- Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri's Mission to Tibet
Pomplun introduces the mission of Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733), a Jesuit who spent the years 1715 to 1721 in Tibet. Desideri was the first missionary to study Tibetan religion and to write theological materials using Tibetan, and thus also became the "first Westerner to attempt . . . an internal critique of Tibetan Buddhist metaphysics," placing him near the start of a trickle of Western-Tibetan interaction. Moreover, Desideri arrived in Tibet during a crucial period, witnessing "the Zünghar invasion, the persecution of the Nyingma, and the establishment of the Manchu protectorate" (p. 3). Because he witnessed this crucial period and was a firsthand observer of a significant period in Tibetan history, he is a particularly promising character for study. Desideri wrote his own theological treatises in Tibetan and left behind four accounts of his journey, although it was only in the late nineteenth century that these materials began to circulate. The volume is not truly a biography; indeed, the reader learns relatively little of Desideri's early years or of his death. Instead, writing out of Jesuit and Tibetan studies—disparate fields to be sure—Pomplun examines and interprets a key Euro-Tibetan encounter.
In the introduction, Pomplun does an excellent job of identifying the limits of the book. He emphasizes the missionary's Italian texts, which help him to understand how Desideri construed Tibet for European readers. While he draws on Tibetan readings, he "reserve[s] a fuller discussion of Desideri's Tibetan writings for a future study" (p. 14). He knows that extensive citations of European or Tibetan sources will be challenging for some readers, but his goal is to allow readers the "shock" of encountering cultures so different from their own. Pomplun also describes the text as "brisk," and indeed the text is dense and challenging, favoring thick, heavily footnoted descriptive language. Nearly a third of the three hundred pages consist of notes, which are often helpful in clarifying material or locating sources. Pomplun must often reconstruct events and regularly speculates about what Desideri must have been [End Page 263] thinking or feeling. He less often employs direct quotations and rarely includes long passages from Desideri's own writing. Readers looking to read Desideri's own words may turn to the very recent (November 2010) translation of Desideri's Notizie Istoriche del Thibet, published by Wisdom Books. (It includes a back cover endorsement by Pomplun.) Pomplun employs a number of helpful aids, including a chronology of Desideri's life and travels, many images, and a "selected bibliography," which notes archives, primary sources in Tibetan and European languages, and secondary sources.
Pomplun's major historiographical concern is to revise scholarly interpretation of Desideri and to help us to understand Desideri within the world in which he lived. The introduction treats how this project might nuance recent scholarship about the "myth of Tibet," as most significantly developed in the work of Donald Lopez. Pomplun clearly admires Lopez, and while he agrees with Lopez's understanding of missionaries "as prisoners to the play of opposites par excellence," he also finds that "Lopez is caught in some strange—yet strangely familiar—fantasies about Roman Catholics" (p. 6). Pomplun finds that visions of Jesuits cast by earlier scholarship, positive or negative, often fail to match the historical complexity. Against caricatures of Desideri as schemer, explorer par excellence, accommodationist, spy, or master strategist, he seeks to create a multidimensional protagonist, who makes notable progress but is then hampered by mission policy, competition with the Capuchins, and even his own efforts at vindication.
The six chapters are each essentially freestanding studies, chronologically treating Desideri's movement toward, in, and from Tibet: (1) Jesuit studies ("Jesuit Phantasia"), (2) Desideri's travels ("From Rome to Lhasa"), (3) "Tibetan Religion in Theological Perspective," (4) "The Zünghar Invasion," (5) Desideri's conflict with the Capuchin mission over access to Tibet ("The Fight with the Friars"), and (6) a final chapter that takes stock of Desideri...