Monday, May 26, 2008

Notes on Alastair Bonnett’s 『The Idea of the West: Culture, Politics and History』 (2004) (Part 4)

In Chapter Four, “Soulless Occident/Spiritual Asia: Tagore’s West,” Bonnett examines the origins of non-Westerners’ constructions of East-West stereotypes by looking at the two cases of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), a Bengali poet and essayist who was at the forefront of the movement to invent Asia "as a space of spirituality" (80), and Okakura Kakuzō 岡倉覚三 (1862-1913), a Japanese scholar who articulated a similar view of East-West. These two cases show that the notions of “West-as-material” and “East-as-spirit” were to a large extent created by non-Westerners long before Bernard Lewis and other Orientalists were around to “other” them.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a Bengali poet, novelist, religionist, composer, and essayist who in 1913 became Asia’s first Nobel laureate. He was born into a Westernized elite class in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. Though “pro-Western,” he saw the Western mode of modernization as "a misguided form of modernity . . . for it represented the despoliation of personality and individuality by an increasingly standarised and industrialised social system" (81). Tagore was heavily influenced by English and German romanticism, and much of his “Oriental-ness” might in fact have had its origins in his readings of Western poetry. Though critical of Western industrialism, he remained enthusiastic about the possibility of technology alleviating suffering. Throughout his life he insisted that there must be alternative forms of modernity, and he spent much of his life trying to discover and articulate these forms.

Unlike Gokalp and Fukuzawa, however, Tagore was highly critical of nationalism, which he referred to as the "cult of the nation." He was most alarmed by the case of Japan, which he saw as having adopted much of what is wrong with the Western imperial powers. Tagore thus spent much of his career trying to define and promote a “modern" that was distinct from what he considered to be Europe’s (and Japan’s) “misled” form of modernization.

Like Fukuzawa and Gokalp, Tagore too consciously employed forms of self-orientalization in order to advance certain political causes. Many of the East-West stereotypes that later took hold in the Western imperial imagination were in fact first articulated by “Rabi” (his nickname in the West). He described Asia as an ideal, remote and provincial space, while the West he presented as faceless, spiritually impoverished, and urban. He helped to create the negative essentialist image of Western man as soulless, murderous, enslaving, trapped by irreconcilable "good and evil," "inherently destructive," and incapable of "creative unity"— traits he observed from the behavior of the British during the Opium Wars.

Tagore draws an equally essentialist picture of “obedient” and “harmonious” Easterners, whose women are modest and chaste. And only in the East, he asserts, is individual and social creativity possible, since only Asians are capable of maintaining a balance between collectivism and individualism.

Tagore was loved in the West, where he was flattered and orientalized by celebrities ranging from Yeats to Einstein. By contrast, he received a far colder reception in Asia, where the bureaucratic elites faced problems far graver than the nebulous matters which concerned Tagore. Many in Asia— especially the Japanese— were skeptical of his passivity and "resignation." Tagore grew increasingly wary of the uncritical acceptance of the Western-style nationalism that he observed around him, and his three tours of Japan—in 1916, 1924, and 1929— proved to be the most difficult of his Asian tours. The Japanese people, he would later write, are “solely aesthetic and not spiritual,” and are therefore the least qualified of the Eastern peoples to lead Asia. Japan was a culture that lacked depth, he argued, citing this as the reason for their vulnerability to Western imitation.

Despite meeting resistance throughout Asia, Tagore continued to press for a non-imperial, non-national Pan-Asia, which he saw as Asia’s last defense against the imperial powers. Tagore's message, however, was increasingly ignored by the rapidly expanding and increasingly belligerent Japan, which looked at him as representative of a defeated, old, and conquered India. They dismissed his ideas as a "loser's philosophy" (90).

His 1924 trip to China, where the revolutionary Communists had moved ideologically toward a pro-Western position, was "even more bruising" (91). Their "revalourisation of [the new] West" left little room for tolerance for Tagore's anti-materialist and pro-spiritual message, which the Chinese blamed for enfeebling India. To the Chinese, Tagore's message was a recipe for disaster, and he was attacked by both conservatives and communists alike. Dejected, Tagore returned to India, disillusioned about the presumed "spiritual" nature of Orient. He lamented that Western alienation had pervaded the world, and that "Western colonialism had become the paradigm for all human contact" (94).

Okakura Kakuzō (1862-1913), a.k.a. “Tenshin,” was a scholar of the arts of Japan, most famous for his The Book of Tea (1906). Like Tagore, Okakura too was born into a Westernizing class, which allowed him to work his way through the elite schools until reaching Tokyo University, where he studied under Ernest Fenollosa.

In 1904 Okakura published The Ideals of the East, in which he argues that Easterners are concerned with the "Ultimate and Universal," while Westerners care only for Particulars— a very dubious claim, given that Confucianism tends to be an anti-Idealist and pragmatic philosophy. His notion of a unified Asia, too, met with skepticism to many who saw India, Japan, and China as historically and culturally distinct entities. Furthermore, his idea that Japan sat atop the "hierarchy of [Asian] authenticity" seemed rather odd to those who regarded Japan as the most Western and “least Asian” of the Asian nations.

The idea of Asia as a single entity was largely unheard of before the 20th century, and its introduction met with much skepticism. Pan-Asianists such as Okakura and Tagore had a rather hard time identifying unifying elements that could reach across the “Asian continent,” and they awkwardly tried to resolve the problem by linking the various cultures through the supposed common thread of Buddhism. The problem, of course, was that the Buddhist influence—where it existed— varied in importance from region to region.

From where and when did the concept of Asia arise? Bonnett points out that he word “Asia” has existed for centuries, and can be traced back to Babylonian roots (asu, sun's rising). It was eventually adopted into Greek, Latin, and finally the European languages. The word was then brought to China by Italians in the 16th century. However, the word axia (to which the Chinese assigned the characters 亜細亜“inferior-trifling-inferior”) was used by the Chinese to refer to “inferior” regions that surrounded China; so according to the Chinese, China was not a part of axia.

From the above two cases, and from further evidence cited from the histories of Bengal, India and Japan, we can see that the commonly held notion that “Asian spirituality” is "essentially a Western idea" does not match up with the facts. Bonnett shows that the notion of Asia-as-spirit was created first by modern Asians, and within the discourse of various projects of modernization (96). "Asia is better understood,” Bonnett writes, “to have been created, re-invented and re-valued by Asians themselves" (81).

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