"THE WORLD, SURELY we all know, is doomed. Presumably in our life-time its end will come." So speaks Martin Green, freshly converted to an apocalyptic Gandhianism that will estrange many of his old admirers, and make new ones. The Challenge of the Mahatmas is the first volume of a trilogy designed to lay the theoretical foundations for a new criticism of Western culture. Such criticism will not prevent doomsday, Green admits, but it may save our honor.
The disaster of which he writes is apparently no metaphor. He believes that our insane civilization will literally destroy itself. Its last hope was the program of Gandhi, betrayed even by India, and so all is now lost. Green has become convinced of the irreparable wickedness of human-kind and the wickedness in particular of the imperial West. Apart from what remains of the positive religions, "the only place we are likely to meet with spirituality," he contends, "is in Gandhi and his great master, Tolstoy." Each was a true mahatma (or "great soul"), Gandhi for most of his career, Tolstoy after his conversion in the 1870s. Their challenge to the comfortable illusions of liberal humanism and their assault on the citadels of modern power failed in a practical sense, but their lives and thoughts survive to inspire us in these final days.
Such a stark message from such a deeply respected literary critic is more than a breach of academic etiquette. It amounts to a confession of faith and the donning of the prophet's mantle. The promised second and third volumes of the trilogy will study the influence of imperialism and war on English fiction and offer a comparison in depth of the lives of Gandhi and Tolstoy. In this first volume, Green mixes autobiography, biography, literary criticism, history, religion, and prophecy, holding everything precariously together with a few central premises about his two mahatmas and the disastrous drift of modern civilization. It all began as a series of seven talks given at Tufts University after the author's journey to India in 1975. For the published book, he has added eight new chapters and expanded the talks as well. I am reminded of the heterogeneous volumes of another countercultural sage, William Irwin Thompson.
Like Thompson, Green is too much the trained scholar to play his new role to the limit. Despite the unmistakably vatic utterances, there are many hot blushes, mighty doubtings, and flights back into professorial objectivity. Humble disciple-hood and critical sophistication are under-standably hard to fuse, and Green's efforts to do so often misfire.
Nevertheless, he wants us clearly to see his solidarity with the mahatmas. He really means it. The West is indeed ruined by materialism, violence, godlessness, and carnivorous sensuality. Gandhi's asceticism, such a scandal to lecherous, well-fed liberal humanists, was an essential part of his message, and must be heeded no less than his absolute prohibition of injury to others. At the same time, Green thinks it should be possible to elaborate a neo-Gandhian critique of Western culture in order to reveal how it has faithfully reflected Western man's insatiable lust for imperial power. This critique, he argues, would recognize the resistance to imperialism also embodied in much of modernist art and thought, as Gandhi did not. But it would adhere to Gandhi's essential vision.
All sorts of possibilities come to mind for such a critique. Green's only serious attempt to show what it might accomplish is a proposal for re-thinking the genre of adventure fiction in Anglo-American letters since Defoe. He describes Robinson Crusoe, for example as the first true myth of empire in English imaginative literature, a high celebration of Western technology and the white man's divine right to rule the world.
Hundreds of popular adventure tales in a variety of settings followed Crusoe. Not all had to be overtly imperialist to make their point. Green's authors include Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling. All were "energizing" and "kinetic" myth-makers, calling their heroes --and their readers -- to missions of conquest and glory. Since the interface of adventure fiction and imperialism is the theme of the second volume of Green's trilogy, we can look forward to much fuller treatment of all this later. It will no doubt be good stuff.
But in The Challenge of the Mahatmas, Green asks us to make a leap of faith. It is a take-it-or-leave-it kind of book. If you happen to see Gandhi and Tolstoy as saints worthy of imitation, you will probably take it. If you see them as masochistic personalities no less deranged than their enemies, if you see them as purveyors of a neurotic perfectionism rooted in the dream of an imaginary past, you will leave Green's book on the shelf.
Leaving it on the shelf is to my mind the wiser course. A confused eulogy of the "mahatmahood" of Gandhi and Tolstoy is the last thing any of us needs now. Their vision was a negative print of the dominant culture they opposed. It sprang from the very center of modern man's woe, but it cannot save his honor, much less his skin.