Thursday, March 02, 2006

We Had to Destroy the Civilization to Save It

Unlike Groucho, I’m willing to belong to a club that will have me as a member. On the other hand, like other readers of my vintage, I do tend to distrust the seriousness of any idea I can actually understand. Since the object of the game—an object of the game—is to know things that the others don’t, one is as likely to have sour grapes about low hanging fruit as about the unattainable varieties. Writers know that, of course, so one of the characteristic cons of our age is to find complicated and rebarbative ways to phrase rather simple ideas, a perversity all the more deplorable when, as does happen, the mystified content is actually important. I’m struggling through such an exercise right now, Alan Cole’s Text as Father, an attempt to read the most important Mahayana sutras without the usual irrelevant reverence. Cole’s chapters probably ought to be paragraphs, but that doesn’t mean the paragraphs wouldn’t be worth it. Heck, there might also be something to Lacan if we only knew what it was.

I used to think there were only two ways to excel in prose: a writer can say something simple in a complicated way or say something complicated in a simple way. For what are basically sociological reasons, the first alternative was dominant in the recent past and practitioners of the second way were likely to be dismissed as superficial. That’s changing, but I think the lingering prejudice explains the reception of the writings of the Amartya Sen. Since anybody can follow his arguments, how important can they be? He won the Nobel Prize in economics but his works aren’t crammed with equations. He is a determined critic of the reigning system of political economy but his radicalism doesn’t sound radical and he isn’t retailing a grand and intellectually challenging synthesis about hegemony or EMPIRE.

I picked up Sen’s most recent book without any particular expectations. If I hadn’t chanced upon a cheap review copy I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Since the Argumentative Indian is an essay collection, I expected it would have the usual unevenness and repetitiveness of such compilations, but I persevered because of my interests in the prospects of India. One hundred and fifty years ago, history looked like it was going to revolve around a confrontation between the United States and Russia. Today, it might be reasonable guess that the world’s axle will run from Peking to Dehli while we ride in the trunk and the Russians grumble in the glove compartment. It isn’t just that the demographic center of gravity of the human race is in South and East Asia or even that the Chinese and Indian economies have much more dynamism than the economies of Europe or America. India and China possess civilizations with values and traditions with the potential to stand on their own against the continuing prestige of Western ideas.

Sen deals with several important issues about India’s role in the world and its relationship with the West, but I was most impressed by his polemic against the nationalism of the Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) and its promotion of Hindutva, a narrowly Hindu view of Indian civilization. Sen, who is at home with the classic literature of India—his grandfather was a professional sanskritist—protests a politically convenient, Clash-of-Civilization version of Indian civilization that, like the other ersatz cultural nationalisms of the last century or so, ignores the internal diversity of the traditions it purports to defend and glorify. The subcontinent has been home to rationalists as well as mystics, and its civilization is anything but autochthonous. Indian philosophy, for example, obviously developed in a long-range dialogue of equals with the Greeks, which is why, incidentally, people with a serious education in Western philosophy find themselves very much at home in classical Sanskrit texts on logic and metaphysics. One is accustomed to thinking of the impact of Indian Buddhism on China, but recent scholarship suggests that the development of the Mahayana in India owed a great deal to Chinese ideas, practices, and images. And one easily forgets that India is the second largest Muslim country on the face of the Earth—the nationalists who would like to claim that Islamic inhabitants aren’t real Indians simply evince a bias for old invaders since the Vedic fathers were interlopers themselves.

The civilizations that matter have the capacity to assimilate external challenges. Cultural conservatives who insist on shutting out the world in the name of national purity are undergoing a crisis of confidence. Kids with functioning immune systems don’t have to live in bubbles. Besides, a defensive obsession with identity automatically perverts philosophy, piety, and art. A real rain dance is supposed to bring rain, not ethnic pride. A real science aims to figure out the world, not express a national essence.

You don’t have to be a Hegelian to note the dialectical irony involved in the various versions of Hindutva currently abroad in the world. The invariable consequence of trying to achieve identity by insisting on cultural particularity is yet another xeroxed nativism, which, because it is motivated by exactly the same aim as the other nativisms, invariably harms the richness and specificity of live tradition—one is reminded of the cartoon penguin singing "I've got to be me!" Something similar is going on right now in this country where flags are endlessly waved in honor of an American outlook that represents a drastically truncated version of our cultural traditions. Just as the Hindu nationalist don’t want to talk about the many atheists, skeptics, and free thinkers of their past, our pundits dispense with the deists, radicals, and eccentrics so characteristic of our history—America but without Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Ingersoll, William James, H.L.Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, Henry Miller, Truman Capote, Alfred Kinsey, Henry Adams, B.F. Skinner, Ezra Pound, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, or Thorsten Veblen. Indeed, it is hard to say exactly what names will be left in the rump pantheon after the cultural purge. On the evidence, the talking heads on Fox aren’t big fans of the Library of America.