One topic which I would love to read a book about is Southeast Asian intellectual history. Such a book, however, has never been written. In fact, it hasn’t even really been researched yet. That is a real shame because the sources for such a book definitely exist.
I was just looking at a journal which was published in colonial Burmacalled The World of Books. It was a bi-lingual journal, with sections in both English and Burmese. The English section has contributions by both Burmese and Western authors.
What is striking in reading some of the articles in this journal is the sophistication of ideas and language use. While I don’t know that colonization is ever good, I have to admit that the English-language abilities that are evident in this journal are truly impressive. As, more importantly, are the understandings that these authors had of contemporary issues. There were some amazingly intelligent and talented intellectuals in colonial Burma.
Take for example an editorial which was published in this journal in May 1936, entitled “Towards Civilization?” The editor defines civilization as “the stage of human evolution that has been reached in the west, the industrial civilization of the present,” and asks, “do Burmans want to get civilized”?
He goes on to say that “Industrial civilization and Burmans seem as incongruous as making a sky-lark earn his keep by firing toy-cannons. Such wild and free spirits are we, with our happy inadequacy and smiling incapacity, that we cannot possibly tolerate the trivial implications of a western civilization.”
The editor then describes some of these “trivial implications of western civilization” in some detail.
“To be civilized means to adapt ourselves to a life of exhausting trivialities, in offices, in homes, in beds; doing the same things, making the same remarks and thinking the same thoughts every morning, every day and every night, for years and years and years.”
“The flag of civilization is routined triviality. Under it the West has marched to victory—victory? And where are the fruits of that? Civilized men work to the clock and the calendar. In looking at the calendar, they have lost the seasons, in looking at the clock, they have lost the sun”
The editor then concludes by asking rhetorically, “Shall we too?”
A month later The World of Books published a rejoinder to this editorial from a reader. This reader responded to the editorial point by point, and said the following about the idea that civilization is “routined triviality”:
“It is not given to every man to ride the storm and direct the whirl wind. If every man was born to shake the world, the world would have come to an end long ago. A Caesar is an exception. And so for that matter are poets, philosophers, emperors and statesmen.”
“The toiling millions are born for little things. They are themselves terribly trivial. Their little individualities count for nothing. They are lost in the oceanic multitude of humanity.”
“They must adapt themselves to circumstances. They must submit themselves to the discipline of life if they desire to live, be it ‘domesticity or routined triviality.’”
“The price of industrial civilization is its attendant ugliness, triviality, domesticity. It is uninteresting or rather unpoetic but there is no choice. To refuse to be a slave of industrial civilization is a sure way to be the slave of those who embrace it as it has conquered the world.”
To this rejoinder, the editor of The World of Books then stated that,
“The writer of the rejoinder is a little over hasty. We ask him to read the editorial in question again, not necessarily keeping himself to the printed lines. Or perhaps we have been too subtle?”
This exchange is stunningly subtle in its ideas and utterly beautiful in the language that these writers employ. Who were these people? Why don’t we know anything about them?
This is why it is such a shame that we don’t have books on Southeast Asian intellectual history. Like everywhere else in the world, people in Southeast Asia have been thinking for centuries, and their thoughts are recorded in countless manuscripts, journals, newspapers and books.
Too many people think of Southeast Asia as a place where there are “no written sources.” Rich written sources abound. They just have to be read.