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Benedict Anderson: Irish genius

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

In 1936 Benedict O’Gorman Anderson was born at Kunming, China. His birth in the Far East was possibly why he was scintillated by this region for his entire life. Benedict was born to an Irish father and an English mother. The father was working for the customs service. Pursuant to the unequal treaties, Western officials were in control of customs. 

Benedict’s father had been sent down from Oxford just before the First World War. He had then joined the customs service and been posted to Cathay. When the Great War broke out this young man wished to volunteer for the colours. However, customs officers were too precious to risk. He was not allowed to enlist in the British Army or Royal Navy. Ironically, being expelled form university probably saved his life. 

A brother named Perry followed two years later. Then a sister followed. 

Because of the Second World War, the Andersons relocated to California. The Andersons spoke with British upper class accents. In the United States this led to some bullying. The children soon adopted American accents.

When the Second World War ended the Andersons returned to the British Isles. More specifically they resided in County Waterford, Ireland. His American accent seemed very strange to people. There was almost no travel from the United States to Ireland in those days. Some people travelled from Ireland to the USA but almost no one came back. 

Benedict has been told he was British: this was Irish and English. He discovered that most people in Ireland strenuously rejected the word ‘British’ for themselves. His Irish background was atypical. Some of his family were Catholics and some were Protestants. Catholics were the preponderance of the Irish population. Protestant were a small minority in Waterford. They were seen as a people apart from the mainstream community. Some of his father’s ancestors had come from Scotland in the 18th century. Some of Benedict’s ancestors had wanted Ireland to sever all links with Great Britain. Some had been rebels. Others had been Home Rule politicians. 

Benedict was a child of prodigious intellectual capacity. Classics were the main subject in his schooling. He mastered Latin and Ancient Greek with celerity. He was also a bibliomaniac. Perhaps his exposure to several tongues by the age of seven had made him esurient for language. He was to amass an awestriking word hoard. 

Eton was and is regarded as the foremost school on the planet. Benedict went there in 1949. It was at Eton that he discovered a treasury of European literature. His brother was to follow two years later. Benedict flourished academically. He was stupor mundi. He did not fare well at sports. Most boys there were much wealthier than the Andersons. Most Etonians lived in the London area. The Andersons were unique in living in the Republic of Ireland. 

After Eton, Benedict went to Cambridge University. There he read classics. He showed no affection for his school and university. He seldom ever returned to either. 

Whilst Benedict was at school, he followed the dissolution of empires with intense curiosity. During his adolescence India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar became independent. The same happened to Indonesia. He noticed the anti-colonial movement gathering pace in Africa. He felt sympathy for this movement. He was liberal left but did not identify with a party. Benedict was repulsed by racialism.

It seemed to many in the mid 1950s that the British Empire had a long way to run. That was why the United Kingdom took the trouble to extirpate Mau Mau. Few in the British Isles questioned the efficacy or ethicality of white rule in South Africa. Benedict had no truck with tales of the splendiferous empire. He considered it to have been created by caterans. He was like one of his gurus A J P Taylor, a man who had strong views but held them weakly. In eviscerating imperialism Benedict was decent enough to acknowledge truths which militated against the case he was making. He noted that the British had sometimes acted as conservators of cultural heritage in their colonies. Not everything the metropole had done in the colonies had been calamitous, wrongheaded or unjust. However, Benedict insisted that racialism was the cardinal belief of imperialism and was therefore inherently illogical, unfair and foredoomed. 

Benedict was the sort of unthreatening youth who might even have been a cicisbeo in former times. He was urbane, sophisticated, understatedly charming, well-dressed, self-effacing, unfailingly considerate and a good listener. 

 In 1956 Benedict went to study in the United States. He enrolled at Cornell University. His studying in the USA did not make him any less caterant in his excoriation of the United States. He had developed a fascination with Indonesia. This archipelago is a treasure trove of languages, cultures and subcultures. 

At Cornell, Benedict did a PhD on Indonesia. In the 1960s he started to travel to Indonesia. He commenced learning Bahasa Indonesia. 

Languages were a gift of Benedict’s. In fact, he was a hyperpoloyglot. In addition to his native English he learnt Latin, Greek and French at school. Then he achieved mastery in Indonesian, Tagalog, Thai and Javanese.  Some of these are among the trickiest languages for an anglophone. He had a useful knowledge of Dutch, German, Spanish and Portuguese. His acquirement of magistery in these languages was accomplished in his 40s! That is well after it is said the mind closes to new languages as the brain has lost its plasticity. This Irish Mezzofanti was capable of delivering a tongue lashing in Indonesian to leftist parties for giving Suharto and easy ride. He could speak demotic Indonesian or in high flown Indonesian. His sister who worked for Amnesty International was similarly talented. She was flawless in half a dozen obscure languages such as Albanian. 

The whole of Benedict’s career was spent at Cornell. He was made a professor. He published a plethora of well-received scholarly articles in peer reviewed journals. His books were also acclaimed by fellow academics as superbly scholarly. 

In his 1960s visits to Indonesia, B. Anderson met many Indonesians who had fought against Dutch colonial rule 1945-49. He was an outspoken admirer of President Achmed Soekarno. The spelling of that surname was changed to Sukarno. 

Because Benedict associated with communists in Indonesia, he provoked the wrath of the authorities in the late 1960s. He was permanently banned from the country. 

Dr Anderson noted the iron that Soekarno damned the Dutch for making Indonesia a colony but dedicated his life to preserving the unity of that same Indonesia that only existed because of the Dutch. Benedict Anderson overlooked the fact that Soekarno only achieved his goal because of another empire: the Japanese. 

In 1981 Benedict published his magnum opus: Imagined Communities. It is a book that touched on anthropology, geography, history, philology and ethnography. The range of disciplines is indicative of Benedict’s intellectual scope and versatility.  Seldom have so many magisteria been seamlessly interwoven so elegantly in a single tome. In this book Anderson propounded his claim that nationalism as we know it stated not in Europe as many erroneously presume but in America in the 18th century. His skewered the Eurocentric presuppositions of many scholars such as orientalists. He noted that the Eurocentric notion that nationalism is predicated on language is often specious. He furnished numerous counterexamples. As he noted in the United States and in Latin America the language of the metropole was as he said, ‘not even an issue’ in separatist insurrectionary actuations. 

People assumed nations to be ancient, but most are very recent creations. No nation is eternal. There was a time when no nation existed.  There shall be a time when many contemporary nations are lost to remembrance as many past ones have been.

A number of paradoxes are identified in the work. Each nation shares common features with the others, yet each nation is unique. Particularism is vital to nationality, but each nation shares at least some of these traits with its neighbours.  Nations are all about dividing and boundaries. But the real boundary spatially, ethnically, linguistically and temporally can seldom be clearly defined. The more dubious a nation’s boundaries are, the more vociferously they are asserted to be ironclad. 

Anderson observed that nation-ness is founded partly on an imagined commonality. It is often contingent on what are self-consciously myths. There are also some beliefs fervently asserted by nationalists that are falsehoods, but the nationalists are in denial about that. Sometimes a nation therefore needs literal imagining in order to exist. Nations require national acts of remembrance. But even more vital than that are collective acts of forgetting. Selective amnesia is needful to wipe the memory of atrocities committed by one segment of the nation against another. Crimes committed by the nation against others are to be de-emphasised if not obliterated. The recentness of the nation’s foundation is often to be glossed over. That the nation was created by outsiders and defined by foreigners usually has to be buried or even denied. A teleological approach to be past it adopted. Historians who are nationalists tend to read history backwards. They overdetermined subsequent outcomes as though certain things were predestined or foredoomed. They become partisan. Emotion always occludes judgment. Therefore, the nationalist is injudicious. His mind is befogged by chauvinism and jingoism.

 Nations also need images to exist. They need a leader, iconic buildings, flags, emblems, sometimes a national plant or animal and often coinage. The map image is vital which is why it is so often displayed. Seeing it on the nightly weather forecast and on the classroom wall also seared this into the collective consciousness. 

One of the standing puzzles of Imagined Communities is that although its author scorns nationalism is fallacious and perilous he is preoccupied with nationality. Whenever he mentioned some in the tome he invariably noted the person’s nationality.

Saying anything laudatory about nationalism had been seen to be trahison des clercs in the 1970s in the leftist circles in which Benedict moved. However, Benedict was never one for mindless conformity. He did not stint in limning the untold horrors wrought by nationalism. Yet he noted that nationalism can be the motor force for love, creativity, construction and all kinds of praiseworthy endeavours. It is as fertile a muse as romance. He observed that in the 20th century alone tens of millions of people had been willing and even eager not only to kill but also to die for their nation. He closed the book pitying, ‘the poverty of such imaginings.’

Imagined Communities has become so renowned in academic circles that within a few years it was known simply as IC. This tome has become locus classicus for all those wishing to study the phenomenon of the modern nation-state. 

IC was epoch making. A Marxist might even say it was world historical. 

In 2001 I attended a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Society at Oxford University. I was due to go on a jaunt around South-East Asia so I thought it meet to learn more about the region. The people at the meeting were mostly from countries such as Singapore, China and Malaysia. An old white British man came to address us. This white haired, cleanshaven and bespectacled gentleman appeared to be in his sixties. The man spoke in Received Pronunciation but not of the unwittingly comical variety. He was introduced as having been born in Far Eastern country: I forget which. His father was working on government service there. He spoke vividly about Indonesia. The old man noted that during the independence struggle Indonesians who wished to signal support for independence would use the Rupiah as currency and not the Netherlands East Indies Guilder.

The old man said the United States needed an anti-communist regime there in the 1960s. The USA would have found it impossible to prosecute its war in Indochina if there were another large communist nation in south-east Asia. 

The speaker noted that the Indonesian Ambassador was due in a few days time. He said that the ambassador would claim that everything that the speaker said was a lie.

In 2005 Athony James mentioned Imagine Communities. He told me of this fabulous book that exposed the fragilities and the artificialities of nationalism. 

It was not until years later that I cast my mind back to that meeting. That must have been Benedict Anderson. I must find out if he was the one who addressed the society that day. 

Benedict remained an Irish citizen all his life. Latterly he became an American citizen. That seemed to be solely a flag of convenience for him as he lived in the United States for decades. He eschewed all flag waving and displays of nationalism. 

Perry, Benedict’s brother, edited New Left Review. Perry became an academic in California. 

In 2015 Benedict Anderson died in his sleep at Bangkok. Born in China, died in Thailand: this English, Scots, Irishman was a citizen of the world. 

Urbane, unmarried, courteous, genuine, unhurried, gentlemanly, compassionate, inquisitive, soft spoken, droll and erudite: Benedict was the archetypal renaissance man. They don’t make them like that any more.

  1. In which year was Benedict born?
  2. What country was he born in?
  3. What was his middle name?
  4. What was unusual about his background?
  5. Which school did he attend?
  6. Which university?
  7. What was his subject at first?
  8. Name 9 languages that he knew.
  9. What is his most famous book?
  10. Assess him in at least 5 sentences. 


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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October 17, 2021

What is this article – a school test?

If the author had proof read this and corrected the many misspellings before posting, it would have made it easier to read.

gord mac millan
gord mac millan
October 18, 2021

Even the most brilliant must die.
Surely the question must be.
“who am I”?
Ahum Bramasti…I am by nature spirit!

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