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A Cosmopolitan Affair

Ian Buruma's roving essays on the East-West divide are at home with cross-cultural nuance and irony

September 27, 2000

The Missionary and the Libertine
The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West
by Ian Buruma
Random House
320 pages, $25.95

The title of Ian Buruma's new book, The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West, has a certain racy attraction. His introduction, an exploration of sexual mores and hedonistic enticements across cultures, promises further titillation. Yet readers who pick up this book in search of cheap thrills will be disappointed. Buruma's puckish asides on harems and penis sheaths notwithstanding, this broad-ranging collection of essays, most of them published over a span of ten years in The New York Review of Books, is less a manual of exotic decadence than an erudite anthology of cross-cultural encounter in general.

Some of the essays, it is true, do fit neatly under the rubric of Buruma's title. His piece on the Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade's agonized affair with the Bengali poet Maitreyi Devi is an elegant example. Other essays, however, deal only marginally with the themes of Buruma's introduction. Of course, this is often the case with collections of occasional journalism, but the tendency is particularly pronounced here because of Buruma's impressive -- and sometimes bewildering -- eclecticism. The twenty-five essays on literature, politics, history and, yes, sex, cover some ten Asian countries and defy easy classification. More than half of them are portraits; the range of figures both familiar and obscure (the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the Indian writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri, and former Philippine president Corazón Aquino, among others) is another indication of Buruma's roving intellect.

What the essays lack in unity they make up for in insight. Buruma is a subtle commentator and a smooth stylist with an often striking turn of phrase (the modern metropolis, for example, is a "wonderful urban bitch goddess"). Like the best travel writers, he has a sharp eye for detail -- except that, more an intellectual cartographer than an explorer of geographies, he trains his attention on the cultural signposts and psychological landscapes of the countries he visits. The wealth of detail is combined with an insistence on nuance. Buruma has little patience for claims of cultural irreconcilability, yet he is equally impatient with the increasingly common proclamations of global homogeneity.

In recent years, pondering the cultural divide between East and West has become something of a cottage industry. Buruma has himself written several books that revolve around kindred subjects, including Anglomania: A European Love Affair (1999), The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (1994), and God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey (1989). It is a testament to his originality that, in this book as in the previous ones, he manages to avoid the clichés and facile generalizations that have come to typify the genre.

Ian Buruma is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Institute for the Humanities in Washington, D.C. He recently corresponded via e-mail from his home in London with Atlantic Unbound's Akash Kapur.

Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma  

The breadth of your book is quite remarkable -- and also quite daunting. I found myself wondering what type of person would be your ideal reader.

I can't really say I have an ideal reader. But if forced to think about it, he or she would have to be curious, reasonably well informed, but not a specialist in Asian affairs. Ideally, I would like people to enjoy reading these essays even if they had never had a particular interest in Asia before. Although the topics are all related to Asian countries, the general themes are universal. Sex and violence, and how they are related to art, war, colonialism, and politics, might be one way to sum them up. Anyone interested in these themes should, I hope, find something of interest.

Would you say it's a certain temperament or sensibility more than ideological consistency that underlies these essays? You can be very hard to pin down.

If you want an ideological position that underlies my essays and can be summed up in one sentence, I have to disappoint you. What ties the different themes of the book together, in my view, is not so much ideology as a set of personal preoccupations. Call them obsessions, if you like. They revolve around the idea of nationhood. How do people define themselves? What do they imagine national communities to be? Is a nation defined by blood and soil, as romantic, ethnic nationalists believe? Is it cultural? Or is it a matter of citizenship and social contract?

Personally, I prefer the last, but I recognize the powerful lure of the other views. And the best way to understand -- and thus defend -- one's own position is to engage with the devil's arguments. What does this have to do with East and West? Quite a lot, actually, since much of modern Asian nationalism, especially in China, Korea, and Japan, is of the cultural, or blood-and-soil variety. The irony is that the East Asian nationalists, without always knowing it, are actually parroting European -- largely German -- ideas developed against the Enlightenment in the nineteenth century.

Clearly, one needs a certain cosmopolitan sensibility to appreciate the book. I'd like to ask you a bit about cosmopolitanism, since so many of your essays touch upon the subject. You write at one point that the late Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray was "one of the last true cosmopolitans." This seems to fly a little in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that we are living in an age of shrinking distance and existential rootlessness. Is it a particular kind of cosmopolitanism you have in mind?

Ray was a Bengali intellectual and artist who was as much at home in European as in Indian culture. He loved Indian art and music as much as European classical music or literature, and had a deep knowledge of all these things. The fact that most of us eat American junk food, or watch Hollywood movies, doesn't make us necessarily more cosmopolitan. To be cosmopolitan you need to feel at home in various different cultures, as Ray did, and few people do even now. As far as the shrinking world is concerned, this is easy to exaggerate. In fact, only very few people, most of them living in the West, have the luxury of traveling all over the world.

So is your notion of cosmopolitanism something that is attainable only to the economically elite?

"Only" is an extreme word. Poor people can be cosmopolitan too. The wandering Jews in pre-war Europe, who spoke many languages and crossed many borders, were often poor, but undeniably cosmopolitan. But, yes, I think cosmopolitanism is generally limited to an elite. Ray was definitely a member of the Bengali elite, in a cultural, if not economic sense.

You seem to set cosmopolitanism against the fashionable concepts of globalization and international mass culture. Is there a difference between cosmopolitanism and globalization?

Just as a Thai or Bulgarian does not automatically become cosmopolitan by eating a Big Mac, an Indian accountant in Bangalore does not either, just because he works on American Airlines' accounts via the Net. Globalization describes a leap in technology, which gives us the illusion of a shrinking world. Global commerce in clothes and other products also gives us the illusion that we will all end up looking the same, eating the same, and thinking the same. Thank goodness this is largely an illusion. The world remains a pretty diverse place. Take pop music: it doesn't sound at all the same in Bangkok as in LA or Moscow. And why is it that Japanese or Chinese cities have imported Western architectural models, yet still manage to look completely different from cities in the West?

Why is it?

People have different fantasies in different parts of the world. What seems glamorous -- and therefore commercial -- to someone in Tokyo is not necessarily the same thing that appeals to people in Paris or Toronto. Fashions are different. Television commercials are different. Senses of humor are different. In short, we still live in different cultures and since commerce (including architecture) reflects this, the way our cities look will differ also.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "How the World Works" (December 17, 1997)
East Asia's financial woes have prompted claims of victory for American-style capitalism. But as James Fallows argued in the December, 1993, Atlantic, Asia was actually following our example.

You write a fair bit about Southeast Asia and its integration into the world economy. You seem quite skeptical about the idea that a set of specifically "Asian Values" contributed to the so-called Asian Miracle. How has the Asian crash affected your thinking on this?

The crash hasn't really affected it at all. I believed that the idea of common Asian values was bullshit then, and I still believe that now. What does a Muslim housewife in Karachi have in common with a teenager in Osaka? Of course, the dwindling number of dictators and autocrats in Asia do have something in common: they all like to believe (or want us to believe) that it is natural for Asians to obey unelected leaders, because it is in their culture, or bloodlines, or genes, or whatever, to do so.

There were of course common factors in Southeast and East Asia that had little to do with culture: the driving force of Japanese industry, the influence of the United States, with its huge market for Asian products, the effect of the Cold War, and the legacy of colonialism.

There are a few other essays in The Missionary and the Libertine that predate significant historical events -- your 1990 piece on Hong Kong, for example, which captures the uncertainty preceding the handover to China. What are your thoughts on Hong Kong today?

I never expected anything catastrophic, or even very dramatic to happen in Hong Kong. I did fear a steady erosion of civil liberties, and I still fear that. Gradually, the tycoons who manage Hong Kong are chipping away at the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press, and even the electoral process. Hong Kong was never a democracy, but British colonial governors were accountable to a democracy. The current elite of big businessmen, clustered around the former shipping tycoon put in charge of the ex-colony, are accountable to a one-party dictatorship.

Have you been back to the city since you wrote that essay?

I have, and one pleasant surprise is the way people in Hong Kong are resisting all the trends I described above. Perhaps we will be surprised after all. Today Hong Kong, tomorrow China?

How much of your work has in fact grown out of actual time spent in the places you write about, and how much of reading?
I don't like writing anything, apart from history, that I only know from books. But I like the combination of analysis and experience. All the essays in my book are based on travel and living experience. I lived in Tokyo for six years, first as a film student, then as a genteel bum: a photographer, actor, dancer, translator, film reviewer, journalist. Then in the 1980s I spent seven years in Hong Kong, traveling everywhere in Asia apart from Indochina.

I am not terribly interested in the idea of traveling to "find myself," or to have adventures for their own sake. I like to figure places and people out. That is why I admire the travel books of V. S. Naipaul. The reader is able not only to follow his visual impressions and social observations, but his thought processes. The trick for this kind of writing is not just to state ideas, but to describe how they developed.

It seems to me that the danger of this approach is a kind of narcissism. Many of Naipaul's critics -- and even his admirers, among whom I number myself -- feel that his political and social observations have often been skewed by his personal neuroses. This is something that you also touch upon -- albeit more charitably -- in your essay on Naipaul's two books on India. But doesn't this mean that, as a reader, you end up knowing more about the man than about his subject?

That can happen, and if the man (or woman) is sufficiently interesting to hold our attention, this may not matter a great deal. But I think narcissism is a greater danger in travel accounts by writers who are chiefly interested in expressing their personal feelings. Also, it is very important to be transparent. Naipaul at his best explains precisely how his own life colors his observations. I agree that his prejudices sometimes go unexamined. My admiration for him is not without qualification. But a writer without flaws or quirks would not be a very interesting writer.

Your essays are quite striking as cultural commentaries, but you also address many issues that are quite politically loaded. Is there a consistent political outlook underlying these essays?

I'm an old-fashioned liberal -- that is to say, a liberal democrat in politics, a libertarian in economics, and a libertine in social relations.

I wasn't aware that the last was part of the liberal's traditional makeup. Can you elaborate -- not on yourself, but on the historical tradition?

You are right. Libertinism is not traditionally associated with old-fashioned liberals. But I liked the literary flourish. In any case, I cannot claim to live a life of unbridled libertinism myself. But I am very interested in the eighteenth century and the attempts of its thinkers to be free. The most interesting figures of the Enlightenment were well aware that there are limits to human freedom. But those limits are worth exploring.

Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Akash Kapur is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound and a member of Nuffield College, Oxford. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired, and Harper's.

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