From – Issue 53 – Territory
I come from an expansive archipelago in South East Asia, where the notion of territory is traditionally elusive. A historian once wrote that before the coming of modernity, Indonesian kingdoms were not identified by geographical borders but by shows of loyalty to and as well as fear of a certain power center. Or, by a deference to a commonly worshiped site. The map had no divide. We have endless coastal lines receiving diverse outsiders brought in by the seas. The “other” was always in transit, undefinable.
Then a new era began, with a new discourse about “East” and “West”. Numerous texts and cliches insisted not only a different geography of the world, but also a different identity forming. Allow me pick one of them: a little book registered as André Malraux’s first novel, The Temptation of the West.
The book was published in its original form in 1926, and is registered as André Malraux’s first novel. I choose the book because, to propose, in my rambling manner, an examination of what happens to us when we discover cultural differences. The book is a brilliant mix of literary travel writing and an elegant expression of prejudice; it is a kind of adaptation of the famous Kipling’s territorial imperative, reminding the eternal depth that separates ‘East’ from ‘West.’
I choose the book also because in the business of producing knowledge of the, Other – whatever the Other is – one is ethically implicated in a profound and painful way. I think there is a growing consensus on this point, which may explain why Emannuel Levinas’s insistence on coming to terms with ‘the face of the Other’ is drawing a lot of followers.
As I see it, we need a ‘narrative’ rather than a ‘vision’ in our venture to speak about things and people from the other territory. To use Edward Said’s description in discussing scholarly discourses called “Orientalism”, ‘vision’ presumes that ‘the whole Orient can bee seen panoptically’; the result is a ‘static system of ‘synchronic essentialism’. Against it, ‘narrative’ introduces ‘an opposing point of view, perspective, consciousness to the unitary web of vision’. Narrative violates the ‘serene Apollonian factions asserted by vision.’
I believe Malraux’s prose can be a vivid example of the tension between ‘vision’ and ‘narrative.’ A literary work like this puts us back to ‘experience’, which immediately brings sensuous particularity against spurious abstraction.
As I read it, the novel is about two friends writing to each other, from two distant territories. One (called ‘Ling’) is a 23-years old Chinese in a visit to Europe. The other (called ‘A.D,’ age 25) is his French friend on his trip to Asia. Arguably it is an unusual novel, since it reads more like a group of short essays (in the form of letters) than a story.
Malraux’s piece covers a static body of Orientalist clichés. The novel opens with an Asian landscape crowded by Tartar roses, caravans that pass the steppes, dirty merchants who lead shaggy camels, and numberless, extravagant temples, studded with trembling bells. And predictably, there is a mention of the contrast between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ mind.
Not very stimulating, I am afraid. But perhaps I am being unfair. The novel is a product of a European mood of the 1920s, written by a young French intellectual on his way back from Indochina to Paris. As a biography of Malraux by Curtis Gate describes it, the intellectual Zeitgeist of the mid-1920s was represented by a disturbing question whether ‘a dangerously frenetic, intellectually hyper-active Europe’ had much to learn from ‘the age-old wisdom and spiritual serenity of the Orient’. In 1921, European universities gave a rapturous welcome to Tagore, the visiting Indian poet. But there was a lurking fear, especially among intellectuals of conservative persuasion, of the danger of ‘pseudo-Oriental doctrines’ and of ‘Asiatism’. Whatever they are.
It was a period of intense ‘East-West’ encounter and controversy. The Temptation of the Westwas published as a part of the polemic. Malraux himself believed that Asia could never offer any teaching to the West. He stated that ‘one of the strongest laws’ of European mental make-up was that ‘vanquished temptations are transformed into knowledge’.
On that Malraux’s position is not radically different from most European adventurers. The novel’s premise is built on an imagined ‘East’ as an enchanting contrast to European ennui. Still, given the novel’s indifference to ordinary things like story line and progression, it introduces (in Said’s words again), ‘an opposing point of view, perspective, consciousness’ to ‘the unitary web of vision.’ The prose — elegant, exalted, brilliantly eloquent, and sometimes poetically oracular — stirs, disrupts and upsets its own intent. The centre does not hold. Voices get mixed up. Which one is Ling’s and which one is A.D’s? Increasingly, both characters of the novel become completely interchangeable. The text does not give the readers enough materials to create a describable profile either of Ling or of A.D.
There is a trace of ambivalence in all this, of course. Ling is the more forceful interlocutor of the two, yet he is just A.D.’s alter ego. Curiously, the novel ends with A.D writing to Ling, but his letter immediately shifts into a monologue addressed to ‘Europe’. In no time it also becomes a moment of soliloquy, in which A.D makes an aside as if talking to his own image:
Europe, great cemetery where only dead conquerors sleep, whose sadness is deepened by the pride taken in their illustrious names – you leave me with only a naked horizon and the mirror of solitude’s old master, despair. Perhaps he also will die of his own existence. From the distance, in the port, a siren howls like a dog off its leash. Sounds of vanquished cowardice . . . I am contemplating my image. I shall never forget it. Unstable image of myself, I love you not at all. Like a deep wound, badly healed, you are my dead glory and my living pain . . .
In a sense, The Temptation of the Westforeruns today’s philosophical trend, especially among European thinkers, to interrogate the solidity, or the status, of the subject. It has become almost like a well-established practice of postmodernist arguments to say something against the modern conception of subject-ego, to challenge it as a sovereign, totalizing entity, constitutive of itself and its world, including the other. When Ling writes to A.D he is like a participant in a debate over a Foucauldian anti-humanist proposition:
‘For you, absolute reality was first God, then Man; but Man is dead, following God, and you search with anguish for something to which you can entrust his strange heritage. Your minor attempts to construct a moderate nihilism do not seem destines to long life . . .’
Of course, Ling is wrong. Even today ‘a moderate nihilism’ maintains its discreet charm among much of contemporary debates. The fact that Ling believes that it will soon go away is because he is an ‘Occidentalist’ through and through: he believes in the immutable qualities of ‘European.’
And yet the novel ends with a lament about change. ‘Europe’ has become a transformed creature, very much related to death and dying. We remember A.D.’s metaphor of ‘cemetery’. Ling also speaks of ‘the long procession of a dead Europe’.
It is interesting to note that the novel’s notion of ‘the temptation of the West’ is related to a ‘great, troubled drama’ in which the world invades Europe ‘with all its present and its past, its heap of offerings of living and dead forms, its meditations.’ It is surprisingly prophetic.
Today, even more than before, immigrants, new comers, the exiled, the hybrid are ‘invading’ Europe. The inflow has generated a serious problem for Europe in maintaining its previous position as the holder of the imperial gaze looking at the rest of the world. But this is the ‘temptation’ at the end of the 20th century (by the way, the word ‘temptation’ means either ‘trial’ or ‘enticement’), marked by an entirely new demographic map of Europe (and of the United States, for that matter). Hence, the fresh emphasis on difference. Hence, a growing recognition of the permeability of cultural borders. Today, the idea of origin, ethnically closed or otherwise, has become increasingly untenable.
In the process, it will transform the idea of ‘Europe’ into something continually holding off the defining line of its imagined ‘civilization’. Ling speaks of ‘the soul of Europe’ as ‘an unceasing creation, renewed by action in a world destined to act’, but he hardly foresees the dissolution of the very meaning of ‘the soul of Europe’. Whether it will lead to the last stage of the ‘West’ – meaning the ‘West’ becoming something more meaningful than a map shaped by NATO — remains to be seen. But one thing has become clear. At the time when a global capitalism expands triumphantly with no centre, (the presence of a U.S. dollar-pegged supremacy notwithstanding), the ‘West’ is no longer the sole legitimate site of ‘the knowing subject.’ Today scholars on Asia from all over the world will readily agree that ‘Eurocentrism’, a special kind of narcissism, is a cardinal sin.
Regrettably, narcissism dies hard. We have noticed how Malraux speaks of the uniqueness of the Western mind, refusing to agree that the ‘West’ can learn something from the ‘East’. This brand of narcissism accepts the Other only as its alter ego, like in the relationship between Ling and A.D. It also requires a constant focus on ‘Me’ as seen in a mirror, meaning having a self-coherence. Needless to say that to attain, and stress such a self-coherence one often has to draw a clear divide between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Samuel Huntington’s anticipation for a possible ‘clash of civilizations’ is another narcissistic syndrome. But total self-coherence is at best illusory. Ling speaks disdainfully about the European desire for ‘a coherent universe’, and he is right, not because of his scorn at all things ‘European’ but because his sensibility to see the failing (if not the malignancy) of such a desire.
Despite Marlaux’s vision, his novel cannot claim a hundred per cent congruity (as a matter of fact, no interesting novel can). Despite its recurrent Orientalist clichés, it opens its doors to issues that many later postcolonial critics take up. Actually it should be expected. How could you write a novel about a young Chinese meeting a Frenchman without sounding ‘post-colonial’? Let us read Ling’s scathing comment on European tendency to explain reality. ‘Carefully, you label, classify and limit other people, as well as yourselves’, he writes. The seventh letter even suggests an early awareness of the relationship between power and representation of the ‘Orient’ – as if he was joining the endless debate on the subject:
I used to enjoy speculating on what a man could become. Today I like doing so even more; for the antipathy I feel toward Europe does not always protect me from her, and I also become eager to sketch my portrait, even if I must finally destroy it. How can I find myself, except in an examination of your race?
In an essay published in 1955, the Indonesian writer Asrul Sani questions the actuality of ‘a conversation with Europe’. To him this ‘conversation’ is something out of balance, because we (the ‘non-Europeans’) had reached ‘the stage of muteness’ (tingkatan membisu). Let me quote Asrul Sani further:
We never return the call, because we are in no position to answer it, let alone become a partner or adversary in a conversation…. The Europeans frequently try to keep us in one permanent position and in that way believe that they will be able to predict how we would react to different things, based on their knowledge of our old books.
Asrul Sani’s complaint is, like Ling’s, a subtle rejection of colonization not only as a system of rule, and exploitation, but also as ‘a system of knowledge and representation’. In an essay Stuart Hall suggests that colonization works, as a system, by relying on a mechanism of ‘otherness’. It generates alterity and exclusion, using ‘the tropes of fetishism and pathologisation’. The outcome is an identity fixed and consolidated, to be set as ‘a constitutive outside.’
But can you really be free from the process, in a world shaped by European colonialism and modernity? Or, to put it in more general terms, can you escape the need to ‘label, classify, and limit other people,’ the very moment you step into a space where you encounter, observe, and experience ‘cultural differences’?
From the perspective of the cognitive object, like Ling under the examination [of the European ‘race’], like Asrul Sani in his ‘stage of muteness’, there are always positions to defy the ‘mechanism of ‘otherness’. One of them is to displace the power that puts the ‘mechanism’ at work altogether. No doubt, it requires a revolution of historical proportion. There is also of a more subversive kind. As Hall sees it, the ‘outside’ can always slip back ‘across the porous or invisible borders to disturb and subvert from the inside’. Such a stance necessarily implies a self-conscious posture, a resistance and a commitment. It is like what Ling does: he eagerly sketches his own portrait, after succumbing briefly to the European persuasion, and finally he destroys it. It is a political act at the symbolic level.
However, it is not the only thing that Ling does. He stays in the novel until the end. The European, as an epistemic subject, may ‘label, classify, and limit’ him, but ultimately he is no longer a foreigner, an Oriental walking on the streets of Rome, looking at its porticos and stalls. As I said before, he has become interchangeable with A.D. In which case, the label, the classification, and the limit fail to exclude him. His very presence is a testimony that power, conquest, and knowledge, or ‘awareness’, which he perceives as things Europe cherishes, lead only to disillusion and death. ‘Total awareness of the universe is death – you have understood the fact’, Ling writes. Total conceptualization of the Other is violence. As if speaking from a Levinasian ethical perspective, as if maintaining ‘the alterity of the Other’, or the priority of difference over identity, Ling claims that ‘we’ (the Orientals) are more capable to ‘proceed to irreconcilable differences’.
But I must hasten to add that Ling is an incongruent creature, thanks to Malraux’s imagination. ‘Let no one find in Mr. Ling a symbol of the Far East,’ Malraux warns his readers in the foreword. ‘Such a symbol could not possibly exist.’ And yet almost at the same breath the author says: ‘He is Chinese and as such, dominated by Chinese sensibility and thought, which not even the books of Europe are able to destroy’. The otherness of Ling may be indestructible, or better, incomprehensible, but he is obviously a fixed, predetermined identity all the same.
It is also interesting to see, that while he scraps his own image as examined, and represented, by the West, he eagerly puts Europeans into a compact essentialist cage at their expense. He shifts from being a protesting object of European gaze to a coherent subject who puts European as a ‘constitutive outside’. Probably he is not even interested in having a conversation with Europe. It is not clear whether he does it as a kind of revenge. ‘I observe Europeans, I listen to them; I don’t believe they understand what life is.’ Curiously we sense in his words the cadence of European boredom. And A.D never refutes them.
All in all, it seems that one must admit that there is a haphazard plurality of relationship in a moment like this, when an ‘I’ observes and listens to a ‘They’. I do not think this an exceptionally outrageous suggestion; around two decades ago Merleau-Ponty had a word for it, i.e. ‘hyperdialectic’. In fact, ‘the good dialectic’ is a healthy thing in the study of this formless, indefinable, territory – whatever the name is.