Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Peacocks and Pagodas

Barry Rubin in an article dated February 13, 2008, in PajamasMedia, captures several strands of thinking with which I agree; the importance of historical perspective, dealing with the facts as they are rather than the theories as you wish them to be, the serendipity surrounding the life of a used book, and a skepticism of faddish intellectual indulgences.

Sometimes to understand one's own era you have to immerse yourself in another. I pick up my copy of Paul Edmonds' Peacocks and Pagodas as an example. This — though you've probably never heard of it — seems the best-regarded book ever written on the people and society of Burma. You may know it as Myanmar. What could be more esoteric, and yet profoundly revealing, about much broader issues?

My copy is a first edition from 1924 and in its long life and travels it once belonged to T.N. Jayavelu, Antiquarian Bookseller of Choolai, Madras, India. But now it resides on a low rickety table in Tel Aviv, at the top of the pile of books I am reading. My text for today's sermon comes from the first three pages only. We are nowadays used to the notion — or at least used to having it pounded into us — that Westerners were historically racist and imperialist, only recently having become enlightened in the age of "political correctness."

And, to paraphrase the Rudyard Kipling poem (and well-known song) about the road to Mandalay, it suddenly dawns on you like thunder that the contemporary conventional wisdom about how people in the West thought about the rest of the world just isn't true.

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