William Dalrymple on the Heat Death of Culture

Warning: anyone squeamish about the misappropriation of scientific terminology in the service of vague, non-falsifiable cultural gesturing should probably click “Mark as Read” right now.

One of my all-time favorite travel books is William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, which describes his trip as a skeptical but mostly respectful visitor through what’s left of the Christian Levant. He follows in the footsteps of peripatetic sixth-century monk John Moschos, who wrote his own memoir about the beginning of the end of Byzantine culture in the face of impending Persian and Arab conquest.

Other readers might be more familiar with Dalrymple’s books and article about South Asia, one of which just appeared in The National Interest. This latest essay laments the standardization of Indian and Pakistani devotional practice, and how locally preserved traditions and crafts are being displaced by a macho McHinduism that owes less to globalism than to the (admittedly related) trend of modernization inside India.

All over India, villages were once believed to be host to a numberless pantheon of sprites and godlings, tree spirits and snake gods who were said to guard and regulate the ebb and flow of daily life. They were worshipped and propitiated for they knew the till and soil of the local fields and the sweet water of the wells, even the needs and thirsts of the cattle and the goats of the village. But increasingly in urban India, these small gods and goddesses are falling out of favor as faith becomes more centralized, and as local gods and goddesses give way to the national hyper-masculine hero deities, especially Lord Krishna and Lord Rama, a process scholars call the “Rama-fication” of Hinduism.

I know next to nothing about India’s cultural and religious history, so I’m ill-equipped to assess the content of Dalrymple’s claims. But his affinity for the particular, the local, and the idiosyncratic as such — something he also shows in From the Holy Mountain — is something I’m glad to get behind. Logical depth and systemic diversity are normative principles without the home they deserve in any of your name-brand political taxonomies. Sure, there is some overlap between a certain left-ish bourgeois consensus and Dalrymple’s “Keep India Weird” platform, but Dalrymple defends pluralism as a way of confusing, dissolving, and blurring the fault lines between more brittle identities:

Everywhere in South Asia, the deeply embedded syncretic, pluralistic folk traditions which continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities are finding it difficult to compete with the homogenizing mainstream. Education and political consciousness are making people more aware of their religious and political identities.

I share Dalrymple’s suspicion of a “homogenizing mainstream,” and consider him an entropologist in this respect. Like Thomas Pynchon or Lévi-Strauss, Dalrymple sees conquest and domination as processes that sap a system of its complexity, whether that system is in Roman Egypt or rural India. Those “syncretic, pluralistic folk traditions” are, according to Dalrymple, means of benign resistance to forces of uniformity and homogenization.

In concluding his article, Dalrymple describes the gentle resistance that Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Sufis have long put up against imported orthodox Muslim chauvinism, and then, in what he describes as “a very hopeful moment,” moves to Bengal where a gathering of tantric mystics, both Hindu and Muslim, proclaim that “He who has self-knowledge / Is open to all religions, / Be it Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Christian!”

But wait. If Louis Menand, in the above-linked review, is correct — if entropy is a process by which “clarity and mutual understanding” are “purchased by a loss of diversity of opinion” — then this wholesome syncretism can only do so much to prevent the heat death of human civilization. Some degree of exclusivity, some barriers to mutual understanding, are necessary to keep things at a healthy level of weirdness. Despite their shared etymology, syncretism and idiosyncracy can’t correlate forever.