In The Razor’s Edge, the hero, Larry Darrell, so traumatized and disillusioned by his experience of fighting in World War I, travels to India seek the answers to unanswerable questions: In spite of advances in civilization, why do human beings go to war to kill one another? What motivates one person to be spiteful and vengeful towards another? Why do we so easily lapse into hatred and violence when we can strive towards resolution and forgiveness?
He finds an answer of sorts from a yogi in Travancore who teaches him that the Western concepts of finite time and space limit his vision, and that irrational desire brings suffering while acceptance and reconciliation will lead him to peace. This is all really Somerset Maugham’s personal amalgamation of Buddhist doctrine mingled with some of the teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita and a splash of Daoism, but the varied philosophy of a completely different and exotic culture seems to satisfy Larry as it carries him through the bitchy cocktail parties of the American expatriate scene of 1930s Paris.
Larry’s journey to the East is a familiar and ongoing one for many travelers from the “Occidental” world. There is a general feeling among Western intellectuals and students that the oldness of Asian cultures and its diverse religions and philosophies have a wisdom that Western learning somehow lacks. What seems to matter in the end is that the traveler ultimately finds something of use to him, some concept of reasoning that enables him to reconcile bitter truths and personal tragedies and to move forward with life.
Barry Hill is an Australian poet, journalist, and academic. His new book on his journey to the East, Peacemongers, is an often mordantly funny travelogue into the diverse cultures of India, Thailand, and Japan, and an insightful exploration of the wisdom of Asian religion and various intellectuals and writers, including the 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler Xuanzang, the 20th century Japanese monk and peace activist Nichidatsu Fujii, the early 20th century French historian Romain Rolland, and the most significant personage in his book, the Indian poet and nationalist Rabindranath Tagore. Rightly, Hill is a bit in awe of Tagore in the same way that W.B. Yeats was taken with him when they met in London in the summer of 1912. Throughout Hill’s travels through India and Japan, the legacy of Tagore and his vision of universal peace through art and cultural understanding is a looming presence.
When I was a girl in England it was thought there that the Australians had a certain unique understanding of Asia and the “Orientals”, especially within Southeast Asia and East Asia. Australia’s geographic position within the Pacific jostled it alongside the Indonesians, the Malaysians, and of course, the Japanese and the Chinese. Historically, the Brits also seemed to think that the Aussies were a bit conspicuously tougher in getting the Asians “in line” and consequently outsourced a good deal of its colonial bullying to them. Hill’s book, at various moments, seems to atone for the legacy of that kind of bullying.
Hill’s journey begins in India, the home of Hinduism and Buddhism, at Bodh Gaya, where Gautama Buddha received enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and ends in Nagasaki, a once bustling hub of colonial maritime trade under the Portuguese and then the site of the last of the two atomic explosions. Among Hill’s descriptions of cities like Benares, Calcutta, Tokyo, are densely-packed scholarly accounts of the travels and similar journeys of leading Asian thinkers, though Tagore is given the most significant amount of attention.
Hill’s detailed account of Tagore’s family history and creative growth from his childhood in Victorian Bengal, his unprecedented literary fame, the founding of his arts academy and university in Santiniketan, and his travels throughout Asia, is one of the best aspects of Peacemongers. The book interweaves historical accounts of cross-cultural interactions, such as Xuanzang’s travels to India in the first millennium CE, Tagore’s trip to Japan in 1916, and the Allied war crimes tribunal in Tokyo in 1946, with Hill’s travels through Asia as well as his own personal musings of the nature of peace and the strange compulsion that drives men to war. The son of a passionate and, at times, volatile, anti-war activist, Hill understands that in order to advocate for peace, and to make policymakers and citizens aware of the benefits of its stability, one sometimes has to be aggressive and unpopular in order to dislodge people’s sense of complacency.
At almost 700 pages, Hill’s memoir, travelogue, and meditation on the wisdom of the East, is a bit dense. Often the book can feel a bit relentless. Thankfully, Hill’s sense of humor, which is sharp and ironic, lightens up the intellectual grandiosity of the narrative, especially when he’s recounting people he meets in India or what he sees on Indian television (Bollywood, Bengali and Hindi news, and various Aussie news anchors on CNN). His observations on the cities he visits are enlivening when they can be teased out from the gravity of his reflections on philosophy—the teeming, hot, dusty metropolis of Calcutta stands as a remarkable contrast to the crowds and cascading skyscrapers of Tokyo and the clean majestic splendor of Mt. Fuji.
One thing I found rather touching about Hill’s quest to understand the complexities of men like Tagore and Gandhi is that perhaps, like an optimistic and confident Australian, he believes that their complexities can be fully understood. There’s a moment in the book when Hill recounts how Gandhi, in accordance with his doctrine of non-violence and forgiveness, claimed that he could forgive Reginald Dyer, the man who was responsible for the Amritsar massacre, and even nurse him if he was wounded, before nursing his own son. This seems to shock and outrage Hill, which is a natural reaction. Though few people seem to comprehend the baffling mystery and irony of Gandhi’s rhetoric of non-violence (this is where reading Vijay Prashad becomes helpful) as a public-relations weapon in an age of burgeoning mass-media. I have had many earnest professors and fellow scholars come to me to tell me how astonishing Gandhi is and that Attenborough’s biopic is one of their favorite movies. All of what they say is true, though few of them can understand the oddness, irony and extraordinary achievements of the man within the peculiarities of colonial Indian society.
Hill’s Peacemongers is an epic book of self-discovery and intellectual adventure that deserves to be read and re-read for its revelations. It’s a heartfelt book about the importance of peace and cultural understanding written by a man who is deeply hurt and wounded by the horrors of global violence and war. Books like Peacemongers may be a bit tough to digest, especially in comparison to conventional travel writing or the latest fiction titles on the front shelves of Barnes & Noble, but they shake us out of our complacency and make us realize there is a vast world of suffering, wisdom, and experience beyond our own.