Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Martin Brauen's "Dreamworld Tibet: Western Illusion": Book Review

From Utopia via Shambha-La and Shangri-La, to Dharma-La, this visually and textually explores how Westerners conceive the Himalayan land, both its visible attractions and its "hidden" occult lore. This Swiss Tibetologist amasses hundreds of images and summarizes dozens of texts which sensationalize, warp, dramatize, or commercialize Tibetan Buddhism, along with Tibet's culture.

Professor Brauen intriguingly notes (too much in passing for me, as this merits much elaboration) how the conventional Orientalism of Edward Said gets upended, for Tibetans collude in their own presentation of the images they want the West to see. As sometime-collaborators in the mystification of their native realm, they have, Brauen mentions, directed their own starring roles, and not served as only the pawns of imperialism. For instance,  in the early 1920s natives told the British what to film and what to censor. This aided what the "British officer class in Sikkim" between 1904 and 1949 shaped as "a markedly positive view of Tibet."

Brauen rushes past the contributions of many, such as Jesuit missionary Ippolito Desideri, but Brauen credits him (perhaps a bit too generously--see my review of the newly edited and translated "Mission to Tibet" by Desideri and the study of his impact by Trent Pomplum, "Mission to the Roof of the World") for attempting to listen to Tibetans, learn their language, and express--if warped by his own filters--their worldview. Many Westerners continued in his path, but most followers distorted what they found--or as, with Madame Blavatsky in the later 19c, claimed to find in the mountains and caves as esoteric wisdom of "Mahatmas."

Even she, for all her exaggerations, at least gave the Christian, positivist, and Victorian era a spiritual or soulful alternative, one that the bulk of Brauen's big book covers in the past century as its construction towered. New Age, occult, Tantric, capitalist, comic, Nazi and Aryan, counterculture, alien-obsessed, pulp fiction, Hollywood, hi-tech, and quasi-mystical factions contended--more and more after the Communist  invasion--to market their versions of Tibet to an eager, credulous, wealthy, and starry-eyed audience abroad. Brauen argues how the four stages of Tibetan models evolved since medieval rumors first filtered to Europe, and he reasons that these versions of a manufactured (even if "pure") Tibet do nobody today any favors.

Nicholas Roerich (see my review of "Red Shambhala" by Andrei Znamenski) typifies the elevated approach. His idealized Buddhism is so high that, prior to any contact with real Tibet, he condemns any actual practitioners who pursue occult truths. If he meets them, and they are worthy, they are genuine; if they fail to match his subjective standards, they have not evolved enough to merit their position. Thus, the Western judge rules over actual Tibet, free from contact, often, with the actual land or people in their mundane existence.

The author patiently dismantles many varieties of outrageous claims; he concludes after paraphrasing the highs or lows of one fascist tale: "Commentary is superfluous." He traces in another "a chaos of plagiarism." He examines an elixir peddled via lamas or adepts: "credibility is faked by purported openness and qualification," so that its claims cannot be debunked. The monasteries are always remote, the caves hidden, the mystery intact despite centuries of diligent exploration by similarly swayed Westerners seeking a fountain of youth.

It's fascinating to learn how Blavatsky's invention of a "third eye" underlies Lobsang Rampa's claims a century later, and how he in turn popularized a fighting monk stereotype that propels today's B-movies and comics. He has little patience for rhapsodies of Robert Thurman (see my reviews of "Inner Revolution" and "Why the Dalai Lama Matters"; contrast Donald Lopez' "Prisoners of Shangri-La" and Patrick French's "Tibet, Tibet").

Brauen concludes with a Tibetan proverb: "From the mouth of a true friend you hear no sweet words." He champions the cause of Tibetan exiles (not those who may champion them or court the spotlight) who urge a realistic depiction of themselves and their predicament--an end to the jejune, cynical, mystic, or sinister tones in which their homeland has been incessantly transmitted worldwide. He articulates how "Dreamworld Tibet" has been built out of reveries, "longings and obsessions" over time: "escapism; sympathy triggered by the David and Goliath myth; 'kernels of truth' anchored in Tibetan culture; circumstances that the formation of stereotypes encourages (such as the impossibility of proving absurdity, biased selection of sources, and other methodical tricks); and the need of Tibetans in exile, at least the Tibetan elite in exile, to give themselves an identity that can compete with Western professed values." (247)

This handsomely edited volume deserves attention from audiences too enchanted by Himalayan fantasy. While I would have not minded this coffee-table format book, with a scholarly approach but a popular culture appeal (translated by Martin Willson--the captions adroitly sum up the key points of the matching text), to be even longer, the scope and ambition of this work may direct future critics into more detailed analyses of the topics surveyed and suggested by Professor Brauen.  His clear organization and thoughtful reflections represent his own care for his subject, and the everyday people who occupy the real Tibet. (Amazon US 2-11-12; see his daughter's memoir Across Many Mountains, which he kindly arranged for me to read, here reviewed by me on Amazon US, 5-13-14)


Anonymous said...

Where is the Desideri review you mention here?

Fionnchú said...

Anon, here's a combined version and the shorter ones. I waited to put these up on my blog--they will appear later this month--pending publication in the JBE, which happened in 6/2012.

I reviewed both books in a combined pdf article here: "Jesuits in Tibet" in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics 19 (2012): 451-459. A shorter version of the Pomplum review with some editing is on Amazon; my review of Sweet + Zwelling is here similarly: Amazon US both 6-22-12.