Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Trent Pomplum's "Jesuit on the Roof of the World": Book Review

"The gravity-defying domes and impossible skies of Jesuit architecture evoked, with precise deliberations, the interior extravagance of generous abandon." (42)

Jesuit visual aids and verbal rhetoric, employed in the prolix account Ippolito Desideri sent back and re-wrote five times, aimed at inspiring novices in the Society of Jesus with the same fervor which fueled this young scholastic to ask to be sent to convert Tibet in 1712, even though he may have known nothing substantial of this most remote of outposts in the Society's Indies province. Furthermore (although there remains possibly some ambiguity in historical record as to what the young Jesuit knew and when), the Capuchin Franciscans had already been granted papal permission to establish themselves in Tibet. All the same, Desideri, not yet ordained when he left Italy for the East, arrived in 1715 and reached Lhasa the following year.

There, he quickly learned Tibetan; the preceding efforts of the Capuchins assisted him, but he certainly made astonishingly rapid progress, beginning his first book in the language the same year. The invasion by the Zunghar from Mongolia in 1717 impelled the Jesuit missionary to flee to Dakpo. He continued his writing of his Notizie istoriche, intended to justify his mission against both the claims of the Capuchins and, more crucially, the assertions of the Buddhists.

Their Madhayamaka philosophy earned the brunt of Desideri's assault. He sought to undermine the Buddhist denial of a supreme God as absurd, and this "evident falsehood" combined with the need for salvation, in Catholic theology, to rest on "certainties of reason in addition to certainties of faith." (94) In his new study of Desideri, Trent Pomplum discusses this in a dense chapter which analyzes Desideri's methods via post-Tridentine theology, and scholastic applications. The Tuscan Jesuit's sought to deny his Tibetan hosts and interlocutors the ability to assert their claims to what Desideri might define as prevenient grace, the assistance given by God to those seeking Him without their direct knowledge, but who gained by their unwitting good will to seek the ultimate truth the benefits of natural virtues.

This theme creates intricate terrain to explore in a compressed chapter, and those without added theological surety may find themselves challenged here. Still, Pomplum sums up the contrast between "natural virtues" which an unbeliever might possess and "supernatural fulfillment" which directed these virtues towards a Christian salvation and he shows why Desideri sought to refute Buddhist doctrines. Desideri, as any missionary of his time and formation, admired Tibet even as he tried to undermine its religious and cultural formations, in an attempt to win it over for Christ. Therefore, he had to unrelentingly refute the claims of dharma.

This book progresses through Desideri's training as a Jesuit as Pomplum introduces us to the baroque mindset within Italian Catholicism. Professor Pomplum sets out in a couple of hundred pages a narrative that conveys the gist of Desideri's aim to confront and convert a land that he came to nearly ignorant of. As the first Jesuit to establish a mission in "the third Tibet" of the innermost heartland, Desideri mastered the arguments of his opponents, who were also his instructors. He translated works and he commented upon them, seeking to correct what he regarded as mistaken notions of some Christians who had conflated Asian resemblances to Trinitarianism via the Three Jewels, for example, or those who had speculated that Nestorian traces of a vanished Christianity had remained in China.

The narrative devotes additional treatment to Jesuit missionary efforts in Asia and India, as it concentrates upon two of this scholar's areas of overlapping (for Desideri) expertise, Indo-Tibetan religion and culture, and Jesuit missions history. For a reader in Buddhist areas, Pomplum presumes familiarity with these theological and philosophical essentials. He delves into the finer points of Catholic-Buddhist contention as taken up by Desideri deeply and quickly.

However, a hundred pages of notes and a bibliography add to the usefulness of this compact work on an admittedly intriguing figure. Despite what may be for more casual readers an onslaught of information about the Zunghar invasion, there is merit in analyzing the complications reported, if with a bias, by Desideri. For scholars of this period, this summation in the fourth chapter will prove useful. The book tends to cover a wider area than its subtitle, and from it, readers will learn more about the influences which created and sustained zealous figures such as Desideri to do so much in so little time. Given but his half a decade in Tibet, while not as much about Desideri as a crafty and flawed figure may emerge as one might wish given the aims of Desideri's confident and clever report as "true history" to the Society, Pomplum energetically examines the nuances of the Jesuit's self-presentation and self-justification with all the scholarly acumen he and his academic colleagues have acquired in the centuries since this mission.

The twists and turns of Desideri's mission to the Indies, before and after his stint in Tibet between 1715 and 1721, are only part of the story. He was forced to leave when his sometime colleagues and sometime rivals the Capuchins reasserted and were reassured of their missionary status in the region, even as the Zunghar and then Manchu invasions created havoc in the Himalayan kingdom. He later served in Delhi and other outposts in India, before returning to Rome to vainly convince the Vatican to rule in favor of the Society and against the Capuchins for control of the Tibetan mission to which he must have longed to return.

Pomplum carefully corrects the excesses of Catholic hagiographers and then post-colonial critics who distort the truth about Desideri's missionary attainments, and those also of the Capuchins--who have often been denigrated while the accomplishments of their confreres the Jesuits have been elevated or caricatured. Jesuit ambitions are placed in context of the time, and Pomplum surveys the legacy of Desideri in the wider Chinese Rites controversy in which Matteo Ricci would be involved, and the question of Jesuit "accommodation" of native rituals and practices which would characterize the Malabar Rites fracas which in India would again pit Capuchin against Jesuit, and which would involve papal intervention. Pomplum defines what linked the friars to the Society of Jesus as to shared aims at how far to adjust Catholicism to Asian traditions, as well as what distinguished Jesuit missionaries among the Hindu such as Roberto de Nobili from their Franciscan, Dominican, and Vatican critics.

Pomplum concludes by reminding readers that if Desideri's mission had been as successful as many Buddhist Studies scholars appear to have wished it, there might not be any Buddhism left to study, four centuries later. "Viewed as a work of history, Desideri's narratio is a curious mélange of hard-nosed reporting, breezy innuendo, and simple mistakes." (172) The professor suggests it is better understood as we would an account today "based on a true story." Despite its flaws as history, the Notizie istoriche stands as a testament to how much one diligent missionary could amass about his adopted land to carry out his determined apostolate.

Its new edition, which was consulted by Pomplum as in turn his study informed this edition, appeared around the same year of 2010. Translated by Michael Sweet and edited by Leonard Zwilling as "Mission to Tibet", this massive compendium collects what is necessary to comprehend Desideri within his own writings, and those of his early confrere Manoel Freyre. [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 is on Amazon US 6-22-12]

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