Magazine article The American Conservative

Post-Colonial Prophet

Magazine article The American Conservative

Post-Colonial Prophet

Article excerpt

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, Pankaj Mishra, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 356pages

Pankaj Mishra is a fascinating creature. He was born to a family of pauperized Brahmins in Jhansi, a small town in the north of India in 1969. By the age of 20, he had spent "three idle, bookish years at a provincial university in a decaying old provincial town." Like many young men of a bookish disposition, he had little idea of what to do with himself. He harbored literary ambitions, but was uncertain how to fulfill them. Add to this an aversion to "the modern world of work and achievement ... careers and jobs" and we find ourselves in the company of a distinctly brooding, melancholy character who would either beat the odds and rise to make a mark on the world of English literature or die in obscurity.

He succeeded. By 2012, Mishra had completed the journey from periphery to metropole in a most spectacular manner. Mishra writes for--and is written about in--the New York Times. He trades barbs with Harvard historian and enthusiastic Atlanticist Niall Ferguson in the London Review of Books, produces punchy polemics for the Guardian, and files long, nonfiction essays for The New York Review of Books from all over the world. He also adds much-needed color to the opinion pages of the Financial Times and Bloomberg, titillating his elite Western capitalist readership with his decidedly non-Western, non-capitalist Weltanschauung.

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Mishra's eloquence is not in doubt. But what is it about the zeitgeist that explains his rise to secular sainthood in the Anglo-American literary establishment? What is it that makes him the West's Orientalist-in-chief?

The West, post-9/11, is a chastened and humbled beast. Its adventures in the Muslim world have ended in disaster and many of its nations face political and economic crises at home. The prevailing mood in the West is curiously reminiscent of the Weimarian pessimism of the interwar period in the early 20th century, where a population bred on the Whiggish certitudes of the Victorian era struggled to come to terms with its self-immolation in World War I. Thus, it almost welcomed the polemical pessimism of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918) and its cruder American cousin, Theodore Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920).

Similarly, Americans in the 21st century--unthinkingly nourished for generations on the unalloyed virtues of universal suffrage, free-market capitalism, and the self-seeking sovereign individual--cheerfully followed their political leaders into the darkest recesses of the Muslim world. The project to immanentize the American eschaton in the Middle East may not have cost as many lives as the Western civil wars popularly known as World Wars I and II, but it has created a parallel sense of shock and civilizational flux. In this environment of renewed civilizational pessimism, the West is increasingly open to critical diagnoses of its imperial overreach, particularly from eloquent outsiders.

It is in this context that Pankaj Mishra has flourished. Although Mishra is not a Westerner, and certainly no Spengler, he has eagerly embraced the narrative of Occidental decline and Oriental vitality. Concluding a recent op-ed in the New York Times, he argued, "It is the world's newly ascendant nations and awakened peoples that will increasingly shape events in the post-Western era. America's retrenchment is inevitable. The only question is whether it will be as protracted and violent as Europe's mid-20th century retreat from a newly assertive Asia and Africa."

The objective of Mishra's new book is to articulate and synthesize the response of Asian thinkers to Western imperialism. The primary figures in this attempted synthesis are Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), an itinerant anti-colonial Muslim political activist of Persian extraction, and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), who according to Mishra was China's first modern intellectual. …

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