Economies of Curiosity: The Dalai Lama’s email inbox, the Foreign Researcher in Mcleod Ganj and Artaud Syndrome


(Antonin Artaud, gazing upon the summit of interiority)

So, McLeod Ganj, India where I am living, ‘Little Lhasa’, or the Tibetan capital in exile, is a funny kind of place. It’s really only a very small town, but its few streets and rural mountain town feel belies its cosmopolitanism. It is a junction point for a virtually unceasing stream of Tibetan and foreign visitors, for news and information from all over the globe. Besides formal support from the Tibetan government in exile, and informal flows of money from friends and family – everything from transnational remittances, informal/illegal trade, community saving unions, personal support structures centered around people from the same home regions in Tibet and exile, from common Tibetan exile or Indian school graduating groups, or shared monastic colleges – many Tibetans rely on tourist dollars to survive.

I have often said that this town exists for better or worse in the midst of overlapping economies of curiosity. Romantic stereotypes and Tibetans’ global reputation precedes them. One silver lining about this curiosity or global gaze is that it can at least be turned into a source of continued survival and livelihood for exile Tibetans, who let it not be forgotten, remain by and large stateless refugees living deeply precarious lives.

This town is a strange jumble, yes – a shifting mix of local and visiting Tibetans and Indians alongside tourists, journalists, researchers, student study abroad groups, yoga trainees, activists, missionaries, cyber security experts, and Buddhist translators and practitioners from all over the world. I am here primarily as a PhD student researcher. Virtually every week or so I meet another (usually white) foreigner who is here in town to do some type of Tibet-related research (I meet non-white researchers too of course, but I what I want to reflect on here seems to be something that happens most often with white researchers)

It’s easy to come here – McLeod Ganj has a large resident Tibetan demographic and many established opportunities and institutions that cater to humanitarians, volunteers, and students of Tibetan Buddhism. Unlike the shijak, or the more contained Tibetan refugee enclave-settlements in other parts of the sub-continent, McLeod Ganj is not classified as an Indian protected area and does not require extra permit permissions for long-term foreign residents. Being the ‘capital’, the seat of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan administration in exile too, McLeod Ganj is also a center for cultural production, for mainstream or standardized representations of Tibetan history and identity. As such, even though this is a very particular, idiosyncratic place, it is only natural that researchers and journalists should end up coming here to learn about ‘Tibet’ generally, or about ‘the Tibetan exile experience’ writ large, even if that experience is in fact extremely diverse, layered and shifting.

One of the things I hear very often from especially white researchers – both the short-term more superficial ones and others – is that the Tibetan community is ‘secretive’ or ‘closed’ to outsiders. Now this is interesting. People often say this kind of thing to me AFTER they’ve just explained how they had an interview or private tour with the Director of the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives, or high-ranking officials in the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute and so on. These researchers, who quite worryingly, often do not speak, read or write Tibetan, and frequently have very little if any prior experience with Tibetans, Tibetan Studies, or social science research, will tell me how disappointed they were that their exchanges with exile authorities felt perfunctory, brief or generic. The usual comments about Tibetans being distant, non-forthcoming, xenophobic or what have you are presented as some kind of justification for these sorts of encounters, as some sort of cultural explanation for behaviour.

But what always surprises me is how little attention these researchers pay to the pre- or over-determined context of these interactions, what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the ‘social field’, the historical conditions of possibility and unequal flows of power, resources and knowledge that shape social environments and relationships. A word Bourdieu also used was ‘habitus’. Habitus are those routine, socialized forms of embodied behaviour that Bourdieu described as history that had been internalized and ‘turned into nature’. What’s funny is that these white researchers are keen to talk about what they perceive as Tibetans’ somehow innate habitus but don’t seem willing to consider how their own experiences and interpretations are also a product of their own habitus and the social fields in which they are moving.

What these foreign researchers seem to forget is that notwithstanding the fact that they may have great intentions and want to do good work, when they arrive here, it is as yet another white foreigner who wants to learn about Tibetans. Of course, as far as these researchers are concerned THEY know that they are well-meaning and sensible, but for the Director of the Library say, they are yet another white visitor who must be processed. And there have been THOUSANDS, all sure of their merit, their worthiness, their right to Tibetan refugees’ time and attention. This is the contradiction and burden of an economy of curiosity. The terms of interaction have been set. Acknowledge and encourage the demand and supply must follow. These crestfallen or indignant researchers I meet who like to tell me about cagey Tibetans don’t know or think about the million versions of (apparently) themselves that Tibetans have had to deal with before them, the countless bright eyed white faces thoroughly convinced of their good motivations and of the inevitability, the necessity even that these be supported and acknowledged.

“But I’m not just one more crazy inji!’ (white person), these people may object when these things issues come up. I’m not like the woman at the doorstep to the Dalai Lama’s Private Office who simply must see His Holiness to give him a special protective crystal, I won’t become physically violent while volunteering teaching English to Tibetan refugees, I’m not a fetishist, or sexual predator, I don’t think I’m the Buddha Maitreya, I’m not trying to become the sexual consort of a high lama or cause any trouble in the community!”

Well and good – but how can Tibetans know that? And why should they necessarily humour any foreigner, why are they required to give anyone the benefit of the doubt? Maybe part of this has to do with the fact that some foreigners’ primary interactions with Tibetans prior to coming to McLeod Ganj have been with lamas living abroad, who spend much of their time ministering to non-Tibetans, I’m not sure. Exile Tibetans’ existence as refugees, with few if any guaranteed rights in their host country, their decision at times to remain stateless, to do things on their own terms and to exist for decades in precarious bureaucractic political grey areas for the sake of their commitment to the dream of a Tibetan nation, has meant that they have not always felt it expedient or even possible to shut down foreign interest. There is a glaring irony in saying as a foreigner that Tibetans are closed or unaccommodating when one has been granted research affiliation with minimal questions or background checks. When the whole possibility of one being here, being able to stay here and to complain about being somehow denied or refused, rests on the prior fact of accommodation, of Tibetans’ acquiescence (however enthusiastically or begrudgingly) to the overarching economy of curiosity.

In 1925, French art magazine La Révolution surréaliste published an open letter by French Surrealist poet Antonin Artaud addressed to the Dalai Lama. In it Artaud beseeched the then previous, thirteenth Dalai Lama, “The Pope in the True Spirit” to shine the light of his wisdom on a coarse and corrupt Europe. In Artaud’s mind, being a great spiritual master, the Dalai Lama had already accomplished the Surrealist mission of subverting the values of an industrialized, rational-materialist, war-mongering Europe . As such, the Dalai Lama was Europe’s last hope: by teaching benighted Westerners ‘the physical levitation of the body’ and how to “no longer be held on the ground” the Tibetan leader could transform and save Artaud and his countrymen’s “contaminated” European spirits. The Dalai Lama was someone Artaud had only ever read about in traveller’s reports and esoteric literature, a transcendent archetype and spiritual paragon that the poet had virtually no chance of meeting save in vision, dream or fantasy (“It is with the inner eye that I look at you, O Pope, at the summit of interiority,” Artaud solemnly declared). Artaud was writing at a time when only a handful of white people had ever even been to Tibet or had had extended interactions with Tibetans.

In 1946, having apparently not received the response from the Dalai Lama he was hoping for, Artaud composed a second letter railing against Tibet and what he now thought of as its decadent and selfish society. The disabused Frenchman criticized the thirteenth Dalai Lama (who he apparently did not realize was already dead) for remaining in Lhasa in sensuous luxury unaffected by the World War, and accused him of being at the center of a global conspiracy.

Artaud’s letter is all about him. He isn’t concerned about Tibet’s own problems or priorities, and his curiosity hinges on what Tibet and the Dalai Lama can and must do for him and his kinsmen. He either did not know or did not care about the multiple invasions and political turbulence with which the thirteenth Dalai Lama himself had been dealing. Historians have explained that Artaud’s behaviour and views were a result of a schizophrenic breakdown. I can’t say how true this might be – I’m not on board with stigmatizing or scapegoating mental illness. Not every white ‘crazy’ foreigner who wants or needs something from Tibetans and feels entitled to their time is suffering from mental illness, and if indeed they are, they should be treated with compassion rather than abuse or ridicule. The point though, is that Artaud didn’t appear to be thinking all that critically about his position in the economy of curiosity. And yet it’s probably safe to say that if Artaud went to the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives today he’d no doubt manage to get his researcher affiliation just fine.

If the Tibetan authorities were dealing with crazy and entitled white people with big or uninformed expectations in 1925, surely then that’s all the more reason to pay attention to how history gets internalized, naturalized and shapes the economies that help define interactions today. There’s by now an extensive literature analyzing the place of Tibet in the Western imagination. Much of this literature has been concerned with exposing the dangers of enduring romantic misrepresentations and mystifications of Tibet. Donald Lopez, for example, has highlighted that, although myths of Tibet as some kind of Shangri-la associated with spiritual mastery and global salvation have helped generate sympathy for the cause of Tibetan freedom, such fantasies “are ultimately a threat to the realization of that goal”. As Lopez has it, “to allow Tibet to circulate as a constituent in a system of fantastic oppositions (even when Tibetans are ‘good Orientals’) is to deny Tibet its history, to exclude Tibet from a real world of which it has always been a part, and to deny Tibetans their role as agents participating in the creation of a contested quotidian reality.”

Tibetan scholars have likewise suggested that to believe in fantasies about Tibet and Tibetan culture is tantamount to denying history, to ignoring the actual devastation and suffering wrought upon Tibet over the last half century by China. Both Tsering Shakya and Jamyang Norbu have described Western mythologizing of Tibet as a distraction that makes the true nature of Tibetans’ claims and struggles hazy. Moreover, Dawa Norbu was one of the first commentators to note how such mythologizing and the impossible expectations it produces could end up promoting Chinese Communist Party and other anti-Tibetan interests by making counter-stereotypes seem more reasonable than they should.

Scholars have underscored the dangers of disillusionment associated with myths about Tibet. When the speciousiousness of romantic claims about Tibet is realized Tibetophiles can quickly turn into Tibetophobes. At best such individuals may simply turn away from Tibetans and their cause, or at worst, like Artaud, they may become actively opposed and hostile to them.This pattern of disillusionment, bitterness, and paranoia is in fact pervasive enough for Martin Brauen to call it ‘Artaud syndrome’, and today there exists a whole world of memoirs, conspiracy-theories, and ‘exposes’ by ex-dreamers who have made it their mission to blow the lid on Tibetan communities’ dirty ‘secrets’. Far from measured or informed critiques, such exposes have tended to produce only counter-caricatures and negative fantasies: a ‘Nightmareworld Tibet’ emerging in the wake of an outsider’s dream unrealized.

In tldr conclusion then, I’m thinking: surely the onus should be on any researcher to pay careful attention to the preconditions that allow for them to even entertain the possibilities of doing research in the first place? Each researcher might want to be an individual, but the fact of history makes them an individual in a series of (potential) patterns of exchange. Many have come before, and will come again, while local officials and research ‘informants’ remain. Today the Dalai Lama is one of the most recognizable figures in the world, has his own website, a Twitter account, his teachings are live-streamed globally. He receives countless emails from all kinds of confident and entitled people every day demanding his attention. But as we have seen, he was being sent them even in his past life, even before the Internet existed.

Economies of curiosity have long histories. It seems to me like it would thus behoove any person to think carefully about how they are acknowledging and navigating them.


1 thought on “Economies of Curiosity: The Dalai Lama’s email inbox, the Foreign Researcher in Mcleod Ganj and Artaud Syndrome

  1. Pingback: Tibetan Master Meets Theosophical Mahatmas: Gendun Choepel’s Reflections on Blavatsky and Theosophy | A Perfumed Skull

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