical free market capitalism to militant Islam to Hindu nationalism. He wrote unsentimental depictions of human illusion and suffering that seemed inspired by a deep moral instinct and a genuine curiosity about religious life. He began his writing career as the author of a travelogue chronicling changes in small-town India against the backdrop of globalization and a novel that offered itself as an antidote to Salman Rushdie’s brand of “magical realism.” His two best known books, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (2004) and Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond (2006), mix journalism, travelogue, philosophy, and history in pursuit of what the earliest sociologists called “questions of ultimate concern.” His nonfiction books are blessed with a novelist’s attention to detail, and while he likes to point out as often as possible that Dickens was in favor of empire, he is a fair and attentive critic of British literature (he has written the introductions to novels by E.M. Forster and J.G. Farrell). Above all, I was attracted to Mishra’s suspicion of cosmopolitanism for its own sake. In a review of Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mishra once criticized “the expatriate’s glee” over having shrugged off the weight of history and escaped to the land of pure imagination. Here, he writes of the much-vaunted phenomenon of globalization that it “reinforces tribalist affiliations, sharpens old antipathies, and incites new ones.”

At the same time, by revealing the connections between these intellectuals — who, despite all being Asian, came from disparate traditions — From the Ruins of Empire proves almost despite itself that a certain kind of globalization is necessary and enriching, and the book is nothing if not an appeal to the imagination. How else can we approach the lives of those who are absent from our textbooks? One of the lessons of Rushdie’s recent biography, Joseph Anton, is that he did not always conceive of his literary project as an all-out attack on provincial ideologues. Here he is writing (in the third person) about the instinct that led to his trademark style:

Now he needed to connect those worlds to the very different world in which he had made his life. He was beginning to see that this, rather than India or Pakistan or politics or magical realism, would be his real subject, the one he would worry away at for the rest of his life: the great question of how the world joined up, not only how the East flowed into the West and the West into the East, but how the past shaped the present even as the present changed our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, belief, leaked across the frontier that separated it from the everyday, “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they lived.

Mishra is also concerned with “how the world joins up,” though he would probably resent such a neutral phrase. For him, the cosmopolitan world that Rushdie finds so stimulating ignores a long-simmering resentment:

It is no exaggeration to say that millions, probably hundreds of millions of people in societies who have grown up with a history of subjection to Europe and America — the Chinese software engineer and the Turkish tycoon, as well as the unemployed Egyptian graduate — derive profound gratification from the prospect of humiliating their former masters and overlords, who appear uncompromisingly wedded to their right to dictate events around the world.

When Mishra cites Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib as contributing to the loss of the West’s moral prestige, few Westerners who came of age during the Bush years would disagree. Still, in my experience the average Chinese software engineer derives gratification from activities that have little to do with avenging his or her ancestors; as for Turkish tycoons and Egyptian graduates, they don’t exactly inspire the same kind of sympathy as the landless Indian farmer or the grieving Afghan villager, for whom Mishra is also clearly concerned. There is no doubt that this resentment exists, and that it is widespread. But it is also true that to acknowledge the history of others requires more than a reminder of atrocities — it requires a leap of imagination.


Mishra is not alone in his investigation of this legacy of imperial encounter. In the past few years a number of writers — mostly novelists, including the Malaysian author Tash Aw and the Filipino author Miguel Syjuco — have dealt with a similar “theme.” In fact, Syjuco’s novel Illustrado — which won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize — contains clear echoes of José Rizal, the Filipino writer from whom Anderson borrowed the phrase he needed (“the spectre of comparisons”) to describe his experience in Indonesia. And of course the “theme” is not limited to Asia. Open City, a recent novel by Teju Cole, is as explicit and insightful in its meditations on the history of Western atrocities — from the Opium War to the slave trade — as any historical essay I have read. In the novel, a half-Nigerian, half-German medical student named Julius takes a trip from New York to Brussels. In Brussels he meets Farouq, a Moroccan in his late 20s who used to work as a janitor at an American school but now runs an internet café. Farouq has radical friends, but what he really wants, he says, is to be the next Edward Said, “studying comparative literature and using it as the basis for societal critique.” The two discuss Paul de Man, Benedict Anderson (who is now a mainstay of course reading lists), and the fact that the Enlightenment “enthrones rationality but does not fill in the gap left by religious faith.” When Farouq says, “For us, America is a version of Al-Qaeda,” Julius thinks, “The statement was so general as to be without meaning.” But it is clear that the author has brought these two characters together for a reason:

As we spoke, it was hard to escape a feeling that we were having a conversation before the twentieth century had begun or just as it had started to run its cruel course. We were suddenly back in the age of pamphlets, solidarity, travel by steamship, world congresses, and young men attending to the words of radicals […] [T]he individuals who had been formed and sharpened by their encounters with American freedom and American injustice who, by seeing the worst that America could do to its marginalized peoples, had had something in them awakened.

Distracted as we are by columnists and cable news, we tend to forget what it means to be “awakened” to history. And we underestimate how destabilizing it can be to acknowledge that our experience of the world is radically limited and often depends on events beyond our control. Mishra’s book is most powerful when it captures this sense of historical vertigo in the lives of the intellectuals he describes. For some of them, to be awakened meant to become radicalized, but that is only part of the story. As Mishra shows, there were also a number of morally sensitive writers who, in an attempt to preserve their systems of thought in the face of global uncertainty, articulated the kind of ambivalence that many still feel today. Their awakening may have been caused by political anxiety, but it grew into an intellectual project and a spiritual quest that ranged across several ancient traditions. For those of us who want to move beyond cultural chauvinism and recover these traditions — both intellectual and spiritual — from the politicians who corrupt them, this kind of awakening is a necessary first step.


LARB Contributor

Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared in The American Reader, The Boston Review, Agni, and elsewhere.


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