Life & Letters

Has Pankaj Mishra Ever Been to South Dakota?

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For a writer whose first book was a travelogue around small-town India, Pankaj Mishra seems strangely unwilling to engage with the complexities, or provincialities, of the United States. In his recent scathing review of Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, as in his other writings, Mishra seems interested in America only to the extent that he can caricature its ruling elite in order to knock them down, says Ethan Casey

It’s very hard to disagree with anything Pankaj Mishra writes—not that I’m often inclined to. But for years, I’ve guiltily wondered why I read him, when I do get around to it, out of grim duty rather than any pleasure or enthusiasm.

This might not be worth writing about for others to consider but for the recent dust-up between Mishra and the odious, neo-imperialist, right-wing British historian Niall Ferguson over Mishra’s review of Ferguson’s book, Civilisation: The West and the Rest, in the 3 November issue of the London Review of Books (LRB). Per their wont, the British papers worked overtime to stoke it into a ‘row’ or a ‘feud’: ‘Indeed, not since VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux fell out has there been a spat like this in the letters pages of a literary journal,’ wrote Peter Beaumont breathlessly in The Guardian. Alas, to no avail: To his credit, Mishra is taking the high road, declining to be interviewed and telling Beaumont by email that he ‘want[s] to ‘confine’ his response to Ferguson to the letters pages of the LRB.’ Well played—except that Mishra ended his second (and presumably final) response to Ferguson by asserting that ‘It says something about the political culture of our age that Ferguson has got away with [his] disgraced worldview for as long as he has. Certainly, it now needs to be scrutinised in places other than the letters page of the LRB.’

Which does Mishra want, to scrutinise Ferguson’s disgraced worldview beyond the LRB, or to confine himself there? I grant that Beaumont’s one-word quotation from an email might be misrepresenting Mishra. But Mishra’s own worldview could use a little scrutiny, and the LRB, The Guardian, The New York Times op-ed page and suchlike bien-pensant periodicals are cosy havens to which the kind of writer Mishra has allowed himself to become might be inclined to confine himself. I recommend that he get out more.

To be clear, I have no intention of mounting any defence whatsoever of Ferguson. But, laying aside the ensuing exchanges of letters, which Ferguson rendered necessary with his ill-considered petulance in the first instance, it’s not necessary to expend 5,132 words—and the equivalent in one’s readers’ time—to demolish him, as Mishra masterfully did. Ferguson is despicable, and his worldview is disgraced. Case closed, next case. There’s much more to say than that, of course, but—as Mishra knows well and indeed points out in his review—it’s all been said before, many times over. Mishra’s problem is the one every writer faces: what to say, to whom, and how, when everything has already been said? But his particular challenge is how to resolve the tensions inherent in trying to be at once a dissenting outsider and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. So he burnishes his dissenting credentials by going after straw men and easy targets, at great length, as if there were any readers of the London Review of Books who needed to be convinced.

‘The reception a writer receives in a favourable political context can be the making of him,’ he says with reference to Ferguson. This is a bit rich coming from a writer who has had it made since his eloquent personal essay, Edmund Wilson in Benares, was published in the New York Review of Books before he was 30. Ever since then, Mishra has very shrewdly—I use that adverb with admiration—deployed his identity as a Brown ex-colonial to maintain his position as a licensed explainer of global subjects to the liberal West.

Good for him. But his interest in the West itself, other than as a readership to be instructed, is vexingly limited. His interest in America, such as it is, is bloodless and, as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, exclusively coastal. This might not matter—we’re all entitled to be more curious about some countries than about others—if not for his proclivity to pronounce not only on the usual, obvious bundle of common-or-garden American geopolitical sins and sinners, but on American literature and culture as well. And he uses the literature to score points about the geopolitics. He says this himself: ‘I don’t think of myself as a literary critic,’ as he wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 2010. ‘I write about novels and short stories. But I am reluctant to describe what I do as ‘literary criticism’, as I like to move quickly beyond the literariness of a text—whether narrative techniques or quality of prose—and its aesthetic pleasures, to engage with the author’s worldview, implied or otherwise, and his or her location in history (of nation-states and empires, as well as of literary forms).’

Whatever. That ‘implied or otherwise’ is a nifty insinuation that leaves the self-described non-literary critic all sorts of leeway to ‘engage with the author’s worldview’. This he does to Ferguson in the opening salvo of his demolition, deploying a quote from ‘Tom Buchanan, the Yale-educated millionaire’ in The Great Gatsby to the effect that ‘Civilisation’s going to pieces’ and the ‘white race’ will be ‘utterly submerged’ if they don’t keep the darkies down, etcetera, etcetera. I have no sympathy whatsoever for Ferguson, but if you read the first paragraph of Mishra’s review, you can almost feel sorry for him, especially if you remember the job Mishra did on Salman Rushdie some years ago in Outlook.

‘Wary of Jay Gatz, the self-made man with a fake Oxbridge pedigree,’ Mishra instructs us, ‘Buchanan is nervous about other upstarts rising out of nowhere to challenge the master race.’ Mishra understands Gatz/Gatsby because he himself is an upstart who rose out of nowhere. And that’s a fine thing to be, as long as you don’t fake an Oxbridge pedigree; I (for example) am also from nowhere. But Mishra’s interest in Gatz begins and ends with this passing rhetorical use that he makes of him. In his review of Ferguson as elsewhere, Mishra is interested in America only to the extent that he can caricature its ruling elite in order to knock them down.

I’m all for that too, but I’m afraid Mishra doesn’t mind leaving his international audience with the impression that ‘men of a certain age, class and education on the Upper East Side’ (as he scornfully describes Ferguson’s constituency) represent all you need to know about America. (That’s the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in case you missed the knowing allusion. Mishra likes New York, by the way, and wants you to know it. ‘On every visit to St Mark’s Bookshop in New York,’ he writes wistfully in a 2010 Guardian column, ‘I am still drawn moth-like to the shelves where the literary and intellectual quarterlies … stand splendidly arrayed.’) He’s aware that there’s much more to my country than its discredited metropolitan oligarchs, of course; he just doesn’t believe any of the rest of it matters. So he’s happy to use Gatsby to make a point and then lay him aside.

In the novel, Gatz/Gatsby hails from the remote state of South Dakota, in the Upper Midwest. Forgive me for feeling a personal stake in pointing that out, because where I grew up is only one state away. The state between Gatsby’s and mine is Minnesota, where Fitzgerald was from. These details are arguably beyond the scope of Mishra’s review of Ferguson, but as I read it, I did find myself wondering whether Mishra has ever been to South Dakota.

I have. When I was 12, my father bought me a copy of The Big Sky, AB Guthrie Jr’s great novel of early-19th-century mountain men, off the paperback rack at the famous tourist trap Wall Drug. Has Mishra read The Big Sky? Or Larry McMurtry’s masterpiece Lonesome Dove? Or The Grapes of Wrath? Or Their Eyes Were Watching God? If he’s read these or other representative exemplars of the great and diverse adventures of American fiction, his writings give no indication. He has read John Updike, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, names he trots out with tiresome frequency. Please. As if these tired, staid, often dead White men represented American literature. You might argue that Franzen, Updike and, for that matter, Fitzgerald are provincials who left home to make good writing high-toned books in the metropolis—and I might note in reply that that’s a trait they interestingly share with Mishra.

If Mishra wants to ‘engage with the worldviews’ of American writers, why doesn’t he read and cite, say, Edwidge Danticat, whose gut-wrenching memoir of her family’s immigrant experience, Brother, I’m Dying, is one of the most powerful American literary accomplishments of the past decade? Or, for that matter, John Grisham, whose subject matter, social and political concerns, and enormous readership testify to a self-critical America far from the ‘Eastern Seaboard’ that Mishra place-name-checks only in order to lampoon it? There’s something ironic about a writer whose first book was a travelogue around small-town India, and who reads in order to locate authors ‘in history (of nation-states and empires)’, being psychologically unable, or ideologically unwilling, to engage with the complexity or the provincial heartland of a country on which he is wont to pronounce with unassailable, not to say insufferable, confidence. If I object—as I do, on the record and often—to the way most American writing on Pakistan reduces that complex and fascinating country to a mere set of policy problems for American wonks to solve, then I’m obliged also to object to an internationally influential Indian writer habitually reducing America to the narrowest and most self-satisfied slice of its metropolitan establishment.

The America that Mishra has constructed in his head to suit his purposes is an abstraction summoned from reading entrails in the form of a rarefied selection of literary and topical books, perhaps supplemented by seminars and panel discussions. It’s as if I were to hang out my shingle in London, take occasional visiting professorships in Delhi or Mumbai (but not bother to travel anywhere else in India), read—let’s say—Naipaul or Rushdie on one hand and MJ Akbar or Fareed Zakaria on the other, then write erudite and overlong essays instructing Indians on all that’s wrong with their society and civilisation. I’m sure that if I were to do that, it would, as the Brits say, get up the noses of many Indians. Well, Pankaj Mishra gets up my analogous American nose.

I knew Mishra, slightly, back when we both were young nobodies on the make. I rode behind him on his motorbike on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University. I visited him at his refuge in Mashobra. He was my house guest in Thailand, on his first-ever trip outside India. And before his first trip to Pakistan, he asked me for contacts there, for which he never thanked me, not that the memory of that still gets on my nerves or anything. I congratulate him on his success and wish him more of the same. I appreciate his annihilation of Niall Ferguson, who deserves it.

But I wish he would consider addressing his incisive intelligence, reporting skills and narrative talents to an attempt to understand my country as the deeply troubled, various, and extremely interesting society that I know it to be. If he won’t do it, I will, but I can’t write as anything but an American. The United States of America, a historically important country in the early stages of a crisis of likely world-shaking severity, is crying out for a new Alexis de Tocqueville, a foreign writer who will depict it, with all its damaging contradictions and bad habits, unsparingly yet with human sympathy. No writer could do that better than Pankaj Mishra—if only he would get away from the Eastern Seaboard.