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On the other side of the mirror

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Happy who can visualize the history of cultural exchange using the example of great personalities. About men who move out to study foreign customs and traditions and who in their travel reports hint at an inadequacy of their own living conditions. And of women who want to forget their origins in the distance or who compensate for their lack of roots with fanatical overadaptation.

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It is tempting to say that this story came to an end in the 21st century. As literary scholar Elmar Schenkel complains in his book “Unterwegs nach Xanadu”, the transfer movements are undoubtedly becoming confusing because of the increasing intertwining of East and West. No missionary or ambassador can tell of something completely unknown, no adventurer can move completely apart from mass tourism: he can only report more densely and lively about his travels.

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But one would do well not to interpret Schenkel’s explicit refusal to use post-colonial mediators such as Pankaj Mishra or Parag Khanna as a surrender. Rather, it is due to the need to limit its range of figures at all. It is not just today’s flow of goods in the shadow of which cultural traditions intersect. The old Silk Road already promoted this, and the New Silk Road will do it again on a much larger scale and with a different character.

Shah Rukh Khan stat Tagore?

With a view to India, China and Japan, Elmar Schenkel throws the spotlight on the prehistory of globalization, the cultural aspects of which threaten to suffocate in manic consumer capitalism. This may save him from adopting a culturally pessimistic tone. Because, in order to paint a current picture, he would have to tell not only about the new theorists of a post-western world order, but also about the pop-cultural heroes and heroines of this globalization. Wherever Rabindranath Tagore was, the Indian thinker and Nobel laureate in literature, who was courted especially in Germany after the First World War, Bollywood god Shah Rukh Khan should be at the center.

Where the theologian Richard Wilhelm, who was so fond of China on the German lease in Qingdao at the time that he decided as a translator to inspire the German reading public for “Yijing” and the main Daoist works, Jackie Chan would now have to do gymnastics through Hong Kong and the Bronx . And where the British writer Lafcadio Hearn, who called himself Koizumo Yakumo in Japan and is revered there as a cultural bridge builder to this day, you would have to associate him with an anime director like Hayao Miyazaki.

Elmar Schenkel is neither afraid of contact with popular objects nor of a feuilletonistic approach: However, his interest is in the romantic phase of cultural penetration in the broadest sense, as the title of his book suggests – without blurring the huge cultural differences between India, China and Japan.

Xanadu, a Phantasma

“On the way to Xanadu” refers to the now in ruins, better known as Shangdu, the summer residence of the Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan, as well as to the wild phantasm that Samuel Taylor Coleridge created in his famous poem about Khan. It is a place that you can no longer enter – and thus never could. Because it is a dream of spirituality that is as open to harmless seekers of meaning as it is susceptible to ideological usurpers.

The opening chapter on India goes from the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, where the charismatic Swami Vivekananda presented Hindu ideas on a large scale to a Western audience for the first time, to the triumphant advance of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. In other words: from a convinced spirituality to a commercialized religious establishment. Both stories have been told many times. Schenkel’s merit, however, lies in the episodes that he reads in between and in the sum that they make up.

Who knows the Austrian art historian Stella Kramrisch, a fellow student of Hermann Hesse’s third wife Ninon, who organized a large exhibition with Bauhaus artists in Calcutta. Who the French Mirra Alfassa, who became Sri Aurobindo’s partner in Auroville. And who Maximine Portaz alias Savitri Devi, who ruthlessly lived out her anti-Semitism and Aryan ideology in nationalist Hindu circles.

“On the way to Xanadu” is always looking for the cracks and the longings for wholeness in all of their biographies and makes no secret of the fact that confusion and confusion are often only a crack. He deals with the National Socialist enthusiasm for the methods of Zen, as they can be studied with Eugen Herrigel, whose “Zen in the Art of Archery” is an international bestseller to this day.

Madame Blavatsky and her hocus-pocus

Schenkel devotes himself in detail to the fortunes of theosophy, which emerged from the all too beautiful idea of ​​discovering a common core of wisdom in all religions, philosophies and sciences, an occult doctrine under the guidance of the deceitful seer Madame Blavatsky and her ominous master in the Himalayas. The young Jidda Krishnamurti, whom the Theosophical Society wanted to train to be its Messiah, later ran away from the burden that he was supposed to bear, not unjustly.

The book was published in the science series of S. Fischer Verlag. Originating from decades of preoccupation with the cosmos of themes, however, his achievement lies less in surprising insights than in the synopsis of three Asian cultures and their interaction with the West. Schenkel briefly presents complex issues that would otherwise not necessarily come into the general field of vision.

That doesn’t excuse the shortness of breath with which Schenkel races through individual chapters, and the visible imbalance with which he portrays individual characters. Annoyingly superficial, especially for an Anglicist, are his comments on Gary Snyder, the Zen Buddhist head of the Beat Generation and father of contemporary ecopoetry.

Second hand information

And he draws his knowledge of the Dutch sinologist and crime writer Robert van Gulik entirely from Janwillem van de Weetering’s biography. For example, he reproduces undisturbed the claim that Gulik played the Chinese lute. If you open his book on the Qin, the legendary arched board tremors of antiquity, you will quickly discover that Gulik only used the term lute to bring the instrument closer to Western readers.

So this book has some blind spots and unnecessary shortcomings, including a register that would make orientation a lot easier. His assignment of the three cultures to spirituality (India), philosophy (China) and aesthetics (Japan) is questionable. Also irritating is Schenkel’s promise that he could imagine a second, at least as thick book with the characters that he had to pass over here: Are we meeting the most important figures in the East-West transfer or not?

Elmar Schenkel has to be defended against the more than ungracious review that the global historian Jürgen Osterhammel published in the “FAZ” a few days ago: it placed historiographical expectations of this book that it never intended to meet. It is a piece of the kaleidoscopic history of ideas that is still at work in its disappearance. As such, she creates a panorama that is currently not available in more color.

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