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books A Life Beyond Boundaries

This memoir is last book written by the late Benedict Anderson, whose Imagined Communities (1983) was a major contribution to the modern understanding of the nation-state and of nationalism. As Joshua Kurlantzick shows, Anderson's life was as rich as his scholarship was provocative.

A Life Beyond Boundaries: A Memoir
Benedict Anderson
ISBN: 9781784784560

Benedict Anderson, who died in December, was best known for his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, which redefined the study of nation states, concluding that modern nationalism only belonged to the era of printed material produced in a common language. It sold over a quarter of a million copies, and like a Velvet Underground record, its influence was exponentially greater than its actual sales.

But prior to Imagined Communities, published in 1983, Anderson, a longtime professor of south-east Asian studies at Cornell University, shaped how outsiders saw the region. He admits, in this memoir, that he was fortunate. His study began as the Indochina wars heated up, leading to a spike in government and private funding for regional studies. But he also mastered three challenging languages and opaque political systems, in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. And he strode into territories, both literal and intellectual, that his peers could not, or would not, enter. During Indonesia’s mass killings of 1965-66, which saw the deaths of at least 500,000 people, he and several Cornell colleagues wrote the seminal account of the atrocities. They began with a national purge of members of the Indonesian Communist party but quickly spread into killings tied to revenge, grudges over money or land, and hysteria in which murder was committed for little or no reason at all. The Cornell report became the essential source on that poorly understood bloodbath, though Indonesia’s dictator, Suharto, quashed public discussion of the killings.
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Foreign observers of Indonesia were wary of discussing the violence, Anderson recalls – they were worried about upsetting a regime supported by the US government, or scared of being barred from the country and losing access to fieldwork. (Anderson himself was banned from Indonesia between 1972 and 1998, when Suharto’s regime collapsed.) But his fearless scholarship there was repeated in other parts of south-east Asia: Anderson, who had close ties with New Left Review (for two decades edited by his brother, Perry) was surprised by how few American or British colleagues were willing to join him in condemning the brutalities of pro-western south-east Asian regimes.

In A Life Beyond Boundaries, Anderson offers precious little of the normal autobiographical meat-and-potatoes. He sketches his early life, which combined globetrotting with his family (his father worked in Britain’s maritime customs service) and schooling at Eton and Cambridge. The insights Anderson apparently gleaned from his childhood do not strike a reader as particularly penetrating, not when compared with the extraordinary depth of his writing on subjects other than himself. Travelling with his family apparently made him open to exploring new places; he believes his life as a (solidly middle class) scholarship boy at Eton, an outsider at a school of lords-to-be, made him sympathetic to the scrappy opponents of south-east Asia’s authoritarian regimes, and helped him embrace his role as observer in his fieldwork. He indulges in none of the score-settling common in memoirs, even though south-east Asian governments and conservative scholars in the west regularly belittled his work as naive and uncritical of leftist politicians. He only touches on the rest of his personal life, briefly mentioning a heart attack he had at 60, two decades ago. This led him to curtail his teaching but also gave him the time to explore unusual side projects – including a study of 19th-century anarchism and a long essay on the Thai art-film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Throughout his memoir, Anderson’s writing is gentlemanly, kind, laced with jokes and vignettes of his favourite interviews, like those he conducted with two Indonesian brothers who exemplified the almost incestuous politics in Jakarta – one was the head of army intelligence, the other a member of the politburo of the Communist party of Indonesia. Anderson was always a champion of the informal, approachable, interdisciplinary style of writing, and so his autobiography often makes leaps in time and from location to location. He disdains the idea that “serious” academic writing should avoid asides or personal comments or even jokes, that professors’ work must speak in “prose [that] should reveal immediately the guild to which they belong … a prose style that is often much worse” in readability than the style those same academics used when they were students.

Instead of a full examination of his life, the autobiography mostly serves as a kind of gentle polemic, and one in favour of a rather conservative version of scholarly life. Anderson always disdained the classism (and racism) of his schooling in the 1950s, and yet he celebrates that classical education’s broadness, its lack of professional utility, its dedication to language, its independence from modern technology and its resistance to quantitative analysis. He condemns the narrowness of modern academia, the segregation by discipline and the proliferation of journals whose articles are read by a tiny group of fellow scholars rather than by the general public. He is particularly sceptical of the idea that universities, funded by states and companies, must serve as a kind of professional preparatory school, helping a student get ready for a job. Having government and corporate grants define universities’ agenda is, of course, hardly desirable. Yet treating university education as a pure exercise in intellectual growth is a luxury – one available to people who feel reasonably confident of their financial future.

It may be surprising to read such nostalgia for traditional education from a scholar known for his commitment to leftist politics. Anderson, after all, was a republican horrified by the “authoritarian” trappings of British royal events; he dressed in the style of Indonesian peasants while teaching in Ithaca, New York. Yet he remains immensely relieved not to have grown up in a time when students used university as preparation for the job market. (At least, students at Cambridge did not seem to think about the job market.) The “old philosophy”, a kind of Olympian amateurism of broad and classical intellectual inquiry, was simply better, he concludes.

Anderson also uses his memoir to emphasise the importance of understanding luck in studying politics, culture and history. Scholars, he writes, prefer to talk about social forces, causes, demographic trends or ideologies, but chance plays a critical role in international developments – and in one’s personal choices and scholarship. Sources are stumbled on; important interviews emerge through chance meetings; timing is critical to getting potential interviewees to talk. Anderson’s timing was often impeccable. He managed to complete Life Beyond Boundaries just before he died.

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Joshua Kurlantzick’s A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA will be published by Simon and Schuster.