Lives between Asia and Europe

Biographical texts are important sources for tracing ‘entangled histories’ between Asia and Europe. Researchers discussed the various issues involved in analyzing these texts in a URPP workshop.

Thomas Hüllein

Organized by Sven Trakulhun (URPP Asia and Europe) and Henning Trüper (EHESS Paris), the international workshop “Biography Afield in Asia and Europe” (September 20–21, 2012) enabled nearly a dozen scholars to discuss the often ambiguous concepts of biography and life-writing in cross-cultural contexts.

For some time, biography writing has been the subject of multi-facetted theoretical and methodological debates. Theorists of biography, such as Leon Edel, have sought to establish certain methodological standards for life-writing that amount to an excavation of the private self. The biographer’s task is in this view to locate “the figure under the carpet,” to infer, often by using Freudian terminology, what is “hidden,” the “secret myth” influencing the course or pattern of a person’s life. At the same time, there are certain reservations about the limitations of biography writing due to the narrative structures enacted in telling a life as (hi)story. Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Bourdieu are probably the most frequently quoted theorists who argued that the idea of the autonomous subject is a construct, and therefore envisioned the deconstruction and even the end of authored texts and subjectivity. When these debates are extended to transcultural contexts, the complexity is enhanced even further. Dealing with biographies between Asia and Europe turned out to be particularly challenging.

Henning Trüper and Sven Trakulhun outlined in their introduction some of the methodological challenges life-writing implies, particularly in transcultural contexts. Biographical materials, they argued, play an important role in the study of transcultural exchanges between Asia and Europe, reflecting perceptions and constructions of a ‘self’ in different societies and cultures. They emphasized the special importance of biographical and micro-historical approaches for the study of imperial, colonial, and postcolonial history, and encouraged investigation of the various ways in which self-representations have been created by travelers, missionaries, scholars and other inhabitants of “contact zones” (M. L. Pratt). In his talk during the workshop, Henning Trüper explored a variety of patterns of discourse and genres of text concerning the nature and purpose of biography, personhood, and subjectivity in the world of Orientalist learning in the closing decades of the 19th century. In particular, he drew on materials emanating from and pertaining to the lives of Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921), Theodor Nöldeke (1836–1930), and Enno Littmann (1875–1958).

Difficulties of the biographical approach

All participants of the workshop had to cope with difficulties connected with biographical approaches, including the scarcity of (edited and researched) Asian sources when compared to European testimonies, the constructedness of a curriculum vitae or the issue of text and context. Michael H. Fisher (Oberlin College, Ohio) illustrated the challenges of historical analysis as drawing on biographical sources by tracing two Indian travelers: Dyce Sombre and Sake Dean Mahomet. Both men moved from India to Great Britain in the early 19th century and used autobiographical publications to (re-)create themselves in response to pre- or misconceptions they encountered in their new environment. Individually and together, their transcultural lives mirror the challenges as well as the chances for today’s biographers, due both to multifarious and often contradictory source materials as well as to inherent cross-cultural interpretive issues. Siddharth Satpathy (KIIT University, Orissa) and Sven Trakulhun explored in their presentations how 19th century ego-documents such as journals and other autobiographical writings from Baptist missionaries in India and Siam can contribute to our understanding of the ways in which conflicting Western and Asian notions of religion, time, or labor were negotiated in everyday life.

Crossing multiple borders

Meeting of political thinkers: Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1st row, 2nd from left) and Annie Besant

Angelika Malinar (University of Zurich) analyzed the tropes of self-perception in texts of the renowned British socialist, theosophist and political leader Annie Besant (1847–1933). Her life between India and Europe shed light on the complex historical and intellectual constellation which attracted not only Besant, but also other women to go to India. The intersection of political and spiritual aspirations, of Indian reformist discourse and colonial hesitancy with regard to political reforms in India allowed European women to take leadership positions in India which they rarely acquired in contemporary Britain. Faisal Devji (Oxford) focused on the biographical dimensions implied in the contested perception of the Indian political leader and founder-father of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Biographers as well as the public are torn between an image of Jinnah playing a rather “sinister” role in the events leading to the partition of India and another that views him as a figure of light creating a separate state for the Muslims of the Subcontinent. The ambiguous perception of Jinnah contrasts with his own silence with regard to his ideas about his life. Maya Burger (University of Lausanne) focused on the transcultural biography of Pandita Ramabai. The Indian author lived in the mid-19th and early 20th century and traveled across India, spending several years in the United States and England until finally settling down in India. Ramabai did not only cross geographical borders, but also social and religious ones when she fought for women’s rights and became a Christian. Her conversion is the main subject in “Testimony” (1907), an autobiographical text that helps with tracing her silences, be they self-imposed or historically determined, and hints at the difficulties of living across boundaries.

Biography as a framework of meaning

In two papers, the role of art and artifacts in (re)constructing the biographical played a prominent role and allowed important insights into often neglected aspects of what constitutes a biography. Justyna Jaguścik (University of Zurich) explored the ways in which the poet Zhai Yongming (b. 1955) revisited Frida Kahlo’s works and biography. She demonstrated how Kahlo’s story is re-appropriated by Zhai into her own story: that of shared female body experience. In her quasi-autobiographical lyrics and essays, Zhai refers to Kahlo’s works firstly to argue for an ahistorical and universal sense of embodied femininity. Paola Wyss-Giacosa and Andreas Isler (Ethnographic Museum, University of Zurich) developed in their collaborative paper an object-based biographical approach when preparing an exhibition of Bornean artifacts. Wolfgang and Erika Leupold, who had inherited them from their parents, donated these objects to the museum in 2007. The objects appeared to be heterogeneous, but biography delivered a unifying frame: by perceiving them as pieces of ‘contact-zones’ between the Leupolds in Borneo and the local people, the artifacts developed a new meaning. The objects transgress cultural borders since, at the same time, they can be read as Bornean artifacts and as parts of the Leupold’s life in the Dutch colony.

These and other papers provided new insights into the dynamics of construing, writing and living transcultural biographies in Eurasian contexts. Also, the participants could present their work to experts with a similar background in an informal setting, which made it possible to also discuss ideas that might not yet be ready for publication.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 2/2013, pp. 12–13)