- Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri's Mission to Eighteenth-Century Tibet
The mountain kingdoms of the Himalayas have long bred fascination among Westerners, primarily because of their inaccessibility, but also because of their exotic culture and religion. Before the mid-twentieth century few Europeans or Americans had reached the Tibetan plateau, so the only knowledge of them that reached Western audiences came from a handful of intrepid travelers. Foremost among these was the Italian Jesuit Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733), who lived in Tibet during the 1710s but whose efforts to create a permanent mission there were checked by political events in Asia and ecclesiastical politics in Europe. Desideri's voluminous writings have long been used by Tibetologists seeking a window onto indigenous culture and thought, although they were produced mainly as a justification for his seemingly fruitless expeditions to "the roof of the world." Trent Pomplun has written a biography that presents Desideri to a wider audience, combining analysis of the missionary's Italian and Tibetan writings within a broader examination of the political upheaval of early-eighteenth-century Tibet and the religious conflicts in Italy.
Desideri was not a typical Jesuit during his age. Although he was the product of the mature Society of Jesus, he showed indifference toward the hierarchy of his religious order. Pomplun insists that Desideri's ardent desires to travel to Tibet were the fruit of the institutional and spiritual culture of the Jesuits, but they seem to have been far more radical than those of his contemporaries. [End Page 872] Desideri was possessed of a formidable independent streak: with the begrudging acceptance of the Society's superior general, he undertook a dangerous mission to unknown lands at a time when the order could ill afford more conflicts in Asia. At issue was the fact that Capuchins enjoyed the rights to missionize Tibet, a privilege granted to them by Propaganda Fide over the objections of the Jesuits. Moreover, the Society had extensive pastoral concerns in Asia and could not necessarily spare men for unsustainable new enterprises. Yet Desideri went on to Tibet, unimpeded by such bureaucratic trifles, until a Manchu army captured Lhasa and the Capuchins insisted on their right to an exclusive mission. These events forced him back to Italy, where he would spend years seeking to vindicate his individual missionary project.
The highlights of Pomplun's analysis come when he examines Desideri's accounts of Tibetan political struggles and his writings on local Buddhist practice. There is no doubt that this Jesuit was a shrewd observer of Asian secular and ecclesiastical politics, but when it came to European affairs, his vision was cloudy. This book suffers from a similar myopia: Pomplun's analysis of Desideri himself and his Tibetan context is very good, but he often loses sight of why the Society of Jesus did not defend their man in Rome and why the Portuguese Jesuits—or the Portuguese crown, the patron of the Society's Asian missions—did not rally behind Desideri. The reader would have benefited from discussion of the denouement of the Chinese Rites controversy, as well as of the rivalry between Portuguese and French Jesuit missions in Asia in the eighteenth century. The Jesuits involved in those debates were not blinded by what Pomplun calls "Jesuit phantasia" (p. 17; emphasis in original), the purported wellspring of Desideri's ambitions. The Society's superiors in Rome, Lisbon, and Goa knew well what was at stake in the political and theological debates of their day, and their lukewarm support for Desideri was proof that they recognized how fantastical his projects were. In the end, Desideri remained alone with his visions of far-off Tibet, longing for a mission that was no longer his.