States of Mind

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Michael Lionstar

Orient expressionist Smith is occasionally arcane, but mostly engaging

Trying to summarize Asia is about as easy as trying to contain an ocean inside a bathtub. Almost anything you might say about India cannot begin to apply to Japan, except perhaps in reverse, and to attempt to fit Brunei and Burma into the same sentence makes almost as much sense as comparing Cuba to Dubai. Part of the interest of Patrick Smith's ruminative and high-toned Somebody Else's Century is that its author repeatedly acknowledges the impossibility of making such generalizations — then makes them anyway. China, Japan and India, his central subjects, all learned to be modern over the past 170 years from the West, Smith maintains; now it is time for them to learn to be themselves and show the West how to redefine itself in a post-postmodern world.

An American foreign correspondent in Asia since 1981 and author of the prize-winning Japan: A Reinterpretation, Smith here steps back from the reporter's ephemera to offer a historian's larger sense of patterning. Instead of giving us the feel of modern Shanghai, Bangalore and Tokyo, he offers excursions into Nietzsche and James Mill's History of British India. Instead of the novelists, designers and musicians who are remaking the continent, he gives us scholars and essayists. The result is a book that is less about the heart of Asia than that dry, elusive thing called the mind.

Like V.S. Naipaul — or Naipaul's sometime students Ian Buruma and Pankaj Mishra — Smith is possessed by big ideas of national pride, self-image, history and modernity. The central three essays here lay out his ideas of how notions of time, self and nature differ between Asia and the West, and within Asia itself. (India, for example, holds to "heterogeneous time," he claims, a rather fancy way of saying it sustains many centuries at once.) In one of many unexpected references, he recalls how Lampedusa, in his classic novel of 19th century Sicily, The Leopard, said that "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." That is exactly the paradoxical kind of thinking that Asia relishes and should practice more deeply today, Smith suggests.

Smith is at his best when alighting on such subtle moments — the kind that other analysts forget or overlook. Like the time, for example, when Rabindranath Tagore went to Tokyo in 1916 and told his disappointed audience that modernism means "freedom of thought, not slavery of taste." Or the time in 1882 when French philosopher Ernest Renan claimed that a nation amounted to a "moral consciousness," not just a racial grouping. Such ideas are worth recalling, Smith says, because history is so often used, abused and remade in Asia. As he puts it in one of his best formulations, "We honor tradition only when we add to it. The rest is mere convention, unalive."

Smith is the opposite of a racy writer: his careful, rather abstract elucidation of a "post-Western era" suggests a rich skepticism toward glib simplicities and an interest in all the things cultures don't admit to themselves. There are moments, however, when he seems to find an elaborate way of losing contact with the concrete. When he asserts, for example, that the Japanese are "unburying the past they once had lost and using it anew," one wonders what the 127 million individuals known as Japanese would say in return. It's even harder to know what to think when one reads that a Japanese otaku — the name given to a geeky manga, anime or videogame obsessive — "manifests the failure of modernization to allow for the formation of a modern, integrated personality."

Yet precisely because of his gift for seeing history in the round and for entertaining contradictions, Smith seems more in tune with the continent than many a Westerner. Ultimately, he is one of those writers who can be useful even when you think he's wrong. Somebody Else's Century — the title refuses to say whose century it will be — is best savored not for the argument it promotes about what is Asian and what is not, but for the arguments it provokes. A gift-box of suggestions, it could push thinking about Asia into a deeper dimension.