Consider this sentence from William Dalrymple: “Does India still offer any sort of real spiritual alternative to materialism, or is it now just another fast developing satrap of the wider capitalist world?” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/sep/19/travel-writing-writers-future
). And, just because, allow me to do a little bit of close-reading to show you why exactly I view Dalrymple and his ilk’s post-post-Saidian protestations ofcolonial innocence with a jaundiced eye.
Dalrymple seems, in spite of his awareness of post-Saidian suspicion, to still seek in the other of the West an answer to the ills of the West. This is a benign change from the grabbing hands of the old colonialists, but it is still exploitative in an honest, trader-like way. This still residual Orientalism is why Dalrymple and others of his ilk are met with consternation by many a modern object of his searches. This is what disconcerted me in BH’s attitude, I think, this need to make something out of what he sees and finds, refusal to slow down to the tempo of the ‘object,’ and the need for a convenient answer. I wonder if Dalrymple even took the essence of the words from all these people that he was privileged enough to meet. His ‘characters’ (so typical, so selected, how is this more than a dessert selection, how is this travel writing?) sought to speak for themselves and of their found nches within a variety of traditions offered to them. None spoke for the nation, the people, to the West, to capitalism. If any of the latter intersected their lives, it is the work of the writer to have found that to be a common enough factor to link these stories togther. For, that is what he has done: strung the removed and the dying on a string of seeking, hoping to find in their shapes and their contact with the Anglophone representative a peace and a ritual answer akin to that a set of prayer beads might give. India itself seeks to give no answer to materialism, for it hasn’t worked out one for itself, let alone the world. What impels Dalrymple to find what does not exist?
Further, why should this writer locate materialism in the ‘west’ and spiritualism in India, why play out the old binary? He makes fictions of both spaces, refusing their very real metageographies and their changeability. Why mourn for what is past, passing, and to come? But perhaps Dalrymple isn’t to blame for treading firmly along a well-trodden path; Yeats’ Byzantium was as much to him as India is to Dalrymple. And that is sufficient praise.
What makes Dalrymple imagine that spiritualism could be a real alternative to materialism? Indian traditions have been surprisingly inclusive of body and spirit in the same, mixed-up space, and the practice of religion or piety in India is to that practice among Abrahamic nations as verdure is to the desert, or something as starkly different. Isn’t that what ‘foreigners’ come to India for, anyway, the color and the vivid clashing sense of life that is absent in their tamed modern garden-states?
Consider also the alternative to ‘real’ spirituality that Dalrymple poses: India, if she loses what she had to offer in the past, would become “another fast developing satrap of the wider capitalist world.” Satrap? Calls to mind recovered fantasies of the almost-conquest of Alexander, that moment of immiment change that turned away. If India does become a satrap, it would be finally annexed to the world, no longer Orient, just another nation. Is that what Dalrymple regrets? Is he anxious for the preservation of the exotic? Is that the reason for his own exoticisation?
Further, the sentence seems to question the level and value of the type of spirituality Dalrymple has seen in India: “still offer any sort of real…alternative”; whatever he has seen, he seems to have not found or seen enough. And whatever he has found does not match up to the stuff India has to offer in the past (note the ‘still’). There is a saying that one receives as one is fit to receive. Perhaps Dalrymple should pause to consider what he received and why. But he has no qualms about using his ‘discoveries,’ however disappointing they may have been for him. If he isn’t doing anything to ensure the survival of that which he regrets has passed, to ensure the continuity of tradition, then it is somewhat colonially exploitative and objectionable for him to use these stories for his own coffers, nay? Not that he is alone in doing this. The sons of the skull feeder, the opthalmologists in New Jersey already prove Dalrymple’s point: we are already satraps of the West, in some way.
Whatever the reason, the new binaries that abound in this sentence and this man’s art seem to be a part of a trend in the Anglophone world, which is quite a wide and mobile world now. This sort of writing seems to be met with relief by Anglophone publishers and readers alike, who are glad to be rid of the burden of political correctness and to revel in old knowledges. After all, the uncertainty of the times makes one yearn for the solidity of fixed ways of knowing and being, known and enforced hierarchies, the etiquette of a priori power. This is a dangerous backsliding, riding on the wave of increasing ‘multicultural toleration’ and fundamentalist insistence to be oneself and oneself only; where the stranger and the immigrant asserts his or her right to be alien, the native and the colonial clings to the retributive right to be secure int heir mistakes. And if my diagnoses are true, this does not bode well for those who are still unheard as they die out. The work of the last half of the last century will have been a brief interlude of hope in a continuing spiral of ignorance and ignoring.