Friday, May 20, 2011

Time bound Asian Nostalgia

Can you be nostalgic for something you have never experienced?

It is a question that has continually presented itself to me by reading Blofeld's account of his journeys in China in the 1930s.

He has reached the sacred mountain of Wu T'ai whose bowled valley contained a diversity of monasteries, nestled amongst its flower-filled grass land. The valley as religious site is now devastated. First it was fought over between Chinese and Japanese, then by competing sides in China's civil war, subsequently followed by the coup de grace: the cultural revolution - that collective act of ideologically inspired insanity.

As I read his account and running below the sadness of a world past, whose merits I recognize, is a sense of knowing that cannot be placed, as if I had indeed been present to the realities described. Blofeld would suggest no doubt that this was evidence of a subliminal memory pattern from a past life (and who can say if this is not a reasonable proposition). But it is deeply interesting, this question of how you come to identify with certain past periods, and not others. 

It is not only when the China/Mongolia/Tibet of the 20s and 30s is presented in its religious dimension that this feeling is evoked. I remember watching Edward Norton's film of 'The Painted Veil' and having precisely the same sense of an imagined world that felt deeply familiar. I should perhaps construct a past life narrative for myself!

In the present, the closest I have been to this world (apart from working trips to Hong Kong and Mongolia) is three visits to the Republic of Tuva, whose nomadic (Buddhist and shamanic) society has many resonances with some of what Blofeld describes; and, where I have felt deeply at home, and at peace.

It cannot be simply the hope for the exotic because it appears radically time and place specific this feeling. It remains an enjoyable mystery.

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